At first, I didn’t understand what happened to my best friend. We spoke on a Tuesday and then he was dead on a Thursday.
When I first met him, I was standing under the stairs of the maths block with another girl. He walked past and I said, “We’re contacting the devil, wanna watch?” He put down his bag and nodded. The girl and I took each other’s hands, closed our eyes and began slowly counting backwards from 30. When we got to 11, a teacher with bulging eyes said, “What’s going on here, then?” We quickly dropped our hands and I looked at my shoes and said, “We were contacting the devil, sir.” The teacher paused and said, “Well… don’t.” I was 13, he was 14.
As we said our goodbyes on FaceTime that Tuesday, we talked about how excited we were to watch the final series of Peep Show. There was always talk of future plans. He said he might train as a tattoo artist or look into becoming a Buddhist. I felt as though it was OK to stop worrying about him, for that day anyway.
His death changed me for the worse and the better. In the first few days and weeks, I had to learn how to survive. I now had this word “grieving” that people would understand and respect. I used it in emails and to leave conversations. When you are a functioning depressive, you are able to get by, but only just. And there is always this worry that maybe people won’t believe that you are struggling and need help, because your life isn’t falling apart. All that changed after his death. Now, I wasn’t able to function and I had to defer to the pain. I was forced to tell the truth about not being OK, in a newly vulnerable way. Before he died, I used to be embarrassed about my depression, and tried to keep it hidden.
I even kept it hidden from him. When I first moved to London, he stayed in Cardiff, but we would spend hours on the phone most evenings. My flatmate said she always knew when I was talking to him because of the laughter coming from my room. Escapism was a big part of our friendship.
He came to visit me and hated the tube and only wanted to go to Camden. We sat in the corner of a red pub that only played Oasis. Occasionally, between the giggling, a look passed between us and we would see in each other’s eyes that maybe we weren’t happy, but weren’t going to talk about it. Now, I wish we had. The only thing he said, as we spilled out on to the street, was that he found adult life “boring and uncreative”.
Most people I know struggle to take their own pain seriously, let alone talk about it. But loss is dangerous and some people don’t survive it. Now I was being honest about how I felt, I began looking after myself in a new way. I asked a friend to get me some cream for the mysterious rash that appeared all over my body, 24 hours after his death. I designated a horrible peach towel in the bathroom as the one I would silently cry into. It was softer and kinder on my eyes than tissues. I began to floss. I ate meals. I took my medication. I listened to an audiobook of The Tibetan Book of the Dead on full volume, even when I knew the neighbours had people over. I downloaded a meditation app and then deleted it to have more memory to play Cake Shop 2. I got a 2m-long phone cable so I could comfortably play it in bed without stretching.
I paused my never-ending projects of self-improvement (get Michelle Obama arms, read Middlemarch, give up Diet Coke). I couldn’t improve in any way or be productive. I could just survive. When getting out of bed was difficult, I broke things down into threes, to make them manageable: 1) push duvet off; 2) put feet on floor; 3) stand. This was the most I had ever done for my emotional wellbeing and I have my friend to thank for that. When you are the one hurting yourself, you are never safe. It was nice to start to feel safe in my own company again.
Whatever I did, I still needed him. And in those moments I had to turn to the living. I started to wonder if I had been cured of my lifelong shyness. Openly weeping in front of strangers was such a break from social norms that it was liberating. The shock was so great for so long, that it filled me right to the top, leaving less room for self- consciousness. I cried on trains, and didn’t try to hide it by wiping away the tears, so they pooled in my neck, making my scarf wet.
One day a friend, who was fresh in her grief, asked me what to do. I forgot that no one teaches us how to grieve, and that there are things I desperately wish people had told me. My friend was shocked to hear that anger is allowed, loneliness is extremely common, and the pain won’t stay at the same intensity. I wish someone had told me to not be frightened of the future, because I didn’t know that it wouldn’t stay as bad as it was on day one. I hadn’t realised that my experience could help others. This was my induction into a sort of club, each member of which has lost someone. I started to make connections and have conversations I never would have before.
