I met her my second day on the adolescent floor of Silver Hill Psychiatric Hospital. Technically, she had been there the night prior, when I was heavily medicated and instructed to go to sleep, but I acknowledged her as nothing more than an un-moving shape beneath the sheets of the bed adjacent to my own.
Her name was Jen. She had brown eyes and long hair that always seemed to fly into her face as if she had a permanent breeze circling her head at all times. She would use her index and middle fingers to push it impatiently out of her eyes before continuing to tell whatever story she was sure to be illustrating at any given moment. She was sixteen, tall, athletic, and spoke about a mile a minute. After telling me her name, the first words she said to me were: “I’m a coke head.”
I had never had a roommate before, though I had always had to share a bedroom with someone. I didn’t count my sisters as roommates…they weren’t my friends, nor were they my partners-in-crime, which is exactly what I thought a roommate should be. I dreamed longingly of the days when I would be old enough to finally leave home, venture out into the “real world” and experience life with people who were more like me. Jen turned out to be a lot like me.
On paper, my new roomie and I couldn’t have been more different. She grew up wealthy, with no siblings, and married parents. She lived in an affluent town in Connecticut and seemingly had all she could ever want or need. So, naturally, she turned to drugs. She had landed herself in the hospital a few days before I was admitted, when her parents decided they had finally had enough and shipped her off to straighten out.
The adolescents were all put together in the same unit regardless of their reason(s) for being there. That is how I, a sixteen-year-old from the boondocks, battling PTSD, bulimia, and depression ended up bunking with Jen, an amphetamine-loving, attention-starved, sad teen from one of the richest towns on the East coast.
“I like to party and I smoke Marlboro Reds,” she said as she leaped off the bed and headed for the toilet. “Hey, why did they lock our bathroom door?”
“That’s my bad.” I replied, grinning. I had gotten to the point where I took pride and found solace in my disorders. I had sunk so low that they were now the only thing I had to hang on to. And hang I did, with a grip so tight I couldn’t feel my fingers anymore.
“Ohh,” she said, understanding immediately. Then she walked back over to her bed and plopped down again. “I tried starving myself for a little while, but it didn’t work. Although cocaine doesn’t make you want to eat that much.” Then she smiled and looked at me closely. I could tell she was trying to gauge my reaction, see if I was going to become uncomfortable or judgmental of her bluntness.
“Well, bulimia is two birds with one stone for me. I’m both hurting myself and losing weight. Win/win.” I shrugged and held her eye contact. She smiled wider. That was it: we were friends.
One of the first things Jen showed me was how to make the most out of the food they gave us. Every day, the adolescents were walked down to the cafeteria and although we were not allowed to eat there with the adults, we were able to take a trip through the buffet line and bring food back upstairs to our unit. It was in these moments, along with our infrequent walks outside, that I was able to see the true beauty and prestige of the facility. Judging by the tiny area reserved for people under the age of eighteen, the hospital was designed mostly for adults. I had heard rumors that celebrities prone to mental breakdowns were sent there. That thrilled me. If only I had been allowed to take smoke breaks or mingle with the older people, think of the stories I would have now.
The food was good, but plain. I had a strong feeling that the staff changed the buffet options for the adults. I stared pointedly at the dry spaghetti, the salad, the bagels, and the weird fish options set out in front of me and sighed.
“Here, this is the best thing to do,” Jen said, as she grabbed a plate and began loading it up with spaghetti. “This shit is nasty, but if you bring it over there…” She pointed at a door towards the end of the buffet, propped open, showing the pristine white kitchen inside. “…and if you ask nicely, they’ll make it better for you.” She made a plate for me and walked into the kitchen. After a few minutes, she came out carrying two plates of spaghetti topped with melted butter and mountains of Parmesan cheese.
“I mean, it’s not much, but it’s much better.” She smiled. And that became one of the only things I would eat during my time there.
Jen and I would knit together. It was mindless, but it gave us both something to do with our hands while we complained endlessly about how unfair our lives had turned out. To us, sixteen years was almost the end of the road. How everything felt in that moment was how it would feel forever. At least I knew I wasn’t alone, although the prospect of being so goddamn sad for the rest of my life was daunting and exhausting.
We would plan to run away together. We thought California was the best bet—why wouldn’t it be? It was across the country and filled with glamorous people who seemed to hate their lives. At least, that’s what it looked like from the movies and television shows. I could finally become a famous actress and Jen could do whatever she wanted. But no more coke for her. And no more eating issues or hurting myself for me. That was what we agreed on. We didn’t want to be crazy forever, especially not once we made it to California.
