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

 

Hope is the thing with feathers

1221 pic 2

The 21st happened.  I am still here.  It was a hard and soft day.  Hard in the moments when I missed Tony so much that my heart hurt.  Hard when I thought back and could feel every sensation of that Friday night a year ago: the cold concrete steps under me as I sat waiting for the police to break in and find Tony’s body, the warmth of Sheri’s car as I talked to the medical examiner and crisis counselor, the harsh bright lights of Bristol Farms where Sheri took me to get something to eat and I stood helpless, unable to remember what it was to eat or to fathom what one might eat after the end of the world.  Wasn’t all the food radioactive?  Wouldn’t it hurt me?  Wouldn’t my body reject it the way it tried to reject this horrible, horrible news?

Hard when I remember emailing Tony’s cousin to ask her to call me in the morning, because I knew I couldn’t give his sister that news over the phone. 

Soft when I hugged my sisters, my mom and my nieces and nephews.  Soft as my eyes took in the beauty of the drive: the tall trees, the snow softly ploshing from them onto the windshield of Stephanie’s car.  Soft when I felt the love of my family and friends, who checked in throughout the day, fold around me like the warmest blanket.

And then there were the other parts, the ones that were messy and unexpected and foggy.  The first place we stopped along the river, we saw no eagles.  The river was breathtaking beautiful, and the cold itself somehow felt right too.  river sidewaysWe stayed a while, soaking in the beauty all around us, and then moved on to another spot near a fish hatchery.  Just as we pulled in, a huge eagle soared right by us.  We were still in the cars, so none of us got a picture, but it was gorgeous and so big and gone so quickly.  After that our only glimpses of eagles were from a long distance and through the fog.  three eaglesEven that, somehow, felt right, because isn’t that what it’s like when we’re grieving?  We are lost in the fog and it feels like we’ll never get out.  But then, somehow, we get a quick glimpse of something beautiful.  It’s far away, or maybe we get a little look at it up close, just for a minute.  But the point is that now we know it’s there.  We know the beauty is still there, and we just need to wait for the fog to clear to be able to enjoy it again.  There’s no way for us to return to the way things were, not exactly; but the beauty is still there, waiting for us to be able to see it.

We finished up at the hatchery and went back to our first location, because I still had something to do.  On my favorite television show of all time, Northern Exposure, there’s an episode that deals with grieving and closure.  The character Maggie is turning thirty, and she’s sustained quite a few losses in her young life.  Another character, Ed, suggests that she go camping and mail letters down the river to those she has lost.  It’s a Native American ritual, as he describes it. 

I wrote a letter to Tony yesterday.  It was not long, and I didn’t keep a copy.  It was for him alone.  I wrote it, and carried it with me.  We worked our way down to the river’s edge and perhaps not surprisingly, even this most simple task ended up being complicated by the presence of a socially inept adolescent boy who wouldn’t take any of our cues that we wanted to be left alone and grilled us incessantly about our mode of transportation and offered up unwanted advice about what we should do.  Even that seemed like a metaphor for the grieving process.  Sometimes we have to put up with a lot of unwanted advice and platitudes along the way.  Finally he wandered off, and I crouched down and kissed the letter and let the water take it.

I’m not done grieving.  I have a long way to go on this river.  The river is carrying my message to him, and it will carry me, too, through the fog.  One day, and there’s no way of knowing when, I will be able to see the river and the trees and the eagles and my own future under sunny skies.  One day.  In the meantime, I’ll just keep swimming.

Out of the Darkness Fundraising Walk

I’m having a hard day today, really missing my Tony and wishing we were just out doing our regular Saturday errands.  It’s funny how the little things can hit you.  I had an image this morning of walking into Rite Aid and joking around with Pete, the guy who always worked early on Saturdays.  He was so friendly and always went above and beyond, and it occurred to me today that he has no idea what happened.  He probably suspects something happened, because we were there nearly every week.  It’s just odd to think about.  Odd and sad.

I just registered for the Out of the Darkness walk for suicide prevention that’s happening in Olympia, WA on September 28th.  If you are interested and able, here is the link to my fundraising page:

http://afsp.donordrive.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=donorDrive.participant&participantID=463301

Suicide kills 38,000 people a year in the United States alone, and over a million worldwide.  It’s the epidemic that few of us are talking about.  Help spread the word.  Every dollar helps, and if you can’t contribute financially, you CAN contribute by helping to change the conversation. 

