Interview: A Colorado woman shares her story of how racism on the job nearly drove her to suicide, and her path to healing

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25min 14sec
Jacquie Abram Hush Money Suicide Awareness Prevention
Courtesy Jacquie Abram
Aurora-based anti-racism consultant and author Jacquie Abram (center) says she is grateful to be alive for her two daughters after previously considering suicide. Her experience inspired her to write the book series. “Hush Money.”

September is National Suicide Prevention Month.

It’s a month where mental health advocates, prevention organizations, survivors, allies, and members of the community at large come together to raise awareness about the alarming number of people who take their own lives each year. 

It's also an opportunity to raise important conversations about the stigma that surrounds suicide and draw attention to the resources available for support.

If you need help, dial 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also reach the Colorado Crisis Services hotline at 1-844-493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255 to speak with a trained counselor or professional. Counselors are also available at walk-in locations or online to chat.

For one Colorado woman, the observance is a sobering reminder of the lowest point she experienced in her life. It was a moment in time when she sincerely believed that taking her own life was the only way out, the only way to alleviate the excruciating pain and desperation she was experiencing. 

Jacquie Abram of Aurora shared her very emotional story of near-tragedy to triumph with Colorado Matters host Chandra Thomas Whitfield.

Read the interview

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Chandra Thomas Whitfield: We're going to cover a lot of ground in this interview, but I think the most compelling way to convey the depth of the exasperation and desperation you were experiencing in your life at that time is for you to go back to that moment when you actually planned to end it all.

Jacquie Abram: At the time I was living in California and 24 hours before the day that I planned to commit suicide, I actually visited a beach called Salt Creek Beach. It’s a beach in California that's known for surfing. It has massive waves. It has actually been featured in a number of movies. I had never learned to swim and so, because I was so psychologically damaged, that seemed like the best way to go because I don't know how to swim even to this day.

But I did go check out the beach a day before and the sea was just calling to me. I was living in misery, felt like there was something internally wrong with me that I couldn't fix. And so the very next day I returned to that beach, and again, I was just mesmerized by the water, standing on the edge, watching the waves, and decided that this was how I was going to end my life.

So, you are on the edge of this beach almost hypnotized by the waves. And it's really remarkable because you are a mom of two daughters whom you love very much. Is there anything else you remember about what was racing through your mind at the time?

Well, during that particular week, I knew that I wanted my girls to be taken care of because my girls mean everything in this world to me. So, I remember my mindset leading up to that moment, of calling my girls and saying, “Hey girls, do you remember the life insurance information that I gave you?” And my girls are like, “Yeah.” And I’m like, “Do you have it handy? Make sure you have it nearby in case you need it.”

And, of course, the girls had no clue what I was considering, but I wanted to make sure that was there; that they knew where it was and that it was readily available because I figured going into the sea, I obviously think to myself, you can't swim, you're going to drown and it's going to be considered accidental. And they would still be able to collect the life insurance that I had available for them. I knew that I wanted them to be okay and that they knew where to find that information.

Describe the feelings. Was it, “I just don't want to be here. I'm just tired of this pain. People are better off without me?” What was actually in your mind at this time?

It wasn't that I didn't want to be here. My thought process was that this world was not made for me. I cannot survive in a world that was not designed for me to thrive because there's a difference between surviving and there's a difference between thriving and I wanted to thrive. I was tired of being in survival mode. Does that make sense?

You are a Black woman and at the time, a single mom of two daughters. There is this long-standing myth of the Black superwoman who must not only save herself, but also save the family, save the kids, save relatives and just kind of a lot of pressure to be extra strong for everyone else, but in many ways neglecting the self in self-care.

Absolutely! And I'll just add to that, oftentimes as a Black woman, we are dehumanized to the point of people believing that our pain is less than other women. We're stronger than other women. We can tolerate more than other women. We were designed to be able to handle more than other women.

