Background

Some background.

I had my first drink when I was 11. When my own kids turned 11, their innocence still intact from alcohol, I felt sad for the child I was that felt that much misery that she had to drink to escape it. I was too little to drink with friends or go to parties, but I found ways to sneak it into my room to drink in secret. I didn’t like the way I felt and that was my way out.

The first time I drank, my parents had gone out on a Saturday night and left me to baby-sit my seven-year-old brother. Soon as he was in his room for the night, I opened the liquor cabinet which had quite the array. Besides the hard stuff, there were cordials and liqueurs and brandies and wines. My parents did not drink alcoholically, but they kept a stocked cabinet for their dinner parties. My predilection was to go for the hard stuff that’d get the job done, but I was afraid it was going to take a lot to get me drunk so rather than drink too much from one bottle, I took a mouthful from all. Then I reeled up to my bedroom, passed out, woke in the middle of the night, threw up all over my bed, passed out again, woke up with a hangover and couldn’t wait to do it again.

I spent the next thirteen years drinking and drugging as much as I could. It was what I lived for. There are stories, of course, but I’ll tell the one that’s relevant given my last post.

Around the time I started drinking, maybe before I started drinking, I had a death wish. I think I was around twelve when I went through a short period of taking aspirin, thinking it would do something to me. I took 5 one day, then 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, up to 11. I can’t say I was looking for death, but I was looking for something to be altered. I don’t know the first time I wished I’d die but I do know the wish grew like a cancer the older I got. By the time I was 22 I was desperate. I’d bought a pack of razors and hid them, waiting for the right moment. It came the weekend my parents drove my brother to the college he’d been accepted into. I had the house to myself. That Saturday I went to a party, got drunk, took quaaludes. My boyfriend Chris was there and when he passed out at 2 in the morning I decided it was time. I went home and did what one who was about to slash her wrists was supposed to do. Ran the water in the tub, placed the razor on the tub edge and a bottle of scotch on the floor. I was already drunk but I knew I needed more to deal with the pain of slicing a vein. Into the tub I went, swallowed another mouthful of scotch, and started in.

It wasn’t easy. It hurt like hell no matter how much I drank, but I was determined. I hacked at my wrists as best I could and I don’t know if such a thing is possible but I thought I nicked a vein because suddenly blood sprayed out. Not dripped, but a thin shot of it that hit the tube walls and made a mess. And all I thought was, “I am doing this. I am really doing this.”

It wasn’t my time, though, because through the splashing of the water coming out the tub spout and the screeching in my brain, I heard my phone ringing. It was around 3am. And it was ringing and ringing and I looked down at my bloody bath and shot out of there straight to the phone where as soon as I heard Chris’ voice I started screaming, I did it I did it and he kept asking what did you do and all I could do was scream.

By answering the phone I’d chosen life and Chris came to the rescue. From his end, he’d woken from his drug-induced coma and asked where I was. I hadn’t said good night to anyone but a couple people saw me leave. He said he’d gotten a bad feeling and had been ringing the phone for ten minutes, trying to figure out how he’d break into my house if I didn’t answer soon.

He came, he saw, he left to buy bandages at the 24-hour drug store, cleaned me first, then the bathtub. I watched him from behind scrubbing and rinsing the blood away and thought I never loved him more.

Of course that wasn’t a happily-ever-after. I needed help. As far as my attempt, I was ashamed that I had tried and failed and knew I would never do it again. My reasoning at the time was I didn’t want to turn into a half-measure suicide attempter who used the act as a call for help. I chalked it up to a failure on my part and resolved never to fail in that particular way again.

I don’t believe in coincidence as random. I wasn’t supposed to die that night. And I made the choice not to. So something was there, some part of me wanted to live.

And something else, more recent. A couple days after I wrote my last post, I was at work, standing and talking to a co-worker. As we spoke, I started to get light headed. Everything shifted. I couldn’t stop it, I didn’t understand what was happening. “Spiro,” I said, “I don’t feel well.” The world felt like it was slipping away and there was nothing I could do. I am having a stroke, I thought. Or a heart attack. I don’t want to die.

