On March 17, 2014, the Door County community lost a man who many knew as the “life of the party,” a man with a larger-than-life personality filled with charisma, humor and spirit.
This weekend, two-and-a-half years after Eddie Strege’s suicide, friends, family and community will come together again to celebrate his legacy during the third annual Little Eddie Big Cup golf outing at Peninsula State Park Golf Course. Funds from the event benefit the Mental Health Awareness Fund held by the Door County Community Foundation and the Ed Strege Family Memorial Fund, to benefit Eddie’s widow and young son.
But remembrance of Strege’s life and the effort to raise awareness and support of mental health issues hasn’t been confined to one annual autumn weekend. Instead, his legacy – and that of his brother, Ronnie, who died nearly two decades earlier from suicide – has lived on in a mission driven by their sister, Mettie Spiess.
It was a mission born in the dark aftermath of Eddie’s death, when Spiess realized she could do one of two things.
“I could either use my pain and experience to help someone else, or it could really swallow me up and I could make the same choice as my brothers made,” Spiess recalled. “Which path was I going to go on?”
She decided to rise.
Nine months after Eddie’s death, she wrote her first post on the Inspire Hope Blog, introducing herself as a two-time suicide survivor determined “to end the stigma and shame regarding mental illness, inspire hope, and prevent suicide.”
Fueled by the belief that wellness becomes achievable with emotional support, the Inspire Hope Blog became a safe zone for people suffering from depression, suicidal thoughts and suicide survivors.
“It’s a unique experience that I had, obviously having a loss of a sibling from a child’s perspective and then going through it all over again as an adult,” Spiess said. “I thought it was a unique story and a unique heartache that I wasn’t ashamed to tell the world. I really felt like, and I’ve been getting feedback, that it is inspiring people with hope and it’s helping them share their own stories and empower their own voice, whether it’s to get help for themselves, whether it’s to acknowledge that their family member or friend has a problem and that’s okay, or to say, I’m really concerned about someone, can you please give me resources in how I should deal with this?”
Her personal blog entries are driven by a desire to help others believe in the light on the other side of the darkness. But Spiess also fearlessly shares the difficult moments of surviving a loved one’s suicide (anniversaries and holidays among them) and battling her own mental illness.
These experiences led her to offer tips and tools “for resiliency” and empowerment, and to create a resources tab listing life-saving hotlines and organizations for teens and adults. Her blog quickly became a resource for parents, educators and teens, and led Spiess in a new direction as a professional speaker.
“People would contact me and ask me to come and speak to schools,” Spiess said. “They would read my story and say, wow, you had a lot of loss there. Could you come in and talk about your experience as a student with your own mental illness…and the loss of your brothers and how you coped?”
In the year since her first presentation at a school in Racine, Spiess has been the guest speaker for a number of school assemblies, nonprofits and fundraisers. On Oct. 21, she will visit Gibraltar High School students to present her “Decide to Rise” program.
In 2016, she received the Education Advancement Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness for her commitment to breaking the silence and ending stigma associated with mental illness through education, awareness and promoting recovery.
In April, Spiess became involved with Operation Reach Out, a New York-based mental health publisher that “creates and delivers therapeutic solutions” to companies and organizations in education, government, mental health and the corporate world. As its executive director, Spiess primarily works on a suicide prevention smartphone app that provides tips to those with suicidal thoughts and individuals trying to prevent suicide.
“It actually teaches you by videos, step by step, how to reach out for help. If you are suicidal, how to find hope,” Spiess explained. “…The other program is what to do if you’re concerned about somebody who’s at suicidal risk. It gives you the videos and step-by-step resources on how to intervene, how to get help and prevent suicide. What I love about working with their group is they agreed with me that we believe that suicide is 100 percent preventable. People just lack the tools and the coping skills to be able to either help someone or help themselves, and that’s what we can deliver.”
From her own tragedies, Spiess has made it her life mission to deliver hope and comfort to those facing difficult times. And she is doing it with her brothers’ support and the belief that “If you embrace hope and help, there is freedom waiting for you on the other side of your pain.
“I felt like Eddie and Ronnie both wanted me to share this story and to share the upside that can come out of tragedy,” Spiess said. “They really gave me a sense of peace and confidence to do it.”
For more information, visit InspireHopeBlog.com. You can contact Mettie at [email protected] or 715.340.0289 and find student and community program information at MettieSpiess.com.
Reflecting on the Little Eddie Tournaments
“The events themselves and my family could not be more blessed,” Spiess said of the Little Eddie Big and Little Cups. “You can feel Ed’s spirit in every area of that tournament, whether you are a golfer on the course or whether you are at the event that’s being held after. It’s just joy-filled and it’s just an experience. It’s not just an outing. You feel the Door County love and the Door County support throughout that entire day and it’s just a beautiful thing. It’s incredible. We’re excited for the third year. We hope each year is bigger and better than the last, and we appreciate everybody who donates and comes to spend the day with us.”