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