And so, when you carry that stigma and then you're also, like you said, responsible for everyone else. And you have this tendency to always put yourself last while putting everyone else first, it really wears on you; not just mentally, but emotionally and physically, as well. So, you are dealing with so many different stressors that people think that you really should be able to deal with because you are a Black woman.

If you need help, dial 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also reach the Colorado Crisis Services hotline at 1-844-493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255 to speak with a trained counselor or professional. Counselors are also available at walk-in locations or online to chat.

Back to the beach, as you were standing there, something happened that allowed you to, for lack of a better way to put it, snap out of this dark place that clearly you were in. Can you tell us what happened?

Yes. As I was standing on the edge of the ocean, and again, the sea is calling out to me and I'm just feeling this peace like I want to be in there. I got a well-timed phone call from my youngest daughter. (This was) about 10 minutes before I decided to jump in. And I was able to step out of myself long enough to take her call.

When I answered, all of a sudden my youngest daughter started screaming into the phone hysterically and she began telling me that she's experiencing racism in the workplace and that these people are after her and setting her up and she's about to lose her job.

As I'm listening to my daughter screaming into the phone, I'm actually experiencing the same thing in my job. And she's a single mother like me. She's also got a son. I knew that if I didn't do something to help her, that it wouldn't be long before she was in the same dangerous state mentally that I have found myself in. That made me realize that I was not experiencing this alone; there's something going on with your daughter too. You're both experiencing something very similar.

It sounds like you snapped into, as they say, “mama bear mode” and realized that your girls need you here.

Well, Chandra, it's one thing to come after me, but it is an entirely different story to come after my girls. Mama bear is exactly right, because I went instantly into protection mode.

When did you tell your daughter that her call essentially saved your life?

So, I packed up, I was homeless at that time,living out of an extended-stay hotel. I went back and packed up my belongings, my cats, and I came back home to Colorado to deal with what was happening to my daughter.

Because here's the thing, even though I was in a very dangerous spot mentally, it wasn't because I didn't know how to fight the racism that I was experiencing. I knew how to fight, but I was exhausted. I was racially tired of having to fight and claw my way to success only to have changes in leadership. Now you're dealing with someone new and that sends you plummeting back down to the beginning again.

It was just exhausting. That's what put me in very dangerous territory, but I knew how to fight. So, I went back to fight for my daughter.

Is there a gender component to all of this; working in corporate America as a woman and maybe feeling not seen or heard in those spaces?

You bring up an interesting point. As a Black woman, if you are assertive, then they categorize you as “the angry Black woman.” If you are quiet, then they say, “You're not a team player. You're not approachable.” If you try to engage with folks, then they say, “You're too friendly, too familiar.”

There's always something and there's one other component for you as a Black woman, the more exceptional you are, Chandra – because let me just tell you, I was exceptional at my job okay – (I feel) the bigger the target on your back. I worked on the finance side of higher education and I was exceptional. 

In light of your experience, what does it mean to you when you hear that September is National Suicide Prevention Month? What comes to mind?

I am so beyond grateful for the fact that I had someone that I believe God used to reach me in my moment of darkness and despair to save me from myself. Sadly, there are a lot of people who don't get that intervention and it's heartbreaking to think about how many people that I have personally either known or that family members or friends of mine have known that have taken their own lives, that didn't have that intervention. So, it's heartbreaking how many people don't get that second chance that I got through that well-timed phone call from my daughter.

Here are some statistics I've come across in regards to suicide here in Colorado. More than 1,000 Coloradans each year take their own lives, one of the highest suicide rates in the country and a rate that has continued to rise for decades. More Coloradans between the ages of 10 and 44 years old take their own lives than any other cause of death, except for accidents. What helped you move past that frame of mind, long-term? Why do you think this issue is so rampant in our Colorado community today?

