This may be one of the hardest things I’ve ever written in my life, aside from all those cover letters. No, I’m not going to let the sarcasm block me from saying something that I think is very, very important.
Today is my mother’s birthday and I’m in mourning. Not for Mommy, though she did pass over 15 years ago and I still miss her every single day. No, I’m missing another very cool woman who taught me a lot, and taught other people as well. That woman is Valerie Burgher, one of my best friends who committed suicide in June 2006. She would have been 38 years old last Tuesday and she was funny and smart and talented and beautiful. To be perfectly honest, I was a little bit jealous of her when we were young and I’ll bet she was a little bit jealous of me in that pre-teen girl way. But we became best friends when we met in 7th Grade in Queens, NY. We were the only 2 Black girls in our class, and empirically the 2 smartest, so of course we bonded. It turns out that we had a lot more in common than that, things I wouldn’t realize until much later.
Anyway, in school Valerie was always #1 and I was the perennial #2, but I didn’t mind. Her self-deprecating joke was that I was naturally smarter, but she worked harder. At the time I believed it a little, since I never studied a lick. But that’s not important; what’s important is that she was my bestest friend, like the kind of friend that you talk on the phone with for hours and hours and don’t say anything at all. We used to tape ourselves talking – the first podcasts! We used to watch movies together over the phone. My parents got me a separate phone number because they could never get a call, as Valerie and I NEVER got off the phone with each other unless we were at each other’s houses or at school. Good times.
Somewhere in 9th Grade, Val started acting a little strange. We were still girls but something was different. One morning she came to school for math team (I mentioned before that I was a nerd) and I noticed some scars on the side of her wrist. I asked about them, we fought, and Valerie stormed off. In retrospect, she was cutting – not trying to kill herself – and it freaked me the hell out. I thought I was going to die or my heart was going to explode. Our group of friends had a quorum and I learned that Valerie’s mom had been hospitalized years ago after a suicide attempt, and a second time after going off her medication. So young were we, and so without the internet for research that we didn’t know a lot about mental illness or family history or anything like that. I never told my parents about it because I didn’t want them to say I couldn’t see Valerie any more, or that I wasn’t allowed to go to her house. My parents are Black, we’re like that sometimes. It’s not monumentally important, but Valerie was biracial. Maybe that added to her pain, but I’ll never know.
After the cutting incident, things went back to normal. Valerie and I decided, as a unit, that we wouldn’t be attending private school at Fieldston or Hotchkiss (we’d been recruited simultaneously by the Prep for Prep program) and went to public school instead. Time went on, we broadened our circle of friends and she began dating a guy that a few of our other friends crushed on. Our other friends hated on Valerie a little bit after that. It was high school and girls get catty no matter how close they are. I’d made my peace with the fact that she was always the pretty one AND the smart one, but I never held that against her. She was my best friend, after all. Besides, there was just something so attractive about her, not just her looks, that it either sucked you in or made you jealous. You know that girl who all your guy friends are kind of in love with, even the gay ones, and you can’t fault them because you totally get it? Some people are just like that, I guess. She never knew it, though. It was like not ever thinking she was smarter than me or better than anyone at anything. She wasn’t modest exactly just, I don’t know, afraid of standing out, more so than the average teenager.
Anyway, around the time of the boys and the hating Valerie started to change a little. She was a little more broody, maybe a little bit erratic. We blamed it on the boyfriend. She spent 3 months in the Philippines with the Peace Corps our junior year after which we went to work at the same summer job and proceeded to apply to – and attend – the same college. Just like high school, I think it was a joint decision. My parents drove us up to New Haven for tours, then to Middletown for interviews, and on the ride back we decided that we’d be going to Yale, never mind that we hadn’t applied yet. We were going! Make it so! And we did, same major and everything. It’s amazing how much easier life was in high school, even when it was really hard. But college leads to adulthood and real issues. Somewhere in freshman year, Valerie and her boyfriend broke up. It was him, not her, which I’ll always believe was motivated by jealousy. And as happens with these things, my best friend was pretty broken up by the break up. I only know that because she looked terrible, not because we talked about it like we would’ve in high school. Somewhere in there she disappeared into her dorm and I into mine. We did hang out occasionally, but I stopped understanding her. Rumors in small colleges spread like brush fires and I’d been told about her public drunkenness, rampant promiscuity and generally crazy behavior. At the time I was very confused and very embarrassed about hearing bad things about My Valerie, the innocent virgin (yeah, that’s right, ask around) in me shook her head and figured that this was where we parted ways. She went on to hang with the artsy coffee-house musician crowd and I hung with the gay feminist dance-party crowd. Then graduation.
