Today is Laura’s birthday. She would have turned 35 this year, but she died when she was 18. I knew her for less than a year, but she had a huge impact on my life. We were in foster care together. She was nine months younger than me and she was like a little sister to me. We loved each other even though we didn’t always get along.
We bonded a lot over our shared appreciation of the little bits of freedom that many teenagers take for granted. We had both been institutionalized for mental illness, so we got excited about things like being allowed to wear shoes, listen to the radio, and have private conversations. When Laura and I first met, I said something profane, and her face lit up and she exclaimed, “Wow! We’re allowed to swear here?!”
Being allowed to go outside by ourselves felt like the ultimate freedom. I have fond memories of warm autumn nights when we’d walk to the public boat launch on the lake. We’d sit on the dock with our toes in the water and look up at the stars. I’m glad we got to do that together. When you’re in an institution and you get to go outside at all, you don’t get to see the stars.
Laura idolized me. I liked it at first because it made me feel important. But after a while I got sick of her always smoking my cigarettes and wanting to go everywhere with me. I needed breaks from her sometimes. We had been fighting when she died. I had wanted space from her, but then she was gone. I was absolutely devastated. I fell into a deep depression. I went over a month without changing my clothes or bathing.
One important thing I learned from Laura’s death was that losing a loved one unexpectedly is extremely painful, even if you haven’t really enjoyed their company lately. That is to say, even if everyone is sick of me, a lot of people would probably be really devastated if I died. When I have felt suicidal, I have not been able to convince myself that it wouldn’t hurt anyone if I died.
Laura suffered a lot in her short life. Her mental illness made her life scary. The illness itself frightened her. “Getting help” always felt like a punishment. People were mean to her because she was strange. My memories of Laura have shaped my activism. I like to imagine a world where she could have felt safe.
I think about her when I try to encourage others to be respectful with how they talk about people with mental illnesses. I think about her when I try to raise awareness of the punishment camps we call mental health care facilities. I think about her when I try to make my neighborhood more walkable.