I Went, I Saw, I Wept

The Wednesday of the week I spent in Boston, I went with my friend Jodi to see Tony’s sister and mother.  I was apprehensive – even though I’d done the writing exercise I talked about yesterday, I still felt nervous about seeing them.  What if seeing me unleashed anger or some kind of accusation that I could have prevented Tony from taking his own life?  What if seeing them was too hard for me and I couldn’t hold it together?  What if going to the cemetery was a mistake?

There was no anger.  There was sadness, yes, and I think a kind of relief of being able to look at each other and share our grief for Tony.  At the cemetery, I cried.  Seeing the date on the stone was more upsetting to me than seeing his name.

I didn’t bring anything to leave on his grave.  What could I leave?  I said that to Jodi, and she said, “Put a rock on it.”  That’s the Jewish tradition.  Tony wasn’t Jewish and neither am I, but he loved to pick up rocks on the beach and he liked to hold them in his hand while he was writing.  It felt right, so I did it; and then picked up another one to leave on his Aunt Concetta’s headstone.  She was a lovely lady with a spectacular sense of humor, and was always kind to me.  That felt right too.

Afterwards we went back and picked up Tony’s mom, and we all went out to dinner.  It is typical of her generosity that she insisted on paying for dinner.  That was my only meal all day, and somehow that was right too – that I shared it with my Tony’s family and my oldest and dearest friend.

It was painful, but it was right.  I’m glad I went.

The Best (Worst) Writing Assignment Ever

I’m alive!  I am still mucus-filled, albeit slightly less so than I was when I wrote my last entry.  I am going to blog about the trip to Boston, I promise, but today I want to talk about something that I did before that trip, something that helped me during the trip.

I’ve been very slowly working my way through a book called Self-Compassion, written by Dr. Kristen Neff.  It was recommended to me by my psychiatrist because I was have such a hard time letting go of my guilt over Tony’s death, my feelings that I should (least favorite word) have been able to prevent it.  It’s not a book to be read quickly, because each chapter includes a written exercise; and to put it mildly, they are difficult.

The one that has been the hardest for me so far is one where the assignment is to write a letter to yourself as your inner critic.  The goal is to not hold back at all, to put into writing the very worst things you say to yourself.  Then, after getting that down, you write a second letter to yourself, one that you would write to a dear friend.  The first time I did this exercise I did it about my weight, something I’ve struggled with my whole life.  It helped, because it made me realize that my inner voice is a TOTALLY WRETCHED SNAKE. 

Leading up to the trip, I was struggling hard with my guilt, and with fear that somehow Tony’s family blamed me for his death.  Mind you, this is in the absence of even the slightest inkling of anything other than love and support and even gratitude from Tony’s family.  There is no earthly, logical reason why I should have been feeling the way I was; but I was.  I was talking about this to my therapist, and I told her about the exercise I had done and suggested that I do the same exercise again, about my guilt. 

As soon as I said, I did a mental head-slap.  What was I thinking?  That exercise had been eye-opening, sure, but it had also been HORRIBLE.  This topic would be even worse, even harder.  Gah!  She told me I didn’t have to do it, to only do it if it would help me.  I assured her that I wouldn’t push myself.

Reader, I didn’t push myself, not until the day of my next session.  I came up with a million artful excuses about why I couldn’t do it, I just wasn’t in the mood, I was having a bad day already and JEEZ, why did I have to make it worse?  All the while knowing that it truly would help, but that it also would truly TRULY suck while I was doing it.

Finally I did it.  I took all of the awful, unkind, mean and terrible things I’d been saying to myself and wrote them down.  I just let it pour out, all of it.  Let me tell you something.  Calling my inner voice a snake is an understatement.  She is BAD.  She is an EVIL UGLY VOICE OF BADNESS.  She says things to me that I would never ,ever, ever say to another human being.  Not ever.  She is without sympathy, without mercy, without kindness.  Reading those words freed something inside of me.  I don’t mean to imply that I have completely vanquished the guilt I feel, but I will say this: it’s easier now.  I have gone back and read those words several times now.  I read them out loud to my therapist, along with my much kinder letter to myself.

Everyone’s different.  If you are struggling with guilt over something, or with low self-esteem in general, I can recommend this exercise in the same way I would recommend taking a teaspoonful of cod-liver oil or some other equally repugnant yet healthful remedy.  It might help.  It helped me.

