When you’re going through hell, keep going

It has not been an easy month, but I am doing better. Finally.  I still don’t want to be at work, I still can’t stand some of my coworkers, and I’m still sad about my friend’s death.  But I have regained hope, and a semblance of normally, and perhaps most importantly of all, I have begun to build a plan.

A plan to get out.

I was so broken up after my last talk with Second Boss in Command.  I went home and sobbed and sobbed, and Husband saw me, and offered comfort, and we talked about plans to get me out.  So now I am going to work, but keeping in mind that I won’t have to work with these people much longer, or spend every day in this cold, uncaring, clique-y place.  And that is enough to help me feel better.

On top of that, a job interview fell into my lap through a connection, and it is promising.  The place is very much what I’m looking for, and I have a second interview this week.  Perhaps I’ll be out of here soon…

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Dealing at the office with a friend and ex-coworker’s death

“It’s just so hard being here while I’m struggling with Friend’s death.  I was so close to her when she made the decision to leave,” I confided to Second Boss in Command after he asked if everything was ok.

“You have to move on,” he said, not two whole weeks after the fateful monday morning that we all learned of her suicide.

Then he leaned back in his chair, his body language showing comfort, confidence, and indifference.  “I think that was a horrible decision she made.  But it was her decision,” he said.

How dare you judge her? I thought.  How dare you sit there, passing judgment on her decisions without knowing anything about her life, what she struggled with, or how much you yourself and your coworkers had to do with her making that decision? Thoughts raced through my mind as I sat there, crying, and thinking about how I cannot say this to him, for he doesn’t really care and doesn’t understand what it really means to be sick.

“Well I think we can all tell that she eventually realized that too,” I said, sobbing, frustrated, angry at his carelessness and insensitivity in judging her decision, one which was a poor choice but was recently surpassed by the worst decision she would ever make, could ever make – the one to take her own life.

No you fool, I thought, It wasn’t her decision. She wasn’t in her right mind when she made it.  She wasn’t an idiot or careless.  She wasn’t healthy!  She was sick, and it was with her manic mind that she decided to leave this job, trusting that the beautiful universe which she loved so much would take care of her, if only she sent positive energy to it.

A decision made from the depths of mental illness isn’t really one’s own.

She had been spouting far-fetched ideas for weeks.  How she was going to be general manager for a new dance group that her friend was going to start, and how he was going to pay her with investment he would get from his home country of Turkey.

How she was going to one day own an entire condo building in Manhattan, with which she would create a supportive, creative, cultural community – creating not only housing but homes, with space to meet and play, dance, read, talk, you name it.How she was going to make an entrepreneurial living with working with the organic chocolate startup and the mommy and me bike company.

You might say she was dreaming, but she really believed it.  I tried to tell her to hope and strive for the best but to plan for the worst, but she wouldn’t listen.  She couldn’t.  She’d become unreachable, even by me, even as she and I had grown so close and told each other about deep-seated fears and emotions, our childhoods, our hopes for the future, all the things, big and little, that were happening in our young adult lives.

And as she became unreachable, not returning phone calls or following through on simple tasks like picking her things up from the office she had left, I withdrew as well.  We had shared frustration with the office, with the people there, with their petty lives and their snap judgments.  We had dreamed together of a workplace where there was a true team, where people worked together to achieve the collective good, drawing out and supporting each others’ strengths.  We had supported each other when one of us could no longer take the cruelty of a coworker or the futility of our efforts.  And now she was leaving, confident that she had the support she would need to survive without this salary, and I felt left behind.  I felt alone, and I was still in so much turmoil about showing up to this job every day.

And so, even as I saw that she was manic, even as I knew that while she was high as a kite now, she would inevitably crash, and crash hard, I let her go.  It was too painful to watch her go on from the office, when I wanted to so badly for the day when I could walk in and give Big Boss #1 the same speech, the one that says I’m leaving.  When she didn’t call me for weeks, I didn’t call her either.  But I missed her terribly, and I knew when I did finally speak with her, that she missed and loved me as much as I her.

One week later…

So I’ve been processing the death of my grown-distant friend for a week now. It has shaken both Husband and I, not only because of the loss of a friend but also because of the realization that mental illness takes lives, and how close we or many of our loved ones have come to succumbing to it.

