Amanda Russo - bad ass activist, sister, hard worker, friend - died by suicide on December 10th. When I first began writing this, I didn’t know the exact date of her death. Because of stigma and the lack of value placed on our lives, LGBT suicides are often obscured, and little is done to investigate.
I got the news on December 18th; the three year marker of my partner’s suicide was two days away. When my former coworker, Tracey Carswell, called and said “I want to make sure you feel safe and supported,” I braced. Tracey, Amanda, and I worked together at Pridelines. Amanda was a rock for us both, and she’d had our young peoples’ backs.
In the overlap of these two tragedies, I have been reflecting on how often we talk about and affirm resilience, especially in the wake of loss.
Many of us know the stats — our people are dying. Regularly. Some more than others. And when they do, we are the ones who contact friends and family, who piece together the puzzle. I went through this when Diana died. Three years later, I’m still learning new things.
In the last ten days, as many of us have connected, some poignant and painful stories about Amanda have emerged.
About two weeks prior to her death, Amanda contacted Eddie Nathaniel Torres, a friend, artist, and someone she had met while through Pridelines. “She was congratulating me on my journey with my art and asked me to design her next tattoo,” Eddie shared. “About her struggles with mental health and suicidal thoughts.”
In a text exchange, Amanda told Eddie she wanted the tattoo to speak to her resilience, and the powerful relationship she had with her little brother, Krys Lemay. “I spent alot of time sharing advice on how to cope with life,” Amanda said. “This kid would not let me just fade away... everything I shared with him helped me survive this long. There’s alot of love and history with him and these ideas are now a part of both of us.”
Amanda went on to describe the tattoo themes she envisioned. First, the image of space, which “reminded us that the world was much bigger than our problems,” she told Eddie. “This gave me hope I'd find a way out of hell because my little dysfunctional world did not make up the whole.”
“As a 15 year old kid struggling with suicidality I would look up at those stars,” Amanda said. She taught her little brother, Krys, to use Orion as a “reference point.” Whenever he was feeling lost or alone, he could just look up. She recounted that Krys had repeated that phrase back to her — “look up” — many times in the last 20 years.
Tracey and Eddie reached out to Krys for comment. “In 2011 Amanda was the first person I spoke to about my thoughts of transitioning; we were on the phone for HOURS. Amanda helped me realize that it didn't matter how everyone around me reacted, but how I felt about myself,” he said. “Amanda didn't know much about the trans community at the time, but because she loved me so much, she researched it. She very quickly became an activist.”
Referring proudly to Amanda as a best friend and big sister, Krys said “Amanda was a very active, passionate person in the LGBTQ community, not just because she was gay but because she was an amazing human being who wanted to speak for those who couldn't.” On the topic of Orion’s belt, Krys said “I will always be able to ‘look up’ and see the arrow created by Orion's Belt and smile.”
Orion was a source of strength for Amanda for many reasons. “There are many theories about the belt and the position of the pyramids of Giza” she told Eddie. In October of 2012, I did the bravest thing I ever have and learned a thing or two about how I don't have to fear almost ANYTHING. I was on my way to South Africa with a 12 hr layover in Egypt. The night before my flight I decided to take that opportunity to touch a pyramid. I was fucking terrified and pretty sure I avoided being raped at least once.
Although she spent just six hours outside the airport, she noted how that experience changed her life.
Amanda was open about her trauma and being a survivor of sexual violence. “After recovering my memories I felt like I was shattered in a million pieces. Over the past 15 years I've done all I can to mend the pieces back together. There were so many times that I felt like a vase that just couldn't hold water no matter how much I tried to patch myself back up.”
She asked Eddie to somehow include a “partially mended vessel” within the tattoo. “I think this vase is finally holding some water with just a leak or 2.” Ironically, she later referred to a “cracked vessel.”
“I guess I'd like it to represent the pain, the struggle, the strength it took to survive this long, the hope, the beauty of life, love and healing … Do you think you can work with any of this?” Amanda asked Eddie.
Although he did not get to create Amanda’s tattoo before she died, Eddie has spent the last two weeks completing it in grief.
While Amanda’s friends and community do our best to put together the pieces of this heartbreaking puzzle, we are also patching up ourselves and each other.
Some of us make tattoo designs. Some of us tackle our demons by running for the pyramids. And some of us write about the people we love doing these things.
I guess this is resilience.
Still, we only need such remarkable resiliency because our systems are broken. It is society that causes our vessels to leak. Sometimes, we run out of whatever it was that had kept us going. If that happens to you — if you feel your vessel cracking — know you are never alone. Please reach out for support.
If that’s too hard, and I know it can be, just look up.
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, here are some 24/7 resources:
This line is staffed for and by trans/non-binary folks: Trans Lifeline: 1-877-565-8860
Queer/trans youth, call the The TrevorLifeline: 1-866-488-7386 (or text START to 678678)
There’s also the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)