I don’t know what that was but it passed in about ten minutes. And when I let myself feel I was faced with possible death, I rejected it. Can someone tell me – who the fuck am I?

To be continued.

© 2020 Denise Smyth

29

Philip would have been 29 today. I’ve read the posts I’ve written in the past on his birthdays. How thoughtful of me. For all the times I called grief a spiral, I thought things like his birthdays, or the anniversaries of his death, would be more linear, with me gaining some sort of cumulative wisdom along the way. This is not true. This, today, right now, nearly seven years later, is the worst-most-hopeless I have been in a long time.

I hate being alive. I HATE IT. This is more than just a today’s-Philip’s-birthday-I-have-the-blues rant. This is about an impossible loneliness I am inadequate to remedy. This is me, me everyday waiting and watching and hoping that this night, this night when I fall asleep, my nightly prayer will ring true:

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.

I don’t want to fall ill, I don’t want to contract some nightmarish disease or even an ordinary one.I just want to to sleep and not wake up. And stop with the twisted horror or pity on your face. If it’s there, you don’t know. Your desire to live and ability to enjoy yourself is just as alien to me as my craving for nihilism is to you.

It’s no one’s fault. I am severely unequipped  to handle life on life’s terms. I think I once thought I was, but now it seems that was arrogance. It’s more than the fact that Philip has died. Phil, my ex, has lost him too – and look how he’s doing. A LOT of friends, interests, a lovely home, a long-time partner, his daughter who adores him. I am happy for him, and grateful that Natalie has one parent who can show her how it’s done.

I think I suffer from mental illness. I stopped therapy over the summer – it’d been 40 years plus countless medications and still I don’t want to get out of the bed in the morning. I still can’t sustain a relationship. Not even with K, a person so much more loving, wise, smart and compassionate than anyone I could have imagined. But I managed to push her away and eight months later I am still mourning. And what am I doing to help my daughter? She lives in the this crappy little apartment with me but I do nothing to help her get on the right track, simply smiling and nodding while I watch her life spin more out of control.

I tried AA these last four months. But the problem is I bring myself there, with all my resistances and self-doubts and isolationist tendencies and I don’t pick up the phone to call anyone so I might as well stay home and watch TV where I at least don’t have to hold hands and say meaningless prayers during the end credits. There are people in AA who would be more than willing to talk to me. But I have to make the first call and when I think about doing so, the phone becomes unreasonably heavy and I cannot lift it. No one more than me realizes  how much I get in the way of myself but if I’m to be relied upon to help myself out I’m just going to drown.

Today I am waiting for call from a woman I’d asked to be my sponsor. She’s busy with work and with other women she helps and said she’d know for sure by today if she’ll be able to work with me. I don’t think I’ve ever given AA a fair shot. AA’s idea of God isn’t mine and the closest I can come to “turning my will over” is to stop resisting what is so. Aside from my language objections, there must be some sage advice the program has to offer me if I can hear it through the right person and I am desperate enough to want that. But what if she doesn’t call? Everything is the final straw with me; everything brings me to the brink and the hopeless tears don’t stop. I’m scared. What if she doesn’t call? Find someone else, you say. You don’t understand. This is just more confirmation of how alone I am and of my inability to connect. What’s the point of being alive with this much loneliness? What’s the point when I don’t want to go out, and when I am out, all I want to do is get back home and hide? What’s the fucking point?

K called and asked if I wanted to meet her for lunch today in Brooklyn, just get out and not spend this day alone. I almost said yes, but at my peril. She can see me as a friend, she can take care of me today and then let me go home tonight. I am not there. I want to see her because I want to hold her and cry with her and I want her to soothe me in bed tonight. And all this knowledge does is make me more lonely and grieved. Makes me more want to stop waking up because I cannot tolerate all this pain, all this only-pain. This is not something that just-passes. Oh, the intensity of it, sure. But not the the dull ache of everyday’s WTF am I here for and when is this going to end. I hear plenty of people grateful to have one more day, I hear plenty of people in AA claiming to have a life they never thought they could. And I am alienated further. My son is dead, my daughter grows distant, I’ve barely any friends. I am alone. What else is there to say? I am in trouble, and from what I can see, this time through’s not the way out.

