When you can’t always see the signs
On November 19, 2007, my college roommate took her own life.
I will never forget getting the call that night from another college friend and having to pass on the news to our little group of girlfriends who lived in the New York area.
We were all caught completely off-guard; at 26 years old, we all had very little experience with death—especially that of someone so young.
I first met my friend when she lived next door to me freshmen year. We went on to live together for the next three years. We studied abroad in Australia together. After college, I ended up living in Manhattan, while she was in Hoboken, New Jersey.
My friend and I were part of a larger group of six from college that became even closer afterwards from living or working in New York City. There were crammed holiday parties in tiny apartments, nights out in crowded bars and restaurant week dinners.
For the early part of our 20s, most of us were single, so it was easy to plan fun girls nights out. If someone couldn’t make it or cancelled at the last minute, we didn’t think much of it. Back in college though, it was very strange for anyone to bow out of the weekend activities.
And yes, this was something my friend did often. She would get us all excited to go out, make strong pregame drinks, help us with picking out our outfits and doing our makeup.
But then right before it was time to go, she’d suddenly decide she didn’t want to come out with us. We were incredibly confused but no matter how much we’d try to cajole her to join us, she wouldn’t be convinced.
We thought this was strange, but did not realize it pointed to a bigger issue.
Senior year, we often described certain behaviors of hers as manic. Despite having designated chores for keeping our apartment clean, she would launch into a cleaning frenzy on weekends and would refuse help whenever we offered.
After college, we were less aware of her odd behaviors. After all, we didn’t live together. She would see us when she wanted to and avoid us if needed. We were all busy starting our new adult lives that no one pressed the issue.
At some point, she left Hoboken and moved to Washington, D.C. While we did not lose touch, we certainly did not spend as much time together. I didn’t know much about her day to day life. I certainly had no idea that she suffered from and was treated for a mental breakdown.
In October of 2007, she came to New York for the weekend. From the beginning, it was a strange visit. She insisted on staying with one of our friends that she wouldn’t typically have stayed with. She was desperate to go out to a bar on Saturday night. On Sunday, all she wanted to do was walk around my neighborhood.
We didn’t want to do any of that. The friend she stayed with threw a party. We were having a great time and no one wanted to go out to a noisy, crowded bar. We convinced her to stay in, even though we knew she wasn’t happy about it.
The next day, she came to my apartment. It was a cloudy, chilly fall day. I was recovering from the night before and just wanted to sit and catch up, not go out and walk around.
During our conversation, she admitted that she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Suddenly, all of the strangeness we had observed for years clicked into place. She told me that she hated the medication. She knew she needed it, but she hated how it made her feel. She had been told she would never be able to go off the meds. She wanted a family one day, but worried that would never happen if she could never wean off medication.
When she left my apartment that day, I instantly called a friend who lived in Baltimore who had seen her far more recently than we had. She broke down and filled me in on everything that had been happening the last few months. Our friend had left DC and was now living at home, trying to get the right dosage of medication and figure out how to live with the diagnosis.
Unfortunately, less than a month later, she was dead.
We were all devastated by her death. We felt guilty that we didn’t know more, that we had missed all the signs. We worried about that last weekend where we didn’t do exactly what she had wanted, while also marveling that despite our crazy schedules, she was able to see all of us on those days in New York.
Four of the five of us drove down to Pennsylvania for the funeral. The church was packed with family and friends. I watched her family—who had already lost one daughter to disease years before—mourn her. I found myself unable to take more than a quick glimpse of her in the coffin before the service.
Attending that funeral was the best way I could have come to understand her state of mind. She planned out her own services, leaving behind very specific instructions. The priest—a close family friend—put her struggles into words and made us realize how much pain she had been in.
For a long time, I struggled to understand. I agonized over her last moments and was angry at the pain she had brought to her family. I know now that ultimately, she was unable to live with the disease, with the highs and lows that came with manic depression, with the numb feeling the medication left her with, and with the uncertainty of a healthy future.
Ten years have passed. I still dream about her or sometimes think I see her in a crowd, but those moments are fewer than they used to be. Last spring, I drove to visit a friend and realized I was about to pass by the cemetery where she is buried. At the last minute, I turned into the driveway and found her grave. I put my hand on the cold stone and took a breath.
The words from the Bible’s Song of Solomon rang in my ears, “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.” I will always love my dear friend and treasure the memories I have of her.
I know that help is available and that a support group is essential to living with this disease. If you or anyone you know need this kind of help, here is one resource that would be a great starting point.