Together We Are Stronger
By: Krysta Kearney
“The mind frame of, not in my family, not my child, not my this, not my that…we have to get rid of that, I didn’t expect to be here.”
Jolee Hicks is a fighter. Her resilience empowers her to accept herself and others, face the harsh truth of life's realities and be adaptable to move forward. She has devoted her life to being the best wife and mother that she can be, always going above and beyond, not just for her own family but for others too. On February 11th, of 2019 she experienced what no parent should ever endure in their lifetime, she and her husband received a phone call that her son Macoy passed away from a mental health battle that resulted in suicide. From that day forward, the Hicks family (Herself, husband Michael and daughter Sienna) have become even stronger together and with the support of each other, have channeled their energy and grief into starting a nonprofit called #HicksStrong. Now, almost two years later, since the August 2019 launch of their foundation, they have helped many military lives overcome mental health battles. Since Macoy was an active navy member the main goal of #HicksStrong is to connect military members with licensed therapists in the mental health field.
“We are driven to change the military suicide epidemic by removing the red tape and shortening the gap between serviceman and therapist. Together we can help stop the military service members suicide epidemic and eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health in the military.” - HicksStrong website
Moxxi had the opportunity to sit down with Hicks in mid July as she was approaching a big weekend that was for sure to be filled with all the emotions you can think of; grief, praise and tribute. The particular weekend was packed full of events and moments that surround #HicksStrong and the love and memoriam of Macoy. Later that evening, she and her husband would attend a dinner where they would meet for the first time, in person, their attorney who is working on their case about the mistreatment of their son by the navy. He is also a commander in the military and traveled all the way from Washington state to be a key speaker at a conference on a military base in Newburgh, NY that would be taking place the next day. One of his speeches would be about Macoy’s story, which was to be presented in front of hundreds of military members. The Hicks’ were invited to attend this event as well, so as one could imagine when we sat down with Hicks, she had a lot on her plate. On top of that, the following Monday marked the birthday of their son, who if still alive, would be turning 23.
So of course, emotions were high and it was a very heavy week for both she and her family. When interviewing Hicks, she was very honest and open about her current emotional state and feelings. The day prior, she was not ok. She had a mental breakdown. Wouldn’t anyone at some point with all of that going on? She told Moxxi that she was an emotional wreck, there had been so much build up leading to this weekend and with the conference and the birthday, everything came to head, all the memories, the grief, the feelings of sadness, anxiety and stress.
“A lot of people see my smile, and our smile, my husband and my daughter, and people say you’re so strong, you're so strong! Well we have to be, we have no choice.”
The day prior to interviewing her, she basically had a panic attack. Her husband calmed her, made her go outside and encouraged her to take deep breaths. Instantly, she felt much better but knew she had to mentally check out for the day and went to her friend's house to drift in the pool. She has good days and bad days.
“Yesterday while driving to my friend's house I passed by these MAC trucks and there was this feeling….I’m not suicidal and I don’t feel suicidal but I can see how people get suicidal. I was thinking yesterday...this is crazy, how could I pass by a truck yesterday and feel like ramming into it? I don’t wanna die! Suicide is not that you want to die…(we are actually going to start giving courses on that.) I couldn’t do that because I’m a suicide survivor and I know how hard and how difficult this is, and it sucks. I’m struggling with the balance of life.”
After being at her friend's house, she felt so much better, having swam in a pool and chatted with someone, being outside…it’s all she needed. Hicks stressed the importance of understanding that one day you will have a bad day but the next day might be absolutely wonderful and something inspiring might happen. In times when you may be feeling down, you need to remember that there are brighter days in the future. A long time ago, she had written a short story about the struggle behind the smile and how it carries through life. Once at an old job a coworker who she hardly knew said randomly in passing, ‘What’s wrong with you, what are you hiding?’ She didn’t understand for years and it sat with her. Now, years later she understands what he met. She does struggle behind her smile, but differently than he had implied. She doesn’t smile to hide her emotions, in his head she couldn’t be that happy unless she was hiding something, which to her, is so sad. She wasn’t hiding anything, it’s just her, she is just someone who smiles!
