My best friend spoke at my 21st birthday party and three weeks later, I spoke at her funeral.
Her suicide was a shock that splintered my life, the devastation rippling through hundreds of lives in an intricate, tragic cobweb, moving like smoke up a highway. We were at university, living on campus in college, a year and a half into what was meant to be the time of our lives.
She had struggled with depression for some time, although the stigma she felt around her illness was such that most people didn’t know. She felt huge, compounding shame around her perceived ‘weakness’ – she was a perfectionist, and battled daily to keep things under control. Most people didn’t know how hard she worked to be the bright spark she was known as.
A party girl that drew people like moths to a flame; my beautiful, fiercely intelligent, unwaveringly compassionate, loyal, hilarious friend. The terrible dress up outfits, the dancing, the red wine teeth and takeaway, the cups of tea and days on the beach. The tears over boys, sweaty gym sessions, driving from our country hometown to the city blasting Florence and the Machine.
She had an impeccable, feminine, tailored style reminiscent of the Hepburn sisters, but then would appear in her waisted boy trackies from K-mart, her cricket t-shirt tucked in, socks and Birkenstocks. The height of comfort, and lowest of fashion. But she didn't give a damn.
She had a laugh like steps into the sea, like a pealing bell, infectious and surprising. Sand gold hair and a nose a little too big.
She cared deeply for her friends, adored her large wonderful family, and people fell in love with her easily, like breathing. I look back on that time, knowing what I know now nearly nine years later, and feel enormous remorse for the signs we missed.
We were babies. I loved her like a sister, but didn't really know how to truly be there for her. How to start the conversation with her family and how to work together to make a plan to keep her safe. I didn't understand how sick she was, and had a rural attitude towards mental health - that nothing couldn't be fixed by some exercise, a good sleep and gratitude. What I thought as obvious measures to stop feeling blue.
Why we need to talk about mental health in rural areas. Mia, Holly, Jessie and their producer Elissa Ratliff question why there’s a huge mental health crisis in rural Australia and what we can do to help. Post continues after audio.
When she died my uncomplicated, naive and protected self was sliced through. I had never experienced grief on this scale, or horror, or guilt. The what ifs, the rehashing of scenarios, the replaying of conversations. I suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and felt like a shell of the person I had been. The hyper-arousal and constant fear I carried like a weight around my neck, the insomnia and the nightmares.
I continued my journalism degree but the lessons washed over me bleakly. Walking through the other students on campus, I felt unmoored and adrift, an abandoned ship sailing through impenetrable fog. I tried several counsellors and a psychologist, but found no one I clicked with and thought perhaps this is the way it would always be. A year after she died I was recommended a psychologist by a friend who I trusted. I went to see her, was diagnosed with PTSD and underwent Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
In a way it was a relief to be diagnosed. The symptoms all made sense, and I felt like I wasn't the only one; that I wasn't going 'mad'. I responded to the CBT well - 60 per cent of people do. The sessions weren't a bed of roses - I used to wake up the morning of the appointment and feel sick, trying to think of any excuse not to go. But my family and friends held me accountable, and I forced myself - over eight weeks my PTSD symptoms resided and I figured myself cured.
Over the next seven years I travelled and played, working as a reporter and travel writer. I galloped after 200 mustangs across sandy plains, a Utah sunset tinting the scenery flushed pink; drinking all of the wine in the rolling arid hills of Santa Baraba and enjoyed the heady gastronomic paths of LA. I climbed mountains in the Italian Dolomites, sailed in the Caribbean and worked as a chalet girl for a season in France.
I fell in love, met people who enriched my life, ate wondrous things and felt washed anew with experiences. Moving back to Australia, I worked for an incredible youth mental health charity called batyr going on to help roll out preventative education programs in schools and universities in my home city - programs equipping young people with the skills to tackle mental illness; programs I wished I had seen.
I snagged a job as a reporter for two news channels and had the time of my life, beating around the bush talking to ordinary, extraordinary people. But there was an ever present shadow of guilt that clung to my subconscious with a terrible viciousness. I felt I had let her down, let her family down, let myself down. I should have done more, been more, seen more.
I started to slide.
It had been eight years since her death and I felt like I shouldn't still be so very vulnerable. So overcome, so tumultuous. So I didn't tell anyone just how low I was sinking - I thought I'd save them the worry. Even though I knew so much more about mental health and the avenues of help available, I didn't reach out. I guess you can talk the talk, but not always walk the walk. It wasn't until my aunt put me in touch with her life coach, that I received the guidance I so desperately needed.
My life coach Cindy was like a balm, offering tools to remove myself from the toxic cycle of guilt. She gave me a new perspective, and I took big, brave steps towards consciously building my beautiful life. She taught me the importance of having a mentor and teacher - someone to turn to for new information and an eye on the bigger picture, to help fit together the puzzle of your life.
Then, while I was in India this year undergoing my yoga teacher training, I met Sudhir. Sudhir is the philosophy teacher at Sampoorna Yoga School in Goa. What a man. He has always been a seeker. After his mother died when he was 27, he left his job as a mechanical engineer, riddled with grief and wanting answers.
What was this sorrow, and why couldn't he cast it aside? What was the meaning of life, what was his purpose? He spent eight years as a monk, five months of that time homeless and living on the side of the river Ganges, before leaving his monastery life and studying the scriptures. He practised meditation for 19 years and when he felt he truly embodied what he had learnt, he took up teaching. When I told him about my beautiful friend and the remorse I felt, his answer gave me a peace I hadn't felt in a long time.
Then, while I was in India this year undergoing my yoga teacher training, I met Sudhir. Sudhir is the philosophy teacher at Sampoorna Yoga School in Goa. What a man. He has always been a seeker. After his mother died when he was 27, he left his job as a mechanical engineer, riddled with grief and wanting answers. What was this sorrow, and why couldn't he cast it aside? What was the meaning of life, what was his purpose? He spent eight years as a monk, five months of that time homeless and living on the side of the river Ganges, before leaving his monastery life and studying the scriptures. He practised meditation for 19 years and when he felt he truly embodied what he had learnt, he took up teaching. When I told him about my beautiful friend and the remorse I felt, his answer gave me a peace I hadn't felt in a long time.
He said to me, your life is like riding a train. You will ride this train and people will get on and off, carrying their own baggage. Some people will ride with you your whole journey; others will ride for only a short time. Your friend, chose her stop. She chose to get down off your train, and that is where your journey together ended.
When he finished his analogy, I blinked at him. It seemed so simple, but it so sweetly gave me the recognition of choice in the matter. It was a gentle reminder that I couldn't control the situation or help my darling girl, any more than I did. There will always be a deep sadness for this, like a dark cool pool beneath a weeping willow, impervious to the rushing of the river a stones throw away. But it no longer overwhelmed me in a crashing, raging torrent, sweeping me over the edge of a foaming waterfall. I will always miss my friend, and think of her with love, remember her joy. But my carriage continues, often bumpy, sometimes smooth, its swaying action rhythmic as it clacks forward. The only option now, is to look forward.
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?” Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. — Marianne Williamson
If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner or in Australia, contact Lifeline Australia 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.
If you, or a young person you know, is struggling with symptoms of mental illness please contact your local headspace centre here or chat to them online, here. If you are over the age of 25 and suffering from symptoms of mental illness please contact your local GP for a Mental Health Assessment Plan or call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.
Emily Herbert is a journalist, presenter and yoga teacher wanderlusting her way around the world, looking to lead her best life. Follow her journey at Emily Herbert Says, or check her out at @thewriteyogi on Instagram.