Thursday, May 9, 2013

Let's talk about mental illness.

My best friend, Carrie Brinker Sehl, was diagnosed last year with a late onset of mental illness. She was 37 when she was diagnosed, a mother to two beautiful children, and a wife to a loved husband. The doctors initially thought it was schizophrenia, but they changed the diagnosis to bipolar, with psychosis. It wasn't good. 

Someone said recently, who had also been diagnosed with mental illness, "I wish it had been cancer. With cancer, people bring you dinner. They form meal trains, and drop off magazines, organize car pools for radiation and chemotherapy. With mental illness, I was also debilitated. On medication that made me feel like a zombie. But I was alone. I feared running into people I knew, and when I saw them at the grocery store, they avoided eye contact. They didn't know what to say." 

I am not saying that cancer is any better than mental illness. But we need to talk more about it. Carrie took her own life on Saturday March 30th, after battling the illness for nearly a year and a half. She left those two beautiful children and husband behind. And it's heartbreaking. 

This cause is too important not to talk about. One in four people will be impacted by mental illness this year in the United States. I hope to get people talking about it. And hope that it can help. Carrie was a devoted friend, loving mother and wife, and this disease took over. 

This is the eulogy I delivered at Carrie's memorial service on April 4th. 

"My name is Lynn Budde Brown. Carrie and I had a very unique and wonderful friendship that lasted for 32 years. It’s hard for me to imagine painting a picture of Carrie’s special life in just a few minutes, but I promise to try.  The last time I may have seen some of you was at Carrie and Peter’s wedding, 10 years ago. I couldn’t have imagined as I gave a toast to her and Peter that night, that the next time I would offer similar words about her would be at her memorial service.

As I boarded the plane from Portland yesterday, the trees were in full bloom. Camelia, dogwood, rhododendron and ornamental cherry blossoms burst from the trees in a sea of color, against the Portland green.  It was beautiful. And I could see Carrie’s smile and her love of nature in every bloom.  And as I drove into Denver today, under a stunning sky, I could see her face in the mountains and trails that she loved.

Carrie and I met when we were 6 years old. We grew up just a street away from each other. My two older brothers were the same ages as Denise and Bob, Carrie’s sister and brother.  I feel like Carrie and I found a sister in each other, since our siblings seemed SO much older than us –sorry Denise and Bob. We did all the sorts of fun stuff kids did.

We rode our bikes to Pikebrook Swim Club during the summers, our towels around our necks, wind in our hair, feeling very grown up that we could be on our own like that. We spent snow days sledding together at the end of my street, on what seemed like a giant hill then, but now that I remember back, I think it might have been just a drainage basin. We made Kraft macaroni and cheese from a box, and put extra packets of cocoa in our hot chocolate when my mom wasn’t looking.  

I still remember The Brinkers phone number. 359.4330. That was how many times I called it over the years.

Carrie and I grew apart a little bit at one point – I honestly don’t remember when it was or for how long, but we came back together in high school, and cemented our friendship, never to look back. Carrie was kind of a rebel. I was kind of a goody two shoes.  I remember her getting in BIG trouble one time, because we had taken out the car before Carrie had her license.  We didn’t do anything crazy – as I think Mr. and Mrs. Brinker feared - we needed a destination, because where do two fifteen year olds go in Belle Mead, New Jersey? I think we just went to Burger King a few miles away to get French fries. But we got caught. And it was ugly.  

We traveled Italy and Greece together in high school on a school trip, skied in Vermont on middle and high school trips, and in Canada, sneaking out late at night. Carrie gave me courage to try things I didn’t think I was good at – sneaking out not the only one on the list. She gave me courage to take the intermediate trails, and a few black diamonds – both on the slopes, and in life. She believed in me. And I in her.

We were opposites in many ways. That’s how we have always been – she loved the mountains and a tent. I loved the beach and a hotel. She was an Aquarius. I am a Leo. But somehow we worked. We balanced.

I want to touch on three of Carrie’s qualities that I most admire and love.

First was Carrie’s gentle love of nature, animals and all things living. Carrie loved animals – cared for them, nurtured them, took them in. She hiked, hugged trees, cherished her time at Camp Speers Eljebar, in the woods, away from the world, on her NOLS course down the river that she so courageously completed. Things that took a very strong person to do. I remember one time we were camping.  It was close to the first time I really went camping, minus a brief stint in Girl Scouts – Carrie was the planner. I brought my curling iron. The next morning, we got ready to pack up, move on and to head back. When we went to get our hiking boots there was my pair, but there was only one of hers. I wouldn’t believe me if I hadn’t seen it myself, but honest to God, after a search around our camp site, we noticed a fox at the edge of the wood near us. I am not kidding. There was a fox. Sitting there, the only fox I have ever seen in real life, at the edge of the woods, and Carrie’s hiking boot was sitting right in front of it. It was staring at us. We stood in amazement. As we took a step toward the fox, it picked up her boot and ran into the woods. We didn’t find it. And she hiked back in one flip flop and a boot. And she said, “I guess he really needed that boot for something.” I’m still not convinced.

