The first time I encountered Mckenna was the beginning of freshman year in a large film lecture. I was already jaded by the copious amounts of beautiful people that attend USC, but when McKenna glided in, dressed in a wild, Hannah Montana-esque outfit, self-assured and head high, it was impossible not to notice her.
She didn’t demand attention with flamboyance or drama, but rather commanded it gracefully. People listened to Mckenna when she spoke. People wanted to say the right thing when she listened, and damn, was she a good listener.
We orbited in similar circles freshman year, colliding in dorm hallways and at mutual friends’ Oscar parties and dumb freshman ragers. She always had something funny and insightful to say, and she wasn’t afraid to laugh at her own jokes. In fact, there was always a chuckle in every sentence she spoke—and if you knew her, you can hear that laugh in your head, right now. It was infectious, bubbling up from her chest, the way water gurgles in a brook.
We didn’t become truly close until first semester of sophomore year, when we had a small film class together. Her critiques on my and my classmates’ work were always strikingly intelligent. She would pinpoint the aspect of a piece that the filmmaker was proud of and blow it up so large so that sometimes you would even forget it was flawed to begin with. Her praise was felt, and she gave it freely but not without reason.
I asked to get coffee with her one day to talk to her about working with actors, because I knew she had acting experience and I wanted to pick her brain. We ended up talking for a long time, the conversation drifting to personal aspirations, problems, relationships.
I tend to be a very open person. Some would even call me an oversharer. When Mckenna died I realized I knew a lot more than many of her other friends about her struggles with depression, and I think maybe that was because I was open with my own problems. I remember sitting at the Coffee Bean at the School of Cinematic Arts under the trellis that never grows flowers, the late afternoon sun streaming onto the uncomfortable wooden chairs where Mckenna and I sat, my feet uncouthly propped on a chair and her, looking like a movie star with her sunglasses and iced coffee.
We talked about her medication, and how she had been depressed for a long time. I told her I had been speaking to a therapist since I was fifteen, and now that I was at college I had stopped, for the worse. She told me she hadn’t been feeling well at all. I noticed she had stopped dressing like a fabulous country singer and instead wore leggings and baggy clothes that she could wrap herself up in, like a butterfly gone back into her cocoon.
We just talked. There was no advice given, no judgment employed. We just talked, and listened, in the way that only two people who really see each other can.
In the last couple weeks of class together I made a film that I had pulled together in the editing room in a scramble. I had resorted to my classic medium of poetic voiceovers and borrowed images, something I knew I had done before and was becoming trite and overdone. But I was in a bad place at the time, sinking into a very dark place. I recently began seeing a psychiatrist but not a therapist, taking an antidepressant that I would find out months later was making me hypomanic and contributing to my suicidal thoughts. I was in a tumultuous relationship and pushing everyone in my life away. My desire to make art, my buoy in the ocean of depression, was fading. I didn’t want to get out of bed, let alone make movies.
The film was about my suburban hometown on the east coast, where addiction is rampant, and a thick layer of complacency coats the pot-holed roads. Mckenna connected with it deeply. As people gave me criticisms, she frantically texted me from across the room, “Don’t listen to them. That was incredible.” I thanked her, but our conversation didn’t stop for hours.
“You pinpointed a feeling that is so specific, and I completely feel it. That’s good writing. When you’re like, “yes!” that’s what I feel. I loved it <3. But you did it with film and that’s sickkkkk.”
There is a quote by Robert Altman that goes, “I’ve always had this feeling that the perfect response to a film or a piece of work of mine would be if someone got up and said, ‘I don’t know what it is, but it’s right.’ That’s the feeling you want— ‘That’s right’—and it comes from four or five layers down; it comes from the inside rather than the outside.”
With a few lines of text Mckenna invigorated me, made me feel understood, injected me with a confidence and a desire to make films for people like her, and people like me. Girls who at sixteen felt so isolated and different from the world around them, just yearning for something or someone to connect to.
There are intangible things that tie Mckenna and me together. Something unspoken and that can only be understood by being lived.
When I found out Mckenna had died I let out a resounding scream on the steps of my university library. I had seen her three days earlier at a party. She had hugged me and told me happy birthday. I had forgotten to invite her to my birthday party, something I will always hate myself for. This could not be real. Mckenna was my mirror, the person I looked at and reflected me back at myself and helped me see myself clearly. I was hers too. This meant I should have known that despite her independence, passion, and vibrancy, she was truly suffering. I know too well the way people’s perceptions stray so far from the reality. As much as Mckenna was bright, she had a darkness inside her that I identified with. I could have checked in on her, I could have looked at myself in the mirror and known that we were one and the same.
In the wake of Mckenna’s death in April, the mirror became much clearer. She was on medication and hadn’t seen a therapist since November. It is hard to tell yourself that the drugs that are supposed to be making you want to live are doing the opposite, and it is much harder without a professional’s help. She had mentioned to a friend that she really wasn’t feeling well and was thinking of going off that particular medication, but she never got around to it.
I too, was taking medication from a USC referred psychiatrist, who could never seem to pretend he cared all too much. I was rarely seeing him, and not talking to a therapist. I was going crazy in my own mind, scrambling around in a dark closet for a light switch. My antidepressants allowed me to skate by my life without taking in much of anything, emphasized by my lack of journal entries from that time as well as my lack of good decisions.
As soon as I got home in May, I found a new doctor who informed me my medication was causing hypomania. This explained my insanely impulsive behavior, my increased substance abuse, my inability to stop talking or to pause my thoughts. It also explained why I felt I had been sinking farther and farther into myself, isolating myself from my friends, not eating, working on my art, or leaving my room. I was a shell of the person I had been a year before-- weak, with heart palpitations and tremors, almost fainting from any slight physical activity, like climbing the stairs. I felt betrayed by my own body, my own brain. The things that were supposed to be helping me were hurting me.
After April 3rd I also began looking at what was around me, things that I had ignored for so long because acknowledging the toxicity I allowed in my life was harsher than letting the acid eat me alive. My substance abuse and comorbid promiscuity were a problem-- my need to be separated from reality was separating me from myself and those that I cared about. I realized just as I had to remove harmful behaviors out of my life to be happy again, I had to leave relationships that were hurting me behind. Someone I was seeing at the time didn’t understand my mental health problems and therefore couldn’t support me after Mckenna’s death. I cut them out of my life, which felt like ripping off a limb. This was a double whammy, and one hell of a comedown.
But my appendages grew back, or rather, are still growing. I am on the right drug cocktail after eight months and four different medication combinations with a host of draining side effects. Trying to be happy has become my new hobby. I see a therapist who is way too expensive, I meditate, I swim, and I try to dance as much as I can. I still drink too much sometimes and am terrified of failing as an artist. But I know I won’t, because Mckenna said I could write, and so I do. She stands behind me, and her presence will never let me stop trying.
I am getting a tattoo on my wrist. It will simply be the word MORE. Mckenna had more to do when she left. There was more time she had to spend and more stories she had to write and more people she had to kiss and more friends she had to hug and more love to give her mother and more butterflies that need to land on her fingers.
These days I find myself trying to convince a lot of people in my life about why they need to stick around. Vulnerability is a powerful tool, because it makes people realize that the loneliness they feel is a dirty liar. It brings me such a deep joy when I pull someone back from the edge, and I’m sure it is her inside me, whispering “good work dyl,” with her warm little laugh.
I have more to do, and so do you.