By Kate Carre
I’m standing in a nondescript high-street chain store on a gloomy, grey Tuesday morning. I am here because I need to choose some boots to wear to my best friend’s funeral. The choice overwhelms me, not least because my mind cannot accept that I am going to need to wear them at all.
How can any boots be worthy of her?
I should spend a fortune. The boots must be perfect. They must be the most exquisite boots ever made, in her honour. How can any boots be worthy of her? How can a factory-made pair of boots, mass-produced and shipped from China ever be deserving of this occasion? There should be boots and hats and shoes made especially, just for her.
Then…what does it matter? She is gone and it is too late. No boots I buy can bring her back, there will be no chance for me to say, “Come on, H, you don’t want to go to hospital but you know it has to happen”. This time there will be no aftermath of exasperation and fury tinged with love and fear at a near miss. There will be no “how could you?”, no “why?”, no months of therapy to try to prevent ending up back in the same place wondering how the hell it happened. Just silence and a pair of black boots.
She was sparkly
H wasn’t a black person. She was sparkly. She used to say, “It’s all about the sparkle”. I spot a pair of sparkly silver boots. Could I wear them to the funeral, just a flash of sparkle, a piece of her amongst the sombre outfits that seem so strange? Just as she wore pink shoes on her wedding day? But I can’t decide. H could pull it off and perhaps if she were here she would encourage me. But I can’t decide whether it is appropriate, my judgement is gone with her. So many shopping trips telling me what suited me and what didn’t. She was stylish, I am not. She sparkled, I don’t. Empty. Lost in fog. Since she died, I feel stupid, clumsy, lost for words, almost drunk. She isn’t here, I can’t decide. So I bought the black boots.
And I’m looking all around this mundane shop where I don’t even want to be for signs of her. I am searching for her in the pyjamas that say “Live life and shine”, in the scarf that looks a little bit like one she once wore. In the students on shopping trips as we used to be, planning nights out that we used to go on, these people who don’t know what tragedy life might hold. They can’t imagine a life in which one of them is no longer here, just as we couldn’t and I can’t now. I’m looking for signs that she is still out there somewhere, that we are more than our bodies and that I will see her again. I’m seeing meaning and I’m seeing stark emptiness.
I am searching for her
I am noticing her in the trinkets, the make up, the mirror with a giraffe on the corner that I might have sent her for Christmas. What did I get her for Christmas? I can’t even remember. I should have given her the whole earth.
Everything I see means so much and it means nothing. Reading so much into small details, looking for signs of her because there will be no more Christmas presents in the post, no more sparkles and no more H. My daughter is holding my hand, innocence in a pink spotty snowsuit. I kiss her because H’s daughter will never shop with her Mummy again. Her children’s lives will now forever be divided into before and after and Mummy will be spoken of in the past tense.
Her life was courageous
H did not gloss over the realities of her illness. She spoke of it eloquently, honestly and with courage. Her life was courageous. Her death is neither courageous nor cowardly. Like any other death, it is the result of an illness so severe that life couldn’t be sustained. She spoke openly about illnesses so misunderstood. And even in death she is still teaching us these truths. I will speak them for her because she isn’t here to say them.
Mental illness is cruel and ugly. It isn’t celebrities checking into a retreat. It isn’t impossibly beautiful young women feeling insecure. It isn’t a cry for attention. It isn’t an extreme diet. It isn’t black eyeliner and dark poetry. It is an insidious destruction of self, personality and peace. It is the alienation of friends and family, even those who really want to help and only realise the gulf when it is too late. It is relentless sleepless nights and hours that turn into days. It is torturous and it is devastating, destroying relationships, self-worth and rational thought. It erodes personality. It is repetitive and exhausting and destroys lives.
H would want to tell you that recovery is still possible. She would tell you not to give up, that you are worthwhile, valuable and loved. She was all those things and more, but it just couldn’t permeate the wall of her disturbed brain chemistry.
Grief goes on and on and on
And I want to say…if you are feeling suicidal, voice those thoughts. Take their power away. Keep yourself safe, even if it goes against everything you feel like doing, because otherwise your death will cause more devastation and far-reaching ripples than you know. Mental illness is ugly and grief is ugly. It isn’t a few dignified tears into a handkerchief at your best friend’s funeral, and it isn’t a pair of black boots and a jacket. Grief goes on and on and on, it is anger, it is snapping at your children, it is bone-deep exhaustion. It is kicking things and wanting to scream. It is heavy and it is physically great. People don’t get over it, they change forever and I want to tell you, if there is any part of you that wants help, hold on. Don’t do it.
But to everyone who remains…I want you to know that mental illness comes from the inside. That sometimes all the love there is can’t change it. That just like any other illness it is sometimes terminal.