Pink balloons. Sweet 16 cards. Banners. Birthday cake.
I sat next to Cleo as she peeled the gift-wrap from the present I had given her. Olivia and Nancy (her 2 school ‘friends’) sat opposite us, watching Cleo intently, like spectators at a circus. At that point, I registered the panic in Cleo; the watery eyes and the trembling hands giving it away. I wanted to protect her. I wanted to tell my best friend that she needn’t be a part of this painful birthday ‘party’. Except before I could say anything or do anything, her stress manifested itself as a ‘tic’. At this, my heart stopped. Cleo’s mum came rushing in as soon as she heard Cleo cry. A cup had been shattered and drink was everywhere as a result and Cleo had begun rocking, wailing, and was pulling a bed sheet over her head. I was ushered out of the front door hastily.
I went home. When my parents asked me about my day over dinner I didn’t mention what had happened despite replaying that ‘party’ scene over and over in my mind. Cleo was near to hitting rock bottom and I couldn’t believe it. I was afraid that if I told my parents about Cleo, they would make an active decision to separate us, knowing that it had upset me to see her.
Of course, I knew that there was something not quite right with Cleo prior to this incident. She had skipped the last three weeks of school and had politely refused to see me too on many occasions. I hadn’t spoken to her for weeks. That day was such a shock to me. My best friend had changed so drastically during the space of a month.
I remember checking my phone after the day’s events had passed and seeing a message from Rachel, Cleo’s mum. She apologised for what had happened and explained to me that Cleo was going through a ‘rough patch’ or, in other words, acute depression. I didn’t understand how depression explained why Cleo spoke like a 3-year-old again. Or why she hallucinated tsunamis, which led her to believe she was drowning and dying.
I was 15 at the time and thought that Cleo simply wouldn’t want me talking about her to my parents, so I kept it all to myself. I felt like if I said anything, I would be humiliating her, betraying her privacy. So, with no one that I felt I could turn to, I took to the internet. I was gobsmacked at the sheer number of forums available dedicated to those affected by depression and by mental illnesses that I had never even heard of before.
Reading the harrowing stories written by those who had recovered from depression gave me some comfort. It hadn’t occurred to me that it was possible for someone to get better after going through psychosis and self-harm. I naively thought that once someone had been triggered into a breakdown, they were mentally ill forever. So, after reading these blog posts, I became extremely motivated to help my friend to recovery in whatever way possible and, the next day, I started my own scheme of support.
Even though I didn’t walk to school with Cleo anymore as she had officially left, I would always drop by her house on the way to school. I started posting hand-drawn cartoons through Cleo’s door, or flowers I had picked. Then every night before I went to sleep, I texted Cleo a ’Good night’ message. I had also gotten Cleo’s mother’s phone number and talked to her about Cleo’s progress in therapy and with medication, and arranged for me to see Cleo when she was having a ‘good day’. Which, although was rare, meant that I could see Cleo myself every so often.
I hadn’t anticipated that visiting Cleo would’ve been mentally draining for me, but it was. And honestly, I felt so guilty and extremely weak on the days when I didn’t feel like seeing her or bothering to send her positive texts. After all, I never got any acknowledgment back. Even when I saw her in person, Cleo didn’t see me. Usually, she would sit staring at the floor humming and even when I was speaking, she barely paid me any attention. I felt like she didn’t care about me anymore and didn’t want me around so I’d find a way to excuse myself after a few minutes had passed.
I was coming to terms with the fact Cleo had depression but couldn’t face that I was finding it so difficult to deal with. I felt like I was making the situation worse. Were the positive texts I had been sending patronizing? Was the constant reassurance that everything was going to be okay coming off as condescending? Was I simply making her feel worse about herself? I ended up feeling bitter toward myself and embarrassed that I thought I was even helping. Worst of all, I felt bitter toward Cleo for ‘leaving’ me. School was even worse without her and I felt out of depth as the school year started again, because this was the beginning of my GCSEs.
