Grief, felt

Moments that sit in my mind with such clarity that the emotions that consume me when they come burn like flames that only grow hotter with time.

Visions that sting, tears searing my eyes.  My mind unable to push away the images that fill the expanse of its sight.

Reflections of times past that hurt worse than I ever imagined pain could.

My arms sore from wanting to hold him and touch him one more time. Hands that can’t forget how he felt when I said goodbye to him.

My very being aches to hear his voice again, to see his smirking smile or his laugh.

Missing him more every day that passes as the reality settles in that he’s gone.

Waking every day, that moment when truth sits heavy on my chest. Truth that life is altered and shattered, irreparable.

My sleep broken by nightmares…made worse because they’re memories and not make believe.

The lonely hours of the night punctuated by sleeplessness and tears, morning bringing another day of grief.

3 months

When I look back at the time that Willie and our family was dealing with his mental illness it strikes me how sudden and fast it was. Listening to and talking with other families and youth, I see that most often their struggles are measured in years and sometimes decades. They spend months and years in treatment and trying to get the help they need.  Our story is so brief.

It was 3 months from the time that Willie wrote me that note telling me that he thought he was mentally ill and that he needed help. The note that said he wanted to die. 3 months from that day until the day he ended his life. Just a little less than 3 months actually. At the time it was such an interminable span of time. Now, searching back through his journals and with a clarity that only hindsight can bring, we know that it was much more than those 3 months. What we lived through as a family was just the last glimpse of what Willie had been living with for years. Willie admitted during counselling to a previous suicide attempt when he was 13 – almost 3 years before. It was during a time when I knew something wasn’t right and had taken him to the doctor after I questioned some disturbing writings in his calendar. That was chalked up to “normal” teenage behaviour and I was told to stop worrying. Had I known then, I wouldn’t have stopped worrying.

One of the things that does have an impact on me as I look back and try to remember the good times is that during those 3 months, for all the fighting and anger and turmoil that was going on, Willie and I had so much time together. All of the trips to the hospitals and counsellors. The times visiting in the hospital when there really isn’t anything to do but sit with each other. That leads to conversations. Conversations that led to me sharing my own struggles and my own sense that it does get better…maybe it’s hard to see that, but it does. It’s within those conversations also that I got to know Willie in a way and a depth that I don’t know that I would have had it not happened. For that, part of me is incredibly grateful. It also hurts to know the pain he was in and to think back and recall the parts of himself that he shared that I couldn’t help him with. We tried, but he did such a good job at hiding key things from the doctors and therapists that they were treating a smokescreen that he created as a diversion. They focused on the family relationships, the fighting and the arguments over video games and bedtimes and dishes when they should have been focusing on the suicidal rants on his journals that we had found. The pages of disturbing and distraught entries that documented a mind that was tormented by itself and wanted help. They classified him as depressed and anxious – which he was – but they missed so much more. With a family history that includes an uncle on permanent disability for psychosis and a cousin who spent time in the same facility just a few months before for mental illness we were highly concerned – and voiced those concerns, time and time again. Only to be told that we were worried about nothing. He was just depressed and would be fine.

Willie shared fears and secrets with me that I struggle with whether or not to divulge even now…  confidences that were spoken in the car in fits of rage or in moments of such complete misery that he had nothing left and wanted to leave his feelings with someone.  His common and usual final words to me at the end of every conversation were “you just don’t understand what it’s like to me inside my head – I just want to be dead”… and he was right, at that time, I didn’t understand. I was blinded with a love and a commitment to do whatever it took to ensure he was ok – and alive. Over the past 18 months though, I understand. Maybe not to the degree of mental illness that he endured and feared getting worse, but I understand. I understand both the strength and the abject weakness that’s needed to get to the point of reaching out for help. I know that when he wrote me that note and walked away so I could read it, it took more nerve than anything he had ever done. I also think that that night was the night that he decided on the last ditch attempt to “get better” and be helped. That was why it was so fast – 3 months. In his mind, it was the final chance to see if he could be helped. As was always his way, he was impatient and impulsive. He hated waiting and always wanted everything NOW. It’s no surprise that for him, if results didn’t happen quickly, they weren’t going to happen.

Those 3 months were the worst yet they were also filled with a lot of little moments that still make me smile. Walking down the hallway in the hospital and Willie exclaiming in the silence, punctuated by my boots clicking, that he hated that sound… it became a running joke that he would check my feet when I came to visit and smirk if I had the boots on – which of course, I made a point of wearing after that…we shared an odd sense of humour. The phone calls of nothing to say, just lonely from the hospital before bedtime and lights out. A boy who was taller than me and still growing but every bit as much a momma’s boy as he ever was in so many ways.

