Five and a half years ago my best friend died suddenly. It was a shock only superseded seconds later by the discovery that she had taken her own life. She was thirty-five, beautiful, funny, well-liked, extremely intelligent, had an incredible sense of style and was living silently, painfully, with the devastation that is mental illness.
I miss her every day.
We grew up together in a small New England town. Went to high school together. Roomed together in college. She was my bridesmaid. My daughter’s godmother. My sister friend. After college, I moved across the country in pursuit of my dreams and she supported me and visited as much as she could, which was a lot as she worked for an airline. She flew me back home often and we spent every glorious summer with our tight-knit Boston Irish families north of the city. And one summer, our last, the one that I go back to in my mind over and over again, I noticed that while my life was propelling forward, my dreams coming true, a fabulous husband and kids and work it seemed like she’d come to a bit of a standstill. She wasn’t married, had no kids and was working but not loving it. I noticed she seemed to be isolating herself a bit more from social settings, from past activities, from life. Not a lot, but a little. Just enough for me to notice and to now feel tormented about. As I dissect that summer and every moment we spent together: every drink we tossed back, every fatty breakfast we devoured nursing well-earned hangovers, every argument we had over my at times bitchy sense of humor or her indecisiveness about men, or what to wear, or what to order, or whether or not the headaches she was having meant she had a tumor or if the hangnail she had was actually a sign of Cancer or if the man sitting next to her on the subway had given her Hepatitis-C I scream out in my mind - “Why didn’t you say something?!” Thing is, she’d always been a bit of a hypochondriac. It was kind of her ‘thing’ and we would laugh at the absurdness of each declaration and her worried expression would give way to a smile and then a hearty laugh and all was right in our world again. I didn’t know. Of course I didn’t recognize that deep, way deep down inside of her she was beginning to believe what that voice in her head was telling her.
Well, California, my dreams, my responsibilities beckoned to me as it always does and late that August I packed up, bracing myself for the worst part of summer, saying goodbye to home, family, friends, my best sister friend. On the morning of my last day she came over to wish me well, give me a Dunkin’ Donuts Iced Coffee and cry a little with me as was tradition. She had her hair tied up tight in a bun and wore a strapless sundress over her now tanned skin and flip flops. Even though she told me she hadn’t slept in a few days, she was so adorable. Petite and lovely and the complete opposite of my nearly six-foot frame and yummy, squishy bits. The yin to my yang. I love remembering her that way. I choose that and not the way that I would the very next and last time I saw her several weeks later, laying peacefully in her casket, guarded by our friends on the police force with our entire small town surrounding her and her family. My soul screams out in my mind to race back in time, “NO! You are loved! You are not a burden! I am here for you!”
But that’s not our story.
She visits me now and then. In my dreams. In my car when a song plays that reminds me of her. When I see the exact make and model of her obscure car pass me by at the light. In the laughter of my daughter, her goddaughter, all these years later when she and I giggle at something I know my best friend is there laughing along with us. I believe in every sign she sends me. And I believe that with every internet post I read about a suicide or story I hear about someone struggling with mental illness or an individual I don’t even know who I can see is hurting - there is a message urging me to speak up. Urging me to say something. To help someone. To tell everyone to look out for the signs. To spread the message that mental illness is an epidemic affecting our country at a staggering rate and to say fuck the stigma. Ask questions. Be involved. I wrote a book about it, I'm happy to share it. And when I see a brave man like Wentworth Miller speak up and share his triumphant story publicly battling depression in the frenzy of an often cruel and misguided social media forum I am grateful. We are not alone. No one is ever alone. We are loved. And even though I miss my best friend every day I’m still here to say the darkness passes.