Forgotten

When my kids were little I used to tell them life isn’t fair, but we try to be. Life isn’t fair or unfair – it just is. We’re the ones who decide what life is by the way we think about it. We’re all going to die. What’s unfair about that? I mean, what if no one died? On the simplest level, we wouldn’t fit on the planet. Everything goes in cycles, everything changes, all things end. It’s more helpful to observe the way life is than to decide how it should be. So many people have said to me that Philip shouldn’t have died. Really? How can anyone know that? What matters “should?” That he died is my sorrow, but I can’t see the bigger picture we’re all part of. I want him to come home, but “shoulds” are not for me. He has died and I have to live with it. It’s not fair or unfair.

As for good-bye – there are things that do not have “closure.” The very idea doesn’t make sense. If the definition of closure is to bring to an end, how can you possibly have “closure” when someone you love dies? I think the yearning for closure is wanting the pain to stop. But as long as you love, you’re vulnerable to pain. Closure and acceptance are different. Acceptance is when you stop fighting what’s so – that’s all. It doesn’t mean you’re happy about it. And “moving on.” What’s that supposed to mean? I’ve said a million times, you don’t move on, you live with. I will never “move on” from Philip’s death. I don’t live in wild, crazy grief any more, but I’ve a deep, abiding sorrow. It’s quiet, and it’s always there. But that’s the other side of my love for my son. I can’t get rid of one without the other.

Facing death is our biggest challenge, and we do everything we can to avoid it. I don’t think we even realize what we do – go to the gym, stay in shape, wear the right clothes…what is it all for? It’s to prolong life, thereby avoiding death. I get just as caught up in it as anyone. Death is terrifying because we don’t know what it is. When someone we love dies it affects us deeply and irrevocably. You change a little every time. Grief doesn’t go away any more than love goes away.

Death is the last and biggest change. All the changes we go through in life can help prepare us if we stop resisting them. Every time we release an emotion, release a fear, we’re getting ready for death.

What would life be without death? What would make us stop and think and try to make sense of life if there was no death? Death shows us what’s important, time makes us forget. I have forgotten. I am too much in the world these days, too much at the whim of what’s happening instead of letting it be. My new job is a challenge. And instead of remembering I’m competent, I’m riddled with anxiety. I forget to eat because that’s what I do when I’m anxious. And if I think of eating, my throat closes down.

Such old behavior. I can’t control the work that’s thrown at me, but I can control what I eat. Not eating feels powerful – a need that I’ve turned from. And by the end of my work day, when I know I should eat something before I go home, I’ll pick on my salad or eat slow spoonfuls of yogurt. My upsets always tie into food. For years I had bulimia. On and off, but when I was on, I went full blast. When Philip died, first I whittled my 5’4″ self down to 100 lbs. And when I could no longer stand the hunger, I started eating and throwing up. Punishing myself, because when something goes wrong, that’s what I do. I did it until the violence of what I was doing to my body started to scare me. I’d shove my finger down my parted throat and strain so hard my insides felt like they were coming out the other end. I had to rid myself of what felt wrong and dirty. Until my eyes were bloodshot and my head was throbbing . Until my body felt as empty as my life did.

In the years following Philip’s death I began to see what was important. I understood – no, I knew – that whatever it was, I could put space between me and it. Like if I took a new job, my real work was not Excel spreadsheets and vendor payments. It was the way I treated what I was doing. Every situation is an opportunity to make meaning, to learn how to love. And what are we here for if not to learn how to love? How, exactly, does Excel teach love? It doesn’t. It’s what I make of it. If I remember that what I’m doing matters to my boss, if I work to give him what he needs, if I do it with care and respect, that, right there, is love. Because love is not merely a feeling, it’s a state of being.

But I’ve been panicking a lot, feeling like what I do isn’t good enough, waiting to be exposed. Drama, drama, drama. I can’t seem to get myself out of it. Then I go home and hibernate. I don’t know how to make a life I could enjoy. I would say the biggest reason is the nasty, nattering voice in my head that I goddamn can’t stop listening to.

The anxiety I feel at work turns into helplessness when I go home. I want to move but the thought overwhelms me. I want to be inside but I think I should be out. Sometimes it’s like I’m just waiting to die because what’s it for, anyway. I have forgotten. When Philip died I was plunged into a life I couldn’t scramble out of. Eventually I began to work with the void and understood why it’s called “fertile.” But my heart’s closed along the way. Along with that writing’s been tough. I can’t write when I’m shut down.

More on that later…

© 2017 Denise Smyth

For a Reason?

“Acceptance of the unacceptable is the greatest source of grace in this world.”
                        Eckhart Tolle

When Philip died, it didn’t occur to me to follow anyone’s prescription about how to grieve. The same when I was pregnant – I admit to buying “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” but I only read a couple chapters. I had already done some serious research on giving birth, including interviewing midwives and doctors. WTEWYE seemed to skim the surface. I wanted to understand the process of giving birth because I’d decided to have my babies at home. Death and birth need be aided by others, but the hospital doesn’t seem the place for either. I am grateful for the medical community, but it often interferes when it should simply facilitate. Death and birth are as intensely personal as they are widely universal. The question before me was, How do I want to do this?

