As before: Trigger/content warning - discussion of grief, death, PTSD, depression, etc. And please do not mainpage. Part one is here.
'Course numb is an old hat, old as my oldest memories. See, that one's my mother, and that one's my father, and that one in the hat, that's me. It's a skill I'd hoped to abandon when I got out on the open road, but any more pent up emotion, and I think I'm gonna explode. ~ Ani Difranco
My grieving manifested itself in other ways, too. I avoided showering. I had contracted, somehow, a staph infection. This led to an obsessive skin-picking behavior that left my body covered in scabs and scars that remain to this day, evidence of my own private battle wounds. There were red splotchy patches on my face that I was hardly aware enough to be self-conscious about. My hair was lank and greasy, usually pulled into a sloppy ponytail, and I dressed, even for work, only in yoga pants and t-shirts. I missed at least a couple days of work each month, days that I was taken down by a migraine, or days I simply could not bring myself to get off the couch and drive to my office. Sometimes, due to depression or finances, I would not manage to refill my antidepressant prescription. Those days, I would sink deeper and deeper into the blackness until thoughts of suicide would finally force me to call a friend and beg her to go pick it up on my behalf. On those days, I couldn't even bear to leave the house.
My work performance was suffering in other ways as well. I was teaching at a local college, but I was also in an administrative position that required me to prepare certain documents for our program, advise students, network with other departments across campus, answer a tremendous amount of email, organize committee meetings, and so on. Instead, I would sit in my office, staring hollow-eyed at my computer screen, uncertain of how to even parse the language of the emails or organize my thoughts well enough to plan an event. Instead, I would play online games, read blogs, or chat on Facebook. (In fact, I still haven't caught up with my email to this day.)
Although I wasn't actually working, sometimes I would convince myself that if I stayed late, I could get something accomplished. My position was technically a temporary one and I was working under a new director who had no experience with my former exuberant, energetic, and competent self, so I worried myself sick about the possibility of getting fired on top of everything else. I'd run home after 5PM and pick up my dog, taking him back to the office to keep me company while I tried to work. I would often end up sitting there at my desk until my colleagues returned at 8AM to find me there in yesterday's clothing, my dog sprawled out on the floor beside me. Instead of working, though, I'd have spent the night on sites like DeviantArt, downloading thousands and thousands of computer wallpapers and icons. Eventually my new boss, who held me at arm's length and seemed (I thought) to view me with disdain, had to ask me not to stay at work all night. It embarrassed me that she felt the need to tell me this, but even moreso, it pained me that she didn't seem to understand or acknowledge that I was in the middle of a serious mental breakdown.
I'd never had what you'd call a great diet, but now I ate nothing but what I could microwave from a can or purchase at a drive-through. Jay had died in the kitchen, and every time I approached it, the symptoms of PTSD manifested: tremors, flashbacks, anxiety. I would see his body laying where he had fallen in front of the stove and knocked the garbage can over, trash strewn about him. I would hear the shouts of the friend who discovered him there, frantically urging me to call 911. I could see my friend's desperate attempts at CPR, hear the belching sound Jay's body made as gas was expelled. The smell of the kitchen, the garbage, and his forced exhalations would come to haunt me. I would remember how I had immediately understood what had happened and how I had crouched into a corner in the foyer while waiting for the paramedics, holding myself and rocking and breathing so hard that when they finally arrived, one of them had to stop and treat ME, lest I hyperventilate. I would envision him on the gurney in the hospital, an apparatus in his mouth with a tube emerging from where they had intubated him, his hairy chest exposed to the world in a way I knew would humiliate him. I would remember having to call his sister and tell her what had happened, even while it didn't seem real to me. The flashbacks would cause my hands to tremble and my pulse to race; it was far too much to withstand in order to simply heat up some Spaghettios or soup, and so as often as not I would skip meals altogether.
Although almost no one in my life acknowledged it directly (in part because no one knew how truly bad it was), I was clearly out of my mind with grief. Outside of work, I spent the majority of time alone. I self-isolated, missing parties and other important events that my friends had invited me to. I reasoned that if I attended, I would only spend the time crying anyway, so I didn't think I'd be missed. The only person who had even an inkling of the extent of my grieving was my therapist, and after some months of undergoing this psychic torture I started to broach with her the topic of institutionalization. I wasn't at all sure how I would manage (or afford) such a thing, but I started to suspect that I was becoming a danger to myself. I didn't really know what they could do for me at a psychiatric hospital, but I thought that anything would be better than what I was currently doing to myself.
