Stephanie - 'Sister of My Heart*'

by Stephanie Levin

Stephanie - 'Sister of My Heart*'

Alex and her dog, Finley, who now lives with Stephanie.

The first time I met Alexandra (Alex), I hoped we would become friends. We met through work and Alex quickly went from being a wonderful colleague to being a dear friend. Alex was outgoing, adventurous, smart and spontaneous. She loved traveling, she could put people at ease instantly and she had a wonderful sense of humor. She was free-spirited and she could light up a whole room with her smile, with her sheer presence. She was a gifted teacher, a devoted friend and a truly amazing human being.

Alex was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder. She suffered from depression for most of her too short life and began contemplating suicide at the age of 14, long before we knew each other. She attempted suicide several times, including twice in the six months before she took her own life on April 22, 2006. She was 29 years old. She suffered and struggled to get through each day more than any person ever should. She hid her struggles well—the vast majority of people who knew her, even close friends she had known for years never knew she suffered from depression.

This is not a story about undiagnosed mental illness. This is not a story about not seeing warning signs, about "not seeing it coming." Alex's story, my story, our story, is about fighting. It is a story about fighting the depression, the mood disorders, the stigmas, the loneliness, the hopelessness, and the physical and emotional toll this disease took on her body, on her soul. It is a story aboutfighting for good treatment, for enough treatment, for affordable treatment. Heartbreakingly for Alex, for me, for her family and all of the friends she left behind, it is a fight that we lost.

I watched a woman who was confident in almost any situation, who directed summer camps and non-profit agencies, who traveled alone in Thailand for two months, ran the Honolulu AIDS Marathon and biked 600 miles in the AIDS Life Cycle become debilitated by a disease that left her exhausted, unhappy and unable to function as she once did, even with the help of medication and therapy.

"

She was my best friend. She was the closest thing I have ever had to a sister.

"

Alex left San Francisco about a year and half before her death, living in Massachusetts, Maine and finally Jackson Hole, Wyo. Despite the physical distance, we were constant companions. I flew to Jackson Hole every few weeks. We spoke on the phone several times a day and sent emails back and forth constantly. Dealing with her illness, trying to help her survive and get better, was the focus of both of our lives. Everything and everyone in my life came second to Alex—she was the center of my life. She was the rhythm of my life. I lived in her time zone as well as mine. I knew her schedule—every appointment, every dose of medication, every meal she ate, every movie she watched. She was my daily alarm clock. She was my best friend. She was the closest thing I have ever had to a sister. I couldn't have loved her more if we had been related by blood. She was my family. Her death has left an enormous hole torn in my life, my heart, my soul. She left a tremendous emptiness that is filled to the brim with loss, with regret, with pain and with so many questions that I will never know the answers to.

In our years of friendship Alex taught me many things. She taught me how to drive in the snow. She taught me that drinking things through a straw makes them taste better. In the way she lived her life she taught me about living life fully and completely and she taught me about following my instincts. She taught me to try to embrace change and she taught me that anything is possible, if you want it enough. Alex was a woman who dreamed big dreams, who took risks and who tried new things. Alex believed in the power of individuals to change the world.

When I found out about the Out of the Darkness Overnight in San Francisco last June, I knew I had to participate, because it was exactly the kind of event Alex would have wanted to get involved with. I signed up to crew because I was afraid to walk alone. I was afraid to have 20 miles of time alone with my thoughts, alone with my grief. The crew seemed an easier task, as it would force me to meet people, something Alex was so good at and something I find so hard. Being a crew member did, in fact, help me meet many, many people.

First I met a woman whose daughter's boyfriend took his life in November 2005. I met a woman whose daughter took her life 10 years ago; she would be 31 now. I met all of the wonderful women and men who were part of the sweep vehicle crew team. I also met hundreds of walkers. I met a walker who was released from a psychiatric hospital in April, and still came out to walk. I met a walker who was several months pregnant, and still came out to walk. I met a walker who had back surgery a few weeks before the walk, and still came out to walk. I met walkers and crew members who had lost mothers and fathers, grandparents, brothers and sisters, nieces, nephews, sons, daughters and friend after friend after friend. I met so many people, heard so many stories and had the opportunity to share my own story, to share Alex's story. As I drove a van along the route, I could see all the different people who were walking -- people of all ages and backgrounds. I heard people express feelings and emotions and reactions that were just like mine. It was incredible how connected I felt to people I had only just met, how understood I felt by people who didn't really know me and never knew Alex. I felt supported, I felt accepted, I felt held by a community that I wish wasn't as large as it is. I am blessed to have a wonderful network of friends and family whose support has helped me, both during Alex's struggle to live, and in the months since her death. And yet, somehow, the men and women that I met at the Overnight, whose names I don't know, touched me, affected me, helped me heal, in a way I never would have thought possible before the event.

I don't have the right words to adequately and accurately explain the power of the Overnight in San Francisco. It is an experience I will hold close in my heart for the rest of my life. I came home exhausted that Sunday, but for the first time since Alex's death, I was exhausted from hard work, from connecting with people, from doing something positive with the pain and the grief, not simply tired from the pain and tragedy of her death. Out of the Darkness does not bring Alex back. It does not heal the wounds her death has brought. Nothing heals these completely, and nothing should. I believe the scar is important, because to heal completely and not leave a mark would be to forget the impact Alex had on my life. But it does show me that I am not alone: thatother people have, like me, been so enveloped in pain that you feel like your head is being held underwater. And they have found a way to lift their heads up above the water. The people I met taught me that change is inevitable, that in a year, or three, or 10, I will hold my grief differently. They showed me that, even though most days it still doesn't seem possible, I will survive this, and that like them, I can choose to use the experience to bring about change in this world: that I can choose to stand up and be counted among the community of people who are asking that suicide and depression not be hidden any longer, who are hoping fewer and fewer people will join our club of survivors. AFSP is the giant hand that sweeps across the country and brings us together and holds us and helps us hold each other. There are no words to truly express my gratitude for this experience, for this community.

I feel that knowing Alex, in all her complexities, in her brilliance and beauty and in her healthy self, and in many ways especially knowing her in her illness in a way no one else did, has changed me, has shaped me, has made me a better person, perhaps has even made me who I am supposed to be. Participating in the Out of the Darkness Overnight has made me a better person as well and while participating, for the first time since Alex's death, I felt like I was doing what I was meant to be doing. Getting involved with the Overnight helped me get involved with AFSP locally and I am so proud to have had the opportunity to work with AFSP as the event coordinator for the San Francisco Out of the Darkness Community Walk. I am grateful to have the AFSP community to lean on, to learn from and hopefully to contribute to in my own ways as well.

Stephanie lives in San Francisco and can be reached at sblevin@gmail.com.

*Alex and I shared a love of reading and shared many books throughout our friendship. Sister of My Heart, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, was the first book we shared and one of our favorites.