I warn you this is a long one, I talked a lot about Ava in my book, she was after all my best friend for a long time. Ava, kind, caring, formidable, smart as a whip with a genius level IQ, she was the only bridesmaid at my wedding and like an aunt to my 4 children. Every time I hear Billy Joel’s “Always A Woman” I think of her and smile.
We both grew up as ‘only’ children but aside from that we had completely different upbringings and yet we were so painfully alike, it was as if we shared the same story, told in a different way.
We were painfully sensitive and volatile teenagers but where I would fear judgement and only ever allowed myself to implode, Ava couldn’t care less what people thought, happy to explode and let the whole world feel her wrath. She was brilliant at standing up for the underdogs of the world and she was alway right, especially when she was wrong.
Ava had terrible self esteem on the inside but wore the mask of confidence so well that on the surface she often appeared hostile or combative. She fought for herself when she felt wronged and she fought for me when I did, which I either appreciated tremendously or felt horribly uncomfortable about depending on the situation.
Unless I’m manic, I’m a meek little kitten with a tendency to always back down and hide, as such confrontation terrifies me. Ava didn’t put up with that nonsense, she was always up for an argument. She wanted to be a lawyer and would have made a bloody good one, unfortunately mental illness repeatedly got in the way of her dreams and university just became too much.
Sadly, Ava and I don’t talk anymore. I don’t mention that part in the book because, well because it still hurts me so deeply to think that we don’t have that relationship anymore, to think about how it ended or more rightly that I ended it.
And even more painfully, the reasons why.
There is still so much guilt locked up inside of me relating to that phone call, the last time we spoke all those years ago now.
I don’t actually remember meeting Ava for the first time, she went to my school and we talked a bit sometimes but I remember a conversation we had, it was the moment that changed everything for me.
Despite having friends to hang out with and family that loved me, this was the first time in my life that I finally felt like I wasn’t alone.
We were both in the throes of our own deeply private battles with Anorexia, it was a world before the internet made information readily accessible and while neither of us knew at the time that what we had wasn’t a just a shared passion for extreme dieting and was in fact a mental illness, we bonded over our disdain for calories and bizarrely similar food and exercise rituals that nobody else we knew understood.
We quickly became rock solid besties. She got me and I got her, on one hand we were terribly bad for one another, because honestly, the last thing a competitive anorexic teenager needs is a dieting partner! But on so many other levels our relationship was therapeutic, we laughed together, cried together and we kept each other breathing when the darkness of depression closed in suffocating us of any hope.
That’s the thing with childhood mental illness, when you seem to think and feel the world differently from everyone else but you don’t understand what’s going on or why, you tend to learn very quickly to just shut up about things or face being ostracised. Finding someone else who seems to see from your perspective is life changing, and my relationship with Ava was life changing.
I got away with a lot more than she did, her Mum was more clued on to teenage delinquency and mental health issues than my parents. Also I knew how to manipulate quietly to get what I wanted, I discovered the art of flattery and making adults happy to quickly win them over, where Ava was an open book, if she disagreed with something she yelled and screamed defensively and they didn’t like her.
I was able to hide much more of my Eating Disorder from doctors and my naive parents, I tricked and lied my way out of hospitalisation at 15 by acting innocent and pretending I had no idea what I was doing was in healthy and lied that I’d comply with a nutritionist. Ava was honest about how she felt and fought back at there suggestions and ended up being tube fed in the adolescent psych ward.
I felt horrible about it and also terrified it could happen to me so I quit school and started working full time and going out all weekend, every weekend so nobody could keep tabs on my eating and exercising habits anymore.
Time passed, we both physically recovered and mentally and emotionally declined in other ways. Always though we followed the same patterns pre determined by our personalities, she was honest to doctors about her suicidal ideation and mental health struggles and ended up baring the brunt of more stigma or simply ignored because she was asking for help.
Doctors seemed to believe that people who asked for help were only attention seeking “otherwise they just do it” is what she was specifically told. So Ava decided to “just do it” and overdosed when her mum left town for the weekend and was found just in time, purely by chance because her mum had come back to pick up something she’d forgotten. They released her two days later while she was still very suicidal with a referral to see a psychiatrist in a week.
That’s when I lost any remaining faith in the system.
