|Photo by Charles “Bigmista” Johnson
My Dear Friends and Readers,
The beautiful photo I posted for this blog is reflective of my friend Annais. She had all the color and passion of the world and yet she was cloaked in darkness.
I met Annais, which is not her real name, in Nantes France in 2002 where I had been living to escape the realities of my life in America. I met her through her boyfriend an artist and political refugee from Iran. I had been sitting at a cafe in downtown Nantes when I saw a man drawing a picture of me. I was amused and I smiled to myself wondering when he would come over and try to either hit on me or ask me to buy the drawing. Sure enough, in worse French than even mine, he came over and said something. I answered in the one French phrase I knew for sure, which translated in English was “I’m sorry I don’t speak French.” His English was a little better and my Farsi was non-existant, but somehow I managed to tell him that I was from America and that I was living with an American artist from Seattle.
I had arrived in this little French town about two weeks prior. I had closed my thriving Seattle law firm to begin writing the book that will hopefully be ready for the public this summer- after what the publisher and I have entitled “The fourth and final edit”. I was sad. My second ex-husband had left the day after Christmas of 2001. I had lost custody of my children and after four years of trying to regain custody our family therapist told me to give up my fight.
She had told me that “One of you must stop putting these children through this legal tug of war. You are hurting these children emotionally. You are forcing them to choose between you and your ex-husband. If he walked into the room right now, I don’t know who either of them would choose. You seem the more reasonable of the two you. Stop this fight for your children.”
“Why me?” I had pleaded to her in tears.
“Because you are the more reasonable than your ex-husband. He will never give up fighting you for these children.”
“So, I just give up?” I asked.
“For them, yes.”
It had happened to be Halloween night. The sky was black and my heart and life like many other Americans had been disrupted by the tragedy of 9-11. I was depressed and hopeless. As I write these words, I have images in my head of me sobbing in my car. That night I drove and I wept and I drove. In one instance, I had stopped for a stop light and a man in the car next to me tapped his horn to ask if I was alright. I said “No.” and drove away with my face red and contorted. My chest was heaving and I thought to myself I would drive my car off the 520 bridge- which is a bridge that separates Seattle from it’s wealthy suburbs of Bellevue and Kirkland.
I realized that at best, I would crash my car and not kill myself. I drove into downtown Seattle into the art district. I got out of my car and started walking up a street. I don’t recall the name of the street, but it was near Pioneer Square. The galleries and antique stores had closed at six. It was a little after 6:30 and I did not recognize the street, but I walked back and forth in front of antique store, trying to figure out how to get to the waterfront where there were a myriad of bars. Finally, a man came out of what appeared to be a closed antique store.
“Can I get you a glass of water?” he asked. It was a strange question, but it stopped me.
“I’m looking for a bar.” I responded to him. I had been sober for fours years at this time., but I was ready to get drunk or high and I knew I could find some drugs in this section of town.
“Why don’t you come in.” With nothing better to do, and thinking that I was going to kill myself anyway, what did it matter that he might have harmed me?
I don’t know how long we talked, but he took me to dinner at a beautiful restaurant and bought me a a beautiful latte where the foam was swirled into a hear shape. (Seattle is after all the coffee capital of America.) He listened to my sobbing rambling and listened until I had calmed down. When dinner was over he walked me to my car. He said to me. “If you are not safe to drive. I live over the gallery. You don’t have to worry about me harming you.”
“I’m not worried,” I said. I just have to get home.
“You sure you will be alright?” he said.
“Here’s my card with my name and number and the number of the gallery. Call me, if you need to.”
I got into my car and drove across the bridge and I did not kill myself. So, there I was a year later after that horrible Halloween night, sitting in a plaza in Nantes, France drinking a latte. I invited Mohamed, not his real name, over to my apartment at 44 Rue Amiral du Chaffault. When he arrived he brought Annais. She was very pale and the strangest thing about her was that she had long shoulder length hair that was almost all white. I say this because I found out that she was only 33.
She smoked Gauloises or Gitanes, expensive black cigarettes in an over-sized box. In the future of our relationship I would often “loan” her the 7 euros to pay for her expensive cigarettes. But on that evening the four of us drank wine, not me, and tried to communicate who we were and why the four of us had found each other in the tiny French town of Nantes.
She was the only French born person in our group. She never told me anything about her life as a child, except that her father had committed suicide when she was a small child. From that one statement, without saying more, I understood her life. I understood her personal battle that had turned her hair white at such a young age. She said she wanted to paint me as a Geisha and that I was very beautiful. I was of course, flattered and thus began my relationship with Annais.
She lived in a tiny apartment filled with light and her large abstract paintings of Asian women and of beautiful exotic portraits of men and women painted in solitary colors. A portrait of a nude man painted in cobalt blue covered one wall. Another man painted a brownish yellow sat on the floor next to the blue portrait. A women’s face painted pink with full red lips pursed to kiss caused my head to swivel. She was a gifted painter. Her work was moving, unique and each looked like a classic- something worth owning. “You would be a hit in America,” I foolishly told her one day. It was an idea that she would not let go of . She would go to extraordinary lengths trying to seduce me or my artist boyfriend into taking her back to America.
Through the year that I lived in France from 2002 to 2003, Annais was my odd coffee drinking, absinthe drinking, chain smoking friend. “How do you support yourself?” she asked me one day.
“I sold my practice. I am a lawyer. I was a lawyer,” I said to her. “Ah, avocat,” she answered saying the word for attorney in French.
“Are you rich?” she asked.
