I had only known Amelia for a month when she showed me all the things Alice had bought. Boxes and boxes of untouched Air Jordans, a pair of spiked patent heels — I guessed the price must have been in the hundreds of dollars, until I spotted their shiny red soles and realized it was, in fact, in the thousands — A pair of Gucci slides, two pairs of Yeezys still scented with styrofoam and rubbing alcohol, another pair of Gucci slides, three pairs of Vans. No fewer than five Moleskine notebooks, encased in taut plastic like raw meat. A dresser drawer — a deep dresser drawer — absolutely bursting with designer makeup, all of it untouched save for the shattered highlighter that encased everything in a film of glitter and iridescence.
“Jesus Christ.” I breathed. “Je-sus Christ.”
She nodded solemnly and shook her head. This isn’t the worst of it. Standing atop a stack of shoeboxes, she fumbled around the top shelf of our closet for yet another box. This one was filled with bills.
OVERDUE! URGENT! ACTION REQUIRED.
She sifted through them quietly. “There’s like $12,000 in here,” she said.
“Amelia, that’s fucking insane.” I gingerly took the box and rested it in the “bills” pile. The bills pile, next to the “toss” and “return” piles, was the tallest and easily the most threatening. The pregnancy tests in “toss” were all negative, the sweatshirts and lingerie in “return” only necessitated a moment or two of uncomfortable interaction and perhaps a text she didn’t really want to send, but the bill pile was unavoidable. Every bristling box and crumpled envelope I added made it taller, like I was building her into her own personal prison of debt.
But, as she reminded me, she couldn’t just ignore it any longer.
The longer I wait, the more I’m letting Alice control me. She could feel it, the residue of mania, fermenting in the closet as the weeks passed and the hoard festered. So, as silently as I could, I helped her wade through the ruins of the past year of her life. As we sorted through the piles of dopamine triggers and coping mechanisms, imprints of the grip of Amelia’s six-month manic episode, she became increasingly quiet.
“Where was I?” she asked suddenly.
“Where was I? Where did I go? When I was Alice?” she gestured broadly at the piles in which we sat. “Where was Amelia?”
I pursed my lips and shook my head. I didn’t know. It was an interesting question, one that I hadn’t considered. In those months as the Amelia she knew, the Amelia her family and friends knew, slowly morphed into a completely different person, where did she go?
As Alice took over the body, into what dark cavity did Amelia recede?
“I was in there somewhere,” she said, flipping backwards through a pink furry journal whose contents I shuddered to imagine.
“Taking a vacation,” I ventured. Humor: risky, perhaps worth it.
“A long-ass vacation,” She snorted. “Off the fucking grid.” Worth it.
I fell backwards into the pile, my head landing on an over-cologned Sigma Phi Epsilon sweatshirt that, somewhere a few streets over, someone named Chad probably wanted back.
She did the same, resting her head on my shoulder.
“I came back, though, and that’s what counts.”
* * *
I’d moved that June into the triple bedroom, on a sublease from a girl on Facebook about whom I knew almost nothing, with two roommates about whom I knew the same amount. The first time I met Amelia, she was sitting on the floor pantsless and surrounded by piles of clothes and bedding, carefully painting her toenails.
“Ohmygod hi!” she said, at a volume that seemed too loud for the size of the room and our proximity to each other. “Sorry, it’s crazy in here. Isn’t it? I’m just organizing all my stuff. I had an insane spring, that’s why. Insane! Oh, I’ll tell you sometime.”
I smiled and nodded, doing my best to connect the dots.
“And!” She cried suddenly, standing up and leaving the open bottle of nail polish on the floor. “Do you smoke? Like, weed? I have weed. We should smoke together sometime. We should totally smoke together sometime!”
I modulated my nodding to indicate that I was less enthusiastic about this idea than about hearing the story of her spring. She was already rummaging around a plastic storage box, though, and eventually she produced a pack of pre-rolled joints and a handful of Juul pods. Then, just as quickly as she’d pulled them out, she shrugged and threw them back in a different box. “You seem nice, though,” she added, finishing a sentence I didn’t remember her starting. That night, I told my mom on the phone that I liked my new roommate –– she was sweet, outgoing. But definitely a “small-doses person,” we agreed.
As June rolled on, though, I allowed myself bigger and bigger doses. Perhaps it was because we slept three feet from each other, or perhaps it was because her friends, alienated by her mania, had stopped talking to her, but Amelia and I became somewhat inseparable. And though I didn’t notice it as it happened, she evolved as the summer wore on. It wasn’t immediate, nor was it noticeable in its increments, but her emotions became varied, her personality complex.
I grew closer to her and she to me, and the crust of her manic self sloughed off, slowly but surely revealing the soft skin beneath. Delicate, fragile, new to the world. Reemerging. Sometimes it was conspicuous, an obvious writhing to get out of the skin. An overshared detail with a stranger at the grocery store. A hesitation before placing something back on the shelf. An exclamation a decibel too loud or a few beats too quick. Sometimes it was subtle, like shedding single scales. A real smile, with her eyes. An empathetic comment. A kind deed. A thank you. I watched like a proud mother as she stepped back into herself, even though I had never known the self to whom she was returning.