Back then, I couldn’t exactly say why I wanted to home birth, except it felt right and authentic. Through giving birth I was learning to trust the body that I’d been waging war with for years. I was sad and moody even as a kid and I took it out on my body. As if my body was the problem. Bodies are not the problem. Bodies are tools – while we are in them, they are expressions of life. They are the receptors through which we feel and experience. But to blame my body for what I was feeling was akin to blaming my pen for my inability to write when it ran out of ink.

I grew up in rage and depression at what I couldn’t articulate but now understand was a lack of love and compassion. And what can a child do with rage and depression? Certainly not reason about it. My particular way was to drink. Which I started to do when I was 11. Pot and pills followed soon after, then bulimia in my early 20s. All in a rage against my body because it was making me feel. And when getting high didn’t work, I tried a serious but flawed attempt to kill myself. That I didn’t succeed was not a moment of revelation. It was a defeat because I knew I wouldn’t try it again – I wasn’t about to become a joke, someone whose version of a cry for help was inventing new and futile ways to kill herself. I failed. I was embarrassed and beaten.

So I went to therapy, stopped drinking. Eventually tried to deal with the bulimia, something that proved a far harder challenge than drugs and alcohol. I could grasp the concept of not taking the first drink. What was the formula for an eating disorder? Don’t take the first compulsive bite? Exactly which one was that? Sometimes, in my confusion, I’d opt for eliminating all all bites and I’d go days without eating.

But the body, restored to its rightful place, is a point of power. It’s where we access the richness of our inner life. It’s where we learn what true connection means and how it goes beyond the point of physical. Philip did not start as a body – he started as a longing. I wanted a child and so was graced with him. His birth was a continuation of the relationship I’d begun to form with him when I recognized that I wanted him. And grievous as his death is, we are still in relationship. It is hampered only by my inability to get my body out of my way.

To go to a hospital to give birth would be to give away the inherent power of my body. Women have been taught that we can’t trust our bodies, that our bodies cannot function as they are meant to. That somehow our prodding, probing and technology know better than we, ourselves, can know. That the pain of childbirth has no value and that we are unable to bear what women have borne always. We have been separated from our natural functions.

Like menstruating. There came a point as a young woman where I began to wonder where women’s disgust of their periods came from. Fertility is a power. Much as I wasn’t sure I wanted to have children, the idea that I had the power to do so made me feel sorry for men and what they would never know. My body could give life. I was part of the mystery. And much as I spent decades wishing I was dead, which really meant I wished I could stop feeling the terrible things I felt, some part of me recognized the sanctity of being able to give birth.

In the spirit of beginning to respect what my body could do, I stopped using “sanitary” napkins  – was my blood dirty? I bought cloth menstrual pads which I washed myself, watching the blood run over my hands as I rinsed my cloths before putting them in my “moon bowl,” where they sat until I washed them. I loved having my period. It was the mark of my fertility, and it is through that fertility that I came to know the two who I love best in this world.

And birth control. In my early twenties, I briefly went on the pill. Like everyone else I knew, I wanted the freedom to fuck. But something felt wrong about manipulating my cycle so I went off it.  Any method of birth control that I could use involved pills, diaphragms, iuds – all too invasive. I didn’t trust my understanding of my cycle enough to risk what was then called “the rhythm method” – so it was up to my partner and a condom.

When Philip died I ran to no manual about grief. By that point I’d stopped looking for something outside myself to tell me how to feel, to tell me what I was supposed to “do” to be happy. I was not in control of my feelings, but I could figure out how to handle them, and what I’d figured out and written about here countless times is that my credo became, Accept it, leave it, or change it. What else could ever be done, in any situation? The simple answer was also the most profound. Thing is, leaving or changing a situation might be difficult but felt doable. But “accept?” Years of hearing AA’s platitudes about acceptance made me bristle to even hear the word. I thought it mean lying in the road and letting a mac truck roll over me. And since all anything can ever mean is the meaning I give it, I couldn’t “accept” because I couldn’t understand.

What brought this all to mind is something I read on the internet, something, as one blogger wrote, “is making the rounds.” It had to do with the notion that everything happens for a reason, and the grieving author’s anger at people who spout that platitude. And I do understand that anger – what is such a trite expression in the face of losing a child? Is that supposed to comfort? What reason could anyone possibly come up with that would make this okay?

But then I got the idea that here we are again – angry, and doing with grief what the world does with everything: it’s us against them. The victims that have been forced to grief and the enemies who want to look away. It’s exhausting. This anger perpetuates grief, even as it feels good to have somewhere to direct our anger besides the seeming randomness of the universe.

We are all going to die. The timing is not up to us. Since death is as birth is, how do we live with it?