The second quality I cherish was Carrie’s ability to throw herself into something completely and intensely, following every rule and direction.  Truth be told, she was a bit of a perfectionist. I have dabbled in many things – I love to cook, though don’t do it perfectly. I used to knit before I had four kids – but I have four unfinished sweaters, and a whole mound of yarn that I haven’t touched. I have piles of photos of my children I’ve been meaning to frame for six years, where Carrie had hers beautifully framed in her and Peter’s home. She organized my bridal shower, 8  months pregnant with Lola, with infinite detail, and such love. And only a little bit of resentment. It wasn’t until I was pregnant with my own children that I fully appreciated what traveling at 8 months pregnant to throw a bridal shower meant. When Carrie took up yoga several years ago, she was immersed, finding peace and breath on her yoga mat, learning and embracing every yoga move perfectly and sharing them with me. When she was pregnant with Lola and Conrad, she read all the books; she was READY.  For pregnancy and parenthood – both of a girl and then a boy. When things didn’t go exactly as planned, she went back to the books to figure it out. She learned to love to cook, and engaged Conrad and Lola with her. On one visit a few years ago, we were making something together. I had chopped the vegetables into a regular old chop. She looked at my cut up vegetables, clearly wanting to comment. I watched her. She watched me. The recipe said they were supposed to be in a ½ inch dice. I told her I thought it was okay. But she looked at me. I looked at her. And I rechopped all the veggies.

The last quality I want to talk about is Carrie’s loyalty and her ability to see the good in those around her, even when it doesn’t go her way.  Carrie was not perfect. She could be very stubborn. She was a perfectionist, as I said, and she sometimes saw things very black and white. But, she showed so much love for her friends – through our imperfections and our downfalls.  She loved me and she loved you. In 2001-ish, I had thought the most seriously about moving to be near Carrie in Colorado. She had met Peter by then, on a strangely snowy day in September, the day after I left from a visit with her. I was losing my job, and looking for a place to be. Ultimately, I decided not to move to Denver, and although it took her three months of being mad at me to finally verbalize it, she was really upset with me. She felt I had led her on to believe that I was going to move there, and when I’d changed my mind, she’d been very upset.   We always talked about how magical it would be to live next door to each other, especially after we had kids. Lola and my Ellie could play together. My three boys plus Conrad, tearing up the neighborhood. I feel shortchanged, that although I didn’t foresee that happening any time soon, with her roots so solidly in Colorado, and mine so nestled in Portland, I hadn’t given up on that dream. But now it is gone.

As I think about Carrie, I want to remind us all to remember the funny, loving stories that I know you all have – from her days at Camp Speers Eljebar, her years at Boulder, as a Vet Tech, caring for animals, as a nature lover, hiking and running the trails all over Boulder and Denver, as a sister to Denise and Bob, a daughter to Mr. and Mrs. Brinker, a daughter in law to Mr. and Mrs. Sehl, an aunt, a cousin, a dear friend to so many of us here today, and especially as wife to Peter, and her favorite job on so many levels, being a mommy to Conrad and Lola.

This past year, especially, was a roller coaster for Carrie, Peter, her family and friends.  I realized after many conversations last year with those involved, including Carrie, that the Carrie I always knew was hidden away. I had hope that she would come back - I really did. Carrie rode the waves as best she could, I know that for sure. She was a committed woman, who dedicated herself to all she was capable of doing. But her illness took hold at various points, and clouded the vision in those beautiful blue eyes.    

I had two flights to Denver booked in the summer and fall of last year, to fly out and see if I could be here for her, to help.  And after cancelling both those flights because she seemed to be in the best place she could be, and that I wouldn’t be allowed to visit her, and then later that she didn’t want to see me, as you can imagine, I wish I’d come anyway.  Many of you have similar stories, I’m sure. Wishing you’d made a last phone call, or come to see her.  For those of you that do, I want to share my own thoughts that this latest mountain was just too big to scale.  Peter stood by her side, trying to lift her up;  her beautiful, precious children, Lola and Conrad still brought her joy.  Peter’s family offered support from Germany, and his friends from near and far. Carrie’s parents offered their help and support, as did her sister Denise.  Carrie’s brother, Bob, climbed alongside Carrie with love, support and patience.  But this mountain was just too big.  

My hope, and I feel that Carrie’s hope, would be that we can all find the power to reflect and share the memories of Carrie as the inspirational, loving, loyal, kind, generous and stubborn woman that she was.

And although I genuinely feel that she is at peace, somewhere out of our sight, I, for one, will miss her terribly."