It didn't happen instantaneously. It happened over a period of nearly 20 years, 20 years of operating in survival mode, working in corporate America. So you're dealing with the stress of being a Black woman in corporate America and trying to build a career for yourself, really reaching for the American dream that everyone says is afforded to you as a Black person and everyone else has.

But you're now realizing that that's not really the case. And so you're able to make it so far in your career, but then something happens in that career and you find yourself knocked off that ladder of success spiraling downward, and now starting all over again.

While I can't speak for everyone, I can just tell you as a person, trying to not just survive but thrive. I was born and raised in Colorado Springs, so I know a lot about Colorado. There are a lot of folks who are living paycheck to paycheck, who are experiencing the same difficulties that I experienced career-wise, who are just having trouble getting to the point of thriving but are also having difficulty just trying to survive with the rising cost of inflation. To buy a property here in Colorado was almost impossible and even now the cost of renting.

Every community is dealing with suicide in some form or fashion and a lot of people don't really believe in it until it actually happens in their own circle. So here are a couple of other statistics about suicide in Colorado. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 22 percent of people died by suicide in Colorado in 2020 for every 100,000 people. At the time, it was the nation's seventh-highest suicide rate. States with large rural populations tend to have higher suicide rates. What do you want to say to someone out there who right now is feeling desperate?

What I would say to anyone who is considering suicide right now at this very moment is I would not be here had it not been for the call that came from my daughter 10 minutes prior. And remember, I was homeless, I really didn't have a lot of money. I was living out of a hotel not knowing how I'm going to pay my next week's hotel bill.

I was in a very desperate place, but if I had committed suicide, I would not be able to tell you about the successes that came after that. My book, Hush Money, not only is it helping to change the lives of so many people all around the world, but it really changed my life. So, you just really don't know what you are capable of doing and how you can change the trajectory of your life.

If you give in, there's something big probably waiting right around the corner for you, but you're never going to see that if you give in. What I did was I took that pain and that suffering and I decided to pour it into a book to help people see and feel and smell my circumstances. It resonated with so many other people who were also on the verge of suicide.

It sounds like your message is of hope and that things can turn around. There is help out there, there are resources and that's what we're talking about today. Your daughter made that phone call and helped you move forward from this moment of desperation. Outside of the book, what has helped you long-term stay away from that frame of mind?

The book was the starting point, but that wasn't what put me on the path to healing. What put me on the path to healing was allowing myself to do something that up to this point I had never allowed myself to do. Because this goes back to the stigma attached to the strong Black woman.

(At the time, I lived) in a different state, so none of my relatives were in the state that I was in. Whenever someone would call and check on me and they would say, “How's everything going?” I would instantly say, “Oh, everything's wonderful. Everything's fine. Things are great. My job is great, my relationship is great, my house is great. Everything's just great.” And I would never allow anyone to see my vulnerabilities because I felt like I couldn't.

So, when I got to this breaking point and I decided to just put it all out there and to let the people that I had been telling everything was great and wonderful for years know that no, it really wasn't so great.

And you did this while you were homeless?

I was homeless, I was struggling. I didn't know where I was going to get food to eat. I was miserable. When I allowed people to really see what was going on with me and I started talking about it, I did get some pushback. Let me be honest with you. I got some pushback. There were some people, including people in my family who were saying, “You're humiliating yourself. Why are you telling everybody?”

Airing the dirty laundry?

Yes, exactly. (They would say) “You're humiliating yourself. It doesn't belong in an interview.” But there were other people who were saying, “Wow, that's me. I'm going through that too.” And I didn't think I could say anything because I was worried about what people would think. So, the more that I started finding my voice again and coming out of the shadows and just letting people know, “Hey, I'm not okay, and guess what? That's okay. I'm human and I'm not okay.” The more I talked about it and the more that I just allowed myself to cry. I was looking at some of my earlier interviews and I was a hot mess.

How so?

