Suicide Took My Best Friend
Without a doubt, the piece below is the single most important and heartfelt thing I’ve ever written. I was assigned this story a year ago for a major print publication to share my story with other women who may have or may end up battling a similar situation. After review, they somehow deemed it too graphic and decided not to publish it. But that hasn’t stopped me.
Today, September 10th, is World Prevention Suicide Day. It is not a day I feel more pain than usual, nor is it a day where I feel less pain. It’s just another day dealing with losing my best friend to mental illness. And it’s another day – a big scale day with the potential to reach thousands – that I can share my story and hopefully change the lives of just one human out there.
The bracelet pictured is from my good friend Kaci at psfortysix.etsy.com. She knew I wanted something to commemorate my friend and serve as a reminder that I was lucky enough to have in her life, so she made one with her name in braille. It just may be the best gift I’ve ever received, ever.
Before going into my story, let me make one thing clear – I will make ZERO dollars off you reading or sharing this article. It won’t bring my best friend back. I only have one wish in sharing this story: for you to take just four minutes out of your busy Thursday to read it. Think on it. Share it if you want. Reach out to a friend and tell him or her how much you love her. Pray for someone struggling. Whatever it is you do, do it. That’s all.
Here goes my story…
My best friend was a raging b*tch.
Turns out there were actually a few medical terms for bitch, such as manic, depressed, and bipolar.
At the time I turned my back on her, I felt totally justified in doing so. Sure it was hard. I missed her everyday and wanted to call and make up, but I stood my ground. I wanted her to apologize and go back to the way things used to be. But she never apologized. That was the last time I spoke to Elizabeth.
She committed suicide.
Knowing what I know now, the guilt is overwhelming, to say the least. I know it wasn’t my fault and I was one of the only ones who stood by her side for so long. We always hear “you’re never promised tomorrow” and see the inspiring image quotes all over Instagram, but who actually thinks it’s a phrase they’ll have to live with for the rest of their lives? I certainly didn’t, but now it’s my reality.
Elizabeth was clinically depressed. I knew that early on in our friendship when we met in college. She was fairly open about her illness, especially since I was her best friend and we shared everything. She’d go through her ups and downs and change medications, but for the most part she always remained the Elizabeth I knew and loved. Even throughout her episodes and serious bouts of depression, she was still the bright-eyed smiling brunette who treated me better than any friend ever had. We talked about her depression only when she brought it up and when prompted I’d offer my own generic advice – something I wasn’t nearly qualified for, but I had no idea the seriousness of her illness. “Hang in there,” and “You’re tough,” or “This too shall pass,” wasn’t what Elizabeth needed.
She needed help from a professional.
One of the things I regret most is not pushing harder to help her find the right help. Clearly it was well above the best friend pay-grade, but that shouldn’t have stopped me. Her parents were fairly active in helping her get better – making sure she went to therapy and being there the best they could, but I’m not sure even they knew how serious it was. I went on family vacations with them and to this day I literally want to beat myself up over why her mother and I never had a heart-to-heart about Elizabeth’s illness.
Why didn’t I ask more questions to understand better? Why didn’t she give me guidance? She always told me how important I was in Elizabeth’s life and how much they appreciated me, but in the end it just wasn’t enough.
No one ever told me what it took to be the best friend of someone battling a mental disease. We were girls – we had our completely crazy moments getting mad over boys, our sorority arguments, borrowed clothes and the like. We’d hang up on each other (back when you could actually dramatically hang up the phone, not like now with cell phones) and all the usual stuff best friends did. Bickering is a part of any relationship, and it was always easy to forget and move on after your typical argument. The problem was, in the height of Elizabeth’s mania, no argument was typical.
When Elizabeth would have one of her episodes she went straight for the jugular. I always took it personally without realizing it was her illness talking or the change in medications, which affected her more than I ever knew.
Months would go by where she was a complete zombie void of any personality whatsoever. The medicine took all the things that made her my best friend. It was miserable because she had such a goofy demeanor and caring soul, and it would just disappear without warning.
Our big fight came when Elizabeth and I went to LA for a girl’s weekend. She was getting over a bad breakup and needed to get away. She even offered to pay for my portion of the trip since money was tight – that was her generous nature that never wavered. (I remember as broke college students, Elizabeth would use her parent’s credit card at the mall for the 5 for $25 panties at Victoria’s Secret and she’d always let me pick out two pairs for myself so I didn’t feel left out.) She always took care of me, but that didn’t make up for the way she treated me on her bad days.
