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A Love Letter To A Friend

Mental Health

Paul Fjelrad continues looking at PTSD and its effects with this letter to a friend who helped him...

This letter is to my friend Glen Barker. He’s a husband, father, and NHS nurse who has been on the frontlines of this pandemic since the beginning, putting his health, and that of his family, at risk to safeguard yours. He is a true hero, and the best man I know. We all should be so lucky as to have a friend like him:

Hey,

What is the right way to start a letter these days? I initially wrote “Dear …”, but that felt too formal, and maybe writing letters is a lost art. You know so well that I’m awful at heading off on a tangent, particularly when I’m trying to say how I really feel, but I’ll try and get back to it.

I awoke this morning to your message that you’d tested positive for COVID. That message made my heart sink, particularly as we were supposed to be spending this weekend together before this lockdown was announced. Remember when I called you as the pandemic first started to take hold and I was moving out of London to live on my boat? As I was reading the news about how deadly this virus was, I thought of you as one of the nurses on the frontline and I was gripped by a sudden and overwhelming fear of anything happening to you, and so I called. I don’t know if you could hear it in my voice but I was holding back the tears and trying in my clumsy way to express how much you meant to me, and how unbearable the thought was that I might lose you. 

I don’t think I’ve ever really told you how I feel, and I know I’d be absolutely useless at it face-to-face, or even on the phone. So, I thought I’d put my feelings down on paper, and maybe in that way I finally tell you why you are so very special to me, and how I can’t imagine my life without you.

We met when you were 12 and I had just turned 13, but now it feels like you have always been part of my life, and it’s hard to imagine a time when you weren’t there. I’m almost certain you didn’t know it at the time, and I’m positive I didn’t, but as someone who never told anyone about the things I have been through, you have always known more about me than anyone else. It hurts to think back to the times when I kept things from you, like what happened with Tasha’s mother, or the unbearable agony of being pushed out of my daughter’s life, and perhaps it pained you to find out how much I hadn’t shared with you. I know you would have done all you could to have shared that pain with me, and supported me as best as you could, but I just want you to know that despite the many things I didn’t tell you at the time, you were always the one I shared the most with. 

When I was travelling back from Denmark, after Tasha’s suicide attempt, and somewhere deep inside I felt myself beginning to shatter, it was you that I was messaging about how I was feeling. For every time I didn’t let you in, I am sorry, but please understand that for someone like me, the fact I shared anything at all, and trusted you enough to do so, should tell you how much you meant to me.

I’m reading back what I’ve written so far, and I can see I’m once again avoiding saying what needs to be said, and what I’ve wanted to say.

I love you.

 You mean the world to me, and I can honestly say without fear of overstating things, that aside from my daughter, you mean more to me than anyone else in the world. Your friendship, your love, which you have shown me even when I didn’t seem to return it, and even when I tried so hard to push you away, is more important to me than I will ever have the words to express.

I know that you know this. When we meet, or as we part, you’ve always wrapped your arms around me, held me close and told me you love me, without ever demanding that I say it in return. Even though I find it hard to express, I also know that is how love should be. Given without expectation, offered freely, openly, honestly, without artifice or fear. I have so often felt so unworthy of that love, and yet it is the strength of what you have shown me, that despite my many insecurities, and even in my darkest moments, you have always made me feel worthy of it.

But I’m not just writing this to let you know how I feel, but also because I want to share with you something that I don’t think you have ever grasped about why you are so special to me. I want to try and explain why perhaps, without you, I would not be here to write this letter, to try as hard as I can to be the father my daughter deserves, and for as long as I am able, to try and repay the insurmountable debt I will always owe you.

 For many years leading up to my diagnosis, throughout my therapy, and in the years that have followed as I’ve learned to live with my PTSD, I have asked myself these questions;

Why did I survive?

How was it that I even made it through to the point when I was finally ready to admit the truth and seek help?

How did I make it through my treatment, and rebuild my life to the point where I am today?

 Well, I want to tell you that you have had a much bigger role in that, than perhaps you are aware.

So often you have told me how proud you are of how far I have come, and I have always ducked, dodged, and even blankly refused to accept your praise. You and I both know that all my bravado, and banter, I am awful at accepting compliments. Well I do accept your pride, and I am grateful for it, but there is more to it than that. During those darkest moments, when I truly believed I couldn’t keep fighting any more, I believe now there were certain things that got me through it.

You already know that despite the very limited clear memories I have of my Grandfather, there is still this strong emotional connection with him that has acted like an anchor for me, keeping me secure and grounded, so I wasn’t swept away by the turmoil of my PTSD symptoms. It is why living on the boat means so much to me, my connection with this area, and in particular the waters around Plymouth. When I’m there, I can feel his presence, his strength, and the love I believe he had for me.

As I worked with Tasha on the book, it also became clear that my Uncle Dick, was another emotional anchor. Those times when he showed that pride and love for me, acted as a lighthouse, keeping me from getting lost in the storm.

And then there is you.

The friend who stayed with me, as all others left me behind over the year, or that I managed to push away. I’ve definitely not always been the friend you deserved, and I feel as I look back, that I tried my hardest to push you away. Particularly during that time after my divorce, and losing Tasha, when you, with your home, marriage and children, had everything I’d lost. In those times I couldn’t bear to even be around you. 

However, I am eternally grateful, that even after all of that, when I called you, you were always there. No matter how dark the times were, you were another presence that acted as an anchor. If I was somehow worthy of your friendship, then perhaps I was worthy of more. Perhaps all the dark voices in my head were wrong, that this pain wasn’t deserved, and if you believed in me, then perhaps I could find a way through, I could love and be loved.

So I want you to know that I put you in that list of reasons why I survived.

 Because of my grandfather, who made me feel special, protected, loved, as any and every grandchild should feel.

Because of Uncle Dick, who taught me what it was to be a man. That to be gentle, compassionate, generous and funny, was also how to be strong.

Because of my daughter, because if I could be a part of creating something so beautiful, intelligent, loving and kind, then I wasn’t cursed, and evil as my mother taught me to believe.

And because of you. My friend, my brother, the family I chose and who chose me. It is you that taught me my strength, and mental resilience, is not in being stoic and silent in the face of tragedy, but to be open, vulnerable, to cry, and to ask for help.

Whatever comes, if you ever need me, I will always try as hard as I know how, to be there for you.

Because I love you, and I am so very proud to call you my friend.

 Paul.

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