How do You Live Through Anxiety, Depression, and a Friend’s Death?
by Leah Holleran
When I was ten, I had a mystery illness.
At least, that was how it seemed. Half the days out of the school year, I would wake up feeling so nauseous that I begged my mom to let me stay home. I could hardly eat. I dropped out of after-school activities. I became so well acquainted with the school nurse that eventually, when we ran out of more standard conversational topics, she started showing me photo albums of her family.
There were tests; inconclusive tests that just revealed boring, regular innards. Failing the medical route, we went the down the psychological road. I started seeing a child psychologist, whose office was filled with oddball Anne Geddes photograph books of babies dressed up like flowers and bees and butterflies. The only explanation any of the adults could come up with was, “It’s just stress.”
But it couldn’t be “just stress.” Could it? “Stress” was what grown-ups called it when they came home from work acting prickly instead of patient. “Stress” was when you had more homework than usual. Everybody had “stress.”
Those were my first experiences with anxiety and depression, which usually arrive on my doorstep hand-in-hand. For the most part, I was lucky. These two pricks reared their ugly heads every now and again for the next few years but, after that first extreme bout, I made it through puberty almost unscathed. During that time, I was too busy making the acquaintance of other unwelcomed visitors: body image issues, eating disorders, drugs and alcohol, romance, periods, boobs, sex…all the usual culprits.
I was sixteen when anxiety and depression came knocking again. My best friend D had been hit harder than I had by all those other cruel thieves of self-worth that governed our teenage years. On top of depression, she was reckoning with addiction, the death of a loved one, and PTSD after being raped at a party. She’d been in and out of rehab for drugs and alcohol, had run-ins with the police, run away from home; she was ticking all the boxes. She was also self-injuring, and had told me more than once that she was considering suicide. And I was keeping her secrets, because I thought that’s what a friend was supposed to do.
Holding these secrets—especially D’s secrets—became more important than anything: a responsibility and an honor, a sign of her love and her trust. I promised D I wouldn’t tell anybody about her thoughts of suicide. I begged her not to do it; I implored her to tell her parents herself. She said they wouldn’t believe her. Crippled by indecision, I kept the secret to myself, and comforted myself with stories.
Her parents know about a lot of what she’s going through, if not all of it. They got her into rehab for substance abuse. They’ll be keeping an eye on her either way. Besides, how could I even talk to them without going through D first?
Surely somebody else is better placed to take the action can’t. Plus, if I truly was am the only person she trusted with this, how can I betray that trust? She’ll be left with no one to confide in, and be worse off than before.
I knew, deep down, that these were excuses that allowed me to do the easy thing—stay silent, do nothing—rather than what I knew, even then, was the right thing—to put her life before my fear, and to tell somebody this secret of secrets. I tried to convince myself that my silence made me a good friend.
But our friendship suffered anyway. I was so afraid of inflicting more damage that my distance and my fear became a presence all their own. I’d shut down and go silent rather than open up to D about my own “stress” like I used to. The give-and-take had disappeared, and she felt it. The very last time D and I truly talked was the first time in our lives that she was upset about something, and wouldn’t tell me what it was.
A week later, my parents sat me down in my bedroom with something they needed to tell me. In the endless walk between the kitchen and my bedroom, I knew in my bones they were about to tell me D was dead. And even though I already knew, when the words came out of my mother’s mouth, I was so stunned to hear them aloud that I actually laughed.
“What did you say?” I blurted, and made her repeat it. She explained that D’s parents had called with the news that she died of a drug overdose. They had asked that I call the rest of D’s friends from the summer camp where she and I had met. Mine was the only phone number they had.
Making phone calls had the tingly, surreal feeling of a dream. I hadn’t cried yet. I felt like somebody else, a person I’d never met. I made the first call, and then returned to the kitchen and said to my parents, “This may sound dumb, but I need to make sure. What did you just tell me? Say it one more time. I didn’t imagine it? You told me D is dead? I need to be sure it’s real before I keep spreading the news around.”
Taylor was the hardest call to make. That first summer at camp, Taylor, D, and I were inseparable. It was the summer I turned ten. We went looking for the ghosts of camp legend, and found the kind of magic that makes for lifelong friendships. The following year, as I struggled with constant nausea and nerves about traveling, visits to Taylor and D were some of the only trips I did not fear. Taylor sobbed on the phone when I told her. I was struck by how opposite our reactions were—how untouched she was by my numbness and sense of unreality.
At the funeral, D’s friends and loved ones were invited to come up and speak if they had something to say. I knew I had to speak, even though I still hadn’t kicked that haze of unreality. I didn’t know what she would want me to say, but I knew her. She was my best friend, and I had a responsibility. I had to say goodbye.
But part of my mind told a different story. It said that I didn’t know what she would want me to say because I didn’t know her as well as I thought—because I’d been too selfish and self-centered to help her. That’s why I would never know for sure whether the overdose that killed her was intentional. Where did I get off, calling myself her best friend?
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I stepped to the podium to speak anyway. D’s grandmother was to speak before me. It felt like some perverse sign when her she slipped on the steps and—grabbing the small table beside the stairs to steady herself— upended D’s urn and sent it crashing to the floor, where it cracked. The voice in my head said I was a curse—that D’s grandmother felt rushed because I was waiting there. And yet, once again, I felt that terrible impulse to laugh at the absurdity of it—how could this possibly be happening?—even while I stood frozen alongside her crying family, intruding on this painful moment, an imposter.
