For a very long time, I have felt that I didn’t – or rather, couldn’t – own my own feelings. I spent my time and energy trying to cover them up. I hid them from Tony because if he sensed even the slightest bit of frustration or anger at the situation, it immediately became anger at him, personal and unkind and “Why do you have to be my enemy?” That’s how he saw it. He didn’t like it if I raised my voice, but he didn’t hear me any other way. Truth be told, he didn’t hear me even when I yelled. All he heard was that now I had involved other people in our personal problems, and that, of course, was the big taboo. Nobody could know what was going on.
Toward the end, when he was spinning into darkness, he didn’t even like it if we were having a conversation in public and I used my hands to gesture too dramatically. I don’t really know what that was about, truth be told. A few times I tried to joke him out of it. “You’re Italian. I’m Italian by marriage! We’re supposed to talk with our hands.” A couple of times that did actually make him laugh, but not always.
I hid what was inside of me, too, from my family and my friends. I glossed over – no, let’s be honest – I flat-out lied about the status of my marriage, about how Tony was doing, about how I was doing. I lied because the truth was so excruciatingly painful. I wanted my marriage to work, and I truly loved Tony, so I stayed even as it seemed that the road just got harder and darker, with more and more pitfalls and dangers along the way. I kept all of that inside, not even admitting it to myself. I believe that’s why I stopped keeping a journal. Writing it down would have made it real, and if it was real? Well, then my life was a terrible, scary, unmanageable place and how could I deal with that? So the only writing I did, for years and years, was fiction. Screenplays with characters who often had a hard time, sure, but I could see what was coming for them even when they couldn’t. I could know, this character will make it out alive; this one won’t, but it’s beautiful because it’s a sacrifice. Or it’s necessary because the bad guy can’t win in this situation, and it’s the only way to stop him.
There are so many things that Tony’s death changed. Too many to count, truly. But the biggest thing, I think, the thing that has already and will continue to change my life, is that I own what’s inside of me. All of it, good, bad and ugly.
Last week, I accepted something really scary that’s inside of me. I accepted that I have, and may have had for some time, depression. I accepted that when my psychiatrist told me, the first time we met, that she was worried about post-traumatic stress, she wasn’t just talking about Tony’s death. She was talking about the years of worry and stress before that. I don’t want to think about my marriage as a trauma – and it wasn’t, not all of it. Much of it was good. We spent so much time laughing, and loving each other, and creating stories that unlike Tony, will live on. I can’t deny, though, that I was under an enormous amount of stress and in denial about it. Deep, deep in denial. So much so that it’s taken me nearly five months after Tony’s death to admit it to myself.
I have said that I want to change the way people talk about mental illness and depression and suicide. I do. So I am telling you that last week, I started taking an anti-depressant. I cried when I told my family about it, and when I took the first pill I cried and yelled at Tony. I yelled twice. Before I took it I yelled, “See what you did to me?” After I took it, I literally shook my fist like a thwarted villain in a silent film and said, “Was that so hard? Why couldn’t you have done that?”
He couldn’t own what was inside of him, and so he ignored it. His denial killed him. I am going to own it, and proudly too. I have been through a lot. My doctor told me that prolonged trauma can alter your brain’s chemistry, and that sometimes we need help getting things back in balance. That is a physical problem. It should not be viewed any differently than we would view something like diabetes – isn’t that just another chemical problem within the body? Or what about hemophilia? Hemophiliacs are missing a vital blood chemical that means their blood can’t clot. Why is it that those chemical imbalances are treated as medical problems, and changes in the brain’s chemistry are not?
I am taking an anti-depressant, and all that means is that I am someone who is taking responsibility for my own health and well-being. I am acknowledging that I have been through a hell of a lot. I wouldn’t try to cure cancer, if I had it, on my own. I wouldn’t ignore it if I had hemophilia, or expect that I should just get through it without help. My insurance company wouldn’t expect me to deal with those things with a limited number of doctor’s visits, either. They would pay for it, because it’s serious and life-threatening, and that’s why we have insurance. Well, mental illness and suicide are a worldwide epidemic. We ignore it, we turn away, we shame the people who are struggling to the point where they are afraid to ask for help; and we make it so prohibitively expensive that those who decide to get help can’t afford it. We need to start directing our shame to those who shame the sick and needy. Our brains are part of our bodies. People with depression can’t just pull themselves up by the bootstraps and get over it, any more than someone with a broken leg should be left to set the bone themselves.
Will you help change the conversation? Will you talk about this with your friends and co-workers and make it a priority to help those who need it? Will you stop throwing around words like “crazy” and “nuts” and start talking about this issue with the respect it deserves? I find myself using words like those more frequently than I would like. I am working hard to be more aware of them, to be more compassionate. To understand that any person I encounter who reacts badly to something minor may be in the grips of something so much bigger than what I can see. It’s a serious thing, not something to be dismissed and joked about. It’s scary, but no scarier to me than cancer or Alzheimer’s or multiple sclerosis.
The bottom line is, this is our conversation to change. All of ours. Compassion and kindness and understanding are contagious, but ignorance is too. I don’t know about you, but I’m not content waiting around for the change to happen, for somebody else to make it happen. It’s my job. It’s yours. It’s everybody’s.