An Open Letter to a Friend I Couldn’t Save
I should have driven you home after dinner.
You never told me what stopped you, but whatever it was, I’m so glad it did; I couldn’t imagine living in a world without you in it.
My mum told me I had to wait for you to save yourself. But I’m sure you know that I’ve never been one for patience. I can’t sit about waiting for something that may or may not happen.
We were 13 when we first met. Bright eyes, stiff school uniforms and unshaven legs. You hated me; I was stealing your friend from you. I hated you in return on principle. We bonded over a lack of sleep. I was a swimmer, you were a diver; water and waking up at 4am was our thing. And suddenly, there was no hate – just the love that comes from your best girlfriends in high school.
We were 14 when someone else walked into your life. She had a hold on you almost immediately. It started out slow, but I could tell you were enraptured. You had always been such a healthy person, but suddenly your lunches only consisted of carrot sticks or celery, maybe even a sandwich on special occasions.
I’m not sure if you ever noticed my worrying glances at the empty table space in front of you. Neither of us said anything.
Soon enough it was summer. She’d taken hold of you completely; she consumed all of your thoughts. The 30-degree heat made the school woolen jumpers unbearable to wear, even in aircon. That’s when I noticed the cuts littering your arms. Jagged in places like you’d been rushed, but also straight, as if you’d done them with precision. They were like lines on a page, same length, same width between each, like it was your way of trying to say something without using words.
I didn’t know what to do. Maybe I should have talked to you first, asked if you were okay. But I don’t think I wanted to really hear how bad it was, how much she controlled your mind and how long it had gone on before I’d realised. Maybe I just didn’t want the responsibility of fixing you – because I know I couldn’t have done it alone.
I didn’t realise how angry you were that I had told our teacher I was worried about you. I’d never seen such hate and betrayal in your eyes. I just wanted you to be happy again. It seems I made it worse.
At 15, you were still angry. You didn’t want to be my friend anymore. I was devastated. I just wanted to help you, to see the girl I used to know reappear.
At 16, we had our school semi-formal. You looked the best in our group and I secretly wished that it were me, but I loved how bright you shone. I could see the pain in your eyes though, and I could tell that you didn’t see what I saw when I looked at you. She still consumed you, and for that, I worried.
At 17, we graduated high school together. I still wasn’t close enough to ask you how you were, but you looked so happy. I was ecstatic.
At 18, I started university while you took a gap year to find yourself away from her and the rest of school. We got closer again, and met up as much as we could, but sometimes it was too long between lunch dates. This time I didn’t worry: you were happy when I saw you, our mutual friends told me funny, light-hearted stories you were involved in.
At 19, you started university and we were best friends again. You loved the challenge, but somehow the only friends you made were addicted to cocaine. At this point, you couldn’t even drink alcohol without delving into a pit of despair – but you were an adult: you needed to make your own decisions. She was gone, I didn’t need to worry – you’d be fine.
You weren’t fine.
You tried to kill yourself after our dinner date.
You didn’t tell me until a week later, and we cried wrapped in each other’s arms for three hours.
I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t fix you at 14, and I certainly couldn’t fix you five years later.
I knew I had to tell someone. I couldn’t lose you, but I was so afraid. Afraid that you wouldn’t love me anymore, afraid you’d be as upset as you were at 14, afraid that I had waited too long and it was too late.
It was 11pm the following week when I got the call that you’d collapsed. They said you had possible heart failure, and that you had been placed in the psych ward.
I wasn’t prepared for the sight of you in your hospital bed. You were small. So small, it made me question the last time I’d seen you. It had only been 10 days, yet you seemed to have halved in size.
There were so many wires connected to your tiny body: a tube going through your nose and the back of your throat to feed you, and unicorn socks to remind me of the person you were when we met.
I could barely push myself to stay at the hospital for the hour I was allowed. It smelt terrible. The people were frightening. The man in the bed next to you was covered in faeces and refused to shower.
It was the most confronting place I’ve ever been in my life; you didn’t fit in at all. I never wanted to go back, but it was your reality and I couldn’t do anything to make it better.
You spent three months in a place that managed to be both sterile and dirty simultaneously. The beds were clean, the floors polished, but the furniture old and rusting. Three months segregated from society with no access to your phone.
Three times I tried to visit you and was turned away at the door.
“She is too unstable for visitors at the moment,” the doctors would tell me.
But even with all that time in hospital, you were still under her control. She wouldn’t let you eat your meals; she still made you want to cut yourself with sharp things you found in the room.
We promised each other that you would be out by Christmas. You kept your word and were discharged on December 23 after a long stretch of guilt, pain, suffering and tears.
The week they let you out, you were fed five meals through the tube and had four new cuts on your thighs. At the time I was angry at the hospital for discharging you. How was I meant to help you better than they could when all I’d done in the past was make it worse?
That night you told me you were ready to take charge, to kick her out of your life for good after she’d controlled you for six years.
But there was no her. No friend who led you astray. No name and no face, just a combination of anorexia, bulimia and depression.
The doctors couldn’t save you, and I certainly can’t. But maybe this time, you can save yourself.
And I will be there every step of the way.
Cover by Jesse Webber