5 years ago today, my life changed in an instant. It started very similar to the way this morning did: I went to a yoga class prior to heading into work. I recall hurrying into the office, still with my yoga clothes on, as I was going to head out to a little coffee date with my co-worker–an intern with me at the county health department who shared my office with me. I’d gone for 2 years not having an office mate, and I was happily surprised that it was a lovely, thoughtful, kind, funny, brilliant woman I had made friends with in my graduate program. We spent a lot of time talking, sharing stories, getting to know one another, and learning. She was a devoted mother, loving wife, and someone who understood the place from where I come. We shared the same crippling pain. The same stories. We both bonded over Sleater-Kinney (my obsession with them, her having played in a band with them), over crazy and colorful socks and outfits, over experimental punk music, and so much more. She awoke the girl inside of me who loved wearing rainbows and bubbling fountains.
Deanne and I were friends through the public health program, as our passions for transforming the world and really giving back to the place we left coincided perfectly. There was an electricity to her, an infectious quality to her smile, that reminded me of my dear friend Ashley. When we started working in the same office following graduation, our friendship and connection quickly deepened, as she helped me understand the reason why my ex-husband was an addict…that it wasn’t me. She taught me something most people in the United States don’t know: that addiction is a great mask for deep pain. She taught me this repeatedly, even sharing with me her troubles with addiction and self-harm. She told me that her saving grace was her small son, whom she loved dearly and wanted to be a catalyst for change so that he didn’t have to grow up in the world with which she was familiar. Brave, vibrant, passionate, funny Deanne.
Upon returning to my office from yoga, I noticed that my recorder was on my desk. This is the recorder I use for key informant interviews and qualitative research, especially when working on mixed method evaluation. I had loaned it to Deedee for her key informant interviews and case studies for a project she was working on with the health equity council. There was a yellow sticky note on it, reading, “thank you for sharing. xo D”. I waited in the office, checking email and finalizing a grant report for her to come for coffee. For her to come to the office. She never came.
In a text message from our other friend, the third part of the triangle that was my friendship group from graduate school, I read the news that Deanne had taken her own life. She had left behind a wonderful, loving husband and the sweetest 2 year old you’ll ever meet. A 2 year old who will never remember for himself the woman I came to call friend, who I had as a confidant and companion as I embarked on my therapeutic journey. Her encouragement made more of a difference than anyone before, because I truly saw her as a person who had made it through the darkness and into a place where she could cultivate loving relationships and even dream of a world better than the one we had experienced. In such a dark time in my life, she was the light at the end of the tunnel. 5 years ago today, that light was suddenly snuffed.
Deanne’s funeral was the first place I had ever openly grieved. I remember the wave of emotion coming over me and, for the first time, not fighting it as it washed over my entire body. I only knew a couple of people there, and they tried to comfort me in all the ways they knew how. I was inconsolable. I realized early that I was not just grieving for the loss of her…I was simply beginning to grieve all the pain I understood that lived inside of her. I could understand so fundamentally why she did what she did that I lost it. How devastating must all that pain be for one little body…and yet, I have all of the same. One by one, as my dear friends and confidants disappear to the pain, I realize that my little body is simultaneously scared to share the pain with another and also has fewer others with whom to share the pain. The load grows heavier and yet I plod on. And yet I try to process through it so that it doesn’t take me too.
Deanne was a soul sister, and every time I look at her beautiful son, I feel her soul again. Every time he smiles, I feel her alive inside of him. And that wakes me up. I wish she could have held on, I wish she could have asked for help. But I understand where she was, and that place is a place I struggle to reach out from as well. That place where she was is the place that, when shared, I have terrified people to the point of them walking away for good. Sometimes, it doesn’t feel worth it. Too risky. 5 years ago, Deanne taught me I need to wake up and work my ass off to process this pain. 5 years ago, I started to make progress on my therapeutic journey. And 5 years from now, I will be in a place that makes the dark place feel less dim, less consuming, less powerful.
I miss you, DeeDee. I am so glad you are free from this pain, but I wish you knew the pain others have shared with one another over your loss. We miss you, but we are a community. A community who loves your son and husband fiercely. A community that celebrates life and asks for help. A community that no longer shies away from the difficult emotions. A community you created. A community that is better for your child than it was for us. I only wish you could be a part of it. For you, for my gratitude, for my connection to your soul, I light a candle. For you, for his love, for his connection to your soul, your son released balloons into the sky–to try to reach you. You’ve made a difference in our lives. In many ways, you’ve made THE difference in mine.