Amy Bleuel fought through abuse, incarceration, mental illness, and the devastating loss of her father to suicide. At 31, she took her own life too, but her story is worth retelling for Amy reached the lives of millions of people with a simple, yet powerful mark of hope.
By Courtenay Higgins
She was born on Aug. 1, 1985, and she paused when asked about her hometown because she “never stayed anyplace long enough to call it home.” Finally, she settled on her birthplace of Wausau, Wisc. Amy Bleuel was 30 years old when she talked to me. She was a victim of a lifetime of unspeakable suffering, and she had the scars of years of self-harm. But, Amy was a survivor. With raw authenticity and humble tenacity, she became a champion for those who couldn’t get beyond their personal ordeals. Unfortunately, Amy became a victim of what she fought so hard to prevent. She was 30 when we met. She died from suicide at 31.
Her badge was 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. The Wisconsin nonprofit she started in 2013 presents 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 reduce the suicide rate in the United States and around the world. Since its inception, Bleuel reached more than 20 million people, with more than 1 million drawing or tattooing a semicolon on their bodies as a sign of solidarity.
Amy didn’t have many happy childhood memories. Her parents divorced when she was four, and at six, she chose to live with her father and his new wife in Arizona. She described her father as “the light in that time,” fondly recalling nights she spent in his woodworking garage looking at the Big and Little Dippers at night. But the light didn’t last: Bleuel said she did not get along with her stepmother. By the time she was eight, the time with her beloved father came abruptly to an end. She was sent to a juvenile detention center for hitting her stepmother. 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. 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?” Bleuel said. “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 traveling the country, Bleuel urged parents to be mindful of even slight personality and attitude changes in a child. She told her story, describing how she was blamed for actions she did not commit as a teen, calling years 13 through 18 as a brutal period of her life. She spent time in a residential treatment facility and eventually, a girls’ prison located behind a prison for women. “I look back on those years and they were very dark,” she said to me. “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, Bleuel learned of her father’s death after his funeral. 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 said.
After getting out of prison, Bleuel began a new path. Still grappling with her father’s loss, she took classes to earn a high school completion diploma, even graduating with her original class. She enrolled in a county college to pursue a degree in youth ministry but 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 said. “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, Wisconsin. 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 said. “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 Apr. 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 said. “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. Bleuel described herself as a middle school dropout who got put into the system — a criminal with two felonies who was told she would not be anything but became a sought after public speaker with a following all over the world.”
The organization provides many resources for individuals at projectsemicolon.com. It calls itself faith-based but says it welcomes all faiths and voices. Harper Collins released in 2017 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. Bleuel became one of those 18-to-45-year olds to take their own life. But she didn’t leave something behind. A sign, a badge of honor, that simple tattoo, which shows Project Semicolon continues to grow.