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Charlene

Updated: Mar 18


My best friend committed suicide nine years ago today. A few weeks later, I dreamed I was sitting with her in a crowded restaurant, talking and laughing like we had so many times before. She stood up to go and I realized she was never coming back. I reached out to grab her hands, crying and begging her not to leave. When I told a mutual friend about my dream, he said, "We will always be in that restaurant, crying and begging her not to leave us."


Let me back up. It was Thursday, March 19, 2015 and I had just finished work when the phone rang. It was a close friend of hers who almost never called me. He quickly got to the point, that he'd received a couple of messages from her earlier in the week—one on Tuesday, to which he'd responded with a message of his own later that day, and another on Wednesday at 4:44 am—too early for her to have imagined or intended he would pick up. The last message was weird—cheerful, almost giddy. He was up early Wednesday morning, returning her call before 8 am, and he tried again throughout the day, night, and following morning. Her tone, combined with the strange timing of the message, had inexplicably filled him with dread. Now it was Thursday afternoon and the obvious fear in his voice was like ice water down my back.


Halfway into his explanation, I had my shoes and jacket on, ready to walk out the door. Her apartment is only four blocks away. I could see the building from my window. I said I'd go check on her the second we hung up. I told Mr. Pink what was going on and, almost as an afterthought, dialed her number to leave a quick message, concerned yet breezy, feeling strangely self-conscious, like some part—maybe 25%— of me already knew she would never hear it. ("Hey, it's me... give me a call. Your friends are worried.. It's Thursday at, uh... 4:20. Ha ha, 4:20. Okay, talk soon.") I imagined the police listening to her messages later, making a judgment call whether or not my off-hand reference warranted further investigation.


Getting into her building was easy, since Vancouverites are so unfailingly polite it was practically a given that someone would hold the door open for a smiling white woman, even one they'd never seen before. If her building had secured floors like the one across the street where we all used to live—where we'd met in the elevator 10 years earlier on the day we moved in, a box of books propping the elevator door open as the alarm screamed—then I might have worried about how I would get up to the 5th floor. As it turned out, the man who held the door for me was not only going to the 5th floor but lived in the apartment next to hers.


I asked if he'd seen her in the last couple of days, but he said he'd been out of town. I waited as he walked past me and down the hall to his apartment before knocking softly at first on her door. No answer. I knocked louder, more insistently. Silence. I was overly aware of the man in the apartment next door and of the unseen residents in the apartment across from hers, the door at my back that seemed to amplify every reverberation in the empty hallway. I knocked again and again and again as crime scene photos flashed uninvited through my mind.


(white limbs sprawled across the floor, no sign of struggle, blunt force trauma, a fall, seizure, freak accident, bolt of lightning)


I knocked again as loudly as I could, the sound echoing in my head, drumming out hope. I paused and held my breath, pressing my ear to the door, listening to the empty room that was anything but empty. A heart-shaped black box concealing a mystery, an answer, Schrodinger's cat. Either my friend or what remained of her, an empty shell, a memory that would live on in all of us. Don't do this (to me), I whispered. My brain played scenes from CSI, flooding the space where I refused to let dread take up residence.


(pale arm thrown over the side of the bathtub, blood dripping from the wrist, pooling below, warm water steadily overflowing, cascading to the floor in a stream, soaking the living room carpet, spreading under the door and out into the hall beneath my feet)


I willed the images away, knocking until my knuckles throbbed. I don't know how many times I struck them against the hollow plywood before I finally advanced on her neighbor's apartment like a very persistent girl scout. Knocking on his door, interrupting his vacation stories mid-sentence. His yappy little dog barking ferociously. He opened the door looking extremely tired and told me where I could find the resident manager who kept the keys to all the apartments.


The manager eyed me suspiciously as I explained to her who I was and who my friend was and why I was there. That no one had heard from her in days and it was highly unusual and her friends were worried. She told me she couldn't let anyone into the apartment. I didn't want to go in, I said, just for someone to check on her, someone who has a key... She told me to call the police if I was worried. She had a key, but she didn't want to go into the apartment and see something unpleasant. She asked if I had called the hospitals. No, I hadn't thought of that. Hope.


Walking the four blocks back home, I tried to be methodical, make a plan; first, look up the hospitals, find out where they are, call them all, then call the police. No, first call her friend back and tell him about my conversation with the building manager, then try to find her parents on Facebook... She could have gone to visit them but no, she never, ever leaves her phone behind... What about her other friends? Of course they would be on Facebook too... I'll check there first because there's no sense in worrying her parents if there's nothing wrong... No, first call the fucking hospitals because there could still be a perfectly rational explanation. I went over and over this to-do list as I walked, trying to drown out the stupid, childlike voice in my head with its narcissistic objections; "I know she's okay because she wouldn't do that to me."


But she did. We didn't find out until almost 24 hours later. At 3 in the afternoon the next day, I answered the phone expecting it to be the police or our friend's mother, again, or her other friend with whom we'd spent hours on the phone the night before, speculating, relaying and repeating the contents of other conversations back and forth, around and over the same details. But when I answered the phone it was the resident manager. She was returning a phone call Mr. Pink had made that morning, leaving a message at a number he'd dredged up from directory assistance. I told her I was the one who came to her door the day before, that I took her advice and called the police. Yes, the police came here, she told me. When? Last night... Really? They were supposed to call us back but we've been waiting since last night... Did they go into the apartment? She didn't answer. Please... Tell me what happened. No one's told us anything. I'm so sorry, she finally said. They found her body. She died.