In a way, those 3 months ended and we were all still so caught up in the process of trying to make it all ok that we were left in shock at what happened. We were left to try to stop the roller-coaster that had been going and halt course. When you’re barreling ahead at the speed we seemed to be it’s one hell of a jolt when that stop comes.

Grief and Depression

Grief and Depression

These have been my companions for some time now. They are both horribly similar and vastly different from each other. Both have a cruel impact on my life in their own way. It sounds almost crazy to imagine but the journey so far has been unlike anything I can grasp some days.

To try to separate them is easy in some ways. The grief hasn’t been a constant – and rather, for a long time, it wasn’t really noticeable. I thought I was grieving but looking back to the first 6 or 9 months – actually, the first year pretty much – I was in such a state of shock and numbness that I wasn’t really grieving. It’s hard to explain how you can hurt for so long and be in such pain with loss but then hurt even more because it really hits home.

To think that I have been hurting so badly only to realize that as time goes on the pain become even greater and the missing him even more profound. The depression has been here for some time now but it wasn’t until I came to the realization that the grief was finally being felt – and it was so much pain –  that the depression started to have a  firmer hold. When the hope that it would get better instead of worse started to slip, the weight of sadness settled and I stopped believing that I would ever be able to have joy in my life again. Never mind joy, to just have days without the hurt that is constant and the heaviness inside would be welcome.

So the depression sat and grew…and started to replace the grief in some way. The grief took a step back, the pain of losing Willie supplanted with the crushing fog of clinical depression. I have careened between functioning and putting on a face of composure to the opposing realm of complete despair in privacy with an inability to even make myself do the base necessities of trying to get “better”.

My embarrassment at admitting that I am not “ok” causing me to hide my grief and depression to all but a few close to me for months. My façade at work so perfect that they had no idea that I would go home and fall into bed, barely able to crawl out in the morning to drag myself through another day. Even my closest friends not aware of the depth of depression sitting inside of me.

Understanding now that I need to deal with the depression and have that under control and subsided so that the grief can once again take its place, where it needs to be, at the forefront. It’s impossible to grieve when the level of depression is so high… So for now, the grief sits in the background, waiting for its chance to rise and be felt. The depression keeping a numbness and apathetic melancholy most times. The irony of the two… that I struggle to lift the depression so that I can feel the pain of grief. Striving to let go of the crushing sense of detachment that comes with the depression and in return for that knowing that I will be consumed by the hurt of loss.

The paradox that on days that people consider I’m having a “good” day I am, in actuality, depressed and able to fake it because the grief is held in check. The days that I am absolutely incapable of keeping it together and the tears don’t stop… those are the days that the depression has quieted and the grief has stepped forward and the feelings are there – finally.

The conflict to understand and accept and live with the fact that those “bad” days when I feel like I can’t take one more step forward are the days that I AM healing. That those days are the days that need to happen so that I CAN take steps forward.  That those are the days that I need more of if I want to be able to live my life.

So please, I’m not worse on days that I can’t hide it or fake it anymore… those ARE the “good” days in the sense that they’re progress.  I may not want to feel this but I have to if I want to be able to feel joy and happiness again.

Looking forward

I recently saw two young adults speak at an event relating to youth mental health. Both of these youth have had, and continue to have personal struggles with mental health and they offered a unique insight to the challenges that a young person faces when trying to not only figure out growing up but growing up with mental illness.

I want to touch on the young man who spoke, Brent Seal . His struggle through illness, diagnosis and ongoing treatment and living with Schizophrenia is inspiring. He is an articulate and touching speaker. It was very hard to listen to his story and not see the “what-if” with Willie and his journey.

One of the points that Brent made in his speech that struck me so poignantly is that when he was diagnosed, he googled “schizophrenia success stories”…and didn’t find much. He re-told how he had a choice to make at that point and he chose to BE a success story of living with Schizophrenia and having a full, productive and great life. And he is. It’s so hopeful to see someone who has found what they need to go on. He admits that he has had episodes and relapses – as almost everyone with a mental illness will – but that he’s doing ok.

It reminded me of when Willie and I had talked about mental illness and what the future could hold. He told me that he had looked up different mental illnesses on the internet and that it was pretty bleak. I didn’t know it at the time but Willie’s mind was beyond depression and anxiety. He was struggling with what may have been early signs of psychosis and was doing his best to hide this from everyone –including his psychiatrist and other therapists. We have a close family member (Willie’s Uncle) who lives with mental illness and is severely affected by it so Willie had a first-hand account of what life can be like with a disorder so significant that it affects your ability to live your life. I argued with him that the internet may not be the best place to get his information; that we were dealing with depression and that it would all work out ok in the end. What I didn’t know was that Willie was slowly losing hope and belief that it would be ok. He eventually lost faith in the system and in our ability to help him. He gave it a try… he told me that just before he died. He explained that he had tried it “our” way – the hospitals, the doctors and medications and therapies – and it wasn’t working.