I didn’t realize, or had forgotten, just how many lives mental illness takes. I love information, am comforted by information, so one of the first things I did last week was go to the store to look for a book. The section on grieving was pitifully small, and of course they had none of the books that Amazon carried regarding grieving a loss due to suicide. So I took home a memoir – Madness – about living with bipolar, by an author whom I had read and enjoyed before – Marya Hornbacher – and I finished it today. It was a great read, and now I’m wondering what I can soak up next.

One of the things the book showed me was the bare statistics. They are surprising, given the level of attention that mental illness and bipolar get in mainstream society. According to the author’s research, a person with a serious mental illness has a life expectancy that is 25 years shorter than that of a person without mental illness. A little under 3% of the US population has bipolar disorder, and about 15-20% of bipolar sufferers have completed fatal suicide attempts. These numbers may not sound like a lot when compared to the general population, but if you move in circles where mental illness is more prevalent (as I do), they are very scary.

From the USA today piece linked below, there is this:

MEDICAL UPDATE FROM NIMH DIRECTOR THOMAS INSEL

Q: Medically, what’s new with mental illness?

A: (Until recently) there was such a focus on what I call the “blame and shame” approach to mental illness, where either your parents were bad or you were bad. We don’t blame people for having cancer or diabetes.

(Mental illnesses) strike early, cause enormous disability and lead to high rates of mortality. Of 34,000 suicides a year, 90% are in people who have mental illness of some sort. Now we know there are genetic factors that in some cases influence mental illness risk. One area is epigenetics, how environmental factors affect the genome. We didn’t have this picture five or six years ago.

So, the week was rough. Husband and I wanted to avoid thinking about it. We wanted to avoid everything. So to some degree, we did. I went to work, but pretty much all the rest feel by the wayside. This weekend was kind of tough, but I know we’ll be ok.

I overslept this morning. There was a staff meeting but I missed it. Last night I dreamt of the lost friend. Or maybe that was this morning while I was oversleeping. It was disturbing, but I guess it was expected.

Today Husband is going to get back to work, as am I. Last night I had to go to bed alone because he wasn’t ready yet, and this morning he said he didn’t sleep well. But he seemed determined to work and for me to go too. We both had some sense of just wanting to avoid everything (ignoring the outside world, I think he called it), but also a sense that we knew we had to get back to work so things wouldn’t fall any further apart, and that we had to just force ourselves to get back to it.

So, here I am. I spoke to a coworker when I got in this morning (er…noon), she talked of processing over the weekend, and we talked a little about our weekends and being close to people who have considered or followed through with suicide. She had a friend in high school who did, it turns out, and then in college she became an advocate for knowledge and prevention of teenage suicide.

I think I especially wanted to avoid this morning because I remembered how it was last Monday morning that I learned, and also today is the funeral (in a far away part of the US so I will not be there), and I just didn’t want to face the office. I’m sure it wasn’t good but I am kind of glad that I missed the staff meeting and can just sit and work alone at my desk today.

MEDICAL UPDATE FROM NIMH DIRECTOR THOMAS INSEL
Q: Medically, what’s new with mental illness?

A: (Until recently) there was such a focus on what I call the “blame and shame” approach to mental illness, where either your parents were bad or you were bad. We don’t blame people for having cancer or diabetes.

(Mental illnesses) strike early, cause enormous disability and lead to high rates of mortality. Of 34,000 suicides a year, 90% are in people who have mental illness of some sort. Now we know there are genetic factors that in some cases influence mental illness risk. One area is epigenetics, how environmental factors affect the genome. We didn’t have this picture five or six years ago.

I can’t believe this horribly sad news

This morning, I learned horrible news about a friend of mine, a friend who had grown distant over the past year but with whom I had just been trying to re-establish a connection with, and who I still loved nonetheless.  I called her a month ago, she called me two weeks ago, I was going to call her back soon…

Now that is not possible, because last week she took her own life.  This is such devastatingly sad news, and I have not yet processed it fully yet.

The thing that bothers me the most is that I cannot honestly say that I had no idea that she was this disturbed.  I did know that she had a serious mental illness, although I never dreamed it would go so far in this direction.  I believed that her family and her religion and her religious community would support her through her struggles, and so even as I found it harder to connect as she got more and more into her religion, I took comfort in the thought that she had a strong support network in her family and other friends.  Or so I thought.

