I'm one of those people who has an obsessive mind, which might explain how I'm able to write full novels in a short period of time. I focus on one thing really hard, and I have to get it done, resolved, or taken care of before my mind can rest. Once I fixate on something, it's pretty difficult to get anything else accomplished in my life until that whatever-it-is is off my plate. This goes for everything, not just writing projects: needs, wants, desires, tasks…you name it…once it's on my radar, it doesn't come off until I've dealt with it in one way or another.
Sometimes this obsessive personalty issue is a great thing (lots of books!), and sometimes it's a not-so-great thing. Recently, I realized just how bad it can get, to not be able to let something go from my head.
On March 23, 2017, my son's godmother and a dear friend of mine took her own life.
She was one year older than me at 49, and had three beautiful children, one of whom is named after me and another who was born a few days before my middle child. The day my friend called to tell me she was pregnant with her third child, I was dialing her number to tell her I was pregnant with my second.
Since I found out about her suicide, I have not been able to think of anything else. I can't work, I can't eat, I can't sleep. I cry randomly throughout the day. I'm up at 2 a.m. every morning feeling lost and confused, without purpose. I cannot even imagine how her children or husband are managing. We have so many questions, and the only person who can answer them is gone. This is not the same grief I suffered at my grandmother's passing in February. She was 96 and died of old age; she lived a long and adventurous life. But my friend cut her own life short when she was healthy and young, with so much to live for. It didn't make any sense.
Yesterday, one of her daughters asked me to tell her some stories about her mom, things I remembered about her, something she could share with her siblings. They want to know her as much as they can, since they will never have the opportunity to learn more about her firsthand. It broke my heart to think of my own children needing to go to near-strangers to know me. And it took over my brain. What could I tell them about their mom that they might not already know? That they would want to know? That they should know? And what should I keep from them…memories their mom might have preferred to keep to herself?
I'm in the unique position of having known their mom as a non-family friend in her younger years, when we were in our early 20s, before I had children and when her first two were very young. Her life was very different then. I was one of the few people outside her family circle who knew her well. Being a stay-at-home mom for most of her younger life, she didn't get to meet many ‘outsiders' and connect with them on a very personal level. I was definitely an outsider; I came from the other side of the country with a different mindset and attitude than she was used to. We bonded immediately when we met at a company training where we'd both been recently hired. We were kindred spirits.
I couldn't get her death–her choice to take her own life–out of my head. I couldn't get the conversations we'd had out of my head, the memories, visions of her face, her laughter. The reel of our friendship was a loop going round and round and round. I kept asking her spirit: why, why, why did you do this? How could you? What happened? But I didn't get any answers. I was hoping beyond hope and praying that her ghost would appear and tell me it was all going to be okay, to explain…but the only thing going on was that loop in my head…still going, going, going. My obsessive brain was functioning at full capacity. It was 2:30 a.m. and I was up again, my mind unsettled and my heart hurting. There was only one thing I knew how to do at that point, so I swung my legs off the bed and put my feet on the floor.
I'm a novelist, and since writing is what I do, I got up and walked into the next room to face a blank screen and a blinking cursor. It didn't take long before I started hammering away at the keyboard. After the first few words were put to screen, more came. Memories rolled out of the deep recesses of my mind covered in dust and grit. I remembered things long forgotten. A clearer picture of my friend began to appear, one that hadn't been there in the days since learning of her suicide.
Maybe it's natural to think of only the good things you miss about a woman and how kind and selfless she was when you hear of her death. You easily forget the more human side of her, the fallible side, the one that's not as shiny or perfect. My first thoughts of my friend created a one-dimensional view of her that made her passing that much more tragic in my heart. How could such a selfless, lively, beautiful person choose to end her life?