“My smile is not hiding anything, it’s just who I am. Am I hurting, am I grieving, yes….and yesterday yeah, I had a meltdown, but I knew I was going to get through it, I just have to keep moving and also remember to self care.”
A day like ‘yesterday’, was one that she had to take for herself, allow herself to feel and understand that emotions are going to come. It was filled with self doubt and uncertainty. Whereas the next day she was able to sit down with Moxxi and confidently say the Hicks family is doing ok, #hickstrong is doing ok, that she is doing ok! She realizes she can’t fester in grief and she doesn’t want people to pity her. She does hope though, by being vocal that people recognize the up and down struggle and can find comfort in familiarizing in it if they too are grieving. ‘Yesterday’ she may not have been ok, but today she is, and that happens with everybody in life, each and every day presents it’s challenges and triumphs. It’s something that people need to be more open about and speak of rather than hiding behind their smile. We all need to be more open about our feelings and share our thoughts. Unspoken issues can’t be resolved, there is strength in voice.
“Macoy is gone...he is gone. You can never bring him back. There are so many things that will be missed in life, our daughter will never be an aunt, she will never have cousins for her kids, on and on, we won’t have his grandchildren but you know...I can’t sit in that. I just can’t.”
Grief comes in many forms and is different for every person. Hicks realizes that everyone grieves differently. Even herself, her husband and daughter do. They are never quite on the same page. Although respectful of each other, it can sometimes be very difficult. You can’t ever totally read what someone else is feeling. She knows for her, in her own process of grieving, she needs to be proactive and help others that are grieving too.
“Prior to losing Macoy, I had lost my grandparents and my husband's father, and other people…lastly, we lost my husband’s grandmother, she was in her 90’s. I don’t think about her death day, it's so morbid and awful. It’s different with Macoy because he wasn’t supposed to die, he wasn’t supposed to be gone, it wasn’t expected, he wasn’t old. Losing someone at twenty or any younger age, it's just different. It’s just not right.”
Even now at the family dinner table, they will be having a conversation and naturally turn to ask Macoy’s opinion, only to realize that there is an empty chair sitting in front of them. It’s so natural to think he is still there and that he will show up at any time. For them, it feels like he is just away, that he will be back to visit soon. He should still be there, as it should have never happened, his life was taken too soon, it’s unjust. As a parent, the pain is excruciating. After spending so many years nurturing the life of this person, the reality of them being gone is always going to be heart-wrenching, but how do you survive it? How do you take that pain and channel the energy? It’s about making a commitment to living and continuing to dedicate yourself to their legacy.
“People say it never gets better, it just changes, it just gets different. The fog has lifted and it’s just different. They were right.”
They lost Macoy on February 11, 2019. That March, some women who go to her church invited her to Piece D’Occasion, which is a local pottery studio where people can go and paint on functional pottery. At that point, the three of them hadn’t left each other at all, it was the first outing that she went to. She felt comfortable with the ladies, it was a safe place for her to go where she didn’t feel judged or that people were staring at her or wanting to converse with her. As she was painting she began to cry, and continued to let the tears stream down her face. For the longest time, it was hard for the Hicks to go anywhere, even people they didn’t know would say something to them. They didn’t want to see people, their grief was hard enough already. Of course she knew that people were providing support, but it was hard. Piece d’Occasion was a place that she could be herself and feel what she needed to feel.
“So I went to Piece d’Occasion and I’m painting this thing that says FAMILY, and I’m like, WOW, this is so therapeutic this is amazing.”
