Disclaimer: This story contains details of sexual assault, suicide, and domestic violence that may be upsetting to some.
“I am a mom of three amazing children and I work full-time in healthcare. I am also the founder of a 501c3 nonprofit organization called Signed, With Love. My organization is focused on mental health awareness and suicide prevention, which I’m incredibly passionate about.
Why? Well..because I get it. I know people say ‘I get it’ all the time when trying to relate to others, but I truly do get it. Before I get into my organization and how I am currently doing, allow me to explain why I truly get it and where it all started.
My name is Tiffany Mills. Let’s time travel a little bit.
You see, I was 16 years old when I was diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety, and depression. I experienced my first sexual assault at 16 years old. (Yes, I said first.)
I was a 16-year-old girl full of life and innocence. I met a man in his 20s who told me I was mature for my age and not like other women.
I never told my parents about him or his age until after everything happened because I knew my parents wouldn’t approve. That should’ve been my first giveaway that it wasn’t okay, but I was young and naive.
We became what I thought was friends. We agreed to grab food one evening and that’s when it happened.
It was brutal and horrifying. The more I fought him, the worse it got for me. When he was done, I was rolled out of his truck and left in a grassy area full of water, dirt, and sticks.
I was bruised, bloody, and had a lot of different injuries. I managed to call a friend to pick me up. I saw a doctor, and reported it but was advised to not take it further due to the ‘age gap’ and was told it was likely nothing would happen.
So I listened… My parents were a great support for me during that time and they urged me not to drop anything but I just didn’t want to keep reliving that moment. I ended up experimenting with alcohol to numb my feelings and stop my thoughts.
It worked for a while…about a year actually, but then I ended up at a party with one friend and I didn’t know anyone else there. I went to lie down in the guest room where I felt an arm wrap around me which led to my second sexual assault. He was in the military with a baby on the way.
I reported it but nothing happened. I was accused of being ‘promiscuous’ at 17 years old. I was interrogated, told I had no business drinking, and that ‘a man in uniform would never do such a horrific thing.’
A few weeks later, I stayed at a female friend’s apartment overnight and we agreed no boys would come over. Her boyfriend came over, and he brought a friend. I sat on the couch and he was drinking in the other room with my friend’s boyfriend all evening. Everyone had finally fallen asleep.
My friend was cuddled up with her boyfriend in her bed and I was under the impression that the friend he brought was asleep in the guest room. As I grabbed my keys, he came out of the bathroom, slowly walked in front of me, and asked where I thought I was going. My heart sank.
My trauma kicked in and instead of leaving, I was scared and froze. I panicked. I said I was going home. He chuckled and started kissing my neck, placing his fingers over my lips as he guided my left hand down his waistband where I felt a gun.
I was guided to the bedroom as I silently cried while everything happened. He finally passed out and I took off. I never spoke a word to anyone about it. I then entered an era of self-harm.
Journey With Self-Harm
When I started to self-harm, I did so in places no one would see because I didn’t want people asking me what was going on. I didn’t want people to think I wanted attention. I did it on my thighs and hips because I wore mostly jeans. I did it on my upper arms because basic shirts covered it.
As time went on, it got worse. I started to self-harm differently. Drinking as much as humanly possible, I ended up with alcohol poisoning on several occasions.
I started taking medication that wasn’t mine to help with panic attacks. Then I found music…
At 19, I started writing music and singing. I began recording at a local studio and performing at karaoke bars. I was doing really well!
I went to my first concert ever, for MGK. Someone I looked up to so much! I was front row and was pulled up on stage.
We laughed backstage and spoke about music. We talked about how much his music impacted me and someone else was there, listening in on our conversation. (That someone will NOT be mentioned in this because I never reported it nor do I want any sort of attention from him or his family. But let me clarify now that MGK was not involved in this situation at all whatsoever.)
As I was leaving, this someone came up to me to talk about music. He said he heard me singing backstage and that he did music himself. After all, he was one of the opening acts so I trusted that. He invited me to come record music and I flashed back to my history..so I asked if I could bring a friend and he said yes.
The next day, my friend and I drove two hours to go meet him and record music. I had one drink and only have bits and pieces of that night in my memory. I won’t get too graphic but I will say, I know exactly what happened because those are the only pieces I remember.
