Bebe Rodriguez could not cope. She wept at the office. She curled into a fetal position at home. So great was her pain, Rodriguez attempted to end her life, swallowing an excessive number of pills prescribed for depression and anxiety.
The pain stemmed from the sudden death of her son in 2013. Jarred Rodriguez had been a personal assistant to actor Jason Bateman, an aide who did everything from securing permission to close streets for shoots to organizing calls with Hollywood executives.
Rodriguez’s son was personable, talented, successful, and upbeat, which made his suicide at the age of 26 all the more shocking.
Four years after her son’s death, Rodriguez overdosed on Xanax and spent three weeks in the hospital. After her release, she found relief helping others who have experienced pain similar to hers.
“Volunteering brings me a measure of tranquility,” said Rodriguez, 58. “It is a way to heal. I love talking to other individuals. Ninety-nine percent of the time, our stories are spot on in how we feel.”
September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, a time when survivors, mental health advocates, and others unite to save lives. For her part, Rodriguez serves on the board of the South Texas Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). She helps raise money for research, organizes walks to raise awareness, and distributes literature at local events.
On Sunday, for example, Rodriguez will distribute materials at the Fourth Annual Suicide Awareness Poker Run at Smitty’s Motorcycle Club House, a fundraiser to benefit AFSP South Texas. The event begins at 9 a.m.
This past summer, Rodriguez worked an AFSP South Texas booth at the Pride Festival, meeting with visitors, listening to stories, sharing information, and distributing strands of colored beads. Purple represented the loss of a relative or friend, gold the loss of a parent, white the loss of a child. Green stood for a personal struggle or suicide attempt.
Rodriguez spiraled downward after Jarred’s death. She and her husband divorced. She showed up to work disheveled. She snapped at colleagues and family members. She sank into depression.
Her sister found AFSP on the internet and told Rodriguez about it. Since she began volunteering, Rodriguez has helped raise more than $100,000 for “Out of the Darkness Community Walks,” the chapter’s signature event.
“I feel invigorated,” she said. “I am not slurring or stumbling. I have color back in my face. I feel better about myself. I see a positive change.”
The suicide rate is increasing across Texas and the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for ages 15-34 in Texas, and the fourth leading cause for ages 35-44. In Bexar County, suicide was the third-leading cause of death in 2017.
The upward trend has left a growing number of loved ones devastated, struggling to manage guilt, shock, anger, and pain. Jessica Peña, 40, understands this all too well. She lost her brother and best friend, Joel Guadiana, to suicide 18 months ago. Peña felt alone, not knowing how to cope, until she joined SOLOS – Survivors Of Loved Ones to Suicides. Soon after, she began volunteering with AFSP South Texas.
“You can go down a spiral,” Peña said, “or help and become a resource for someone else.”
Michelle Ramirez, 46, remembers the plunge into darkness. She experienced an act of violence outside her home at age 16. Unable to share what happened with her parents or friends, Ramirez tried to take her life. “I was hospitalized for several weeks at a local psychiatric facility,” she said. “A combination of treatment, medication, counseling, coping skills, family support, faith, and prayer saved my life.”
Ramirez went on to earn a master’s degree with a focus on grief and loss at Texas State University. She became a bereavement educator.
In 2015, 29 years after trying to take her life, Ramirez founded AFSP South Texas, a chapter that covers 42 counties. The chapter has volunteers in Victoria, Corpus Christi, and the Rio Grande Valley. But the largest concentration of volunteers is in San Antonio.
“In working with all loss survivors, I was passionate about suicide prevention,” Ramirez said. “Some of those grieving were vulnerable and at risk themselves for suicide.”
In three years, AFSP South Texas has helped survivors find a place to heal and serve, extending its reach to City Hall, across San Antonio, and beyond. Chapter President Mrudula Rao is a clinical psychiatrist who serves on the Mayor’s Fitness Council Executive Committee.
On a sweltering summer afternoon at the Pride Festival, volunteers wore T-shirts that read, “BE THE VOICE #StopSuicide.” Despite the heat and humidity, they met for hours with hundreds of people who stopped to ask questions, pick up literature, or share stories.
Peña talked about the shock of losing her brother with remarkable ease. “It was completely unexpected,” she said. “There were no signs.” Her candor was disarming, allowing others the freedom to share their own pain. “It feels good,” she said, “letting them know they are not alone.”
Bebe Rodriguez agreed. Offering a smile, a word of hope, and a listening ear was a wonderful form of therapy.