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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20 thoughts on “My life inside the winter machine

  1. I actually have to repeat myself in the same with our mother. Its like they fixate on something and its near impossible to get them beyond that point.

    • I know, I see quite a few similarities. Maybe that’s why Tony was able to get through to your mom about things sometimes. They were on the same wavelength.

    • Thanks, Dana. There’s something about writing it down that is such a relief. I feel like I’m honoring Tony and his struggle in a way that I couldn’t while he was alive. xo

  2. Spring comes whether you want it to or not. And winter always seems not so bad once it’s warm again. You’re doing good, hard work, lady. xoxo

  3. wow this is amazing. The last paragraph really got to me, and also your dinosaur analogy in the 4th. It is really thought provoking and there are a million things I want to say about it, but I feel it would be taking all the power away from it to do so, so I will simply say well done.

    • Thank you Molly — thanks for the encouragement and the kind words. This is my first big writing project without Tony in almost ten years, and while I miss him like crazy it feels really good to be doing this.

  4. “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.”

    How true this can be for all of us, if we let it. It can be so easy to lose perspective, sometimes. Thanks, Aimee, for your beautiful words!

  5. Tony was such a friend. We were both so shy in high school and he always would just appear when I had no one to walk with. We had a miserable Spanish teacher, and he always would end up next to me in class. His expressions would make me laugh and not feel so strange. You are truly amazing. Your words are so clear and you are honoring him with your honestly as well as helping yourself. My brother passed last fall. His wife is lost, however, she is not being honest with her feelings. It just makes acceptance much harder. It is not easy, but your truth will set you free. Thank you, Aimee. You are so amazing.

    • I can’t thank you enough for this comment, Amy. I didn’t know Tony when he was in high school, but I can easily imagine that he would have sought out another shy student and tried to put her at ease. That was Tony at his best. He always identified with the people at the outskirts of any situation, and it was unusual to feel like part of the inner circle even when he was. But he always, ALWAYS, would reach out when he noticed somebody else feeling that way. Even at the worst of times, he could always make me laugh, so I can just imagine his facial expressions in Spanish class.

      I am so sorry about your brother. I hope your sister-in-law finds the healing she needs. Writing about this is so painful, but I think if I didn’t it would be much harder. Everybody comes to healing in their own way, I hope she finds hers soon. Thanks again for reading and commenting.

  6. No, Aimee, thank you! I think of you often. Not exactly sure why, but feel it is because he reached out to me when I needed..I was ALWAYS in the outskirts in high school. My brother and I were in the same class. He was very popular and very good at sports. Me…not so much!
    Just know that Tony truly loves you, too! When he found me on facebook, he told me he “married his best friend”. I was so glad he reached out, again, and that he found you.
    My brother was in a lot of pain, too. Hoping they are both at peace. Please keep writing as I truly enjoy reading. Big hugs. If you are in MA in May, please let me know. I would love to meet and have a meal together.
    I clicked so I will know of your responses:)

    • Amy, I’m so glad you and Tony reconnected too, and knowing he told you that he married his best friend… well that made me cry, but in a good way. I don’t know when I will be back in Massachusetts, but I hope sometime soon. I am definitely planning a trip this summer, just not sure of the exact dates yet. I will let you know — I would love to meet you.

  7. Hi Aimee. I saw your post on MP and read some of your blog. It really hit home for me because my 18 year old daughter suffers from depression. She’s had several suicide attempts, she’s been in and out of crisis centers. I’m afraid every day. I’ve come to realize that all I can do is show her I love her. That’s it and that’s a hard truth because I know it’s not enough.

    Keep writing. It’s my therapy as well. 🙂

    Marnie (Nicole is my pen name for my non-screenwriting stuff)

    • Thanks Marnie, for reading and commenting. I’m sorry to hear that your daughter is struggling with depression — it is a beast, that’s for sure. I think if you show her love that’s the best thing you can do for her. You’re right that by itself, it’s not enough; but the fact that she feels your love may keep her going for the help she needs. I hope it does.

      I will keep writing. It’s helped me so much already, to put my truth out into the world. I hope to see you on MP.

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