I could barely make it through the interview without just breaking into tears, but there was something therapeutic about those tears. And there was something therapeutic about just telling my story, letting people know what really happened to me, not hiding behind the facade that you can create with social media to make people think that your life is just so perfect.

Just imagine yourself spending nearly 20 years working towards building a career. You are making six figures and you are able to make it up that corporate ladder because I never had trouble getting good jobs once I entered higher education. My problem was keeping those jobs. And you might be asking yourself, “Well, if you were exceptional, how did you have trouble keeping those jobs?”

Because I was exceptional, it didn't take long for someone in the organization who was in a higher position than mine to notice me. And this person who's noticing me is also a racist. And so as soon as they notice me and my exceptional way of doing my job and the confidence that I have in me and my abilities, they begin targeting me. And when they target me, they inspire others in the organization to conspire with them. And so now you're not just dealing with one racist leader targeting you, you are dealing with people who are all working together to get you out of this position that you hold.

And because it's daily, you're under attack daily, in different forms and in different ways. It really wears you down. So, by the time you lose this job, they're successful in getting you out of that position. You fight this organization and then you run to the next one. 

What would happen at the next place? 

The challenge you have is you left this organization over here because you were Black, and when you ran over here to the next organization, guess what? You are still Black. You lose everything while you're fighting the prior organization because you've now lived off of the savings that you've had.

You've exhausted that savings. You are now homeless, you and your children, and you don't know how you're going to pay your bills. And you're saying, “What on earth happened? I'm exceptional. I've got all the educational credentials I can communicate well, how am I homeless?”

So, then you go to the next company and you're hopeful. You don't put as many personal items in your office as you did the first time because you're now wondering, “Okay, is this one going to work out?” So, instead of fixing your office up the way you did the last time, you're maybe putting a few pictures up. This time you're maybe putting a few little personal things out. You're building your career, you're exceptional. Again, you start climbing that corporate ladder, you're in sync with your boss, but then that boss leaves the organization.

A new boss comes in, and guess what? So imagine repeating that same cycle. So you’re now five times having your career derailed and each time you are humiliated, you are stripped of your dignity. You are stripped of your confidence and your strength. Back in the day, racism was more overt and you could easily spot it. And even though it was painful, at least you knew what you were dealing with.

Modern-day racism, to me, is more sinister. It's more nefarious because it's not easy to spot. 

Would you say now it’s more covert?

Yes, it is hidden. It is not overt, it is covert. And when you're experiencing it, you can't tell that what you're experiencing is racism. That means that the people who want to be allies, who want to be accomplices, who want to be abolitionists, can't tell that you're experiencing racism, either, so no one is calling it out because they can't tell what it is.

You have written a series of international bestselling books called “Hush Money” with your daughters. One media account I read said for Black employees, “Hush Money” is “a survival guide for fighting racism in the workplace, but for employers, it's a compass to help them find what they can't see.” What were you trying to accomplish with this book series?

I knew how to fight. I am very effective at fighting racism in the workplace. The reason I was contemplating suicide is I was just tired of always having to fight for the rights that are given to other people so freely. I wanted to give anyone that's dealing with any form of racism or discrimination, a strategy, a way to fight back, to give them hope so that they did not find themselves on the verge of committing suicide.

So, I wanted to share my strategies for how I was successful in fighting back against these racist organizations. But I also want it to empower employers who want to prevent these toxic environments by showing them what's lurking under the surface, showing them what's happening in their organization, that they are completely oblivious, to help them see what they can't see, so that they know what to look for, and then they can start calling it out.

Because if people start calling it out, then your chances of preventing it are greater and your chances of keeping these employees are greater. And for the employee, they are no longer considering suicide because they are now finding that they're not alone.

Jacquie, thanks for sharing your story.

Thank you so much. It has been an absolute pleasure.

Jacquie Abram is an author and diversity, equity and inclusion and anti-racism consultant in Aurora. We spoke as part of Suicide Prevention Month.