“No, quite the opposite. I filed bankruptcy last year, after my husband left leaving me with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt.” Then I tried to explain to her that in some states in America, like Washington State, there was something called “community property”. That because of that legal concept my second husband’s gambling debts became my debts. She didn’t understand; she didn’t care. She thought that I was weak and privileged. She wanted the things that I had. She liked my expensive clothes bought in the days I was a successful lawyer. She liked my jewelry; most importantly she liked my boyfriend.
When I asked her how she supported herself, she told me that Mohammed was not her real boyfriend; she was the mistress of a married French banker. She laughed bitterly, when I showed my shock. She rolled her eyes and poured herself another shot of the milky white liqueur she drank.
When I left my apartment in Nantes and my boyfriend who said he would pack my clothes and send them back to me- which took him a year to do; Annais took her opportunity. I returned to Maryland and stayed with my mother. Later, I found out that Annais had spent a great deal of time in my former apartment and with my boyfriend. I found this out when lots of my clothes ended up missing. I was angry, although I did not necessarily blame her. Why had she had so much time and eve have the opportunity to sort through my clothes? And I was not angry at her, I was angry at him.
Despite, all of the drama I had experienced with Annais while living in Nantes, I still admired her work. I spent the last of my rapidly depreciating American dollars on a tiny painting that was so unlike the rest of her passionate work. When I chose the tiny scenic piece, I asked her why it was so different. She answered it was where she wanted to be. It was her fantasized bucolic life of a farm somewhere in France.
I tried to keep in contact with her. Things continued to go in the crazy way that her life had always seem to go. She had managed to get herself pregnant with the banker’s child. The banker left his wife and he and Annais went to live on a farm somewhere in the Loire Valley. I thought that she would finally be happy. She got her man; she got her farm; and she had her baby. But, this story does not have a happy ending.
One day, Annais was found dead in her bathtub. Her two year old son, was found by his father. She had cut her wrists and bled to death. I cannot imagine the pain she must have been in to kill herself. I believe that she had some form of mental illness, along with her drinking and drug use. The moment I heard that she had killed herself, I could not look at her painting any more. I wrapped it in brown paper and stored it. When the place where the painting was being stored closed the painting had come up missing and would remain missing for years.
A few years later, when another artist friend died of cancer, my sister generously purchased the piece of glass that you see below the painting, I realized that Annais’ painting would fit perfectly in the space above. I left the space blank and waited for the owner of the art storage store to locate the painting. At one point he found a small painting that was about the size of the missing painting, but it turned out- ironically to be another painting by Annais- one that she had sent to the U.S.- perhaps to make up for the missing clothes. “Keep looking”, I told the art storage owner.
Months went by. I stopped asking the storage owner had he found “the little pink piece” as I called her painting. At some point, I gave up asking whether the painting had been found. I left the space open, waiting for Annais’s painting to be found. Today her painting was found and returned to me.
Of course, the painting brought back memories of France, my children, the former boyfriend and of course, Annais. Her son must be a teenager or close to that age. I wonder what happened to him. I do not know, but I hope his father claimed him and has taken care of him. I would hate to think that has been living in a French foster home, or the French equivalent of a foster care home. I hope his life has been happy. I hope that someday, he will reconcile the fact that his mother ended her life.
Today, I am sad as I wrote this blog, but I am also very happy that I did not give up on that day in October of 2001. I am glad the antique dealer came out of his store and stopped me as I was on my way to some form of annihilation. I am glad that I did not give up. I am glad that I did not commit suicide.
My Life did not always go the way I had hoped it would. I have yet to re-unite with my children, but as long as they are alive and I am alive the hope of that reunion remains. I know that there are times that life seems hopeless and it seems easier to end it all. There has, at least for me , one primary reason that has stopped me from harming myself. That reason is my children. Long ago, when I was still in law school, before I lost custody of my children, long before I would become a crack addict, my then therapist told me that if I committed suicide that it would increase my children’s chances of committing suicide by 50%. Years later in the throws of my depression and in the midst of my crack cocaine addiction, I remembered that one statement.
Do, I still suffer from depression? Yes. Are there days that I feel so low that I ask myself, why bother? Yes. Fortunately, after years of therapy I understand how my mental illness can shroud and engulf me. I know that despite my medication, there are days that I must fight it with all my resources. Yes, even with my beautiful life, there are days when I have to remind myself of how far I have come. The distance, not to be measured from my traumatic childhood where I raise myself, the distanced is measured in much smaller increments.
Mental illness is a disease. I know that Annais suffered from depression. I don’t know what happened to turn her dream of painting on a farm and being a mother into a nightmare, but I do know that depression blinds the sufferer to good things in one’s life. I know this from experience.
Often times, many of us, particularly in the African American community do not seek the professional mental help that we need. We talk to our pastors, or we don’t talk about it at all. Our silence comes from the fear that we will be shunned and shamed by those who do not understand our illness. I know that shame is a powerful emotion, one that stops many of us from seeking the help and support that we need.
Today, thanks to Obamacare, there is a lot more money for the treatment of mental illness. Don’t suffer in silence and pain. Please reach out. Make that call. Tell someone. If you are the person, that a person suffering from mental illness reaches out to, I beg you not to give them a “buck up” speech. Please stay with them. Take them to a hospital. Feed them. Make sure they seek help. Keep checking in with them. Yes, it is your business. It is all of our business.
Every life matters. Each of us is here to make a contribution to the world. Please do not let another light, another life go out without a fight. And to the dear antique dealer, another thank you for saving my life that October night in 2001.
To Annais, your beauty lives on through your work. I hope you are painting in heaven.
Brianna S. Clark
The Addict Writes