In 2010/11, I lost three people close to me in the span of six months. Two to natural causes and one to depression. Needless to say, it was not an easy time for Allen’s mental health. And it didn’t get easier for nearly five years.
All three deaths were unexpected. One of those people got admitted to the hospital with chest pain on a Friday and died on a Sunday. One was found dead in their bed. The other was suicide–and that’s always a shock.
It’s funny to say any death is unexpected or shocking for several reasons. One, aren’t we all slowly dying from one thing or another? If it’s not a disease, injury, or illness, age will eventually get us all, right? Two, how can you not expect that a person will eventually die? And three, I’ve had people close to me fight a losing battle for months or years with one thing or another–and I was still shocked when they died. As though I expected an exception to be made to the rules or something. We live. Things happen for a while. We die. That’s how the game is played. Death shouldn’t be shocking.
But it almost always is.
Maybe that’s because I’m a big fatass who has made some truly questionable life choices in the past–yet here I stand. Er, sit. I’m a blogger writing a post after all.
Shouldn’t these people still be here if I am?
Life and Death are rarely fair or logical games. The deck isn’t stacked in anyone’s favor. Good or evil, kind or cruel, smart or dumb, black or white, male or female, gay or straight, this thing or that thing–Death doesn’t give a shit about your expectations. It doesn’t care about arbitrary characteristics. It comes for you when it comes for you.
That’s hard for those of us who expect to not lose people we shouldn’t have to lose.
So…in early 2011, I went into a grief spiral. I didn’t get to say “goodbye” to any of those three people. For better or worse, I didn’t get to tell them what they meant to me as a person. What they contributed to my life. I didn’t get to tell them that, regardless of history, I did, in fact, love them.
The hardest death was the suicide. As I’ve mentioned, I have had a nearly lifelong battle with anxiety and depression. The person who committed suicide had never had any known mental health issues before the suicide. It was very unexpected, very sudden, and extremely shocking. I had talked to this person on the phone. It hadn’t been a good conversation. There had been yelling and cursing and proclamations and fingers pointed and blame and laughter and…everything. I had told them that I would never speak to them again–even to save my own life. That’s how mad I was. But this had been the way we had interacted for months. It was normal for us. This person committed suicide the next day. I found out two weeks later.
I went into full-on mental health crisis mode.
From one day to the next, I felt so many things that I felt nothing. Feeling everything and nothing is probably the worst part of grief. You can’t process anything because you can’t separate one emotion from the other long enough to begin to move forward.
This went on for several months. Then my therapist at the time told me, “It gets better.” What a useless piece of advice. When? How? When does it get better? How do I help it get better? What are the steps? Is it a sudden revelation like in the movies or do I slowly, bit by bit, start to feel things change? How do I recognize when things have gotten better? When do I stop crying? Actually, when do I start crying? When do I stop feeling depressed every day all day? When do I stop having anxiety about the slightest noise? The slightest touch? When does every breath stop feeling like sandpaper in my throat? How do I use my CBT to train myself to stop wondering if I’m the next person to succumb to depression? How do I get back to being Allen now that my heart has been torn into three equal pieces?
How do I make sense of the fact that someone with no discernable mental health issues woke up one day and said…”fuck it”?
Every day when I wake up, I start the process of taking care of my mental health. Day after day, I have to be cognizant of my feelings, my thoughts, my actions–and correct them so that they align with the way a mentally healthy person should be. Some days it is easy or I don’t have to try at all. Other days it’s a struggle to go from waking up to going back to sleep without imploding all while acting as though things are just fine so that I can have some semblance of “normal.” But I manage. I get by day after day. And I’m grateful that I can. But you’re telling me that someone who woke up depressed one day said: “I don’t ever want to feel like this a second time, so…”
Are you telling me that they were just weak?
How does it get better? Nothing anyone could say or do would make any of this better. So…I spent five years on edge, wondering if today was my day. Wondering if I would lose my battle. If my heart would ever be whole again. If I would ever forgive myself for having that phone conversation. If I could ever get over three lost opportunities to say: “Thank you for being part of my life. I love you. Goodbye.”
Around five years later, I woke up one day. I waddled sleepily into the kitchen. I went about my daily routine. I started the coffee pot. I found something in the fridge for breakfast. I got everything together and sat down at the table and started to eat and sipped my coffee and drank a big cup of water. Halfway through breakfast, I started to think about Halloween–it was coming up. I thought about going to Spirit Halloween and looking at all of the decorations. Maybe I’d go buy a pumpkin and carve one. I love carving Jack-O-Lanterns. And then it hit me.
I didn’t wake up wondering when things would get better. I didn’t wake up and immediately check my mental health.
So…I stopped and set my fork down. How did I feel? Was I still mad at myself? Did I feel guilty? Did I feel confused? I just felt sad. But I also felt hopeful. I could single out my emotions–understand how I felt. I wasn’t overwhelmed with a million feelings and emotions at once. I wasn’t in the middle of a battle with myself. So…were things…better?
No. They weren’t better.
They were different.
Three people I loved and who had had a profound impact on my life were gone. Nothing would make that better. Nothing could make that better. Things didn’t get better. Things had gotten easier.
That’s the thing about grief. It makes things different. And it’s a tough emotion to navigate, especially if you deal with mental illness.
So, no, things don’t get better. They get easier. Eventually.
You just have to decide if you want to wait for eventually to come. I’ll wait for eventually until Death decides that it’s going to take me–because I won’t go easy. I’m a pretty competitive person, after all.
I gotta go.
Until next time…