Jen was discharged before me, but only a few days. They didn’t replace her with anyone and I was happy about that. I didn’t want any other roommate. Before I left, I stared at Jen’s empty bed for a few minutes. I thought back to my first night there, how I had arrived so late and how she was only a shape underneath sheets at the time. It’s weird how a shape can turn into a person. It’s weird how a stranger can turn into a best friend. It’s weird how nothing can turn into something.
Once I was out of the hospital, Jen and I communicated only through emails, Myspace messages, and phone calls. Neither of us had our licenses or cars, and we were both kept on short leashes following our releases. We managed, though, to talk almost every day. We still made plans to run away with one another, and California was still our number one choice.
After a month or two, our messages became more and more spread out. It wasn’t a bad thing, though—I was trying to get my life assembled (as much as a 16-year-old could) and I assumed she was doing the same. I had found a part-time job at a fast food restaurant and was saving money and working on channeling my issues in a healthier way, including writing. I wrote constantly, about everything.
One day, before my dad drove me to my shift, I sat at the computer to go through my emails and my saved documents—nothing out of the ordinary. The phone rang. My stepmom answered, called me over, saying it was for me. I was sure it was Jen. I hadn’t heard from her in almost two weeks so I was thrilled.
“Hello?!” I said excitedly, grabbing the phone as I bounded up the stairs to my bedroom.
“Kate?” It was a small, timid voice. Not Jen.
“Yeah?” I asked, sitting down on my bed.
“Hi, this is Carly. From the hospital.”
Carly was a girl Jen and I had also grown close to at Silver Hill. She was younger than us, eager to please, funny, energetic, and honestly adorable. She was hard not to like.
“Oh! Hi Carly!” Although a pleasant surprise to hear from her, it was a surprise nonetheless. I had kept in contact with Carly, too, but not to the same degree as Jen. We mostly wrote handwritten letters to one another, usually every few weeks or so. She had maybe called me once before.
“Hey, Kate…” There was a long pause before she asked, “Did you hear about Jen?”
My stomach dropped immediately. I knew what was coming, I just knew. I recognized the feeling and I knew what Carly was about to say before she said it. Here’s the thing about me, and maybe about a lot of us: I can wake up every day at 6 am, even though I am not a morning person, and at some point, it becomes less difficult. I get used to it. I can force myself to go on a run four times a week, despite the fact that I abhor running, and somehow my body and brain will become accustomed to it, regardless. But…I have heard the news of death many times, and no matter what, I am not able to get used to it or handle it. Each time, my belly falls to my feet, acid rises in my throat, and I get the desperate urge to scream and stop time, to rip my hair from my scalp and tear my skin off my body.
Jen had been hiking with her friends on a well-known mountain trail near her Connecticut home. They had all done a substantial amount of LSD. Something happened and Jen had fallen over the edge of one of the cliffs. According to her friends, they could hear her yelling for help as they frantically called 911 and tried to get their heads together, which I imagine was especially difficult given their state. An emergency helicopter arrived and retrieved her, rushing her to the nearest hospital, but it was too late. Jen was gone.
After I hung up, I sat on my bed in silence for a few minutes. The longer I sat there, the angrier I became. Why did this happen? Why did this always happen? Is this what life was? Just an endless circle of meeting people, putting them in our hearts, then having them ripped away with no sense of closure or justice? Was it like this for everyone? Fuck. This. Shit.
I never went to Jen’s wake or funeral. I didn’t have a way to get there myself and I didn’t want to tell my parents what happened. In fact, I told very few people about this ever. I can’t really explain why, but I guess I just wanted to keep Jen to myself. Keep our friendship, what she meant to me, and her death as my own and only my own. It almost felt like she never existed at all; the only person I knew who also knew her was Carly. I suppose that’s why for the first few months following Jen’s death I talked to Carly very frequently. She was the only person with whom I felt I could share this.
To this day, I still don’t mention Jen often. However, I think about her more than even I would have guessed. It’s been almost eleven years since her death, but she’s still on my mind close to every single day. I only physically spent time with her for two weeks, and only knew her for about five months. Life is funny that way. Funny and sad. Wherever Jen is now, I hope so badly she is still smiling, laughing, brushing her hair out of her eyes, and talking a mile a minute. I hope the scenery is like California and I hope she’s happy.