I knew she was sick, and it makes me feel that much worse that I didn’t reach out or wasn’t there for her or that she didn’t come to me.  I know in my rational, psychological-illness- experienced brain that suicidal thoughts are very personal and that I may not have been able to reach her even if I had known how much she was struggling.  Or that I could have seen her every day and never known that she was in such a dark place internally.  But even knowing that, it is hard not to think of what I might have done or said, if only we hadn’t grown apart, or if I had gotten back in touch with her sooner.

When she left our job last winter, I firmly believed she was experiencing a true manic episode.  That was when I first realized that she was not just the most optimistic and cheery person I had ever met, but that she was actually suffering from mental illness.  The type that leads you to make rash decisions which can have dire consequences.  I felt hurt at the time that she made such a snap decision to quit her job even as I had counseled her about making longer term plans to get out.  It was the beginning of the fading of what had become the closest friendship I’ve had in this office, at this job.  She was so much more than a coworker to me.  We went out together, we went fabric shopping (the fabrics she bought to make a skirt with are still in a bag in my apartment), she came to my apartment and we made sewing patterns, I attended her buddhist readings and chanting sessions, she came to see me skate and to an Ice Theatre show with me, and we talked often every day that we were in the office together.  We would e-mail each other to meet in the bathroom where one of us would have a good cry.  But then she quit, thinking that her part-time sales gigs and dancing would support her, and she was so confident and happy about it.

But there is not much you can do for someone in that manic state, because they don’t believe they need any kind of help.  All there really is to do is to be there for them when they crash from it and help them with the support they will need.  I wanted to be there for her, but she was getting harder to reach – I didn’t see her in the office and she wouldn’t always follow through on plans to meet or talk.  Also, it was her growing religious fervor that made it harder to stay close.  It was hard for me to talk with her when she would constantly return to the thought that this positive life force in the universe was going to make everything good and well and beautiful and that she could rely on it to do so. We drifted apart, and she called me on the day she left the city but left a message that wasn’t clear enough for me to realize she was leaving town, so I didn’t make it to see her that day.

A mutual friend tells me that shortly after that she stopped believing that crazy stuff, but I never knew – she never told me, and I am so sorry for that because I would have tried to help her see why life is beautiful and worthy even without the poppycock.  But I never had a chance to.  It is indescribably sad.

At the end of the summer the mutual friend told me that she was back in NYC.  I didn’t immediately contact her, because I wasn’t sure how I felt about our friendship.  But I knew that I missed her and called her one evening in early October.  I left her a message that I was sorry we hadn’t been in touch much and if she was interested I’d like to get together and catch up.  She called back about two weeks later, and she started with a preface that she had been so busy and there were so many people she hadn’t had time to catch up with, and that she was sorry about that, but that she was looking for work as a nanny or tutor and could I see if our other coworker might want her help when her baby came?  And I hadn’t responded for a little while, because I was hurt that it sounded like she was only calling me back when she thought I could help with something.  But I had thought it over and resolved to call her back and see her and tell her that it had upset me but that I still wanted to be friends and catch up.  I hadn’t gotten to it yet.

It sounds like she had family and friends around who would have been trying to offer their support and help her.  Since she had moved back to NYC, she had been staying with a friend who my coworker says was good for her.  And apparently back at her home she had been in therapy.  So she wasn’t alone, she had some type of support.  But whatever that support was, it wasn’t enough, and  it was just that they couldn’t reach her.  I don’t mean to think I am different, but I have had so many loved ones struggle with mental illness and I would have gladly welcomed and supported her if only we had reconnected sooner.

She is from Minneapolis, so the services will be there with her family, and I cannot attend.  They may have a NYC memorial later this month, so I’ve asked to be updated when they have details.

I still have the card she gave me on her last day at my office – it’s been on my cubicle wall ever since.  It is full of love and encouragement – just how I remember her most:

Flicka Mawa,

I will never forget your greatness or the greatness of your story, with your family, friends, and Husband.  It has been fun filled and fan’freakin’tastic!  I love you very much.  The world awaits to experience your greatness (and you in turn to experience theirs)!

Love,

Friend