I don’t remember what I said when I spoke at the podium. But I do remember D’s parents giving me a journal entry D had written for an English class in middle school. In it, she named me as her best friend.
From that moment on, I was no longer just holding onto secrets for others. Now I had my own secrets. It was a secret that I wasn’t the good friend, the good example, the perfect kid that I continued pretending to be. It was even a secret that I’d lost my best friend; we didn’t go to the same school, and when I returned to class the day after her funeral, I didn’t tell anybody why I’d been absent.
I even kept secrets from myself. I told myself I was maintaining normalcy by not talking about her. I told myself I deserved the resurgence of the voices of anxiety and depression. Those voices not only convinced me I wasn’t good enough, but that I was even worse than I’d ever imagined, because I’d allowed myself to believe I was a good person—and I continued to pretend it was true, even after I’d learned different. I hardly knew myself, and I definitely could not trust myself. I kept it a secret when I started to self-harm.
Making the pain physical and visible was the only way I found to make sense of it all. It was not an effective means of dealing with anything, of course; and ultimately I only felt even more selfish—like I was making my friend’s death about me rather than fully remembering her. But, in a strange way, it made me feel connected to her. Cutting was something she had done. I imagined that maybe I had taken some pieces of her into myself—the good and loving bits, as well as the difficult and complicated.
But every time I cut, I felt less full of love. I was draining the love out of me, and with it, any trust I had in my ability to cope. And if I didn’t trust myself to cope with my own existence, how could I possibly be capable of doing anything else? My depression welcomed anxiety back in full swing, and together they asserted that I was a failure. Eventually I had to acknowledge that, even if cutting felt like a relief, I’d feel worse afterwards, not better.
It was hard to stop. For years, I told myself I’d never do it again, only to fall back into old habits. What finally helped me the most was a little trick I found in an online community forum, involving a Sharpie and a butterfly.
It works like this: if you feel the urge to self-harm, instead you draw a butterfly on your wrist (or whatever part of your body you want) with a Sharpie. That butterfly represents somebody who loves and cares about you, somebody you want to keep in your memory. For me, that person was always her. After drawing the butterfly on your body, you have to acknowledge that by injuring your own body, you are also injuring the butterfly.
After using this strategy effectively for a number of years, I felt confident that I wanted to make my butterfly permanent. When I was 23, I got a butterfly tattooed on my wrist in white ink. I knew I wanted the design to represent my friend in some way—because I wanted to remember her, and also because remembering her was the very thing that had kept me motivated to be kinder to myself. The design inside my butterfly’s wings was taken from a design that she drew. Every time I see it I’m reminded of her, and the strength that she helped me find to remember how to love myself again—even and most especially when I don’t feel I deserve it. It reminds me that struggling with anxiety and depression does not mean I’m weak.
The butterfly also reminds me that no matter how isolated I feel, I am still connected to the wider world, and my actions have consequences there—even actions that seem like they’re directed toward myself alone, like cutting. When I was in college, I finally released that secret, and told my friends what I was doing to myself, and why.
It took a long time to muster the courage to be thoroughly, brutally honest about it. When I first confided in my friends that I’d been self-harming, I framed it as something I used to do—“But I’ve stopped now, so don’t worry about me.” Despite the fact that I was still in the midst of my battle with it, and despite the fact that I’d finally taken the leap to talk about it, I still clung to the notion that I had to seem fine.
Telling this partial truth was better than nothing. When I felt the compulsion to cut, I drew the butterfly and thought about the people who loved me, and about the fact that if I did cut, I’d have to tell my friends so, or risk making myself into a liar. Even then, I knew that this need to seem fine had twisted the positive impulse to confide in people and weakened its power. Neither the butterfly nor my friends would want fear of not living up to recovery—fear of being imperfect—to be my main motivator in treating myself better.
Three years since the last time I’d hurt myself, I relapsed. I was in an extremely unhealthy relationship. I was isolated again, convinced I was “choosing my friends over my boyfriend” if I ever wanted to go out, convinced I was at fault when we fought, convinced I was unreasonable and my memory unreliable, convinced I’d be betraying his trust if I told anybody the things he said that scared me, like that he was considering suicide and our relationship was the only thing stopping him. Suddenly, I was keeping secrets again. And I had an entirely new motivation to cut as well: I thought it might be a way to stop my crippling panic attacks.
Therapy helped a lot. Getting out of that relationship helped a lot. Recognizing red flags—both within me and in my relationships with other people—helped a lot. And honesty—sometimes brutal honesty—was vital.
As I write this, I’m so tempted to relax this stringent approach to honesty for the sake of good storytelling, or to fit into the idea of what recovery is “supposed to” be. We are all under such constant pressure to present ourselves as nothing less than our best, to dismiss distress as “just stress,” to act like we’re fine—and not only “fine,” but brilliantly thriving. I’ve heard a description of social media that spoke to this: that we are constantly comparing the unedited cuts of our own lives with everybody else’s curated highlight reels. In that kind of world, of course we feel that we’re always falling short. In the spirit of honesty, I am not “cured.” But every day I move a little further in a positive direction. Even the days that feel like backtracking can move me along if I take them as opportunities to be honest about where I’m at, and to be kinder to myself. I’m learning to trust myself again. I’m learning to love myself enough to celebrate the little wins, and take each day as it comes. It’s not perfect, but it’s real. That’s the kind of recovery I can be honestly proud of.