Hard to See the Light Now

New Year's balloons

Sometimes the darkness is too much for us to bear. We can’t turn on the lights, even though the switch is right there in front of us. In those moments, the darkness is a palpable thing, a beast that breathes hot on our necks and whispers in our ears. It lies, and demands that we believe it. We hear it, and it’s so close and so loud and so insistent that it drowns out everything else, as surely as the ocean overwhelms a grain of sand. Depression is an animal, sly and heavy, and once it has you in its sights it can be a relentless hunter. It wants you to surrender, to let the darkness close over your head and draw the breath from your body.

103 weeks ago today that dark beast came for my husband for the last time. He’d fought it for most of his life, weathering years of depression and anxiety. It nearly got him once before, when he was in his early twenties. A five dollar win on a scratch ticket saved him that time, because he’d given himself an out. If I win, I’ll live. When it came for him on December 21, 2012, he couldn’t fight it any more. He knew he could have called me, but on that day he didn’t. Maybe his cell phone was like that light switch, right next to him yet somehow out of his reach. Maybe he was just too tired to make that call, or maybe he believed the lies that depression told him and thought that the world would be better off without him, or that I would. I will never know, because he took the answers to those questions with him when he left.

I’ve written before about the huge fight Tony and I had two days before he died. In truth it really wasn’t a fight – it was a heartbreaking, awful discussion. He told me he didn’t love me anymore, and that he wanted a divorce. He’d mentioned wanting a separation when I was in the hospital, ready to be wheeled into the operating room for back surgery. We had talked about it since, and he’d agreed that we would work on our relationship. I wanted to believe him – I did believe him. What I think now is that he backed off because he didn’t want to hurt me, but the reason he was so decisive about it on the night of December 19th was that he knew what he was going to do. He was trying to prepare me, as if anything could.

The beast came for me that night. Tony and I had been talking for hours, and I felt hollow. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so defeated in my life. We were talked out, and as I was lying in the zero-gravity chair I had rented to sleep in while my back healed, it slithered up and sat on my chest. Depression told me that I was a failure. It told me I was ugly and unlovable, and that if Tony left me I would never, ever find anybody else to love me again. Not ever. I listened as it whispered that I was a terrible person, impatient with my husband, selfish to the core, and that his brokenness was all my fault. It held me like a lover that night, and I believed everything it said to me. I had a bottle of pain pills, very strong ones. After the surgery I was taking Tylenol, but as I lay there listening to that awful voice, the pill bottle popped into my head, and with it, the thought that it would be so easy to swallow those tiny pills and not have to think about how much I was hurting.

Somehow Tony sensed it, maybe because he was so close to the abyss himself. He asked me about the pills, and I told him that they were in my office. They weren’t – they were in my jewelry box. He pushed me, and I finally admitted that I had them in the apartment. He got a little panicky with me, which strikes me as almost funny in hindsight, and somehow that snapped me out of it. I pushed the beast off of me with gritted teeth, hauled myself up from the chair, and flushed the pills down the toilet.

I don’t think I really would have acted on those thoughts. I don’t think I was low enough to believe what depression tried to tell me that night, not really. It wasn’t the darkest night of the year, not for me. I didn’t sleep, but I went to work the next morning and I kept going.

Two days later, Tony was dead, and four days after that it was Christmas. I barely remember the holiday that year. I vaguely recall sitting on the sofa in my sister Laura’s house. I was in a horrible fog. I thought at the time it was just grief, but really it was a lot of different things. Grief, shock, depression, post-traumatic stress. I understand now that I was probably depressed for a significant chunk of my marriage. I have always been an optimistic person, but living with someone who is seriously depressed is difficult. It takes a toll. I cringe now when I remember some of the things I said to Tony. I tried to be as kind and loving as I could, but depression is not a bad mood. It’s not sadness, and I didn’t understand that. I don’t think Tony did either, not really. He wanted me to cheer him up, but that’s not the way depression works.

In the past two years, I have done a lot of reading about depression. Studies show that 6.7% of all Americans suffer from major depression, and those numbers are almost certainly underreported because of the shame and stigma surrounding mental illness. We make it so hard for people who need help to get it – both by marginalizing them and making them feel they should be able to snap out of it or just decide to be in a good mood; and by limiting coverage for necessary treatments such as therapy. If Tony had been willing to try therapy while we were together, only his first 8 visits to a therapist would have been covered, and then at a rate significantly lower than the rate for other medically-necessary treatments. That is a travesty.

