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.

That’s How the Light Gets In

Ring the bells that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in.

Today it is 23 months since Tony took his own life.  One year and 11 months ago, I sat on the concrete steps outside our apartment in San Diego.  It was the darkest night of the year, both literally and figuratively.  In many ways, it was the darkest night of my life.  I did not know, truly, how I would survive it.  It felt to me like there were no bells to ring.  No hope, no light, no life.  It was, I thought, the end of everything.

I was wrong.

Nearly two years later, I find myself in a strange place, emotionally speaking.  Strange, I say, because I’ve been struggling for weeks to put my finger on what it is that I’m feeling.  I keep having the sense that I am cracking open, but I don’t mean that in a bad way.  I feel raw and exposed, vulnerable and new.  This feeling has coincided with some significant life events – some that are meaningful in a way that I can easily identify, some that I can FEEL are profound although I don’t think I fully understand them just yet.

One is my new career.  I am finally doing something I love to do, every day, and getting paid for it.  That is huge, and it’s had a remarkable impact on my outlook.  For the most part, I wake up excited to work.  I am sleeping well and eating well.  I feel energetic and intellectually satisfied.  I feel creative.  It’s the first time in my whole life that I’ve had a job that left me feeling fulfilled.

Another is that I’m starting to achieve the balance I need between the writing that pays my rent and the writing I do for myself.  I started outlining a screenplay.  I’m finding time for blogging.  I’m also making time to read – something I haven’t done as much of as I’d like to since Tony died.

Friendship is another piece of the puzzle.  My relationships with the important people in my life feel healthier and deeper than they ever have.  I have several friends who have had a knack, in the past 23 months, of reaching out to me with such kindness that it overwhelms me.  I’ve reconnected with one of those friends recently, and his kindness got me thinking about kindness in general.

At the beginning of last year, not long after Tony died, I decided to perform acts of kindness on his birthday.  I knew I needed to do something that day to keep my mind off the fact that he was not there to celebrate the day, and never would be again.  Acts of kindness seemed like a natural thing to do in many ways, because Tony had such a hard time seeing kindness.  He was so disappointed, so much of the time, by his life and by the world.  On very rare occasions he would have moments when he’d see it, and when he did I used to tease him that he looked like the Grinch after his heart grew three sizes.  Imagining him like that makes my heart feel like it’s going to float out of my body, away into the sky.  I wish he’d had more of those experiences.

I wrote the other day about how the kindness of the people in my life has sustained me over the past two years.  Starting the night that Tony died, I have seen – over and over – how truly kind people can be.  The police officers, medical examiner and crisis counselor seem like miracles to me.  They gave me the worst news I’d ever heard in a way that makes it possible for me to be grateful to them.  The same is true of my co-workers, who held my hand and took me in and made it possible for me to work remotely for 22 months so I could be near my family.

I can hardly find words to talk about the kindness of my family and my friends.  They have loved me and buoyed me over and over again.  They have had a knack, many of them, for reaching out to me at just the right time.  They have written and spoken so many words of grace and love and kindness.  I have been cracked open by them again and again.

It is those cracks that have let the light in.  It is those cracks that have allowed me to feel the way I do, raw and vulnerable and open and… happy.  Yes, that’s the word.  I am happy, right now, in a way I haven’t been in a very long time.  That doesn’t mean I don’t miss Tony, because of course I do.  It doesn’t mean that things are perfect, because that’s just silly.  It means that I look at my life – at where I live and who I am and the people I care about – and I feel so overwhelmed with love that I think I might burst.

I didn’t do acts of kindness last year on December 21, because last year that day seemed unremittingly dark.  It seemed like a cave – a dark and dank place, dripping with tears.  It felt like a grave.  This year it doesn’t feel like that.  This year, I can look at it and see that as horrible as that date was in 2012, it was also a beginning.  It was that day that set me on a path I could not have anticipated.  It was the first crack, that day, and now – at last – the light is streaming in.

