Do you remember the worst day of your life? I don’t mean that phrase in a casual or hyperbolic way; I mean can you, the person reading this post, literally identify the single most difficult day that you have ever experienced? I hope you can’t, because if you can, then it means that the hurt is still there, still raw. I hope you can’t, not because there are too many to choose from, but because you have never had to experience something so gutwrenchingly agonizing that you will never be able to forget it. I hope you can’t, because I can, and I know how terrible the memories are, and how it feels when the old scars split open again. In honor of Bell’s Let’s Talk Day, I want to talk to you about the worst day of my life: the day I found out my friend Allison took her life.
On July 25, 2013, I got home from work at around 3 in the afternoon. I was getting my things ready to go to the gym when I noticed a missed call from my friend Dan – someone with whom I’m close, but not someone I’d expect to call on a weekday afternoon. He had sent a text message, too:. "Were you friends with Allison [redacted]?" Were.
A little less than two years prior, Allison had decided she would relocate to Seattle from our suburb 25 miles west of Milwaukee. She had always been looking for something different, and there were also some things she wanted to leave behind. The following spring, with no job lined up and an uncertain future ahead of her, she and her brother made the 29 hour drive that would mark the beginning of her new life. In retrospect, it’s hard for me to associate Allison’s new beginning as anything other than the beginning of the end.
Back to that text. Back to were. I don’t know if it was denial, or hope for a typo, or something else, but I couldn't bring myself to call him and ask about why he said "were". Nobody wants to make that call. Instead, I procrastinated a bit before deciding I needed to check her Facebook page. There was only one post from that day, but it was enough to make it clear that Allison wasn't alive anymore.
At this point I slipped into a sort of surreal numbness. I wasn’t frantic; things didn’t get blurry. I needed to call Dan – why had he, of all people, contacted me? He didn’t know Allison; for all I knew he had never even met her. Gradually, distantly, my brain made sense of the chain of communication. Dan's brother, Jon, was close with Allison’s brother, and Jon and Allison had started dating a few months prior. An odd coincidence: two people from the same suburb in southeastern Wisconsin meeting and falling in love halfway across the country. Gradually, slowly, surreally, I understood what I had to do. I picked up the phone.
When you learn that someone has died unexpectedly, you generally don’t suspect suicide unless you have good reason to. I knew Allison had had some psychological issues in the past, but nothing to make me think that suicide ever was – ever could be – a possibility. While the phone was ringing I expected to hear about a car wreck, or maybe a hiking accident. When Dan picked up the phone there was an awkward preamble about his brother and Allison before he revealed the truth: that Allison was bulimic, and that she had died by suicide. Jon had found her that morning when he went to pick her up for work.
Allison, it turned out, had been to rehab in the months prior, but lately, things seemed to be looking up. It was right around this point that I stopped listening, dazed and detached from reality. I felt irrationally angry. Hearing my friend speak about it with such cold distance infuriated me.
I let Dan finish talking. Even today, I have no idea what he said. I feel terrible, now, about the way that that conversation transpired, and for my coldness towards Dan, who was trying to break difficult news before it became public knowledge. Aside from another mutual friend and immediate family, I was the first to know. This meant, of course, that the hardest part was yet to come: I had to inform the people who knew and loved Allison that she had died.
First was Allison's best friend, Nikki. I hadn't seen her in years, and didn't even have her number anymore. I opened her chat window on Facebook and our last correspondence was staring me in the face; it had been in 2009. I had no idea what to even say. How do you start that conversation? After a few minutes I finally settled on, "Nikki I need to talk to you." Nikki responded a few minutes later with what I later learned was a knowing question mark. Nikki had known more about the depths of Allison's struggles with mental illness than I ever had. Nikki also knew that Allison was just about our only connection in life. So I told her what had happened. Not why or how, just the bare and unvarnished details. It felt strange to type, but I did because I knew nobody else would. Minutes went by.
"Matt how do you know this?"
I explained to her, just like I continued to explain to so many people that day. What had happened. How I knew. Over and over again. Every person I contacted was via text or Facebook chat; I couldn't bear to say the words out loud. In a way, typing and rereading those words every few minutes was therapeutic. It made it hit home; made it feel real. But it didn't make it any easier. After I got in touch with about ten people, I needed a break.