People are frightened. People spend lifetimes avoiding death even though they are always creeping toward it. People don’t know what to say when it comes anywhere near them. If someone says, “Everything happens for a reason” it simply means they don’t understand. It’s not you they’re trying to reason with, it’s themselves. So why would I insist people have to be what I want them to be, say what I want them to say? Yet how that stings when we feel we are being strangled by our grief, how that cuts us off when what we need is love and connection. There is no loneliness like the loneliness that comes from losing someone beloved.

Maybe it’s easy for me to look at this because I haven’t anyone who’s said anything like that to me. I’ve been told to “move on” which of course isn’t possible – but it was said in the spirit of kindness and that is what matters. The worst thing anyone said to me that first year was, “Uh, here we go” when I brought up Philip’s death in what I thought was the right context. I was both incredulous and angry for a long time after. Now, what matter? What people say tells you much about them, but nothing about you. People speak from fear, from anger, from ignorance –  we all do it and we don’t realize it. And when people continue to say hurtful things it is good and right to absent them from our lives. Sometimes we can’t, and so we have to draw a line in their condition. But sometimes we don’t, because sometimes we just want someone to target.

Last week I was alone in my office. In walked a client to pick up some paperwork. Noticing the picture of Philip on my desk, he asked with a smile, “Is that your son?” It is, said. And then I told him he died. “I am so sorry,” he answered; and he stayed and talked with me for a while. He listened to what I had to say. He has children of his own, and at one point his eyes teared up. That’s what we want, isn’t it? People to let us speak of the unspeakable, to be unafraid to hear what we’re saying.

Whether or not you think everything happens for a reason – the point is everything that happens, happens. It’s not about reason, but about meaning. Searching for a reason perpetuates grief because there is no satisfactory reason. The only meaning can come from what we make it to be. Loss is. To live in a body is to experience loss, in all its forms. No one escapes grief, no one escapes death. It’s not personal and it’s not done “to” us. It happens. And when it does, it changes us forever. We live with it every day, and we have choice how to do so. Not at first – depending on who we are, not for a long time. I lived underwater so long after Philip died, I don’t know how I didn’t suffocate. Searching for reasons would not have helped – the opposite, in fact, because asking why is an impossible question, designed to distract and thus prolong the worst aspects of our grief. There is never an acceptable answer. Death is its own reason.

Rather than looking for reasons, I ask myself how I can live with what is to me both a tragedy and a blessing. Philip is dead. I will one day join him, and when I do it will seem like life went by quickly. But since I’m here, how is it I want to be in the world? How do I walk with an open heart as I long to do? How do I stop hiding myself away because there’s something nagging at me that I won’t face – it’s an ancient darkness I carry and it’s going to take some strength to lay it down.

© 2015 Denise Smyth

“Hand to God”

A couple Sundays ago Kirsten took me to see a play, “Hand to God.” It was set mostly in a church rec room, and had five characters. Seven if you count the puppets. Three were teenagers – Jason, Jessica and Timothy, – one was the pastor of the church, the other was Margery, Jason’s newly-widowed mom, who was supposed to be teaching the kids puppetry. Jason was there because Mom insisted, Timothy was there while his Mom went to twelve step meetings, and Jessica was there because, well, she was “more into Balinese shadow puppetry,” but she’ll take what she can get.

But the real star of the show was Tyrone, Jason’s evil demon hand puppet. Jason steadily loses control over him – Tyrone even shows up in Jason’s bed after he takes him off one night. “He’s making me do bad things,” Jason tells Margery. Jason is a shy, troubled kid, and Tyrone becomes his mouthpiece. If Jason’s thinking it, Tyrone’s saying it. And if you’re thinking anything with a puppet or two is silly, it’s not so funny when Tyrone bites a bloody chunk of Timothy’s ear off. Or when, in desperation to be rid of him, Jason starts hacking Tyrone – in other words, his hand – with a hammer, and accidentally smashes his mother’s while he’s at it.

To paraphrase Tyrone – “self-hatred’s a bitch.”

Anger and lust drive the play. The pastor wants to sleep with Margery, who rebuffs him. Timothy also wants to sleep with Margery, who doesn’t rebuff him. Jason is smitten with Jessica, and Tyrone lets her know in his vulgar way. And before the show is over, Jessica’s puppet will have dirty puppet sex with Tyrone.

Two weeks later I’m still thinking about that play. That’s what happens with art, when you see yourself in it. Jason’s overwhelmed by his rage at Margery for being a shitty wife and mother. I’ve lived overwhelmed by rage, and my version of hammer-smashing my hand was drinking, vomiting and refusing to take care of myself, some of which I talked about here and here.

