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When Doctors See My Semicolon Tattoo

Personal Perspective: I use my tattoo as an educational opportunity.

© Daniel Rosenhaft
Source: © Daniel Rosenhaft

In 2013, Amy Bleuel founded the faith-based nonprofit Project Semicolon, which chose a semicolon as a symbol because it’s “used when an author could’ve chosen to end their sentence but chose not to. The author is you and the sentence is your life.”

I got my semicolon tattoo in May 2019 on the one-year anniversary of my stroke, and after rescuing my dog Shelby from a kill shelter in Mississippi. I’d been toying with the idea of getting the semicolon tattoo for a couple of years as it was a movement dedicated to presenting hope and love to those struggling with depression, suicide, addiction, and self-injury — and I’d been through my share of each.

At the time I was working for a conservative corporation, coming face-to-face with clients, and I hesitated to get the tattoo on my wrist, where many people were having it placed. Finally, I decided to have it put on the nape of my neck, where it would be hidden or visible depending on the length of my hair.

Due to my numerous medical issues, I have, in addition to my primary care physician, probably about 10 specialists, some of whom, depending on their specialty, have viewed my tattoo. Typically, she, or especially he, doesn’t expect me to have a tattoo at all, so he’ll express surprise. When I explain what the semicolon tattoo stands for, obviously I’m taking a risk in revealing my history. I have my psychiatric meds on my list of medications so they can make the assumption I suffer or have suffered from depression, but once I explain the meaning of the semicolon tattoo and use words such as depression, suicide, and self-injury, the risk for judgment increases exponentially.

One time I was seeing a new doctor, a specialist in Lyme disease (which I turned out not to have), and he asked if I minded if a couple of medical students were in the room. I almost always say I don’t mind because, as a social worker, I had to learn at one point, too. When this doctor commented on my tattoo and I explained what it meant, I seized the moment to educate the medical students: “Depression is the most painful illness I’ve ever dealt with. Out of everything I’ve been diagnosed with, depression hurt the most.”

I didn’t expect them to say anything, but I wanted to make them think and I believe I did. I only saw that doctor once, but if it is a doctor I see on a regular basis, depending on how she — and now it is usually a she — reacts to my tattoo and the explanation, I might reveal more of my history.

Dr. P., the headache specialist who treats my migraines, is simply one of the nicest doctors and one of the most genuine women I’ve met. The injections she gives me involve the back of my neck and my shoulder so she was one of the first doctors to see my tattoo. She is also incredibly smart: She has both an MD and a Ph.D., and is board certified in psychiatry and neurology. I felt as though I could trust her and at one point I decided to reveal to her I’d been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Her reaction was gratifying: “You’re kidding."

I explained to her I had the good fortune of having both intensive dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and transference-focused psychotherapy (TFP) with a skilled psychiatrist who had been instrumental in my recovery. At one point, I was seeing Dr. P. every two weeks, getting nerve blocks and trigger point injections, but the insurance stopped covering those. Now I get Botox injections for my migraines every three months so it’s like a mini-reunion when I see her.

There are other doctors who have seen my tattoo, to whom I would never take that risk. It’s unfortunate that I feel that way about them. Call it a sixth sense and a gamble I’m not willing to take with my hard-won mental health.

Thanks for reading.


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