Much to my surprise, she agreed that it might be a good idea. I had suspected I was bad off, but I also thought perhaps I was overreacting in considering institutionalization. I had associated it with conditions such as drug addiction, eating disorders, or violent or criminal tendencies, not something as commonplace as depression. However, my therapist was concerned about my health and well-being, and she would routinely ask me whether I was considering suicide. "Nooo...," I would mumble hesitantly, though it was not exactly true. I would certainly think about suicide, engaging in fantasies of reprieve from the living hell I was experiencing. But I also knew I was not considering the action seriously. Drawing on my own RA training, I would ask myself the questions I'd learned to ask my depressed residents: Did I have a plan? If so, what was it? According to the SAL acronym, I knew I should be concerned when the plan was Specific, Available, and Lethal, whereas my fantasies involved simply dying of a broken heart. Once, my therapist said, "I think I understand: You're not going to hurt yourself, but if a bus fell from the sky, you probably wouldn't move out of its way." The imagery stayed with me and from then on when thinking about suicide I would envision that imaginary bus squishing me, my legs sticking out from one side like I was the Wicked Witch of the East. Specific and Lethal, perhaps, but not very Available.
Because, in my therapist's assessment (and my own), I was not at immediate risk of suicide, she suggested we shelve the question of institutionalization for the moment, keeping it as an option if it became necessary. I suspect she felt that I, with my stubborn independent streak, would not do well in such an environment unless it was absolutely needed. Too, she shared my concern about my work performance, and worried about how I would tell my boss that I needed time away while I was in the middle of teaching a class. As I started to slowly recover from my depression some 18+ months later, we no longer talked about institutionalization as an option. She told me then that she had been quite concerned as to whether I'd make it through, and that even my friends had called her, inquiring as to whether she understood the severity of what I was experiencing and urging her to do everything she could on my behalf. She also told me then that I was the worst case of depression she'd ever seen NOT require institutionalization. I'm not sure what it says about me that this statement filled me with a perverse sense of pride.
We discussed why grief had hit me so hard, and when reading Joan Didion's memoir on widowhood, The Year of Magical Thinking, I learned about the research on complicated grief, immediately recognizing it as the nightmarish ordeal I had survived. I asked my therapist (Sylvia), "Why me? Why was my grieving so difficult? Why did it hurt so much that I wanted to die?" I had started (and abandoned) several books on grieving during that time, and I recall vividly reading about a man who had lost both his wife and his children in a car accident. I put it down, overcome with guilt that I had only lost ONE person. Surely, I thought (in my deranged way), I hadn't earned the right to feel so miserable when I had only lost ONE person, and not my whole family. Many of my friends had lost family members in the preceding years and they hadn't fallen to pieces (as far as I could tell) to the extent that I had. As I considered how I wasn't the only one grieving Jay, I even felt selfish, as if I was hoarding all the grief to myself when others were missing him in their lives as well. What of his sister Julie, I asked myself accusingly, who had now lost HALF of her family—mother AND brother? And she had known him for 31 years; I, just three. Was it my right to feel as bad as I had? "People die every day," I told Sylvia. "What makes my loss so special?"
Sylvia, who I had been working with for at least four years at that point, speculated that I had spent my life constructing a false self, an exterior expression of my best traits: intelligence, humor, capability, love and optimism. She said that because of the circumstances of my life, I had been required to grow up quickly, to be mature before I was developmentally ready, and to take care of my own needs because I was on my own a good deal of the time. It was those early childhood experiences with isolation, she offered, that created the deep sense of neediness within me, an emotion I experienced as ego dystonic and loathed about myself. In place of the neediness, I had constructed an independent self who was determined to attain her goals at almost any cost, and who didn't give a good god damn what you thought about that fact. Jay, she said, was the first person who truly soothed the sense of need within me, who made me feel accepted and acceptable even when I was at my worst and weakest—an incredible gift for someone like me, but also an incredible loss.
The finality of death, Sylvia went on, had been the first thing strong enough to shatter that false self. I, the person who would not take no for an answer, had met my match in death, the ultimate NO. There was nothing I could do—nothing at all!—to regain the loss I had suffered. That cruel and unforgiving fact had cut through all my defense mechanisms to the lonely, needy, and frightened child within me—the one who believed she would never find true, lasting love and rejoiced when she thought she had finally achieved it. It was that child who was grieving, and it was a child's grief I was experiencing—the confusion, the anger, the sadness, and the sense of a merciless, unjust, and illogical world. Moreover, I went through the worst of that experience alone, when loneliness was the very thing I'd been trying so hard to overcome.
