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.

Robin Williams was 63 years old

Robin Williams

I am heartbroken. Robin Williams is dead in an apparent suicide. I did not know him, but I have been a fan ever since his Mork & Mindy days. More recently, I greatly preferred him in dramatic roles: Good Will Hunting, Insomnia – roles where his frenetic tendencies were held in check, lending his characters a seething intensity that jumped from the screen.

Every time someone well known takes his own life, I wonder, will this be the one that finally gets people talking? People seem to be shocked, and mostly because Robin Williams was so funny. Comedy and tragedy are different sides of the same mask, though. Tony was funny too, often hilariously so. Laughter can be a disguise. Comedy can be a defense mechanism.

I know all too well some of the things his family and friends are feeling now. They are wondering how this could have happened, what they could or should have done differently, why he didn’t call someone in that final, desperate moment before he took the action that could not be undone. They are in that unmapped landscape, together, but alone. They are sad and furious at him at the same time, probably. They are reeling.

My heart goes out to them. I hope they find some of the resources I found – most especially The Alliance of Hope  because there, they can write about their experience in anonymity and get help from people who understand their pain.

Much will be said and written about this in the days and weeks to come, I am sure. I am hoping that somehow, this will be the suicide that makes people willing to talk about it in a larger context. Not just this man, this suicide, but all people – all suicides. One is too many.

His name is Robin Williams. He was 63 years old.

Today would have been ten years

wedding day

Ten years ago today, Tony and I got up early. We got dressed up and we drove to the San Diego County Recorder’s Office. We were first in line. We asked someone behind us in line to take a picture of us: the picture that accompanies this post. We had come the week before to get our marriage license, and when we went inside we only had to wait a few minutes before we were married by a lovely justice of the peace.

I cried. I said my vows with a heart that was full of love and optimism. While there were things about Tony that worried me, even then, my love was strong enough to overpower any fears I might have had. When I held his hands and looked into his eyes, I saw only love there for me. It was palpable. The justice of the peace could feel it – I know she could, because she positively beamed at us.

Afterwards, we drove to La Jolla Cove and went to a restaurant there for brunch. My sister Laura had pushed me for the name of the restaurant, and it turns out that was because my family wanted to treat us to brunch and champagne since they couldn’t be there with us. We had a beautiful meal, and then went out to the park to take pictures and call our families.

Time is a funny thing. On the one hand, these memories seem like they are part of another lifetime – and they are. They were from a time when Tony’s depression was minor, compared to what it became. A time before his more serious symptoms started to manifest themselves, and a time when I felt like we were really a team. On the other hand, it seems like yesterday. There are moments when I still can’t quite believe that he’s gone, that I will never see him again. As always, these memories are entangled with later, sadder ones.

Still, I’ll always remember how blue the sky was that day.

 

It was not meant for me

Do you remember two weeks ago when I wrote about crushing eggshells? And how I said that if someone couldn’t handle a little eggshell-crushing, they weren’t meant for me, and I was not meant for them?

That was the truth.

I alluded in that post to a situation that had arisen with someone I care about. I told you that I’d told him what I needed and that it hadn’t scared him away. That was true at the time, I thought, and yet, it is also true that the relationship is now over. He didn’t mention it, but while I think the main culprits are distance and logistics, it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that the eggshell-crushing played a small role, too.

This is when the resolution gets put to the test, because it’s hard to lose someone you care about. The good thing, though, about having had my entire life blow up at the end of 2012, is that in the end, it has made it much easier to put things in perspective.

I read this quote, attributed to Buddha, yesterday:

In the end, only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.

It’s that last one that’s the hardest for me. It always has been hard. It’s embarrassing to admit this, but in the past my inability to let go of things not meant for me has kept me in relationships that weren’t making me happy, jobs that I hated, situations that just were not good for me. Over and over, I’ve made that mistake. I have held on too hard, put my own needs too low on my list of priorities, and endured treatment that would have sent someone with higher self-esteem running for the hills.