It’s My Heart

I haven’t felt as blocked and listless about writing – which is to say, about living – since I started this blog. I’ve been writing a post for a week, and I’ve got the bones of it. That’s usually when it starts clicking, when the writing starts writing itself. But the writing can’t “write itself” if I don’t show up for it. And I can’t seem to do that.

Ed moved. For the twenty year’s I’ve know him, Ed’s lived in Bloomfield, and ironically enough, when I moved last August, I moved close to him, close like a good, long walk away. But he and his wife had enough of working their house. They left it a buyer’s dream. I’m happy for them, that it sold quickly; but that house had been my sanctuary when Philip died. I spent days and nights with Ed and his wife, waking up early to go home and walk the dogs, returning a couple hours later to the only place I felt safe. Now they’ve moved to Florida, where they’ll stay for a year before coming back to buy a second home in New Jersey – something smaller than their last, something farther west, something that at least will be driving distance away.

So it’s not that “bad,” if you will. I can fly to Florida to visit, then they’ll be back before I know it. And If I’ve learned nothing else from Philip, it’s that when someone’s in your heart they’re with you always – you just have to accept it the way it is, not the way you want it to be. I keep saying that every change is practice for death. The practice is the leap into the unknown, the risk of not resisting what’s so. If I can’t handle the changes in my life now, how am I going to handle that last big change, that final slipping into the unknown? I’m kidding myself if I think I can stay miserable about my losses, yet go gracefully into that Good Night.

I’m mourning. I’m withdrawn. I’ve been depressed, which is different from sad. Depression seeps – it’s a whole, big, generalized “what-for-what’s-it-matter?” Growing up, I felt alone and tormented. I looked to death as a way out – at least, to my idea of death, which I imagined as a release from pain. But Philip’s told me that thinking death is some kind of answer is the same thing as thinking hitting lotto will make everything better. It’s the same in that it’s thinking some event in time, some situation other than the one that is, will be a cure. It doesn’t work that way. And I watch the way I’m responding to life, knowing so much of this heartache is about Ed, but unable feel it that way. I’m disconnected from the source.

When Philip was alive, he’d become my center. A cure for my unsteady. The older he got, the more I let go and the closer we became. But no matter what was between us, while he was alive I wouldn’t have had access to his wisdom the way I do now. And that’s because when we’re alive, there’s a lot of ego-noise that interrupts the flow of what we’d otherwise know to be true. Things like greed, power and desire, which have to do with the body. Philip’s gone from his, yet I experience him clearly and continually. Which doesn’t mean I don’t grieve for him incessantly.

A couple weeks ago, I joined Match.com. Last week, some guy named Steve sent me an email. Good looking guy, says he’s a trial lawyer, says he does stand-up comedy in NYC, when he can. His letters were funny enough that I believed him. He started his email by stuttering about how  b-b-beautiful  h-h-he  t-t-t-thought I w-was, then launched into funny bit about about where he lived, how he liked my profile, how he’d like to hear from me.

I was smitten. ONE email, and I was smitten.

So I answered him and he answered me and I answered him and it’s all funny and I’m feeling warm and fuzzy. And while I was feeling that warm-fuzzy, I thought of Philip, saw him in lying in the coffin. That’s when I heard him: “Mom,” he said, “You don’t have to choose.” Because that’s what I do. I can’t figure out how I’m supposed to live without him and feeling a certain kind of pleasure just seems wrong. He’s trying to tell me it isn’t.

As for Steve, he was the fantasy guy. The one that makes it seem like it’s so easy because that’s what he does. It was like shooting up pleasure. I mean, it was all about me – he saw how lovely and beautiful and special I was. Hell, he “snuck out of court” to write me!  He made it easy to slip past the goddamn anxiety of real-world dating. But like any fantasy, eventually you wake up. And I don’t mean like Sleeping Beauty, when you find The Prince has been waiting for you. I mean like when your second email doesn’t get answered and the guy hides his profile so he’s inaccessible and it hits you that maybe Prince Charming has a heavy hand when it comes to Cut and Paste.

