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A letter to friends with mental illnesses: ’Your lives make my life worth living’

Before You Go: Some of Daphnée Lévesque’s loved ones suffer from mental illness, and have tried to take their own lives—a struggle she understands firsthand. Still, she holds hope.
The author, Daphnée Lévesque, and two of her friends.

Daphnée Lévesque is an undergraduate student at UBC. In her free time, she is a peer facilitator and volunteers with inner-city kids as a literacy mentor.

To my friend:

I’ll never forget the day I had to dial 911 because I was worried that you might hurt yourself. You did not want me to intervene, but when these things happen, all the unspoken rules of friendship vanish.

Before I pressed the call button, a vision of the hospital flashed in my mind, with its bright red ER sign and bland walls. I remembered how, just one month earlier, a nurse had slapped a blue hospital bracelet on my wrist, and told me that if I walked out the door, she’d call the police.

Still, I proceeded with the call. It broke my heart, knowing I was about to put you through the same suffering I had experienced. But in that moment, keeping you alive was my only priority. Words can’t describe the agonizing hours that followed and the terror that came along with facing the possibility that you were perhaps already gone.

Today, you’re thriving. You’re even studying to become a nurse yourself. I see a bright future ahead of you.

To another friend:

A year and a half ago, we were locked in a psychiatric ward, wearing teal pyjamas. I had been admitted to the hospital because I couldn’t stop thinking of suicide, and you were experiencing another psychotic episode.

But it is one of my favourite memories. After all, I had been hospitalized weeks before you were, and at the time you dropped in for a visit, bringing red velvet cake and promising to visit again soon—although the next time would be, it turns out, as a patient. It’s a weird thing to laugh about, but that’s a monument to the absurd, dark humour that bonds us. Late at night in the dark, we would gossip about the nursing staff, devise plans to escape, devour junk food, and giggle a lot. We’ve been inseparable ever since.

A few months after we were discharged, I received a phone call from a mutual friend, and she told me you had overdosed on 36 tablets of Gravol. After you were rushed to the hospital, I sat across from you, and the realization hit me: I couldn’t alleviate your suffering. I felt powerless. All I could do was hold your hand, and tell you how much I loved you.

Today, we are rebuilding our lives on two different continents. You are learning how to speak German, grieving the loss of your father and taking care of your mother in Taiwan. I volunteer with inner-city kids and plan to study education and psychology. Look how far we’ve come.

To another friend:

We are girls whose pain is written all over our bodies. It is not always easy to bare our skin, to expose our selves and our vulnerabilities.

But you and I have stood in our underwear in your bathroom, challenging the shame, defying the notion that secrecy is our only option. We both know that the more we normalize our experiences, the less we feel alone.

You bring me vitamin-E oil to apply to my scars when I relapse, and you help me build sandcastles at the beach. The other day, you wore a sundress and red lipstick, and when I looked at you, you were glowing.

To my support group:

From the outside, people might view us through the lens of our illness, a collection of symptoms paired with an inability to function and poor life choices. We’ve been told we lack grit, aren’t trying hard enough, or don’t deserve to be helped. We’ve been told that we will never be able to achieve our dreams, contribute to society, or live a meaningful life. Some people think that you are “fragile,” too preoccupied with your issues to be mindful of other people’s pain.

But the opposite is true. You are extraordinary people with integrity, depth, wit, and empathy. You follow your passions to study clinical psychology, social work, medicine and nursing. That’s a good thing: The world needs minds like yours to bring the change that our system so desperately needs.

To everyone:

We live in a world where there are no guarantees. But when many of your friends have tried to take their own lives, you become painfully aware of life’s betrayals and uncertainty.

Every day, 11 people in our country die by suicide. In Canada, it is one of the leading cause of death in young people. Not everybody has to live with this kind of reality, but I know almost 20 people who have attempted suicide. So every relationship comes with a risk, and these friendships are no exceptions.

That scares me. I’m scared that one day, I will lose one of them. I’m scared of waking up one morning to unbearable news. At times, I have pictured their funerals, written their eulogies inside my head, and found myself so worried for them that I prayed I would wake up the next day and find them still alive. And I’m scared they will be gone before I have the chance to tell them how much they matter to me.

I’ve been there myself, after all—and when you suffer from a mental illness yourself, the commitments you make to the people you love become further complicated by the complex truths of the darkness you experience firsthand. But this is a risk I choose to live with every day—and I have never once regretted it.

Regardless of what kind of headspace I’m in, I have always believed in their ability to recover and be their healthy, resilient, fierce and kind selves again.

My friends and loved ones: No matter what, I will always choose the side of life over your deaths by suicide. Your lives make my life worth living.

Good courage,

Daphnée Lévesque

This essay is part of Maclean’s Before You Go series, which collects unique, heartfelt letters from Canadians taking the time to say “Thanks, I love you” to special people in their lives—because we shouldn’t have to wait until it’s too late to tell our loved ones how we really feel. Read more essays here. If you would like to see your own letters or reflections published, send us an email here. For more details about submitting your own, click here.