Four days after my trip to the hospital, my psychiatrist asks me if there is a triggering event that led to the downward spiral of my mental health. Basically, it all started nine months ago: the day I found out my best friend died by suicide. It was a day that would catapult me into full-blown bipolar illness.
a life unfinished
Katherine died in the dark, early morning hours of Monday, January 16th, 2017.
I’ve read that suicide is impulsive—that even the most carefully constructed suicide plans are made by terribly ill brains that think death is the only option, the only way to be free from pain.
I think that’s what happened with Katherine. I don't think she realized how much we loved her and needed her. She had no idea how much she would hurt us by leaving. She was worn out and depressed and, as she wrote in her suicide note to me, she felt like she didn't belong in this world. So, she started drinking heavily and one night, after posting on Facebook that she was "just so tired," she lay down on her couch and ended her life.
She left her condo in a state of dishevelment. Dirty socks on the floor. Dishes on the counter. Half unpacked boxes from a move two years prior still stacked in the guest room. A life unfinished. A life abandoned.
The night before Katherine died, I was coming down with a cold. It was Sunday, January 15th. I could feel that heavy, solid-as-cement feeling weighing down my head. I went to work that night, anyway. Slogged through. I got off around 8pm feeling sick and bone tired. As I drove home, Katherine came to mind. I hadn’t heard from her for a couple days. I knew she was struggling. I just didn't know how severe it had become.
I should call her, I thought as I pulled into my driveway. I should call her tonight.
But I didn’t. It's a decision that still haunts me.
All I wanted to do was go to bed. Around 9:30pm I pulled the covers over my head and fell into a deep, Nyquil-induced sleep.
At that very moment, 2,000 miles away in Tennessee, Katherine was preparing to end her life. It was 11:30pm, her time. In an hour and a half she would send me an email—her suicide note. But I wouldn’t see it because I was fast asleep by then. In fact, I wouldn’t see the email until two mornings later after receiving a phone call from Katherine’s father, informing me of her death.
I should have called her. I think she wanted me to call her. I’m fairly certain she was hoping I would see her email that night and call her because she left her phone on.
You left your phone on.
I've asked myself this a million times. You sent me a goodbye email.
But you left your phone on.
Oh my god.
Were you hoping—
Even though it was late—it wasn't too late?
That I was somehow still awake?
Were you hoping that I'd call you?
I would have.
are you ok?
I was sick in bed all day on Monday and I didn’t check my email. I didn’t log onto Facebook or Twitter. The next morning I felt well enough to get up and I checked my Facebook messages. A woman I didn’t know had messaged me saying she needed to talk to me about an urgent matter relating to Katherine.
When I saw that message, it was 6:03am on Tuesday, January 17th. My heart dropped. I began texting Katherine frantically. No response. I stared at the screen, willing those little gray flashing dots to appear….nothing. I called her. Her phone rang through. But she didn’t answer. I called again. And again. I left a desperate voicemail for her: “Katherine, call me. I need to know you’re OK.”
I ran upstairs and pulled up Google maps on my desktop computer. I zoomed in on her address and then slowly zoomed out, looking for hospital markers. I called all the hospitals in her county. Nothing. I called all the hospitals in Nashville.
The worst possibility—the unimaginable possibility—was beginning to dawn in my mind. I pushed it back.
But it wouldn’t go away.
I ran downstairs to the kitchen where my husband, Matt, was preparing breakfast for our children before school.
“Matt, what do I do?” I asked my husband, lowering my voice so I wouldn’t worry the kids. “Do I just start calling the morgues? The coroner’s office?”
Matt shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe she decided she needed a break from everything. What’s to say she didn’t just book a flight and go down to Florida for a few days?”
I understood his reluctance to give in to the worst possibility. No one wants to believe the unbelievable.
“No,” I said. “She’s not spontaneous like that. She plans things like that."
“Then if she’s not impulsive, I doubt she killed her—”
“DON’T SAY IT!” I shrieked. “Don’t say it!”
“Mommy, are you ok?” asked Jorie, one of our twins.
I couldn’t speak. I just stared at her; the horrible possibility becoming a looming inevitability.
“Mommy’s friend might be in some trouble,” Matt explained, as he flipped an egg in the frying pan. He turned to me. “Go ahead and make the calls,” he said. “I’ll get the kids ready for school.”
I climbed the stairs again, my heart thumping wildly. Maybe she accidentally overdosed. I knew she’d been drinking heavily and taking antidepressants.
Once back in my room, I called the morgue in Nashville.
“I’m looking for my friend,” I said to the kind woman who answered the phone. “She’s not answering my calls. She’s not responding to texts. I’ve already called all the—” my voice broke— “hospitals.”
“Well, I can’t give you a positive identification over the phone,” the woman said gently. “But if you give me a description, I can tell you if we have someone here that matches it.”
“She’s 43. White. Her name is Katherine Ray.”
“OK...hold on a moment, please.”
She put me on hold and I sat there for what seemed like an hour but which was probably only a few minutes. I bit my nails. I tried to stop crying. Please, please let her not be there.
The line clicked back on. “We do have someone here that matches that description,” the woman said.
“I’m sorry, honey.”
“So, it’s her? It’s really her?”
“I’m sorry but I can’t specifically confirm that or give more information. I’ll have the family call you.”
I could hear the sadness in the woman’s voice. What a terrible job, I thought. To have to break the news of people’s deaths to frantic friends and family members. I felt sudden compassion for her.
“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you so much for helping me.”
“OK, honey. Just hang on and I’ll have her dad call you.”
A few minutes later my phone rang. It was Katherine’s father. He confirmed my worst fears. Katherine was gone.
After we'd spoken, I fell on my bed and wept like I'd never wept before. My beloved friend was gone. I didn't even know she'd had a gun.
Into the darkness
Normal brains move through grief in predictable stages. At least, this is what I've heard. There's denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But my brain isn't a normal brain. And my brain got stuck. I wasn't "moving on." I was moving deeper into darkness. First came the anxiety, crushing my chest like an elephant. Around 4pm every day, I felt a vise-like grip in the center of my chest. It was hard to breathe. My brain was working really hard to find answers. In the days and weeks after Katherine's death, I developed a morbid curiosity about every last detail of her death. I wanted to know what exactly happened. What were her last words? What did she drink before she died? What was her last meal? Why did she use a gun? I wanted a specific timeline of events. As if having this information would somehow satisfactorily explain why she took her life.
This is what I learned: there were no good answers. There were answers, sure. But none of them explained WHY. None of them gave me peace. All of them just sent me deeper into grief.
I began to stammer. My hands shook. I lost cognitive function. To deal with the anxiety, my psychiatrist upped my Zoloft dosage. This is when I became manic (except I didn't know it was mania). The mania lasted for several months. I barely remember most of it except that I was making poor decisions. One day I decided to lease a new car. Just because. There was nothing wrong with my old Suburban. I just woke up one morning and felt amazing and on top of the world and OH I NEED A CAR TODAY! YAY! LET'S GO LEASE ONE! My husband was not happy with me. I couldn't understand why. Why wasn't EVERYONE EXCITED LIKE I WAS? Another day, I decided to make a bizarre, workout video and post it all over my social media feeds. My kids were not amused. They were mortified. I deleted the video.
The mania ended with paranoia and believing the FBI was spying on me.
It would take some time, but eventually the right combination of medication would finally pull me out of the raving darkness and into the stable light of day.
to be continued....