Hope is a tenuous thing. Blind faith that somehow, things will get better won’t allow us to remain hopeful. We do have to see that what we are doing is making a difference and enacting change that needs to happen.  I’m not sure yet what form my movement forward will take but I need it. I need it so that I can have hope that even though Willie is gone, we can help another youth who may be losing hope.

We need more and better resources but we also need better access and navigation through the resources that we already have. Our family doctors need to be aware of what help there is available and how to access it. Parents and families need to know of support groups that can offer a shoulder, an ear and a nudge in a direction that may help. We need youth who have gone through this to speak out and help their peers. Our kids need so much and we all owe it to them to do the best we can to deliver.

Fall out

I was at an event on Monday that was a challenging one for me to navigate through. It was a “Planning Day” hosted by VIHA (the Vancouver Island Health Authority) and the MCFD (Ministry of Child and Family Development), specifically relating to child and youth mental health. This is a subject that is close to my heart since losing my son to suicide on Feb 1 2012.

So many thoughts and emotions are swirling inside my mind right now that it’s hard to formulate them into any semblance of organization so there will be a lot of writing over the next little bit as I process what I took in and try to make sense of feelings.

The day stirred up a lot of emotions. I can’t say that my grief or depression are ever really far below the surface to be honest, but this certainly ripped off any scab that was starting to form. I knew it was going to be a tough day and I was well aware that I was walking into a room that would be filled with clinicians, mental health care workers, maybe some fellow parents and possibly some youth who all were there to talk about youth mental health. I was prepared for the fact that I was going to have to be very cognizant of my emotions and that self-care was going to be a big thing that day. My psychiatrist was going to be there as well so there was at least one person who I knew that would be a familiar face though.

The drive up to Nanaimo, a little less than 2 hours, was stressful and anxious for me. I was nervous and wasn’t sure what to expect. As I got closer to Nanaimo my anxiety increased and tears started – which only made me more nervous because what if I couldn’t control the tears there? I needed to be “strong” and in my mind that means not crying in front of people, especially people who I don’t know. Once arrived at the hotel where the event was to be held, I spent almost half an hour sitting and breathing and calming myself down. Walking in to the event, I felt like I could do this – I could keep my emotions in check and function and be clear in my thoughts.

One look at the agenda and I realized that I had no idea how I was going to deal with the inevitable question about who I am and where I’m from. We were instructed to get to know the people at our tables and the first question was “how are you associated? who do you work for?”. I answered simply, “I’m a parent” as there were about half a dozen parents invited, I wasn’t alone completely in that capacity. We were there to offer insight on the mental health system from a different perspective than the doctors or case workers or ministry policy makers.

What has left me somewhat reeling and trying to recover is what came next… the question of “how old is your son… how is he doing now?”. Trying to stammer out the answer made me feel like a baby giraffe trying to stand for the first time. I stuttered and didn’t know what words to use and I teared up and barely got out that he was “no longer with us”. When asked when, I managed, “Feb 2012, almost 18 months” and then there was an awkward silence as the person nodded and looked sad and I just sat there. Even in that environment where youth mental health is openly discussed and the word suicide is not shunned, I couldn’t say the words that would explain how he died. I realized that 18 months on one hand is such a long time and feels like an eternity… and yet, opening my mouth and saying those words on Monday seared with a pain that felt like it was last week. It felt fresh and raw and recent. It felt like i had him in my arms just last week and now he’s gone.

I have spent the last 2 days wondering if I will ever feel like it’s not that raw. If 18 months has gone by and mentioning him out loud to new people hurts this profoundly, will it ever be any easier to live with?

I took away so much from that day, and there is so much in my mind that is screaming to be put down here but for now it all comes down to that question. I am feeling the grief, I am living with it… It’s so hard and the pain is so much. I need to believe and have hope that it will get easier.That belief and that  hope can’t be given to you in a pill or made to be known by someone (or many someones) telling you that it will. You just have to feel it inside. Only time will give me that hope.

I miss Willie every day. I wish he had had hope… I wish he had seen the truth that he could have a full and good life, living with mental illness. I wish that he had been more patient. But none of those wishes will change what is, now. All we can do is move forward and see what we can do to help the others who are like him.