My friend Jennifer (you can read more about her and her books at the end of this post) has provided this post, describing her experience with a friend who showed symptoms of mental illness. It’s a heartbreaking story that represents the confusion, helplessness, and guilt so many of us feel when we don’t know how to help, or when our efforts to help are ineffective.
My friend had his ups and downs.
The former were almost euphoric times when he’d grab my hand and insist that I blow off that German test or English paper and go have some fun! We ran and played like happy children, fleeing campus for ice cream cones or to walk, tightrope-style, along the ledge at the fountain at the park in the middle of town. We’d read poetry (often our own), shouting our words to the geese, the flowers, and the trees. On parting, he’d pull me close, hug me hard, and then spin himself out of my arms.
“See you when I see you!” he’d call.
A few years earlier, I’d seen the film A Room with a View, and although he was my friend, not my lover, he was a kind of unconventional George Emerson to my dutiful Lucy, extolling the virtues of love and freedom, making me take risks, and–a few years older than I was–helping to nudge me into adulthood.
But then there were the downs. He’d “crash” sometimes and stay in bed for days. He’d miss class and work shifts, sometimes for as long as a week. I’d call his apartment, stop by and try to rouse him, but he was in a deep, different kind of place and sometimes hardly stirred. I remember wondering if he were sick. Or maybe he’d taken something on one of his solo trips into the city that had left him groggy and out of sorts.
But then, as suddenly as it came on, his shadowy mood would pass and before I knew it, we’d be driving around town in his beater of a yellow car, blaring XTC: “I was lucky to remain beguiled/Grown to child since mermaid smiled.”
I knew very little about mental illness as a college student.
My compatriots–including my friend “George”–were intense, creative types, prone to emotional highs and lows. When I had a rough day, I loved to refer to the scene from Crimes of the Heart (another favorite movie of mine from the 1980s) when Sissy Spacek’s character, Babe, explains to her concerned sisters why–all in about an hour–she’d attempted to hang herself, among other things:
Margaret “Meg” Magrath: Why’d you do it, Babe? Why’d you put your head in the oven?
Babe: I don’t know . . . I’m having a bad day.
“Bad days” sent my friends and I retreating under the covers in our dorm rooms. Bad days were good enough excuses for saying we weren’t sure we wanted to live. We tossed off those words casually after being misunderstood by a parent or getting a (in my case, deserved) poor grade on a German test or when we were disappointed romantically.
The bad days always passed and made way for good ones. So when, on a sunny spring morning, I learned that my friend George had taken his life, I was stunned. He hadn’t even been in one of his darker places; only the afternoon before, we’d been together, goofing around in his apartment. “See you when I see you,” he’d said–as merrily as ever–as I left.
When we were in college, 25 years ago, George and I would sometimes talk about what it would be like to be adults and visit each other’s homes. We fantasized over what our lives would look like. I remember once saying I would keep fresh flowers in my house and a bowl of fruit centered on the kitchen table. These things would be welcoming, I said. People would enter my house and feel at home.
“Yes!” George agreed. “And you’ll have to say the very best words a person can say: ‘You can stay as long as you want!’ “
Losing George propelled me into learning more about the myriad forms mental illness can take, and the nightmares and depression I experienced after his death catapulted me into counseling and medication–therapies that helped me through a dark time of grief, anger, and confusion.
I’ve long since stopped beating myself up for the knowledge I didn’t have as a 20-year-old, knowledge that in my best daydreams could have prodded my friend toward help, toward the kind of health that would have permitted us to know each other now in middle age.
What joy it would be if I were able to open my front door, guide my old friend into the room, seat him at my table, and tell him that he could stay just as long as he wanted.
Jennifer Grant is the author of Love You More: The Divine Surprise of Adopting My Daughter and MOMumental: Adventures in the Messy Art of Raising a Family. With Cathleen Falsani, she is co-editor of Disquiet Time, to be released in autumn 2014 by Jericho Books. Find her online at jennifergrant.com.
© 2013 Amy Simpson.