*trigger warning: suicide
To write about Kate, I wanted to go back and retrieve all our Facebook DMs. There was only a single message from her account left—but it was not from Kate. Her long-term boyfriend wrote: “Dear Susie. This is Tom, letting you know that Kate’s funeral is tomorrow, Thursday beginning 12:40 hrs UK time. I thought you might like to know. With love to you, Tom.”
Besides that note, there was nothing. I don’t know if FB automatically scrubbed my messages (I’m suspicious that way) or maybe I did. I’m a little unsure, though, why I would have deleted everything but Tom’s last message.
I never met Kate in the flesh. She was in London, I was in the U.S. We were introduced on Facebook, both members of a world-wide mental health collective. The group is designed “to provide support to those struggling with depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders….” I thought of us as a community bound together by the crap-shit of mental illness.
Even admitting I belong to any social media organization makes me a little uncomfortable. Meeting friends via the web is considered taboo and a little pathetic—it kind of says “my friends are avatars.” It also says “I’m willing to be catfished. My internet best friend will someday ask for nudes of me posing with a parasol and a canned ham.”
At that time in my life, though, I knew the stigma and risks and was okay with both of them. I wasn’t concerned with being seen as a flake or a loser. You see, when you have major depression, your in-person support system can be pretty sparse. You’ve had to tweeze out all the ones who can’t really understand—probably because they’ve never had full-on mental health issues. And then what are you left with? A re-gifted copy of “Chicken Soup for the Soul” to help you “count your blessings” and snap out of your funk. Outsiders may be able to sympathize with a heart attack or cancer or a stroke; those things are physical. But mental illness? Nobody’s lining up to organize a mayonnaise-y meal train for us.
Combine our social atrophy with our tendency to cocoon (actually moving our bodies often becomes very difficult), and depression can make us very, very isolated. Thankfully, I found a lifeline—and it was via my iPad.
If you ask people like Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist (who I just researched for another article), Facebook “friends” are not “real.” (I probably didn’t need an expert to tell me this because, face it, most people think that anyway.) He sees very little correlation between “having friends on social networks and actually being able to depend on them, or talking to them regularly.”
If Dunbar’s right, then how do you explain Kate? An outlier? Every single day, from the moment she first DM’d me, Kate and I wrote back and forth religiously, and our correspondence lasted about eight months. Not just once a day, but many times a day, and sometimes for a chunk of the day. (I would define this, I think, as “talking regularly.”)
We never covered the past, because sometimes it is devastating to think about who you were versus what you are now. I didn’t know her career—just that she was no longer able to work. I didn’t know her old hobbies—just that she swam as much as two hours a day to try and keep the “demons” (her word) at bay. She didn’t tell me anything about her friends “before,” but I knew all about her mother, sister, and boyfriend, who took turns watching over her now. And this is what we talked about: the here and now and how to hold on. The important stuff.
I was at a point where my depression was slowly resolving. I was trudging out of the grey, and, for the first time in years, I was traveling up and not spiraling down. Kate’s trajectory was the opposite, and at points she confided that she was absolutely flailing.
On my end, I tried to gently commiserate but also offer hope. (Hope is in short supply after you have suffered a mental breakdown.) We talked about journaling and meditation, transcranial magnetic stimulation and ketamine—anything we tried or would be willing to try.
We mourned that depression had the ability to turn us into husks. We shared small victories and wept. Dunbar suggests that it is “extremely hard to cry on a virtual shoulder.” I would suggest that sometimes a virtual shoulder is the best shoulder to cry on. Take that, Dunbar.
Kate’s death was painful for me. Our friendship, much more intimate and unvarnished than most I have ever experienced, ended abruptly and in a way I dreaded it would. Just like others who die by suicide (700,000 per year, which translates to ~1 person every 40 seconds), Kate couldn’t hold onto life tightly enough to keep her tethered. I understood—and still understand—why.
I never really got to talk about Kate when she was alive—at least not to concrete people. They generally only half-listened when I broached my depression; they more or less plugged their ears and did the “lalalalalalalala” thing when I slipped “my-friend-I-told-you-about-from-that-depression-group-I-belong-to-on-Facebook” into the conversation. So, when suicide claimed her life, I shut my mouth and kept it to myself.
The Kübler-Ross standard of grieving is the one most of us are familiar with. It is the model that includes denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. According to Sandra Silva Casabianca, writing for Psychcentral.com, the 5 stages of grief should only serve as a reference, and we “may even skip all these emotions and process [our] loss differently altogether.” At the time, I mainly experienced sadness (which is different from depression) and a sense of loss.
Now, by writing about Kate, I finally feel the relief of acceptance. If you got to the end of this article, you know so much more (maybe 100% more) about my friendship with Kate than any 3D person in my life does. I guess it is a bit apropos. I am only truly able to remember and share my very real friend in a single space—online.