At any given moment, our lives can be forever altered. For some people, life seems to unleash its fury at birth. For others, catastrophe seems to find them unexpectedly like an unforeseen rock smashing against your windshield. Either way, it feels the same. For me, it seemed to hit almost instantaneously.
My mother was only fifteen years old when I was conceived. Her pregnancy was a difficult one, though I never knew just how difficult it had been until I got older. I came into this world on July 1, 1982, weighing only three pounds, four ounces with a collapsed lung and a slim chance of survival. My mother said it felt like a nightmare. She remembers the hospital staff telling her that she needed to see me before they took me away to an awaiting helicopter because she may never see me alive again. I was delivered in a small hospital in the southeastern corner of Oklahoma. That hospital, which sat on the outskirt of town proudly welcoming anyone who dared cross the Texas line into that God forsaken town, did not have adequate resources to keep me alive, so they transferred me to Oklahoma City. She said she screamed in agony as she heard the helicopter lift from the helipad taking me away. All the while my father stayed right by her side. He was barely a man himself at just eighteen years old.
I was released from a neonatal intensive care unit in Oklahoma City when I was two months old. My parents worked diligently to try and prepare for my arrival while occasionally borrowing a ride into the city so they could see me. By the time I was strong enough to come home they had managed to get an apartment and jobs. My mother quit school and began working for Tyson’s Food and my father got a job working for a local tire shop. I still wonder how they did it, they were two babies raising a baby and even though it was evident that they were crazy about one another, I imagine the added stress took a toll on their relationship.
They were only married a short time but remained friends and did the best they could to raise me. I spent the first few years of my life going back and forth between their two homes. Though this wasn’t an ideal situation, I always felt so safe and loved when I was with him. They both dated other people in the years that followed. Some of those people I liked and still keep in touch with today and some I wish I could forget. My mom remarried when I was seven years old and a few days later another giant, jagged, stealth like rock slammed against our windshield and shattered everything within reach.
On the morning of May 9, 1990, our lives took an abrupt and devastating turn. Life as we knew it was forever changed. I woke to my mother screaming and crying hysterically. She was on the phone, and whatever was said was not good. I walked into her room and saw my step-dad wrestling my mother trying desperately to console her. When he noticed me, he looked at me with sheer panic. They sat me on the couch and began to tell me words that branded themselves into my heart and mind forever. My father was gone. Though I did not know the details for some time, he had taken his life a few hours earlier.
My mother told me that I didn’t have to go to school that day, she said I could stay at home with them. I asked her to please take me to school. I could not process it all. I was seven years old and in the second grade. The world seemed to be spinning too fast around me, and I just wanted to wake up from the nightmare. Perhaps I thought going on with my regular routine would bring back some normalcy or that he would return. I remember sitting at my desk in Mrs. Hannah’s class when it began to sink in. I could not focus on anything going on around me, but knew I had to let it out. I walked up to Mrs. Hannah’s desk twice. The first time she hastily told me to “go have a seat.” The second time I found the courage to utter the words, “My dad died last night.” I had never seen the soft side of Mrs. Hannah before, but she scooped me up in her arms and cried like a baby right there with me in the middle of class. She took me and my class to our first track meet that afternoon and I ran as fast as I could around that dirt track. I ran so fast that it hurt.
The next few days weren’t much better. Mom placed me in a pretty dress and took me to the funeral home. I was too short to reach the book, so she picked me up so I could sign my name. I remember blurs of conversation of them trying to prepare me “Babe, he will not look the same . . . shell . . . heaven . . . not him.” They were right. He didn’t look the same. It was evident that someone had tried to reconstruct his beautiful face and that they worked hard to give us as much ease as possible by trying to recreate his signature grin, but nothing was funny about this. Nothing.
His funeral was held in a little white church just down the road from the house where he lived; the same little house that carried such sweet memories. One of my favorite memories is of him and I lying in bed one morning, I was startled awake by a rather obnoxious crow outside of the window. I said “Dad, why is that rooster doing that!?” He said, “Baby, when the sun comes up, they think the rest of us should be up too!” I still think of that conversation every time I hear a rooster crow. The little white church was also the same church in which my mother and father were married. So many people came to his funeral to pay their respects, that it was a standing service only with people lined up outside waiting for their opportunity to come inside.
After the funeral, my Grandmother took my hand in hers and walked with me down the gravel road that led to the cemetery behind the church. The road seemed so long back then, but when looking at it today, it really is not. I can still remember the sound the gravel made as it crunched under my feet, and how the rain felt as it began to fall lightly upon my face. At the graveside, the tiny hand my grandmother had been holding was replaced with a single long stem red rose, and I was told to release it into the grave. I did as I was told and let it go; I watched it fall into the ground and land on the casket where my father lay. That day changed the lives of all who knew him. It has taken many years for me to process his loss, but even now I find myself asking the same questions over and over again; the biggest question: Why?
Suicide is a death unlike any other, and the ripple effects that it has on those left behind are devastating. I spent several years searching for answers; I did not want to believe it and neither did my family. To this day there are people who say that it was an accident, or that he was murdered, and I still want to believe them. When I was older, a police officer from that small town asked me if I wanted to see my father’s file. He knew I needed closure. Everything in the report stated that my father had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The officer told me that he hesitated for a long time before asking me if I wanted to see it because he knew it would be a double edged sword either way. He was the father of my best friend, and it pained him to disclose that information to me, but he knew I needed to know the truth.
