So what I'm doing on this fine Saturday afternoon is re-reading some things I wrote for my old blog (long since locked up) in 2010. There was, at the time, a very toxic man in my life named Dave. He was a pretty horrible person; he certainly didn't treat me well. But I loved him, and I continued to have him in my life despite his treatment of me. Others could not understand this, since I'm one of those people that "seems so strong." Why would I tolerate his behavior? So, I sat down one day to write the story of my relationship with him, and it ended up turning into a 6-part diary entry plus two accompanying entries specifically about grieving.
I'm not sure many people ever read these entries, but they were written more for me than for anyone else, regardless. Still, I was reading over the two entries about grieving today and I thought to myself, "I think I want to share these with someone." And so I chose you, GT. Here they are.
Note: There's probably no chance of it, but just in case, please don't share this to Jezebel's main page. Also, trigger/content warning: as the title might suggest, this includes talk of grief. Which means talk of death, PTSD, depression, and so on.
Jay is the name of my late partner. He died in May of 2006. This reflection was written in July of 2010. I think that's all you have to know to follow the rest of the story. There's no real point to it; its just my experience, and I felt like sharing it. I don't know how else to put it except to say this: I went genuinely crazy during that period of my life. And at some point I just had to narrate exactly how crazy it got. This is that narration. Read it if you're interested, or don't. :)
Imagine what loneliness will drive someone to do. Now multiply that times me and multiply that times you. Now imagine what it would take to make this all happen again, and just when you think you're gonna cry, multiply that times ten. ~ Ani Difranco
I've been pondering since I started writing this story down how I would address this next chapter. You see, I need to talk about the depression, the isolation, the lonely, but I worry that it will sound like an indictment of my friends and family—like passive aggressive complaints about them that I haven't discussed personally with anyone. That's not my intention, so I'm going to cross my fingers and hope that I can do them justice while I talk about my experience.
I felt kind of guilty ending yesterday's entry the way that I did. I sort of implied that Dave was the only person who was "there for me" following Jay's death, and that isn't the case. My friends were as helpful as they could be under the circumstances—one of them even flew out from California to look after me for a few days, help me clean house, and things like that. I was, and remain, eternally grateful.
The worst of my depression was rather like a fog, but dark and toxic, so perhaps smog is a better metaphor. This may be hard for my friends and family to hear, but I need to talk about how bad it truly was, need to put it into words. I should also offer a "trigger alert," because what follows was extraordinarily painful to write, and could easily trigger PTSD symptoms in anyone who has experienced a grief such as mine.
Once the immediate shock of Jay's death had worn off, I found myself plunged into a place I had never been, never even imagined. For starters, there was the crying. I cried every day in the car on the way to and from work, and often arrived at my office with tear streaks still evident on my face. And that wasn't all—I cried in my office, the door shut to muffle my sobs from my coworkers. I cried in class, ashamed of myself for letting my students see me so vulnerable. I flew to my dad's home to see my little brother's graduation, and I cried on the plane for the entire 3 hour flight (both ways), much to my embarrassment. When I slept, I cried myself into the state, loudly and raggedly, my body racked with the sobs a child feels when faced for the first time with the brutal injustices of life. I cried at a party when someone asked me how I was, and in line at the grocery store when I saw a magazine that reminded me of him. I cried until my eyes actually ached in their sockets and I began to have headaches. I cried until I was certain there could be no tears left in me, and then cried some more, marveling at where it all could be coming from and wondering if I'd dehydrate myself.
The size of my 2000+ square foot house shrunk to a patch of 25 square feet in the basement. I created a nook in the sofa in front of my television and computer, and rarely moved from that spot. I hated going upstairs where our bedroom and kitchen were and so avoided it at all costs. I stopped sleeping, partly because I didn't trust where my mind would go once I closed my eyes. I had horrible insomnia, but even when I grew sleepy I would resist it, popping Adderall and drinking energy drinks—anything to keep myself awake and moving. Because Jay had died under uncertain circumstances, there had been an autopsy, after which he was cremated. When I closed my eyes, the images would come, vivid, unbidden, and inescapable: his sweet, furry chest being cut open in the standard Y-incision, his organs being removed and weighed and measured, his flesh and hair and catching fire, the fat of his love handles popping in the flames while his body burned to ash.
Of course, I had to sleep some time, so when I finally did allow myself to try, usually with the help of Ambien, I would sleep on that basement sofa covered with a comforter so that I didn't have to be alone in our queen-sized bed. That went on for at least a year, even while my body felt daily the effects of the poor support the sofa offered. Sometimes even when I would take an Ambien I would stubbornly resist its effects, staying up in a hypnotic daze only to find the next morning that I'd ordered $300 worth of DVDs from Amazon.com with no memory of the experience.
And the shopping. Oh, the online shopping. Even though I was broke (due to the now halved monthly income and the mortgage that I couldn't afford on my own) I would come home after work, log on to eBay, and start purchasing things using the Buy-It-Now option. There were a variety of things I ordered: bed sheets, movies, purses and wallets, t-shirts, jewelry. My main fixation, though, was Barbies—telling, I think, of the regression to childhood that I was undergoing, something I'll talk about in the next entry. I had a modest Barbie collection when Jay died—maybe 8 to 12 dolls at the most. That year it climbed to over 70. Yes, you read that right. Not only did I buy collectibles that I kept in their boxes, but I also decided that I wanted some to play with as well, and so I bought standard dolls and doll clothing (along with some Bratz dolls and clothes just for variety).