 There’s so many levels of disturbing in “Hand to God” that it’s hard to parse – not the least being the tragic hilarity of it all. Everyone – with the possible exception of Jessica – was unhappy and none of them knew what to do about it. And when the play was over, there wasn’t any resolution. Margery and Jason can bond over their mutually bloodied hands, but that won’t fix the history between them. And in spite of his viciousness, I felt like I lost something when Tryone was killed off before the end of the play, when there was nothing but the “real” characters left. But after the lights went out and the players disappeared, a spotlight shone above the stage, and there was Tyrone. Miss me? he asked; C’mon. You know you did.

What’s up with that? I couldn’t be the only one glad to see him. Tyrone the Terrorist was seductive and exciting. He was the best thing in a play filled with terrific. But I want to know why. I want to know why I’m so drawn to the dark side. “I don’t think I liked the play so much,” Kirsten said. “I really didn’t like what Jason did to his hand.” It bothered her – she has a limit to how far down she’ll go. Where’s my limit? What am I looking for in that dark? I believe that’s where I’ll find something real. Something raw and primal and so far down I can scream until I exhaust myself numb.

“You have to learn to like the light,” Philip tells me. He doesn’t say “love” – that’s too much right now. I’m drawn to gray days, to rain and thunder, to storms which don’t happen often enough. Melanie told me there’s a word for that – pluviophile. Lover of rain. I don’t think there’s anything to learn from lightness. I’ve been watching a lot of TV series, a lot of movies, and it’s making the way I experience life clearer. Entertainment is either a black or light image to me. When I hear “chick flick,” I think Waste of Time. When I hear drama, I’m seduced. I want the treachery – give me “Pulp Fiction,” “American History X,” “True Detective,” “Requiem For A Dream.” Let something besides my own morbid thoughts bring me to that darkness because if I see it outside of me I won’t be so alone with it – and maybe somewhere in that depravity I can figure out how to live with grief and death.

In “True Detective,” Rust says that with humans, “nature made a tragic misstep in evolution.” I thought about why someone would say that. And what I thought was how hard it is to be here, even if you get through without a major tragedy. First off, we live knowing we’re going to die, and since we don’t know what happens when we do, it’s terrifying. And it’s not only our own death we have to deal with. People we love will die, which can be a worse thing to suffer than any nightmare we might have had about dying ourselves. Then there’s the fact that we need each other, yet it’s so hard to get along. Especially when we’re wanting to be right more than we’re wanting to be loved. The world’s like a big refracting mirror. Our personal arguments are reflected in larger social arguments, which are reflected in even larger political arguments, which often culminate in the most massive, monstrous argument of all – war. If we take a look at what’s going on around us, it’s clear that as a species, we’re insane.

We deal with our tragedies in the context of the way we live, which means crisis brings out the past. So when Rust says we are mistakes of nature, that’s what his life has brought him to. What do I bring to my suffering? Philip’s death is my Sisyphus. The shock of it hurled me back to some personal, primitive beginning that I thought was long gone. But that’s the thing – life isn’t linear. It’s now, it’s all happening now. I brought the grief of a lifetime to Philip’s death. I’m torn and twisted and it’s hard to untangle the grief from the drama. When Philip said, “Don’t make my death into something it isn’t,” he meant don’t bring the past into this. And much as I’m talking about the void I’m attracted to, Philip’s in a light so profound I can only pray to have a glimpse of it. That’s the light that burns the past out of us, the light that leads to the Divine. And burning “the past out of us” has nothing to do with forgetting. I’m talking about a psychic past where we react based on the self we’ve created and so stay stuck in our stories. To burn the past out is to bring a freshness and wonder to whatever is now, including death and grief. And that doesn’t mean happy – it means clarity.

So on the one hand, I say I need the dark to understand death. On the other, I say it’s light that leads to transcendence. Do I even know what the hell I believe?

There’s so much I don’t understand. There are people who, after their child has died, reach a point where they find life more precious than ever. Is it because they loved life before, and so now appreciate its brevity the more? When I was a kid, I loved music. My parents gave me a transistor radio in a brown leather case that went wherever I did. When my mom would get mad at me, she’d take my radio away. She took a piece of me with it. “Didn’t you want music even more, when your radio was gone?” my therapist asked. So loss of something makes you want it more. But how’s that supposed to translate? Philip’s death has made me want his life more, not mine.

More, next…

© 2014 Denise Smyth

My Secret

I ended my last post with what was to be next. Instead, I digress.

 *******************

 AA says you’re only as sick as your secrets. The light’s supposed to shine away the dark. Because it’s always there, the light. It’s a matter of if you see it.

Secrets are built into addiction. It’s a matter of survival. “Addiction” becomes this thing you are, not this thing you have. It’s a force, and it wants to survive. It’s not supposed to be able to thrive in the light. So where does the light come from? Just from telling the secret? What exactly happens when you say the thing you think you are or think you have? With all the AA I’ve absorbed, you’d think I’d know.

I have bulimia and anorexia. I don’t mean I had bulimia and anorexia. I mean I have bulimia and anorexia. That’s been my response to Philip dying. At first I wouldn’t eat. For months after Philip died I picked at food. I was drained. A bag of bones my clothes hung on. It wasn’t so much a choice; the food wouldn’t go down. Anxiety was a tsunami in my belly. If anything went in, it would have been blown back out.

