My life inside the winter machine

“And it felt like a winter machine that you go through and then/ you catch your breath and winter starts again/ and everyone else is spring-bound”

That’s Dar Williams’ song “After All,” and those lyrics are about her own battle with depression.  I want to talk about living inside that winter machine (and for all of you who watched General Hospital back in the 80’s, relax.  This has nothing to do with Mikkos Cassadine.  I promise.)  What it’s about is what it’s really like to live with a depressed person.  It’s easy, when someone you love dies, to gloss over the hard parts and idolize them.  I want to speak truth about Tony, because he deserves that.  I want to speak truth, because I deserve it.  I need to speak it, because someone does and because so few people talk honestly about mental illness and what it’s like.  I loved Tony.  I will always love him.  But the truth is that there were many times that living with him just felt like hard, heartbreaking work.

I think Dar’s description is such a good one.  I lived with Tony for almost ten years, and during that time I watched him go into that winter machine, come out, and go right back in again.  Good things — fun times with friends, watching a great movie, screenwriting successes, holidays, play time with the cats, a beautiful day outdoors – slipped through his fingers like air.  The bad things stuck. 

It often felt to me that the things that he spent the most energy being upset about were those that seemed minor to me.  Really big events, things that anybody would react badly to, didn’t get to him in the same way.  We were in a car accident once.  He was upset, yes, but it didn’t seem to pull him down the way other things did.  In some ways it brought out his better qualities.  He was protective of me, efficient with the other driver and the insurance company and the body shop.  His mom got sick.  Yes, he was sad and scared and all of the things that any of us would be, but he still seemed able to function.  His emotions were something he could control in those situations.  But if the car door got closed the wrong way, or a neighbor made a loud noise while he was doing something that he needed to concentrate on, he would lose all rationality.  He would want to talk about it over and over, for days on end.  I would start off patient and understanding, and we would have the same conversation 99 times.  The hundredth time (or sometimes, to be honest, the thirtieth time, or the tenth) I would let my frustration, my helplessness, and yes, my anger at the situation, show.  At those times he felt I was his enemy.  If only I could be the type of person who would say X, Y or Z (not coincidentally, the things I DID say the first 99 times) then he would be fine; but no, I didn’t do that, I got mad and that was just mean.  I couldn’t understand the storm inside his head, and he didn’t have the words to explain it to me. 

I wanted to help him.  I felt like it was my job to help him.  Part of that is my own issue to deal with, why I feel that I need to take on such burdens, that I need to fix other people’s problems for them.  But part of it is also that he wanted me to help him.  He wanted me to be wife, friend, writing partner, nurse, psychiatrist, and priest.  He wanted me to know the right thing to say or do, and he wanted to believe that if only I did know it, all would be well.  Trying to get my arms around his anger and his fear and his needs?  Well, it was like trying to hug a dinosaur.  It was slippery and had claws and teeth and it didn’t want to be soothed, dammit, except when it did.

Loving someone who’s depressed is scary.  It’s like walking a tightrope suspended over eggshells suspended over the Grand Canyon.  As the non-depressed person, you try to balance, struggle to keep everything in line and calm and even.  You try to be compassionate and understanding, all the while pushing your own needs to the side because that other person?  Their needs are HUGE.  Their needs are all-encompassing, and in the end, does it really matter if you’ve taken care of yourself if they fall off the cliff?  I used to lie awake nights, afraid that if I closed my eyes and slept I would waken to horror.  I’m not only talking suicide – although that, of course, was the BIG bad fear that I carried around – I’m just talking about going to sleep with things in balance, and waking up with them out of balance.  About having to get out of bed, square my shoulders and figure out how to get through this day.  One more hard winter day in an endless string of them.

Here, where I am now, the days are lengthening.  Flowers and leaves are making their first shy steps into the world while birds and tree frogs sing a full-throated chorus of welcome.  I have yearned for spring such a long time, yet I’m not ready to say goodbye to winter.  I lived there with someone I loved. 

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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Sunday I wrote about the script Tony left open for me.  Today I want to talk about the movie made from that script, and the interpretation that I am applying to my own life. 

The six words “eternal sunshine of the spotless mind” are from a poem by Alexander Pope, Eloisa to Abelard:

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!

The film, for those who don’t know, is about a company called Lacuna that can erase a person from another person’s memory.  After a painful breakup, Clementine has Joel erased from her mind and when he finds out, he retaliates and begins to have her erased.  But somehow, the process of erasure – the gradual eradication of all the memories, good and bad – makes him fall in love with her all over again.  At that point the movie becomes a race through Joel’s mind, as he tries desperately to find a place to hide his precious memories before they are all, irretrievably, gone.

