Mental Health: Living in Lyrics

TW: suicide

A friend from high school, K, died by suicide last Sunday. I’ve been searching for her for years, most recently asking after her to mutual high school friends at a Christmas party in December. I explained that she was one of the best writers I’ve ever known, and they laughed at me.

“Uh, I’m sure her writing has changed since high school.”

Duh, I thought, for the better.

Back when Xanga and LiveJournal were a thing, K would post the most compelling, racy content that was always such a pleasure to read. She’d post vague pieces about things like “how hot a leather couch can really get.” Yes, I remember that line fourteen years later, which is a testament to her writing by itself. She was the kind of talented that her descriptions of weekly chores made me want to wash towels, sheets, and clean the bathroom, too. If I did, maybe I could be a part of her world, a part of her magic, understand more of her mind. She trusted readers to fill in gaps and was a master curator, even at 16. K’s writing would purposefully mystify any parents who came across her page, but it was like a secret message to her peers who acted as dot-connectors. Being able to understand her writing was like possessing a skeleton key to her head. K was hidden in plain view, if only you looked for her. I’ve tried and failed to mimic her enigmatic writing and, compared to her, I remain a tragic wannabe.

While it seemed like the rest of us were enraptured by popularity, manufacturing a punky persona, or petty relationship drama, in high school K was lost in Henry James and Edith Wharton and Sylvia Plath. She found solace hiding in literature far more sophisticated than what was in the rest of our backpacks or nightstands. The most captivating thing about her, though, was how she’d balance her interiority, kept under lock and key, with a socially robust life. She was blonde, she was tan, she was gorgeous, she was reading Dead Souls.

After high school, K rarely got on her Facebook and I couldn’t find her anywhere else online. I didn’t have her number anymore, and those who did were rare and always seemed to be one degree out of my orbit. A couple times a year, though, I would search the internet for her in hopes of finding her writing somewhere. I was always hopeful to contact her and reconnect.

I found her, finally, but it was too late. My cousin featured K on her Instagram story because she attended the college where K was working when she died. The whole student body was grieving the loss of such an illustrious teacher.

I have only discovered this information in her death, but it’s no surprise to me that after high school K went all the way, and I mean all the way, through school, finally getting her PhD in writing last May.

Bright Eyes is my all time favorite band, and the first time I saw them live was with K. The lead man, Conor Oberst, is one of the most underrated writers of my generation, so, of course, K was the first person I connected with about the friend inside my headphones.

She and I begged our parents to let us go to Fort Worth’s Ridglea Theater by ourselves, an intimate smoke den one town over run by a woman with frizzy, purple hair. We were just sixteen. The show was an October night, one month after I’d gotten my driver’s license. I’d been listening to Bright Eyes since I was 13, so my parents knew how much it meant to me and I suppose decided to take a chance and let me go. Or, maybe they were too consumed in some Alex drama and too tired to push back on me. Somehow, K swung it with her parents, too.

When I pulled up to her house and honked the horn, she swung open her front door with a giant grin and posed in the frame for me, thrilled with her black mini skirt and fishnet tights with enormous holes. I dragged a Camel as we drove off into the night. K and I had come a long way since our junior high bible study group.

Long before smartphones and Tom Tom to guide us, we got lost on the way to Ridglea. We were both scared and laughing hysterically, but after a couple of panicked calls with K talking to my dad who instructed us where to drive, we finally arrived at the venue. K treated herself to a Starbucks frap and struck another pose with it in line outside of Ridglea, this time waiting for me to capture it on my shitty point and shoot camera. The picture was her souvenir from the show, proudly posted on Xanga the next day.

Inside I bought a t shirt, black of course, and swore that, as an indicator of our good time that night, I would wear it every day the following week. I made good on my promise, and K cracked up as she saw me come into our high school, day after day, in some iteration of another outfit, same shirt. It baffled our friends but made us laugh.

We got perfect seats perched on a ledge behind happy people who’d soon be drunkenly dancing around in the standing area. When Bright Eyes began performing Going for the Gold, K leaned over to me, clapping hard with tears in her eyes.

“This is my favorite,” she mouthed.

There’s a voice on the phone
Telling what had happened,
Some kind of confusion
More like a disaster.

And it wondered how you were left unaffected,
But you had no knowledge.
No, the chemicals covered you.
So a jury was formed

As more liquor was poured.
No need for conviction,
They’re not thirsting for justice.
But I slept with the lies I keep inside my head.

I found out I was guilty.
I found out I was guilty.
But I won’t be around for the sentencing,
Cause I’m leaving

On the next airplane.
And though I know that my actions are impossible to justify
They seem adequate to fill up my time.
But if I could talk to myself

Like I was someone else,
Well then maybe I could take your advice,
And I wouldn’t act like such an asshole all the time.

There’s a film on the wall,
Makes the people look small
Who are sitting beside it,
All consumed in the drama.

They must return to their lives once the hero has died.
They will drive to the office
Stopping somewhere for coffee,
Where the folk singers, poets and playwrights convene,

Dispensing their wisdom,
Oh dear amateur orators.

They will detail their pain
In some standard refrain.
They will recite their sadness
Like it’s some kind of contest.

Well, if it is, I think I am winning it,
All beaming with confidence
As I make my final lap.
The gold medal gleams

So hang it around my neck
Cause I am deserving it:
The champion of idiots.

But a kid carries his walkman on that long bus ride to Omaha.
I know a girl who cries when she practices violin.
Cause each note sounds so pure, it just cuts into her,
And then the melody comes pouring out her eyes.

Now to me, everything else, it just sounds like a lie.

There’s a levity to the music that resists the sadness of the lyrics, and since that night I’ve never listened to it without thinking of K. From that night on I knew there was a darkness inside of her, I just thought it further informed her spectrum of intelligence, gave her a greater awareness of the human condition. I didn’t know the levity would leave. I didn’t know things would end like this.

K can’t be found in person, anymore. But she can be found in Bright Eyes lyrics, in the comfortable company of renegade women in literature, in the Jo Marches of the world. She’s there, snuggled between the lines, buried in pages, my sister of the pen.

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