She continued to go all of the time and attend classes. At first, she brought her daughter, then later her husband and in a way it became their therapy. During that time she had spoken to one of Macoy’s shipmates and asked, ‘What is something that every sailor wants or needs?’ She responded with, ‘A hug.’ So, she took it upon herself to figure out a way to get hugs to military members. She, her husband, daughter and the other women from Piece d’Occassion all got together and started creating what they call Hug Mugs. That’s when everything started and the idea began to paint mugs for military members, it’s as close as she could get to giving a hug. They named them mugs Hug Mugs and now 1,000’s of mugs have been given away. Every one of them is painted differently, they all say hug mug somewhere and #hicksStrong but all have their own unique character. Now, they also offer support mugs which are available for purchase on their website, so people can gift them to military members. Hug Mugs are for military members. Support mugs (together we are stronger) are for and can be purchased for/by civilians. All proceeds go to #HicksStrong.
“They go to a military member for free and it’s our way of saying, ‘We love you. You matter and here’s a hug for you.’ And that’s how #HicksStrong started.”
So, why the name #HicksStrong? Through the years, when the going got tough as a family, they would chant, Hicks Strong or, We are Hicks Strong. It’s crazy that is where it started, little did they know what a huge impact it would become. The mugs are given to both active duty military members and veterans. They are super unique, fun, bright and have a feeling of inspiration.
#HicksStrong goes beyond the mugs. They link military members who are struggling with mental health with therapists through telehealth. The director of mental health reaches out to people and finds them a therapist that is right for them. It doesn’t matter where anybody is, the services work from anywhere. As of now, they cover all of the therapy costs but know they need to revamp that soon, as they can’t continue to afford covering all costs. ‘Yesterday,’ that same day that Hicks was struggling emotionally, her husband got a call from someone who was trying to help a friend and said that #HicksStrong came highly recommended to him by a senator.
“Here I am questioning, are we doing the right thing, is it ok...can we sustain it and all these things, and then we get this phone call saying you’ve been highly recommended by a senator. (huge sigh)”
Most days, it’s therapeutic for them to help others. In times like ‘yesterday’, it isn’t therapeutic. When it becomes a stressor for their family...that’s a problem. So, recently she has been figuring out the best ways to make the nonprofit more successful both for the mission and the integrity of their family. She found herself living, eating and breathing #HicksStrong. Noone can sustain under those pressures. As they grow, they take on more and she needs to find the right balance. You can’t help others if you aren’t helping yourself.
On top of all she does, Hicks has an underlying health condition that limits a lot of her physical and mental capabilities. She has multiple autoimmune diseases and was diagnosed when she was 26 but thinking back, she likely had them to some degree her entire life. At the time she was diagnosed, they had two young kids, she was working; was a busy young mother and supportive wife. It was hard to accept the realities of her condition and instead of accepting what was going on, she stayed in denial and kept moving along with life. It then got to the point that she couldn’t drive anymore, physically it hurt and there was a disconnect in her brain, she couldn’t comprehend all the little things that you do while driving. It was like she couldn’t multitask, it became unsafe for both her and others. Then her body started to give and her thyroid started to completely shut down. Suddenly, (and very quickly) she was in the early stages of dementia. These days she is doing a lot better but for years she couldn’t leave the house without a wheelchair. Now she can usually get by with a cane, yet sometimes still needs it. The first three years of being sick she ran a temperature literally 24/7.
“What happens is, if it goes one degree up, my body shuts down. It’s almost like my lights go out and I can't function and I cant talk and I can't think, so like driving or being out in public by myself is scary.”
To say the least, it’s hard to cope with. Thankfully, her family has a good sense for when an ‘episode’ is going to happen, they pick up on the small nuances that change in her demeanor and her physical characteristics. When she was first diagnosed, it was hard as a wife and a mother. She wanted to continue providing for them, be the best mother she could be, do all the things that she was able to do prior to being diagnosed. As far as she and her husband, she struggles because she wants to be his wife and partner, she doesn’t want him to be her caregiver. Through all the years, he has been loyal and has never left her side. Talk about some real love! They’ve been together forever, don’t know life without each other, are highschool sweethearts, they literally have spent their whole adult existence side by side. She was 17 when she became pregnant with Macoy. Being disabled has presented so many challenges in their marriage. Prior to being diagnosed, she was a very independent person and took pride in the accomplishments she did on her own but through the years she has managed to learn to let go of certain things, to make their lives work with what they have.
