I saw her here and read her brutally honest but stunning short story here, and I felt so proud to be a part of her that I had to share our tale. It’s not all pretty, and it’s definitely not about cycling.
It was a day in spring, and she was wearing stripy socks that travelled right up to her knees, with a black dress and a lot of eye make up.
Spring suited the moment. It felt like the beginning. I have no idea what we talked about, perched either side of the garden wall as the un-removal men ferried furniture back and forth from van to the new home.
The grass between our houses was green then – a slope that connected the two properties – but we had years ahead of us to muddy it with our endless footsteps from home to home. It annoyed my Dad a lot – mainly because it was his grass, but also because she was getting inside my head and trying to stop that would be about as fruitful as standing in front of a hurtling train.
We were fourteen and I don’t remember what we talked about at all. We must have hit it off, though. We both liked to write, and she could draw, beautifully, in fact. I had a bit of a crush on the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Bowling for Soup and Nickelback, but she introduced me to Nirvana, Marilyn Manson, Slipknot and all the surrounding etc.
The soundtrack that accompanied those years was basically whatever was on Kerrang. We’d watch for hours, drawing, writing, poems, reams and reams of endless words – rubbish probably, ripe and stinking with sentimentalism (I speak for myself) – just like the words I’m writing now.
Nothing’s changed, we’re just older, with jobs and husbands and housework. And now she’s got a diagnosis of Schizoaffective Bipolar and borderline personality disorder, and the strength to campaign for better care and understanding for people with mental health problems.
We had a sister/sister bond. When one of us was ripped away on holiday it was like a major life event – “eating alone, my alphabet soup speaks to me” was the half-joking, half-serious ‘I miss you’ postcard I received before a week in Cornwall.
We grew closer, and I began to understand she wasn’t as smiley as she seemed. There were cuts on her arms that were deeper than the kind of thing you could do with a drawing pin or a blunted hair clip. A lot of people then were vaguely playing with the notion of self-harm, but she wasn’t playing – there was too much determination in every gash.
I remember she told me she did it with a knife. Not a pin or a blunted hair clip, the kind of play-acting that lots of kids go in for – a full on knife that could actually kill someone.
She’d tried that, too. That was what scared me the most – because I loved her more than I could ever, ever explain. It hurt my heart – a searing sort of love that isn’t necessarily all that pleasant, but also isn’t something you want to go away.
It had been paracetamol. They say people who try to die with pills aren’t really trying to die, that they just want people to know they’re thinking about it. Perhaps that’s true, but it scared me to death that she might have another go.
We’d sit around, all evening, writing and sharing – sharing everything. When things were getting bad, she kept a diary in my house – of everything that she couldn’t risk her mother reading. There are pages and pages – I read it back a week or so ago, now over 12-years have passed, and actually it frightened me more now than it did then. Somehow, as a teenager, I could absorb the tremors of what I now know was a mental illness better.
Time eased on. We got to our GCSE years. I felt myself learning to understand depression. I know I didn’t really learn it – you can’t ‘learn depression’. I was a mentally well and generally happy teenager. But I did feel myself sinking, somehow, slightly. It was like being underwater. I felt removed.
Finishing school, we went to the same college. She made friends with the goths and the punks who used to hide out in the Essentials Café between lessons. I joined them. The more I hung out with the Essentials gang, the more at home I felt, and the more stifled I was with ‘normal’ teenagers and ‘normal’ people.
So that was that, I was part of the Essentials crew. I joined in the with the punk thing – cut my hair off like Bettie Page, wore creepers and studded belts (three at most) with red skinny jeans and a jacket I’d decorated myself. She was taking a lot from me – but she was also giving me a freedom to question everything.
I studied English Language, it was the gender and language module that did it. I was furious to piece together the fact that ‘wo-man’ was just an extension of ‘man’. We who were born the wrong sex were called Miss and then Mrs when she was attached to a Mr, who was a Mr from the day he was no longer a child. Thankfully, my tutor craftily took me aside and called my expressions of anger Postmodern, and I fell in love with English and Literature and Language and my anger made me study harder, not less. That conversation I had with her was probably the biggest saving grace.
There’s one memory that sticks in my head, and that is of the walk home when she was having hallucinations – which is a part of Schizoaffective Disorder and make sense now.
She had a shawl on her shoulders – it was a big black rug, that covered her entire body and I suppose she could hide behind it. It was just an extension of the hair over her eyes and the long sleeves on her mass of scars, but not everyone else knew her like I did.
