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Family looks to raise suicide awareness after tragic death of Michelle Gipson

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Updated: March 8, 2014 6:23AM



“In 10 minutes, I won’t be able to help you anymore.”

“What happens in 10 minutes?” Mandy Gipson, of Aurora, cautiously typed back.

She never got a response, but she didn’t need one to know — her sister, Michelle, who had worked to raise awareness of the problem of suicide, had killed herself.

A long struggle

For years, Michelle Gipson, a 27-year-old Oswego High School graduate, had struggled with mental illness and emotional pain. Last Friday, the weight of it all had become too much.

Paramedics were called to Michelle’s Chicago apartment, and the Gipson family’s worst fear was confirmed. Michelle had taken her own life.

In that instant, Mandy’s life unraveled. But through the darkness, she is finding hope.

What Michelle didn’t know when she typed that final message to Mandy on Friday was that her job on Earth was not over. In her death, she would continue to inspire others — not only her sisters Mandy and Becky, but the countless others whom she had touched in her short 27 years of life.

“We want to spread awareness,” Mandy said. “I believe she will continue to help people, and that’s what she would want.”

“Michelle did everything she was capable of doing in life,” Becky Gipson said. “In her death, it is our turn to continue that. As sad as death is, I feel there is always a reason. Maybe her reason was to help save someone else’s life.”

Chasing a dream

When she was 11 years old, Michelle Gipson declared she would grow up to teach special education students, and she held on to that dream, eventually making it come true.

She graduated from Illinois State University in 2008, and began her teaching career immediately.

Like most places she went, Mandy said at Michelle’s most recent teaching job in Niles, she was simply adored.

“I can’t tell you how many parents we heard from who are heartbroken [over Michelle’s death],” Mandy said. “She changed their children’s lives.”

Michelle’s service to others stretched far beyond the classroom. It spread through the airwaves and across the Internet, thanks to organizations such as Hey U.G.L.Y., to which she proudly belonged.

“I feel like Michelle always kind of felt like an outsider. She was gay, and that was something she struggled with,” Mandy said. “She was unique and weird and quirky. Some people embraced that, and some people were weirded out by that.”

In volunteering with organizations such as Hey U.G.L.Y., which stands for “Unique, Gifted, Loveable, You,” Michelle helped combat bullying and raise suicide awareness. The non-profit organization is dedicated to helping youth with self-esteem issues, and to empower them to “be their true selves and part of the solution to bullying.”

“Different people have told me about how Michelle helped their children, and now those kids are OK,” Mandy said. “I had no idea she invested so much time.”

Michelle also reached thousands through her online radio show, “Choose to Change,” through www.HeyUgly.org and through other organizations as well.

“So many people looked up to her for spreading bullying and suicide awareness,” Mandy said. “Our fear is that those people will see that she gave up, and think: ‘If she can’t do it, how can I?’”

But, the truth is, Michelle did what statistics show 80 percent of people living with Borderline Personality Disorder do. She became so desperate for relief that she attempted to take her own life.

“That’s what this disease does to people,” Mandy said. “But Michelle would find positive outlets. She would go to her job, and she was like a different person. Her work and the anti-bullying mission was therapeutic for her. She needed to find things that made her feel like she was doing something positive, and Hey U.G.L.Y. did that for her.”

Health issues

Michelle was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) two years ago, Mandy said.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, BPD is a serious mental illness marked by unstable moods, behaviors and relationships. About 1.6 percent of adults in the United States suffer from BPD, according to the institute’s statistics.

As many as 80 percent of people with BPD have suicidal behaviors, the group says.

“Since she was a kid, she always had difficulties,” Mandy said. Michelle’s highs were high, and her lows were low, but through therapy and outpatient treatment for her disorder, she managed to keep her symptoms under control.

When she felt out of control, she would reach out for help. This is what her sister said she should have done last Friday, and what they are encouraging others to do.

“When she would feel down, she would call and call and call,” Becky said. “...We hoped and prayed it would get better.”

Becky said she knows the dark place Michelle must have been last Friday, because she has been there herself.

“I see myself go into the same dark place Michelle went. I will be kicking and screaming and have the same negative thoughts, but I always find a way to scratch myself out,” she said. “She didn’t find that place in her brain to get herself out.”

Instead, Michelle quit reaching out for help. She put on a facade for the world around her. Carefully, she got her ducks in a row, and when that was done, she killed herself.

“The messages we got from her that night, we got all the time from her,” Becky said of Michelle’s final attempts at reaching out. “But, this time, it just felt different.”

“That’s why we called the ambulance,” Mandy said. “But, it still wasn’t fast enough.”

Mandy’s last message to her sister, “What happens in 10 minutes?” remained unread on Michelle’s computer.

“That’s another thing we want people to know. Some people see suicide as the family’s fault. Like, ‘How could you not know?’” Mandy said. “Obviously, it’s uncontrollable human emotion to feel guilty about it. But, people need to know, if this happens to them, it is not their fault.”

They studied up on Michelle’s condition and tried everything to understand what she was going through.

“I struggled for a long time to try and understand Michelle,” Becky said. “I pushed her away because I didn’t understand. For me it’s important to spread the word about all mental illness, but especially Borderline Personality Disorder. I want to spread the understanding.”

Moving forward

Instead of harboring guilt, the Gipson sisters are forging forward, in hopes of helping Michelle’s mission in life live on in her death.

She wrote five additional radio show spots before she passed, and Mandy and Becky will be recording and airing them online on their sister’s behalf.

“These past few days, I have been really focused. I want to do this stuff for her. I want to do right for her. I want to do things that will bring her joy. That, or I’ve just run out of tears, I don’t know,” Mandy said.

Most importantly, the sisters want to encourage others to reach out for help when they are struggling, and to educate themselves about Michelle’s disorder.

On Saturday, friends and family members of Michelle Gipson will gather at Dunn Funeral Home in Oswego from noon to 3 p.m. to remember a life that was lost too soon.

“There will be lots of pictures and things we found in her apartment that we think people would like to see,” Mandy said. “She felt so alone on Earth, that it would be nice to have everyone come out. She did what she set out to do. She changed people’s lives. She will continue to change people’s lives. I believe that.”

In lieu of flowers, donations should be made to Hey U.G.L.Y. at www.heyugly.org/donate.php



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