In the mess of days after Philip died, people wanted to feed me. “Are you hungry? Can I get you something to eat?” they’d ask. I could only shake my head. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t do normal. I couldn’t pay attention to anyone because they weren’t in my world. In my world the only answer was, “I will never eat again; I will starve myself to where my son is.”

David Foster Wallace, himself a sober addict when he died, wrote about benign and malignant addictions. “Many addictions, from exercise to letter-writing, are pretty benign.” He then adds, “…  something is malignantly addictive if (1) it causes real problems for the addict, and (2) it offers itself as relief from the very problems it causes.” And so round and round I go.

I am so damn angry. And I’ve a habit of punishing myself when I suffer loss, which I wrote about here. In the past, it was about The Guy. The one who always turned out to be a jerk, because, of course, it was his fault. All I wanted was to be loved. I lived for these guys, yearned for them, dressed for them, got on my knees for them; why the fuck couldn’t they love my need away? So I’d leave them, depressed and angry, and start the Food Games. Months of barely eating until my body couldn’t take it any more, at which point I went to war with it. Hunger was a betrayal, forcing me to eat when all I wanted to do was die. I’d sneak into delis and grocery stores, head down, walking as close to the shelves as I could, as embarrassed by my hunger as by my cartful of cookies and cupcakes and chips. I’d start eating in the car, and once I was home, tore through that food until I felt like a blimp about to burst. Then into the bathroom to hurl it all back at the universe. And soon as I got hungry again, I did it all over. Buying more food at different stores. At my worst, binging eight or nine times a day. At my worst, all 5’4” of me weighting 98 lbs., and counting down.

It was my mind that drove me crazy, and my body that I punished.

So what happened? At 28, I met my husband and it hit me it was either him, or my crazy. I chose him. I got help. I settled down. I learned how to eat, how to listen to my body. I stabilized at 125 lbs. The more I let myself eat, the less food was an “issue.” I got married, had kids. And to my wonder and surprise, after Philip was born, I lost more than my pregnancy pounds. I weighed in at 118, where I stayed for the next 20 years.

The blow of Philip’s death blasted me into a suffering I was helpless to deal with, so I turned to food. Same pattern – I went from barely eating, to vomiting. Back and forth, back and forth. Down to 102 lbs., obsessed with staying there. Telling no one; not anyone, for longer than I can remember. Until the day I told Kirsten, told Rose, who is sweet and lovely and who I’ve yet – but hope – to meet. Finally, I told my therapist. And most importantly, I told Natalie, because I would never have taken the risk that she’d find this out through a blog instead of directly from me.

I’ve been throwing out weight and height to make a point, to make the picture clear. To make myself see what I am doing, to shake myself into some semblance of caring for myself. Because much as I’m taking the steps to do what’s right, it’s coming from “I have to,” not, “I want to.” The have-to is because of Natalie; I love her enough to understand she needs me right where I am. It’s all for her; I don’t know how I ever let it get to be for me, too.

Here’s where I stand: I have stopped throwing up. I am afraid to eat, even though I do. I do not weigh myself. I am probably somewhere between 110 − 115 lbs. I am told I am too thin. I do not believe that. When I look in the mirror I don’t see what you do.

And I’m exhausted; I’m tired of worrying about food, tired of it always being on my mind, tired of the voices in my head  that don’t even sound like voices, just sound like normal thoughts. Normal? Here’s a sample: “Oh, are you going to eat that for lunch? That’s too heavy. You better not eat breakfast. Eat some grapes and drink some Vitamin Water. Don’t finish what you’re eating. It’s good to leave food on your plate. What are you going to eat for dinner? You ate lunch, after all, you can’t eat too much for dinner. And don’t eat too late. What? You’re eating popcorn at 10:00 at night? I don’t care if it’s fat-free; that’s bad. Very bad. Bad, bad, bad.”

This isn’t the end; it’s just all I can say for now.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Stay (Suicide, Part One)

No, I’m not going to kill myself. But I’ve been preoccupied with being dead, and since the inner eventually becomes the outer, all things suicide have been coming my way.

Natalie bought me a book about suicide for Christmas. “Stay,” by Jennifer Michael Hecht. I find the title wrenching. “Dad asked me if I bought it because I was worried you’re thinking about killing yourself,” she said. “I told him no, it’s just I know you’re interested in suicide.”

My therapist is concerned. So I asked Natalie, who, after getting annoyed about the whole thing, pointed out that she knows I once tried to kill myself and hence, my interest; that she heard about the book on NPR, which gave her the idea to buy it; that if I was going to kill myself I would have already done so, since I’ve gone through the worst thing in my life so far; and that anyway, I wouldn’t do that to her. And no, I wouldn’t.

