Remembering a friend on World Mental Heath Day

When I started this blog in 2014, I was reeling in the aftermath of a major manic episode. One that effectively cost me my career. My early posts were angry, fueled by the shame and trauma of having endured such a public breakdown, and the complete insensitivity of my employer, a situation compounded by the fact that I had worked in the disability and mental health field and had never denied my own mental health history. But when I needed someone to step in and guide me to medical care there was no one.

On this day it would be good to stand up and say: Yes, I’m a survivor. Truth is, I’m lucky. I respond well to a long standing medical treatment (if I’m not so reckless as to believe I don’t need it) and I was able to coast for about seventeen years between breakdowns and, after losing everything in my mid-fifties, finally access solid supportive psychiatric and psychological care.

Over the past year I have needed that support twice when stability waned.

That’s actually a rather dismal situation, truth be told, but like I said, I am lucky, I respond well to medication and compared to many other people with bipolar disorder, I’ve been able to function well—most of the time. My son has faced much greater obstacles.

But today I want to talk about Ulla.

When I appeared online as a rough ghost, I quickly became connected with a group of fellow bloggers dealing with mental health challenges. Ulla, who went by the name Blahpolar was funny, outrageous, tragic, and queer. She lived in South Africa, a country I had long been interested in, and she was a huge fan of Canadian literature. We bonded almost instantly. We could joke and riff off each other as if we’d been friends forever. A little more than a year after we met online, I flew to South Africa and spent a week with her in the Eastern Cape Province. We were as comfortable together in person as we had been online.

But Ulla was struggling.

She had had a rough life. Her illness had only been diagnosed recently, at age forty-five. But the damage ran deep, complicated by so many factors. And yet she was one of the most  gifted writers and wonderful people I ever met.

By the time I got to know her she was unable to work, living on saving s in a small house she’d inherited from her mother, in a remote seaside community. But the blackness was closing in fast, even at the time we met. Every rand stretched, she tried everything she could afford to fight it off.  No treatment—not even shock therapy—seemed to have any effect.

She survived the first suicide attempt. Succeeded the second time, a little over three years ago now.

I say “succeeded” because it is selfish of me to insist that a woman of forty-six, who has waged many long and bitter battles, does not have the right to say: I cannot live this way. But it breaks my heart that she is gone, and angers me that in the end, she had to die alone.

Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows was her favourite book. A bold plea for assisted death for those with severe depression who see no other option.

Who has the right to weigh another’s pain?

Unaware that World Mental Heath Day was approaching, I pulled out the elegy I wrote for her the other night and tried to read it through. When I composed it, three months after her death, I was numb. My parents had died less than two months before her and all those losses were deeply intertwined. They are only breaking loose now.

I can’t get through this piece right any more. A sob rises in my chest just thinking about it. But on his day I wish to share it once again.

It is the best way to honour my friend Ulla. And everyone else who has reached the point where they felt no option but to join “that nocturnal tribe.” One should not wish that on anyone, but we cannot judge them. Least of all those of us who have known some measure of the pain depression and bipolar can bring. We can only try to ensure that support, understanding, and services are available for those who need it.

So, once again, for Ulla Kelly, And I Will Tell You Something.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

11 thoughts on “Remembering a friend on World Mental Heath Day”

  1. How sad, Joseph. The political and public ethos at the moment seems to favour division and aggression, bullying and intolerance, so the plight of people like Ulla is even less likely to attract help, sympathy or support. Let’s hope that the world rights itself, soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes. But the stigma around mental illness runs deep, even as my professional experience demonstrates, in environments that should be understanding. Our current climate exasperates that for certain.

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  2. I’m not a professional editor or scribbler- just a reader – but I want you to know that your writing is the real thing, shaped by honesty, disciplined – I think – by grief. Your work is not a compensation or a consolation; it always faces its subject directly. I want to say that there’s something about grieving that has pressed you into the bracing directness of your writing style – but it would assume too much to say that. I admire the way you don’t “write around” subjects; you give the reader a clear path. Your style is intimate, but all the curtains are open. Again – your writing is the real thing. When you write about what you’re reading, we know what you’re reading FOR. Looking forward to whatever form you find works with this open, intimate style – memoir in verse, or something more startling. I don’t write fan letters and I’m not qualified to give advice – but it’s clear you have the voice. It’s just rough enough.

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  3. Thank you for sharing this and honouring the memory of your friend Joe. Sometimes the treatments can help, and sometimes they don’t and so who can judge people for taking the only action they feel they can. But as so often, it’s those left behind who have to try to make sense of it all. I’m sorry your friend didn’t make it, but glad that you at least can find some kind of stability. I know it’s never easy… x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. I know that accessing the impoverished public system in South Africa was an often shocking experience, but even the most comprehensive private care might not have made a difference. The lack of early treatment and other challenges that those with mental illness often face had already done a lot of damage. I’m glad I was able to meet her and visit.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, V. It’s a piece I’ve felt compelled to share regularly. When I first finished it, I felt I had processed and packed my grief away. However, it contains so much of my own sadness in its words.

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  4. I remembered that you have written about this friendship before. In unexpected moments, not just today, it slips into my mind occasionally, how fortunate the two of you were to find this connection, in a world in which either of you might have been eclipsed by loneliness, without the “magic” of some cable system to facilitate your conversations. It feels like more often we hear about how people cannot connect, ways in which people do not hear/listen, and sometimes technology seems to highlight this. In moments when those missed connections seem to loom large, I sometimes think about your friendship with Ulla. Your having written about her has brought her into my thinking, not only today.

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    1. I’ve been thinking about her a lot lately, and when I realized World Mental Health Day was coming I felt it was a good time to return to our friendship. As with any grief, one’s relationship to the loss shifts and often becomes more poignant over time.

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