I drove home the next day, dropped my friend off at her house, and I decided that was it. At 19, I was done with life. I was being the punching bag and the person that kept being hurt in unspeakable ways. I drove to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and had every intention of ending things right there.
Then music found a way to speak to me…’Brave’ by Sara Bareilles came on and the line ‘show me how big your brave is’ just hit me like a ton of bricks. I drove home and cried for hours. I realized I needed help and started going to therapy. But that was a long road…
Surviving Domestic Violence
I wasn’t drinking anymore. I was doing well for a year and met a guy at a local line dancing bar. We became friends and he knew my past so I trusted him.
He was great for a while. I ended up pregnant with my first baby (a girl!) and we got married.
I was 37 weeks pregnant the first time he put his hands on me. Our daughter was two months old when I found out he was sleeping with other women and I left him. He never came around again and ended up signing his rights over to our baby girl.
He has two other children he abandoned and was abusive to that woman as well. She and I are good friends and my daughter knows she has two siblings in that way. That was my first experience with domestic violence.
I stayed single, focused on my daughter, school, work, and healing. I had a guy in my life I had known since I was 15 but due to my past, I was VERY guarded. He managed to show me he was good and we started dating when my daughter was almost 2. I ended up pregnant very fast and he was so excited.
But that excitement turned into arguing by the time I was about 6 months pregnant.
I had a very rough pregnancy and was hospitalized a lot for hyperemesis gravidarum. He wasn’t physical, but the verbal abuse was pretty bad. I told myself it wasn’t abuse because it wasn’t physical and decided to stay, but the longer I stayed, the worse it got.
I was in and out of depressive episodes where I wanted to end my life. I tried three separate times to overdose and all three times, I failed. I got so good at pretending it was an accident so that I would never be hospitalized.
We continued arguing and being toxic to one another for 6 years before I made the choice that I needed to leave in order to give my kids the best life. Then I found out I was pregnant again.
I went through another incredibly hard pregnancy. I experienced verbal abuse during the pregnancy, hospital admissions constantly for preterm labor, and hyperemesis so bad that I had to have PICC lines, home health care, and oxygen. I delivered a boy at 36 weeks.
He had a NICU stay and after we got home, I hoped things would change, but they didn’t. His family treated me like absolute dirt and told me constantly that I was a horrible person, mom, and wife. Anytime something bad happened, they made sure I was the target.
After having it drilled into your head constantly that you’re nothing… especially as a mom, it gets to you. So, I wanted to make sure others didn’t feel as bad about themselves as I did.
Making Positive Change
I learned saw that countless people were jumping from the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. It was almost a daily occurrence. I HAD to do something. I grabbed paper, markers, and tape and started cutting the papers and wrote 200 different words of inspiration, hope, encouragement, and my phone number down.
I called a friend of mine and asked her to come with me to tape the paper signs to the skyway bridge. She had zero hesitation and we went. We taped them to both the north and south sides of the bridge on the wall people would jump off of.
My phone rang off the hook and my texts were almost unmanageable. The signs were torn down that same day but the impact was already made, so I knew those signs made a difference for hundreds of people in that short time. I contacted FDOT and begged (actually I demanded) they place permanent plaques on the bridge with messages of hope and the suicide prevention hotline.
Another organization was urging them to do the same! I was all over the news and became very known as ‘the skyway girl.’ I started holding up large handwritten signs at intersections for people to read, making signs with wooden stakes and large handwritten signs with different messages of hope around town.
A few months later, after countless news articles and interviews, viral posts, I FINALLY got word that the permanent plaques were being placed on the bridge!!! Not too long after that, there was also a barrier installed. The number of jumpers drastically dropped.
My Final Suicide Attempt
Despite that, I was still struggling. I was still in an incredibly toxic marriage, a mom of three, and felt like I was failing my children. My fourth and final attempt was probably my scariest simply because it was so easy for me to slip back into that mind state.
After him telling me he wouldn’t care if I never came home again and his family telling me that my kids would be better without me, I lost it. I tried to walk in front of a truck, but I was pretty much tackled.
I remember begging them to just let me go and let me leave. After all, I wasn’t worth anything in my mind or in the mind of the people who were supposed to love me. I ended up in the hospital and again and I was so good at saying it was a lapse in judgment, they released me.
