[Content warning: Suicide]
The photo above shows me in the late 80’s with my first BFF, Alexis, who would have turned 43 today. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia after we graduated from high school, and she made the decision to end her suffering 17 years ago. I'm missing her deeply today as I always do. I would love to see her alive and thriving, but I'll have to accept that I can't. I'm infinitely thankful for the time we shared and that she still "visits" me sometimes in my dreams. If you have time for a longish read, here's a piece I wrote for her years ago and have revised slightly to reflect the passage of time. I hope you'll read it and hug your loved ones extra tight tonight in honor of my girl. I'll add more photos of Alexis to this post in the coming days. ♥♥♥
We were opposites from the beginning. It was Thanksgiving week, 1980, and our kindergarten classes were celebrating together with a bit of un-PC dress up that makes my grownup, feminist self cringe: Alexis was a Pilgrim and I was an American Indian. As with our costumes, the differences between us were plenty: she had olive skin, deep-brown hair and a small frame, while I was blonde and “big-boned,” as people (annoyingly) referred to my larger build. She was quiet, obedient and reserved; I was the loud-mouth, hyper and rebellious and always seeking out our next misadventure.
Despite this early encounter, it wasn’t until a couple of years later when we ended up in the same second-grade class that we actually became friends. All those differences fell away: we just clicked. From that point on we spent nearly every weekend at each other’s houses, playing Go Fish, having contests to see which of us could drink the most miniature-bathroom-cupfuls of water, trying to stay up “‘til the next day” and never once making it. One of our favorite pastimes was going to my brother’s baseball games and sloshing around in the creek behind the field, collecting overly-ambitious baseballs. When we went through our lazy preteen stage, we would lie on the couch for hours, her feet next to my head and mine next to hers, watching entirely too much TV. Headbanger’s Ball was the hands-down favorite, and our hair rivaled that of the men in the glam bands we obsessed about (we were in on the first round of Bret Michaels, for one).
Alexis was an artist and drummer and animal-lover, and she had a bunch of different pets at any given time, including a snake, birds and horses. She drew the most amazing, elaborate sketches of unicorns, maidens and castles, down to the tiniest detail. When my mind flashes back to one of those drawings, I’m awed at her talent and more surprised still that I didn’t recognize it as extraordinary at the time. I’m also pained by the thought that her rich imagination would eventually become her enemy.
There were other beautiful things about Alexis that slipped by me, too, like her protectiveness of me, her tender concern that is apparent only now in hindsight. As a teenager, I fell asleep in the school clinic after pretending to be sick because I’d smoked a joint in the woods near the school and since I was a weed rookie, I couldn’t keep it together enough to sit in class the rest of the day. No one noticed when school let out that I was still in the clinic snoozing. As my parents tried to figure out where I was, Alexis had another friend take her searching for me because she was too worried to sit back and wait for word of my whereabouts.
The saddest phase of our friendship was when our interest in boys blindsided us, at far too young an age, and tested our connection to each other. It never broke, but it still pisses me off that we were so wrapped up in getting attention from boys that we let it take priority over the special bond we had. I also regret having temporarily tossed her aside for another friend, one who matched my larger appetite for trouble - and a car to facilitate the mission, before Alexis and I were old enough to drive. This friend was absurdly jealous of Alexis’s exceptional lbeauty and didn’t want her around, and I didn’t protest like a friend should. I know now that it was all normal adolescent stuff, but it hurts so much more since I know I’ll never have a chance to make it up to her.
As the frenzied searching years of our early adolescence settled into the more mellow late teens, Alexis and I began to regard each other with a familiarity and fondness that can only come from knowing each other nearly all your lives, much like I imagine sisters feel. Throughout high school, we were part of an inseparable quadruplet of girls (Ahoo and Liz completed the group) who bonded over hip hop, heavy metal, cigarettes, and excessive amounts of yapping and laughing. But as our senior year drew to a close, it seems we had all developed interests that diverted our attention outward. Alexis and I continued to check in with each other on a regular basis, but we made little time for each other as we became more entrenched in our first serious relationships. We were both partying way too much, but I was somehow managing to stay in college, studying psychology, while Alexis seemed to struggle with figuring out which direction she wanted her life to take.
I guess I should have suspected something was wrong when I called Alexis and she explained that she was about to move out of her condo because she was having nightmares and there were “too many bad memories” there. Maybe if I’d probed a little, she would have confided in me. I don’t quite remember the context, but I probably wasn’t expecting such a heavy statement. Maybe I just wanted the call to be quick and easy, a hi-just-checking-in-now-let-me-get-back-to-my-life call. So I didn’t push, and she didn’t offer any details. My heart drops to my stomach when I try to imagine even for a minute what I now know she really meant.