Later that day, in Sainsbury’s, a woman with red eyes stretched her whole arm towards the back of a shelf to find the milk with the longest sell-by-date. As shoppers pushed squeaking trolleys past me, squinting in the artificial light, I wondered how anyone gets out of bed in the morning. My friend’s pain began to make sense.
When I went back to work to film a TV show, I was quiet and looked at my shoes a lot. At lunchtime, a slightly sexy older actor made intense eye contact with me, put his hand to his pec, and said, “First loss?” I was annoyed at how wise and fatherly he was being. For the rest of the day, he stared at me across the room with a look of concern and erotic sadness, like I was big, sexy grief baby that needed rescuing. I imagined a whole future with him in a handbuilt farmhouse, where he would write me a bad play about being sad and I would mend his plaid shirts with twine. When the job ended, I showed him a bit of my bra strap and pretended it was an accident. There was so much sympathy around for me now, and sometimes I wanted to indulge.
Eighteen months later, I was eating lasagne in front of Below Deck when I had the thought that I’ve accidentally become more set as a person. In grief, there isn’t time to want to be like someone else. Trauma means reacting in the moment, as you are. You have to be horribly yourself. Like in a novel where character is revealed through actions, crisis showed me who I was. I don’t always have to like what it shows me. I wear the clothes now that my mother would have hated, things that are too short or tight. I’ve dyed my hair dark, which she said was ageing, and I’ve grown it long, which she said made my neck look short. I’m much angrier now. It’s good as a woman to feel anger, because my mother pretended she didn’t have any and my father had too much.
Once you’ve been through loss, you know its landscape. All loss will remind you of the first loss, like it’s one big river of yearning. And I have become less shocked by it. At first you think you are nowhere, but if you’re lucky, you might feel as though you have travelled somewhere. It’s a very particular type of wisdom, a profound, mystical feeling of having seen the wild edges of being human. I’ve returned from a quest, changed, and have information to tell the other villagers.
Five years on, I understand more about what happened to my friend. I understand he was trying to protect himself from pain. I didn’t understand it when I was younger. It’s difficult when you are young and you come face-to-face with addiction. We all drank a lot, so it was difficult to detect. It was a slow build, like one long note, getting louder and louder. As teenagers, we’d spend afternoons sitting in his purple bedsit in Cardiff, sipping cheap rum and Coke, breathing in sharply as it stung the roof of our mouths and then we’d laugh and try to act sober on the phone if a parent called. Later, his drinking got worse, but I was too embarrassed to mention it. I saw it as a phase. I was waiting for the plot twist, where he suddenly reveals he had a plan all along, that the drinking was a way into something else, and a new, reformed person would emerge on the other side of the destruction. But it was just more of the same. And then it got worse.
Now, I get to write about him, which wouldn’t have happened otherwise. I wouldn’t have been able to write about going to my first concert with him, rolling down big hills in West Wales with him, taking hallucinogens and thinking we were made of milk, or how he was funnier than most professional comedians I know. Before, I was too shy to write, definitely too shy to write autobiographically, and now I can’t stop. I get to write about him even though there is a voice in my head, even now, telling me that it’s not good enough. It’s true: no writing will be good enough to represent him. And I’d trade all the words for him.
Ultimately, it has strengthened my love for him. He hasn’t taken the friendship with him. I still care about him and I know exactly what he would think about himself dying and me being left behind, with all my half of our private jokes. I’ve absorbed his traits. I eat the foods he liked and use words he liked and say our jokes to myself. And I’ve come up with some new ones for us, too. I’m living for both of us. I have replaced this person with love. And I get to write this love letter to him.
Delicacy: A Memoir About Cake and Death by Katy Wix is out now, published by Headline at £8.99. Order a copy from guardianbookshop.com.
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