Every single person is fighting a battle of some kind. Every one of us deals with emotions and disappointments. Some of us hide it well; others don’t. Mental illness is a big problem, and I can’t solve the way it is treated with a blog post. What I can do, though, is tell you that sometimes, a small gesture can go a long way. For someone who is running from that beast, living their lives in fear, a moment of kindness can be enough to help them keep going. With that in mind, I started a page on Facebook to help spread kindness. I mentioned here before that we would be performing acts of kindness on December 21st, the two year anniversary of Tony’s death. If you are on Facebook, please head over to Dispel the Darkness and like the page, and join us on the 21st. This is a dark and difficult time of year for many of us, but with your help, we can start to turn on the lights.

Hard to see the light now
Just don’t let it go
Things will turn out right now
We can make it so
Someone is on your side
No one is alone ~ Stephen Sondheim

If you are in a dark place and feel that there is no hope, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK), or for help outside the US, go here for a list of hotlines by country.

Click here to read my sister Laura’s blog post about the night Tony died, and about depression and the holidays.

Nothing Human Is Alien to Me

I’ve been thinking a lot about anger lately. It’s one of the most misunderstood human emotions. We have a tendency to get very judgmental about anger. A search for quotes about it revealed hundreds talking about how bad, unhealthy and useless anger is, and only a few talking about why we need it.

Anger saved my life. That’s not an exaggeration. After Tony died I felt like all I had were emotions. I know that’s not true, literally speaking. I had friends and family and a job and lots of other things, but I had a hard time seeing past my feelings. They were so overwhelming, so big. There were so many of them. I know people sometimes numb their emotions, but that never occurred to me. I don’t think I was capable of having that thought, because how do you numb a hurricane? How do you numb the end of the world? You can’t numb them, I couldn’t, and so I decided (insofar as I could make decisions at that time) to trust my feelings. To believe, in the midst of horrific pain, that I needed to feel the way I was feeling, whatever I was feeling.

A lot of what I felt was anger. Anger is one of the classic stages of grief and for me it was THE stage of grief for the first six months or so after Tony died. That’s not to say I didn’t feel denial or depression, because of course I did. But anger lived inside me, a constant companion, a burning coal in my chest and a raging brush fire that surrounded me. It attacked me from all directions. I was angry at Tony for leaving, for not calling me, for not being able to see that life was worth living. Furious at myself for not being a better wife, a better friend, a more understanding and empathetic person. For not being able to talk my husband into getting the help he needed. I was angry at my body because I thought that my back injury and surgery might have contributed to his unraveling. I raged against sleep because it brought dreams that taunted me with my own anger, and with Tony’s – dreams where he laughed in my face when I begged him not to hurt himself.

It was awful. I hated it. I needed it. Like I said, anger saved my life. I truly believe that if I’d tried to contain it – if I’d tried to suppress it or disperse it the way all the quotes about anger tell me I should – I would have died. I don’t mean physically, although I supposed that’s possible. I mean that it would have consumed me. It would have eaten me alive, trying to hold back that inferno. I had to let it rage and burn. The thing about fires is, no matter how catastrophic they are they burn themselves out. The biggest forest fire ends eventually, and from the charred landscape emerge tender green plants. New life.

That is what anger gave me. Without it, I would not be the person I am today – and as awful as it was to live with that anger for so long, I would not change it. I would not unfeel it if it meant having to relinquish what it taught me. I am glad it burned me. I needed to be burned. I was not a complete person before Tony died. I was afraid of my feelings, and I was afraid of who he was and who I was when I was with him. I was losing bits and pieces of myself every day without noticing. It wasn’t his fault, and it wasn’t really mine either – but it doesn’t need to be anybody’s fault to be true. I couldn’t see then how small I was becoming. You might think that something small would run a greater risk of being consumed in a fire, but the fire burned away my smallness and replaced it with something bigger. It opened me up and set me free.

I know some people who have lost loved ones to suicide have not experienced the kind of anger I did. That’s okay too. Each grieving experience is unique. There is no wrong way to grieve. What I know for myself, though, is that anger was my benefactor. It gave me so much more than it took.

Bitterness is like cancer.  It eats upon the host.  But anger is like fire.  It burns it all clean. ~ Maya Angelou

 

That’s How the Light Gets In

Ring the bells that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in.

Today it is 23 months since Tony took his own life.  One year and 11 months ago, I sat on the concrete steps outside our apartment in San Diego.  It was the darkest night of the year, both literally and figuratively.  In many ways, it was the darkest night of my life.  I did not know, truly, how I would survive it.  It felt to me like there were no bells to ring.  No hope, no light, no life.  It was, I thought, the end of everything.

I was wrong.