We were walking to get the bus, and she had her long shawl over her shoulders, and her hair in her eyes – and she was scared of something. I don’t know what. She couldn’t walk – it was like the world was mud and she was wading through it, whilst I floated along trying not to let her wade into the road. I had to prop her up, and together we made our way to the bus station. She was petrified of something I couldn’t see and I was petrified of the cars on the road which she couldn’t see.
I knew she was getting worse, and one time, it all just got too much. We were all at someone’s house – I forget whose. I’d developed quite a liking of alcohol, and I could down those £6 vodka bottles pretty comfortably. By comfortably, I mean I’d usually end up puking up my insides and crying on someone’s shoulder by the end of the night.
I’d done it a few times – drunk, cried, puked, cried some more – often woke up and remembered not a single detail but that I’d puked and cried. Sometimes not ever that. But this time it all went wrong – I cried and the words I said were: “She’s going to kill herself.” It was my mum I told.
In the morning, I was told her mum had spent the night with her and it was all going to be ok now. But it wasn’t really, was it? Nothing was the same. We stayed friends, of course – but there was just a little piece of the puzzle lost.
I went to uni, she stayed at home and got a job. We still wrote together, she came to visit me at university, and I went to see her first home with her new boyfriend, who soon became her husband. Her new rock, I’d been replaced. I was glad she had him, even though I could taste a little jealousy in my smile.
We saw each other less, but it was often in the back of my head ‘what if I get the call, and it’s all over?’
It was on her 21st birthday that I went for the second screw-up. I’d arranged for us to see the Dresden Dolls at Camden Underworld. At least, that’s what I believed. It turns out, it was just the bloke who plays second fiddle to Amanda, who in actual fact, is the Dresden Dolls.
I ordered a Snakebite. Then a couple more. All I remember from that moment is the toilet basin – it was silver, definitely silver. I think I remember leaving the venue – the sharp taste of cigarette smoke in my mouth, the cold, harsh air. That’s it. We went home, she took care of me.
I had no idea why she stopped talking to me, for a long time. It was a mutual friend who told me. Apparently I’d cried my heart out, told her she’d ruined my teenage years.
The first time around, when I spilled the words out to my mum, I’d been under stress. This second drunken mistake? Almost unforgivable. And just not true.
A sober me would have explained that she had shown me a side of life I didn’t know, but that I’d never take back the knowledge. She ruined nothing – she just opened my eyes to the fact that the world isn’t as sweet smelling as I had thought when I met her, over the garden wall at the tender age of 14.
In hindsight, though, I wish I’d known it was ok to seek help as a helper, too – that caring for someone with mental health problems is stressful even for adults. It’s not ‘failing’ to unburden your heart, just better to do it sober and to the right person at the right time, rather than when desperation hits you like a wall of worry.
For years, we just carried on like we were ghosts of the friends we used to be. We went through the motions – birthdays, the odd coffee. Eventually, a mutual friend told me what I’d said that night. And eventually I said I was sorry – something I’d had said over the avocado and bacon pitta bread I’d ordered at the cafe the very next morning, aged 21, if I’d only have drunk less and remembered more.
We’re friends again. And both aged 29, we finally went to see the real Dresden Dolls last year. I don’t think either of us stayed dry eyed all night.
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It is never worth spending too long trying to capture moments from a gig on camera becasue that is what professional photographers are there for. But obvs had a go. ….. Finally took @alexandra.l.troy to see the @dresdendolls last night, after my absolute fail of an attempt a decade ago – which resulted in the wrong gig and a certain degree of vomit. And it meant SO much. A few little tears slipped out. Al, you're still my heart's sister and I love you even more than alphabet soup and our combined crush on @amandapalmer which is a lot. …. Here's to another decade of Malix and Alliggle. 😘
She’s a published author, my teenage writing buddy, you can read her poems in ‘Coffee and the Cosmos‘. She’s so strong, so committed to fighting the stigma attached to the struggles that one in four people suffer from. I’m so proud of her – not that I have much right to be, since I am just one tiny dot on her journey to being who she is.
We’re friends again, and I’m so grateful. I’ll love her, always – she is my heart’s sister.
This story was mostly a form of personal catharsis. However, I hope it’s helpful in some way to anyone caring for someone with mental illness. It’s good to listen, and it’s good to help – but it’s also a good idea to ask for help and support yourself, before it all becomes too much.
In the UK the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.