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.