Get your feet wet

And so summer ends.

I can’t really say that I knew Celeste, not like everyone else did.


She was an old friend of Michael’s, of Jillian and Kimmay and their gang, and it was just really early on, and years back — the baby shower for Eliot, a night or two after — that I spent any time around her at all and always in a large group, and what I knew most of her then were outlandish, funny stories. And later, when Celeste took up with an unpleasant boyfriend and started alienating friends, what I heard were unkinder critiques. And later still, Celeste discovered Facebook, and cultivated a small number of friendships, of which I happened to be one, and this only in the casual style of a Facebook text-message friendship.

But along the way, while for the rest of us life chugged on with its manageable ups and downs, it was nothing of the sort for Celeste, and only because Celeste herself was not like the rest of us: she was profoundly clinically depressed, with a likely diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, frequently unable to work and bounced between psychiatrists and their varying prescribed psychotropic drug combinations, some of which worked for her and most of which failed to. And even with the tenuous tie of Facebook, she kept her demons to herself: the abusive ex-boyfriends, the destructive family relationships, the job troubles and crippling anxieties shielded behind colorful narratives and the myth of Never-A-Dull-Moment Celeste. . .

I can’t count the times we made plans with her — exclusively to see her, really — only to be left sitting at a bar with everyone but Celeste present, nor all the half-hearted excuses she made for her absences.

But I can say that in the last year, when Celeste made an excuse, it was painfully honest, and it moved me as only someone who’s known that kind of suffering can be moved. Because when Celeste said she was too depressed to leave the house — even just to join a few good friends, even to call to tell us so — it could’ve easily been my own excuse. And that’s when I opened up a vein to her; my own history of depression and anxiety were certainly mild by comparison, but the sadness and isolation were absolutely the same. Celeste and I traded many an email in which I reminded her that a depressive episode was like being planted in a strange culture and eventually forgetting your own: you withdraw from the things you enjoy and the people who love you in a kind of triage to simply do the day-to-day maintenance of yourself, when paradoxically everything and everyone that once nourished you is what you now need most. I encouraged her to come back out, just spend a few hours with friends, just give us a chance — and through all that, Celeste and I had formed a curious sort of friendship.

And we even got her out of the house — just one night, Jillian and Nancy and I, and she looked so like Celeste: beautiful and brazen and big and strong, and at the same time that other side of her, delicate as a tea rose, fragile as a parched leaf spiraling from a January oak. We took one picture of us all that night, and strangely, even smiling, Celeste was cast in shadow.

After then, she faded from Facebook, faded from most everywhere but my text messages, where she’d hint at getting together but never follow through, and I discerned a growing sadness in her, though tea leaves are perhaps simpler to divine than texts. In recent months, it seemed I was the only one I knew in contact with her, which troubled me — was she cutting herself off again? Had there been some fresh catalyst for her anxiety?

And then six weeks ago, I was sitting at home one evening when a text message came in: “I need help.” I repeatedly messaged her back, but she didn’t answer until the next day, when she told me she’d been in a really bad place, terribly lonely after yet another suicide attempt and a requisite stint in a psych ward, that she’d reached out because the night before she’d just felt “so helpless and alone.” And my initial response was deeply empathetic but brief — and she never responded. And as the days went by, I grew more and more troubled: why, of all the people who knew her infinitely better, had she reached out to me? Why had she cut off contact now? And worst of all, if I didn’t quickly do something — anything — what ominous news would my phone’s cheerful text message tone next bring about Celeste?

By the time a week had passed, her words lay on my heart like a stone, and I began to send the occasional text again, asking her to call me, to meet with me, to remind her that I was in that dark room with her — that all she needed to do was reach out. I called, but Celeste had always let my calls go to voicemail, and hadn’t returned a one. Wherever she was now, emotionally, it felt beyond my grasp; perhaps, I thought, I was pressing too hard, and needed to wait for Celeste to reach back out to me.

And then one evening last week it finally came, that happy jingle of the iPhone, the Grim Reaper’s tambourine.

Daron was playing with the girls in the living room while I made some dinner in the kitchen, a standard scene of everyday domesticity, and when I read the text (“Were you a friend of Celeste?”), all I needed to know was distilled in the word “were”. . . It was a new roommate of Celeste texting me from Celeste’s phone — apparently shortly after our last texts, she had left the area, telling no one. The roommate had been boxing up her things and found the phone, and mine was one of very few contacts in it, and she wanted to tell someone besides the family that Celeste had passed on: that she had rented a lakeside cabin for her birthday, and had overdosed.

I fell into a chair, breathless and ruined, and yet stricken by the inevitability of it. Then I called Jillian, who wept inconsolably, and we discussed a strategy to begin disseminating the news and organizing a memorial. And throughout and over the next few days, I stayed in contact with the roommate, who shed much light on Celeste’s state of mind in her final days, on her profound loneliness and despair, her certainty that her family and friends would find no loss in her absence.

