*Please note that this post has mentions of suicide and self harm.*
It sounds so cliché; a friendship forged out of circumstance. One room opposite another room. One self confessed make up obsessed woman opposite another. But there was nothing forged about it.
You get to know people very well in group therapy sessions, where you’re forced to sit with a bunch of strangers, brought together by one common denominator; mental illness.
I’d had this idea of what I expected a private psychiatric hospital in the centre of London to be, and it was exactly what I had anticipated. When I wasn’t fighting nurses to not eat my 3 meals and 2 snacks or taking cocktails of drugs 3 times a day, I was surrounded by “celebrities” and other people who were finding it just as much as a struggle to stay alive in a world where the saturation had been turned down so much that there wasn’t a single glimmer of colour.
Our first meeting was quick, we stuck our heads out of our doors while a girl in the next room screamed and shouted for three hours before eventually being sedated. It was my first night there, I was terrified and alone, and this was something I was not expecting. I had this idealised image of what was happening to me in my head and this was not part of my mental picture. I thought I wasn’t ill enough to be in a place where someone kicks and screams and bites nurses. I was. This screaming girl wasn’t supposed to be here, this was a calm environment. It wasn’t. It wasn’t meant to be like this. I don’t know how I thought it was meant to be, but I was ill and in denial and wasn’t receptive to anything that would rip the veil from my brain and expose me to the danger and darkness I was really in.
There across the corridor from me was a woman in the same boat. After two hours of incessant screaming, I finally emerged from my own crying, sedated, ball of hysteria hiding under the blankets of my king size bed; as though this screaming monster was going to break through the walls and hurt me. Who once daylight came, turned out to be not a monster, but a Middle Eastern Princess. It took me a few minutes to summon up the courage to open my door and to look out, I don’t know what I was expecting, I knew she was in her room on the other side of the wall, but if that was behind that wall, what was to say what was behind the door?
As it turns out, what was behind that door was a lifeline. We opened our doors at the same time and both had a dazed look of what I think was anger, mixed with fear, mixed with guilt. We scanned the corridor, and there was nothing and nobody to see but each other. Our eyes met, we nervously smiled at one another, unsure whether we should say hello, or say something about what was happening next door. At that moment everything went silent. The sedation had kicked in and the monster next door was gone. Doctors and nurses emerged from her room and saw us standing there “sorry about that ladies, are you both okay?” one of them asked. We both murmured “yes” and shared a look as if to say 'thank god, that’s over.'
Two doors simultaneously closed and I smiled for the first time that day, over my first encounter with another patient. The one thing I had been dreading as I had hidden in my room avoiding all possible interaction.
A few days later, I was in an IPT group therapy session and she was, the woman from the room opposite, escorted in by a nurse and made to join us. I discovered her name was Felicity, it suited her.
She was frail, pale, and tearstained. She clutched at the sleeves of her cardigan, and looked like the saddest person I had ever seen. I was thankful for her presence because I was about to be forced to speak, but now the attention had been turned to her. Except she didn’t want to speak. Slowly, our therapist tried to coax words out of her. She was quiet, her voice a whisper, her answers short, and her mind trying to conjure herself anywhere but where she was. I knew the feeling. Something about her resonated with me, whether it was the way she picked at the skin around her nails, or the way she chewed the sleeve of her cardigan, or the way she was trying so desperately hard to imagine a completely different reality to one we were in at that moment. Whatever it was, it resonated so deeply within me that I decided that I would allow myself to talk to her if she talked to me.
I had gone in with a plan; don’t talk to anybody, don’t stay longer than a few days, don’t listen to them, don’t believe what they say, don’t let them tell you that your illness is bad, don’t let them force feed you, don’t make friends, don’t interact with anybody.
When the session was over, I started walking back to my floor, I felt her behind me and something made me turn back. “Your hair is beautiful” she said, “has anybody ever told you look like Jessica Chastain?” Those were the first words she said to me. Someone who was so ill and in so much turmoil, was able to reach out to someone and give a compliment. I was shocked. She seemed so different to the girl sitting in that room with me mere minutes prior, she was more at ease and I recognised straight away that she had the same plan as me; don’t, don’t don’t.
The following day, I didn’t see her at all, nor the day after that. She returned to her room with Selfridges bags in tow, beautifully made up hair and incredible make up. “I’m allowed to go home to my flat at the weekends” she explained, “and I can’t stand what the water here does to my hair so I’m going to get it washed in Selfridges every few days. You should come”
Within 10 minutes of her return, we were sat on her bed surrounded by make-up. It’s funny how quickly you can bond with someone over a love of something so material. It sounds silly, and it sounds so superficial, but when you are in the clutches of depression, anorexia, of so much sadness, to have something that makes you happy and something you find enjoyment in is a rare and beautiful thing. To find something that actually makes you dull the voice of anorexia, or the black fog in your brain, is something that needs to be embraced. In a world full of darkness; that was the glimmer of colour.
