Content warning: discussions of suicide
Last spring, I left a tattoo parlor with a ladybug etched into my inner forearm.
I collect “signs of life:” tiny images and memories reminiscent of the beauty in the world around me. They serve as anchors when my depression is at its worst. The ladybug tattoo exists as a permanent resident of this collection.
I’ve held onto innumerable signs of life — the feeling of waves crashing over my feet, meeting my best friend in college and eating warm pancakes at my favorite restaurant back home. Getting the ladybug as my first tattoo was another one, a moment of unadulterated joy I’ll always remember.
My first sign of life came just before my 14th birthday.
The year prior was the hardest I’d ever weathered, every day filled with the gaping pain of my depression. Fulfilling even the smallest of tasks, from eating lunch to finishing my homework, was exhausting.
When I was overcome by suicidal thoughts, I made lists of the reasons why I wanted to die. Isolation. Constant fatigue. Unreachable expectations. I compiled the most painful aspects of my life, keeping them as signs that I shouldn’t go on — signs of anti-life.
One day, I was sitting in bed, feeling dejected and immobile as usual, when I lifted a half-full water bottle to my lips, I noticed a ladybug floundering in the bottle, unable to stay afloat.
The only thought in my mind was that I needed to save the ladybug. I dumped the remaining water out into my hand, allowing it to spill over my bedsheets. When I had the bug in my grasp, I ran outside and into my front yard.
I laid on the lawn as the ladybug adjusted to its surroundings. At first, it cowered in my palm, reluctant to leave. After a few moments, though, it seemed to realize its return to the world, crawling through the grass and exploring the wildflowers. Eventually, the ladybug moved so far away that it was no more than a shadow in the distance.
Only then did I realize I wasn’t wearing pants. I was sitting in the yard in only my underwear, half naked for all of my neighbors to see.
At 13, my anxiety was unmanageable. Every time I left the house, I toiled for hours over my outfits, as though wearing the wrong thing would indicate the gravity of my mental state. This time, however, I was so engrossed in my desire to save the ladybug’s life that I hadn’t even considered my appearance.
I went back inside, a faint smile on my face. A sense of hope, one that I’d been missing for so long, began to fill me.
In spite of my depression, I had gotten out of bed. In spite of my anxiety, I hadn’t checked my outfit. I still had the power to overcome my ailing mental health.
To me, the ladybug was a sign that I still cared about the world around me. If I could put aside my pain to help a creature as small as a bug, I knew I would be okay. I had a long list of reasons compelling me to give up on life, but now I had a reason to stay.
And though the ladybug was my first sign of life, it wouldn’t be my last.
Throughout my time writing this column, I’ve had conversations with friends, acquaintances and strangers who see themselves in my struggles. Among these interactions, the common question that I get in response to my articles is this: How were you able to get better?
I wish I could give an easy answer. I wish I could tell you that there was one therapist, medication or coping mechanism that transformed my journey with mental health.
The reality is far more complicated.
The truth is, living is a choice. It’s a choice I’ve made every day since my struggle with depression began.
When I was 14, making that decision was a constant battle. I didn’t have the capacity to live for intangible concepts and cliches, such as “hope for the future” or “a desire to show that I’m stronger than my depression.”
Instead, I turned to little things, my signs of life, to keep me going. I replaced that list of reasons to die with everything that made me want to live. The first warm day of spring. Long walks through the woods. A ladybug in a water bottle on my bedside table.
Now, choosing to live is much simpler. I’ve gotten to a place where I genuinely adore the life I’ve created, and I want nothing more than to continue living it.
Still, I hold onto those small signs of life, because they kept me alive for so long.
Healing doesn’t always come in revelations. For me, it came in the moments, feelings and memories small enough to hold in the palm of my hand.
For years, I kept them deep inside of me, a private museum of why I chose to live. Now, I tattoo them on my arms for the world to see.
I’ve spent this summer bringing my museum into the public eye, curating weekly articles that detail my experiences with mental health — the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful.
This is my collection of signs of life. I hope they’ve helped you, too.