When I was 15, my childhood best friend tried to kill herself.
My family had moved away two years before, so I wasn’t there. I wasn’t the one in school who she told that she’d swallowed all the Tylenol. I wasn’t there to watch her life fall apart and hold her hand through it all. I wasn’t there to see her slow descent into that darkness.
But the truth is, I knew.
I knew from her letters, from the sporadic phone calls. I knew from other people’s letters. I had been waiting for that phone call telling me she’d done it. Honestly, I’d been afraid no one would call me. I was afraid to send her a Christmas card in case something had already happened.
But when it finally happened, she was okay.
She had her stomach pumped and was admitted to an in-patient adolescent psych facility. She came out with dyed black hair, a teen bipolar diagnosis, and a cigarette habit.
She came out unrecognizable.
The next summer, I went to stay with her for a week, as I had the summer before. It was different. It was scary. Everything was just a little bit off. I sat in the waiting room of her psychiatrist’s office while she went for a check-in.
At the end of the week, her mother took me aside and asked if she’d been acting weird. I kind of shrugged and half laughed, but her mother asked again, telling me she was serious. That was when I realized something I hadn’t quite gotten before.
I was supposed to be watching her.
She stayed with me for a week after that. We went to the boardwalk. She flirted with the 20-year old ride attendant, and skipped down the boardwalk singing American Pie at the top of her lungs. She listened to the Beatles constantly, flipping the cassette of Abby Road over in the player whenever it ended, the music running all night long.
I was afraid. I was sad. I wasn’t strong enough to keep her from slipping out of control.
After that summer, there weren’t any more letters. I got a Christmas card from her a few years later, but I didn’t answer it. I didn’t call on her birthday anymore.
I’ve never really forgiven myself for that. If I could see her again, I would tell her I’m sorry, that I wish I could have been there for her, that I wish I had known how to be present and accepting of everything she was going through.
But I was 15.
I taught high school for 5 years, and if 15 year old me had been in one of my classes? I would have hugged her. I would tell her that it was a lot to handle. I would tell her that it wasn’t her responsibility to keep someone else from slipping.
I would tell her that it wasn’t her fault.
I guess I’m just not ready to tell myself that yet.