HIGH PROFILE: Christopher Epperson is helping prevent suicides in Arkansas — and to him, it’s personal

Posted: November 5, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

When he was 17, Christopher Epperson tried to take his own life. “I remember lying in my hospital bed and tears dripping down my mother’s face and falling on my face.” Now he is fighting for the lives of others.

It starts to rain before Christopher Epperson is even halfway through his walk, streetlights highlighting the drops that cling to his glasses and his brown hair.

"Want to brave it? I'm not made of sugar anymore, I won't melt," he says with a grin before marching forward into the drizzle.

The sun hasn't risen yet, and this is Epperson's time to himself -- time to clear his head before a day of meetings and planning.

Epperson, 46, is a member of the national board of directors for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and co-chairman for the group's Arkansas chapter. He started volunteering with the foundation in 2011 and became a national board member at the end of 2016.

He stumbled into volunteering with the foundation after a request for help with the Out of the Darkness Walk, which brings awareness to statewide suicide prevention efforts, from his Hillcrest neighbor Jet Cuffman. Epperson says he thinks she just needed anyone to volunteer, but Cuffman, 61, insists she chose Epperson specifically.

"I knew that he would be good for people that come up that were lost or sad," Cuffman said. "I knew that he would be able to help."

Epperson worked the registration table, and remembers one woman in particular he helped.

She looked lost, he said, so he asked if she needed help getting registered. He asked why she was doing the walk, and she confessed that her daughter had died by suicide the week before.

"I immediately reached across the table and gave her a big hug and I said, 'You know you're not alone. We are going to make a difference,'" Epperson said.

He was hooked.

He grew up learning the importance of helping others, he said. His mother was president of the East Texas Food Bank and he started volunteering with the Susan G. Komen foundation when he moved away from home to Little Rock.

At a fundraiser to cover a friend's medical bills, he met Tyler West, who would become his partner for the next eight and a half years. Epperson was cutting hair for donations and he and West's eyes locked in a mirror. They went to dinner that night after the fundraiser and moved in together after a year of dating.

The couple attended their first conference for suicide prevention in 2012, three years into their relationship.

Attendees were asked to stand one by one and tell why they were at the conference. Most talked about loved ones who had killed themselves.

West expected something similar from Epperson; they had talked about their experiences with suicide previously. Epperson knew after their first date that West's grandmother "Nanny" had killed herself in 2005; West knew that one of Epperson's close friends had died by suicide, that the experience had a profound effect on his life.

When Epperson stood in front of the crowd of near-strangers, what came out of his mouth was not the all-too-familiar tale of the complex grief that accompanies the loss of someone to suicide, but a more personal experience.

Epperson told the crowd about how he had tried to kill himself when he was 17, just beginning his senior year of high school.

"I remember lying in my hospital bed and tears dripping down my mother's face and falling on my face," Epperson said.

When he sat down, West patted his partner's back. Other people began sharing their stories of living through suicide attempts.

"Later on we talked and he said, 'I just realized that if I can't tell my story and tell it boldly, then how can I expect anybody else to?'" West said.

In 2015, nearly 600 people killed themselves in Arkansas alone. The national suicide rate is just over 13 per 100,000 people, more than twice the rate of those murdered each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Suicide is one of the top 10 leading causes of death in the United States. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for those who are in crisis is (800) 273-TALK (8255).

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has set what West calls a "bold goal" of reducing the suicide rate by 20 percent by 2025.

"Whenever they announced that goal and he [Christopher] came home and told me about it, I was like 'Whoa,'" West said. "Now we have a quantifiable goal and we've really got to get to work."

Getting to work is something Epperson is familiar with. He is a hairdresser in two locations -- Dallas and Little Rock. He goes back to Dallas for one week every month to cut hair for his longtime clients there.

"If you dilly-dally around, you're not going to be making any money," he said.

Despite this practical attitude, he said his favorite part of the job is less sensible -- talking to the people who come in. Some customers who he has seen for more than 20 years, he said, he considers family.

Epperson's mother, Ann Howell, said he once came back to Dallas for several days to take care of a client who was sick.

"Christopher went to stay with her and cooked for and did all kinds of things for her to make sure she was in a safe place," Howell, 69, said. "There's not too many people that would do that."

Friends and family often reference Epperson's willingness to help out. One told how he helped wash her hair after she had surgery. Another recalled him filling in for her at a volunteer event in the wake of a family emergency. A third said he always remembers to call and check in at just the right moments.

He takes care of his aging grandmother in Searcy, one of the things West said drew him to Epperson in the beginning of their relationship.

"Whenever he would talk about his grandmother and taking care of her, that was another glimpse into the character, the real essence of who he is," West said. "Because when he would talk about her, his eyes would just light up."

Epperson, with his almost constant smile, says suicide is complex and there were many "pieces of the pie" that contributed to his attempt.

It started with a diagnosis of dyslexia when he was a child. He couldn't shake the tendency to read from right to left, rendering words an impossible jumble. Teachers who didn't know how to handle him stuck him in special education classes.

"It wasn't that I didn't want to learn, it's just that I never got the tools to really learn," he said, adding that this influenced the way he thought of himself and his intelligence through high school.