The change I can see in myself is this: there have been times that, on the verge of a breakup, I’ve tried to convince someone to be with me. I don’t know why I felt the need to do that, but I did. Not enough confidence in my own worth, I suppose, or fear of being alone. This time, I haven’t done that. I haven’t even WANTED to do it. I have many, many feels, don’t get me wrong. I am sad and disappointed and a lot of other things. I have things I want to say to him. But I haven’t, not even for a second, been tempted to try to convince him that he was wrong to end it. Why? Because I don’t want to be with anybody who’s not ass-over-teakettle for me. I’ve been down that road before and I didn’t like it the first time.

I wouldn’t say I’ve let go of it, not yet, but I have accepted that it was not meant for me. That he and I, we were not meant for each other. If we had been, this would not have happened. I don’t know how graceful I am at the moment, but even though I am sad, I am not undone. Even though I am disappointed, I know that letting go is the right thing to do.

I’m picking a new road.

With no map to guide us

mapless desert

Perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve been thinking about grief quite a lot lately. I read some posts from newcomers to an online forum for suicide survivors, and I was struck, again and again, but the inadequacy of our understanding of grief. We are not taught how to deal with it. We fear it. Of course we fear it. It is an unwanted destination, barren and harsh, and we all know we are going to have to visit it – probably more than once – during our lifetimes.

It’s not something you can plan for, grief. Not even if your loved one is sick for a long time, and you know that soon, any day now, you will be dropped into that unforgiving landscape. There is no preparing for it. I know this from experience. My grandfather died suddenly not long before my tenth birthday. It was awful. My uncle, grandmother and mother-in-law all died after long battles with cancer. That was awful too. It’s always awful, nothing can make it easier. There is no map, and even if someone tried to make one, it would be useless. That miserable landscape is different for each one of us, you see. A few months ago my therapist said to me that the grieving process mirrors the relationship. I think that’s true.

When my grandmother died, my grief was powerful but not complicated. I had a very easy and loving relationship with my grandmother. She had dementia, but my last two visits with her were magical. She knew who I was. She told me the same stories I’ve been hearing since childhood, sometimes more than once in the same ten minute span. But she smiled, and I smiled, and we held hands, and I felt the purest love for her. I still miss her, every day, but somehow the process of grieving her was filled with the songs of the birds she loved, and hints of her Irish brogue, and memories of the cookies she baked. I still cried. I still didn’t know how I would get through it.

The landscape of my grief after losing Tony is like Death Valley, or the moon. There are no plants, or animals. It is carpeted with red dust – red, the color of anger, because I have so much anger. It burns even though there is nothing there to catch fire. Nothing about grieving anyone else I had ever lost could have prepared me for what I fell into on December 21, 2012. To say there was no map feels like a gross understatement. Certainly I did not have a map. I also did not have gravity, or limbs, or bodily functions. I drifted but I was weighed down. I looked around but lacked the will to even try to move.

There was nothing anybody could have said that would have made a difference. That’s what we all fear, isn’t it? Saying the wrong thing? There really is no wrong thing. Well, okay – maybe if a completely clueless socially inept clod said something like, “I’m glad he’s dead,” that would have been wrong. I think it’s best to tread lightly around religious proclamations unless you’re sure the bereaved shares your beliefs. The simplest things are often the best. You simply cannot go wrong with “I’m so sorry.” Don’t be afraid to say it. Don’t think it’s too simple. It’s not. It’s the only thing you can say, really. And believe me, it is better – far better — than saying nothing.

Thinking about this, I wonder if it’s maybe that people want to be able to say something to make it go away. To make it all better. And of course, that’s impossible. The only way to make the grief go away is to make the dead come back to life. That’s just not an option, unless you’re going to resort to necromancy, and frankly, even if you ARE a necromancer it seems ill advised. Those stories never end well. What people who want to comfort the grieving need to know is there’s no way to make it better, or to make it go away. There is only helping the person who is in that landscape know that, while she may think she is alone, you are there too. She may not always see you, but you know she is there. You see her, you will hold her hand. That’s enough, truly.