Recently I read on Facebook that the eldest daughter of a friend was getting married. I was totally thrown off track by the realisation that the only time I had met the daughter was when she was a baby, yet now in her twenties, she’s to be wed.
It’s not an issue of whether my friend and I not keeping in contact. She was a close friend with whom I had travelled the world (a long time ago), followed shortly after when I was one of her bridesmaids. It’s funny how you can be so involved in each other’s lives and then? Well, then, Cate took a dive into a very thick and murky depression (along with a few other things that sent us in different directions).
I pushed people away. I didn’t appreciate the advice some tried to give me, and I took it to mean that I was being judged for an illness that must be my own fault.
I was in my own world now. I had disappeared from my late twenties. I had dropped off a cliff somewhere, landing at what I never knew was rock bottom (or would I fall yet further?).
I had literally turned to skin and bone, and so social occasions around meals were something I did my best to avoid. The idea of eating with other people (watching me) was enough to send me into a panic attack. “Meeting up for coffee or maybe brunch” was something I refused to be a part of at a time when even the milk in my cappuccino was too much for me. The world had taken up socialising around food and drink, but Cate couldn’t cope!
Many years of self sabotage, followed by years treatment and therapy…
Time has gone on…
And suddenly I find myself 25 years on, when Lucy is getting married (how can this be?) and M is going to be a mother-of-the-bride. Let’s also not forget that S has been a grandmother for a year and the lives of my friends have moved on…
Can you see what has happened? I was 28. My life was ahead of me. It was a time when everyone ‘knew’ that some day you’d be “married with kids”
And now, 25 years on, I’m not married with kids. The closest I have to a child is a much-loved cat, Hobbes. Life didn’t turn out as anyone expected.
It’s really weird to pop your head up for air and find that you’re middle-aged. Everyone else has aged too, but for them their lifespan went on. For me, my life halted before abruptly coming up at 50.
There was never the plan in my mind that I would have children. There were lots of reasons for that, and I just knew it wouldn’t be a good idea. This post is not about regret, because there isn’t regret. What there is, is what I will call life-cycle shock.
The life-cycle for my twenties friends has gone on as it should. But I fell off this darn cliff called mental illness and 25 years of my life just vanished. I’m still a 28-year-old at heart and at mind. My life has taken a different route and while fifteen years ago I couldn’t contribute to the kids’ achievement discussion that my twenties friends were now having, now I have no means of contributing to the comparisons of the grand-kids. Actually, at this point, I am probably better to go outside and catch up with the dog!
I can’t compare photos because you simply don’t take photos when you’re depressed and/or have severe mental illness. Okay, so that might be too much of a generalisation, but look at it this way: you don’t have those family occasions like graduations, engagements, marriages, and births.
I did manage one of those with a graduation, but I didn’t attend the ceremony, didn’t celebrate… and I didn’t have anyone take my photo. That was too much as I was barely hanging on at the time.
When you come up for air 25 years on, you have to expect that it will be different. You know that friends have moved on but, but how do you fit in? Anywhere.
It’s just beyond me to get my head around ‘baby’ Lucy is now to be a bride. Congratulations anyway, Lucy! I am really happy for you.
“…in a world I’d never known among people whose existence I never thought possible,
became for me a concentrated course in the horrors of insanity and the dwelling-place
of those judged insane, separating me forever from the former acceptable realities and assurances of everyday life.” – Janet Frame, An Angel At My Table
It was Friday, when Carol had been discharged but I was still an inpatient at the local psychiatric hospital where we had got to know each other. Back then, 20 years ago, while mobile phones were common, it was certainly not everyone that owned one. I didn’t have one so relied on being able to use the patient telephone to make contact with anyone outside of the hospital.
Carol and I spoke by phone that day and she told me that she wanted to go ahead with our earlier plans (our suicide pact) to die the next day, but as I wasn’t able to be with her that she would do it alone.
It is fair to say that I totally understood her desire to die. I wanted to die too. While I’m not sure that I outright encouraged her to go ahead with the plan, I am certain that I didn’t discourage her. At the end of our conversation, she told me she was turning off her phone and that we would not speak again. I guess that we ended by saying goodbye, but I don’t remember that aspect.
What I do remember is the terrible dilemma I sat with for the next 24 hours. Would I tell someone or not? Would I get help to stop her planned suicide attempt?
The short story is that I didn’t tell anyone, and that is something I will always have to live with.
Saturday came and went, and I continued to be torn apart by what I knew, and what I imagined was happening, eventually coming to the conclusion that my friend was by now dead. I heard nothing.
It was three days later when my then-husband Dave arrived to visit that night, armed with a letter that had come in the mail. It wasn’t something I was expecting. On opening it I found that it was a ‘suicide note’ from Carol. It was hard to disguise my distress from Dave, but essential because he knew nothing, as did anyone else.