Nearly two years later, I find myself in a strange place, emotionally speaking.  Strange, I say, because I’ve been struggling for weeks to put my finger on what it is that I’m feeling.  I keep having the sense that I am cracking open, but I don’t mean that in a bad way.  I feel raw and exposed, vulnerable and new.  This feeling has coincided with some significant life events – some that are meaningful in a way that I can easily identify, some that I can FEEL are profound although I don’t think I fully understand them just yet.

One is my new career.  I am finally doing something I love to do, every day, and getting paid for it.  That is huge, and it’s had a remarkable impact on my outlook.  For the most part, I wake up excited to work.  I am sleeping well and eating well.  I feel energetic and intellectually satisfied.  I feel creative.  It’s the first time in my whole life that I’ve had a job that left me feeling fulfilled.

Another is that I’m starting to achieve the balance I need between the writing that pays my rent and the writing I do for myself.  I started outlining a screenplay.  I’m finding time for blogging.  I’m also making time to read – something I haven’t done as much of as I’d like to since Tony died.

Friendship is another piece of the puzzle.  My relationships with the important people in my life feel healthier and deeper than they ever have.  I have several friends who have had a knack, in the past 23 months, of reaching out to me with such kindness that it overwhelms me.  I’ve reconnected with one of those friends recently, and his kindness got me thinking about kindness in general.

At the beginning of last year, not long after Tony died, I decided to perform acts of kindness on his birthday.  I knew I needed to do something that day to keep my mind off the fact that he was not there to celebrate the day, and never would be again.  Acts of kindness seemed like a natural thing to do in many ways, because Tony had such a hard time seeing kindness.  He was so disappointed, so much of the time, by his life and by the world.  On very rare occasions he would have moments when he’d see it, and when he did I used to tease him that he looked like the Grinch after his heart grew three sizes.  Imagining him like that makes my heart feel like it’s going to float out of my body, away into the sky.  I wish he’d had more of those experiences.

I wrote the other day about how the kindness of the people in my life has sustained me over the past two years.  Starting the night that Tony died, I have seen – over and over – how truly kind people can be.  The police officers, medical examiner and crisis counselor seem like miracles to me.  They gave me the worst news I’d ever heard in a way that makes it possible for me to be grateful to them.  The same is true of my co-workers, who held my hand and took me in and made it possible for me to work remotely for 22 months so I could be near my family.

I can hardly find words to talk about the kindness of my family and my friends.  They have loved me and buoyed me over and over again.  They have had a knack, many of them, for reaching out to me at just the right time.  They have written and spoken so many words of grace and love and kindness.  I have been cracked open by them again and again.

It is those cracks that have let the light in.  It is those cracks that have allowed me to feel the way I do, raw and vulnerable and open and… happy.  Yes, that’s the word.  I am happy, right now, in a way I haven’t been in a very long time.  That doesn’t mean I don’t miss Tony, because of course I do.  It doesn’t mean that things are perfect, because that’s just silly.  It means that I look at my life – at where I live and who I am and the people I care about – and I feel so overwhelmed with love that I think I might burst.

I didn’t do acts of kindness last year on December 21, because last year that day seemed unremittingly dark.  It seemed like a cave – a dark and dank place, dripping with tears.  It felt like a grave.  This year it doesn’t feel like that.  This year, I can look at it and see that as horrible as that date was in 2012, it was also a beginning.  It was that day that set me on a path I could not have anticipated.  It was the first crack, that day, and now – at last – the light is streaming in.

I hope that wherever you are in the world, you will join me on December 21st.  The holidays are an especially hard time for people who struggle with depression.  An act of kindness so small that it seems almost inconsequential to you could be exactly the ray of light that someone needs to find the strength to keep going.  Kindness is free.  Yes, you can do things that cost money if you choose to, but there are plenty of things that you can do that won’t cost a penny.  I will post some ideas and pictures over the next month.  I hope that if you do plan to participate, you’ll leave me a comment now (I would love to get people on all seven continents) and then let me know, later, what you did and how you felt about it.  Let’s turn on the lights.

The Club Nobody Wants to Join

This Friday it will be 23 months since Tony died. I had another blog post ready for today, but I’ve been thinking about something else and I want to write about it while it’s fresh.

Recently a friend messaged me to say that someone she knew had lost someone to suicide – someone very young, still a teenager. I do not have the young man’s name, but I know that she referred his family to this blog. I don’t know if they’re reading yet. Their loss is still so recent. But if anybody reading this has lost a loved one to suicide, I am so sorry.

There is no such thing as easy grief. I don’t like to compare my grief to anybody else’s, because I don’t believe that it’s helpful or that there’s any way to know what someone else’s grieving process is like. I can compare my grief over Tony to say, my grief over my grandmother, because I personally experienced both things. What I will say is this: grief over a death by suicide is different. It is, in my experience, a turbulent, tangled mess of emotions unlike anything I have ever experienced before. Sometimes, even now, I look back and wonder how I survived it. I wonder how I am STILL surviving it.

