Shining a light: Suicide leads to culture change in tight-knit community

 

By NEAL WAGNER / Managing Editor

ALABASTER – It’s about an hour after lunch on Jan. 29, 2016, and the cafeteria at Thompson High School is filled with the sounds of laughter and quiet chatter as 138 students form a single-file line leading up to tables stocked with bottled water, candy and bags of chips.

As they pass, some students converse with the Parent-Teacher Organization members manning the tables, some silently nod in appreciation and some accept their awards without ever looking up. But by the time they reach PTO volunteer Diana Hussey near the end of the line, all have smiles on their faces.

The students are being honored for recording perfect attendance during the first semester of the 2015-2016 school year – The kind of event Hussey lived for.

“She had been involved in the schools since the 1990s. She loved kids, whether they were ours or someone else’s. She loved them all the same,” said Diana’s husband, Greg. “She wanted to do her part to help raise the kids in the community.”

Diana Hussey arrived at the perfect attendance party with a smile on her face, and maintains it throughout the event. Her outgoing personality impacts everyone in the room, as she makes a point to congratulate each individual student who passes by her.

For those who knew Diana Hussey socially, her outgoing and cheery demeanor is to be expected. As a mainstay at most school and community events in Alabaster, Diana Hussey has built a reputation for being a source of positive energy and the life of the party everywhere she goes.

But privately, Diana is struggling.

 

Getting involved

 

Greg still vividly remembers the first date he had with Diana nearly a quarter-century ago. As an Army brat growing up, Diana moved frequently before settling with her family in southeast Alabama in the early 1990s.

Greg and Diana got to know each other through mutual friends, and struck up a romantic relationship after attending a Travis Tritt concert in Ozark on Dec. 7, 1992.

“I had a good friend who worked at the credit union with Diana. I had tickets to the Travis Tritt concert, and he said ‘Why don’t you take Diana?’” Greg said. “We started going out more and more, and we eventually got married.”

The couple moved to Alabaster in 1994, and other than a brief two-year stint in Sydney, Australia, for Greg’s job in 1998, the couple has remained rooted in Shelby County.

As had become her tradition, Diana began looking for ways to get involved in her community shortly after moving to Alabaster.

Because she moved around frequently with a military family as a child, Diana knew firsthand what it was like to be new in town, and focused her efforts on making everyone feel welcome and important. When Diana’s longtime friend, Jennifer Pace, met her about a decade ago, this characteristic shined above all others.

“I’d like to say I’m her best friend, but the truth is that she made everyone feel that way,” Jennifer said. “She would make you feel that your thoughts, your feelings and your ideas were important, even if you were just talking about a recipe for chocolate chip cookies.

“I never had a friend that was the definition of a friend like Diana was,” Jennifer added. “All of her friends would say the same thing about her.”

 

Dueling images

 

To see Diana in action in the community was to witness a textbook example of joyful service, friends and family said. Whether it was substituting at one of Alabaster’s schools, planning the layout for the annual CityFest celebration or helping with her son’s wrestling team, Diana did it with a constant smile.

“If you talk to anyone in Alabaster, they will tell you this: Anything Diana Hussey was asked to do, she’d do,” Jennifer said. “The two words I would use to describe her are sacrificial and a servant. She would sacrifice anything for her boys.

“She was a 100-percent mom. She would never want to be away from her boys,” Jennifer added.

As her three sons, Tyler, Derek and Josh, grew up in Alabaster, Diana never missed a chance to help out with their endeavors. She served on the Alabaster Arts Council, volunteered with the Thompson High School band program, helped with the THS wrestling program and was heavily involved in her sons’ school PTOs and with First United Methodist Church of Alabaster.

“If she was going to be involved, she was going to do it all the way,” Greg said. “She didn’t do anything halfway. I’d ask her ‘Do you want it done right or right now?’ She’d just say yes.”

But as the years of community involvement progressed, something began to eat away at Diana’s sense of well-being. In the final few years of her life, the Diana most people in the community knew was much different from the person Greg saw at home.

