I read the infamous xoJane essay "My Former Friend's Death Was a Blessing" with a different variety of stunned than most others probably did. You see, "Leah" was my best friend.
Not metaphorically. I'm not saying that there were similarities. The girl referred to as "Leah" in the essay was actually my closest girlfriend for more than 20 years.
We slept over at each other's houses, bonding over '80s movies and Body Shop beauty treatments. We commiserated over struggles with mean girls before "Mean Girls" was part of the vernacular, and parents that "just don't understand," in the parlance of the Fresh Prince. We confided about classmates we had crushes on and silly fantasies about movie stars. She made me my first mixtape and reacted with appropriate excitement/horror when I told her the details of my first (disgusting, sloppy) kiss. We saw each other through heartbreak: When I looked in the mirror and saw someone ugly and grotesque staring back at me, I knew she could bring me to my senses without belittling how I felt. When she walked through the muck of emotions surrounding her parents' divorce and her sister's illness, and eventual death, she called me to pull her out or to climb in and trudge alongside her. When we were younger, I was brash and she was shy, and as we got older, she grew in boldness and I became the reserved one.
In short, we grew up together.
I thought we'd grow old(er) together. I'm planning my wedding, and it sucks that she won't be there. I imagined our kids being friends, being "Aunt Holly" to her children. By our mid-20s, our lives were going in different directions, but we'd always have that strong, almost sisterly, connection.
Like I said: I thought.
Looking back, I can see signs of her illness starting to manifest itself earlier than would have been noticeable to those who didn't really know her. I'm not going to go into detail about those, first because to do so without conducting proper research on mental illness and schizoaffective disorder would be thoroughly irresponsible, and second because I don't want my friend to be remembered only by the ways in which her illness took her over.
"I really believe knowing who Leah used to be, that she would have wanted to die that way," xoJane author Amanda Lauren wrote. "Big and dramatic... Her better self would have been strangely proud. She would have laughed."
This is entirely untrue. My friend's "better self" would not have thought about how she wanted to die. She would have thought about how she wanted to live. She was thinking about how she wanted to live, even if her thoughts weren't particularly grounded. Some outlets, in responding to the original post, have referred to her death as a suicide. It was not. Her death was a tragic accident, unrelated to her illness.
Let me be clear: What Amanda Lauren wrote about "Leah's" Facebook page is true. She was disconnected from reality. She wrote inappropriate things about people she knew, myself included. I confess I worried about my reputation. I was trying to build a career. But very little of what she said garnered any response. She seemed to be shouting into a void.
I can't really blame people for not reacting. I was her closest, oldest friend, and I had no idea how to reach her. I lived on the other side of the country and didn't know any of her friends in California. I agonized over what to do. Should I confront her? Should I indulge her? Should I call her parents? Do I wait and let her come to me?
As we get older, we often grow apart from childhood friends. It's a difficult reality, but certainly not uncommon. But to feel someone who you love growing not only away from you, but from herself, is painful.
Yes, she was sick. She was, at times, almost unrecognizable, taken over by something I don't understand. When people talk about losing someone to illness, that typically implies death. But trust me, you can lose a friend to mental illness, even if that person is still alive. And you can carry the weight of the guilt that comes with not knowing how to help the person who confided her deepest secrets, who told you that you "grounded" her.
So imagine that. Then imagine losing her again, permanently, in a freak accident. She was getting help. She had her family's support. All hope was not lost.
And then she was gone.
Like I said, I don't want to go into detail about some of the ways "Leah's" illness showed itself, about some of the things she said to me on the phone or wrote in emails, but to call them "upsetting" is sort of akin to calling a fire "warm." Sometimes she called and I didn't pick up the phone because I didn't have the physical or emotional energy in that moment to feel what I knew I would feel: The frustration and the loss. Sometimes when I did speak to her, I ended up saying the wrong thing.
My friend died only two months ago, but I've grieved her loss for far longer. I've grieved the loss of her friendship, the loss of her potential, and the loss of her connection to a world she wanted to grab on to with both hands. And since her death, I've also mourned her in a separate way.
"It sounds horrible to say," Lauren wrote, "but her death wasn't a tragedy. Her life was."
Imagine reading those words, knowing they're about someone you loved and worried about, someone you wanted to protect. The use of a pseudonym didn't help.
"I blocked her on social media, moved on with my life and didn't really think about her for years," Lauren wrote.
I thought about her. Every day. Her family did. Maybe other friends did as well.
As I read the piece, realization setting in, I stared at the screen, mouth agape, heart racing. When my hands stopped shaking, I started to write -- whatever came to mind. That was the easy part, the reaction.