I hope that wherever you are in the world, you will join me on December 21st.  The holidays are an especially hard time for people who struggle with depression.  An act of kindness so small that it seems almost inconsequential to you could be exactly the ray of light that someone needs to find the strength to keep going.  Kindness is free.  Yes, you can do things that cost money if you choose to, but there are plenty of things that you can do that won’t cost a penny.  I will post some ideas and pictures over the next month.  I hope that if you do plan to participate, you’ll leave me a comment now (I would love to get people on all seven continents) and then let me know, later, what you did and how you felt about it.  Let’s turn on the lights.

I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane

I know I’ve been quiet this past week or so, and I’m afraid the next week or so won’t be any different.  I leave tonight for my trip to Massachusetts, my first since Tony died.  I have decided that if I don’t go to the cemetery, I will regret it.  So I’ll go.  I’ll see his name carved into stone, and I’ll stand there and know that what’s left of his physical body is in the earth.  Of the earth.

It’s not just a fear of regret that makes me go.  I have to lean into that too.  Lean into the grief.  It’s going to be awful, I’m sure. 

What I’m trying to focus on now, as I do my last minute packing, are the parts I look forward to.  Seeing my best friends, seeing my surrogate mom and dad, seeing my relatives.  Finally getting to look my mother-in-law in the eyes and tell her how very sorry I am, how much I wish things could be different.  And doing some acts of kindness in Boston, the city where Tony and I met, and a city that could use some extra kindness right now.  I may blog a bit from there, but chances are I will be too busy talking and visiting and just being.  I am borrowing my sister’s camera, though, so when I get back… there will be pictures.

Spreading Kindness in Memory of Tony

Last Friday, June 7th, was the tenth anniversary of my first date with Tony.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, it was my decision to spend a day so potentially painful doing something positive.  People who live with depression view the word through a distorted lens.  For Tony, it was always a challenge to believe in the good in people; so there is something deeply healing for me to go out on these significant dates in our relationship and try to make the world a kinder place.  I hope I do that every day, but on these days I try to make a special effort.

When we did this in January, on Tony’s birthday, we had things planned out and made in advance.  This past week of anniversaries (first email, first phone call, first date) hit me hard, and so we took a more open approach to the whole thing.  I went to bed Thursday night with only a couple of ideas, and set off on Friday having decided to let the day be whatever it would be, and to just trust my instincts.

My morning started off with my mother.  We went to breakfast.  One of the ideas I’d had the night before was to go out to breakfast and pay someone’s bill anonymously.  We were seated on the side of the restaurant that had a counter and stools, and so our choices were somewhat limited.  I was looking at the people there and hoping I would get a feeling about someone, a pull that would tell me “that’s the person whose bill needs to be paid.” 

060713 woodinville cafe

Shortly after we ordered, a tall man with gray hair in a ponytail came in alone and sat at the counter.  As he sat, he banged his head against the light.  That was my cue – surely someone who’d just conked his head needed a little pick-me-up.  We recruited the waitresses’ help, and when he asked for his bill we could hear the waitress tell him that it had been paid for anonymously.  My back was to him, but my mom told me he looked all around in search of a clue about his benefactor, and then smiled hugely and said to the waitress, “Well, if they come in again, tell them I said thank you!”  I gave the waitress huge tips on both bills, and my mom gave a tip to the other waitress who’d helped us organize things.

After that we stopped at Starbucks and my mom left a 100% tip in the jar for the baristas.  Then we headed off to Ben Franklin to get supplies for the other idea I had.  I wanted to make kindness cards and leave them on cars.

060713 kindness card

I made five of them sitting in the car, and we left them on cars in the lot.  Again, I let my instinct guide me.  I put one on an old and dusty red Subaru; my mom put one on another red car that spoke to her.  Next I picked an SUV that was covered with bird poop, a pretty spring-green car, and finally, a blue car the exact color of Tony’s.