It was some days further on before I got a phone call. It was Carol, and she was in ICU. She had survived but had sustained serious damage to her heart which she would carry for the rest of her life. I admit that I was struck by a terrible dichotomy of feelings. Relieved she was alive but disappointed that she hadn’t achieved her goal. You see, I could understand her despair and desire to end her life. Our hopelessness was something we each carried, but also shared together. In my sickness, I really wanted for her pain and suffering to be over. I was disappointed for her.
In the months that followed, Carol and I went separate ways. It wasn’t something that we wanted, it’s just what happened as a result of unrelated circumstances. I shifted to another city, and after eventually ending my marriage, did not return to Wellington. We eventually lost contact and today, I have no idea where Carol is. I have looked for her on social media with no luck.
“Now I am setting out into the unknown. It will take me a long while to work through the grief. There are no shortcuts; it has to be gone through.” – Madeleine L’Engle
Of course, this was not over when Carol and I parted company. There was a lot for me (and presumably her) to process and work through. What I had done, in agreeing to this pact and then ‘allowing’ Carol to go ahead with the plan, was monumental. We were no longer together but I carried guilt with me from that time on. As my recovery from mental illness began, I found myself carrying more and more guilt. I began to understand the implications of what I had done. And now that we had no way of contacting each other, there was no way of working through it.
I think that it’s fair to say that friendships between people with severe mental illnesses can become pretty intense, pretty quickly. It is an emotional rollercoaster that while on that journey we gather those around us into. My experience is that particularly when you are in a group therapy environment, that rollercoaster gets bigger and faster. In group therapy, you are often sharing intimate parts of your life with other participants. You get to know each other well. But it’s an artificial environment, controlled to some extent by the therapist. At some point, it comes to an end, and in my experience, you can expect the friendships to last forever, but that often doesn’t happen. Outside of that controlled environment (for Carol and I it was the hospital), there can actually be nothing to tie you together.
In my years of mental health treatment, I can think of a number of my friendships that have been intense but actually didn’t last once outside of the therapuetic environment. I think this is what happened for me and Carol.
You may rightly wonder why I am sharing the journey I went on with Carol. Why would I even admit this stuff? Good question. I am opening myself up to all kinds of abuse.
A few months back, was the story of Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy, where Michelle (by text messages) encouraged her boyfriend Conrad, to kill himself. Michelle got 15 months prison time for her encouraging texts. At the time, the court announced it’s decision, there was a lot of fierce and hateful comments on social media towards Michelle. I hung my head while the antagonism towards Michelle Carter was in the news because I felt if people only knew, they would target me with abuse too.
What was so different in that case from what I did to Carol? It seemed the only substantial difference I could see was that Carol survived her suicide attempt. Conrad didn’t. While it was reported that both Conrad and Michelle were depressed at the time of his suicide, I suspect too that the mental illness Carol and I were both experiencing was more severe. But no excuse.
I can’t justify anything I did (and didn’t do). It is actually hard for me to imagine doing what I did, but then I am not as severely ill as I was, so perhaps I can claim to be a different person. But some people do bad things when they are severely mentally ill. Many of them end up in prison, forensic psychiatric care, or with severe consequences for what they do. Many have to live with the burden of what they did.
While thinking out loud (that’s what I do on my blog) I am struck that the biggest hurdle is perhaps to forgive oneself for what has been done while mentally ill. I think that is where I am at now. I realise that I need to forgive myself for having let Carol down. I wasn’t a good friend to her because I was so caught up in my own hopelessness that I couldn’t find hope (or help) for her.
I can’t have this conversation with Carol. I don’t even know whether she is dead or alive. But I have to find a way to forgive myself so that I can live on.
TTrigger Warning: This post contains subject matter that is difficult to read. It includes discussion of suicidal ideation, suicide and a suicide pact.
Twenty years ago, I had a year that can best be described as hell. 1997, I was living in Wellington, New Zealand with my (then) husband Dave. I had already (privately) decided that my marriage was doomed, but 1997 saw things spiral down for Dave and me. It took me until mid-1998 (and six months of intensive residential therapy) before I actually left Dave but 1997 was tough, admittedly on both of us.
But it was the year I met Carol, and for that reason, it was a very good year. Weird really, such bad and good together.
Carol was one light in a very dark period. I met her near the beginning of the year when we were both patients at a local psychiatric hospital. We were both being re-admitted pretty much as soon as we were discharged. It was a policy issue, but that’s another story. I was admitted over twenty times that year. I wasn’t being discharged because I was well or even off the crisis list. I was being discharged because they needed the bed for someone else and, so they said, they didn’t want me to become institutionalised. I think it was a little late for that. As I’m sure you can imagine, I spent most of the year there. Carol, who had Bipolar Disorder, was in a similar traffic jam and we very quickly became very close friends.
