RISING ABOVE: Motivated By Painful Past, Alachua Native Champions Suicide Prevention

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This story is part two of a three-part profile series titled Rising Above.

For Jeannette Rizzi, growing up in Alachua was like being a fish out of water. Her Italian-American family moved to the small Florida town from Brooklyn, New York, in 1979, when Jeannette’s mother was pregnant with her. She always felt a bit out of place in the rural town, with her self-described “big, frizzy, curly hair and big Italian nose.” But it was home.

Today, Jeannette, 35, lives in Los Angeles, California. She hosts a podcast, has written a one-woman show and is working on a documentary that she hopes will get picked up by HBO. The focus of all her work is suicide prevention. The podcast, the show, the documentary — all of them are vessels she’s spent years pouring her life story into and they all center on offering hope for those struggling with suicide, a subject with deep roots and a dark presence in her past.

***

Jeannette found a friend in Katie Wilson when they were both students at Santa Fe High School in the 1990s. According to Jeannette, they both had older sisters with whom they weren’t particularly close, and that drew the pair together.

“I took that role on, to be the big sister, to protect her,” said Jeannette, “and she sort of was my little sister that would yell at anybody that was mean to me.”

The girls were the picture of high school friendship: they played on the softball team together, laughed about their boyfriends and dressed up for prom. Katie was a funny and cheerful girl, beloved by her friends and family, which is why no one anticipated that she’d take her own life. Nobody saw it coming.

Blindsided.

That’s what Jeannette has titled her podcast, show and documentary, because it embodies how she felt when she lost her best friend that day.

In the wake of Katie’s death, Jeannette battled depression and suicidal thoughts of her own. It came to a head six years later when a boyfriend stole from her and left her.

“He was the one person that took time with me in the way that Katie did. … But he was using me. I just didn’t know that then,” she admits. “When I came in and saw that yet another person that I loved had left me, it broke me.”

Jeannette remembers hearing a static drone — the buzzing sound of the Emergency Alert System — ringing in her head. She stepped out onto her apartment balcony and put one foot on the railing, looking down at the street below.

That’s when her dog, Flash, licked her leg.

Jeannette’s sister had given her Flash the day after Katie died. He had been a constant companion, a comfort and someone to talk to — and now he was looking up at her, saving her life.

Jeannette and Flash
Jeannette and Flash (Courtesy: Jeannette Rizzi)

“It just snapped me out of it, and I fell back on my balcony,” she said. “I wanted to die so badly, but I just couldn’t leave him. There was no way I would leave this dog.”

Jeannette says it took her 10 years to heal from Katie’s death and to begin working on her show. She’s a comedian, so the path to healing was clear.

“I’ve always had my sense of humor, even in the worst times. So I decided to save my life by writing a story that was both powerful and poignant and hilarious, which sounds odd about suicide, but I had to get it off my chest,” Jeannette explained.

Ultimately, the pain of losing her best friend and her own fight to live motivated her to pursue what has become her life work today.

“I still miss [Katie] terribly, but in doing the show, I’ve healed myself.”

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The Cofrin Nature Park on Northwest Eighth Avenue in Gainesville is home to the Survivors of Suicide Memory Garden. Within the garden, built in 2013, two wooden benches sit in the dappled shade of a trellis. One is dedicated to Katie Nicole Wilson (“Gone too soon, never to be forgotten, pinky swear”) and the other to William “Frank” Enneis, a friend of Jeannette and Katie who also committed suicide when they were in high school together. Jeannette wrote the memorial plaques that adorn the benches.

She performed her show at the Hippodrome State Theatre in 2013, a one-night special event, and donated the proceeds to help the Friends of the Crisis Center build the garden. She also organized a charity softball tournament the day before the show, which together helped fundraise a total about $5,000 for the project.

“What inspires me to keep going is what people say to me after the show, or that anytime someone talks to me about what I do, they relate to me,” Jeannette said.

Jeannette speaking to students at Mebane High School in Alachua on November 14, 2014.
Jeannette speaking to students at Mebane Middle School in Alachua on November 14, 2014. Steven Gallo / WUFT News

They relate to her mission, her cause. She wants her friends to be remembered and for others battling suicide to know there is hope even when it feels like hope has run out.

Today, Jeannette is continuing work on her documentary and plans to pitch the project to potential investors within the next year.

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During the time between reporting on this story and its publication, Jeannette lost another best friend: Flash, her dog. In late February she had to make the decision to let him go — he was 18 years old and was starting to suffer.

“I spent many years worrying about how I would survive losing him, forgetting that I had already laid a best friend to rest and survived,” she said.

Last November Jeannette said she believed Flash would stay with her until he knew she was OK. And now that he’s gone, she says she is.

“Honestly, I didn’t even realize how strong of a woman I had become until I watched Flash take his last breath,” she said. “I haven’t lost my dreams and goals, which I will continue to focus on. There is no greater feeling than taking the stage to do my one-woman show and seeing how much it touches people. That’s what drives me, that’s what keeps me alive and gives me hope that my world and the world that surrounds me will one day be a happier place.”

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The Alachua County Crisis Center offers phone crisis and suicide intervention counseling to all residents in the county. You can reach the 24/7 hotline at 352-264-6789. You can also access additional resources and learn the warning signs of suicide at the Florida Suicide Prevention Coalition website.

About Steven Gallo

Steven is a reporter for WUFT News who may be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news @wuft.org

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