I sent my friend a link to the Alliance of Hope but I want to include it here. The Alliance is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping those grieving a loss to suicide. Their website has links, personal stories and a wonderfully supportive forum full of caring people who understand. I would recommend it to anybody who has suffered this kind of loss.

The other thing I want to say, because it’s important for those who are newly bereaved to hear, is that there’s no wrong way to feel. The first couple of months after I lost Tony are still shrouded in fog. I remember bits and pieces. I remember intense, gut-wrenching sorrow and searing anger. I remember numbness and confusion and pain and relief and guilt and shame. I remember feeling like a failure. Even now, nearly two years after his death, I still wrestle with those emotions. I am still recovering. Death by suicide is a cataclysm for those left behind.

What I hope we can all remember is to be patient with the grieving. Do not presume that you know what someone else is feeling. Do not offer platitudes. More than anything else, be kind. Kindness was the only balm to my heart after Tony died. Again and again, I found myself cracked open by it as family, friends, co-workers, and people I only know online reached out to me. I have written before about grace, and I still feel that I am surrounded by it.   Don’t underestimate the power of a kind word and an open heart. They can work wonders.

Let the World Burn Through You

FADE IN

The other day a writer friend of mine sent me a message asking me to read a short story he’d written. Before I read it, we chatted a bit – he’s a screenwriter, someone Tony and I met online but never in person. The conversation turned to screenwriting.  I told him I hadn’t done any since Tony died, and he told me there was a script he’d been wanting to write for a long time but hadn’t, yet.  We agreed that we’d encourage each other to write and submit our screenplays to the Austin Film Festival’s screenwriting contest next year, and reward ourselves with a trip to the festival to meet some other screenwriter friends.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? I mean, I’ve been writing so much lately. Writing one little screenplay shouldn’t be that big a deal. That’s what I tell myself… so why do I feel almost panicked when I think about writing a feature on my own?

I’ve done a lot of thinking about that this past week. I’m not afraid of writing. I’ve written two novels. I wrote 30,000 words in the last five days. I know I’m a good writer, and I’m not afraid of hard work. That means it’s not any of those things causing the panic.

What it is, I think, is that I have never written a feature-length screenplay by myself. I’ve only done it with a partner. I’ve only done it with Tony. I’ve written short scripts on my own, but those were all very short. A maximum of five pages. That’s part of the panic – the knowledge that this is, in some ways, uncharted territory for me.

There’s something else, though. Tony was a very good writer, funny and with a real gift for giving every character a unique voice. He had this huge talent, but his self-esteem was low. His ego was so fragile. When we first started writing together, we used to outline the story and then write in shifts. We’d carve out chunks of time – a half an hour apiece – and one of us would sit at the computer and write as much as we could in that period. The deal we made before we started was that when one of us took over from the other, we would just read, not edit. It was meant to be a free-flowing thing, only Tony could never do that. Every single time, when I would go back into the room after he’d been writing, I would find that he’d made all kinds of little tweaks and changes to what I’d written. I know he didn’t mean it to have this effect, but it crushed me.

In 2006, Tony quit his job to write full time. I kept my job in finance. At first, I would get home from work and even though Tony had been writing all day, we would still write together. Gradually, though, his self-esteem grew more and more dependent on being able to do all of it himself. He felt a responsibility to be able to make our shared dream come true for both of us, and there was very little room for me in that equation. I hardly wrote at all. I was still part of the outlining process, and I edited and occasionally suggested changes. I called myself a screenwriter, but I wasn’t. I felt like a fraud.

It’s perhaps not surprising that I’m feeling more mired in grief than I have in a while. The second anniversary of Tony’s death is approaching. I am not as lost as I was at this time last year, but it is a melancholy time for me. I find myself crying more frequently than I have in months. I am dreaming about Tony again, which I haven’t done in a while. There are moments when I’ve been able to tell myself that the worst of the grieving is over, but what I’m realizing now is I still have a very long way to go. I have spent so much time grieving my husband that I’ve barely allowed myself to touch on the fact that I lost my writing partner too. Screenwriting was always our shared dream, and if it’s going to happen for me now it has to be my dream. Perhaps part of me doesn’t want it to be mine alone. I want to be able to continue to think of it as ours, but it can never be that.