His effort fails, and his memory of her is gone.  Or is it?  At the end of the process, as his memory of meeting her blows away in the Montauk breezes, she whispers to him something she never said in life: Meet me in Montauk.  The next morning he awakens, ditches work for reasons he doesn’t understand, and takes the train to Montauk.  And there, he meets (or re-meets) Clementine.

I love this film so much, because to me the message is that love, even when it hurts, is worth it.  That you can’t have the good parts of another person without accepting the flawed parts too.  We can close ourselves off to hurt, but if we do that, we are also shutting out the possibility of joy. 

I could shut out my memories of Tony, good and bad, in an effort to heal myself.  I have struggled to even remember the good times.  The day we met online.  Our first conversation, when he charmed me and made me laugh with his spot-on impression of Cary Grant, with whom he shared a birthday.  Our first date. Our first kiss.  Our drive cross-country, reading Mark Helprin’s “Winter’s Tale” out loud and listening to the one CD we had with us.  Unbeknownst to me, he’d kept Dar Williams’ “The Beauty of the Rain” unpacked because he knew I loved her music, and forevermore that CD will be the soundtrack of our trip.  Because if I remember those good times, I also have to remember the frightening meltdown he had in Laramie, Wyoming when our trailer hit a speed bump, hard.  I have to remember the times that he was in such a dark place I was afraid he would never come out.  The times he struggled with his ability to trust other people, or wanted to stay away from our friends.  The times we fought and his angry words hurt me, and mine hurt him back. 

In the end, I don’t want to forget the good times.  I don’t even want to forget the bad times, not really.  They were part of our story.  They are.  They always will be.  So my decision regarding that script is to hold it in my heart as an expression of love for me.  To imagine that his thoughts were of me, that he was asking me not to forget him.  Not to let go of any of the memories.  To accept that, although he was choosing to write a tragic end for our love story, it is still a love story. 

The note he didn’t write

“I love you. I’m sorry. Goodbye.”

Tony was a word-person, like me.  He crafted words so carefully, and worked such magic with them.  His dialogue, in particular, was stellar.  Other writers always commented on it when we workshopped our scripts.  He had a knack for making each character’s voice completely unique, of knowing how this person (a person we created out of thin air) would speak, what they would say in a particular situation.  He often said, regardless of whether any of them ever saw the silver screen, that the scripts we wrote together would be his legacy.

In the end, though, in the final moments of his life, he wrote nothing.  He said nothing.  He left no words behind for me.  The six words at the top of this post would at least have been something.  It’s not that having words, having a note, would have made it easier.  No, nothing could have done that.  But it would have been something concrete to hold on to.  Some indication that he cared, that he thought about me, that he thought about what that moment when I found out what he had done would be like, for me.

He left other things.  A locked deadbolt – and for that, I will be forever grateful, because it meant I didn’t find him dead.  I couldn’t get in, and had to call 911.  A briefcase with some old work papers.  Next to that, a screenplay — one we didn’t write — open on the bed.  A mug that I bought him for Christmas a few years ago.  Two terrified cats.  A bedroom full of broken glass from where the police had to break the window.  A scared, lonely and bewildered wife standing in the wreckage, wondering where it had all gone wrong.

I know, of course, that he could not have been rational in that moment.  That he was not thinking about anything other than ending his own pain.  I know, too, that if he had put pen to paper before he ended his life, what he wrote might not have been a comfort at all.  The grass is always greener, and the words are always the right ones, on the other side of the fence.

The screenplay he left open was for one of our favorite movies, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  He left it open to a particular page, and that night, when I went into the apartment and hugged his still body through the body bag and found that script, I had my first moment of fury.  It was open to a page where the couple at the center of the film, Joel and Clementine, take turns pretending to smother each other with a pillow.  It’s a playful dynamic between the two of them, but my grieving heart interpreted it as a slap in my face.  I threw the script across the room. 

The truth is, I will never know what he meant by that script, that page.  It may have nothing to do with anything, and part of my healing process has to be accepting that there is no way for me to know what he meant.  Part, too, is allowing myself to embrace an interpretation that heals me.  To be continued…

The stages of grief

Shock. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Grieving. Acceptance.

