The Story of My Person, the Girl Who Is as Sick as I Am
I got a text from her saying she might kill herself tonight. It’s midnight on a Saturday. I’m watching “Dead Poet’s Society” for the first time. The text came at the exact point when, in the film, Neil is found dead. The music is slow and eerie, the muted 1989 film quality adding to the ambiance. I’m 17, wrapped up in a cream blanket on my hardwood floor, mourning the death of someone who isn’t even real. I’m already holding my breath when I get the text.
This was not my first brush with suicide, nor my first time talking this friend out of something scary. She had a history of terrors. She was flying in and out of chaos her entire life, figuring it was only a matter of time until she was gone for good. I met her when she was 15 at a boarding school where everyone seemed to show up with too many scars and too much talent.
I don’t remember much of this night, in all honestly. I remember right after Neil died she texted me her plan. This set off alarms in my head. I’d worked for a crisis hotline the year before and knew this meant it was serious. When there’s a plan, it’s more than ideation, and this wasn’t her first attempt. I started to get dizzy, the light dancing around the top of my vision. I forget I’m supposed to exhale for a minute or two, then caught my breath all at once.
There are images from this night, but I don’t remember any details. I’m on the floor in the blanket. I’m in my bed, shaking against my phone screen. I’m on the floor again. I’m back in my bed. I fall asleep with the phone in my hand and a promise from her to lock away the pill bottles and see what happens in the morning.
She’s a musician, a girl who could tick out a melody in five minutes that would sound better than anything from my years of guitar practice. She was different than anyone I’d met before. She was a year younger me but the only person I’d met who was just as sick as I was. Unlike me, she was embracing it. Suicide attempts mixed with cocktails of eating disorders, self-harm, anxiety and depression. We traded stories like game cards and after a month knew more about each other than anyone else.
I’d made friends like this before, girls who were just as scary as I was. These were people who swapped scars like Halloween candy and lived for the idea they were too f**ked up to fix, but my friendships with them never turned out well. They became competitions, destructive games where we’d try to beat each other at this weird, sparkling torture trade. Who is more sick today? Who is really the craziest?
She wasn’t like this. We weren’t trying to win anything. Stuck in the middle of nowhere in negative 30 degrees, we were clinging onto each other for life. In those woods, we weren’t these carbon copied ideas of mental illness. We both knew we were sick and we were both struggling, but that didn’t matter. We were little girls who liked boys (and sometimes girls) and wanted peanut butter and Snickers bars. Our illnesses were on the back burner until they couldn’t be avoided anymore.
This is a story of my person. It’s not a story of our illnesses or of our sad pasts. It’s a story of the girl who saved my life just by being.
A year later, she’s helping me hide the scars on my wrist in chemistry class. I’ve relapsed after more than a year without hurting myself and I’m scared sh*tless someone will notice. The fluorescent lights feel like they’re burning a hole through my thick sweater and while I thank God it’s too cold for short sleeves, I still think people will notice. She holds my hand under the desk in class and when our scars brush up against each other, neither of us say anything.
She’s always there. She’ll come storming into my dorm room with a new song or another stupid knock-knock joke she thinks is the funniest thing in the world. Even in our darkest times, we’re together. I’ve been to three high schools at this point and have always struggled to find people willing to stick with me. Outside of my mother, I’ve never before had people I could really rely on to stay by my side. But now she’s always there, and I know somehow this means she always will be. There’s a special kind of love in loyalty.
I find her panicking on her floor with the contents of her dorm thrown across the room. I’m holding her when she’s scared and she starts to shake harder than I knew possible. She’s writing more songs. She’s getting sicker, sicker and sicker, until I’m afraid she’s going to disappear altogether.
The first time she sees me cry is the night before she leaves school. She’s too sick to stay and though it kills me, I know her leaving is the only way she’ll get better. The school doesn’t let you stay in your dorm once you’re leaving. So she’s in a room on the bottom floor of health services. It looks more like a hospital room than a dorm. There are fold up beds and metal bedside tables that look like they’re made to hold dental supplies. The fluorescent lights are still on in the room and the metal doors echo with the footsteps of the nurses outside. It’s getting late. I know I have to head back to my dorm soon, but I’m too afraid to leave.
Our conversation starts off simple. She’s telling me about her day, who made her angry and who made her smile. Soon two other friends join us in the room, and within seconds the only sound coming from the room is sobbing. We’re sticky messes of salt water and cotton. We’re clutching onto each other in a huddle on this goddamn fold up bed. I brush some of her hair that she dyed chocolate brown out of her eyes, noticing the way her wispy blonde roots are growing in at the top. At this moment, I’m afraid she’ll be the first person I love to die.
She calls me from the airport the day she flies home. I get the call while sitting with a group of people at the cafe on campus and rush out into the snowy air to pickup the call. She’s having a panic attack at baggage claim. Her words are choppy and I can barely make out what she’s saying. I’m on the floor. I can’t feel my legs. What if my dad got into a car accident! He’s dead. Oh my God, he’s dead. I start to have a panic attack alongside her, teeth chattering while I remind her to breathe in and out and count the breaths over the phone.
I’m at a loss. There’s nothing I can do to help her. I can’t wrap her in my sweaters. I can’t give her tea and read her a poem. I can’t play a sappy childhood song. I’m outside of a cafe 2,000 miles away and I want to throw up, scream or break the f*cking phone, but I can’t. I can’t do any of that. She’s hyperventilating and I have to sit down because I’m afraid I’ll pass out otherwise. At this point, I no longer remember what it feels like not to be worried about someone.
There’s no real ending to this story. Now, she’s in treatment and can’t communicate outside of the facility. I’m starting a new chapter and hoping my sicknesses will forgive me. Maybe this is a part of my anxiety, but I’ve never been good with telling people how much they mean to me. I write letters when I know I won’t see someone for a long time. I did that for her the night she left, but I was so wrecked I don’t even remember what I said. I gave her one of my old sweaters, but it didn’t feel like enough. So maybe this piece is another way of thanking her. Thanking her for being one of the most powerful parts of my life. Through her, I’ve learned how to love unconditionally. I’ve learned loyalty is possible. I’ve learned how to hold someone the way they need me to. I’ve learned illnesses can heal.
When I miss her, I listen to her music. She’s got this one lyric: Don’t you know that these are the best days of our lives. Out of context, it sounds like it could be a line from a world of John Hughes’ endings and bottle blonde prom queens. But in this case, it’s not. She’s begging for happiness from someone she doesn’t even know how to love. She’s asking to have the best days of her life. The days she grew up expecting to happen when she was a teenager.
So many people say their youth was the best time of their lives. They say high school was the “make or break” chapter and college was the most fun they’d ever had. I need her to know this doesn’t have to be the case. She’s not, we’re not, missing the best days of our lives because we’re sick. We’re just healing so we can make it to our own best day and we’ll get there. I promise, we will. This detour will only last a matter of time.
This post originally appeared in The Odyssesy Online.