‘Cuz the answer came like a shot in the back, while you were running from your lesson. Which might explain why, years later, all you could remember was the terror of the question. Plus, I’m not listening to you anymore. My head is too sore and my heart is perforated. And I’m mired in the marrow of my well-ain’t-that-funny-bone, learning how to be alone, devastated. ~ Ani Difranco
I cannot identify the exact moment that I decided I wanted to live. Jay died in May of 2006. I was 30. Now I am 38, and it feels as if grief stole most of my 30s. It is hard to fathom that it has been almost 8 years. I have no idea how that happened. Much of that time passed in an indecipherable blur. I can pinpoint certain events that impacted my life, but I’d be hard pressed to tell you the exact course my recovery from grief took because my memories of that time are so hazy.
I went back to my diary, looking for clues as to how I might have been feeling at different points in time. I found this entry, dated 01.22.08:
It hurts so much.
And it never stops.
And eventually you get tired of crying.
But your body won’t listen.
Last weekend would have been our 5 year anniversary.
Next month, it’s Valentine’s Day.
Then the second anniversary of his death, then his birthday, then mine. Then the holidays begin again.
I want reprieve.
It didn’t help matters that other incredibly stressful events kept happening. In March 2008, I was informed that I was not going to be rehired for my job. I had been in the position for 4 years as a “temporary” employee. They were finally doing the permanent hire, and they decided on someone with no experience rather than the person who had been doing the job for 4 years. I can’t tell you how that hurt. But I understood, because my current boss had taken over that role in August 2006, just months after Jay’s death. To say she had not seen me at my best is a laughable understatement.
Then, in December of 2008, I herniated a disc in my back and developed cauda equina, a severe disorder that doctors generally treat with emergency back surgery. I can tell you that I was still deeply depressed because I recall that I got an MRI to see what had happened, and that when the doctor tried to call me to tell me I needed surgery, I would ignore my phone and the messages that they were leaving. It was maybe 3 weeks or more before I finally followed up to see what had happened to me (I was having to use a cane because of the weakness in my legs—cauda equina is caused by the herniated disc compressing the spinal cord), at which point I was told I would need to be rushed into back surgery right away. It was again several more weeks before I cared enough to follow up with the surgeon, at which point my strength had already started to recover in my legs. The doctor and surgeon both said that because of my weight (I had gained a significant amount following Jay’s death, given that I was eating nothing but junk food and had become completely sedentary), they were worried about the effect back surgery would have on me, but they were also scared of what would happen if I did NOT have surgery. Ultimately, I decided not to have the surgery, and fortunately my back healed on its own. But my behavior towards a potentially dangerous physical condition would suggest that even in early 2009, I was still quite unable to function.
I should also stop here to mention Dave, because he became part of my story of recovery. I mentioned him in part one of this series, as he was part of my motivation for writing about my grief at all. There is a longer series that I wrote called The Story of Dave—I believe it is 6 parts?—where I trace the history of my relationship with a particularly dysfunctional man I met online in 1995. All you need to know for the sake of this story, though, is that I had not talked to him in 4-5 years, but that in 2007 he made contact with me again through MySpace. At that time, I was still so devastated by Jay’s death that I sent him a brief response asking him to leave me alone, a request he honored.
However, by the fall of 2008, my loneliness was unbearable. I knew that Dave was not a good man, certainly could not compare in any way to the beloved man I had lost. He was no one I wanted a relationship with. He was not kind, nurturing, or loving. He was married with 3 children. But I had always loved him. He was safe. He was easy. He was there.
The whole reason that I sat down and wrote The Story of Dave in 2010 was to explain why someone like me—a feminist, and someone that most people perceive as a strong woman who takes no shit—would engage in any kind of relationship with a man like Dave, an utter asshole unworthy of my time, energy, or attention. Particularly once I had the experience of dating a kind, nurturing, loving man like Jay. As an explanation, I offer the following excerpt from my narrative about Dave:
It's hard to put into words the devastation I therefore felt when Jay died in 2006. I became severely depressed—suicidal, even—and was angry at the entire world that I only had three brief years with my beloved. I spent the first year or more in a haze that I find hard to put into words—miserable doesn't begin to cover it. I felt like I was drowning in a black abyss that no one else could even perceive. And, regardless of what you think of the man or the unhealthy relationship we had, it was Dave who re-appeared to pull me to shore.
I cannot overemphasize how extraordinarily isolated I was in the time before I reached out to Dave. I tried to keep my grief and loneliness to myself, too proud, too stubborn, and too independent to ask for help, stoically spending holidays and even my birthday alone. Dave wasn't there for me in a consistent way, and he wasn't really there for me in any way that I'd call loving. He caused me easily as much pain as he did happiness. But when he was in a phase where he needed me, he would call twice a day every day and text me throughout the day, then email me into the night. Often he'd be the only person to call or text me for weeks at a time. I was able to experience—though I knew, intellectually, that our relationship was hollow at the core—the sense that someone cared whether I woke up and answered the phone the next morning, that someone would notice if I suddenly stopped responding to texts and emails. Because of our history, we were able to resume our relationship with an already-present intimacy, understanding one another as we did. We were able to stroke one another's egos (though unsurprisingly I stroked his more than he mine) and feel as if we were comprehended and accepted by at least one other person in the world. And even when he would act in cruel ways, or suddenly drop off the face of the earth for months at a time, at least I could feel angry rather than the unbearable sadness of grief. I finally had someone to focus on other than Jay, or, more aptly, Jay's absence. It was cold comfort, but cold comfort is better than none at all.