These things, all taken together, explain my panicked feeling when I consider stepping back into screenwriting. There is some deep part of me that fears that I can’t do it, that I’m not a good enough SCREENwriter, to make it happen. That I squandered whatever gift I had for this form by taking a back seat to Tony all those years. I don’t want to think that I’ve lost screenwriting forever, so I’m pushing my fears down and moving forward. I have so many wonderful friends who are screenwriters – not just the friend whose challenge made me consider this step, but dozens of others who I know will cheer me on, give me notes, and remind me why I fell in love with screenwriting in the first place. They all have their own lives, with their own families and jobs and friends and writing. Yet I know they will make a space for me at the table. They’ve stuck with me, even as I’ve stayed away from the kind of writing that brought us together in the first place.

I’m going to do this. I’m going to take the Young Adult novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo last year and I’m going to turn it into a screenplay. It’s a story that deals with mental illness and suicide, so I have no doubt that I will cry and cry as I break the story down and build it back up again. I’m under no illusion that it will be easy, but I am putting a quote by Ray Bradbury above my desk and I’m going to push through it. It’s going to hurt, but I’m going to let the world burn through me. In the end, it’s what I was meant to do.

 

“Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper. ~ Ray Bradbury

We Are the Dreamers of Dreams

The first time I said “I want to be a writer,” I was seven years old. I’d just finished reading Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.” Reading that book was a rite of passage for me. It was the first real novel I ever read. I read a copy that belonged to my mother. I still remember its plain, dark blue cover, its slightly yellowed pages and its musty smell. I remember sitting near the window of the house we lived in, on Mayflower Street in Plymouth, with the sun splashed across me and the book, crying bitter angry tears when Beth died. I identified so strongly with Jo that it was like I’d lost my own little sister – and I have two of them, so putting myself in her grieving shoes was easy. Even as I cried, I felt a sort of wonder that I could be weeping over the death of someone I didn’t know. A book had never done that to me before.

As much as I loved the rest of the book, the ending – when Professor Bhaer comes to deliver Jo’s manuscript to her – was a revelation to me. Even though I knew Jo was a writer, I hadn’t made the connection between Jo and Louisa May Alcott. Too inexperienced a reader, I suppose, even though I was a voracious one. I can still feel the thrill that swept through my body as I looked at the book in my hands and thought, “THIS is the book she wrote!” The next thought came just as quickly: I want to be a writer. Then I did something that I’ve done over and over again, when I’ve finished reading a book that gets under my skin in some way. I clutched the book to my chest. I still do it – not with every book, but when it’s one I’ve loved, one that cuts me to the quick? I do it.

In the years following that first reading of “Little Women,” I wrote a lot. I wrote poems, short stories, plays. Writing a novel still seemed too intimidating to me. But gradually, my writing slowed. I kept a journal sporadically, and I always loved writing, but I wrote less. I realize now that my journal-keeping has been, in the past, strongly linked to how I felt about my life in general. I could write about painful things, but if they got too painful or if I didn’t want to examine them too closely, I stopped writing.

The second time I said, “I want to be a writer” I was in my late twenties. I had just started a new job, and my co-worker Susanne was a writer. She wrote short stories and had a novel in progress, I think. She talked about it a lot, and her passion for it made me remember how much I loved writing. I pulled out an old copy of Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones” (to this day, still my favorite book about writing EVER) and read it. I started doing daily writing exercises. I did journal entries and free writes. I wrote terrible short stories. Then I started writing better short stories. My friend Julie started a magazine and I wrote film and book reviews for her, and a piece about 9/11. I lost my job and picked up a couple of freelance writing gigs for local non-profit groups. I started a novel.

I met Tony in June of 2003. He had just written his first screenplay and was getting started on his second. At the beginning, he helped clarify that voice inside of me. He had the same passion for writing that I had. We moved to San Diego. When we wrote our first screenplay together we drafted it in shifts, each of us sitting at the computer for thirty minutes and seeing how far we could get. There were particular characters I remember being able to hear very clearly. We developed a writing process that worked for us as a team.

When Tony quit his job to write full time, it seemed like the right thing for both of us. Even though his paranoia was not yet at the terrifying level that it would later reach, he still had a hard time interacting with people. I pushed to the back of my mind any idea that I was giving up my dream of writing by letting him pursue his. As much as I wanted to write, his self-esteem was tied to being able to do enough to let us both make it as screenwriters. I wrote less and less. I still did the overwhelming majority of the outlining and character development, and I turned into a ruthlessly efficient editor. But when it came to the meaty part of screenwriting, I took a back seat to Tony.

As Tony’s illness worsened, I stopped keeping a journal. I had no desire to examine my life, nor was I able to admit how unhappy I was. I did little bits of writing here and there, but I wasn’t living as if I wanted to be a writer. I was living to survive.