You can’t shake some people, and I met up with Valerie in Los Angeles in 1996, where she had a journalism fellowship with the LA Times. We chatted, I met some of her co-workers and felt vastly overmatched in intellect. I also felt like a child, like Valerie and her friends had become adults with real jobs while I was playing at it in advertising in NY. She still had that edge, that sad something I saw in college but she never talked to me about it. In lots of ways, I was a child then, and I wouldn’t have been able to handle her real truths. We met again at our 5th college reunion where I was struggling with depression (and didn’t know it) and she was manic (and perhaps knew it). When you don’t understand mania it just looks scary, especially if its wearing the face of the childhood best friend who always got you more than you got yourself. Anyway, we caught up with me nearly unable to follow her rambling conversation or pacing around the dorm room that was our hotel for the weekend. She revealed her plan to hook up with one of our classmates, as one often does at reunions. I know now that one often mounts a sexual offensive in the midst of a manic episode, but that’s from personal experience. In 1999, I knew enough not to criticize Valerie’s actions because I didn’t want to hurt her, but I’m sure my disapproval registered in some way. By that point we’d traded geographies with me leaving for California just as she was settling into Brooklyn and writing for New York Newsday. And that was that.
Years later I returned to New York and I might have seen Valerie in the Columbus Circle subway station. From behind I sized up a woman who could have been her but probably wasn’t. The age was right, but this girl was pretty chubby and had short hair, not like My Valerie at all. For a moment I thought, “people change” since at the time I was skinny and running 5K races, not at all the person I was even a few years before. But I didn’t approach the woman I saw underground because if it was her, I just wasn’t in the mood since I’d just come from therapy and didn’t feel like being drained by someone else. Probably wasn’t her anyway. I put that day out of my mind until months later, when I opened an innocent-looking e-mail offering me condolences at Valerie’s passing. I believe I said, out loud, “What the hell are you talking about?” as I responded to the note. By the time I pulled up Google I’d already been sent Valerie’s obituary from The Village Voice, for which she had written later in her life. She jumped in front of a train and died in the hospital the next day, ruled a suicide, not an accident. Valerie Burgher was 34 and suffered openly from bipolar disorder; her one-time best friend was 33, utterly shocked and bawling uncontrollably while she donated to NAMI. In those moments, years of memories came careening back to me, the good ones and the bad ones alike. I put everything together right then, sitting on the couch in my boyfriend’s living room, spilling tears onto his laptop. The erratic behavior, the mood swings, EVERYTHING. Even the guilt that I’d possibly seen her and was too selfish at the time to talk to her. In the next few hours I Googled everything I could to fill in the missing years and found that Valerie was still the same girl who I fell in love with in junior high. Funny, silly, creative, dedicated, smarter than me no matter what she’d say. She sang, played guitar, could bake a mean apple pie and grow plants. Bad dancer, brilliant writer and talented photographer, never really smiled in pictures because she thought she was ugly. Yeah, we never know what’s really going on inside someone’s head.
Today I have my own bipolar diagnosis and I can’t stop thinking about Valerie. First, I don’t know how she felt every day, but I get it all. Sitting in a psych ward I could see her volatile college years in my own Craigslist-bolstered promiscuity. I know why she sometimes drank too much and acted like an asshole, or why some of my other college friends didn’t like her or why she completely obliterated her ex-boyfriends, or why going to the Philippines and Cambodia with the Peace Corps could be interesting, but would never be far enough away for her to outrun her demons. I may not have done EXACTLY what she did, but trust that I’ve had my moments. And that they’ll be in the book.
Anyway, after I got out of the hospital I decided that Valerie’s voice had been silenced but mine didn’t have to be. She was open about her disease, and her struggles became more powerful in light of her talents and success. I never got a chance to talk to my friend about living with a diagnosis, or taking medications, or any number of things that I’m sure we both have done every day to make through until morning. Sure, I feel a little bit guilty for ignoring her on the subway that day, and my emotional mind says that I could have helped her if we’d been able to talk so she didn’t have to take her own life. But my rational mind, as they call it in DBT therapy, knows that I can’t beat myself up about something over which I had absolutely no control. I do, however, have control over what I do now, whom I can help now, and what I can say now. And right now is about eliminating the stigma of mental illness so that we’ll know what it looks like when we see it, know how to tell people to get help.
Go to the National Alliance on Mental Illness website now and do some reading on depression, bipolar and suicide prevention. Then do some talking and some donating.