The Hicks’ grew up in the Newburgh, NY area and then moved to Ohio so that Mike could go to college. Macoy was nine months old at the time. Sienna was born in Ohio. 911 happened, her grandmother passed, her dad passed, then her nana passed and it was just all too much to cope with living so far from family. She wanted to come home, well, not be in Newburgh but close enough to do a day trip and visit when desired. In June of 2002, they moved back to the beautiful state of NY. Originally they moved to Sullivan county, her husband worked for BOCES, then GE offered him a job, so they moved to the capital region. Years later, the kids graduated from South Colonie high school, and after Macoy passed, they moved to Clifton Park. Memorial Day weekend of 2019 they closed on the house they currently live in and have now been there for two years.
Prior to Hicks being on disability, she worked for a workers comp company. Now she works diligently on #HicksStrong but unfortunately, most of her work is done from bed. She has days where she can’t even get out of bed, or might only have the capability of showering. Thankfully most of her work can be done from her phone but it’s also hard for her to ever shut it out. No matter what she is doing, she is always somewhat working. She feels that there is so much more to be done but there is only so much she can do because of her health.
“I went on disability in the fall of 2016 and I was completely bedridden for three years, like I could barely walk from our bed to our bathroom. Mike would have to shower and dress me, a trip to the doctor would be it, I wouldn’t be able to function for two weeks. Now, today i’m able to shower and do laundry and talk to you, I just have to be very careful of not overdoing it.”
She joked that the director of mental health said, ‘You do more work on your bad days than most people do on their good days.’ So where does this drive come from? Most of it has to do with Macoy and what she needs to do for her family.
“Being bedridden, it’s awful and you know I’m just 41. It’s become our life and it’s been our life for almost 20 yrs (which is crazy to say) but I struggle the most with being in bed because my mind is ready to go. So when I can do things, I want to conquer the world, save the world.”
With all of this, she herself, has struggled with mental health. She notes that with having a chronic illness, in the autoimmune world, doctors tend to tell patients that they are fine, that a lot of it is in their head. It makes it so much harder, that there isn’t this one thing that can just make you feel better or make all of your problems go away. Recently she has been doing so much better, but it makes it even harder for her when she bounces back.
“Because I’ve been doing so well, hitting that wall hits harder. Because I was like, ‘Dammit I was doing so good, why is this happening?’ And then it spins into, ‘Is this just a few hours of rest and I will be ok? Or is this a two week shut down, or is this a three year shut down?’ It spins and it's hard and then I feel like I’m failing, I’m failing as a wife, I’m failing as a mom, I’m failing as me. My husband is so great, he is like, just best.”
Mike helps so much and she doesn’t know where she would be without his partnership and support. It’s so hard because she gets mad about her illness and she will be fuming and he is like, ‘Just take care of yourself and just rest.’ She definitely doesn’t let her autoimmune diseases stop her, by any means. Even when bed ridden, she is mentally hitting the ground running when it comes to #HicksStrong. Never stopping, only figuring out the next best thing that they can do to help people.
“Right now we have more military members dying by suicide than war, and its kinda being talked about but not enough. 22 veterans a day are taking their own lives and that doesn’t even include Macoy because he was active duty.”
As for a bit about Macoy’s story, he was not treated well on his ship. Jolee and Mike knew at the time of his death that he wasn’t but as time has gone on, they have found out more about the mistreatment of their son. As far as they know, the navy didn’t even have a service for him, sailors were told to not speak his name. Macoy’s dealth was the eighth suicide on that ship in a year, there are just a lot of things that don’t add up, that seem very unjust. Now, being involved with helping military members for years, the Hicks’ have been hearing about mistreatment across the branches. It’s not just one branch, its not just women or just men or just black or white, its everybody and it’s terrifying.
