Why Don't We Call Our Friends When We Need Them Most?

This isn't about death or tragedy or addiction. It’s about picking up the phone.
Publish date:
June 19, 2013
friendship, phone calls

I was standing on an almost alleyway of a street in NYC’s Chinatown, waiting for a table at a dim sum restaurant. The streets were littered with confetti and glitter. Beating drums echoed in the narrow passageways, between the buildings. It was Chinese New Year.

I had dodged multiple dragons blessing local businesses, pink and red and yellow, dancing in the doorways, drawing crowds of tourists smiling behind their cameras and New Yorkers behind their iPhones. It was a Saturday in mid-February. My phone vibrated.

“Hi, I’m sorry I’ve been out of touch.” It was a text from my good friend back in Chicago, Heather*, who I’ve known since sophomore year of high school. “The funeral’s at [this church] at 10 a.m. on Monday. I know you’re in New York, so if you can’t come, I completely understand.”

“Funeral for who?” I wrote back. I waited about a minute for her to respond before I start panicking.

“Heather, for who? Is everything OK? I got back from 30 days of rehab on Wednesday. I have no idea what’s going on.”

My brain frantically spit out any recent detail relating to Heather that maybe my subconscious labeled as NOT OK: My little sister, Kyleigh, had changed her Facebook profile picture to one of her and Heather’s little sister, Tanya*, a day ago.

Like Heather and me, Kyleigh and Tanya were the same age and good friends. “I’ll miss you,” her caption read. They were standing outside U.S. Cellular Field, after a White Sox game. But I assumed Kyleigh did it because she had moved away for college.

Then there was that cryptic conversation I had with my mom the day before. I told her about rehab and my newfound, glowing perspective on life.

“So do you think you’re especially vulnerable right now? Fragile?” she asked. I hesitantly told her I was fine. “Like if something tragic happened, you’d be able to handle it?”

My mom has always been depressing and creepily pessimistic, so I changed the subject and told her I had to go.

Finally I recalled a conversation I had with Heather months ago. “Can we talk?” she asked over text. I told her I was at work, but maybe later that night? In the meantime: Was everything OK? “I’m really worried about Tanya,” she answered.

“Wait, what’s wrong with Tanya?” I ran to my office’s empty lobby and called Heather, twice. She didn’t pick up. I sent her another text, telling her that I’ll try her again that night. Those calls went unanswered, too.

And within a few seconds, as all of these details played back in my brain, I lost my footing, held my breath, stumbled away from the crowd standing outside the restaurant, and sat in a puddle of day-old rainwater and bleeding neon pieces of paper.

“Who died?” I can’t believe I fucking asked her that. It was her little sister. Tanya had died. She was 20.

Heather finally told me some of the details over text: It was an overdose, on Valentine’s Day. She had just gotten out of treatment. I didn’t even know she had a drug problem.

Heather, again, apologized for not being in touch. “I’ve been so busy getting her help, and working, and so stressed. I’m sorry I haven’t called you.”

I told her to not be sorry, and to call me when she could.

I tried calling her multiple times that week, and a few times since then. We’ve texted a little. I keep writing on her Facebook wall and sending her text messages, “CALL ME.” (Usually with a few heart emoticons added on to make my request look a little less demanding.)

And I’m not mad at Heather, at all. I just wish she would call me.

It’s not like I believe that talking to Heather would’ve prevented what happened to Tanya, just like Heather couldn’t prevent it, just like treatment didn’t prevent it.

As her friend, I wish I could’ve helped Heather feel like she was less alone in trying to get her little sister some help. Or less alone, in general.

When I was going through my dark times -- cutting, crying, chasing bottles of benzos with pints of whiskey, convincing myself I needed to stick my head in an oven -- the few friends who found out all asked me the same thing: “Why didn’t you call me?”

And I remember why I never did so perfectly, I can almost feel the physical sensation now: It was as if my phone had a little barrier over it, a force field I was unable to pass.

Who would you call? My brain would say. What would you say? I figured no conversation would help. My friends couldn’t be bothered with this shit.

We all hear that suicide is selfish. I’m in no way attempting to refute that. But sometimes, when we get into a place so morbid and hopeless and dark, it feels like you’re the only person in the world (hence, selfishness) and no one else can relate, or help.

I had to eventually make an effort to call my friends after getting help. At first, it almost felt like a chore. I had to convince myself I wasn’t burdening people. (The best tactic for that is to not call friends solely when you’re having issues. You know: Just calling to see how they are.)

Now, it feels like that little phone barrier is eradicated. I can be hypomanic or starting to cry or thinking about taking shot after shot after shot. And I call one friend who tells me to, “Have a cup of tea and breathe.” (This is not a subtle reference to any program, by the way -- I’m not in one.) I feel grounded. Less alone. More connected. And, always, better.

It's not I'm anti-Facebook or texting, but I've realized that a text message cannot soothe me like one of my friends' voices.

I’m not sure exactly what’s going on in Heather’s head. I know she feels hopeless. I know she misses Tanya.

She posted a picture of a bunny she found in the street on Facebook the other day. It looked like someone’s pet that had gotten loose. “His foot was broken, so I took him in, and they had to put him to sleep,” her caption ended.

“You are a wonderful, caring person,” I commented. “CALL ME <3 <3.”

Follow me on Twitter: @caitlinthornton. (But first, call your friends.)

*Names changed