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that the day after Tony died I picked up a notebook and brought it with me when I left our apartment for the last time. I started keeping a journal again. I started this blog. I wrote a novel last November. In spite of all that, though, I still wasn’t saying those words again. I was still holding back. I was working the same day job I’d worked all those years while Tony pursued his dream of writing, and mine languished.

The third time I said “I want to be a writer” I said those words with a vengeance. I am saying them every day. I said those words to myself when my boss gave me an ultimatum about moving back to San Diego. I said them when I got a freelance job writing an ebook. I said them when I told my boss, at the end of last month, that I would not be moving back to San Diego. I told him that I was going to be a writer.

Today is my last full day working at Primary Funding, the company I’ve worked for since December of 2003. I’ll be on call for another month to answer questions and help them with the transition, but as of tomorrow I am a full-time freelance writer. In the past three weeks or so I have written 6 short ebooks and a magazine article, and I am halfway through ghostwriting a novel. I have several sources of steady work, and although I imagine it will take me a while to earn the kind of money I was earning before, I am finally – FINALLY – being paid to do work I love. It’s been 39 years since I first said those words to myself, and at last my dream is on the front burner, on high heat. My heart is about to explode.

You guys. I AM A WRITER.

Rhonda Elkins was 54 years old

Rhonda

I wish I didn’t have to write this post. I don’t want it to be true.

I met Rhonda on the Alliance of Hope forum shortly after I started this blog. She had lost her beloved daughter, Kaitlyn, to suicide in April of 2013. She was heartbroken. She had struggled with depression herself and her daughter’s death made that struggle harder.

She sent me a private message because she wanted to start a blog of her own. I directed her to WordPress and walked her through the process, and then I read the beautiful love letters she wrote to Kaitlyn.

I found out today that Rhonda ended her own life on August 29th.

This news is devastating. I did not know Rhonda well, but I understood her pain as much as it is ever possible to understand something so personal. When I read her posts on the forum, or her blog, I ached for her loss and wished that I could somehow bring Kaitlyn back to her. She was kind to me at a time when kindness was the only balm for my soul. In spite of her own suffering, she reached out to so many people on the forum with words of comfort and hope.

She leaves behind her husband and another daughter. I cannot begin to imagine what this must be like for them.

Her name was Rhonda Elkins. She was 54 years old.

An open letter to my grief

blue gift

Dear Grief,

You’ve been here for a while now, and while I wish you would leave it seems that’s not an option. I hope you’re not planning to stay forever, but you are the Kato Kaelin of emotions. You’ve taken up residence in my guest house and no amount of persuasion will get you to leave. I wish I could say I’m enjoying your company, but I’m really not. You’re not that pleasant to be around.  

Here’s the thing, Grief. I really actually sort of hate you. Don’t take that the wrong way. It’s not your fault, exactly. Well, okay, it IS, but you can’t help who you are. Can you? CAN YOU?! Because if you can, I’d like to cordially invite you to cut it out. You’re on my last nerve, Grief, and I’m sick of the sight of you. You have on occasion spurred my creativity, but I was creative before I met you and I’ll be creative after you leave. You are leaving eventually, right? Because I’m not even charging you rent and you never clean up after yourself and did I mention you are the overflowing toilet of emotions?

Grief – are you listening to me? Pay attention when I talk to you! Seriously, you are the misbehaving toddler of emotions. I would like to hit you but that wouldn’t be appropriate and it wouldn’t teach you anything, either. I’d like to give you a time out but that doesn’t seem to work. There is always something there to remind me, so even when I’m watching The Princess Bride in the park, there are lines of dialogue about suicide and goofy emcees named Tony and people kissing and… I mean, how do you have SO many people working for you? I’m sure you’re not paying them well. I’m sure you don’t give them any vacation time. You are the Ebenezer Scrooge of emotions, Grief, and NOBODY likes a miser.

And yet… even with all your faults, Grief, you have been unexpectedly good to me. Oh, you’re surprised? Well maybe you should be, given how I’ve railed against you and cursed your name. I would be remiss not to acknowledge the fact that you are the misguided but generous fairy godmother of emotions. You bestow the kind of gift that is not recognizable as such when first unwrapped. How could I have known, at the time, that the howl of pain that escaped from me when I first learned that Tony was dead was the beginning of me reclaiming my life? It did not look like a gift. It did not feel like one. It still doesn’t at times; but in my clearer moments, when I am not on the floor and in tears, I can look at the road I have traveled and see its beauties.

