With Flowers In Your Hair: A Letter to Kayla

Dear Kayla,

Seven years ago when we became friends on Livejournal, I said I was a writer, and you said me too. I said, I’m depressed all the time, and you said me too. I said, I don’t always want to live, and you said, me too. I said, I find food to be difficult. And you said, I know. Me too.

I wish you were here now. I wish I could send you an email, my books! they’re going to be real! I did edits! I have an amazing agent and a brilliant editor! so that you could reply back, Me too! Because that’s what you deserved, lovely. That’s what you deserved.

Today I sat down to write, and today you did not.

Today is the anniversary of your death. It seems like yesterday, not six years ago, and it seems impossible that you took your own life, but you did, and in some ways it isn’t impossible at all.

I remember the last message from you. “You are beautiful and brave. I love you. I’m so proud of you.” I got the email alert on my phone, but in the days before smartphones, the data was too expensive to reply right away. I waited until after class where I set up my laptop in the campus coffeehouse and logged onto LJ.

You had already posted your suicide note. You were already gone. You slipped away on November 15th, and they didn’t find you until two days later. You were, in your death, as meticulous of a planner and as smart as you were in life. You knew how to guarantee your success.

You, the child of a mother who committed suicide.

You, the sister of two beautiful kids growing up without their mother and their older sister. You, the granddaughter of people who have continued to love you, miss you, and campaign in your memory for changes in laws and mental health care.

You, the poet. You, the political powerhouse. You, you, you.

I remember how sick you were before your death. And you were fighting so gallantly. You were trying. I know you were. But god, the depression and the eating disorder outweighed you and they drown you. You were such a beautiful writer but those entries are locked. I will respect your privacy even in your death.

But just a month before your death, in a public entry, you wrote, “Often, I still feel that I will die by suicide. I know that I can say with certainty, that I never wanted, nor expected to be found and saved…Even when I am not in the depths of a depressive episode, I see ways to extinguish myself everywhere. This is how I have learned to live.”

I wish you could have read the books that came out after you died. I wish you had Wintergirls and How I Live Now. I wish you had Burial Rites. You’d love Burial Rites. I wish you had Wild Awake and I wish you had Brooklyn, Burning. I wish you had The Goldfinch because then you could explain it to me. I wish you were around for when Twitter took off, because you’d love this medium.  And I wish you were around for Tumblr.

I wish you had lived.

I didn’t know you before you were sick, but after you died, your friends posted pictures from before.

There was a girl who smiled. There was a girl who laughed. There was a girl who had friends. The girl I knew screamed at herself for gaining an ounce. The girl I knew cut herself deeply and photographed it. The girl I knew wore her bones like a shield against the world. You were me and I was you.

I know. Me too.

Sometimes I still wake up sad that you aren’t Here. Sometimes, I miss you. I miss getting your comments on my entries telling me to keep my chin up and to soldier on. I wish I knew why you couldn’t any longer. Except that I understand. I’ve never been angry at you because I’ve been in your shoes.

I think you’d be proud today. You were such an incredible advocate for your own agency in your mental health treatment and your determination that things had to change in how we talked about and treated mental illness. You were willing to share ugly details to ensure that others would not endure what you endured. You were inspiring. You are partially why I am not afraid to speak up about my own struggles.

My balletbooks all wrestle with mental illness. I’ve not hidden that–nor my own journey and struggles with it–at all. I think it’s important to talk about mental illness. I think the stigma kills as many people as the illnesses themselves do.

Anorexia Nervosa, from which you suffered, has the highest fatality rate of any psychiatric illnesses. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States.  In 2011, the last year for which I have government data, someone died by suicide every 13 minutes in this country. That was 39,518 preventable deaths. 100% preventable deaths. Men are five times more likely to commit suicide, but women are more likely to attempt suicide. I know you attempted many times before you succeeded. I know that eating disorders are a slow and painful version of suicide.

I remember hearing a story about the Paperclip Project which taught the Holocaust to kids in a very rural, extremely impoverished rural town in Tennessee. The teacher who started the project told the synagogue where I saw her speak, that she knew that she had gotten through and taught them what it meant for all these lives to have been erased, when a little girl whose mother was dying of breast cancer held up a paperclip and said, “What if this person had had the cure for cancer?”

What if. Did you ever wonder about your what if? When did you lose it? Is that what you have to lose in order to do what you did? When did you stop believing in your What if?

All stories are driven by What if and we are all stories. Suicide erases possibilities. Suicide erases potentiality. Suicide erases What if. Suicide is the end of our stories.

And god, yours was a story that had so many more pages in it. It was incomplete. A broken arc. A resolution I still can’t accept.

If you had lived, would you be winning the Kathleen Grattan Award, a national NZ poetry award, this year? Would you have written essays that fundamentally changed the mental health system in New Zealand so that children with mental illnesses were active participants in their recovery? Would you have founded an organization for the children of people who committed suicide? Would you have become an award winning journalist? Would you have written scathing articles on politics?