But she’s the thread I’m hanging from. I have enough sanity to see she’s a reason not to die. But it feels impossible I’ll ever get to the part about wanting to live. Or maybe I don’t think about that for the next few-whatever. Maybe I first get through Philip’s birthday on January 20th, then February 23rd when it’ll be two years since he died. Because if I’ve learned nothing else these last two months, it’s that this year-two stuff is pretty sickening. Year one’s unreality has been replaced by year two’s finality, and where’s there to go from here?

I get a daily poem from The Writer’s Almanac, which, by the way, is connected to NPR. 95% of the time I don’t read them. But one day last week, I got two emails from the Almanac, the second one correcting the first. Maybe I should read it, I thought; maybe that poem’s trying to get my attention. It was a poem about suicide. I mentioned it to Natalie because of the book she’d given me, and she said maybe it was the same author. So I checked, and sure enough, it was.

And if that’s not enough suicide-stuff, a couple weeks ago, I got a link to a blog post about suicide. The blogger – who I think had once felt suicidal and is now really happy to be alive – decided that those who kill themselves are selfish and cowardly. I don’t argue online – I don’t usually have the energy or self-righteousness for it. But this closed-minded, cliched version of What Kind of People kill themselves incensed me enough to let the blogger know exactly what I thought, which included the fact that many who’d read the post were the ones who’d lived through a loved one’s suicide, and what kind of burden does that add to a load that’s already broken a whole bunch of people to pieces? (And the end of that story was instead of getting flipped-off, the blogger read my entire blog and left a lovely comment. Who knew??)

Since Philip died, I’ve come across people whose loved ones have killed themselves, and I don’t pretend to know what kind of hell it is to live with that. Especially if it’s your child – what ginormous excess of grief must that create? Suicide has nothing to do with the people who love you. It has to do with unfathomable loneliness, other-ness, not belonging, not seeing, not getting why you’re alive if this is what it feels; if all/most of the time, this is what it feels like. And screw feelings-aren’t-facts. Feelings are the world if that’s what you let them be.

My secret mantra has yet again become, “This won’t last forever because I will die.” Not exactly suicide, but a way of becoming one of the walking dead. I already wrote about what Philip said to me about suicide here. And I promised him I’d stop wishing myself dead. But lately, I’m not hearing anything but the battering between my ears, and I don’t know what it is I’m trying to accomplish with my little mantra. Maybe I think it’ll bring a natural death faster, and no one will blame me if that’s how I go.

I become unreachable when I’m lusting for death, which I’ve long considered the only way “out.” When I finally figured out that if I thought death was the answer, I was asking the wrong question, Philip died. And even though I remind myself that death remains the wrong answer, these last few weeks I’ve given up and given in and I see no way through. I’m not in touch with anything inside me that knows how to live, much less wants to. It seems wrong and unnatural, but life’s never much felt like a home I belonged in.

For whatever the reason, I was miserable and angry about life since I was a kid. When I turned 11, I decided the way out was to drink. By 14, I added pot to the mix. By 22, I had bulimia. For years I turned the rage I felt but never understood into a scathing diatribe against myself. I swore God took special pleasure in my unhappiness or else He’d make it go away.

When I was 21, I sat in my parents’ bathtub at 4:00 in the morning while they were away for the weekend, drinking and hacking away at my wrists with a razor blade. I thought I was making progress when the blood started spraying, but that’s when I heard the phone ringing. I guess I wanted to live more than I wanted to die because I answered it. It was my soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, Chris. Earlier that night, I’d left him at a party, drunk and angry that he hadn’t given me any of the Quaaludes he’d already passed out from taking. What he later told me was that he’d woken up out of his stupor and knew something was wrong when he couldn’t find me. He came over and wanted to take me to the emergency room. I refused, so he wrapped a towel around my wrist and went to a 24-hour drugstore for some butterfly bandages. When he was done patching me up, I sat in the bathroom watching him clean the blood from the walls around the tub.  On his knees, he tossed his long Jesus-hair back over his shoulders and never said a word while he worked. I longed to lay my head on his long, narrow back while he rinsed that bloody rag. I wanted him to love me as much as he wanted to save me, but when he stood and turned to me he was the Chris I knew again, his ever-increasing remoteness further justified.

After that, I went to therapy. I still didn’t want to live, but I was embarrassed by my failed attempt and by what I considered my cowardliness because I knew I wouldn’t do it again. By 24 I went to AA and I stopped drinking. By 30, I married Phil, which went a long way toward stabilizing my violent moodiness. I relied on his steadiness, but it offered no insight into how to build a life that I could enjoy. I’d stopped drinking and vomiting and had even given God a shot, but I wasn’t happy. I was living in a long, gray corridor called depression.  Wanting to die was my default position, the only way to permanently right what was wrong. I got it together for everyone else; I loved my kids and took care of my family, but the life I was living didn’t seem to include me.  I was bored staying home with the kids, unhappy being married, despondent because I had no career, resentful that being a wife meant having sex when the only touch I didn’t object to was that of my children. I was waiting my life out. I thought about swallowing pills but had no idea how to get them. Sleep was the only peace I knew, and the nights I was particularly despondent I’d crawl under the covers, pull them up to my chin and curl up to say my adult version of the prayer my mother taught me as a kid:

Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
I  pray to die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

But the Lord wasn’t listening, so I kept a package of razorblades in my kitchen drawer. I might’ve been too scared to use them, but they were my version of hope.