In February of 2019, Jolee and Mike were flying out to Washington state for Mike’s job and Macoy was going to be spending time with them when they were out there. He called them right before their flight and said I’m being sent to the Brig (which is a military jail). What they think happened was they approved him to spend time with them initially but last minute, they decided he couldn’t and he lost it. Since he was navy, they had to bring him to an army base, because that’s where the brig is. They were twelve miles away from him when he passed. Yes, twelve miles.
The three of them spoke to him on Thursday night, February 7th and then that Friday she and Mike flew out. They tried so hard to get in touch with him, but nobody would let them or tell them anything. He was found Monday morning deceased. Macoy’s captain saw the Hicks’ while they were out there and told them that he thought that Macoy would be safe there. She was like, ‘You knew we were here and you thought that he would be safe in there?!’ She went on to say that now, as time has gone on, they have learned so many things. It doesn’t add up and they have taken it upon themselves to fight for justice.
“There is just a lot of….(silence), the cameras weren’t working in the cell, they gave him a belt (more silence), hence the attorney that we’re meeting tonight.”
They put a request in for a case in January of 2021, it has yet to be touched. Navytimes, the magazine is publishing a story on Macoy that she thinks will tell a lot abou the truth behind the story of Macoy’s passing.
The fight, the strength, the willingness and desire to push forward that Hicks has is inspiring. All that she has been through, even with her illnesses alone makes her one fearless female. She has managed to take mourning the loss of her child to a place of helping others with their own mental grief. Already, they have helped so many lives and we know that she will only continue to do so for more. Mothers are the most influential people on the planet, they are stronger than themselves. They are what creates and shapes the the generations to come. The work that Hicks is doing is helping to change the mindset behind suicide and raise awarness about mental health. Her own personal slogan is, which is so selfless is, ‘Together we are stronger,’ and she is right it takes all of us to support and rise each other up.
Q + A
What’s next for #HicksStrong?
“We are working on being able to offer workshops as far as anxiety and possibly life workshops, basically.” They plan to go to precincts and churches and schools, really anyone that will listen to them, to teach how to have the conversation. They want to teach people to not be afraid to have the conversation. There are many parents that holdback because they don’t want to tell their kids or talk totem abut it, well, why not? It’s happening everywhere, its on the media, on their phones and tablets.
Are there any quotes you resonate with?
“Together we are stronger” Years ago, it was “It takes a village," and I feel like we need to get back to that, we’ve lost that.”
“Suicide, you don’t want to die, you just want the pain to stop.”
Do you have any inspiring words for active military members that may be struggling mentally?
“For the military members, I say, ‘Be here tomorrow. You matter.’ It’s so huge.”
Do you have words for parents that have children that are coping with a mental illness?
“Talk to your children, listen, watch, look for signs. Signs of change, I don’t mean signs of suicide, I mean signs of change, things that are different, things that have changed their daily routine. There are children as young as five taking their lives. We need to have this conversation. It’s crazy. The biggest thing is, the stigma across the board. Talk about it, say suicide….say it. Because if you ask someone if they’re suicidal it’s not going to make them suicidal, someone needs to be talked to, sometimes you just need to hear, ‘Are you ok? How can I help? Can I sit with you?”
Do you have any words for mothers?
“I have a small group of goldstar moms that I'm connected with. That’s a difficult subject for me because we’re all at different grieving stages. I connect with some but not all because we wouldn’t be helpful for each other. There are some goldstar wives that I connect with, the same thing. There's those that sit in it and can’t get out of it, then there’s us.
What are some things that you do to cope with your grief?
Getting outside, in general. Just walking outside makes a huge difference. I would suggest getting outside.