Earlier this year, I wrote that I intended to use this space to push forward a more open, honest and constructive dialogue about issues related to mental illness and addiction. Throughout the remainder of the year, some of my brave and beautiful friends in the organizing community will be lending me a hand with that effort. I am honored to share the first of these guest posts with you today. It was written by my fellow organizer AK, whose courage, friendship and survival have made my world a better place.
July 23, 2011
We were driving down the road on our way to a friend’s beach house in Michigan. I could tell something was off. The way my mother was holding the steering wheel, her frequent sighs and involuntary head nods. Something had happened. She finally pulled over to the side of the road and turned off the engine. “I have something to tell you.”
My life would never be the same.
Earlier this month, as many were looking back on the life and loss of Amy Winehouse, I was experiencing my own reflection – one of intersecting tragedies, mental health, and addiction.
My cousin and close friend Paulina was in a car crash and she died instantly. She was only a year younger than me, we had similar interests and lifestyles, and she was gone. What is even more tragic is that both of her parents had passed away when she was younger and she was adopted by my aunt, so she was not related to me by blood… but that didn’t matter.
Every few years in the summertime when I traveled to Poland to see family, Paulina was one of the only people I knew there who was my age. We would go to bars together, go dancing, hang out in the field or forest behind my aunt’s house to smoke cigarettes and drink Żubrówka (Polish vodka made with bison grass).
As if this was not a big enough tragedy to deal with, I was struggling with my own life at the same time. This was the summer I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. After a suicide attempt and nearly being forced to hospitalization by my own family, we decided to take a short vacation instead. I quit my job, left my internship at the refugee resettlement agency I worked at and went off the grid for a while to make sure I was emotionally and mentally prepared for my senior year of university that upcoming fall.
My mother decided to wait until we were away from my home, apartment, friends, and the city to give me this news. She thought it would be best if she told me about the sudden death of my cousin while we were on our way to a beach house away from the world.
Although I had many close friends and comrades from activism and social justice organizing I had been doing on my campus and elsewhere, I was too embarrassed to tell anyone about my mental health issues. The few times I saw people in public they would comment about my rapid weight loss, asking me if everything was OK. I smiled and kept my bubbly, open personality on the outside- so that no one would suspect a thing. Like most young adults dealing with depression, anxiety and suicide idiation, I felt completely isolated from the world and found solace in music, writing, and solitude.
I felt overwhelemed and ridden with panic and anxiety over what seemed like mundane every-day occurrances. I could not believe that age 21 I could not hold down a job, eat a meal without bursting into tears or sit through a calm social situation with close friends without feeling like all the walls were closing in on me.
And now, in her efforts to provide me with a separateness in which to process an unthinkable loss, my mother had whisked me away from any possibility of finding a space in which to connect with others. My mental health and well being were now at stake, but I had no community to surround myself with, and no space in which to speak to the knowledge, traumas and experiences that were now tangling up in my mind like kites falling from the sky.
The vacation was completely ruined for me. I could not focus on anything but Paulina’s death. I was sweating just thinking about the last conversation I had with her; she was extremely saddened over a recent breakup with her boyfriend. I wondered if this was an accidental death or if she intended to crash her car into that tree in the early morning on her way home from the graveyard shift at the gas station in her small town.
The only comfort I found that weekend at the beach house was the music of Amy Winehouse. She had died that same day.
I always felt some sort of closeness to Amy Winehouse. I began listening to her music and observing her celebrity while I was in high school. I too, had suffered massive weight loss due to substance abuse and depression. I too, had recently come out of a tumultuous and emotionally draining relationship. I felt that my years spent in the DIY punk scene in Chicago and Northern Illinois and my time spent living in NYC gave me experience to understand the world of music, tattoos, drugs and alcohol. There was some sort of beauty in letting go of all control and getting lost in the scene. I felt that Amy Winehouse embodied a tortured soul, someone with so much beauty and talent who succumbed to worldly pleasures. At the time, I didn’t necessarily see it as a negative lifestyle. I was still learning about myself, my limits, and how I wanted to see my life progress.
I almost felt like I knew Amy better than I knew Paulina. My access to Paulina was limited by geography and finances. I couldn’t afford to fly to Poland every year. She couldn’t come to the states due to visa restrictions and lack of funds. Access to Amy was uncomplicated thanks for my mp3 device, the internet, seeing her videos on MTV each day. I could be with Amy at any time of the day. I was constantly reflecting on her lyrics, her style, her pain.
Ever since that day I have always associated Amy Winehouse, her music and her legacy to Paulina. In turn it reminded me of my own struggles with mental health, love, alcohol, and my complicated relationship with grief/ mourning.
I was never able to say a proper goodbye to Paulina. Since the funeral was held in Poland, I could not afford the plane ticket to go over there on such short notice. My family could not help me, as they had less money than I. To this day I have not stepped foot in the town Paulina and I used to spend time in. In a few days, I land in Poland, just 3 days after the anniversary of her death. I am terrified of what emotions will come up when I sit on the same stoop Paulina and I used to occupy. I fear I will see her spirit walking the same streets we used to walk. I crave to hear her loud laughter, the same way she used to laugh in the middle of the night during our talks about boys, sex, partying and the meaning of life.
AK was brought to Chicago from Poland by way of being baked in a Challah loaf. Enemy of the state by age three due to starting a riot at a local shopping center by throwing a tantrum in the barbie aisle over gender inequality and the cruelty of the patriarchal government.