Perhaps you would have been a doctor, seeing and hearing your patients where so many doctors failed you. Maybe you would have run for Parliament. Maybe you would have helped us in the US fight the insurance companies so mental health is covered as equally as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.

God, there are so many things you could have done. There were so many threads cut six years ago today.

I don’t know that I’d be here without you, and many others, but really you. These books have made me miss you in a different way than I’ve missed you for all the previous years. I’m glad I didn’t shy away from writing the painful parts, the parts where I felt like I set my heart on the table and said, “This is what depression feels like.”

I want to give words to something like you gave me words for my own struggle years ago. Like so many other writers have done. Like we all keep pulling each other into lifeboats. We might be afloat in a dark and cold sea, and we might not have many provisions, but at least we’re together. At least we’re floating.

I am so sorry my boat couldn’t reach you in time. I hadn’t even gotten it out of dry dock yet. That year was a rough year for me. I reported myself as a student in crisis only three weeks before your death, and found that three of my four professors had reported me multiple times out of concern.

I said, I am not a girl in crisis. I am not an emergency. And you said, I wish you could see yourself. People are worried, darling. And I said, Why? And you said, because you deserve help.

So did you. Why were we so good at loving others and not loving ourselves? What about love is so hard to turn inward?

Writing is the best way I know to take care of myself. Writing is my what if. Writing is my possibility. Writing is how I row my lifeboat around the world. Maybe, there’s someone like Aly, one of my two main characters in my District Ballet Company books, out there who will pick up this book one day, and hold onto Aly’s happy ending until the reader has her own.

That’s the best part of books, I think. They believe for us even when we can’t.

Thank you for believing in me. I miss you. You were brave, and beautiful, and I love you.

Love,

Katie

Kayla, during one of her hospitalizations, walking in the first snow. This is my favorite photo of her.
Kayla, during one of her hospitalizations, walking in the first snow. This is my favorite photo of her.

Kayla’s death has become an important part of the battle to change laws, oversight, and mental health services in New Zealand (external link, will open in a new tab)

If you, or someone you know, is considering suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. 

You, yes, you reading this right now. You are irreplaceable. You are beautiful. You are brilliant. You are deserving of an incredible life. Suicide is not the answer. Please get help. I believe in you.

This is the second in three letters I’ve written about suicide and depression this weekend. You can see the first here if you missed it

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9 thoughts on “With Flowers In Your Hair: A Letter to Kayla

  1. This is so, so beautiful. I lost a friend to suicide this year so this hit me right in the feels. I’m so sorry Kayla’s gone, but so happy you’re still floating here with us, chasing your What Ifs.

    1. I am so sorry about your loss. I’d tell you it’ll get easier, but the ache doesn’t leave. You just get better at putting it into context. This is the first time I’ve written anything like this.

  2. Katie, this is beautiful. It gives words to something that people fear to whisper about, and that is a very powerful thing. I am so sorry about Kayla– it sounds like she was a truly wonderful person who made such an impact on your life. I have several friends whom I hold in my heart, who loved me and comforted me and who were lost too soon to that darkness that I spent so much of my own time in. I think it is terrifically courageous of you to speak up in a world where silence kills and to say “me too” one more time, knowing that there are people out there who have thought they were alone in their struggles. I am so glad you are still here today because I know it isn’t easy; I was privileged to walk along part of your journey, and we are both blessed to have lived to tell about it, though I know it doesn’t feel that way every day, at least for me. I hope that the system can change to better accommodate the needs of individuals with mental illnesses of all kinds, to dispel the stigma and focus on what needs to change. And I hope that you keep writing and keep wondering what if. ❤

  3. Miss Katie,
    I wish I could say I wasn’t oblivious or wrapped up in trying not to drown at allegheny, but I can’t. I hope that you know how wonderful you are as a writer and a person. The few classes I was lucky to have with you were made more interesting, challenging, and just overall better by your presence in them.
    Unfortunately, I know all too well the struggles of eating disorders and trying to achieve a “perfect” something. I was a ballet dancer for a most of my childhood and continued all the way into college. The ideals of perfection in body, lines, demeanour, and grace are sometimes impossibilities. I still struggle with body image today. I’m the only woman I know who describes herself when pregnant as fat or “a house” or disgusting. I just remember that I am loved and I the one in power of my thoughts and actions. Sometimes, it helps.
    I am thankful for your presence in my life and can’t wait to see you in the pages of your books. Remember you are loved and people care about your tomorrow’s and your present. You’ve touched lives without knowing it and you are special and important and WORTH it, EVERY day.

    Love,
    Shannon

  4. She sounds like a beautiful friend. My throat had a lump of tears while reading this. I’m glad you wrote this. That you are writing those books. Thank you.

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