The details came later; the police found a note, the police found "tons of pills." The police confirmed that 4:44 am Wednesday morning was her last outgoing call. Another friend says she'd received a voice message early Tuesday morning, wishing her a happy Saint Patrick's day (she didn't call me, the childlike fucking voice chimes in). The funeral home announcement would later read: June 4, 1970 to March 19, 2015. But everyone—the police, her mother and sister—everyone assures me she died on Wednesday. They swear to me that by Thursday afternoon when I was standing with my ear pressed to the door in the empty hallway, she was already dead.


(Is this too much information? Private? Inappropriate? You give up your right to privacy, I think, when you voluntarily give up your right to life. I'm sorry, Char, but it's my story now.)


The police tried her door just before midnight on Thursday, an hour after we finished reporting her missing. They checked her phone records remotely and sent a couple of officers to talk to her friend because he was the last person she had called. He didn't answer his phone because he slept through the sound of it ringing in the other room, so the police scaled a wall outside the garden to reach his front door. It was 1 in the morning when his landlady who lives upstairs finally knocked loudly enough to wake him. He came to the door where two officers were waiting to ask him questions; his answers were confused, he was babbling and grief-stricken. They had to repeat several times, "what were her exact words?" We later learned that the reason for their visit had been to determine whether or not she sounded suicidal in her last message. If they could extrapolate a threat of self-harm from the contents of that final phone call, they would have probable cause or imminent danger or whatever they needed to justify breaking down her door.


All they had to do was ask. Any one of her friends or family would have told them yes, there was an imminent threat. There was always a danger of suicide with her. Her first two attempts were more than a decade earlier, precipitated by the antidepressants she was given when she failed to recover quickly enough from bowel surgery to return to work in what her employers thought was a reasonable timeframe. She was alone and felt traumatized by the surgery, by her physical scars and her frailty and the lingering pain. Her family was in the next province and she had just lost her roommate to HIV.


Six months after the first attempt, she was prescribed a different antidepressant and within weeks, she attempted suicide again. That time, as she describes it, the compulsion came out of nowhere. One minute she was fine, the next minute it was like she was watching from outside her body as she seized the bottle of pills and upended it, swallowing as many as she could before her friend, who'd thankfully been in the other room, realized what she was doing and called 911.


After that her doctors were more certain than ever that she was suffering from Bipolar Disorder. They put her on an endlessly rotating carousel of mind altering drugs, adding this, switching that, increasing them at will, testing her blood every other visit to make it look like what they were doing was actually science. She and I sat down one time and wrote a list of all the drugs she'd been on since the surgery—dozens of names—every one of them targeting behavior, not a single one promising recovery; mood stabilizers, tranquilizers, typical and atypical antipsychotics, seizure drugs, thyroid drugs and heart drugs to counteract the side effects of all the others. For a few years, she found an herbal supplement that made her feel normal and she'd tried to wean herself off of everything, but the supplements were expensive and insurance didn't cover them.


She quit working in 2008, taking disability from her employer until it ran out, and then from the government—all contingent on her strict adherence to the toxic regimen of psychoactive drugs. At one point, she was taking two different powerful antipsychotics plus Lithium and a heart medication; she dropped almost 30 pounds and made another possible suicide attempt—or maybe it was accidental, but nevertheless it landed her in the psych ward for five days. Weekly visits to her doctor, weekly refills from her psychiatrist because she couldn't be trusted with large amounts of the kind of drugs she was taking. Maintenance therapy. 15 years of multiple overlapping, contra-indicated prescriptions, mutually assured self destruction, keeping her in a constant haze of medicated mental anguish, numbed and denuded of even the hope of ever being well again. Her mother telling us, I always knew this would happen.


It was so much a part of her personality that the fact that the police were waiting for us to utter the right trigger words to suggest to them that she was an immediate threat to herself seemed... surreal. After 10 years of trying everything to bolster her, support her, fortify her, nurture her, entertain her and comfort her through everything she was going through, it never occurred to us to say the word "suicidal," not only because saying it out loud might conjure our worst fear into reality, but because we all knew that if she hadn't answered her phone in 48 hours, someone needed to break down her fucking door.


In the weeks that followed, it was all too easy to speculate, what if I had called her Tuesday night and invited her out with me? Or the previous weekend when I stopped by to drop off some clothes. If I had gone upstairs instead of running off to do my errands, could I have distracted her for another week—another month?


I don't hold it against her for leaving me, or blame myself for not being enough to counterbalance all the world's ills. Maybe she knew she couldn't call me that week because she knew I would have answered the phone, known something was wrong, would have run the four blocks and broken down the door if I had to. But this wasn't a cry for help. She didn't want anyone stopping her this time.


I no longer imagine what I could have done differently. Instead I think about the times I did call, listened and offered advice, made her laugh, got her out of the house, made her feel normal. I think of all the times she might have done it sooner, if we hadn't been there. I can imagine alternate realities, a parallel timeline in which the elevator doors closed just before she came out of her apartment that day 10 years earlier. In that timeline, maybe she only lived another year.


I can see a whole multiverse branching out from every interaction, every missed connection. I can choose to believe that this reality is the one where we played our best game, saved her from herself the longest. We could run the simulation a million times (who's to say we haven't?), trying every combination of action and inaction, and never break that high score. In this universe, her suicide was always going to happen. It was as inevitable as a black hole, where space and time collapse down to a single point, suspending the light that enters it in a state of mathematical infinity, between death and eternal life.


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