But as I wrote these things down, these events and conversations we shared, a slightly different picture of my friend emerged…she took on more dimension, more depth. For the first time, I saw more clearly the sadness she carried in her life, even all those years ago before we had wrinkles and sagging body parts. I saw the things I'd missed or dismissed as inconsequential details of a ‘normal' life because I'd been so wrapped up on my own little problems. I saw that my friend had been depressed for a really long time, that she'd put everyone else's happiness ahead of her own, but had cleverly covered up her pain with jokes, laughter, and casual comments meant to brush away concern.
For women especially, this world can be really tough. We are trained from early on to sacrifice for husband and children, to put others' needs first, to suck it up buttercup and to not persist or resist. To not sacrifice means to risk social castigation and pariah status with family and friends. How many times have we heard these words attributed to women who prioritize themselves or stand up against poor treatment: selfish, bad mother, bossy, abrasive, slut, nag, aggressive, shrill, neglectful? There's a price we pay for playing along, because we are only human. No one can keep on taking hits to the chin and not eventually fall to the floor. And if you fall to the floor enough times, you might just choose to stay down. It's called survival.
I think my friend chose to stay down for years and years and years…and then couldn't get back up again, even with the help of religion, family, and friendship. Not that suicide ever makes sense…I don't want to say that…but after I wrote that three-page commentary on our friendship, I began to see how a person might become quite sad with her life, how she might look back after 49 years and feel a depression set in that no amount of love for children, God, or family could overcome. To lose oneself is the ultimate death. I believe my friend felt like she had already died somehow, that whatever life she had left in her wasn't worth anything anymore. She was wrong about that, but now I can imagine how she might have seen it that way.
I am left with a feeling of remorse so profound I cannot adequately express it in words. I grieve for my friend and the loneliness she endured, even while surrounded by loving family. I grieve for her children who will have to grow up and continue on without her, with questions that will always remain unanswered. I grieve for her husband and family members who will no doubt question whether they could have stopped this from happening. And I'm angry at myself for not being a better friend, for not reaching out more often, for not staying in touch with the wonderful person who I connected with so very long ago.
And yet, I have a greater understanding of her as a person and the choice she made, through my own writing. It's helped me to see why she might have chosen to walk away from the pain instead of continuing to fight against it. It doesn't make it less sad or less tragic, but it makes it easier for me to understand how a person who has so much, can sometimes feel they have so little. It's helped me sleep an extra hour tonight, and it's helped me to see my horses standing there with their kind eyes and heavenly smell, communicating to me that it's going to be okay…we are all going to move on eventually and that's okay. I couldn't see or hear them for days, the sadness I was feeling taking over every inch of my head and heart. But I hear them now. I see what they see. Life is so very temporary. I will be with my friend again, and when I am, I will envelope her in my love like I should have when she was here on Earth with me.
The pain that has come with the loss of my friend will never go away completely, but I feel my mind coming back to my family, to my writing, and to my life. Writing through my pain has helped me realize the valuable lesson my dear friend has taught me…about the importance of reaching out to people who seem unhappy and about the importance of maintaining connections with people we love. Life gets busy, but it should never be so much so that we ignore the needs of the special people around us. And if you're suffering, why not sit down with pen and paper or at the computer and giving writing a try?
If someone you care about is depressed, please don't let them suffer in silence. Here is a great website with lots of information on what you can do to help your friend or family member: https://www.helpguide.org/articles/suicide-prevention/suicide-prevention-helping-someone-who-is-suicidal.htm
If you're thinking about taking your own life, of killing yourself, please take a moment read Suicide Help or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) in the U.S.. To find a suicide helpline outside the U.S., visit IASP or Suicide.org. There are people out there who can help you. All you have to do is reach out. And if you can't reach out to any of these places for whatever reason, reach out to me. My personal email is firstname.lastname@example.org. I care about you. You are important. The problems you are facing right now are temporary. You can do great things with your life. I suffered from depression when I was younger and after the birth of one of my children. I made it through and I have a beautiful life that I am so very grateful for. Please don't give up. Just reach out.