It may come as a surprise to you, but although I am a psychologist, I detest psychobabble. There was a part of me that felt rather annoyed with all this talk of one's "inner child," but a larger part of me had to admit that what she said makes sense. It explains why I still struggle with mourning Jay to this day. I like the metaphor of the false self, and I think of her as a piece of plate glass, Jay's death the baseball thrown through it. The experience shattered me into a thousand pieces, and since that day, I have been on my hands and knees on broken glass, trying to turn the shards back into a smooth, unblemished window. As you might expect, it's hard and painful work, and the end goal—unshattered glass—is impossible to truly achieve. But I'm trying, dammit. I'm trying.
An interesting aside regarding this notion of the false self: in grief, I lost most of the abilities and skills I have depended on to make it through life. I have always lacked discipline in certain areas of my life (eating right, exercising, budgeting), but I more than made up for that with respect to my self-discipline in other areas. I could sit down and focus and churn out a research paper without a need for breaks or even food. I could make lists and manage my agenda and organize my days. I could create short and long term goals and think through the planning and steps I'd need to take to achieve them. And I could follow through on those goals, actually achieving them. These skills had propelled me all the way through my PhD, they had helped me to be a great teacher, they had prompted me to be a productive researcher. And they were all. Completely. Gone.
Now, I sit and look at a list on paper and become overwhelmed—where to start? What to do first? It feels like too much and I crumple it up and throw it away. I try to answer my email and find myself staring at my overly-full inbox, wondering which message to start with, what it is trying to ask me, or how to deal with the requests I don't understand. Finally I throw up my hands and shut my inbox, leaving the whole mess for another day. Sylvia's explanation for this is that those were not skills that the "needy me" possessed. They were skills developed by the false self, and because she has shattered, I am temporarily without the resources I once relied on. She tells me that they will be possible to reintegrate into my current self, but that it will take some time. I can't tell you how annoying it all is, but again, much to my irritation, the narrative makes sense.
And so, a final word about the solitude I experienced while grieving. Again, this is not to cast aspersions on my friends and family, but it is true that, for the most part, I mourned Jay alone. My psychological breakdown felt (whether accurately or not) like something that no one else could even see. It's nobody's fault. Both of my parents live several states away—they simply could not be there. And my friends were busy with their own lives—one was grieving her own father while also celebrating her marriage to another friend, another couple was in the midst of their own wedding plans, another was dealing with pregnancy and then various employment crises, and yet another had recently been dealt a blow by her own breakup. And even so, it wasn't that they wouldn't have helped if given the opportunity, which is why I don't blame them in any way. I was sometimes angry with them for going about their own lives as routine, but I also recognized how irrational that anger was.
The fact of the matter is, though, that I didn't ask for help very often, didn't allow people to know what I was experiencing. I'm sure for many of them, reading this will be the first real insight into that period of my life. Part of the reason I didn't ask for help was because I hate doing so; it makes me feel as if I am betraying my independence. But a larger part of it was that I recognized, or at least believed, that there was nothing they could do. I was convinced that any help would be simply superficial—doing the dishes for me, for example, since they were piled up to my eyeballs in the kitchen that I was studiously avoiding. But that wasn't going to heal the burning, endless pain within me. What I really wanted to ask was for someone to stop the pain—please, please stop the pain—something I knew no one could grant me. Anything more pragmatic—the dishes, the laundry—would be helpful, but only in a short-term way. I knew that even if someone cleaned my house, I was in no condition to keep it that way, and that it would fall into filthiness again in no time. I understood that if someone was able to take my hand, lead me through my days, tell me what to do and when to do it, I would have one of two responses: I would acquiesce for as long as they were helping me but immediately stop again when they stopped, or, I would become angry by being told what to do (that independent streak again) and rebel, refusing to cooperate. Neither would be productive, neither made much sense, and neither would help me in the long run. So, why bother asking anyone for anything? I would later come across the quote featured at the bottom of the page in Alice Sebold's memoir of her rape, Lucky. It communicated exactly what I had understood intuitively: No one could do this work for me. "You save yourself or you remain unsaved."
And that's what I have been trying to do ever since: save myself.