Mental Illness, as described to me by my son…
Imagine you’re on a train, like an old-fashioned passenger train. It’s comfortable and you’re sitting in a seat, with people in almost all of the other seats. A lot of the people you know and you’re friends with but there are also lots of people you don’t know. They’re walking around too and going from train car to train car, just doing what they do. There’s people talking and laughing, some just reading or being quiet. You’ve just been having a fun conversation with some of your friends but now you look out the window and there’s scenery going by; fields and lakes and mountains… and it’s pretty and you’re having a good time looking at what goes by.
You’re not sure how long you were looking out the window and you think maybe you fell asleep because things look different a little now. It’s not sunny anymore – kind of grey and cold looking now. The lakes are gone and the trees and grasses aren’t green anymore. You figure that you must have gone a really long way and you miss the way the scenery was. All this time, you’re not really sure where you’re going anyways.
You realize that it’s really quiet around you so you stop looking out the window and notice that the train is empty. Everyone is gone and you don’t know where they went or when they left. You don’t remember the train stopping or anyone getting off or even any of your friends saying goodbye to you – but they’re all gone now and you’re alone.
The train is cold now and you look back outside and it’s almost dark now. It’s all rocks and cold outside now and nothing is growing. You get out of your seat and walk up and down the train car alone. The doors at the end that led to the other cars are still there but they don’t lead anywhere now. You go to the window at the end that looks back on where you’ve come from and can see a faint light way back in the distance but the train car is speeding away from it so fast it’s almost gone.
You go to the window at the front of the train car that looks forward to where you’re going and it’s pitch black and ice is starting to form on the window because it’s getting so cold outside.
You know that you can’t stop the train car or make it go back to where you were. You know that the only way to not go where you’re heading – which looks horrible – is to get off the train… and that means jumping and that you’ll die. So you make the choice to do that … because you can’t go back and you don’t want to end up where you’re going.
This was how Willie described it to me one day when he was trying to explain what it was like inside his head… and why he wanted to kill himself. I haven’t shared this before as it was very private to me but I hope this helps people understand as much as it did for me when he explained it this way.
This is traditionally a time of year to look forward and make resolutions for the coming year and set goals for what you want to achieve. While that’s certainly something that I tend to do, it’s harder for me right now. Grieving and moving through a depression makes it tough for me to plan and look forward sometimes. It’s a work in progress and getting better but it’s still a challenge. A close friend suggested that I focus on, and write down, the victories that I’ve achieved and celebrate those…. So here it is for the last year and a half…
1. I’m still here to write this list. There have been times this past almost couple of years that that wasn’t always clear that I would make it – but I have.
2. My kids are amazing! Ok, this may not seem like my victory but it is. Recognizing and celebrating the fact that I had something to do with them turning out so great is a big thing for me. Owning the great job I did as a parent didn’t come easy after losing Willie and the guilt that I still battle with.
3. I am living where I have wanted to be for many years. After many years of wanting to move to Victoria I finally made that happen. Gave away or sold almost all of my physical belongings and moved with only what would fit in 2 car loads … a new start in a place that is truly home.
4. I have a job that I love. I didn’t settle or give up. It was a struggle and many months of searching but I found a job that fits with how I wanted to live my life.
5. I am letting love into my heart again.
6. I’m having good hours – not yet at full good “days” but getting there …there were many times that I doubted that I would ever have that again, but I am.
7. I’m setting goals. For anyone who has lived with not wanting to be around you’ll understand how much that means to plan for the future – even if the future plans are just a week in advance.
8. I can talk about past events and remember them with laughter… still often times with tears… but now with laughter as well and more often.
9. I can read again. The ability to focus on words on a page – reading for pleasure – was lost to me for a very long time. Now, that’s coming back, thankfully.
10. I have hope. That alone is the biggest victory of all.
Sometimes what I write is eloquent and pretty and insightful. Sometimes it’s painful and wrenching and filled with my emotions and pain. Believe it or not though… I do censor what I put out there. I have had many people tell me that I share so openly but the truth is that no one has any idea of the numerous journal entries that will never see the light of day because of their content and because of how what is inside of me is displayed on the page. How sometimes the ugly part of what we went through with Willie is just too much to put out there. That I , many times, decide that something is too loaded and too vulgar to share – even though I know that in order for us all to really grasp what hell mental illness can be – we need to see that ugly side. So with that in mind, here’s where my head is at tonight…you don’t have to understand or agree with me…barely a glimpse into torment
I remember a few thoughts I had when the police officer told me that Willie was dead. The first thought was not so much a thought as it was simply a feeling. No. To this day, that still sits within me. That first guttural reaction of the belief that what I had been told couldn’t be true still rears up every now and then. I know, intellectually, that Willie is dead; but emotionally and instinctively…. That’s another story.