I can see the love and compassion and grace of my friends and family, and of acquaintances, and of strangers. I can see the bonds that join me to those people and feel how much stronger they are than they were, before. I can see that the world is overflowing with love, if we only let ourselves recognize it. I can feel the expansion of my own heart, how much easier it is for me now to extend compassion and love to others without fear of hurt or rejection. It’s not that I want to be hurt, it’s simply that I know I can survive it. I also know that a life lived without the risk of pain is not worth living. I know now that my heart is an ocean, a universe. You gave me that, Grief.

I look at the scars you have given me and they are medals of valor, awarded by you on the field of battle. Even as you flayed me and burned me and wrung me out, you decorated me with reminders of how hard-won happiness can be. I’m sure I will have days in the future when I look at these scars and regret them, but in this moment I am proud to wear them. Thank you, Grief. Thank you.

Back in the middle of things

I’ve started and discarded three or four different blog posts in the past few days, unable to put my arms around what it’s been like for me, this past week. I know my experience is not unique, because I’ve talked to other suicide survivors and many of the things I am feeling appear to be universal. Yet, how to describe them?

Robin Williams’ death has put me in a very strange place. I know, logically, that I am here in Washington; it has been nearly 20 months since Tony died; I have come a long way since then. I know these things. They are true. Yet at the same time I am aware that I am here, in my apartment, I have also been there. That night.

I never really understood until I lost Tony what post-traumatic stress was. I had read descriptions, of course, and seen depictions on film. I knew that people described it as being back in the middle of the traumatic event itself. I somehow, though, thought that it was more like a nightmare than a reality. That PTSD was akin to a bad dream.

It’s not. It’s worse. When I heard the news about Robin Williams I was transported, with no chance to kick and scream my way out of it, back to that December evening. I’m not talking about a memory. I mean that it felt like I was there. I could feel – actually feel – the cold concrete steps beneath me. I could hear the glass in our bedroom window breaking. I could smell the air. I could see one police officer in front of me, my friend next to me. I could see the other police officer, the one who’d broken into the apartment, crouching next to me. I could hear those six horrible words that changed everything. I could hear the howl that came out of me, feel my friend’s hand clutching mine.

Over and over this week, I have revisited that day. I wish I could stop. I can sometimes pull myself out of it, a bit, by pressing my hands against my chest and reminding myself that I am not there. I feel like an open wound. Part of me is relieved that people are talking about mental illness and suicide in a way that seems to be… maybe… a little different. Part of me is devastated because there is still so much ignorance and judgment. I’ve been in a few conversations, in blog comments or Facebook status updates, that have just cracked me open. One was with a woman who insisted that suicide is a sin, and that people who die that way will be judged. She seemed pretty happy to judge them herself, all in the name of religion, of course. I wonder whether it’s actually healthy for me to talk to people like that, but then I think, if I don’t, who will? I don’t think I changed her mind, but at the same time when I come across ignorance like that, how can I stay silent?

I was hoping I would feel better this week, or at least MORE better than I do. I am still raw and hurting. I feel like I’ve been scraped all over, flayed open. I ache. Right after Tony died, I was in a fog. Here and now, the fog has dissipated and it can’t protect me. I have only the harsh glare of reality.

No room for ignorance or shame

no more shame

The discussions following Robin Williams’ suicide are both encouraging, in that people are actually talking about mental illness and suicide; and horrifying, in that there is still so much ignorance and misinformation out there.

I am talking about the Fox News anchor who called Robin Williams a coward, on the air.  I expect ignorance from Fox News, so perhaps I shouldn’t have gasped the way I did when I read that.  I did, though, because to me ignorance – especially wilful ignorance – will always be shocking.

I am talking about the many, many comments I have seen on Facebook and in news articles about his death calling him selfish.  It’s not that I don’t understand these sentiments.  I understand them all too well.  I spent the first six months after Tony died in a white-hot rage, and I acknowledge that I called him selfish and a lot of other things during that time.  It’s a natural reaction to suicide.  It feels like something that’s been done TO the survivors.  I get that, I truly do.  Yet that perception, as true as it feels to those left behind, is not helpful.  It only further stigmatizes people who already feel alone.

I might have blogged about this anyway – I probably would have – but then I saw a reference to another blog, and when I went looking for it, the breadth of ignorance did more than make me gasp.  It knocked the wind out of me and made me see red, all at once.

I am not going to link to the blog here, because the blogger in question – his name is Matt Walsh – would like that too much.  If you want to go look him up, feel free.  He’s an ignoramus, so be forewarned.

This is a small taste – and I apologize for the rank flavor, but I can’t rebut him without quoting at least a bit of what he wrote – of what he had to say about Robin Williams, and about suicide in general:

“The final refusal to see the worth in anything, or the beauty, or the reason, or the point, or the hope. The willingness to saddle your family with the pain and misery and anger that will now plague them for the rest of their lives.”

