Turning tragedy into advocacy
Lisa Pappas was only six years old when her mother died of suicide in 1979.
Back then, the act was so stigmatized that she and her sister didn’t learn the truth about their mother’s death for three years.
“They told us that she had fallen on a garden hoe and punctured an organ or whatever,” Pappas recalls. “But later we learned my grandfather had found her. She was in the garage and it was determined that she died by self-inflicted carbon monoxide poisoning.”
Pappas, who owns and runs Bell Laundry in Spartanburg with her husband Greg, remembers her mother going to a psychiatric hospital and being from a family with a long history of alcoholism.
Though she’s also battled depression much of her own life, Pappas could never understand her mother’s apparent decision to leave two young daughters behind. It seemed even more inconceivable at the start of the new millennium when Pappas found herself raising a stepchild and two young children of her own.
The oldest were Audra and Derrick, Greg’s children from a previous marriage, then there was Brooke, who was four years older than the couple’s youngest child, Cameron. The siblings were close, though Pappas says Brooke and Cameron had their share of petty teen arguments.
“They were just at that age where they would bicker all the time,” she recalls.
Pappas is referring to 2010, when Brooke was 19 and her little brother was 15. That was the year Brooke lost her life in an auto accident. The date was April 18, and Greg and Lisa had gone to Tennessee for the night.
Cameron was the only one home when the coroner arrived at the family’s residence to report the grim news. He then had to tell his parents about the fatal accident over the phone.
Pappas remembers her daughter as an energetic, funny young woman who “loved life.” She was finishing up her freshman year at USC-Upstate when she passed away.
The tragedy had a significant impact on Cameron, whom Lisa believes harbored “a lot of regret and a lot of guilt” about not always being nice to his sister. He began fighting depression himself, and took to drinking in an effort to self-medicate. Despite dealing with incredible adversity, Cameron managed to excel at Spartanburg High School, becoming a star baseball player and graduating with a 3.6 GPA.
But when he enrolled at Wofford College, his depression and drinking increased. During his sophomore year, he got his first DUI and was placed on house arrest. Pappas and Greg took him out of school for the semester and placed him in an intensive outpatient program for those with substance use disorders. He also began taking an antidepressant and scheduling sessions with a counselor at Wofford.
Pappas says that, through it all, she and her son remained tight.
“Up until his death, we were still best friends,” she recalls. “Every summer we would take a trip to see (musician) Dave Matthews. We’d go to Pennsylvania or Indiana. We would go to Atlanta to see him. That was our thing — we loved Dave Matthews. And we were close. He would tell me everything. Even stuff I didn’t want to know, he would tell me.”
Pappas says Cameron worked at the laundry to make extra money, and that his personable, outgoing nature made him a big hit with customers. She also describes him as “very smart” and says he hoped to one day become a foreign affairs officer.
But during his junior year, Cameron had another run-in with the law and his parents thought it best he move back home again. Academically, he flourished. In fact, Pappas says her son’s Spring semester was the best of his college career. Mentally, however, he continued to struggle, and was devastated when Pappas’ stepmother died on Easter of 2015.
Some ten weeks later, Pappas discovered her 20-year-old son dead of suicide at their home. The medical examiner found no drugs (including antidepressants) or alcohol in his system. Near his body was a long note expressing his apologies and declaring “I just want to be with Maw Maw (Pappas’ stepmother) and Brooke.”
In just five years, Pappas had buried both her biological children before their 21st birthdays.
Pappas believes God soothes people after a loved one dies. She says that in the wake of her son’s death, she fell into a kind of emotional fog. Her memory of the funeral remains sketchy although she was somehow able to function when it came to making arrangements and talking to guests.
Once the formalities were over and the grief settled in, however, Pappas felt a call to take action. She began organizing a charity run to raise money for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). She named the event the “Cam Run” and the first was held in Spartanburg less than two months after her son’s suicide.
That race raised over $10,000 and was so successful that Pappas made it an annual event through 2019. Organizing and producing the run brought Pappas closer to those who worked in mental health and suicide awareness. She remembers the 2017 event especially well because that is when she first “felt led to talk to other people about” her experience as a suicide survivor.
Only weeks after that race, Wofford College contacted her, asking if she would come and speak to the student body about Cameron.
“That was my first really big talk that I’ve ever done in front of people,” she recalls. “I talked to a whole auditorium full of kids and told them, ‘Cameron and I were sitting right where you are during [his freshman] orientation in 2012. Never in a million years did I think I would be up here five years later telling you his life story.’”
Pappas says her late son reminded her of Robin Williams in the way he made others laugh and feel good about themselves. Williams, of course, took his own life in 2014 while suffering Lewy Body Dementia.
Over the last three years, Pappas has continued to focus much of her time and energy on helping others. She now serves on the board of both the AFSP and NAMI-Spartanburg and continues to tell Cameron’s story to large crowds throughout the Upstate. Recently she even spoke to the student body at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine (VCOM) in Spartanburg.
“I tell them Cameron’s story and explain to them that there’s no right or wrong way to grieve,” she explains. “I encourage people not to drink alcohol or take drugs because self-medicating isn’t going to help. No matter how you try to numb the pain, you’re going to wake up in the morning and that person will still be gone, so you have to hit your feelings head-on.”
Eventually, Pappas plans to write a book about her experiences with grief. In fact, she says she’s “already started typing” but admits going through her old journals and reliving her children’s deaths is an emotionally taxing process. In the meantime, she continues to advocate for mental health and suicide awareness at the local and national levels. She helps organize the annual Out of Darkness Walk in Spartanburg and, last year, participated in a 16-mile Overnight Walk in Boston to raise money for the AFSP.
Pappas says Greg prefers to keep a low profile when it comes to advocacy but that he’s been her emotional rock and supports her efforts 100%. No doubt he sees his wife’s crusade as evidence she has transformed a tragic past into a present full of purpose and passion.
“What drives me is I don’t want another mother to have to go through this,” Pappas says. “I know I’ve said it 500 times but I just want to help others. I feel led to help others any way I can.”
Pappas says anyone worried about a suicidal loved one should contact NAMI immediately.
This year’s AFSP Out of Darkness Walk is scheduled for September 12 at Spartanburg’s Duncan Park.