I started planning to leave my abusive relationship but had to do it carefully so I didn’t end up homeless. It took me two years to fully have the ability to leave.
Advocating For Suicide Awareness
It took me leaving to see that a lot of my struggles were coming from my surroundings. I had never fully healed from my past trauma, I was screaming from the rooftops that everyone is loved, but also had it in my mind ‘everyone except me.’
I got back into therapy and got back to putting signs up. I made my organization nonprofit, and partnered with people to have shirts, bracelets, and tumbler cups made. All of the proceeds went directly back into the community by helping others in their mental health journey.
For some, that’s transportation to an appointment, and covering expenses for therapy. For others, it’s assistance filling medication. It’s having the ability to go to wherever they are and simply being there for them to have someone to lean on, talk to, and listen to them no matter where they are.
I still have a lot of healing to do for myself but I know part of the reason people struggle with mental health is because of the stigma around it. No one discusses depression, anxiety, PTSD, or other mental health conditions until it’s too late.
With suicidology, people often refer to it as attention seeking when it’s discussed but once the act is done and that person is no longer here, everyone says it’s a tragedy no one saw coming. That person more than likely showed signs, symptoms, reached out, and felt ignored.
People see it coming but sweep it under the rug; they don’t listen. So, I started my organization in hopes to break that stigma and make a difference.
I’m also pushing for mental health treatment accessibility. It shouldn’t cost what it costs to get help. It shouldn’t be a year-long waitlist to get in somewhere. People also shouldn’t be slapping medication on EVERY person.
Therapy is HUGE and getting to the root cause of things, and teaching people how to cope with their mental health is key. Yes, medication is necessary for a lot of people and that’s okay, but so many doctors are so quick to write a prescription and give zero information regarding therapy or counseling.
Schools should be discussing mental health as well. So many children are experiencing depression and anxiety, or other thoughts that could be a direct cause of a mental health condition. But because it’s something that isn’t talked about, children don’t know how to talk about it.
I know that for myself, I had no idea what different mental health conditions were out there, or what it was like to have depression or PTSD until I struggled with it myself. Teaching children to talk about their feelings, and creating a safe space for them to discuss things that might be a little uncomfortable could be something that helps so many people as they grow up.
I can personally say that being forcibly institutionalized is not always the answer, and the way that a lot of facilities handle people does not work well with people who are already hurting emotionally.
Locking somebody in a metal room with no clothing besides a gown that’s hardly covering them is not humane. Medicating somebody to the point of them feeling numb and then releasing them back into society with zero coping skills is not an appropriate way to handle it either.
The goal with my organization is to cause enough commotion that the world will listen.
To make so many people comfortable with something that’s typically an uncomfortable topic. That the people in charge who can make decisions within society and the system…those people listen, make, and force changes. People are dying every day at their own hands and it’s one of the least talked about topics.
Children in Elementary School are taking their lives due to bullying and treatment they are experiencing at home, yet nobody is talking about it and nobody’s doing anything. As a mom of three, my heart breaks every single time I read a story like that because I can’t imagine my children feeling so alone at such a young age that they feel the need to take their own life.
My Message Of Hope
My message is this: Stay. No matter what you’re going through, no matter what your brain is telling you. Stay.
There will be a day that these changes happen but I cannot get these changes to happen alone. There will be a day that life gets better and YOU ALL deserve to see life get better but you have to stay.
Times may be hard and things may get dark but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I know you’re saying ‘but the light is so far Tiffany…’ I know, but you will never get to the light at the end of the tunnel by staying in the same place.
You have to keep walking. It’s okay to take a break, it’s okay to rest, but you cannot stay in that dark place without moving forward.
You have to stay and keep going. You are worthy of a better life. You are worthy of a better mental health standpoint. You are worthy of happiness and all the good things you want in life.
You deserve to be here..and you are somebody’s somebody. Your existence matters. Your life matters. Your feelings MATTER. YOU MATTER.
You may feel like no one cares but I’m telling you right now, I care.
That’s exactly why I’m doing what I’m doing. If people can hate for no reason at all, then I can LOVE YOU and every other person reading this, because you deserve that.
Signed, with love.
Tiffany (skyway girl)”
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