Joan Spencer - Copake Falls, NY

Joan Spencer - Copake Falls, NY

Jeffrey Spencer

On Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2008, at approximately 7 a.m., my son, Jeffrey, lost his battle with depression and bullying by completing suicide. He was three days into his junior year. This was his third and final attempt. He was 16 years old and 1 month to the day.

His first two attempts were overdoses. He died that morning all alone by a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head. I can still hear myself screaming on the phone that night at Jeffrey's dad, Jeff, who called with the news, to call 911 not me, 911! I left my husband with our two daughters home and drove to Jeff's home, where Jeffrey was. I didn't even know if Jeffrey was dead or alive at this point—why? Because when Jeffrey's dad did the same thing 18 years ago he survived, fortunately, b/c of the angle of the gun. I called Jeff as I was driving there to see if Jeffrey died and when he said "yes" I lost my mind—the love of my life—my first born—my only son.

I slowed down so I could get there safely at that point. I still somehow had it in my head that I could "fix it" because I had always told Jeffrey since he was a little boy that I could fix anything. He just had to tell me what was wrong—no worries......and I did. There was only one time when I wasn't sure if it was within my realm to "fix" and that was the second time Jeffrey overdosed on something that could have affected his heart. I will never forget hearing Jeffrey crashing in his room trying to get to my room. He was frantic! I asked him, "do I need to call 911?" and he said "yes." While I was holding Jeffrey up he said, "I don't want to die, Mom," and I said, "you won't, Honey, I'll take care of it"...... and we were extremely fortunate that Jeffrey survived. That was at the end of his sophomore year. His first attempt was in eighth grade.

Jeffrey's first visit to a child psychologist was when he was 5 years old. There was always an underlying sadness about Jeffrey. He learned at a young age to "mask it" but a mother knows. Jeffrey could convince therapists and doctors that he was "fine." At the time Jeffrey died, I was a hospice RN. I became a psych RN 18 months after he died. Working psych and doing evaluations in the ER, I learned the importance of obtaining "collateral" information from others—not just going by what the patient says. It is amazing the information you can obtain from collateral when the patient is downplaying or masking the severity of what has been going on or the suicide attempt. Unfortunately, the collateral information given to the docs and social workers at the hospital Jeffrey was admitted to three separate times never took into consideration what I was telling them about Jeffrey—the mask, specific incidents, the anger, impulsiveness, sleeping all day and on and on. They diagnosed Jeffrey with Severe Depression and Anxiety. He was discharged based solely on what Jeffrey was telling them and their own "professional opinion." Only to return a day and a half later for his third hospitalization because he fell apart. Again, he was discharged home within a few days.

As far as the bullying goes, it wasn't until after Jeffrey died that I found out the magnitude of bullying Jeffrey went through all those years—I heard this from Jeffrey's friends and from school staff from both schools Jeffrey had attended in his short life. He could never open up and talk about it with counselors and therapists.

Losing Jeffrey was a shock to my being as a whole—my brain, my heart, my arms aching to hold him and keep him safe from pain and harm. You just don't stop being a mom. I still needed to be a mother to Jeffrey and Jeffrey still needed his mother. He's only 16 years old! I have three children who need me! The relationship has changed with Jeffrey in that it's not the 'conventional' way—however, I found my way, through God's grace, to still be able to be a mother to my son. There was no way his death would be in vain! He had a message to get out, and I'm the conduit for it. God not only opened my eyes but opened and continues to open doors for me to serve His Purpose. I just didn't realized that walking in AFSP's Out of the Darkness Columbia-Greene Walk on Sept. 26 that year, two weeks after Jeffrey died, was only the beginning of my journey and “Jeffrey's Journey,” and that is to spread Jeffrey's message through an organization I founded in his name" “Jeffrey's Journey” "Be the Change"—“Suicide is Preventable and so is Bullying.” "JJ" is about bringing advocacy and awareness about mental illness, teen depression, bullying and the horrifying effects of all of it if it goes untreated or undertreated—and in Jeffrey's case, it was sorely undertreated. It’s also about what can you personally, do, to "be the change" and that is reaching out to others in an unselfish way.

Three to four months after Jeffrey died, I found myself praying, "Dear Lord, lead me to where you need me most and may it all be for Your Glory—in Jesus' name, Amen." This became my daily prayer and mantra just to get through the day. It's amazing where this prayer has led me.

I've been a part of the AFSP since Sept. 26, 2008, and am now a board member of the Capital Region chapter in New York; sit on the sub-committee for MH for Columbia County Mental Health and am a board member for the Columbia-Greene Mental Health Association. In 2010, I received MHANYS's Family Advocate of the Year award. Through these agencies I have been able to be a part of making a difference in people’s lives through their mission statements and Jeffrey's story. I am determined to break down the walls of stigma. I am so proud to be a part of a passionate, steadfast organization such as AFSP and the local organizations in Columbia County—who 'walk the walk' every day and are very forward thinking in their visions.

By the way, the day Jeffrey died, he left a note on his nightstand that said “I can't live the life decided for me. I'm sorry. Jeffrey—PS: please tell Olivia” (his best friend). Come to find out, Jeffrey endured gay slurs and bullying for years. Jeffrey believed in God and had a very hard time with God's Word regarding being gay. Jeffrey was finally able to say after all those years of counselors, doctors and social workers what was bothering him in a one line note. The question that haunts me is, did Jeffrey think he was gay because that is how his peers perceived him, so he must be? Or was he really gay and based on God's Word it tormented him? There were times Jeffrey would come to me and talk about what the Bible says about being gay. I would tell him that we are all God's children and he loves everyone unconditionally. No one wakes up one day and decides to be gay, black, white, short, tall and on and on. I tried to bring him comfort knowing that no matter what, I loved him unconditionally and so did his dad and step-dad and his family—that no matter what he will always be our son and we loved him. I believe a genetic component will be found someday. However, that 'someday' will never come for my Jeffrey but it will for those who have and continue to walk in Jeffrey's shoes.

No one signs up for this cause nor is there any glory—we are rewarded by the knowing that along the way that we become "the change we need to see in this world" and hopefully can spread the seed of hope. Losing a child or loved one to suicide opens your eyes in a way that others cannot understand or able to see themselves. At the time, I didn't know that this was the beginning of my own journey, which started with the ending of some lifetime relationships as I knew them and the beginning of new friendships and support with like-minded people. Something I give God thanks for every day.

What do I miss most? Everything, especially the hugs and kisses my 16 year old son gave me and his step-dad every night before he went to bed as we exchanged I love you's to one another.

My peace now comes from knowing Jeffrey is safe in Jesus' arms for eternity. My strength comes from God above and my son in forging the path where others can become "the change they want to see in this world"…..a passion I will live out the rest of my life and pass down to my daughters.

Joan Spencer
Copake Falls, NY