On our way out of the parking lot, we stopped and I gave $20.00 to the homeless man selling newspapers.

060713 newspaper>

My mom dropped me off at my sister Stephanie’s house, and while I waited for Stephanie and her kids I made more kindness cards.  When they got there, Fiona put out seed for the birds, and picked me a bouquet of wildflowers.  She also made a couple of kindness cards to add to the pile.

060713bouquet from Fiona

060713 kindess card2

Stephanie and I took the kids out for ice cream and I paid for 10 junior scoops of ice cream for the next 10 kids who came in.  This is an idea I got from my mom, who did it in January.  I also put another kindness card on a car in the lot

060713 ice cream

Stephanie had some clothes that she wanted to donate, so we stopped and dropped them into a donation box for the Northwest Center, an organization that helps children and adults with disabilities.

060713 donation box

Next we went to Albertson’s.  On the way in Fiona put one of her kindness cards in a plant in the garden center – the plant that looked like it needed the most love.

060713 fiona and blant

Inside Albertson’s, Stephanie bought a pretty bouquet and on the way out of the store we gave it to a young woman who was waiting in line at Starbucks.  She looked a little sad, and she reminded me of me, a bit, when I was heavier and ashamed of myself so much of the time.  This, I have to say, was the best moment of the entire day.  First she was disbelieving, and then her smile lit up the world.

060713 bouquet

On the way out we put one more card on a car with a yappy dog inside, and then went to the Safeway parking lot to finish distributing the cards.  We had probably 9 or 10 cards left, and we picked mostly older models.  My favorite was a pickup truck with a giant Redneck sticker on the back of it.  There was something particularly satisfying about putting a note about how the world is a more beautiful place on a car belonging to someone who’s proud to be a redneck.

When I came home, I made a donation in Tony’s memory to the Alliance of Hope , which is an organization that helps people who have lost someone they love to suicide.  It’s a place that has been a huge comfort to me.  I sent the acknowledgement to my beautiful sister-in-law, Mary Ann, so that she would know that Tony will never be forgotten.

My sister Laura had to work, but she left a Starbucks card for a co-worker who’s been less than friendly, and made a special effort to be kind to everybody – to smile at every child she let in while she was on door duty and to make everyone she met feel valued.

Tony’s high school friend Amy treated a family to dinner anonymously.  My friend Caroline sent me a lovely email detailing the 10 Little Acts that she did in Tony’s memory.  My friend Peter from Germany didn’t give me details on what he did, but told me that since January he’s been making this practice part of his life.  To me, that’s such a gift. 

To everyone who participated, in whatever way: Thank you.  Your love and support mean everything.  I am already planning for the next day of kindness.  August 7th would have been our 9th wedding anniversary, and I have so many ideas already.

Kindness helps. And it’s contagious.

Heart shaped splash

June Seventh. Track One. North Station.

track 1

June Seventh.  Track One.  North Station.

That was where I waited to meet Tony in person for the first time, for our first date.  Ten years ago today.  I was a tangle of nerves all day.  What if he took one look at me and decided that I wasn’t for him?  What if I took one look at him and didn’t like what I saw?  What if we just didn’t click in person the way we had on the phone?  What if that ineffable thing that needs to be there for a love relationship to work wasn’t there?  I had been so charmed by Tony on the phone.  He was intelligent and funny and thoughtful.  I remember one night he had fallen asleep before the time he was supposed to call me.  I went to bed feeling pretty crushed – he was just another disappointing guy, after all – and then he woke up and called me at about 2:00 in the morning because he wanted me know that he wasn’t, that he hadn’t deliberately missed our call.

