Growing up, I had a tight-knit group of girlfriends. A few joined up or faded away as the years went on, but for the most part, we all stuck together until we scattered off in various directions for college. I'm not sure if that's a small town thing or just the way it was with us.
One of these girls was, by all accounts, particularly beautiful. I knew this because I'd hear my parents or my friends' parents murmuring about her looks when they thought we weren't listening. I'm not sure if she was aware that her presence incited these types of reactions, but she probably was, at least on some level. What saved her from our jealousy was her intelligence, because she was smart to the point that boys often thought she was a little weird, a little off, and we were all secretly relieved about that.
As we got older and moved into high school, I suppose there were warning signs that something was more than a little off. Sophomore year she dropped a bunch of weight and got really skinny, to the point that an eating disorder was assumed by the rest of us, though that problem seemed to correct itself eventually. Later on, her drug use appeared to be going beyond typical high school experimentation and she began hanging out more and more with people outside our little circle. At that age, girls can be cruel when they feel snubbed, and I'm sure there was terrible gossip whispered about her by the rest of us.
Somewhere during our junior year, her mental state started to fall apart completely. She believed she could communicate to people without using words, and often would sit silently for hours in social situations locking eyes with people and staring them down (I actually have evidence of this on a Hi-8 tape somewhere from a party...it's hard to watch). Other stories she believed were that she was pregnant with twins, and that her mom was "not her real mom". Sometimes she would launch into complicated, nonsensical stories. The rest of us would steal looks at each other and nod, pretending to understand her so that we wouldn't hurt her feelings. Then one day, she came to school and had shaved off all her hair. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. It was scary. None of us knew what to do about it, but we were all terrified. Eventually she disappeared altogether and the school counselor explained to a handful of us that her family had put her in a hospital.
She was diagnosed with bipolarity, AKA manic depression, and put on heavy medication. Lithium, I think. A few months later, she returned to school for our senior year, which was probably a mistake. She was no longer the person she used to be, not at all. Her meds made her hands shake violently. She had gained a lot of weight, maybe 50 lbs. Her eyes had gone from bright blue to sort of a dull gray, and her skin was sallow. She spoke slowly, or didn't speak at all. She carried herself not unlike an old woman suffering from osteoporosis. It was like being around a complete stranger with the name of someone I used to know. I knew that kids at school made fun of her for being crazy. It became difficult to carry on a conversation with her, knowing what she must be dealing with, and, being the young, immature friends that we were, many of us distanced ourselves from her and her ongoing issues. In hindsight, I didn't do this because I didn't care about her or that I wanted to end my friendship with her, it's because I was actually afraid of catching what had happened to her.
She was voted "Most Changed" our senior year and had her picture taken in our high school yearbook sitting next to a guy who got the title from dressing like a hippie. I always thought the school should have done something about that. She didn't mean to change so drastically. She couldn't help it. Ultimately she dropped out again and finished up the year being home schooled. I don't even know if she technically graduated.
I've completely lost touch with her now, though I hear through the grapevine that she's still around, has a couple of kids, and occasionally relapses. I couldn't really tell you why I haven't tried to reach out to her, now that I'm older and slightly less stupid. Maybe it's because so much time has passed that I'd feel like a phony. I do think about her all the time, though, and I wonder if she holds a grudge against me for abandoning her, though I suspect she has bigger things to worry about.
I recently stumbled across a 14-part series on manic depression/bipolarity, hosted and narrated by the actor Steven Fry, via Matthew Good's blog. If you have some time, it's well worth watching. I've included Part 1 below, which will link to the rest.