Sharing her pain to help stop bullying
Friends thought DeeDee Cooper had the perfect life: a budding acting career and a wonderful boyfriend.
In reality, the 20-year-old was a mess, physically and mentally abused by the supposed love of her life.
The American author and motivator recently shared her story with students as part of Chain Reaction Bermuda, a charity working to remove bullying from schools.
“My story shows young people you never really know what someone's going through,” said Ms Cooper, who is now 44. “In my situation these were my closest friends and family who had no idea what was going on because I intentionally kept that from them.
“It's important for students to understand anyone can be in that situation. I grew up in a picture-perfect family and had a strong support system, so I was the last person you'd suspect this to happen to.”
She made up stories about her many bumps and bruises to keep her boyfriend's “controlling, abusive and unhealthy” behaviour a secret.
“We had all just gone through the passing of my father and grandfather,” she said. “They all thought this boyfriend of mine was so wonderful, so I kept up the façade. I kept this mask on for everyone; not being honest about what was happening and what was going on.”
Chain Reaction Bermuda is affiliated with Rachel's Challenge, an American charity created by the family of Columbine High School student Rachel Scott, who was killed in the 1999 shooting. The challenge is based on a code of ethics the teenager wrote shortly before her death.
Ms Cooper stayed with her boyfriend for four years before she reached her breaking point.
“He was ranting and raving and being violent and I looked over and saw my dog in the corner trembling and shaking,” she said. “I didn't think much of myself at that point, but I was concerned enough about my dog to leave.
“I made a promise to Taz, my little Chinese shar-pei, that if we made it to the morning I'd get him out of that.
“I had spent years with someone who told me I was unlovable, no one wanted me and no one would have me — and I eventually started to believe it. That night was the catalyst for me to end that relationship. Taz was the hero of my story.”
She didn't speak about the abuse until a few years ago.
“[Someone] asked me about my background and my life story,” she said. “I usually started off the conversation by saying, ‘You know I went to college, I was an actress and lived in LA', but I felt like I was being fake.
“All I was thinking was, ‘You aren't telling them the truth'. I told him about the moment I left that unhealthy relationship and I remember he said to me, ‘Do you realise how many people you could help if you just get over yourself? You have such a powerful story but you're so concerned about what people think'. It was such a lightbulb moment for me.”
In 2012, she joined Rachel's Challenge.
“When I was introduced to the Scott family and heard about their purpose of creating this safe space, a chain reaction of kindness, a movement for students, I was ready to go at that point,” she said.
“I come from an entire family of helpers — my brother is a therapist, my mom and sister are teachers. It gets instilled in you at an early age you need to give back and help people.”
She has since seen lives change.
“There's no limits to who Rachel's story can reach — no matter the type of environment or the school system, whether it's rural or inner city — and that's something we need in every school,” she said.
“Rachel's Challenge has received over 500 letters from students who take the time to write in and say, ‘I was going to kill myself that day, but you guys showed up at my school and I decided not to'.
“You see a lot of relationships healed by people that want to apologise to their friends or call their parents and tell them they love them. They realise what they do and say makes a huge difference in the lives of others. How we treat people matters. People don't want to leave relationships broken and things unsaid so you see lives changed in so many ways.”
Chain Reaction Bermuda held six-hour presentations last week at CedarBridge Academy, Dellwood Middle School and Whitney Institute Middle School.
Students, counsellors and teachers took part in physical activities and games.
The students were ultimately challenged to start being honest about their struggles when in a safe and healthy environment.
“Young people [should] know it might be someone really close to them that's going through something,” Ms Cooper said. “That's why it's so important we treat people with kindness and compassion because you don't know what's going on behind closed doors. We have to be honest with people rather than spend our lives carrying around the weight that comes with keeping things secret.
“[The presentations are] meant to increase empathy among the students and help them to know that although they are unique, they do share common experiences that they might not think.
“Sometimes you see the ‘cool kid' and you might think they have a normal life and everything is good for them, but once we take part in the exercises they realise they're not alone in this.”
• For more information, visit www.chainreactionbermuda.org