Coming back from a year-long manic episode, especially one you can’t remember, is absolutely exhausting. Each day that passed sucked the energy out of her face, drawing it into the cheekbones and sullying it pallid. She started going to an outpatient program at the hospital two blocks from our apartment from 9 to 3 on weekdays, and had to quit her job to allocate enough physical and emotional energy to this nebulous thing called recovery. Self-care of any kind fell to the wayside.
I came back one afternoon to find her eating what looked at first like a sandwich but turned out to be a single slice of dry bread, folded in half. It was –– I checked –– 3:34 p.m., and this was her first meal of the day. I started cooking for her. As clothes piled up in our corners (though she wore the same shirt for days), I started doing her laundry, so at least she had the option of a fresh outfit each morning. I’d feed her grilled cheese and grapes when she could stomach it, tea biscuits when she couldn’t; I drove her to and from rehab, waiting in the parking lot like an anxious mother ready to retrieve her wayward daughter from grade school. Every morning I set out a saucer with her pills: two blue, one yellow, three orange, half a white, one multivitamin; I reminded her to shower and I scrubbed the bathroom after she did. She asked nothing of me, but I wanted so badly to fix it. She admitted one afternoon that the walk to and from the hospital was the hardest part because she had to pass the apartment where she’d been date raped.
“I didn’t want to tell you because I know you’d want to drive me, and I also know you have class in the morning.” But I dropped my class –– it wasn’t mandatory anyways, just a summer course to cover a general education requirement –– to drive her to the hospital in the morning.
I just wanted to fix it. What’s an ounce of my energy to preserve a gallon of hers? I was watching Amelia claw herself out of a neck-deep hole, and all I could give her was a plastic trowel. Maybe it was guilt: Here I was, my rent covered and my shelf in the fridge fully stocked, while someone who slept feet from me had neither of these luxuries. Maybe it was empathy: That just felt ignorant, though, because a promptly-medicated stint with generalized anxiety disorder in late middle school seemed like a frivolous experience from which to derive understanding of a yearlong bipolar blackout.
“I will get out of this,” she told me one evening, dry-swallowing a leftover blue pill. I told her I knew she would, and handed her a glass of water. Her friends and family had all but abandoned her, and now all she had was me: naïve and ignorant and fully prepared to give as much of myself as I could to make up for the absence of everybody else. Sitting on that bed in our empty apartment, rocking Amelia’s small frame back and forth in my arms, I reminded her — and maybe myself, too — that I could never leave her side. She wondered aloud what she’d do without me. I said, “You’d just keep going.”
When she moved back to her parents’, I could hardly bear to see Amelia go. I called my mom to say that I understood why she cried when she dropped me off at my dorm freshman year.
“I’m scared,” I told her. “I know she can do it, but I’m scared.”
What I did not know as I watched Amelia’s father drive her away was that six months later, she would try to kill herself, and I wouldn’t even show up at the hospital.
* * *
Amelia returned as February began, happier than I’d ever seen her. Gone was the pallid skin, the exhaustion, the fragility. Life leapt from her eyes in a way I hadn’t seen before, and her smile was as wide as her outstretched arms when we reunited. As we strolled through campus, she seemed to experience everything with renewed vigor. Everywhere we went, she knew someone. Old friends, new friends, friends of friends. She had plans: a new tattoo, a new studio apartment, an application to medical school. I was thrilled. The first week and a half of her return, I was swept into the idealism of it all –– here she was, the girl I believed deserved the best of everything in the world, who had worked as hard as she could despite all odds to pull herself up by broken bootstraps, finally being awarded what she’d fought for.
And yet … I noticed small things.
When we went to dinner, I realized as I signed my name on a $46 tab that I had paid for both of us. We got our nails done, and again I found myself the only one with a card in hand.
Not that it mattered. What’s a few bucks here and there? After all, she deserved to treat herself. And if I brought it up, I’m sure she’d pay me back. She’d asked for so little when she’d needed so much, this seemed only fair.
At the farmers’ market one afternoon, she told a woman selling potted succulents the entire story about her biological father. At the part where he holds a gun to her head, people from the adjacent restaurant came outside to ask her to quiet down.
“I’m sure you wouldn’t want this story broadcast to everyone here, is all.”
“Oh no, I really don’t care.”
I shifted uncomfortably. Who were they — who was I — to tell her how and when to share her trauma?
When I awoke one morning to find 12 voicemails on my phone, 54 unread messages, and Amelia passed out on our couch with the front door wide open, I defended her presence to my roommates despite a queasy feeling in my own stomach. When she asked for $13 for a ride back, I obliged. I checked Uber that afternoon and saw that the ride from my apartment to hers was only $6. Maybe she used Lyft.
No matter what happened, I wouldn’t let myself think it. She was just happy now. What would it even sound like to acknowledge anything different?