The ignorance and sanctimony are breathtaking, aren’t they?  Tony didn’t REFUSE to see the worth in anything, or the beauty.  He was not ABLE to see them, because his mental illness was so severe.  He did not do what he did to burden me with grief and sadness, he did it to end his own pain.  Although I never met him, I feel confident saying that the same is true of Robin Williams.  I think he fought his mental illnesses for a long time, and they just got to be too much for him.

Walsh goes on to say:

“It’s a tragic choice, truly, but it is a choice, and we have to remember that. Your suicide doesn’t happen to you; it doesn’t attack you like cancer or descend upon you like a tornado. It is a decision made by an individual. A bad decision. Always a bad decision.”

In the sense that ultimately, Tony was the instrument of his own death, I sort of understand what he’s saying here.  And yet, again, he’s wrong.  Suicide may not attack you like cancer, but depression does.  Bipolar disorder does.  Schizophrenia does.  So-called mental illnesses are diseases of the brain, a solid organ in our bodies.  In that sense, they are not different from cancer or diabetes or congestive heart failure.  The sad truth is that sometimes our bodies turn on us.  They are, in the end, vulnerable vessels, and susceptible to all kinds of intrusions and malfunctions.  The brain is no different.

Where mental illness DOES differ from cancer or the other diseases I mentioned is in the way it is perceived, and treated.  When a woman finds a lump in her breast, she is expected to go to the doctor.  If she has insurance, her insurance will cover that treatment, probably with few limitations.  She will certainly not be made to feel that her ailment is different from any other disease.  She will not be stigmatized for seeking treatment.  She will not be met with any suggestion that positive thinking or willpower will cure her.  She will find support everywhere: pink everything, walks for the cure, millions of dollars of research money and a whole month of heightened awareness, every single year.

A person suffering from any form of mental illness has none of those things.  He is lucky if even a portion of his treatment will be covered, and if it is, it may only be covered on an emergent basis.  If routine care – meaning psychiatric treatment or therapy — is covered, it is often covered at a reduced percentage and carries with it a stigma that lingers even in our post-Prozac world.  He may be told, by well-intentioned individuals, that he should just go for a walk every day, or focus on happy thoughts.  He may be told that the way he is feeling is HIS fault, which of course will do very little by way of empowering him to seek treatment.  If it’s his fault, after all, shouldn’t HE be able to fix it?  Alone?  In the end, if he takes his own life, he is more alone than at any other time.  Clearly, he was not able to fix it.

One final rancid tidbit from Mr. Walsh:

“Second, we can debate medication dosages and psychotherapy treatments, but, in the end, joy is the only thing that defeats depression.”

Right.  It’s just that easy. If only Tony could have rustled up some joy out of thin air, if only he could have silenced the voices in his head and the crushing weight of despair and just latched on to some ethereal passing JOY, then he’d still be here.  There are things I will never understand about Tony and why he did what he did, but I’ll tell you this: if he could have done that, he would have.  Period.  And so would Robin Williams.  And so would the one million people every single year who take their own lives.

Suicide is a tragedy, both for the person who takes his own life and for those he leaves behind.  It is preventable, but not with platitudes about joy and mind over matter.  It is preventable, sometimes, with treatment and awareness and medicine.  Not everyone who has cancer dies.  Not everyone who has suicidal thoughts dies, either.  I’ve mentioned this statistic before, but I will say it again because it bears repeating.  More people die of suicide in the United States every year than die in car accidents.  In 2011, the last year for which figures are available, 39,518 people in the United States took their own lives.  The total who died in automobile accidents in that same period is 32,479.  Over 700,000 people are treated in emergency rooms every year for self-inflicted injuries, and that’s in the United States alone.  The estimated number of suicides per year worldwide is over a million.  That number, as horrifying as it is, is probably low because of the stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide.  Even in the United States, some states – like Texas – don’t report figures on military suicide.

Here is what I ask.  Close your eyes, just for a minute, and try to imagine what would happen if insurers declared that they would no longer cover treatments for injuries received in car accidents.  What would happen if they announced that treatment for breast cancer would be reduced, that there would be caps on the number of chemo treatments that a patient could receive?  This is not a difficult question.  There would be howls of outrage, a genuine uprising as people all over the country cried out with one voice against the injustice of it.  Then ask yourself, where is the outrage over mental illness treatment?  Why are families teetering on the edge of bankruptcy to get a beloved child the treatment she needs?  Why are we telling our most fragile and scared people to just snap out of it?

Matt Walsh is an ass, but I’m actually weirdly grateful for his blog post, just as I was for Martha Beck’s glib comments about suicide last year.  Public ignorance is so much easier to battle.