I remember the first time I walked into Vala’s store: she picked up a Nanette Lepore silk top and held it out.
“This would look great on you.”
“It’s more your color,” I said.
“No,” she laughed. “It would make me look like a sausage.”
It wouldn’t. Vala would not have gotten fat come hell or high water. But she made the sale, along with about $250 worth of merchandise more. I started working there a few months later.
Every morning I’d come in, dust the shelves, and wait for her to come into the back to sort through inventory and plan marketing strategies. She knew what people wanted. We made fun of those suits she carried that sold like mustard- and peach-colored hotcakes. She’d bring me wine in a coffee mug while I was selling alligator skin luggage. We had a great time.
I knew she was struggling with bipolar disorder. She never told me directly. But she knew that I knew, and she knew I accepted her. And no matter how slow I was in the store (I have Asperger’s), she accepted me. I admired the hell out of her. I still do.
If Vala needed something, she fought for it. She could have talked Donald Trump out of his toupee. Our town was old money. We weren’t. She’d dropped out of high school and cleared $100k a year selling Prada to important people’s wives. She had a copy of both War and Peace and How To Make Friends And Influence Peoplein the back of her red Miata.
I thought about the brutally depressed parts of her — the parts that kept landing her in the hospital — as something separate. It didn’t feel like the same person. But that was the part that won. One night after a summer-long spiral she was alone in her Baroque-decorated apartment, and she couldn’t take it anymore.
Sometimes these things are surprising, and sometimes they’re not. This one was somewhere in the middle. I didn’t cry until I started thinking about how I’d planned to open my own store one day. We’d talked about it. She wanted to design a line of handbags. Maybe I’ll open it still someday. But she’ll never know.
Maybe you feel like you weren’t there for your friend. I know I do. The last time she called me I didn’t call back. She called several times. We were both up all night that night, but I didn’t call her back because I was on the edge of a nervous breakdown myself. We talked one more time a few days later, on Facebook. She seemed happy.
One of her friends told me what happened. He sent me pictures from better times, like where she was standing in her store all dressed up. We shared stories.
“Vala talked about you a lot,” he said. “She was so proud of you.”
Your friend loved you. Remember that if you feel guilty. She knew I was there for her even if technically I wasn’t that night when she really needed me. It’s the quality of friendship, not the quantity of time you spent together or even the amount of time that’s passed since you last saw them sometimes.
Few people are truly significant to each other. You can hate yourself for not being around at the right time in the right way, but you can’t read the future. That friendship really mattered. It still does.
Vala was the first older friend I had. She taught me that women are allowed to have giant personalities all throughout their lives. She taught me that you can work your way into a community even if you’re always going to be a little bit separate from it. She also taught me, of course, that no matter how depressed I am, I should always pick up the damn phone. She made me step out of myself. I’d rather be less mature and still have her here, but I owe it to her to take a lesson from her death.
Suicide is obviously something people shouldn’t do. Part of the stigma comes from the fact that it’s a very selfish thing to do. But more of it comes from the stigma against mental illness in general. Remember: no one ever becomes suicidal because they want to.
We want life to be linear like a book, leading to an end that all relevant parts of it already predicted. But there’s so much more to a human being than that. Vala loved hiking. She watched obscure History Channel documentaries about the difference between rednecks and hillbillies. There were plenty of fun things about her that had nothing to do with her illness.
The most important thing to remember is that your friend’s death is not her life story. Yes, the last thing your friend felt was such a deep despair that she didn’t want to go on living anymore. But that doesn’t invalidate all the good times she had. We are so focused on results in our society that we ignore those little everyday things that bring us happiness.
You want to focus on the big picture, yes. That’s the best way to avoid feeling as hopeless as your friend did. But focus on the short term, too. Small accomplishments matter. Relationships matter even more. Those slow days you spend with someone you’re comfortable with, eating together or sitting outside in the sun might not make up the bulk of your time. But they’re the only times that give you that quiet, peaceful bliss. Those times, short in duration but rich in happiness, are how you should measure your life. You had times like that with your friend, right? You made her happy.
People feel different things at different times in different amounts, but almost everyone gets to experience a huge range of human feeling throughout their lives. Think about all the stories your friend told you and how much joy was in them. Your friend’s life may been quite full even if it wasn’t as long as it should have been. If your friend was ever truly happy, even for a little while, that might be enough to say she had a good, worthwhile life.