To live in the world is to live with courage. I don’t care what walk of life you walk – it is hard for humans everywhere. It is also a blessing and a bizarre trip – to have a body and heart and a mind and to put water and dead animals and plants into our mouths so we stay alive and to make love and try to get along with other beings and find hobbies and work to fill up all the empty space. It’s weird. Something makes it rather frightening and stressful and seemingly impossible. Our circumstances. Our thinking, mostly. Our thinking is a real pain in the ass. Sometimes it is a nightmare.
I think often of my friends who are dead. Some of them died in car accidents, a few of them overdosed. But I think specifically of the few who took their own lives, the deep suffering they must have felt. That there was no way out. Their heads got too loud with that thinking, that thinking that tells those dark and untrue tales… Yes – to live in the world, to live in the body at all, is to live with courage.
My friend Abby, who I met when I was fifteen, killed herself two years ago in New Hampshire. I don’t know the full story. We had lost touch in recent years, and the details, naturally, were kept very private. I can imagine she must have been in agony. We spent our teen years silencing the darkness in our heads with copious amounts of alcohol and drugs. We bonded over our deep and resonant love of music, literature, and movies. She had a wicked sense of humor, a stellar fashion sense. She herself was beautiful and fiercely intelligent. She came from wealth but wasn’t a snob. She was, like myself, a hopeless alcoholic and addict who also suffered from eating disorders and all that lies beneath that: family trauma and abuse and its remnants of shame, fear, and self-hatred. We both shared moments of sobriety and recovery together. We attended meetings together and shared stories over coffee. We both relapsed at various times. I made it back. Abby didn’t.
Like so many of us, Abby had an impenetrable wall, even when we were both sober. I rarely saw her cry or grow emotional. She could be tough, but often when confronted she shut down. Beneath her tough, tattooed, leather jacketed exterior was a wounded kid searching for a little peace. She searched for it in beauty: in being gorgeous, in art, in collecting glamorous clothes and purses and shoes, in photographs. Art is a great solution, but it cannot be without God, and I think hers came to be without God. She must have forgotten that she was worthy, beyond appearances. It is so easy to lose ourselves in the external, especially in cities like Los Angeles, especially when we have the financial means to do so. It breaks my heart that she couldn’t find her peace in a lasting way. I watched her body shrink to less than eighty pounds in the last few years of her life, her walls stretch and harden, her state of mind darken. She was using drugs again and starving herself to the point of needing frequent hospitalizations. She was incapable of getting real or vulnerable – the shell was hard and encasing.
When I heard she had died, my heart broke. I was sitting in a bed and breakfast in Edinburgh, Scotland, browsing Facebook, and I saw a memorial on her page. This was a couple of months after her death. I had had no idea. I began to weep. I hate to say it, but I wasn’t entirely surprised. I knew she was on a highly dangerous trajectory simply in terms of her physical health. I knew her mental and emotional state couldn’t have been much better. I assumed at first that she had overdosed or had a heart attack from being so underweight. When I talked to a mutual friend about what really happened, it hurt. I also related. About six or seven years ago, I fantasized often about hanging myself with this old jumprope I had in the closet. I thought at the time that I was broken beyond repair. I came to find that there is no such thing. Not all of us do.
A day or so later, I discovered that another high school friend had passed, this time from a freak heart attack. He was best friends with my older brother for a time and one of those men about campus who every girl loves and every guy wants to be. Kind, handsome, driven – inevitably successful. It was tragic, his passing, the suddenness of it, the reality that it wasn’t drug related, it wasn’t suicide. So many of us did not make it out of high school without substance abuse issues – he did. And still, death. I imagine he did not want to die. Both instances broke my heart. I imagined their families, that suffering. Both instances reminded me of two things: one, to love fiercely, myself and others, no matter what. Two, to live as much as possible, while living.
It grows sometimes unbearably cliche – the carpe diem urgings and the let go of that which we cannot change and the practice gratitude for what you already have because you never know – it can become so tiresome to hear all that, especially when we are caught up, but it doesn’t make it any less true. We are all going to die, and we don’t know when, and to live fully, imperfectly, with reverence for life is the most important lesson of all. Even when it’s shitty, and even when we have very justifiable reasons to hate everyone and everything, and even when we think we are very bad people who are broken beyond repair. (Which we never are.) Sometimes, I think, I want so much to prove my aliveness through the importance of my stories, my thoughts, my feelings, my identity. Maybe that’s why my head spins, because it’s scared if I stop thinking, I will no longer exist. But does it really matter, really, at the end of the day? I get so tired of the yarns my mind weaves. I get so tired of the silly stories and the keeping score and obsessions and sufferings and daily irritations. The brain is the dumbest organ of all. But underneath all that and above all that and inside it all and through, there is the stillness of simply being, of living, the wonder. That I don’t have to try so hard or be so good or work toward anything other than existing, happy, breathing, alive.
I empathize with my friend who suffered those tornadoes in her brain. I understand why she needed to leave. I wish she had held on and found relief like so many of us have, even if the relief is fleeting and temporary and we have to keep bringing ourselves back around to it. She didn’t, and that’s OK, and perhaps she is somewhere far better and very free. Who ever knows, except those who go? To live in the world is to live with courage, but it also takes courage to die.