We spoke on the phone many more times after that, often saying, “We have GOT to get together – this is ridiculous!” She had moved back in with her parents in our old neighborhood – she was just a short walk away, yet somehow we couldn’t seem to connect in person. She did stop by my parents’ house once while I was out shopping with my mom, and she told my dad that she just wanted to come by and see the house where some of the happiest times of her life took place. They were some of mine too – me and my soul sister, together learning about life and love and each other.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, I invited Alexis to my baby shower, and she said she’d come. The morning of the shower, I went to my parents’ house to get ready, and when my mom and I went outside to leave, there on the porch was a gift bag full of baby gifts with a casual note from Alexis saying that she couldn’t make it after all. It was obvious that we were home, yet she hadn’t even knocked on the door. That’s when it finally began to register that something was really wrong.
Just before my daughter was born, I moved back to our old neighborhood too. Surely, two childhood best friends could squeeze in some face time living in the very same neighborhood. But no, her puzzling avoidance and my airtight daily routine conspired to keep us apart.
I clearly remember the details of our conversation when we spoke in the spring after my move. It stands out because it was an upbeat conversation–and a real one, not just a gratuitous check-in. It also stands out because it was our last. She had recently started a new office job, and she really liked the people she worked with. We talked about my kid, just an infant then, and I insisted that Alexis come over to see her. We agreed that she would come for dinner soon but didn’t set a date. About a week later, I noticed her number on the caller ID but she hadn't left a message. That missed call still haunts me, of course.
The following week, after my family went out for Mother’s Day dinner, we gathered at my parents’ house. My mom checked her phone messages and there was one from Alexis’s sister saying she had some sad news. When I called back, her father answered and told me right away that Alexis had died. He asked how much I knew about the problems she’d been having, and I guess that in struggling with my answer I made it obvious that it wasn’t much. He explained that shortly after we’d graduated from high school, Alexis began having troubling symptoms and was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. When it had become too much to bear she took a taxi to Walmart and bought a shotgun, then went to her favorite place in the woods just behind our neighborhood. I wonder what she thought about before ending her life there.
I went to her memorial service pushing my infant daughter in her stroller, hating the irony of the thought I kept having: “So this is how you finally meet my daughter.” I didn’t recognize anyone except her parents and sister. I longed to see someone we had both known, someone I could grab onto and cry, “Can you believe it?!” But instead I stood around awkwardly, at one point viewing the pictures of her on display. They showed the sweet, soulful, endlessly gifted and beautiful little girl I’d met two decades earlier at a kindergarten Thanksgiving party.
I wanted her back so badly. Instantly I felt the crushing pain of knowing that we had lived just over a mile apart and yet hadn’t laid eyes on each other in years. It’s the kind of thing that you can’t rationalize, can’t explain away, not really. You just have to live with it. I didn’t make the time to see my best childhood friend even after it was obvious she needed someone, needed me. I took time for granted and just knew there would always be another day, another call. You also wonder, more so with suicide than with most other types of death, if there was something you could have done. Even though my mind knows it’s unrealistic to blame myself for a suicide, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had just made more of an effort, really insisted that we see each other, would my presence in her life have made the difference?
I became a textbook case, going into denial about whether she was even dead, clinging to the remote possibility that she really wasn’t after all, that maybe she and her family had concocted the whole scenario to give her a fresh start in another country or as a different person. Crazy, I know, but still, I didn’t fully accept that she was gone until I ordered her death certificate and had it in my hands, facing the simple, brutal, final truth.
It’s been 17 years since her death, and when I think of Alexis, I’m indescribably sad that she had to go through all she did. I grieve the growing old she’ll never do and the family of her own she’ll never love. I mourn the gentle spirit and magical artistic talent the world will never get to experience. And I miss my oldest friend who knew me to my core, who loved and accepted me unconditionally.
I have dreams about her every once in a while, and in them it’s like we’re both aware that she’s gone, but there is a sense of peace and comfort as we talk and enjoy each other’s company like we did countless times over the years. That unmistakable fondness we had for one another is there too. In one dream, we were laying feet-to-head just like we did as kids, chatting away and lazily passing the time. I like to think she’s visiting me in my dreams.
At Alexis’s memorial service, I started to cry as I approached her mom. Trying to be strong, she hugged me and said, “Don’t.” But I do. I have many times, and I am now.
- Please know that suicide is preventable, and having suicidal thoughts is not a flaw or sign of weakness.
- If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.
- To learn more about risk factors and warning signs, visit afsp.org/signs