She was born on Aug. 1, 1985, and she pauses when asked about her hometown because she “never stayed any place long enough to call it home.” Finally, she settles on her birthplace of Wausau, Wisc. Amy Bleuel is 30 years old. She is a victim of a lifetime of unspeakable suffering and she wears the scars of many years of self-harm. But, Amy is so much more than a survivor. With raw authenticity and humble tenacity, she has become a champion for those who cannot see light beyond their personal ordeals.
Her badge is a simple mark: a semicolon, symbolizing a choice to begin again. That one mark is how Amy, the founder and president of Project Semicolon, created a global community using the Wisconsin nonprofit she started in 2013. Project Semicolon is dedicated to presenting hope and love for those struggling with mental illness, suicide, addiction and self-injury.
“A semicolon is used when an author could’ve ended a sentence but chose not to. You are the author and the sentence is your life,” Project Semicolon’s website proclaims.
Project Semicolon’s vision is to begin an insuppressible conversation in order to reduce the suicide rate in the United States and around the world. Since its inception, Bleuel says the movement has reached more than 20 million people, with more than 1 million drawing or tattooing a semicolon on their bodies as a sign of solidarity.
Happy childhood memories are hard for Bleuel to recall. Her parents divorced when she was 4, and at 6 she chose to live with her father and his new wife in Arizona. Her father was “the light in that time,” she remembers. “My father was into woodworking. I would work with him in the garage. We would look at the Big and Little Dippers together at night.”
But the light didn’t last: Bleuel says she did not get along with her stepmother. By the time she was 8, the time with her beloved father came abruptly to an end. “I went into a juvenile detention center because I hit my stepmother,” she claims. Bleuel was placed in a shelter where she stayed until her mother traveled to Arizona to bring her back to Wisconsin.
In the next several years, her anger festered without understanding. “No one really took the time to place where that came from,” she says.
Her frustrations billowed in acts of vandalism and petty theft. Lack of self-worth spiraled into self-harm. “My own family would say it was me doing stuff out of attention instead of thinking: Why is she causing herself harm? Why would children want to cut themself until they bleed? It has to be more than attention. Because, who in their right mind would put themselves through that for attention?”
As a public speaker that travels the country telling her story, Bleuel urges parents to be mindful of even slight personality and attitude changes in a child. She says as a kid she was blamed for actions she did not commit. Her teen years from 13 through 18 were particularly hard. She spent time in a residential treatment facility and eventually a girls’ prison she says that was right behind a penitentiary for women. “I look back on those years and they were very dark,” she says. “Most of them were spent in a hole. A hole in a cell. I was in four walls. Pretty much in a bedframe during the day and a bed at night. And, I was very self-destructive.”
She hit rock bottom in September 2003. Shortly before her scheduled release in December and only six weeks after her 18th birthday. She only learned of her father’s death after the funeral, and it brought extreme pain, suicidal ideations and even some denial. “I didn’t believe it. I hadn’t seen him since I was 8. I couldn’t believe he was really gone for good,” she says.
After her release from prison, Bleuel recounts a time that was surreal. Still grappling with her father’s loss, she began the path to earn a high school completion diploma (HSCD). In January 2004, hard work and a bit of grace allowed her to get her HSCD and graduate with her original class. She enrolled in a county college to pursue a degree in youth ministry, but her struggles continued. She again fell victim to abusive relationships. She got pregnant and lost the unborn child. In 2008, Amy left county college and enrolled in a Bible college. But school administrators were concerned about her mental health, depression and suicidal ideations. She was also cutting herself. “They said that I was a liability,” Bleuel says. “They didn’t want me there anymore. They refused to let me take my finals and I was banned from the college.”
Disappointed, she decided to pursue a degree in graphic design. Amy considers this the turning point. She found peace in art. She graduated in 2014 from Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Greensboro, Wisc.
The Rise of Project Semicolon
During her blissful period at Northeast Wisconsin, Amy was networking with others online when the idea for Project Semicolon arose. “The semicolon was just simple branding that said such a powerful statement about a simple human being like myself,” she says. “It was a perfect storm idea and it worked for the story behind Project Semicolon, for what I wanted to achieve, for the conversation I wanted to start.”
On April 16 from 2013 to 2015, Project Semicolon ran as an annual campaign. Supporters drew a semicolon on their wrists or posted pictures of their semicolon to declare that their story wasn’t over. They used #projectsemicolon or #semicolonproject416. In May 2015 she started a new campaign called Hope is Alive that asked people to share their stories. During that campaign a young college student named Heather Parrie shared her story about why she chose the semicolon tattoo and what depression had taken from her. “The blog went viral. It got over a million views.” Over 200 stories emerged throughout the United States and Europe. Bleuel became a celebrity of sorts and a sought-after public speaker.
“Coming from an upbringing of being told you are not good enough and then dealing with mental health was like a double whammy,” Bleuel says. “There is really no reason that I should be alive. There’s absolutely no reason that I should have survived what I have survived.”
Bleuel said all along she wanted to show people that despite severe traumatic events, pain, labels and lack of support, you could survive and thrive. “No one expected me to be who I am,” she says. “I am a middle school dropout who got put into the system-a criminal who has two felonies. I was told I would not be anything. And look, I’m a public speaker who is sought out, who has a following that’s all over the world.”
Bleuel’s hope for Project Semicolon is that the story- telling platform becomes the heart and center of suicide prevention. She wants people to understand what mental illness is, why it takes people who struggle with it to the edge of wanting to take their lives, and what keeps them hanging on. She doesn’t want to sugarcoat anything. “I want to show the world that we can struggle with this and still be normal human beings,” she says.
The organization provides many resources for individuals at projectsemicolon.com. It calls itself faith-based but says it welcomes all faiths and voices. In the coming year, Harper Collins will release a compilation of stories of hope compiled by the organization. “Project Semicolon; Your Story Isn’t Over Yet” targets the 18-45 age range for which suicide is the second-leading killer. The book’s expected to be released in September 2017 right in time for Suicide Prevention Month.
“It’s our goal now in life to use that purpose and use it for good. Even a bad purpose can be used for good if we tell the story to prevent it from happening to someone else. We can find something good in it and make it into something as beautiful as Project Semicolon.”
The true sign she is making an impact can be seen as more people get that badge of honor, that simple tattoo, which shows Project Semicolon continues to grow.