My first encounter with mental illness came during my junior year of high school, when my best friend – seemingly out of the blue – experienced a manic episode that bought her a two-month stay on the adolescent unit at the local psychiatric hospital. It was 1988. The first time I visited her in the hospital, my friend told me matter-of-factly she had been diagnosed with “manic depression” (now known as bipolar disorder). She informed me that Ernest Hemingway and, most likely, Vincent Van Gogh, had suffered from the same disorder. Considering everything they’d accomplished in life, I figured it couldn’t be all that bad.
I visited her as often as I could during those two months, and when she came back to school I resolved to stick by her, “through thick and through thin”, as if nothing had ever happened. The day before her return, a favorite teacher had taken me aside and attempted to warn me that it wouldn’t all be smooth sailing, but I’d chosen to disregard that warning. After all, my friend had been in the hospital for two whole months. Surely two months was enough to cure any illness, wasn’t it?
At first, everything was fine. I assured her that I’d never judge her, never think of her any differently. We’d be friends forever, “through thick and through thin”. We picked up right where we’d left off – weekly sleepovers at each others’ houses, gossiping about our classmates, giggling over our adolescent crushes. Just as if nothing was wrong, nothing was different. And things stayed that way for a good, long while.
By senior year, though, things shifted. My friend’s behavior became increasingly volatile and unpredictable. I tried to expand my social circle while still inviting her along to parties and group outings, but these often ended with me feeling embarrassed and struggling to offer an explanation when she lost control of her emotions and created a conflict or made a scene. Then, in the middle of our senior year, I decided I couldn’t take it anymore. Slowly but deliberately, I began to separate myself from her. I started making excuses when she invited me over, I stopped returning her phone calls. I started hanging out more with other friends – girls who’d been our mutual friends before the onset of her illness, but who were now even more put-off by her behavior than I was. Girls who would’ve chosen me over her any day if forced to take sides.
My understanding was so limited then. I didn’t realize her hospitalization was only the beginning of a struggle my friend would be navigating for the rest of her life. I didn’t recognize that during our senior year, she still wasn’t well and that she probably needed my support and friendship more than ever. I told myself that it was her doing, that she’d driven me away by being a bad friend, when the truth was, I was the bad friend.
We didn’t stay in touch after graduation. I couldn’t even tell you where she went to college. When I became active on social media years later, I thought she might surface among “People You May Know” like so many other high school classmates, but she never did. She retreated into the far corners of my memory. Until 25 years later, when I came upon my junior yearbook and saw the entry she’d inscribed:
READ ME NOW + REMEMBER ME LATER
What can I say? We’ve made it through 3 years + only have 1 more to go. I’ve just been looking back over this year and w/o your genuine caring and understanding, I think I would have been very lonely! I will never ever forget the way you’ve stood by me through thick and through thin and the way you didn’t judge me too quickly like everyone else did makes me feel very special. This isn’t coming out gramatically [sic] correct because it’s coming from my gut + thoughts are flying. I don’t know what to say because what you’ve done for me is beyond words…You know I’m sooo proud of you!! Whenever you’ve doubted that you could ever do it, I always knew you could. Boy, I don’t know why this is sooo hard! Just thinking about what we’ve been through cracks me up… You know I’ve only known you for 3 years but it feels like a lifetime… You know – anytime you need to talk or need someone to be there – just let me know – YOU KNOW I LOVE TO ANALYSE DIFFICULT SITUATIONS! YOU’RE PRETTY, SMART & HAS [sic] GOOD TASTE IN FRIENDS + (FUN) YOUR HONESTY IS WHAT I LOVE THE MOST (Don’t let anyone take that away from you) + DECENCY (DON’T FORGET ME!!!!) WELL, IT’S 2:46 AM (YOU’RE SLEEPING & I’M POOPED). NO MATTER HOW FAR WE GROW APART GEOGRAPHICALLY YOU WILL ALWAYS STAY CLOSE TO ME (FOREVER)!!!!
After I read it, I wept. I wept for my friend, for whom I’d turned out not to be remotely there through thick and through thin after all. I wept for myself, because I’d learned the lessons I should have learned decades too late. Like recognizing that even as she wrote that yearbook entry, my friend was most likely manic – or at least hypomanic. She was wide awake at 2:46 a.m. and experiencing flight of ideas morphing into all-caps because those ideas seemed too big to be contained by English-language conventions. And I wept for all the kids out there in the world today, struggling with mental illness and misunderstood, judged and abandoned by the very people who form their tenuous threads to normalcy.
After high school, I completed my undergraduate studies at a top-ranked university, then earned a PhD in clinical psychology from another top-ranked university. I’ve helped hundreds of people through their mental health difficulties and crises. But I can never change the fact that I failed the very first person I ever encountered who was struggling and needed my help.
To all the kids – and adults – out there today who might find yourselves in a similar situation with a friend: Be compassionate. Be understanding. Be forgiving. Cut some slack. Don’t judge too quickly. Don’t label. Don’t abandon. If you don’t understand what’s happening with your friend, find someone who can help you understand. Don’t let my regrets become your regrets.
To my high school friend: I hope things have turned out well for you. I hope that you’ve found ways to manage your illness and live your life. I hope you have good support, and good professional help, when and if you need it. I hope you’ve found real, tried and true friends, the kind of friend I couldn’t manage to be for you. And I hope you know that if I could, I would go back and change everything.
Image credit: Romel
The author is a clinical psychologist practicing in Chicago, IL who has published on a variety of mental health related topics. The events described in this story are what sparked her interest in pursuing a career in a mental health field. She is sharing this story in the hopes that it will help others who are struggling in their efforts to support a friend or loved one living with mental illness. And encourage those who find themselves in this situation not to face this challenge alone, but to seek out information and support for themselves. In the interest of protecting her friend’s privacy, she wishes to remain anonymous.