I got you know you from the periphery, like a blog follower, or a fan learning about a singer through their songs. We were young- myself barely a teenager- and it was Karen’s party, my mother’s best friend. You stood alone in the crowd. You were as silent as a flame and you wore only the colour of night, yet you stood out to me. An air of mystery surrounded you. Beauty. Look but don’t touch, you screamed, without words.
The next time I saw you was at the house of some people Karen knew. I don’t know who these people were to you, but you were staying there. Longer than they had expected. You didn’t have a home. I learnt that you were deaf, but unlike some deaf people, you did not speak.
Your name often came up at the table when Karen came round. You were the crazy friend. You did not like it when people left, and you had threatened to blow up your psychiatrist’s house. But when I turned nineteen and began therapy myself, I suddenly understood why. I understood what love can do to people. I understood what it is like to lose your only connection to the world. I understood how the mental health system can kill rather than save us. We were the people who the system could not help. We were looking for love and security in all the wrong places. We had been sucked in by a system built on glass and then spat out on the doorstep with our hearts clenched in our hands.
I was twenty two when we found ourselves in the same room once again, and you were in your late twenties. I trembled as I arrived at the Centre for Adult Education and pressed number four on the lift. My therapist also worked on the fourth floor of a building. Four was my number. I found the room the support group was in but paused at the door before entering. Finally I took the plunge and quickly grabbed one of the chairs which were lined in a U-shape around the facilitator at the front. I wished I could just crawl into a hole and not come out. I didn’t know whether I wanted to wear the badge of BPD, and still wondered whether it was mine to wear. We were all strangers, united only by our insanity. Then you arrived in a wheelchair with your interpreter.
We sat together in the support group each month but we never acknowledged each other. I wasn’t sure if you recognised me. Then one day, just as unexpectedly as you popped into my life, Karen died. I went to the funeral and, once again, watched you from a distance as you, too, arrived.
I finally approached you at our support group and revealed that I knew you. You remembered my dad and his distinctive beard which makes him a natural candidate for Santa Claus at Christmas gigs. I wrote to you online. I told you I had found out where my therapist lived and wanted to go to her house. You were the only person who truly understood. You told me the local police knew you and warned me not to go down the same path.
You told me that you were unwell. I told you I hope you get better soon, as is our automatic instinct. You told me that you were not going to get better. You had tumours the size of golf balls all over your body, though to me you never lost your beauty. It was a degenerative illness that took your hearing and was soon going to take your life.
I still think of you and feel the urge to contact you sometimes. “Milly will understand”, I think. Then I realise you are probably dead.
The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long, Lao Tzu said. I don’t know how long my own life will last. I have long felt I’m going to be someone who dies young too. People don’t understand what it’s like to live with chronic illness. We think people get unwell sometimes but then return to a normal baseline of wellness. Some people, though, sometimes get well but then return to their normal baseline of unwellness. There are many things I want to do, but my days are never as productive as I hope. It is exhausting just to get something out of the cupboard. I try to go to bed early and have a good night so I wake up ready to tackle the new day but I do not wake up refreshed. I start my day behind the minute I wake up. Some people just don’t get better. You, Milly, understood that. You, Milly, understood how meaningless the words “get well soon” are.