They say… someone says… that those six words describe the experience of grieving. The six stages of grief. People talk about them as if they were linear. You check Shock off the list, and proceed in an orderly fashion directly to Denial, as if moving through a security checkpoint at the airport. Remove your Denial, place it on the conveyor belt, and walk right on through to Anger. If only it were that simple, that systematic. Who wishes that something could be as easy as airport security?

Not a day has gone by that I haven’t been shocked. I will never understand why Tony did what he did. Not a day has gone by that I have not denied it, sometimes quietly in my journal or in bed at night. Sometimes with a howl of pain that shakes the windows and scares the dogs.

Anger? Oh anger doesn’t come close to encompassing what I feel. Such a small word, only five letters. RAGE is a bigger word, in spite of being a letter shorter. FURY, too. Yes, I am furious. I am rageful. I am righteously and royally PISSED OFF that my husband, the man I loved, did this TO ME. Because of course that’s what it feels like, that he did it to me. It is so personal, suicide, for the people left behind.

Bargaining is something you do at a flea market or a bazaar. I wouldn’t even know what to offer in trade for Tony’s life. What do I have that’s big enough?

Grieving is different when someone kills himself. Grief is not a pure thing, after suicide. It is a muddy, mixed-up, stormy thing. It’s in a giant stew with anger and guilt and relief – because living with a depressed person, even if you love them with your whole soul, is HARD. I’m not relieved he’s dead. Never, ever that. But I am sometimes relieved that I am not, every second of the day, worrying that he’ll slip over the edge, off the cliff, away. That’s happened. The worst has happened. The guilt is there because I tried so hard, but how can I ever know that I tried hard enough? How can I ever be sure? If I had said something different, done something different, would it have made a difference? It is easy, SO easy, for me to reassure the other people who loved him that there is nothing they could have done. It is so impossibly hard to do myself the same kindness.

Acceptance is unfathomable. People say it will come to me, some day. They say it, I nod and pretend to believe. I can’t feel it. Not yet.

I never knew this is what it would be like to grieve someone so close to me. I never wanted to know. Even now, in the midst of it, knowing is a slippery thing. I think I have a handle on it, and then it evades me again, presents me with some new horror, some new nightmare, some new sadness that hadn’t occurred to me before. Yesterday I changed my profile picture on Facebook and then cried for half an hour because putting up the new picture meant switching it from the old one, the one of Tony and me on our wedding day outside the County Clerk’s office. I want to remember that day with purity, with clarity. I want to focus on the way he smiled at me when he said his vows, the way I smiled back through tears. The brunch we had afterwards, the surprise champagne my family sent. The pictures we took of each other at La Jolla Cove. The truth is, that day no longer feels real to me. It all feels like a lie. I know that’s not accurate. I just need to figure out a way to tell my heart.

The still point

How can I write about that moment?  The moment that my life, as I knew it, imploded and became a smoking, unrecognizable crater?  Words are my tools of choice, but they fail me.  Maybe if I start with numbers, I can find a way into that moment.  The still point.

Three thousand fifty-nine days of marriage.  Nine years, six months and fifteen days since we met.  Track 1 at North Station in Boston.  Three thousand miles.  Fourteen feature-length screenplays.  Three television scripts.  Two cats.  A million “I love you”s.  Eight months of almost unbearable stress and worry.  Ten increasingly frantic phone calls.

Three police officers.

Six words: “My dear, he took his life.”

One husband, gone forever.  One forty-four year old widow.  A billion questions, and zero answers.

In the end, one unshakable, unfathomable truth.  For reasons I will probably never comprehend, on December 21st my husband, Tony, killed himself.  He struggled with depression as long as I knew him.  He would not seek treatment, in spite of my pleas.  I felt that it was my job to help him, to keep his head above water even as I felt my own strength fading.  I feel now, although everyone around me tells me this is not the case, that I failed.  I struggle with every breath (every breath he will never breathe again) to accept, to understand that I will never understand.

He was my husband, my writing partner, my friend.  He was my love and my frustration and my inspiration.  He was so much, good and talented and funny, and yet angry and tormented and sad and lost.

He is gone.  I am here, at the still point.  Somehow I have to deal with the endless waves of emotion that swamp me.  Sadness, despair, guilt, anger – so much anger – and relief and (maybe scariest of all) hope.  Hope.

A still point can be an ending.  But it is also a beginning.  Ripples are spreading out from that point in time.  Those six words that changed everything.  That one moment.  They spread out across the dark and silent water that I must cross.  There is no way to tell where those ripples will lead me.

But I trust them.