So, it turns out I only like you when you’re depressed.
I felt slimy. I would become just another friend who betrayed her and left her to suffer. I knew only post-manic Amelia and depressed Amelia; I probably just needed to adjust to her personality free from the influence of unbalanced brain chemicals.
But this Amelia was just mean. In the very back of my mind, I feared that maybe the thick skin had regrown and she’d been enveloped by Alice once more. Every time she took my money or let herself into my apartment or tried to manipulate me into hating my own friends, I wanted to peel back the skin of mania and see the real her underneath this calloused facade.
Yet, despite my growing suspicions, I defended her to everyone I knew — You just don’t know Amelia. She’s been through more than you could imagine. I began to feel just like she’d told me: everyone was against her. I continued to defend and deflect, bristling at everyone who challenged her like they were attacking me.
I lent her my car to go a quarter mile to In-N-Out; she returned it with no gas and a long, black scrape down the back door. I told my mom that I must have parallel parked too far from the curb. She ate a whole package of mochi ice cream and half a bag of salt and vinegar chips that didn’t belong to her, so I bought new ones, and when asked if she had been the one to replace them, I said yes. I drove her to Inglewood, to Glendale, to Downey. I met her new boyfriend and his family, then consoled her three days later when, convinced he had cheated, she left him. I said nothing when she let herself in, nothing when she spent the night, and nothing when a night became a week. I started closing and locking my windows at night, though I wasn’t sure why. Did I think she was going to climb in?
* * *
When I finally let myself say it, she owed me some $50 in coffees and Ubers and spare change and Target runs and gas. When I finally let myself say it, I was using my friends as excuses to avoid her. When I finally let myself say it, she had run out into traffic and slammed her fists against my window, yelling something about having left a pen in the backseat.
That was when I knew. I remember unlocking my door and watching, frozen at a green light with my foot on the brake, as angry L.A. drivers hurtled by me on both sides and Amelia rummaged underneath the passenger seat.
“Weird,” She declared, coming up empty-handed. “I swear my friend dropped it here.” With no farewell, she shut the door and scampered back into oncoming traffic.
I didn’t wait to see if she made it safely to the sidewalk. Yanking the gear into reverse, I wailed, “No! No! No!” as I lurched around the corner. I don’t remember driving back, but I remember collapsing in the driveway like my bones were made of sponge. And then I let myself say it:
She’s manic. She’s manic. She’s manic.
* * *
After the day Alice hammered on my car window, I made wide circles around Barney's when I walked home from class, just in case she was working a shift. I hid at my friend’s place so she’d think I wasn’t home; I told her I didn’t have any money in my account when I’d just gotten paid. And I hated myself for abandoning the person I promised I would stick by. I hated myself for becoming just another fair-weather friend whose love was conditional on convenience. I hated myself for thinking I was some kind of martyr.
I watched so many videos and read so many articles about living with bipolar disorder, desperately trying to latch onto the empathy I felt slipping away, but they only made me feel more guilty.
“How do I describe the desperate need to get better, the scrambling and the weight of it
all, the knowing that at the end of some unknowable amount of time, it'll start all over
* * *
A few days later, Amelia attempted suicide. I learned of the attempt on her life at 4:15 in the morning, staring bleary-eyed at screenshots of her Twitter feed I’d received from a mutual acquaintance.
i want to be remembered for the love i give.
I deduced from the texts and from Amelia’s Instagram story that she’d been placed on suicide watch. Her dad was driving down from Porterville. She was safe. I didn’t know what she’d taken or where she was going to go when the 72 hour hold was up. I knew she was alone.
I did not get up to put on my shoes, grab my keys, or drive the two minutes to the hospital. I didn’t even text her. I sat in my bed, in the dark, and stared at nothing. The hours ticked by, and as Amelia lay scared and depressed and alone in a hospital bed not half a mile away, I made no attempt to contact her.
Finally, I had nothing left to give.
* * *
It’s been two weeks since, and Amelia has dropped off the face of the earth: not a call, not a text, not a post. I don’t know when they released her, and I don’t know where she went. I don’t know who I could ask, but I also haven’t tried. There is a distinct possibility that I will never see Amelia again, and this person who, for almost a year, meant more to me than myself, will simply dissipate into a memory. The worst part is that I am relieved. I keep my car keys by the door again, I make plans without warning that I may have to cancel. I drive places only when I need to get there. I sleep with my windows open to let in the crisp night air.
I thought that if I gave enough of myself to her, I could fix her — together, we could free her from Alice’s grip. But all that happened was Alice took hold of me too, and dragged us both down until we lost ourselves: me to the allure of self-sacrifice and her to a mental illness that, no matter what I thought, neither of us were equipped to handle.
Maybe she’s back at home, healing with the help of her family and readying herself to come back again, this time more slowly. Maybe she’s in rehab, and maybe it’s draining her face of its color once again. Maybe she’s back in school and we’ll run into each other in the library some afternoon. I am Schrödinger and she’s the cat, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to lift the box.