Yet, one day, I had a revelation. And in the most unlikely place in the world. I was in the school bathroom checking my phone in a cubicle and essentially having a pity party when I started to read what students had written on the walls. The first message was I love Greg. Another was Liz Bentham is a dyke. The last was Cleo Nicholls is a slut I hate her. I was infuriated. Even after Cleo had left school, she was still being targeted.
At that point in time, I didn’t fully understand the circumstances which led to Cleo’s decline because Cleo was one year older than me. That meant that I didn’t witness the bullying she experienced first-hand from her peers. Though, when Cleo began to recover with the aid of counselling, she began to speak openly about what had happened. What was most shocking were the death threats that her ‘friends’ had sent to her on Snapchat and the sexual harassment she had experienced at house parties, not to mention her mother’s cancer, which brought Cleo face to face with death itself.
Weeks passed. I worked hard to improve my grades, immersed myself in reading, and competed in dance competitions. I was making many new friends and was enjoying myself, and I couldn’t help feeling as if I had lost Cleo once and for all, and all of the childhood memories we had. I hadn’t seen her in ages and, though I hate to say it, was feeling alright. I decided to make extra effort to be supportive at that point, almost out of selfishness to salvage what remained of our friendship but more for Cleo. Whatever frustration I was feeling, she had to have been feeling it ten times more. So, I kept up my correspondence with her mum and sent positive notes to Cleo frequently.
Out of the blue after New Year’s, I received a text. And I couldn’t help but smile when I read it because the text wasn’t from Cleo’s mum: it was from Cleo herself. We arranged to see each other again and even though we hadn’t much to speak about and Cleo asked if I would mind leaving after half an hour because she was tired – it was progress. Then after that, I started seeing Cleo more often and, even though all we did was watch movies in our pyjamas and eat snacks, I had the best time. At this point, I knew Cleo was on the road to recovery. And I knew she felt it too.
By the time it was my birthday Cleo seemed alright again, which I found strange and uneasy about. After all that had happened, was it healthy for Cleo to ‘forget’ and go back to living? I had so many questions about her depression and I was afraid of what might happen if I asked her about them. I was afraid that by mentioning the depression, she’d be triggered into another breakdown.
It was strange how I felt partially responsible for Cleo’s mental decline, yet also naively like I could singlehandedly save her from it because surely, if I was half as good a friend as she had been to me, she wouldn’t feel so upset. And surely, if I sent her enough ‘Get Well’ cards, she’d get better. I learnt quickly that depression didn’t work like that.
Depression is not the same as it is portrayed in teen fiction because in reality, no matter who swoops in and swears to save you, if you’re depressed, you’re depressed. Everyone could love you unconditionally, yet if you are prone to neural chemical imbalances and have experienced a situation of stress without healthy coping mechanisms, you can still become depressed. I had to learn that if Cleo was going to get better, she was going to do it by her own merit and with her own inner strength. I had to learn that ‘support’ meant sticking with her through the bad times, not obsessively willing her to recover quickly.
The day Cleo told me she had been suicidal was overwhelming. I cried in front of her when she told me because there must’ve been times when Cleo had sat in her room seriously wanting to die while I was having fun. I was overwhelmingly grateful to Cleo that she had found the motivation to live. Then, when I felt as if I had neglected Cleo during her time of need and sought to apologise, Cleo said ‘Thank you’ to me for ‘being there’. What did ‘being there’ even mean? I wasn’t even around Cleo for the worst of her times. I thought that Cleo was just thanking me out of politeness for all the stupid cards I sent her.
Yet, however meaningless I had felt to Cleo, apparently, I had helped.
Cleo said that she had read every text I had sent her during recovery. She said that she had kept every card I had sent. When I thought I was harassing Rachel for updates about Cleo, Rachel was grateful she had someone to speak to about her daughter. It turned out that the small things I did had an impact that I never foresaw.
I think the satisfaction of seeing someone recover who has had a mental illness far outweighs shunning them. Yes, letting Cleo struggle on her own would’ve meant that I wouldn’t have been affected by Cleo’s condition. But since when was Cleo’s depression ever about me? Because of Cleo I have learnt what is means to be a friend. I’ve learnt that support is what aids someone’s recovery and that when someone gives up on themselves, they don’t need another person giving up on them too.