I let her curl my hair that night. We talked about music and movies. We both loved ballet, foreign film and classical music. We both had all the screeners for upcoming Oscar season and our thoughts were identical. My nights were becoming less fearful and more fun. I knew that after the cocktails of drugs, the 3 meals and 2 snacks, the endless therapy sessions, there was some downtime to look forward to. Good conversation, intellectual conversations to look forward to.
We were so alike but so different. We would do anything but talk about our illnesses. We learnt each other’s family histories, we knew everything about each other. Sometimes talk of our illness would creep in and sober us up. “It’s easier to talk to you about it than it is to anybody else” she said to me, and I agreed.
Slowly we carried on, I’d go to therapy throughout the day, and she’d go shopping. But she’d talk to her consultant, and she’d talk to me. We’d reconvene in the evenings where we would just talk. Talk about everything and anything. She was kind, and she generous, and I wanted to do whatever I could to help her. I let her do my make up whenever she was feeling low, as it gave her so much joy. She called me her muse. I told her she should look into doing a course in make-up. Maybe it wasn’t what she had planned to do, but if she had found something that made her happy amongst all of the pain, maybe that was something to cling onto.
Her hands would shake so much. Her tremors were the same as mine, but I didn’t notice my own, they were part of me. Hers were so visible because I could feel them at the other end of the make-up brush. When she had a make-up brush in her hand, her entire face changed. The pain contoured itself into concentration, her brow would still furrow yet it would be gentler, she would double take something she had done, pride evident on her face and she would let out a smile. The smile was so big it reached her eyes, and when her smile reached her eyes, her eyes lit up and I could see fragments of the endless possibilities of what her life could be like if she was free of this pain. I could see hope. So whenever I felt like I wanted to bury myself under the duvet, whenever I felt so disgusted with my own presence or so deeply rooted in self-loathing that I hated the nurses for taking anything sharp off me, I would bury it all inside of me and I would let her paint my face or style my hair. I found comfort in those fragments of her, that for a few seconds each day, meant didn’t hurt.
One nurse called us the terrible twosome, she let us do her make-up and told us we were both beautiful. We both watched the other shrug off the compliment because there was a darkness inside of us that wouldn’t let us hear or accept anything that resembled kindness to ourselves. We both thought the other was beautiful, but neither of us allowed ourselves to see that. I hope she saw it. At least once, I hope she saw it. We ended up with the same diagnosis, the same drugs, our manic episodes synchronised and we would sit them out together. I thought that there was one difference; that I was going to therapy and she wasn’t, but in truth, I wasn’t trying to get better at all. I was going but I wasn’t trying. At least she didn’t have the pretence that I had, she was able to know she wasn’t receptive. I failed to realise that about myself. I envied her for it.
When we both got discharged, we went our separate ways, we stayed in touch and I tried to convince every single person in my life that I was better. That this hospital had helped me. “You can’t keep up this pretence forever” she wrote “you’re going to fall hard, you need to talk to someone, you need to get more help” “So do you” I wrote back. “I know” she said, “but your situation right now is awful, you’re going to unravel much faster than me”. She was right. I did unravel, and I unravelled fast.
I had nothing and nobody. She was on holiday, yet she gave me her apartment. I got on a train to London taking as much as I could from the place I had been staying, all packed into a tiny suitcase, and I thanked whatever it was that had brought us together. I was spiralling so far out of control, that even from thousands of miles away, she sensed it and she made sure I was safe. She didn’t let me go a certain amount of time without checking in and having me tell her what I was doing. She didn’t judge me when I told her I had taken too many pills because I couldn’t stop hurting. She didn’t judge me when I used her kitchen knife to open up my wrists, leaving identical blood stains on the carpet to hers, caused by the same action and the same knife.
She was suffering herself, as always, but she did an excellent job of hiding it. She called her psychiatrist, and instead of getting help for herself she got help for me. He saw me thanks to her, and he helped me in a way I hadn’t been helped before. Within days I was back in hospital, but this time it was different. This time I fought.
I went to live with her shortly after I came out of hospital. She was sad in a way I hadn’t seen her sadness before. I was recovering, but she was slipping. I tried to help her but it wasn’t enough, I tried. I let her do my make-up and curl my hair, her hands shook harder than ever, sometimes she couldn’t even hold the brush. She’d cry and I would hold her for hours as her whole body shook, utterly consumed by darkness. I would hold her hand and sing her to sleep. I’d sit up at night and go into her room to check that she was still breathing. I went with her to Edinburgh to help clear her property there for new tenants and she couldn’t believe I wanted to help her with such a task. “Of course I want to help you!” “You do help me” she smiled weakly. I didn’t feel like I did.