I wore a red shirt that hugged my curves.  I waited beside Track 1, which is where his train was going to come in.  It was early evening.  It was humid, raining.  In other words, it was Boston in June.  He told me he’d be wearing an “ugly green” (his words) polo; but when he got off the train, I didn’t think it was an ugly green.  It was actually the exact color (magical coincidence) of the umbrella I was carrying.  And as he walked out he turned and saw me, and sort of half-pointed and said, “Aimee?”  We hugged, and as we did I thought, he smells like home.  His smell hit me in some visceral place – and I’m not talking about cologne, because he wasn’t wearing any.  It was just HIM, his pheromones, his skin.  Home.  Home immediately, and then home for the next nine and a half years.

We walked.  We had dinner.  We talked – so much, we never ran out of things to talk about.  I miss our conversations so much.  We kissed, and the kiss felt like home, too.

We met two weeks before the first day of summer, and he died on the first day of winter. 

I wish I had a picture of the two of us at Track 1.  I wish that before we moved away from Boston, or on one of our visits back there, we’d brought a camera over there and asked someone to take our picture.  We never did do that, though.  I have so few pictures of the two of us.  Mostly I have the ones in my head.  Two people, walking in the rain, sharing a green umbrella that matches the man’s shirt.  Two people, on the brink of falling in love. 

Two people, until one left forever.

Today I will do my best to honor his memory.  I will try to find people who need a little kindness in their lives, and give it to them.  I will think of Tony every single second. 

Acts of Kindness for Ten Years

Heart shaped splash

A week from today – June 7th – will be the 10th anniversary of my first date with Tony.  We met online, but June 7th was our first in-person meeting.  Our first dinner together.  Our first kiss.

Some of you who know me know that Tony’s 43rd birthday was less than a month after he died.  On that day, I, my sisters, my mother, my nieces and nephews, and friends and family and acquaintances and strangers on six continents went out into the world and tried to make it a kinder place.  People did all sorts of things.  Here in Seattle, we went to a Laundromat and left bags with a Tide pod and enough change for a load of laundry in each one.  My nieces and younger nephew made cards, and we delivered them to a nursing home.  We donated two screenwriting books that Tony liked to the local library.  We brought cookies and coffee to the firehouse.  We gave out Starbucks cards.  We went into ladies’ dressing rooms and put up signs on the mirrors that said, “You are beautiful.”  We donated cat toys and treats to a local animal shelter.  I made a donation to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, and my sister Laura made one to It Gets Better.

In San Diego and Boston and Great Britain and Germany and Ethiopia and Bahrain and Japan and China and so many other places, people celebrated Tony’s life by helping others.  It made what could have been a truly terrible day one that, while sad, was full of too many blessings to count.  It saved me.

Next Friday we’re going to do it again.  I invite anybody who is reading to participate, whether you knew Tony or not, whether you’ve lost someone to suicide or not.  I ask you to do it because kindness is contagious.  Most of the time, Tony felt that the world was not a kind place; that people were not kind and that there was no kindness for him.  He wasn’t right, of course; he was viewing everything through the skewed lens of depression and mental illness, and he couldn’t see the kindness and goodness that was all around him.

Right now, there are millions of people like Tony out there.  People who have depression, people who are thinking about suicide.  They’re not wearing signs on their foreheads, but they are out there.  What can you do to help them see the world as it truly is?  I saw, time and again, Tony’s reaction when he would see, really SEE, an act of kindness.  It lit him up.  He had a hard time holding on to that hope, but he felt it.  To do this, you don’t need to spend a lot of money.  You don’t need to spend any.  It can be as simple as smiling more, holding the door for someone, letting a mom with little kids go in front of you in the checkout line.  You could make time to have lunch with a friend, or buy lunch for someone who can’t afford it.  If you’re inclined to make a donation, here is a list of links:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Alliance of Hope

It Gets Better

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

The idea behind this project is to remember Tony. I probably will not talk about his death with most people. After all, the idea behind this particular project is to brighten people’s days. Awareness is something I’m very concerned with, but that will happen in other ways.

Friday June 7th. Let’s make the world a kinder place.