Dave didn’t like our friendship. He was pretty conservative (putting it nicely because this story isn’t about him) and he objected to the friendship Carol and I had primarily because she was a lesbian and because she smoked (I hadn’t started smoking by then nor was she the catalyst to me starting). Actually, Dave wouldn’t ‘allow’ Carol in our house (at times when we were both discharged) for these reasons. I don’t know what he expected might happen if she did come to our home but I was furious and just didn’t tell him when she had been there. What he didn’t know…
I was going through a time of rebellion from my life. I had seen myself as a “nice Christian” and didn’t want to be that person anymore. That rebellion was perhaps part of the reason I had so many hospital admissions that year. As awful as hospital life was, I can now admit that in some ways it was great. I was away from my “nice Christian” marriage and with some like-minded people. I didn’t have to worry about anything, because someone else (usually a nurse) would worry for me. I had no responsibilities and the worst I might get is a night in isolation, but only if there was a bed available.
That said, I was terribly depressed and anorexic. I was recovering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and while I hadn’t been yet diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) I was very clearly showing symptoms. My psychiatrist had already declared that they simply didn’t have any staff equipped with the skills to help me. I was literally said to be beyond help. Perhaps a culmination of all these psychiatric issues was chronic suicidal ideation. At that point, I had thought about and acted on suicidal thinking constantly for about three years, including my biggest suicide attempt in 1996.
The next part of the story is difficult to tell, but I feel like I need to tell it. I didn’t even accurately tell what happened when I published my book, Infinite Sadness in 2009. I was ashamed and I feared reaction. Would what I had done be the final straw, particular for my family? Would they turn their backs on me?
Carol was also chronically suicidal, and while both in the hospital we eventually formed a pact to die by suicide together. It was planned for a specific date and our goal was to both be discharged so that we could carry out our plans. We would say whatever was needed to achieve discharge.
Carol managed to convince staff that she was ‘safe’ for discharge but I didn’t. I was kept in hospital. I was really angry, perhaps mostly with myself.
“I was bruised and battered, I couldn’t tell what I felt. I was unrecognizable to myself. Saw my reflection in a window and didn’t know my own face. Oh brother are you gonna leave me wastin’ away On the streets of Philadelphia.” – Bruce Springsteen
This is a good place to stop this story because actually, this post is not so much about the story. I will continue the story in a later post but what is important to me is how the heck did I end up part of a suicide pact?
I was “unrecognizable to myself”. I was “unrecognizable” to my friends and family. They didn’t mean to leave me “wasting away” but they didn’t know how to help me. Even the health professionals didn’t know how to help. I can’t imagine what they all would have thought if they had known about our suicide pact. Well, now the truth is out and a song just won’t be enough.
Had you told me five years earlier that this is where I would be, I would never have believed you. It just wasn’t possible that I would slide so far down to consider not only my own death but also supporting my friend’s eventual suicide. But that’s what mental illness does. Not for everyone, but when you go down as far as I went down, anything is possible at the same time as nothing seems possible. There was no hope (in both my mind and apparently in that of the experts), and because of that I was prepared to consider both Carol’s and my own death. A completely foreign thought to the Cate I had been five years earlier.
I saw this meme this morning. I found it interesting:
That’s not who I was. I didn’t know I would be ok, I didn’t understand that people still loved me. I had already been told they couldn’t help me, just keep me safe! And I didn’t hope to be well anymore. I just wanted an end. I wanted an end for myself (and for Carol). Yet I was described as being depressed. I had depression.
My point is that depression looks different for different people. I hope that people who are depressed today can say each of the statements in that meme above. But it’s not where I was, and I need you to understand that I was a long way from that point when I considered our suicides.
To be part of another’s suicide plans is not right. I know that. And there are no “Buts…’
I had crossed a line. But whether I was aware of that or not, I can not tell you. I don’t remember the feelings attached to that time.
If you are to have any understanding of what I was doing, know this: I was severely and chronically mentally ill, and my thoughts were far distorted from whom I had previously been. This decision Carol and I made to die together was so badly distorted that perhaps there is no way for outsiders to understand. There are no other explanations. It just was, for both of us. It was perhaps a very clear ‘mark in the sand’ of hopelessness.
When we look at mental illness from the outside it is almost impossible to fully understand. I suggest the meme above offers a ‘nice’ image of depression and one easy for ‘outsiders’ to accept. For many, that will be how it is, but it’s not at all where I was at.
I was wrong to do what I did, but I really had little understanding of right and wrong at that time. Perhaps that is one of the reasons I had no hope.
They say “love changes everything”. I say:
“mental illness changes everything”
It’s not an excuse for what I agreed to with Carol. Her life was worth more than that. So was mine. But it happened because we were both suffering from severe mental illness. You can have no idea how you would act in similar circumstances. So please, choose not to judge us.
Part Two of Carol and my story will continue in a future post. It’s too much to contain in one post. Certainly too much for me, and maybe too much for you. I don’t promise that it will be my next post, but it will be soon so please follow so that you can be sure to read it.