Mental illness scared me. I knew I had issues, I knew my depressions were getting deeper and suicidal thoughts more lingering, but like hell I was going to admit it. Asking for help seemed to just make things worse for people so if a Dr ever expressed concern about my wellbeing I asked them about their own lives to change the subject. Worked every time.
Ava’s mental health deteriorated, like me she issues with dissociation and had always been Up or Down, but now the downs were killing her and the Ups too brought severe consequences. Debt collectors chased her while she continued to rack up debt on manic shopping spree’s. She became addicted to prescription painkillers after slipping a disc in her back and that’s when everything really fell apart.
Moving to Sydney for a fresh start went well for a while but the depression always came back and it bit hard.
She was eventually hospitalised and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I had heard of it before but I didn’t know anything about it. A nurse briefly explained it to me and when I realised it fit Ava’s life like a glove, alarm bells started ringing about my own issues, then the nurse said there were always big problems with maintaining relationships and I remember clearly thinking ‘oh good I’ve been happily married for years, I can’t possibly have it!’
Ha! Denial is a river in Egypt.
Ava was reliably unreliable often turning up on the doorstep at 10pm when she said she’d be there at midday but when I moved to the farm she was one of the few people who would make the effort to drive out and visit. She’d come when shit hit the fan too, she’d stay a few days we’d stay up until 3am talking but because of her meds she’d sleep until 1pm the next day, we didn’t have a spare room so she was on the couch in the lounge room and she got really angry if she got woken so I had to try and keep 4 children really quiet so we didn’t disturb her. It would have been okay occasionally but it was becoming more regular and Hubby was getting really angry and frustrated – I guess I was too, but it was Ava and she was basically family. Hubby said it was my place to talk to her, not his & while that was true You all know how I feel about confrontation- and besides, she was unwell and couldn’t help it. I kept quiet.
A few hospitalisations later Ava was re diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, which made a lot of sense but it also had a massive impact on her treatment- the doctors basically told her they couldn’t do anything and refused to treat her. The painkiller addiction worsened, she had to leave Uni and her boyfriend broke up with her.
She was devastated and came up to the farm again for a few days, one day she woke up and realised she had lost her medication somewhere in the house. It turned up but Hubby flipped when he heard because she was on enough drugs to tranquillise a horse and what if the kids had found them? It was becoming unsafe. Hubby said he didn’t want her to stay with us again until she was off the painkillers and while he didn’t say it, he essentially gave me the feeling that I had to choose between him and the kids or her.
The next time she rang in tears was a few weeks later, she was at boiling point and now living with her mother (they had a turmultuous relationship) asked if she could come up and stay for a few weeks. I immediately said yes because I loved Ava like a sister, I worried about her welfare and also I had no idea how to say no to her.
I rang a different friend in tears of my own when I got off the phone with Ava because I realised that this decision might cost me my marriage. My friend spoke to me for a while and asked me what I thought needed to happen, I knew that I had to tell Ava that she couldn’t come this time and I knew I had to tell her why.
I did it. It was the most awkward and painful conversation I have ever had, she just went silent why, she was so vulnerable at that moment and here I was kicking her while she was down. I could feel how betrayed she felt through the phone. Then she hung up on me and it was the last time we ever spoke.
Ive never forgiven myself for that. I want her to know that it wasn’t because she was unwell, it wasn’t because I thought she was a bad person. I felt like it was the only option I had at the time and I had to put my family first.
So much has changed since that day, my own mental health declined so much further, My ED relapsed, I too was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and Borderline traits, I too was hospitalised and experienced psychosis and I also felt what it was like when close friends gave up on me.
I wish I could hug her, tell her I’m sorry, tell her I have so much more understanding of what she went through dealing with the mental health system now, tell her I know what it’s like when you decide to take your final breath and how it feels to wake up again knowing you’ve devestated your family.
Ava, if you’re out there, please know that I will always love you and always want the best for you. I’m sorry it ended like it did, but I had to do what I felt was right at the time. I thought I saw you once from a distance, pushing a stroller and I hope with all my heart it was you, that you found happiness because it hurts deep in my soul that I don’t even know if you are alive or if the burden of mental illness eventually took you from us forever. I just want to say thank you for all the amazing experiences we shared and the hope you gave me simply by being my friend.