And I felt grief, to be sure — that with so many people who truly loved Celeste, she had felt so very alone, and died so very alone — but more than this, I felt such a profound sense of SHAME: that I could know so intimately that black dog of depression, and not have done more to have helped her. What would it have taken for me to have simply shown up at her door one day, and insisted she come out for coffee? What were the right words to text, and why couldn’t I, the fucking writer, have sent them? All the invitations I could have extended that I didn’t, all the simple gifts of time or kindness left unshared, all came back to me now like accusations. Of all the people in her life — people who’d known her for years, people who knew her worlds better — Celeste had chosen to reach out to me, and I had failed her ruinously.

We held a friends’ remembrance service for her this week at the Old Pequliar, a favorite old Ballard haunt of hers for many years, and everyone took a few minutes to offer their favorite memories of Celeste and, given the circumstances, their naked regrets. And it struck me that night how much we believe in the importance of what we say to one another, while the things that go unsaid hold just as much power; had Celeste known how much love was infused in each of those statements about her Tuesday night — and had she told each of us how deeply she was suffering — I’ve no doubt she would’ve been with us at the OP that night, joining us in a round and dropping quarters in the jukebox and setting aside her many cares, if only for an hour or two.

Truly, summer feels over now, the joy of it abruptly ended with Celeste’s passing. I have so many regrets, but in her name, I resolve to be more conscious of telling people when I’m thinking about them, worrying for them, wishing them well. I plan to be more generous with compliments, with giving people my full attention and my time. I want to say everything that matters, and even the little things that might not matter much to me, but might mean a lot to someone else.

I think Celeste would have liked that.


  • cardiogirl

    September 18, 2009 at 1:49 am

    What terrible news. Depression is such a heavy burden. I really think there are so many people out there who suffer silently because of the intense shame and stigma attached to it.

    I’ve done my own stint in the hospital and I can tell you, from the other side, in that state of despair there’s really nothing another person can say or do to change anything.

    I know exactly what you meant when you wrote:

    “…her certainty that her family and friends would find no loss in her absence.”

    I’ve been in that place which — I was surprised to learn later — was not rock bottom for me. Hours before I went to the hospital I was numb and determined. I’ve never felt like that before or since.

    I truly thought of no one else or how they might feel. I was single-minded and even talking about my small children (at the time 7, 4 and 2) and husband did nothing to waver my determination. I’m actually ashamed to admit that now.

    What a terrible thing for Celeste and all who loved her to experience.

    I am so sorry to hear about this and yet I really think you did as much as you could and that Celeste was most likely in a mindset where no one could reach her.

    Please don’t misunderstand me. I certainly do not mean to diminish your sorrow. It’s just that this post really spoke to me for many different reasons.

    I’m sorry for you loss.

  • Tracy

    September 18, 2009 at 9:36 am

    Cardiogirl, to be honest, part of my motivation in writing this post was my deep frustration with the stigma that remains attached to depression — that for so many people (who don’t suffer) it remains a verboten topic or something you simply “buck up and soldier through,” that for others (who do) it’s a source of shame, and seeking treatment (or god forbid *medication*) is to publicly brand oneself as Crazy. For my own part to this end, I’ve made a conscious effort in the past few years to be open about myself: should it come up in the course of normal conversation, I slip in that I take a mild anti-depressant and a mild anti-anxiety, and see a therapist as needed — and I literally cannot COUNT the number of people who are at first a little taken aback that I’ve disclosed this, and then respond in kind. The facts are that more of your friends and family are in the same boat than you’d imagine. . .

    There was one other thing I meant to include in this post that I didn’t, because I didn’t ultimately know how much bearing it had given the profundity of Celeste’s condition: there are days I might have missed a dose of medication and everything that could have gone wrong has and emotionally, I’m somewhere between wanting to run away to a tropical island and hide under the covers in the spare room — but no matter what, I have an incredible support system: a partner who loves and supports me, parents who are there no matter what, close friends who recognize my moods and can say, “This too shall pass,” — and that little bit of comfort can make all the difference. But at the end, Celeste had *none* of that support, no one to tell her they loved her no matter what, that it was just her brain chemistry talking, that they would be there today and tomorrow as they always had — and that’s a large part of my remorse around her loss, that wondering if we had just been there to offer more of that support and remind her of all those critical things a depressed and anxious person can’t, for the moment, remember for herself.

    Could you perhaps shed some light on this?

  • Jennifer Nocerino

    September 18, 2009 at 11:28 am

    HI Trac,

    Very classy way to remember someone. I’m so sorry for your loss. I think speaking your mind and telling people you care is a winderful gesture. Life is too short and it is important for all of us to know we are loved, yet it is so rarely said.