The hard part was knowing what to do about her family. If I could come across the story so easily, so could her mother, her father, her stepmother, her teenage brother... Telling them about the story would be handing them a weight I was loath to have them carry. But to not say anything felt wrong and dishonest. So after a few days of grappling, and long discussions with my fiance, I emailed them.
To their deep credit, her parents not only thanked me for getting in touch, they gave me their blessing to publish my thoughts. They were gracious enough to allow me to speak aloud about my feelings, and even assured me that I should not feel guilty. I am grateful to them.
Still, the catalyst for these conversations should not have been an article written by someone who had barely thought about "Leah" for years, someone who didn't really know her. I don't believe there were any ill intentions, of course, but this is the problem with the ever-increasing demand for the personal essay: It makes it easy to forget that our personal experiences can also be someone else's.
Saying that "Leah's" death wasn't a tragedy sounds horrible to say because it is horrible to say. And it's wrong. Her life was complex and full of tragedy, yes, but to say her death isn't is disgraceful. And equally as disgraceful, and tragic, and pathetic, is how incredibly challenging it can be to help people like "Leah" who desperately need it and who want to get better.
Of course, as a non-family member, I could not have taken any formal role in her treatment, nor am I privy to details of efforts made by her family, though I do know they were painstaking and constant.
All I could try to do was try to be a friend, and despite more than two decades of closeness, I had no idea how to do that effectively. You see, trying to help a friend with schizoaffective disorder or another illness that can cause delusions is very different than trying to help one who has depression or anxiety. It doesn't always work to say "I value you" or "you are loved." Sometimes, words get twisted and distorted through the particular lens of the disease, and that which is said with the best intentions ends up being perceived in a way that causes distress.
So I followed my journalistic instincts: I tried to ask questions.
I called the facility where my friend had said she was receiving outpatient treatment. I explained that "a friend" (I didn't give her name) had said she was being treated there, and that I was not calling to ask any information about her case -- I knew that was against HIPAA regulations, but that I was hoping someone could speak to me to provide general advice about how I might communicate with my friend in a helpful manner.
"We can't give out any patient information," the person on the phone told me. "There are privacy laws."
"Yes, ma'am," I replied, "I'm not asking for any patient information. I'm not even asking for confirmation that my friend is in treatment there. Just advice on how to talk to someone with her condition. No identifying information. Just questions."
I was told again, in testier tones, that no information could be given. The speaker even refused my request to be referred a good resource where I could learn more about helpful vs. harmful ways to communicate with people suffering from delusions.
"You've been exceptionally unhelpful and disappointing," I snapped, all attempt at politeness flying out the window. "Thank you not at all."
Since I couldn't slam my cell phone into a receiver, I compensated by throwing it across my studio apartment on to the open Murphy bed. It wasn't nearly as satisfying.
My last direct communication with "Leah" (by the way, she would have hated that moniker) was six months before her death, though I kept an eye on her from afar, thinking of her and praying for her, checking her Facebook page every day, prepared to reach out to her or her family if I saw anything she posted that would indicate she needed immediate help. She emailed me to say that our friendship was no longer good for her because she'd been so hurt by our last conversation, in which I tried to reason with her about something both false and impossible. That was probably the wrong way for me to handle things.
In improv, there's a rule called "Yes, And." It means you don't contradict what someone says, the world they're creating. You simply create it with them. Maybe I should have "yes, and-ed." Maybe I should have stepped into the world she was creating and walked with her inside it, rather than trying to anchor her back into the real world. It might not have been my instinct, but maybe that was what she needed from me.
While her illness did not cause her death, it did cause her, in the last months of her life, to feel betrayed by someone she had relied on. It's hard not to carry a certain amount of guilt for that. And yes, I carry some confused and difficult memories.
But I also carry more than 20 years of really beautiful, funny memories -- a hundred tiny things that will make my mind turn to her. Sometimes I see certain makeup in stores and I think about how she introduced me to Revlon Sandalwood Beige lipstick. There's a certain shade of purple that was the color of her prom dress. She told me once that "you look like you should smell like apples." There's no one else in my life who could quote lines from an obscure Kirk Cameron movie, and there's no one else I'll think of any time I hear the theme song from St. Elmo's Fire. If "Dance 'Til Dawn" ever shows up on Netflix, my first instinct will be to call her.
I loved her and will always love her.
In the recent years, as my friend's illness took over, and she slipped further away, I talked to people I knew about what was happening. The reactions were all pretty much the same: It's horrible and scary and tragic, but what can you do?
That last part was always said in a rhetorical tone, not as a real question.
That's not good enough. The people who are sick and who are lost to themselves and to those who love them should not be written off to rhetoric. So say it again, only slightly different:
It's horrible and scary and tragic.
What can we do?
Note: This article is submitted for publication with the full knowledge and consent of the author's friend's parents.