I Will Never Be Over It

me

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the concept of getting over the loss of someone you love.  I think that a lot of people believe that’s a thing that’s possible, that we can – and SHOULD (my new least favorite word) – get over it.   I’m very lucky, because nobody in my life has asked me if I’m over it; but I know from talking to people in the online support group I belong to that lots of people coping with a loss get that insensitive question.  I know someone whose boyfriend took his own life four months ago, and someone asked her that question.  Four months, to get over the loss of her love of eighteen years.

Monday I started reading Elizabeth Edwards’ book Resilience.  She lost her son Wade in a car accident in 1996, when he was 16 years old.  She has a very effective response to questions of that sort:

I will never be over it.  If I had lost a leg, I would tell them, instead of a boy, no one would ever ask me if I was “over” it.  They would ask how I was doing learning to walk without my leg.  I was learning to walk and to breathe and to live without Wade.  And what I was learning is that it was never ever going to be the life I had before.

What she said opened something up inside of me, freed me from feeling as if I had to get over losing Tony.  It’s okay not to get over it.  Getting over it is an impossible goal.  Learning to live without him often feels impossible, too, but learning is a verb I understand.  Learning is something I can do, it’s something I’m good at.  I’m learning about myself through therapy, learning how to be more compassionate to myself and others; learning critical awareness and many other things. 

Ronnie Walker, who founded the Alliance of Hope, uses the term “Forever Altered” to describe what it’s like to lose someone to suicide; but I think it can be applied to any grief.  I have been forever altered by Tony’s death.  I will never be the same person that I was before he took his life.  How could I be?  He was my husband, my friend, my writing partner.  So much was taken from me that day that I think comparing it to loss of a limb – or two – is fair. 

I am learning to live and breathe and walk and sleep and write and BE, without Tony.  Every single moment is a lesson that I wish I didn’t have to learn.  Every day is a test I didn’t study for, in a subject I have no interest in learning.  My life feels fraught with danger, a minefield of unexpected sorrows and fears and emptiness.  Step by step, I am learning my way through the obstacle course.  I will never get to the end of it, but I can learn how to navigate it.  Step by step by step.

The note he didn’t write

“I love you. I’m sorry. Goodbye.”

Tony was a word-person, like me.  He crafted words so carefully, and worked such magic with them.  His dialogue, in particular, was stellar.  Other writers always commented on it when we workshopped our scripts.  He had a knack for making each character’s voice completely unique, of knowing how this person (a person we created out of thin air) would speak, what they would say in a particular situation.  He often said, regardless of whether any of them ever saw the silver screen, that the scripts we wrote together would be his legacy.

In the end, though, in the final moments of his life, he wrote nothing.  He said nothing.  He left no words behind for me.  The six words at the top of this post would at least have been something.  It’s not that having words, having a note, would have made it easier.  No, nothing could have done that.  But it would have been something concrete to hold on to.  Some indication that he cared, that he thought about me, that he thought about what that moment when I found out what he had done would be like, for me.

He left other things.  A locked deadbolt – and for that, I will be forever grateful, because it meant I didn’t find him dead.  I couldn’t get in, and had to call 911.  A briefcase with some old work papers.  Next to that, a screenplay — one we didn’t write — open on the bed.  A mug that I bought him for Christmas a few years ago.  Two terrified cats.  A bedroom full of broken glass from where the police had to break the window.  A scared, lonely and bewildered wife standing in the wreckage, wondering where it had all gone wrong.

I know, of course, that he could not have been rational in that moment.  That he was not thinking about anything other than ending his own pain.  I know, too, that if he had put pen to paper before he ended his life, what he wrote might not have been a comfort at all.  The grass is always greener, and the words are always the right ones, on the other side of the fence.

The screenplay he left open was for one of our favorite movies, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  He left it open to a particular page, and that night, when I went into the apartment and hugged his still body through the body bag and found that script, I had my first moment of fury.  It was open to a page where the couple at the center of the film, Joel and Clementine, take turns pretending to smother each other with a pillow.  It’s a playful dynamic between the two of them, but my grieving heart interpreted it as a slap in my face.  I threw the script across the room. 

The truth is, I will never know what he meant by that script, that page.  It may have nothing to do with anything, and part of my healing process has to be accepting that there is no way for me to know what he meant.  Part, too, is allowing myself to embrace an interpretation that heals me.  To be continued…