Side of Ranch: Jay Heater
For a woman who tries to squeeze the most out of every day, Lakewood Ranch's Jennifer Tracy didn't seem like a likely candidate to be "the face of suicide."
She is the founder of Brittany's Bridge, a nonprofit she formed to "bring hope and solutions to tough issues such as suicide, grief, poor mental health, addiction and PTSD.
"Will you talk about suicide?" Tracy asked me.
"Well, sure, that's why I am here."
She explained that just the mention of suicide makes people uncomfortable, whether that means somebody suffering from those thoughts, or a reporter presenting the issue or even someone being asked to sponsor an organization willing to tackle problems and solutions associated with it.
Although Tracy serves as CEO of Brittany's Bridge, she calls herself a volunteer who is collecting other volunteers who have life experiences dealing with the above issues. Her goal is to build a support community that is somewhat like a hospital where she serves as "the lady at the front desk."
When someone in need calls, she will have all these working parts behind her and she can direct the caller in the right direction. "I'm your advocate," she said.
Now 44, Tracy doesn't show a trace of the woman who once picked up her three children and plotted to drive as fast as she could into a wall. She was 26 at the time and living in Colorado. She was married, had her three children and owned a hair salon. From the outside looking in, she was the picture of tranquility and success. She was a go-getter who had graduated early from high school and then became successful in business. Everything should have been fine.
But it wasn't.
Churning inside was a different story.
"I was battling suicide," she said. "And instead of driving into that wall, I went home. I told the girls, 'You guys go play and wait until daddy gets home.' He knew I was struggling, and I was done putting up with what was going on with me. I went to the emergency room in Boulder and was taken to the psychiatric unit. That unit saved my life."
Tracy said she was lucky. Her thoughts of suicide were driven by a thyroid disease that robbed her body of estrogen. Combined with her "addiction to being perfect," she almost lost her battle with suicide. But after only three weeks in the unit, and given the proper medication, she started to feel like herself again.
She also understood that a problem she expected to be totally mental, actually was a physical problem. She was shocked that no doctor had diagnosed it before.
After leaving the psychiatric unit, she said she had "new tools" to face the world.
Everything would be OK.
And then, three years later, on Aug. 11, 2004, her husband, Brian, and daughter, Brittany, were killed by a drunk driver. Her other two daughters, McKayla (now 24) and Amber (21) both suffered serious injuries. She battled her way through the tragedy, thinking most of her surviving daughters' need for her to be strong.
Eventually, though, she developed PTSD, and the battle was on again.
"I quit doing my hair," she said. "I quit earing makeup. You get into the function mode. And then, five years after their deaths, and four years of intense therapy, I thought if I was going to save the girls, I had to save me."
A voracious reader, she read every book she could find about suicide and PTSD.
"I am a combination of the 3,000 books I've read," she said. "Now I am the teacher. I am the hub."
Besides her other challenges, Tracy was diagnosed with a Chiari malformation of her brain in 2012 where part of her cerebellum extended into her upper spinal canal. She had surgery to remove that section and now has a titanium plate in the back of her head. She now suffers from occipital neuralgia, where nerves that run from the top of the spinal cord up through the scalp, called the occipitalnerves, are inflamed or injured.
In Colorado, she said she woke up each day in pain. In Florida, for an unknown reason, she said she has been mostly pain free since moving here a year ago.
She is better prepared to move Brittany's Bridge forward.
"I try to teach people how to truly live," she said. "Something happens when people hear me speak. I can tell them, 'I am the face of you. You can make it through.'"
Her focus for Brittany's Bridge will be people living in Manatee and Sarasota counties. For more information on Brittany's Bridge, go to brittanysbridge.org.
She still has some bad times, when she feels tender and broken, and she has the days when she feels like a warrior. She now has a relationship with Jeremy Fleeman, who she met in Siesta Key last Thanksgiving, and she says he can handle both broken Jennifer and warrior Jennifer. She loves the beach, her happy place, and life is generally good.
She hopes others believe life can be good as well.
"You aren't actually your thoughts," she said.