It's common for online vendors of Barbie clothing to buy store packs and split them up: $1.99 for a pair of panties, $2.99 for a pair of shoes, and so on. One night I found a vendor who had a huge variety of clothes and shoes for sale and I went through her inventory, mindlessly clicking "Buy It Now," "Buy It Now," on anything that caught my eye. When I finally looked at the total that I owed her, I'm ashamed to admit that it was almost $500. I didn't have $500 to my name and so flew into a panic, raging at myself for being so stupid and emailing the vendor to beg her to work out some sort of arrangement with me. I told her in the message that I had recently been widowed and was half out of my mind, that I hadn't realized how much I had bought or what the total would be. She wrote me back angrily, saying, "Don't you dare pull the widow card because I'm a member of that club, too." Though I hadn't asked her to cancel the order, only to work out some payment arrangement with me, she refused to help me in any way, citing the time it would cost HER to re-list all the items I had foolishly bought. Not seeing much choice in the matter (since I didn't want my eBay account ruined with the huge number of negative ratings she could pile on), I went ahead and charged it to a credit card that I knew was already at its limit. I'll mention in passing that I spent about a year with a negative balance in my checking account with bills often going unpaid for months at a time. It was not unusual for me to arrive home to a darkened house with my electricity turned off, and as the weather grew cold that winter, my dog and I spent days shivering until I could afford to get the gas turned back on.
I don't know exactly how long the crazy spending went on, but I know that for weeks on end that fall, I would arrive home to find stacks of boxes at my door. I would carry them all inside, down to my nook in the basement, and ritualistically unwrap each collectible Barbie, admiring it and setting it out for display somewhere in the house. Then I would clean up the mounds of brown paper, styrofoam and tape, shoving them into the now empty boxes and throwing it all into the garage, where the cardboard carcasses of the previous days' and weeks' deliveries were already strewn. Then I would turn on my television and spread a blanket on the floor, pulling out the cases of dolls I had bought to play with. I would remove each doll's outfit and spread them all out, 20+ nude Barbies and Bratz staring up at me, and then select new clothing for each, painstakingly re-dressing them all. When I was done, if I still had empty time to fill, I would start over again.
I was so ashamed of my uncontrollable shopping that I couldn't tell anyone what I was going through. Certainly not my mother who had convinced our family to gift me some money—money I was wasting—to get by. I couldn't even bring myself to admit what I was doing to my therapist, since I had a rather large outstanding bill with her. The only people who suspected were my friend Lauren, who would make concerned note of the mountains of boxes in the garage when she came over, and my postman, who had the unenviable task of delivering those boxes each day.
One day, I was home when he delivered a new stack of them. He rang the doorbell and I answered, not sure who it would be but finding there a kindly looking older man gazing at me with curiosity and sympathy. He looked slightly uncomfortable and then said, "I was just... wondering... if everything was ok." I drew back slightly, shocked that my massive daily deliveries had concerned him enough to actually ask me about them. And yet, I was sort of grateful that he did, and tears welled in my eyes as I explained that I had recently been widowed and that I was coping with it through online shopping binges. He nodded slowly and said, "I was widowed, too. I wondered if it was something like that." I nodded miserably and sniffled, and he said, "It will get better. I promise." I thanked him and he told me that if I ever wanted to talk, I should leave a note in my mailbox addressed to Sam. If he wasn't on my route that day, the other postal worker would let him know I'd left it. Although I never took him up on his offer, I was astounded by such an act of friendship from a complete stranger; it stood in stark contrast to the online Barbie seller's behavior.
While I sat on the floor dressing my dolls, I would turn on the television so that I didn't have to face the silence of the empty house. I had no ability to watch live television with its lack of familiarity and its distracting commercials. All I wanted was soothing predictability, and so I watched almost nothing but my DVDs of Project Runway, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The Gilmore Girls. Seasons one and two of Project Runway were relatively short and I could usually get through both if I stayed up all night. Even now the theme music from the show can sometimes trigger memories of those days, plunging me into sadness.
Buffy, which I was working my way through for the first time, became increasingly hard to watch starting in season five. Her mother's death—though I was expecting it—left me on the verge of a panic attack, and I had to fast forward through the episode "The Body" as it featured her corpse quite prominently. Season six was, in its way, darker and even harder to watch as Buffy returned from death—pulled out of Heaven—feeling angry, sad, lost and isolated. I missed the cheerful, joking Buffy of the earlier seasons almost as much as I missed my own former self: optimistic, funny, and loving. I also identified with her powerfully; her friends wanted to be there for her, but the invisible wall of her grief separated her from them regardless.
I could understand the muteness she displayed because there were not words to express what she had gone through. I, who always fancied myself a master of words, had been similarly struck dumb. I would go to my weekly therapy appointment—one of the few intimate human connections that sustained me at the time—and open and shut my mouth over and over like a fish, hoping the words would magically spill out since I could not find them on my own. Then I would shrug my shoulders and raise my hands, palms upturned in a gesture of helplessness and futility, and start to cry. Sometimes I would start to speak, then trail off, mumbling, "I don't know. I don't know," or, "I'm just so sad. So fucking sad," over and over.
I think this statement from my previous diary is a good summary of my mindset at the time:
"It's all very well to ask others to throw me a rope, but even if someone did, I don't have the strength to grab it and hold on."