Today is World Mental Health day.
If you haven't experienced poor mental health yourself it is almost certain that someone in your family has.
As a student I suffered from a severe bout of depression which in retrospect was no surprise as it followed a number of truamatic experiences. It's not something I feel comfortable talking about and I rarely admit to it on medical forms. I overheard my mother explaining it to someone as "the time she had to come home she was that home sick" and while I was certainly sick it was much more serious than home sickness.
Thankfully I got better and while my life hasn't exactly been plain sailing since I would consider myself to have reasonably good mental health, apart from being a teeny tiny bit obsessive and, just occasionally, over anxious.
My friend Jo was not so lucky.
I'm re-posting this in her memory and to mark the day.
When I first met Jo she had a sharp brown bob, a collection of 1950s frocks and a great sense of fun. She was confident, opinionated and not scared to share her views.
She introduced me to lots of things including the obsessive playing of board games, the works of Anthony Trollope and the joys of ensconcing yourself under a duvet on the sofa on a Saturday afternoon and watching black and white films on television. Occasionally we stirred ourselves enough to leave the house.
Jo was the first person I met in London who knew her way round the bus network. As a young teenager she and her friends had spent whole days out, on the top decks of buses, rattling their way round the city. On Sundays, in the days when neither of us had much money, we would buy bus passes and go on adventures, travelling by bus from Wood Green to Greenwich via Whitehall. Once, mistakenly, we ended up going all the way to Teddington Lock.
In our 20s Jo and I liked doing old lady type activities. Taking tea, visiting cathedral cities and going to museums. We joked that we were getting our training in early for our retirement and that we were bound to turn into the kind of old biddies who always got served first in shops and who waved their walking sticks at anyone who annoyed them.
She also influenced me politically having been brought up in a much more politically active home than I had been. She was a feminist and a socialist. Throughout our radical youth we marched and demonstrated against all kinds of injustices.
The first time Jo invited me and my sisters for dinner she cooked a shepherd's pie that was so disgusting that one of my sisters had to go up to the bathroom and throw up. I don't think we ever told her about that and, thankfully, her cooking improved dramatically as she got older. We were so young when we first met that we thought going to the Pizza Hut was a treat although we quickly graduated to the more sophisticated Pizza Express. Occasionally, and much later, we went to expensive restaurants. We celebrated a joint birthday in the Oxo Tower. Jo was 12 days older than me; a fact I liked to frequently remind her of. Momentous birthdays seemed less difficult because they happened to her first.
Jo was greedy for life and passionate about a huge range of things. She loved clothes and knew how to look after them. My mother thought reading the care label on a garment was a step too far so I hadn't a clue. Jo taught me about using soap flakes and how to dry woollens flat. She loved linen, silk and cashmere. She hated moths. Once, when we were in John Lewis together, spending a blissful few minutes in the laundry section, she picked up a moth treatment and read the warning on it which said that the product was dangerous and pets should not be allowed to come into contact with it.
"Oh good." she said "I'll get this one."
We shared an interest in collecting china and bought each other really good presents. I gave her a Susie Cooper tea set as a combined Christmas and birthday present even though I really wanted to keep it for myself. We picked up bits and pieces in markets and charity shops for a few pounds or even pence, and years later congratulated ourselves on our good taste and eye for quality, when we saw the same things in trendy shops in Islington on sale for ten times what we'd paid for them.
As with any long friendship we had our ups and downs. Sometimes we'd see each other really regularly and other times less often but we'd always manage to pick up exactly where we'd left off.
Unlike most people Jo learnt how to negotiate our family and to deal with the rivalries and tensions that inevitably exist where you have a surfeit of sisters. This was especially impressive as Jo lacked experience in this area having no sisters of her own.
"Oh it's just a Byrne thing" she'd say about whatever storm was brewing.
There were things that we didn't share. Once in Kerry I made her cycle all the way round Slea Head and when we got back to the house, exhausted, she was furious. Unlike me she was a strong swimmer and I was impressed the first time I watched her gliding up and down the pool using a stately breast stroke while I splashed and floundered in the shallow end.
We learnt to drive at the same time. Secretly I thought I was better than her so I was pretty galled when she passed on her first go and I had to take my test three times.
Whenever she visited me at home she would come in full of chat, distributing her belongings around the room and creating chaos in her wake.
She loved her partner and her son and had a big circle of friends.
I saw Jo two weeks ago when she came round for dinner. I made potato and leek soup and a spinach and ricotto pie. I can't remember what I made for dessert although I keep trying to. We talked about happiness and small pleasures, or at least, I did. I reminded Jo about the black and white films and told her when I thought about my early 20s that's what I remembered. I don't think she took anything that I said in.
Jo was suffering from a very, very severe depression and believed that she was never going to get better. Last Monday she took her own life and the method she chose to use left no doubt about her intentions.
Jo's death has affected more people than she could ever have imagined.
I just keep thinking where is she? Where did she go?