She’d lash out at me out of nowhere. She even slapped me during that trip in LA. I’d had enough. No airline ticket was worth being treated that way. I knew she had just started taking a very high dose of Lithium, but I just assumed it was another medication.
Turns out, Lithium is an extremely toxic mind and body altering drug, especially in the beginning when your dosage isn’t quite set to match your chemical imbalances. It’s a very trial and error and then re-dose kind of drug. It also turns out drinking alcohol on Lithium is one of the biggest no-no’s. The combination of Elizabeth’s mania, the Lithium, and alcohol on that trip turned her not only into a person I no longer knew, but a person I no longer wanted to call my best friend.
At that moment and for months following, it felt justified. I knew I deserved a better friend.
I have reasoned with myself over the last year and have finally realized I’m not to blame for Elizabeth’s illness, her outbursts or her subsequent suicide. But I’ve also realized I should have done more as her friend.
I should have been proactive and learned the side effects of her medications or been in better
contact with her parents as to her current state of mind and emotional well-being. Knowing just a few martinis were the catalyst for losing my best friend forever is probably the hardest thing I’ve had to accept in my life. Had I known alcohol was not good to mix with her medication, I would have happily welcomed an entire weekend in Los Angeles sans the bar scene. My friends always have and always will be more important than any Cosmopolitan, no matter how bonding and friendly it looks on Sex And The City.
I’m not sure anything I could have done would ensure Elizabeth would still be here today, but I do know I could have been by her side until the end. Maybe even holding her hand and telling her how much I loved her. I don’t think there’s any amount of “good friend genes” that can prevent suicide when someone is that sick.
Because let’s be honest – mental illness is a sickness.
Knowing she left this earth without her best friend by her side is something I will always have to live with, but it’s something I’ve wanted to share because if I could go back in time and be a more proactive and understanding friend, I might not feel such immense guilt. I’m sure there are others in similar friendships and I want them to know there are things you can and should do, other than turn your back like I did.
I spoke with Kristen Martinez, a therapist in private practice at Pacific NorthWell in downtown Seattle, who is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor Associate (LMHCA) in Washington State and a National Certified Counselor (NCC). Here are some tips she offered for dealing with a friend suffering from mental illness:
- In order to be a good friend to someone with severe mental health issues, you should first and foremost know what diagnosis they have and what are typical symptoms of the diagnosis. If you know someone well enough or for long enough, you can most likely tell when they are feeling or acting “off” (i.e., their symptoms are acting up).
- It is also helpful to know the medication(s) your friend is taking, as well as symptoms and side effects. If you are very close with them and see them daily (such as a roommate), it is helpful to know their schedule for taking medications so that they don’t accidentally miss a dosage. If the two friends live together, post this information on the fridge or some other common area so it is in plain view of both friends. Also if they live together, keep the friend’s psychiatrist info handy.
- If you are the one with mental health issues, be honest with your friend about how you are feeling or what you are thinking. They care about you and want the best for you. You may need to educate your friend about mental illness. And vice versa, if you are the friend – ask questions, be curious, do your research, but don’t patronize your friend or treat them differently just because they now have a diagnosis.
- It would be helpful to draw up a safety plan with a close friend regarding suicidal feelings/thoughts or a psychotic break. It is important to know who to call and what to do before the emergency occurs (if it ever does).
The above tips from Martinez are just a few I wish I’d known while dealing with Elizabeth. There’s certainly no guarantee she’d still be here on this earth had I created an emergency plan or researched her meds, but I’d have a lot more confidence that I did all that I could.
I hope just one person out there reads this and understands my pain and the one thing I would change if I could. I would have never turned my back on my sweet friend had I known it was her illness taking over her sweet soul, and not just ill-advised hormones that could have been easily prevented. It’s the sad fact like so many things in life, that we learn those incredibly important lessons too late and hindsight is always 20/20.
I dedicate this day and this blog to Elizabeth and all the amazing people she left on this earth. I can’t understand suicide as a way out, but that’s not for me to judge. The guilt throughout all of this has been extremely hard, but I know she’d forgive me. I know she still holds my hand and cheers on my football team during the season. Throughout every outburst, beneath it all, she loved me to the core. I wish I could have seen that back then. I’d still miss her just as much as I do now, but maybe, just maybe, the guilt would be a little less.
To order a special bracelet for someone you lost and loved hard, check out psfortysix.etsy.com on Etsy. A portion of sales will be going back to a charity related to suicide and mental illness (still TBD).