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

 

In the Bleak Midwinter, Long Ago

snowy road

One year ago tonight I spent my last night with Tony.  I didn’t know that, of course.  How could I?  He didn’t tell me, but I’m sure he knew.  I’m sure he knew because the two weeks preceding his last day were awful in so many ways, most of which I could only understand after he had died.

I haven’t written about this here before, but the day that Tony chose to end his life was one that he picked, I believe, close to a year before he actually did it.  I remember on New Year’s Eve, 2012, he said to me that the world was going to end on December 21st.  The movie 2012 had come out late in 2011, and was about the Mayan calendar.  When Tony said that to me, as he did many times over the course of 2012, I thought it was just because he was fascinated by the subject.  We had a screenplay idea that involved the leader of a doomsday cult, and we had talked about that subject quite a lot.  I didn’t think anything of it; but he did mention it frequently enough that I started to get impatient with him.  It seemed like an excuse for letting things go, not trying as hard to be happy, because hey, the world was going to end anyway and why bother?

I don’t remember him talking about it in the few weeks preceding his death.  What I remember is that he came into my hospital room right before I was going in for my back surgery, and told me that he wanted to separate.   I was on a very strong painkiller called Dilaudid, so my reaction wasn’t as strong as it might otherwise have been.  Nevertheless, I was upset.  A lot of times being married to Tony was very hard work, but I loved him and he was my husband, my friend and my writing partner.  I knew he was sick, but that didn’t stop me from loving him.  I could tell when he came in that he was upset.  I asked him what was wrong, and I’ll admit, I pushed him a little.  I could always tell when he was in a dark place.  He told me, dumped that on me right before they came in to take me to the operating room; and then said, “Well, you asked me!” when I pointed out that it maybe wasn’t the kindest thing in the world to lay that on me right before surgery.

When I got home from the hospital, he didn’t mention it and I didn’t bring it up.  After a few days, he brought it up again.  What I believe now is that telling me that was his way of trying to prepare me for what he was going to do.  He did love me, though, the best way he could; so when I got upset and talked to him about working on the relationship, about getting help, he backed down.  Then he brought it up again after a few days.  Those weeks were so hard for me.  I knew something was wrong, but in spite of his depression it never occurred to me for a second that he was planning his own death.

The last conversation we had about separation happened two days before he died, a Wednesday.  We had a horrible fight.  I remember feeling so desolate, so upset, so shattered.  I was up all night, crying all night.  No amount of concealer could hide my swollen eyes and face.  My coworker Sheri took one look at me when she walked in, and asked me what was wrong.  I confided in her.  She was shocked, because her impression of Tony was one of a loving husband who came in to my office over and over again while my back was hurt to keep me company and sometimes, to sit at my desk and type emails that I dictated to him so I could lie on the floor in a slightly more comfortable position.  She told me she was sure we would work it out, we were such a great couple.  I wanted to believe her, but I was so scared. 

That night, the night of the big fight, Tony tried to give me his video camera, the one I had bought him for Christmas several years earlier.  I didn’t know then that giving away treasured possessions is one of the warning signs of impending suicide.  I was hurt that he didn’t want to keep it.  I refused to take it.  The last thing he tried to give me, and I turned him down.  I had no way of knowing, and there’s no point in wishing that I could go back in time and recognize that as what it was.  Even if I had, even if I had pushed him to get help, chances are good that he would have refused as he did all along, every time I suggested it.

Our last night together was a Thursday.  I had been sleeping in a zero gravity chair I had rented, but that night – in retrospect, it seems like a premonition – I wanted to sleep in the bed with Tony.  I couldn’t sleep on the inside, against the wall, where I usually did, because I had to do a barrel roll to get out of bed safely.  We switched sides – he on the inside, I on the outside.  Through our marriage, even when things were difficult, one of my favorite moments of every day was when we went to sleep and I would curl into his side, my head on his shoulder, inhaling that particular smell that was his alone. 

I reached for him that night.  He pulled away.  As if that would hold my heart together when his was no longer beating, that I didn’t have that one last time to hold him close and listen to his breath and smell him and feel his warmth.

I grieve, but I am still so angry at him.  I know he was sick.  I know that he was in the grip of depression, a disease that lies; and I know that he had other forms of mental illness, too, ones that were never and never will be diagnosed.  What I’ve discovered is that a lot of people, even those who have lost someone to suicide, don’t want to talk about the anger.  We’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead.  I don’t think of this as speaking ill of Tony.  What it is, is speaking truth about him; and he deserves that.  We all deserve it, because in the end, we are all just human.

The Only Way Out Is Through

wildfire

That’s the thing with grief.  It’s not that there aren’t shortcuts – there are.  I could numb my grief in various ways.  I could compartmentalize my feelings.  I got awfully good at that over the past ten years, at putting my feelings aside so I could deal with the next crisis, and the next one, and the next.  I could take drugs of one kind or another.  I could just open my arms wide to denial, become one with it and pretend that none of this ever happened.

What I know to be true about that is that it won’t work.  It never does.  Sooner or later it will catch up with you.  It will backfire on you.  It’s like that scene in When Harry Met Sally… when Sally finds out that her ex, Joe, is getting married.  She goes on a crying jag that includes all of the crying she didn’t do when the relationship ended.  She tra-la-la-ed her way through the breakup, saying that she was fine, and convincing everybody in her life, including herself, that she was healthy and fine and great and NOTHING TO SEE HERE FOLKS.

Except she’s not.  She’s far from great.  She’s sad and traumatized and hurt and confused and lonely and betrayed and scared.  It all hits her at once, a tsunami of emotion. 

The only way out is through.  It’s awful.  What it is, is this.  It’s waking up every single day, seeing a wall of flames in front of you, and deciding that you’re going to walk through it.  It’s going to hurt like hell, you say to yourself.  You don’t want to do it, you say.  You want someone to come along and put that fire out for you, to show you a different path.  To airlift you out of there, to safety, to a place that’s peaceful and beautiful and easy.  You want that, but you make that decision, every day, that you’re not going to take the easy way out.  You’re not going to numb it.  You are going to walk into that wall of flames, right into it, and you are going to let it burn you.  You are going to let it hurt you.  You are going to lean into it until it feels like it will consume you.  You’re going to cry your way through it, scream your way through it, run and claw and kick and shout and curse and sometimes you will lie down in the middle of it and find yourself wishing that it would just reduce you to ash, because then at least the next day you wouldn’t have to face it again.  But somehow, from someplace you didn’t even know existed inside of you, you find the strength to stand back up.  You square your shoulders. You head back into the flame.  You lean into it.  You let it burn. 

And you trust, you don’t even know how but you do, that there will come a day when you will wake up and there will be smaller flames.  Flames that maybe spring up and catch you unawares sometimes, but not a wall, not something that can swallow you whole.  Brush fires, not a raging wildfire.  Not an inferno, not anymore.  And when that day comes, you will think, this is manageable.  I can pick my way through this.  And maybe your world will never be completely without fire (is anybody’s?) but maybe it can be a world where fire is something you don’t need to fear, not in the same way.  Where it can be a source of warmth, of solace.  Of light in the darkness.  Maybe it can be a reminder that you survived it, that you are stronger than anybody knows, not even you because when you look back at the wall of flames, now behind you, you wonder how anybody ever passes through it.  And yet you did.  You did it.

I hate this fire.  I walk through it anyway.  I lean in.  I let it burn.  It hurts.  I hate it.  I just keep saying it, over and over.  The only way out is through.  The only way out is through.  The only way out….