It was at this point I realized that I hadn't cried at all. I'm a pretty big sap, so the fact that I hadn't was pretty surprising to me. Seriously, I have a hard time keeping it together at funerals and weddings for people I barely even know. You should have seen me the first (and only) time I saw Brian's Song a few years back. The film was ending, I was bawling my eyes out, and my dad was about to come inside from mowing the lawn. I ran upstairs and locked myself in the bathroom so my pops wouldn't see me crying like a baby. Why wasn’t I crying now? What was wrong with me?
I got back to telling some more people what had happened, still bothered by my inability to shed tears over the loss of one of my best friends. Eventually I stopped, leaving a few people in the dark I had intended to tell before the news hit Facebook. I was spent emotionally and hadn't even told my parents, whom I would have to inform in person. I needed a shower to regroup before that. In the shower that night I finally found the tears I was looking for earlier.. They were ugly tears, the kind produced by deep and prolonged sobbing that leaves you gasping for air. I stood under the running water, finally processing the cruel reality that my friend was dead and I would never be able to talk to her again.
Where Allison's story ends is where mine begins. The following weeks were obviously some of the most difficult of my life. Due to extenuating family circumstances, Allison's funeral couldn't be held for almost four weeks following her death. It hung over a lot of people's lives, many of us wondering about warning signs we might have missed. Had Allison been planning this, or had it been a moment of weakness? Those are among the questions that can never be answered. When the time finally came for an attempt at closure it was like ripping open a wound that had only just begun to heal.
This event is easier for me discuss from this platform than it is for me to talk to any one person about it. But I haven't done enough discussing. I haven't written about Allison's death since the night before her funeral. Twice her birthday has passed, as has the date of her death. Each time I've meant to write about it, but each time have found myself unable to do so.
The truth is that Allison's death has been seminal in shaping the last two-and-a-half years of my life. Allison was my one of my best and closest friends. I still haven't come close to replacing her; I have my own issues and barriers that keep me from really opening up to more than a few people in my life. But I've worked on healing other relationships in my life that were previously strained over things that now seem inconsequential. I have done things and gone to events I might not have otherwise attended. My friend Nick (a Red Wings Fan) and I decided after Allison died that we were going to make the trip to Ann Arbor that New Years for the Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium. That trip was about more than hockey. It was a symbol of our healing, both in regards to Allison, and of a friendship that, previously, had been fractured.
But the healing process was not over yet. Last winter, I noticed that something wasn't right with me, though I couldn't put my finger on what it was. I have been treated for ADHD for the vast majority of my life, and have previously been treated for depression. Clearly I'm no stranger to mental illness. But I was in such a different place in my life when I first had depression that I wasn't able to recognize the symptoms as a functioning adult. It wasn't until a particularly difficult week that I found my thoughts drifting back to Allison. It was that week that I identified the problem and sought help. The last year hasn't been easy. There are times when simple tasks feel like unavoidable burdens. And there are times when I struggle with to draw pleasure from things that I love, such as writing for this website. But I've made strides and I do it with Allison in mind.
Honestly, I’m not sure who I’m writing this for. It is for me as much as it is for you. I’m lucky, because despite the struggles I’ve had, I haven’t yet lost touch with a sense of belonging. Since Allison's death I've learned that people who take their own lives feel like there is nothing left for them on this earth, like their pain and sorrow makes life unbearable, like the world is actually a better place without them. Again, I’m lucky not to feel this way. But if you're reading this and you do have feelings like that, then you need to know that there are people who care about you and want to help you. If you aren't having suicidal thoughts, but feel like something is off, don't feel embarrassed or ashamed. You are loved, and the people that love you want you to be healthy, to feel happy, to feel like yourself. Please, listen: there are so many resources for your health. You don’t need to feel or be told that you are lazy, or that you will never be able to find motivation or complete simple tasks. You don’t need to resign yourself to feeling like this forever. You don’t need to live a joyless life.
The National (US) Suicide Prevention Lifeline is (800) 273-8255
The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention has a directory of Crisis Centres all across Canada