It got worse, I saw her return to the frail, lifeless, whispering person I’d met in that first group therapy session and I began to feel myself slipping with her.
Her kindness was immeasurable. She was gentle, and delicate, but fierce, despite her fragility. She had more strength in one finger than I had in my entire body. She was beautiful and clever and funny. She taught me that kindness is more important than anything. She taught me that you can love despite all odds. She loved fiercely, but she could never allow herself to receive even a fraction of the love that she gave.
She taught me that my empathy can be destructive, and that I take on other people’s moods more dangerously than I knew. There came a moment where I had to remove myself from her. I couldn’t help her, I even phoned our psychiatrist to express my worry and asked him to help her. He told me he would. She lashed out at me, accused me of something I hadn’t done, that she herself had done. That was the last time I heard her voice. I hated what had happened, but I didn’t blame her, I knew she was ill and that there was nothing I could do or say to her. She had to do this herself, I worried she wasn’t going to be able to.
Eventually, months later, she got back in touch and apologised. I was touched by her apology. It was so her, putting everybody else before herself, unable to comprehend that she wasn’t the person she thought she was. Unable to see herself as she really was.
We moved forward and we stayed in touch through texts. A whatsapp message replacing those moments where I sat in silence as she did my makeup. A Facebook message instead of holding her whilst her body racked with sobs. We were in two different worlds now, I had found happiness, and seemingly she had to.
She told me she was pregnant, she told me she was married. I worried that she still wasn’t better. I hoped that she hadn’t married because she had just wanted someone to love her.
Her daughter is beautiful. She has the sparkle in her eye that I saw in those fragments of what her life would be without the pain. She smiles just like her too. She holds so much hope within her, that I pray to the universe to give her the kindness it couldn’t give her mother. That she never has to be a pale, frail, tearstained girl, that her life is happy and full of joy.
There was nothing significant about the moment that I learned of her death. I knew before I was told. I’d sensed it. In the last few months of her life, she had been subjected to cruelty that nobody in this world should ever have to suffer. The only thing that kept her heart beating was the love she had for her daughter. That love is unquantifiable. There are so many Facebook updates that her daughter will one day get to see and have no question whatsoever of how fierce and strong her Mother’s love was. She loved that little girl more than she had ever loved anything. She loved her more than she thought she was capable of. But love doesn’t save us from the monsters within ourselves. That’s what mental illness is; a monster.
She didn’t die from suicide, she died from depression, from bipolar, from the diseases that had plagued her mind for so long. What she did was not selfish, or wrong. She was a victim of her disease, a disease that had controlled her for so long, that each day she woke up and took a breath was a testament to her strength, her fierce ability to put one foot in front of the other, staying alive was a fight enough, and she fought for so long.
I hope she’s at peace now. I hope her mind is finally still, and quiet; just like her. I like to believe something happens to us when we go, I don’t know where I believe she has gone, I just don’t think death is the end for us. Maybe that’s silly, but when you’ve lost as many people as I have, it’s something I really truly believe. Whatever you believe, to quote Harry Potter “You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us?”
She may be gone physically, but she lives on through her beautiful daughter, her family and her friends. We hold her in our hearts, we are who we are because of her. She has impacted on all of us, taught us invaluable lessons and shaped us.
She saved me. She thrust me out of the darkness, despite staying in it herself. She pushed me out of it whilst she remained stuck, and that’s a testament of her character. Kindness and compassion in the midst of darkness and despair. That’s what she was, and that’s what she taught me. I owe her my life and so much more.
I will never be able to fathom how she must have felt before she jumped. Every moment I spend on the 8th floor of my office, I feel sick, I see the distance from the ground and it guts me. It scares me beyond comprehension to imagine those last few moments. I’ve googled, and researched and tried to find out what happens to a person in the seconds between their feet leaving steady ground and their body making the impact. Would she have lost consciousness? Would the adrenaline have numbed her pain so that the last thing she felt was peace? What if she regretted it as she fell? I don’t even want to acknowledge the last one I nearly didn’t write it, but its a question I can’t get off my mind.
I have no answers to these questions and I never will. I have to try and find a way to make peace with that. But right now, I’m struggling to make sense of it all. Blaming people is pointless, it won’t bring her back and it won’t change anything. We have to accept it, and through acceptance comes some semblance of something that is sort of like peace. Sort of because, I don’t think you can ever make it peace with it, you just have to try and accept what happened, grieve for the person, and try to move forward remembering everything that they taught you, carry that with you and show that to others. Then a legacy can truly live on.
She made me kinder, she made me more compassionate, she made me more forgiving, she made me more tough, she made me a fighter. The absence a person leaves is a testament to the person they were, I wish she could she the difference in the world now that she is not in it. There’s a huge gaping crater where she used to be that will never be filled. Wherever she is now, I hope that she is at peace.