Two emails was all it took for me to plunge into the netherworld of disappointment. I spent all that Saturday lying on the couch watching “True Detective” for the seventh time. I stopped for half an hour to take a quick drive to Ed’s for a final good-bye. Watching him direct the movers was too much. “I have to go,” I said. “I’ve had enough.” “I know,” he said. “I love you.”

So who the hell was I mourning for, really? For two-email Steve? I think not. I think it ironic that the weekend Ed was leaving was the weekend I let myself be seduced. I used to think that with Philip dead, what the hell could ever bother me again? Now I think that because Philip’s dead, many things bother me more. Prometheus was tied to a rock. Every day an eagle came to peck out his liver, every day it regenerated so the eagle could come back and do it again. It’s like that, except it’s not my liver. It’s my heart.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Every Story

Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
“Landslide” by Stevie Nicks

Where does anyone turn to answer those questions? Because I’ve a sickening feeling about the season my life’s turned into, the one about moving on without Philip. I don’t mean “moving on” as in “getting over it.” I mean life is motion and where life goes, so go I. And I don’t mean – really – “without” Philip. I’ve said much about the way he communicates with me. But I’m facing his death, the loss of his physical presence, and I’m weak in the knees once more.

I am in need of spirit, and I’m still asking myself how to find it, though I know the answer is within, not without. I’ve done enough searching to know I’m not going to find it through a go-to guru – Louise Hay, Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra and Madonna and her Kabbalah included. Don’t ask me what any of them are talking about – that they’re on TV giving the rest of us their version of spirituality is enough for me not to listen. My big turn-off to New Age “spiritualism” came after reading something or other Louise-Hay which had me walking around “affirming” over and over what I thought I wanted and having a pit in my stomach while I was doing it. Whatever I wanted wasn’t happening, and trying to convince myself that it was, wasn’t working. Then I saw Ms. Hay on a talk show. It took a few minutes of her one-size-fits-all earnestness to realize no one thing works for everyone, but when some one thing works for someone, they sure like to tell the rest of us about it.

I’ve found some sense in Eckhart Tolle’s writing. When I first saw “A New Earth” in my friend Rebecca’s yoga studio, I thought, “Another book about saving the earth? Most of us can’t even save ourselves, never mind the environment.” And while I’d jumped on the green-is-better bandwagon way before it became chic and expensive to do so, I was sick of the moral indignation that made people care more about the air quality than they did each other.

But a few years ago, when my normal depression had spiked into crisis-mode, my friend Melanie told me Eckhart Tolle was a spiritualist, not an environmentalist, so I bought “A New Earth” on CD and drove around listening to it. It made a whole lot of sense. But I didn’t come upon Tolle in a vacuum. For years I searched for some sort of spirituality through AA, A Course in Miracles and Buddhism – to name a few. Then came the years of not searching for anything at all because it was too damn hard to find something when I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for.

But the stopping was just as important as the searching. I wasn’t grasping for something any more. I wasn’t at peace, either. Tolle came into the spiritual silence I’d been in, and what he was saying was an amalgam of all that I’d practiced before, in language I could understand.

Of course, considering him a teacher made it easy to go right back into the unconscious I was trying to wake up from. Yeah, yeah, yeah, live in the now, present moment, the past is gone, life doesn’t end, etc., etc. So I’m sure I’ve already heard Tolle say, “Every story ultimately fails.” But when I heard it the other day, I stopped the CD to think about it. I’ve been thinking about it for days now, and taking what comfort I can from it. Which isn’t much at the moment, but there’s something there that feels like truth, and no matter how hard a truth is, accepting it is better than arguing with it.

That every story fails is hard to hear, but it’s not a negative assertion. Stories “fail” because they involve form, and all forms are temporary,  are disintegrating even as they’re existing. That includes “thought” forms. Meaning, like, say I think of myself as a really important artist and I create all these wonderful paintings that everyone agrees are phenomenal and then one day I wake up blind. My thought of myself as an artist takes a terrible blow – who the hell am I now? My story as important artist ends and I have to make up a new one. Or not make up one at all, and just try to be. Because every time a form dissolves – whether it’s physical or mental – it leaves an opening to God.

And I use “God” to mean whatever it is you might think is divine in life. Whatever you think is more than you are, whatever force you think there is in this world. The Divine needs space and attention, and we can’t give it that if we’re only concerned with accumulating forms that we think will show both us and the world who we are.