Next: Suicide, Part Two

© 2014 Denise Smyth

WTF?

Fuck art. It’s time for a rant, because really, I’m exhausted. Not for lack of sleep. For my mind tripping over my broken heart to figure this out or make meaning or whatever the hell it is my mind is trying to do while it’s continually screaming Philip is dead Philip is dead Philip is dead dead dead.

WTF? What’s today? I don’t know but it’s the Aftermath. The Christmas quiet which I used to wind down with my family, wrappings gone, bows saved, boxes still under the tree like we could open our presents all over again. My family, of which 1/4  is dead, 1/4 I’m separated from, and 1/4 is beginning to leave on her life’s adventure. And I am paralyzed because there’s nothing in me to be adventurous, there’s nothing in me that wants to go out and do anything. WTF kind of life is this? I can’t carry Philip’s death. It’s too goddamn heavy and I don’t know what to do. I miss him, I goddamn miss him. What does anyone do? What do you say to yourself, what do you do with your time when you’re suffering? I wrote a post called “What I do” about that, but there’s more. There’s food, there’s not eating, or eating and vomiting, and torturing myself that I’m going to get fat and fretting about it all the time and for shit’s sake I’m 55 and I’ve got adolescent eating problems. I am exhausted.

Somebody told me that Joseph Campbell said – big paraphrase coming here – that it’s not meaning that people are searching for, it’s the feeling of being alive. WTF? So I’m doing it wrong again? I thought I was trying to make some damn meaning out of all of this and be on my merry way to some peace, which is another idea I have the way I had an idea about forgiveness. Because I keep thinking I want peace which, in my idea, feels not like life but like tolerance of life, which is feeling very fucking empty right about now. Is that what I really want? A life that’s “tolerable?” Any wonder why I’m waiting to die? Why do people want to live, I asked my therapist? What’s with the wanting?

Why do you want Philip to live, she shot back? Which brings up a whole shitstorm of questions like, WTF is life, really; what is it when I can hear my son and read his signs and feel his nudges which would mean (there’s that word again) that life can’t possibly be about a body so it must more be about connection.

There it is. I don’t feel connected to anyone right now, not myself, not Philip, whose eyes I feel watching me even as I write this. And I don’t mean “eyes” as in those of a body but I am restricted to language to talk about what’s going on and “eyes” watching me conjures up what I’m feeling. I feel his watching, his patience. I feel him waiting for me to calm the fuck down and begin again. So, what then? Am I connected, or am I not?

Maybe when it comes to Philip, I’m never completely disconnected. There’s some thread that at the moment is stretched to breaking even though I know it won’t. But it’s not enough. There are people here, people with flesh and hair and body fluids that leak from all different places; people that take up the same space as me and to need to be paid attention to.  There’s Natalie, for starters, who I sometimes feel like I’m watching through the long end of a telescope. She’s there; she must be. But I can’t take in that I matter to her or anyone else and it’s that profound loneliness that’s dogged me since before Philip was born and is unfathomably murky now. But there is no one to hug me. There is not one person I can sink into.What’s it matter? echoes the hollowed out place my heart’s supposed to be, and where not coincidentally Philip asked me to place that diamond. Light it up, mom; see what’s really there. But I think it’s a big, fat nothing. I think it’s loss upon loss with more loss to come because what else is life anyway? Being ready for the loss. As if you could be, even when you know it’s coming. (Tersia, Lucia – are you reading this?) In “No Chance,” Lou Reed sings of not having a chance to say good-bye to his friend who died: “There are things we wish we knew and in fact we never do / But I wish I’d known that you were gonna die.”

Really? ‘Cause I don’t. I dreamt of Philip maybe three times since he died. In one dream he was telling me he needed some fencing gear, and that he needed socks. “If you did your laundry, you’d have socks,” I’d thought, much to my surprise because I knew that on Sunday, he was going to die. I was sorry to have thought that about the socks, and it was awful to tell him yes, we’d go get his fencing stuff even though I knew he’d be dead before he could use it, and there was nothing I could do about it. Just keep acting normal until it happened. So no, I don’t wish I knew he was going to die.  Something had been driving me those last months, something that made me choke on my love for him and make my twisted way into his heart to let him know how much I did.

So WTF? What’m I supposed to do? Nothing’s working here. I don’t want to knit or sew or read or cook or watch TV. I don’t even want to drink, which sometimes I think I do, but which I know won’t help ‘cause I’ll wake up worse. A pill, maybe. A big, fat pill – or several small ones – so I can go to sleep, which is my version of peace. It won’t make me connected to myself, but it’ll sure make me forget that I’m not.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

Gratitude

In AA there’s a lot of talk about gratitude. Make a gratitude list. Replace guilt with gratitude. Put some gratitude in your attitude. All I ever felt about that was resentful. Gratitude for what, exactly? And it wasn’t my circumstances so much as the way I felt. I didn’t take my first drink at 11 for nothing.