    You know I have had numerous bouts with depression, therapy and meds. Most recently it has been with post partem depression after giving birth to both of my boys. It’s a shame how few people can talk about this very real medical problem and the stigma attached to it. We’ve got a long way to go in this arena.

    I love you, Tracy. If you need anything, please call.


  • cardiogirl

    September 18, 2009 at 11:28 am

    I think it’s very hard to say how much weight outside support carries in terms of personal relationships. I think I fall somewhere between you and Celeste.

    I had a lot of weird shit happening for a couple of years that sort of snowballed until it became a lot of weird shit hurtling at me, one right after the other, within a six month period.

    It truly was a bunch of stressful life experiences that kept building into a fever pitch.

    In the beginning of 2007 two long-term things were in place. My brother has MS and had been bedridden and paralyzed for about ten years. My mother has end stage Alzheimer’s and back then she was roughly Stage 6. My sister’s husband tried to start an affair with me the year before.

    My sister blew it off as no big deal, my therapist told my husband and I to keep it quiet for fear of creating a huge rift in the family. So I was keeping that secret and trying to avoid family gatherings where they would be present.

    In the middle of 2007 I started to crash from Paxil. It just stopped working for me and that did not help matters.

    Toward the end of 2007 my brother had a feeding tube and a permanent catheter put in. I ran into my sister’s husband in the hospital and felt I had to stay in the room (while he was visiting my brother) to support my brother.

    My father told me I was too sensitive and my expectations of people were too high. He also told me I was choosing to be depressed.

    When I tried to tell my dad how difficult it was to be in the same room with that pig of a brother-in-law my father threw his head back and laughed his ass off telling me I was being childish.

    Oh, yeah. I was never allowed to talk about how my mom and brother were dying and crying in front of my dad was verboten to say the least.

    Let’s see, in November of 2007 my priest revealed he was lusting after me. I had been turning to the Church as the one thing that was constant and helpful to me in a tumultuous time. The fact that the priest was counseling me through the issue with my brother-in-law was ironic since the priest turned out to be a pig also.

    Had to rip our kids out of that Catholic school in November (we felt we had no choice but to leave) and find a new Catholic school.

    One of the last things that added up to a one-week suicidal stay in the Psych Ward was my brother calling to ask me if my husband would be one of his pallbearers.

    About a week after that I saw my mom at my brother’s house and that was the first time she truly looked at me with no recognition. She wanted to know what my daughter’s name was and how old she was. She also asked me how I knew my dad.

    I just couldn’t take it anymore.

    My husband really has been a pillar of strength then and now, but it just wasn’t enough. It just wasn’t enough then.

    That’s one of the things about suicide, it’s just a completely isolated act. It’s not about anyone else. It’s about stopping the pain that has become unbearable.

    At a time when outside contact was very important it was the last thing I wanted. It was too exhausting to even sit in a room with another person, much less interact.

    I wanted to be left alone. Just alone forever. I didn’t have it in me to even consider how anyone else felt.

    That was the first time I had no fear of dying in mortal sin because of suicide. Prior to that time, religious beliefs had really saved me from myself. But at that time I could care less about any final ramifications. It just wasn’t worth it.

    So as you can see, there’s alot of confused logic going on when a person is suicidal. Without being in a locked Psych ward, I don’t know what the lay person can/could do for someone who is in such pain.

    I would guess this does nothing to resolve your own feelings about Celeste, but maybe it might help give you an idea of where she felt she was in those days leading up to her death.

    Again, I am so sorry to hear about this tragic event Tracy.

  • Tracy

    September 18, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    Cardiogirl, this said it all for me:

    “That’s one of the things about suicide, it’s just a completely isolated act. It’s not about anyone else. It’s about stopping the pain that has become unbearable. At a time when outside contact was very important it was the last thing I wanted. It was too exhausting to even sit in a room with another person, much less interact. I wanted to be left alone. Just alone forever. I didn’t have it in me to even consider how anyone else felt.”

    It’s encapsulating the isolation and emotional exhaustion of depression and magnifying it a thousandfold. I’ve been extraordinarily low before, curled in a fetal position in endless tears, but I’ve never come close to taking my own life; your words truly crack a much-needed window into the suicidal mind.

    Thank you so much for relating your story, and good god, perhaps we *all* would’ve been suicidal; it was the perfect storm of awful, and I’m so sorry for your series of losses. . . And begging pardon, I also want to punch your father (not to mention your priest) in the face; it’s exactly those attitudes — that people “choose” to be depressed — that keep the shame and stigma of it burning so fiercely. Firstly, depression is a chemical imbalance — a chronic illness often no less debilitating than MS or Alzheimer’s, and for some people just as fatal. Secondly, you were responding to a grave and grievous situation — the impending deaths of your mother and brother, a callous brother-in-law and blind sister, an advantage-taking priest and the uprooting of your children — in the APPROPRIATE MANNER: with expressions of your grief and loss and confusion, with sorrow and tears. Had you responded any other way, well, wouldn’t *that* have been the real definition of mental illness? 😉

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I feel like it’s given me a truer glimpse into Celeste’s mindset at the end, and greater certainty of her determination to see this through, no matter what any of us had done.