Recently, in a therapy session, while talking about accepting that what Willie did was what he really wanted I said something that was a recall of a thought I had during those first few moments. Unremembered for almost two years and then just there… the words out of my mouth capturing a thought so repellant to me that I didn’t want to think it, never mind voice it.
That thought was relief. Relief that his attempt had been successful. Not in the sense that I was relieved he was dead… but relief that his biggest fear wouldn’t come true. Willie had shared with me that he was so afraid of trying to kill himself and having it not be successful and that he would be left brain-damaged or vegetative… and unable to complete what he had been attempting. While my conscious mind was in shock at hearing that he was dead…. While I wanted more than anything for him to not have done what he did… there was some part of me in that split second that was relieved that he wasn’t going to face what he was scared of by attempting. Also that I wasn’t going to have to face what to do… he had come to me a couple of months earlier with an internet story of a teen that had tried to kill herself and had been saved. As a result, she was unable to move or speak and was mentally damaged from the attempt. Yet, she was somewhat cognitive. Willie showed it to me and he asked me that if that ever happened that I had to promise him that I would end his life for him at that point – that if he wasn’t physically able to, he asked me to. That may sound like an odd conversation but he was very open about being suicidal and as a result, we all were. To allay his fears, I promised him that I would… I also re-iterated that we would get through this all and that suicide was not the answer.
As I stood there and heard the words from that police officer I was flooded with emotions and thoughts and feelings beyond description and at a rate that defied me being able to even connect with it all. I felt what I had heard described as the world stopping or the bottom falling out of everything.
It’s only now, almost 2 years later that those few moments are starting to slow down enough for me to decipher what is in them. With each second uncovered and recalled the pain burns in a new way… grief is raw and sometimes what we need to talk about with regards to suicide is raw too, but this is the only way it comes out of the shadows and gets dealt with.
I am reminded and counselled and nudged to remember that Willie would want me to be happy. That he would want me to move forward and have a happy rest of my life. I know that’s true, I know that I need to do that and I want to. I don’t want to be where I am… hurting and missing him and reeling every other day it seems like. I feel like I’m letting him down and letting myself down when I hit another spell of not being able to get out of the bed to do what I’m supposed to do. When I sit and cry and can’t stop.
I hear from well-meaning friends and from therapists that I am the only one who can choose to make the decision to let go and move forward and let myself be happy. I know this to be true. The frustration that I have in me when I am struck by another day like today … a day where I can’t move because of the grief and the tears and the pain… the frustration is enraging. I don’t know anymore how to grieve and feel the loss without feeling like I shouldn’t be feeling this.
If I push the feelings away and don’t feel them then I’m not processing things and just perpetuating the issues of not facing it… and I’ve been told I need to stop pushing it all away in order to be able to move forward…but when I feel what comes and am struck with this pain, I feel like I’m failing at choosing to be happy and that people will be just more and more pissed off that I’m not moving on and letting go. Am I stuck like this forever?
There comes a point where it becomes me that is keeping me from moving forward, that’s what I’ve been told… and I guess it’s true….so how the hell do I grieve?
Fuck, I hate this. Yes, that’s crude and vulgar – so is grief.
Pushing people away… or keeping them at a distance that is safe. Safe from what though? This is something that I have been trying to understand. I have had a real issue with this since Willie died .
I didn’t realize until just recently that I was doing it – or to what extent I have been. It’s become noticeable to me now only because I am finally starting to desire to have people close to me again… and I’m finding that there’s a wall that was never there before; and that I built that wall.
A wall that went up very quickly after Willie’s death. Looking back now I see that it started right away. The day after Willie died, I pushed away offers of help and continued that way for a very long time; something that I still struggle with today. I pulled away from my friends, barely seeing them. When I did spend time with them, there was a distance and a barrier between us that was palpable and uncomfortable. It began with avoiding people in public and when I would drop my son off at school. I wouldn’t get out of the car… it was too hard to run the gauntlet of people offering condolences or asking if there was anything they could do to help. At the grocery store I would go to check outs with clerks that I didn’t know personally – a hard feat in a small community that I had been in for so many years. Ducking out of aisles in stores when I saw someone I knew, before they saw me. I got my ex-husband to take my son to soccer games so that I wouldn’t have to see anyone and face talking – or worse, the polite avoidance because no one knows what to say.