He first confronted his sexuality in high school. Newspaper headlines at the time screamed about the AIDS epidemic and popular belief still told him it was a choice rather than a way of being, so he stuffed the feelings down and gave dating girls "the old college try."

"It was a shock at first," Howell said. "I have come to realize that those years growing up must have been tough because he didn't share that with me. Now that he has, it's a good place for both of us."

Epperson's parents announced that they were getting divorced three days into his ninth-grade year. He asked a friend to meet with him to talk about it before school, and she never showed up.

This is about when the spiral started -- he began running with the wrong crowd and dabbling in psychedelic drugs until it all became too much.

The months after the attempt were spent healing; he dropped out of high school and got his GED. His mouth was wired shut as a broken jaw healed, he stayed on crutches for weeks with a crushed ankle, his collar bone had snapped. (Epperson did not want the details of his suicide attempt publicized.)

"I was a little bit of a mess," Epperson said. "There was a lot of healing afterwards."

This healing was primarily of his body; he started college the following spring, studying psychology, all the while clearing his mind of any thoughts of his suicide attempt. He didn't mention the attempt to his new friends, telling himself what he needed was a fresh start.

He made his way from Tyler, which is the only word he pronounces with a Texas drawl, to Dallas where he started learning to cut hair, after he finished college. He came to Little Rock to be closer to his grandmother.

"It wasn't until I got involved with AFSP that I started to deal with some of those past experiences," Epperson said. "It wasn't until then that I started to realize 'OK, I've got to start dealing with this a little more if I'm going to be healthy.'"

He led suicide prevention trainings in high schools across the state, loading up his Ford Expedition and driving to Northwest Arkansas, the Delta, even down to the Louisiana state line.

The Louisiana chapter of the foundation, which started in 2015, benefited from Epperson's help, advice and frequent trips south, said Mike Lamma, vice president of development and field management for the foundation.

In 2012, Epperson became chairman of the Arkansas chapter, which organizes an awareness walk in Little Rock about the same size as the one in San Diego. He stayed in the position for four and a half years, more than the three years recommended by the organization's bylaws because no one wanted the job.

Lamma, 61, oversees the foundation's 85 chapters and was a part of the decision to appoint Epperson to the national chapter leadership council in 2015. He said Epperson was selected by committee members because of Arkansas' success in suicide prevention programs and Epperson's hard work on the state level.

"His chapter was very successful, so that was certainly one thing," Lamma said. "Secondly, Christopher is one of those people -- we kind of kiddingly call him the mayor because it seems like he knows a lot of people."

Epperson will become chairman of the national leadership council and join the national board of directors in January, Lamma said.

During Epperson's time volunteering with the Arkansas chapter, there have been more programs in high schools, self-care classes started for first responders and legislation has passed at the state level requiring prevention training for teachers, said West, who works particularly with the lobbying and legislative parts of the foundation.

"Good stuff's been done and a lot of progress has been made but now that Chris has this opportunity to work on a national level, that's when the really cool stuff is going to happen," West said.

One of the organization's ongoing goals is to involve more people with "lived experience," who have attempted suicide; Epperson said he wants to help people understand the complexity of suicide, that it is not an "if-then statement."

He has grown more open to telling his story as he becomes increasingly involved with the foundation.

The description of him on the Arkansas chapter's website addresses it simply: "After his own personal struggles with suicide in high school and the loss of several good friends over the years, Christopher found a voice and platform for a world without suicide."

Epperson says there was never a picture-perfect moment of healing after his attempt, no ah-ha instant of knowing he was going to be OK.

"It's about facing those demons. Addressing them," he said.

He leans back in his chair, sipping a black coffee. The rain has stopped, and the sun is rising -- pink and yellow behind the clouds. The clouds linger, although they have parted enough to allow a bit of sky to peek through.

“I knew that he would be good for people that come up that were lost or sad. I knew that he would be able to help,” says Jet Cuffman of Little Rock.

SELF PORTRAIT

Christopher Epperson

DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Dec. 29, 1970, Searcy

FAVORITE PET’S NAME: Grace Clairee Jackson, a mini schnauzer. Grace for Will & Grace. Clairee because that is a larger than life character from Steel Magnolias. And Jackson because Jackson sounds like good people.

NICKNAMES: When I was a little kid, everybody called me Little Ace because my initials were ACE. As I grew up, I didn’t want to be different from anybody else so I took the name Chris. My mom and dad kind of gave us a choice, so I took on my middle name, but I shortened it. When I got to college, I had so many friends called Chris that I took on Topher. … When I moved to Dallas to start my professional career, I moved to Christopher.

FAVORITE HOLIDAY: Thanksgiving — because it’s more about family.

MY FANTASY GET-TOGETHER WOULD INCLUDE: People that you wouldn’t normally put together like Karl Rove and David Axelrod. Those were the behind-the-scenes guys for presidents Bush and Obama.

MY FAVORITE TIMES WORKING WITH THE AMERICAN FOUN-DATION FOR SUICIDE PREVENTION ARE: Our yearly retreat. We go canoeing on the Buffalo River. … We let our hair down and giggle and enjoy life.

ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Earnest

High Profile on 11/05/2017