    Or, as Jillian said at the memorial, “I do take some solace that she left this world like her idol, Marilyn Monroe…”

    (Leading David John to lean over to me and whisper, “She was killed by THE KENNEDYS??!!” And trust me David, right then Celeste burst out laughing too. . .) 😉

  • cardiogirl

    September 19, 2009 at 6:21 am

    Your reply to mine brought up some interesting thoughts.

    First, I probably should have emailed you with this stuff since I’ve created a very long post in your comments.

    Second, I know Celeste would have loved David’s response. We all want our friends and family to remember us and smile. And if they laugh after we’re gone that’s a bonus.

    Third, I answer comments and create a dialogue in the VIP Lounge (my comment section) like you do and I always feel obligated to be the last response in a thread.

    But sometimes what the other person said is basically enough to end the conversation. What do you do in that case? I don’t want to seem rude but I think, at times, we’ve completed our conversation. You know what I mean?

    And then in reverse, like here, I don’t want to leave you hanging, but it’s your space. So when you reply I feel a bit compelled to respond.

    Oy, I probably need a bump in my Zoloft.

    Carry on.

  • Wendy

    September 23, 2009 at 7:37 pm

    Tracy: When Cardiogirl says she’s an instant fan of someone’s writing, I know that I just have to check it out. So far, I have only read two posts (this one and the previous). The previous one (which I somehow read first … not realizing that this post was more than just a picture) had me rolling on the floor laughing. This one had me crying in comraderie.

    Like CG, I have also battled depression. I have never done a stint in a hospital (thanks to the grace of God), but did at one point have a plan for not only taking out myself, but also taking my infant son with me (I wonder what that says about me. I couldn’t think of anyone else in that moment, yet I was also thinking that I couldn’t bear the thought of his going on without me).

    Like you, I fight the social stigma attached to confessions of depression. My own family is fairly understanding (my father views it as no different than his diabetes – his body doesn’t produce enough of the normally adequate reserves of insulin, my body doesn’t produce enough of the normally adequate reserves of seratonin, thus we both must add what is right back to our bodies). My spouse’s family, on the other hand, are full out “what do you have to be depressed about? why can’t you just get up off your butt and do what you know you need to do?” Sadly, I’m a tremendous people pleaser and spend WAY TOO MUCH TIME trying to fit the mold they hold up for me.

    I guess what I really want to say is thank you for the touching and honestly raw post. Plus, thank you for continuing the conversation about this problem. Although suicidal moments don’t often respond to the sense of the presence of others, the day-to-day struggle with depression does indeed seem less daunting when you know that others have been there.

    Like CG, I can’t wait to delve into your blog further (and also to read any eventual novel you publish).

    • Tracy

      September 26, 2009 at 5:02 pm

      Hi Wendy, and thanks so much for stopping in and the awesomely kind words.

      Sorry in taking so long in getting back — I think I’ve been really chewing over what you’ve said, and I won’t mince words: it’s because of what you said about you and your son. Because my head immediately went to one name, and I thought, do I wanna go there? Because that’s a HUGE can of worms, that’s the MOTHER of all worm cans, and really, this was Wendy’s experience, and this was enormously generous of her to share it, and what good can come from opening that GODDAMNED CAN?

      Wendy, I’m opening the can.

      “Andrea Yates.”

      I think there’s something about being a depressive — maybe particularly about being a depressive woman — that gives you particular empathy toward the entire spectrum of mental illness. And years before I was either a mother *or* diagnosed with depression, I heard the story of Susan Smith and instantly thought, “You calculating, homicidal bitch,” and later the story of Andrea Yates and immediately thought, “You poor, sick woman.”

      I’ve literally almost come to fisticuffs with my best friend over Andrea Yates, and he’s 6’4″ and I bruise easy, but I’d like to kill Russell Yates with my bare hands — the man who watched her endure postpartum depression and continued to insist she keep having babies, the man who told his brother (who then told Larry King on “Larry King Live”) that all depressed people needed (not unlike your in-laws) was “a swift kick in the pants” to get them motivated. My best girlfriend has suffered severe postpartum depression (as she’s mentioned on this thread) and it sounds like you’ve endured the same. You’re so fortunate you and your son escaped with your lives. . .

      Thanks so much for contributing to the dialogue. It actually better helps me understand my friend Jennifer and a little bit of what she was going through during some very rough months, too. If only all women had the same level of support. . . !


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