So the wall started to be built and it stayed, and it grew to what it is now. An obstacle that I have put there and that I have to work to remove. At its core is the fear of being hurt by loss. It’s impossible to explain the loss of a child… losing someone who was inside of me and a part of me from his first being. He was separate from me, but, like all my children, also a part of me and inseparable from my being in a way. To lose him hurts more than I could have ever imagined. That wall exists in a manner of keeping anyone from coming close again so that I don’t have to experience that pain again if I lose them.
The wall went up so quickly and unconsciously that it’s going to take some time to take it apart. Slowly and painstakingly, little by little. Sometimes shoring back up the bricks I’ve just taken down as the fear storms in… fear born out of feelings that feel foreign and scary to me. Coming down consciously now though.
Forgiveness is a rough journey that I’m travelling right now. Whether or not the guilt that I carry is valid or rational or not is a moot point. The fact is that I do carry it; and it’s heavy. I have had therapists help me dissect it and try to understand why I have no actual reasons to have this guilt but the end result is that I do… and I have to learn how to forgive myself… because it doesn’t matter whether I need to forgive myself or not; what matters is that I have to because I believe that I am guilty.
My belief is simple… when my children were entrusted to me to care for them, nurture them, teach them and guide them to adulthood… it became my responsibility to ensure that they reached adulthood, safely. No matter how much anyone picks it apart or reasons that I did everything that I could the very basic fact remains that I failed. That Willie is dead.
But this isn’t about guilt or trying to convince myself that I DO feel guilt… a new thought has settled. An acceptance that, very simply, I do feel guilt. Whether that is right or wrong is inconsequential – I just do. This, in a way, is very freeing. With that acceptance comes the understanding that I need to forgive myself. I am the person who has imposed this guilt on me, so I am the only one who can lift it.
As with so many other areas of my life, there’s no one else who can do the work or enact the changes that need to happen internally. It’s just Me.
The understanding and the acceptance are the truths that have settled with me recently; not with sadness but with the freedom to know that to move forward and leave it behind I know what to do. Forgiveness.
I’m approaching the second holiday season since Willie died. Last year was a complete departure from the “usual” holiday festivities. In place of our standard decorations and baking and dinners and being together… christmas tree decorating and presents and stockings… instead of all of that there was nothing. I chose it that way. I did try to put up a few decorations but it felt wrong and made me more sad than anything else. Last year was the christmas season that I just wanted to not happen. Myself and the older boys made the decision to not have a tree, to not exchange presents and to forego the turkey dinner that I did every year. Instead we had chinese food, went for a hike christmas morning and enjoyed our time together. It was unlike any other holiday season and it was good in its own way. It felt right that it was so different since it felt so wrong for it to be happening without Willie.
This year, as I am starting to forge into really seeking joy again and figuring out how to live with grief and missing Willie but also at the same time have happiness in my life again I find myself asking a lot of questions. Questioning not only the holiday season traditions that I bucked last year but so much more in my life.
Sticking with holiday thoughts for now though…
I’ve spent the last month or so growling about holiday decorations in store windows and flinching at christmas songs. Part of me hates the holidays because of what is lost. The togetherness, the family time and the traditions that are gone now that I loved so much. The feelings that I used to have when we got out the tree and decorated the house. The kids all over the house because school was out… the baking and the stupid christmas movies we would watch every year together. All of that now gone and the hurt of it being gone is symbolized for me in every christmas song that I used to hum along with and every glittery wreath that used to make me giddy that it was the holidays.
It snowed here the other day, Just a little bit; but it was enough to make my walk home feel brisk and wintery. I smiled as I walked and actually realized how much I love the snow still – especially since I don’t have to drive :). It brought me that “warm and fuzzy” feeling that I used to get… and this time I just enjoyed it. I didn’t turn from it and hate it because of what wasn’t anymore… I looked at it and saw that the happy of the snow in the streetlights and the crisp in the air could exist in the same space as my grief… that the tears in my eyes just made the snow prettier for that moment as I felt joy in it again.
I went out with a special friend last night and when she suggested going to the Empress to see the Festival of Trees on display my gut instinct was to say no… but instead I said yes. We went and strolled and looked at the Christmas trees all lit up and decorated and it was nice. A little sad for me as I remembered times spent with the boys as we would set up our own tree, but I let myself look inside and see what I was feeling… and it was happiness. Enjoying something that I didn’t know if I ever would be able to again.
A little start towards re-examining what it is that still makes me smile and what new things I’ve discovered that do as well. The biggest joy is finding that I have the ability to feel that still.
And to wrap it up… one of my favourite holiday songs… just because it still makes me smile to hear it…