Things were difficult with my parents. But I’m not talking about abuse; I was an emotionally precocious kid with a mom and dad I felt I had to manage. At 55 I see they did the best they could; back then, it wasn’t enough.

In the nature/nurture debate, I stand on the side of both. We come into this world with what to work out, and our parents don’t always help us in the way we want them to. Sometimes we can only learn what we need through difficulty, starting with the Moms and Pops. And as far whether we carry either light or grief (or anything in between) into this world, I can speak to this because of my pregnancies. With Philip I felt the same light and ease about him as I did for all the years he was here. With Natalie, I felt a heaviness, and a stubbornness. And she and I have talked about what it is she feels she carries because there are times and ways she’s troubled that seem to just be part of her.

And she is both wonderfully and exasperatingly stubborn.

Regardless of how I got wherever I was, when I was 24 I walked into AA  and thought I found the answer. Back then, I thought there was an “answer.” A one thing I was missing that maybe could be found there. I went to meetings nearly every day for ten years. I watched people come into the rooms and get sober and get earnest and get God and I just didn’t understand why I didn’t get it, too. After two years of not drinking, a man I knew said to me, “This is the first time I’ve seen you at a meeting and you aren’t crying.” Crying has been a big part of my life. It was the only way I knew to ask for help.

I refused gratitude because something always felt wrong. I didn’t want to live and I didn’t think that was normal. I figured most people were happy to be alive but had their moments when they struggled. Not so me. Depression was my baseline; anything else was an aberration. I had a job, a nice apartment, I was making friends in AA; none of it mattered because of what I felt. No matter what I did, I was unhappy. And angry that I was following the rules but God didn’t reach his hand inside my gut and wrench that misery right out once and for all.

I didn’t consider that vomiting on a daily basis had anything to do with my state of mind. I’d started doing that when I was 22, and continued for the first three years or so after I stopped drinking.  I stopped when I met Phil, who seemed quite sane in the face of my crazy and who I didn’t think would stick around if I kept flushing all dinners he treated me to down the toilet. So I dragged myself to the city to attend the Bulimic/Anorexic stepchild-meeting of AA and got control of not only eating, but of letting the food stay in my belly once it got there.

But AA remained the main front. One day I did my fourth step. That means I “made a searching and fearless moral inventory” of myself. There isn’t any one way to do it, but at my sponsor’s suggestion I looked at all the troubled relationships of my past and wrote about them as honestly as I could. Four hours later, I’d learned something. Every relationship I wrote about was the same. I could’ve save 3 hours and 45 minutes had I just changed the names. It couldn’t be that all the people in these relationships were the asses I thought they were. I had a part in all of it, but I couldn’t yet see it.

Of course, all that did was cement the idea that there is something wrong with me.

It’s been a torturous route to gratitude, and it isn’t the fullness and peace I imagined it would be. And I would really appreciate it if someone could explain to me why so much of what matters in life is learned through suffering. Is it the curse of living in a world of opposites? I mean, how do we know except by contrast? If everything was, say, red, then we wouldn’t know not-red. If I’m “happy” all the time, how would I know that I am, except by its unhappy opposite?

Ironically enough, I’ve learned of gratitude through Philip’s death. See, I know how much worse this could have been. If he had to die, at least there was the clarity of love between us.  And I do believe I was being prepared for his death. The images of him dead, picturing myself at his wake, the terrible vulnerability I felt in him and the desperation I had to let him know that I loved him. The joke about finding him dead of an overdose.  That apology I made to him, that seemed to come from nowhere. Philip’s answer to that was, “Mom, I love you and I’m grateful for you.”

He was 21, and he knew gratitude. When I was 21, I sat in a bathtub  and hacked at my wrists with a razor. Yet he is dead, and I am not. Am I the only one who finds this bizarre?

I am grateful that much as Philip’s dead, he’s not gone. He’s not here the way I want him to be, but he’s here in the way I need him. I’m blessed to feel him, to hear him enough to write down what he’s trying to teach me. I’m grateful for the people he’s brought into my life since he died, and for forcing me to feel the heart I didn’t know I had.  He is my muse. And I am grateful that he cracked me wide open because something had to jolt me into the reality I’ve spent my life trying to avoid.

But gratitude is a place I visit, not the home that I yearn for. I’m still struggling with things I’ve struggled with long before Philip died, before he was even born, things that seem insurmountable now that he’s gone. And if my life felt hard more than good when he was alive, it feels impossible to cope with now. Philip’s trying to teach me how to do that. Then you shouldn’t have left me, I tell him; you shouldn’t be gone.

© 2013 Denise Smyth