What’s stopping you? TCC grad overcomes family tragedy and personal struggles, finds mission to help others

Name: Jessica Caudle
Graduated: Summer 2015, Spring 2016
Areas of Study: Surgical Technology, Psychology
Campuses Attended: Northeast, Southeast, Trinity River East

At age 7, Jessica Caudle faced a tragedy that abruptly and permanently changed everything. Her father Roy—a man with a sunny smile, warm laugh and unfathomable private pain—took his life. The loss darkened Caudle’s world for decades. Today, however, Caudle is a two-time Tarrant County College graduate; a future University of Texas at Arlington student; and, a member of the Board of Directors for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s North Texas Chapter. Caudle has hosted suicide prevention walks at TCC and this summer, she took her message of hope and healing to the nation’s capital.

TCC: You went through an overwhelming experience at a young age. How did the death of your father impact your life?

Jessica Caudle: It has taken me many years to process his loss, but even now I find myself asking the same questions over and over. The biggest question is why. Suicide is a death unlike any other, and the ripple effects it has on those left behind are devastating.

TCC: You had very dark times of your own as an adult.

JC: I hadn’t come to terms with the loss of my father, and I was struggling tremendously with my sexual identity. Instead of asking for help or letting someone know that I had a problem, I created a mask. On the outside I seemed to have it together, but on the inside I was dying. I still carry scars on my body from the torment I felt. Addiction took over. I tried to numb my pain, and when alcohol was no longer enough, I turned to drugs. I didn’t want to live anymore. By the grace of God, I somehow survived my attempts.

JC & son
Jessica and her son, Jace, pick up Honor Beads at the Out of the Darkness Campus Walk. Bead colors signify a participant’s connection to the cause of suicide prevention.

TCC: How did you turn the corner?

JC: In 2004, shortly after some of my hardest days and nights, I found out that I was pregnant with my beautiful son. God apparently heard my prayers and answered me in the most unexpected way. I don’t have words adequate enough to describe how grateful I am.

TCC: Did your son inspire you to go to college?

JC: Absolutely. I worked several jobs after he was born—hotel clerk, bartender, customer service agent, etc. Even though I was grateful for those jobs, I wanted something more, for myself and for my son. I always planned to attend college but lacked the confidence to pursue it until I got sober. I stopped drinking alcohol on January 10, 2011, and that spring I enrolled at TCC. It was the best decision I ever made, even though I was scared to death.

TCC: What resources and people on campus helped you to overcome that feeling?

JC: I certainly took advantage of learning labs, study groups and faculty office hours because I wanted to succeed. I also joined the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) and the Health Occupations Only (HOO) student organization. I felt I got a late start on pursuing higher education and was intimidated at first, but I think my prior life experiences made me appreciate the opportunity more. I knew I had to give it my all.

There have been so many people who have inspired and encouraged me. Catherine Bottrell, government professor at Southeast Campus, was the GSA sponsor and played a big role in helping me bring the suicide prevention message to TCC. Melissa Evans, associate professor of health and physical education at Southeast, is now a dear friend and still a mentor in my life.

TCC: Even though you were on track academically, you were still grieving the death of your father. How did you work through that anguish?

JC: In 2013, a friend gave me a flier for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) Out of the Darkness Community Walk, and that seemingly simple gesture forever changed my life. I couldn’t believe so many people had been affected by the very thing that tore my world apart years before. AFSP ended up giving me a way to channel my heartache into a purpose.

TCC: What inspired you to host AFSP walks on campus?

JC with walkers at TRC.
Students, faculty and staff take part in the Out of the Darkness Campus Walk at Trinity River East Campus.

JC: I wore my AFSP Community Walk T-shirt to Southeast Campus one day. Three people in one classroom asked about it and opened up about their own loss by suicide. I did more research on AFSP and learned that it holds campus walks each spring. I went back to school and asked those students if they would be interested in helping me bring a walk to TCC.

We hosted our first Out of the Darkness Campus Walk at Southeast Campus on April 19, 2014. The event had more than 200 participants, raised more than $6,000 for AFSP, and sparked a campus-wide conversation. We hosted our second walk at Southeast Campus in 2015 and the third walk at Trinity River East Campus this year. Each of those events raised some $3,000 for AFSP and had about 150 participants.

TCC:Tell us about the trip you just made to Washington.

JC: I joined survivors of suicide loss from across the country for AFSP’s Annual Advocacy Forum. We shared our stories and asked all 535 members of Congress for their support on important suicide prevention policy priorities. We also asked them to increase funding for AFSP’s educational programs and promising research aimed at reducing the rate of suicide nationwide.

I found out as I landed at DFW Airport on my return that one of the bills we advocated for (H.R. 2646, Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act) unanimously moved forward from a House subcommittee to the full committee. That made me cry!

JC with Amy, AFSP chair

Jessica Caudle holds a photo of her father as she and Amy Haller, chair of AFSP North Texas Chapter Board of Directors, prepare to visit lawmakers.

TCC: You have accomplished so much, in your work to prevent suicide, as well as academically and professionally. Tell us where you are now.

JC: I was asked to join the AFSP’s North Texas Chapter Board of Directors in 2015. I feel incredibly blessed to be a small part of this movement.

I earned my certificate from TCC’s Surgical Technology Program in summer 2015 and started working at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital that August. Health care is a great field for me because of my passion for helping others. I continued my education and earned my associate degree last month. I plan to transfer to UTA to pursue a bachelor’s degree in psychology, then become a licensed professional counselor with an emphasis in art therapy. As a child I struggled to verbally communicate my emotions but found I could get them out through writing and art.

TCC: Thank you for sharing your story. What advice do you have for others who are struggling with tragedy or other challenges and think college isn’t possible for them?

JC: For anyone who may be experiencing doubt, hardship, tragedy, addiction, anything—I want you to listen to that small voice in you that is still alive with curiosity, the small voice that says, “I want to be a (fill in the blank).” When negativity arises, with things like, “but you can’t because (fill in the blank),” listen to that small voice. Yes, it will be hard, and you’ll probably feel like giving up at times, but I promise you, it will be worth it. Just keep taking steps; you’ll get there.

Lastly, if you struggle with addiction, depression or suicidal thoughts, please know that you are not alone. Help is available. You can visit any of the counselors on campus or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You will be connected with an individual who deeply wants you to live and will listen without judgment. The hotline can help you find resources in your area, and you may remain anonymous. Just don’t quit. No matter what, don’t quit.

JC Graduation
Jessica celebrates her graduation at the 2016 commencement ceremony.

Jessica Caudle’s story is the latest in a series celebrating TCC students, many tied to the College’s 2016 awareness campaign focusing on “What’s stopping you?” Follow these links to read the previous features: Salma Alvarez, Celia Mwakutuya