I found myself in a very dark place as well several years later and can understand what it feels like to be suicidal. I left home at seventeen and traveled all over the United States before settling down in Los Angeles. I lived in Los Angeles for about four years and had some wonderful times out there. My life had transformed and so had I. Amazing opportunities began to present themselves and I learned a lot about who I was as an individual. I found myself standing on legendary sound stages (Warner Bros. Studios, Sunset Gower Studios, Paramount, etc.) surrounded by famous faces, getting to step back in time and dance as an American Bandstand dancer on a television show set in the 1960’s. It was so surreal. For once I felt like I belonged somewhere. It was absolutely incredible . . . until it wasn’t.
I struggled tremendously with my sexual identity through those years and was terrified of coming out to my family. I was afraid that they would disown me or that I would disappoint them, but no matter how hard I tried to change or hide it, I couldn’t. Many of my friends had faced criticism from their loved ones after coming out and it devastated them. Sadly many within the LGBTQ community resort to suicide because they feel so alone and I too thought that ending my life would be the best option for everyone. After an unfortunate situation one night I transformed into a person I never thought I would become. My life began to spiral out of control and I didn’t know how to get out of it. Instead of asking for help or letting someone know that I was struggling, I too created a mask.
On the outside I seemed to have it together aside from the occasional comments made by friends concerned that I may be drinking too much, but on the inside I was dying. I continued to self-destruct in many ways. I still carry scars on my body from the torment I felt. Addiction took over. I tried to numb my pain and when the alcohol was no longer enough, I turned to drugs. My moral compass diminished right along with my dignity and self-respect. I no longer knew how to function without some sort of self-medication, and sleep was a rare occurrence because I knew the nightmares would await me. I lost it. I just wanted to disappear, and I didn’t want to live anymore.
By the grace of God, I somehow survived my attempts. I can still remember feeling the cold bathroom floor on my face after another heavy day/night of drinking, I screamed at God begging for a reason to live. I hadn’t talked to him in quite some time but I certainly made up for it that night and not in a pleasant way. I was angry and everything I had been holding onto came rushing out. “It isn’t fair, where the hell have you been!?” I am so grateful now that I survived because I found out shortly after that I was pregnant with my beautiful son. He apparently heard me and answered my prayer in the most unexpected way. I don’t have words adequate enough to describe how grateful I am . . . Life is beautiful today.
Suicide is something most people do not feel comfortable talking about. My father never told anyone of the pain that he was in, nor ever gave any direct indication that he was contemplating taking his own life, if he did we sure didn’t know then what we know now. Those who knew my father only recall his bright smile, his contagious laugh, and his kind soul throughout his last days on this earth. That is what made the situation so incredibly difficult to believe.
In October 2013, I got involved with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and became an advocate for this cause. It took that long for me to try to find something positive to do with all of that. I was blown away by the overwhelming number of lives that had been impacted by suicide, just on the TCC SE Campus alone, where I was a student. I wore my Community Walk t-shirt to class shortly after my first walk and had three different students from ONE CLASS approach me wanting to know what my connection was to suicide prevention, then they each disclosed their own personal stories of loss to suicide.
After that I went home and began to research http://www.afsp.org and saw where the foundation hosts campus walks in the spring and felt led to try to make that happen at TCC. After many meetings with TCC faculty and student organizations, we were able to bring the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to Tarrant County College in the spring of 2014 and were able to successfully do so through the Gay-Straight Alliance Student Organization on the SE Campus. Together we organized an “Out of the Darkness” Suicide Awareness Campus Walk and held the event on April 19, 2014, on the track behind the campus. Two hundred sixteen people were in attendance; among them were several faculty members who took the stage to speak openly about their own personal losses. In total, $6,429 in donations were raised for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. A large portion of those proceeds were disbursed to Texas to benefit our state. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is the leader in the fight against suicide. The foundation funds scientific research, creates educational programs, advocates for public policy, and supports survivors of suicide loss.
I now have the incredible privilege of serving on the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s North Texas Chapter Board of Directors, something I never imagined I would be capable of or worthy enough of doing. I have learned that even through life’s devastating blows, no matter what they may be, that there is a way to use those experiences to make a difference in the lives of others. Even if you are scared, have doubts, or feel that you can’t possibly make a difference… take a step, you might be surprised to find where it may lead you.
LOVE ONE ANOTHER
If you or someone you know needs help, please reach out. Help is available.
“As long as we live, you live. As long as we live, you will be remembered. As long as we live, you will be loved.”
Over the past two years I’ve found myself on a journey that I never dreamed I would be a part of by joining an army of volunteers for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. To be quite honest I can say that about the last five years in particular.
I have been thanking God a lot lately as I approach the anniversary of my last sobriety date. I realize that there are risks in sharing that openly but the rewards of speaking truthfully and the freedom I have found in doing so are far greater than the criticism. Even when I doubt myself the most, someone will unexpectedly and bravely approach me and say “me too.”
Those experiences let me know that it is worth the risk and that God has a purpose for everything no matter how shameful and painful it may be.
I will be traveling to San Francisco this May for my second Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk, I will be walking for all of the lives lost too soon, for all those who still suffer and for those left behind. I will be walking in memory of my father, my friend Joani, for Hannah Brewton Brown’s son Samuel T Simmons, for Mindi Wheat and her son Taylor, for Sarah Hope’s sister and Professor Shepp Hope’s daughter Chappell, and all of the beautiful people I have met along the way, the list is endless.
I am asking for your help in reaching my fundraising goal for this event. If you aren’t able to donate please do not worry. You can help by clicking on the link and sharing it with others, my story is included on my personal fundraising page.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is full of helpful information and you will also find many ways you can get involved in this incredible movement if interested. Together we CAN and WILL make a difference. Love and be kind to one another.
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