The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Freshman Rep. Wild turns grief from partner’s suicide into a new purpose

Rep. Susan Wild arrived in Washington last fall advocating for labor issues and health care for her pro-union constituency. This fall, she’ll add suicide prevention and mental health care to her agenda. (Matt Rourke/AP)
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ALLENTOWN, Pa. — The life-altering phone call came the Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend.

Rep. Susan Wild, a freshman Democrat from this industrial Pennsylvania district, was home preparing for a week of constituent meetings, a town hall and a cookout she and her longtime partner, Kerry Acker, were hosting later that day when he returned from a stay in New York.

But Wild’s plans for the weekend — and for her congressional career and life — changed the minute she answered the call from a restricted number: A police officer told her Acker had died by suicide.

The next few days were a blur for Wild, one of just a few lawmakers who have lost their spouses or partners while serving in Congress. She thought it didn’t make sense: While Acker had struggled with depression, he seemed fine when Wild spoke to him Friday night. 

The two had made a grocery list for their barbecue and discussed an episode of “Alpha House,” an old comedy show about three congressmen who were roommates. At 5:30 that morning, before he took his life, Acker texted Wild telling her how much he loved her. 

“I was just walking kind of around in a state of shock,” Wild said in an interview. “Disbelief — you just go through disbelief. . . . I don't feel like I've really dealt with this.”

Wild arrived in Washington last fall advocating for labor issues and health care for her pro-union constituency, after flipping a GOP-held, blue-collar district and quickly developing a reputation as an upbeat workhorse. Now, due to a cruel twist of fate, Wild is adding one more policy item to her portfolio: suicide prevention and mental health.

The 62-year-old former lawyer, who has kept a relatively low profile in the House, will step cautiously into the spotlight this September, which is suicide prevention month. Turning her grief into a purpose, she’s crafting mental health legislation and organizing events to spread awareness and help people in crisis.

“We still have such a stigma in this society, not only about suicide . . . but also about mental health care,” Wild said. “I felt like if I use my public platform to talk about it, and also if I sort of took what I'm going to call the risk of talking about something so personal . . . it would make others feel like it was more accepted to talk about it and to acknowledge, whether it's them or their family member.”

At first, Wild didn’t speak publicly about what happened, considering it personal. But a month after the tragedy, when Wild opened up during a late-night speech on the House floor about how Acker had died, the video went viral and prompted an outpouring of people thanking her for sharing her story. Wild realized that thousands were quietly struggling, spurring her to act.

Freshman Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) spoke June 25 about suicide and the death of her partner, Kerry Acker, saying, "Removing the stigma cannot just be a slogan." (Video: C-SPAN)

One man from Iowa, who was contemplating suicide, called Wild to tell her that he saw her speech on Twitter and had changed his mind. “I realized I can’t do it to my wife,” he told her. A prominent leader in her community reached out to share his own closely kept story about his mom’s suicide. And a former NFL player who almost took his life connected with her office to team up on awareness events.

“[My wife] stopped me in my tracks and said, ‘Hon, you’ve got to see this,’” said Fred Stokes, an ex-Los Angeles Rams and Washington Redskins player who caught Wild’s speech on TV. “I just connected . . . I just saw myself being that guy that had been that close. That could have been me. My wife could have been somewhere . . . sharing about me.”

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Wild’s experience also offers a glimpse into an unofficial support system created by House women. She said her work — and her colleagues — helped carry her through the difficult times. Fellow freshmen stepped up to help Wild with events. Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) and Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who lost husbands while serving in office, lent a shoulder for her to cry on.

Wild met Acker in law school, where he graduated at the top of their class then joined a Wall Street firm. They reconnected in 2002 and had been together since then, with Acker keeping partial residences in New York and Pennsylvania. 

Acker’s struggle with depression started a few years later after a surgery unexpectedly induced chronic pain. While secure financially and surrounded by loving family, some things that were once enjoyable in his life, like running five miles a day, were no longer possible, taking a toll on him.

Wild’s political career, however, brought him great joy. A politico who volunteered on the Obama campaign, Acker was Wild’s top political confidant. He kept her abreast of current events while she was busy on the campaign trail. And after she was elected, he was eager to discuss everything from Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) bid to reclaim the House speaker’s gavel to headlines being made by her more-famous colleagues, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

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Acker was there when Wild took her oath of office. And at a celebration following the event, he acted as the “master of ceremonies” in her new office, she recalled. “It was kind of like we were doing this together,” Wild said.

When Acker started to slide back into depression, Wild didn’t know how bad it had gotten. During rough patches, he’d talk about how he might be better off dead or express concerns of never conquering his demons — but those moments came and went. The two were also set to embark on a new chapter: Acker would be moving out of his part-time New York residence at the end of May; the couple were looking at houses on Capitol Hill, already discussing furniture. 

When the news hit, Wild’s colleagues pulled together for her. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.), another female freshman, subbed in for Wild at a veterans’ event on Memorial Day. Calls and texts also trickled in as word quietly spread. Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) checked on Wild regularly. The Obama family sent flowers. 

And the mountains of cards Wild has yet to finish reading started piling up. Republicans, including Reps. Van Taylor (Texas), Virginia Foxx (N.C.) and later French Hill (Ark.), reached out. “They were just amazing; they just enveloped me with warmth and hugs,” Wild said of her colleagues. 

Wild coped by keeping busy with work. She shocked her staff by insisting she would still attend a town hall scheduled three days after Acker’s death, though the event got canceled due to a tornado warning. And when she returned to Washington a week later, Wild jumped back into her typical schedule, working behind the scenes on labor and trade matters and muscling support for a Social Security amendment that would pass in June.

“I was just putting one foot in front of the other,” Wild said. “The blessing is, [as a busy lawmaker,] you don't really have time to curl up in a fetal position and, you know, and cry it out and really tend to your grieving process. . . . The curse is the same thing — maybe there needs to be more of that.”

When the one-month anniversary of Acker’s death was approaching, Wild decided she was ready to go public with a floor speech she had prepared for days but held off delivering, afraid she’d break down. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Mich.), a close friend, organized members to stand in the chamber for support.

Wild spoke about Acker as well as the 47,000 suicides and 1.4 million suicide attempts in the United States in 2017, the most recent numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “To anyone out there who is struggling, I’m urging you to reach out,” Wild said tearfully. “There are people who love you and who will suffer more than you know if they lose you.”

A sea of arms enveloped Wild in hugs and told her how brave she was when she finished. “It didn’t feel brave,” she said of that moment. “It just felt like something I needed to do.”

Speaking in her office in late August, it’s clear the wounds from Acker’s death are still fresh. Wild did not cry and smiled throughout constituent events, but during the interview, she acknowledged a sense of nagging guilt as she wonders if she could have done more to save Acker.

“I like to think I've always been a good listener, particularly to constituents and people who want to share problems with me,” she said. “But I think — probably because I beat myself up some for feeling like I didn't listen carefully enough to things that he was telling me — I find myself really trying to hear if there's a hidden message in what something somebody tells me.” 

In the coming weeks and months, Wild envisions legislation making insurance companies cover mental health care the same way they would a physical ailment. She’s already working with Veterans Affairs secretary on veteran suicide prevention. And her office is also planning September events that will address supporting families through crisis — one will even feature Stokes.

“I'm grateful to have this very challenging, rewarding job. I think that if I had still been practicing law down the street here in Allentown, I think it would have been really, really difficult for me to function,” Wild said. The opportunity to make something of her sorrow has helped, she said. “It’s therapeutic.”

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