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Mental Health

My Best Friend, Jessie

Caroline O'Brien

Reprinted from "Suicide" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2(7), pp. 25-26

stock photoI was introduced to the reality of suicide when I noticed the marks on my best friend's arm. I saw them even though she had tried to hide them under her sleeve. I wanted to ask her about them, but she was very secretive so I didn't want to push her. I just let her know that I had noticed, I cared and I wanted to know more. From then on, we became even closer.

Jessie let me enter her world. She struggled with eating disorders - anorexia and bulimia - as well as severe depression and self-mutilation. Later, she drank to numb her feelings. People with eating disorders are not given the compassion they need because of the simplistic assumption that their problems lie in vanity.

It is difficult to be with someone who wants to die, watching helplessly. No one can really know what it's like to be at the place where suicide becomes an option, a 'solution.' I'm sure it's different for everybody; I see it as dark, lonely and all-encompassing - a deep hole where no one hears you scream.

Jessie had numerous hospital stays. On the better stays, I'd visit her and we'd sneak out and have a laugh; other times, I couldn't see Jessie behind her glazed eyes. When she underwent more intense therapy, bits of her disappeared. I started to notice that the cards and art projects she made for me during art sessions at the hospital began to have more and more mistakes. All the thought and love were still in them, but they showed a steady decline in her ability to work. Once, when visiting her, I wore the shirt she had given me for my birthday. I told her I had received many compliments on my new shirt. She asked me where I had got it.

It was difficult to see her struggling to get out from underneath her depression. Seeing the torment in which she lived showed me the strength it took for her to live each day. I thought: If I'm experiencing so much pain right now, trying to piece together what's going on in her world, Jessie must be experiencing 10 times the torment I feel. I saw her beneath the masks she put on for everyone else-she knew I loved her for who she really was and that gave her strength.

Jessie had such a kind heart; it hurt her knowing she was hurting the people close to her. In one of our late night talks, she said that if she committed suicide, even though it would be hard for us at first, we would all be "better off." I tried to explain the empty hole that would be left inside us, but I couldn't convince her.

She had no regard for her own life; didn't value herself. She told me once that the only reason she lived was for her mother and brother, and me. All I could say to that was: "If that is what it takes to fight another day, then do it for us. And one day, you will want to live for yourself." That day never came.

On February 12, 2002, Jessie's rich smile, and warm laugh left this world. Jessie didn't get up that morning. She didn't brush her thick chestnut hair back; she didn't pour herself a cup of black coffee; she didn't show up at the kids' gymnastics class she worked at. There were pills and vodka at her bedside. As much as Jessie wanted to get better for the other people in her life, she couldn't bear her frail body shaking anymore.

I had seen so many reasons for her to live. I saw what a wonderful, kind, strong person she was. When I was going through her room after she died, I found a shoebox worth of letters thanking Jessie for the encouragement she had given, for the laughs, hugs and friendship she had spread to other patients during her stays in the hospital wards. These letters were so heart-felt with gratitude and love, that if any of us were to receive just one such letter, we would consider ourselves lucky. It amazes me that she was capable of so much love and encouragement toward others, and yet could not love herself.

I don't know what stopped her from loving herself. I longed to find out what was blocking her and wanted to tear it down with all my strength. But I never found it. The search to find such a thing is exhausting. One should not underestimate the strength that is needed to aid someone in this kind of search. I had to learn the distance I needed to keep so I could stay on sturdy ground while walking beside her. It didn't mean I cared any less; far from it. It was just that there was a distance she had to travel alone. She had to learn to love, or at least like, herself enough to accept that she was worthy of help.

After Jessie died, I had to find ways in which I could live my life and still be surrounded by her.

During her service, someone told a story of a little tadpole that became a dragonfly. The tadpole had to leave home, to find home. The tadpole left the depths of the water to fly high above the pond. Since then the dragonfly has been a reminder of her-a token of her left on this earth, while the rest of her is soaring somewhere high above the aches and pains of this world.

A few years after Jessie died I became a volunteer at the Crisis Centre, presenting suicide prevention workshops in high schools. I found comfort in dealing with her loss by having this active outlet for speaking about Jessie without making others around me uneasy. "The only thing not dangerous about suicide is talking about it," I tell the students. I've been trained in what to say when I'm in the classroom, but the most important part is that I'm there, talking about suicide, acknowledging it, making it not so hidden-because 'it' is an all-too-frequent reality.

I miss Jessie, and I think about how lucky I was to have her as my friend. The memories I have of her are numerous: good, bad, scary, powerful and inspiring. Jessie's life was too special to spend the rest of my life thinking about the 'what if's.' I still have questions: Why didn't she phone me like she'd done many nights before? Why didn't she say good-bye? She was supposed to speak at my wedding... But, she was here. She made her mark upon this world, and her legacy carries on - through showing the ability to be kind to others even during the height of her suffering, or through her stylish clothes that were donated to a women's shelter after she was gone. I am grateful for every memory I have of her, and that's how I live my life with her at my side.

When I was dealing with the actuality of Jessie's death, I found strength I didn't know I had. I don't even think I ever really had strength; she gave it to me. And when I 'reach the top of the pond,' I know she'll reveal the answers to my questions, if I haven't already found them. When I finish my studies as a counsellor, others may be able to benefit from my journey with Jessie. She would have wanted it that way; in fact, she'll make sure of it.

About the author

Caroline is studying psychology at SFU and plans to become a counsellor. She and Jessie had been best friends since elementary school and started college together


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