The woman known to many for her infectious smile and seemingly endless supply of energy and enthusiasm transformed into a victim of self-doubt and low self-esteem once she was out of the public’s eye.

“I saw both sides of it. She had been struggling for a while, but you never want to think it would have ended the way it did,” Greg said. “Everyone in the community loved her, but she didn’t see it that way. In her mind, everyone hated her. She had it in her mind that everyone was against her.”

Shortly before Diana’s death, she switched from the anxiety medication Paxil, which she had been taking for 20 years, to Trintellix. The sudden change exacerbated the negative thoughts silently filling Diana’s mind, and she decided to make the switch back to Paxil.

But before she could begin taking Paxil again, tragedy struck.

On Friday, Feb. 10, Diana committed suicide at her home.

“She never should’ve tried to switch,” Greg said. “Hindsight is 20/20.”

“I truly believe that was not Diana Hussey who did that. Your mind is very powerful, and in her mind, she thought nobody needed her,” Jennifer said. “The Diana who took her own life was not the Diana I knew.”

Even for Greg, who daily saw the struggles his wife was dealing with, the tragedy came as a life-altering shock.

“It was an abrupt and very sudden change. It’s hard to find the new normal,” Greg said. “That’s half of my life taken away in one day.”

 

Taking action

 

The large meeting room in Alabaster City Hall is mostly full on May 17, 2017, as Mayor Marty Handlon stands in front of a panel of local mental health experts seated at the City Council dais.

Unlike most of Handlon’s trips to the podium at City Hall, this one is profoundly personal.

As she explains the rationale behind organizing the city’s first mental health awareness town hall meeting, Handlon is legitimately speaking from the heart following the loss of her good friend Diana only a few months prior.

“We are a community. When part of your community hurts, we all hurt, and we’ve got to embrace it and learn from it,” Handlon said.

Early 2017 was a rough period for Alabaster. In addition to Diana, the city also lost a 14-year-old girl, a 60-year-old man and a 36-year-old mother to suicide during the first half of the year.

“You don’t really think about how serious an issue is until it hits you close to home. When we lost Diana, it really hit me that I didn’t know she had any issues with mental health. I was blown away that she had those struggles and never showed it,” Handlon said. “I would have called her and encouraged her every day if I had known she was struggling so much.”

Following the string of suicides, Handlon and others in the community decided to take action. In addition to the town hall meeting, the city also hosted a teen-oriented end-of-school social in May focused on recognizing and addressing mental health issues.

Since then, Alabaster’s police cars and fire trucks have been equipped with informational handouts outlining local mental health resources to distribute when they respond to calls such as attempted suicides. The Alabaster Police Department has also placed several posters in the city’s schools displaying contact information for local mental health resources.

“The thing I will remember the most about Diana was that she was always the life of the room,” Handlon said. “When you lose someone like that, you really feel it because she’s not there cheerleading or lighting the room up anymore.

“We have to do something to make sure that sad loss has some kind of educational value. This can’t be for naught,” Handlon said. “We have to remove the stigma and let people know it’s OK to ask for help.”

 

Not forgotten

 

A few months after his wife’s death, Greg took the stage in Thompson High School’s auditorium to award the Alabaster Arts Council’s first Diana Hussey memorial scholarship to THS senior Cecilia Koloski during the 2017 THS awards night.

Although words failed Greg as he was overcome with emotion, the audience’s response served as a testament to Diana’s impact during her years on this earth.

“We love you, Greg, and we all loved Diana too,” one man in the standing-room-only audience shouted, leading to a lengthy chorus of applause.

Through the annual scholarship and memories from those who were positively affected by Diana’s actions, her impact will not soon be forgotten.

“Nobody had to question if she was filled with the Lord’s spirit. You could look in her eyes and see the love she had for people, and you can’t convince me that she’s not walking the streets of heaven right now,” Jennifer said. “If she left one ounce of her love in the community, I think Alabaster is better for it.”

“A lot of times when someone dies like that, they are remembered for how they died,” Greg said. “But in Diana’s case, I think she’ll be remembered more for how she lived.”