I recall a point when I was explaining some argument I'd had with Dave to another friend and she asked me why I bothered with such a jackass. At the time, I didn't know how to answer. Now I do: He met a need for me that no one else could or would meet.
Or, to put it another way: Any port in a storm.
And so, in late 2008 I started talking to Dave again, and even went to visit him in person three times. When I started talking to him, I was under the impression that our relationship would be sexual, as it always had been in the past. I knew he was married, but I didn’t care. I didn’t want him for my own; I just wanted to stop feeling so lonely all the time. Unfortunately, much to my surprise, when we began talking regularly I discovered he was already in the midst of an affair. My hopes that the sexual attraction between us would be rekindled never came to fruition. When I visited him, he held me at arm’s length. He insisted it was not because he was not attracted to me, but because he had a hard time seeing me “like that” (i.e., sexually) any longer. We talked at length about this, and I concluded that the thing that really fueled him sexually was the naïve adoration of young women who were easily manipulated. (The girls he was having affairs with were in their early 20s when he was in his mid-30s, for example.) When he was attracted to me in the mid-90s, that description fit me pretty accurately. Now, as a confident adult woman who understood him better than anyone ever had and who was no longer easily intimidated or manipulated, I held no sexual interest for him.
And so I became simply an emotional affair rather than a physical one. He still hid my presence in his life from his wife, but even when I finally visited him for the first time (at long last meeting someone in person in 2008 who I had known online since 1995!), nothing physical happened between us. In fact, on my third visit to see him in May of 2010, he actually took refuge in his office and would not come out and face me, even though he had wanted to see me and I had driven 3 hours to do so. He texted me from his office and asked me to please leave. Shocked, I texted back, “You want me to leave? Aren’t you even going to come out and say goodbye?” He responded via text, “Goodbye.” I drove home from Alabama crying, and aside from a few angry emails later that week, we never spoke again.
I don’t particularly enjoy talking about Dave, but when I sat down today to write about this, I realized I would have to do so. Because, in trying to identify how I got from point A: abject despair, to point B: survival and even thriving, I realized that he played a crucial role in my recovery. Most people, in looking at my behavior from 2008-2010, would call my decisions ill-advised or far worse. But in a very real way, Dave saved my life. He hurt me a lot in the process, but I do not regret the choices I made, because I was finally able to start feeling as if someone cared whether I lived or died. During those years, despite the setbacks I had, despite the pain I was in, I began to live again. One day, I decided to start showering more frequently. Another day, I moved back upstairs into my own bed. Another day, I decided to do the dishes, pay the bills, clean the catboxes, fold the laundry. Miniscule markers of improvement that, frankly, went unnoticed by everyone but me—the green tips of baby shoots emerging through the soil after a long, cold winter.
Sometime during 2009, I started to think about becoming healthy again. My back was slowly recovering from my slipped disc. By summer, I could walk without my cane. I wanted my body to be strong. I wanted my mind to be clear. I spent the month of July at a health center, working to start eating right and exercising, doing physical therapy, and seeing a counselor. I started trying to give up some of my less healthy coping mechanisms. My mother, who is a longtime recovering alcoholic in AA, urged me to consider a 12-step program, and I would give various meetings a half-hearted try, looking for one that seemed like a good fit. As a militant agnostic, I was deeply uncomfortable in the 12-step meetings, but I reasoned that if my mother (an atheist) could make it work, so could I. So, I tried and tried again, but never found one that really seemed to work for me. The depression was still enough of a factor that I gave up and retreated to the safety of my home quite readily.
However, another marker of my recovery occurred in August 2009. Finally fulfilling a long-held desire, I cut my hair short and dyed it pink. This was shortly after my return from my health retreat, and I was feeling good—healthier and stronger. My back was largely recovered. I had been moving more and eating better and I was starting to feel better about myself. I finally became interested in my appearance again, and doing something so extreme to my hair seemed like a dramatic way to mark a fresh start in my life. Since then, I have continued to dye my hair an endless cycle of rainbow colors, and I’m not sure when (or if) I will ever stop doing so. It brings me a great deal of joy and makes me feel good about my appearance, so I will probably keep rocking this look for years to come.
One last event that seems significant during this phase of my recovery was my decision to start trying to date again. In late 2010, I reactivated my OKCupid Account and put myself out there for the first time in over four years. Dave and I had not spoken for months, and I realized that my experience with him had opened a door in my heart that I was no longer sure existed. I wanted intimacy again. I wanted to fall in love again. I had no idea who on earth could bring me as much joy as Jay had brought me, but I was suddenly, finally, curious about the answer to that question. I was ready to begin looking again, and I could finally feel myself coming alive.
(Dye job one: Manic Panic Cotton Candy)
(Dye Job two: Finding Cotton Candy unsatisfactorily bright, I covered it with Manic Panic Hot Hot Pink. NOW THAT'S WHAT I'M TALKING ABOUT.)