But stories can have truth and beauty, and that doesn’t change when the ending does. And what I mean by story is what we tell ourselves about our lives, instead of living them – the stories about the way things are or were or should be, about what any of it means. Like, So-and-So walked right past me yesterday without saying a word – she’s such a shit. Or, So-and-So walked right past me yesterday – I’m such a shit.

Maybe So-and-So didn’t see me. Maybe So-and-So is suffering and preoccupied. Maybe So-and-So really can’t stand me. What does any of that have to do with me?

And ultimately, both So-and-So and I are going to die. Where’s my story then?

There’s nothing “wrong” with form – it’s our attachments that hurt us. We can enjoy the world of form – through it, we can sense the deeper joy and beauty that is as much a part of life as the terrible grief it seems easier to feel. How many times did I wear that dress before I tore it where it can’t be fixed? How many places did that car take me before it was too old and worn to do so any more? How many days, months, years, how many hours did I take joy and pleasure in  Philip before he died?

But it wasn’t enough. Philip is my child. In my story, he goes on to find work he loves and a woman he loves and they have kids and Natalie and her partner have kids and even though I’m alone I’ll always have somewhere to go and maybe I’ll let everyone else cook Christmas dinner while I sit by the tree and play with my grandkids.

But Philip went and died and half my story is gone and I feel like half of me has gone along with it. What he’s left me is that opening to the spiritual, which I can define as simply learning to see things differently. This is where it gets hard. Really hard. Because the stories we tell are to invent a self. That’s why when one of them disappears it can cause a crisis. And while in so many ways I understand this, where the fuck does that leave me with Philip? In essence, the work is no different: How do I live in the face of loss without feeling diminished?

The short answer is, one breath at a time. And while some part of me knows that, some other – bigger – part of me sees that as just words on a page.

© 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

Simple Isn’t Easy

One day Krishnamurti told his followers he was going to tell them his secret. I can imagine the excitement rippling through the crowd, the expected relief, the gratitude that they must be his Very Special Followers since they were the ones present at this much-unexpected announcement. I imagine many of them thought their journey was over, that once they knew this secret, their suffering would end. And I expect it would, if they could really understand what he said. Because what he said was, “I don’t mind what happens.”

Truth is simple. That doesn’t make it easy.

I already said that Natalie was unhappy at school. She was a freshman at Rutgers in New Brunswick, the same college where Philip was a junior. This wasn’t a matter of oh-she’ll-be-fine-in-a-couple-of-months. In February of 2012, she was in the middle of her second semester, and I was still talking her off the ledge. She was working on transferring, and I was trying to encourage her to hang in and just finish the semester.

Conventional wisdom says “Going away to college is good for them.” CW isn’t always – if ever – wisdom. CW easily turns into something she said so he said so everyone says but not many give much thought to what they’re saying. Some kids do well at college, some don’t. There’s more than one way to live a life, and SAT brilliance coupled with a $60,000-a-year Ivy League education doesn’t mean you or your kid are going to have the fantasy future you think it promises. If you have a future at all, that is.  But it sure is fun to tell your friends about it. Even more fun than telling them about your last raise or your new Mercedes or any of those other things that make us really proud to be us until we need the next proud thing because the first proud thing is well, just so yesterday.

Philip took easily to living away, but Natalie did not. Many of my conversations with her were to remind her that there were three options in any situation: Accept it, leave it or change it. She was trying to change it by applying to other colleges; but on the way to leaving Rutgers, all she could do was accept that she was there for the short term. To do that is to take responsibility for your life, for what you’re feeling and how you’re thinking. Blame your circumstances all you want, all you’ll get is more suffering. Which isn’t to say you “accept” any kind of crap that’s thrown at you. You recognize it’s crap and figure out how to clean it up and stay out of its way once you do. And not once; it’s never once. It’s the work of a life, the work that matters most, the work that every degree in the world isn’t going to ensure you’ll have mastered.

Not to suggest this is any sort of easy. See, I’d been grappling with How to Live forever. The first time I drank I was 11, which is just to say how early I was unhappy, how early I was looking to escape. At 24 I joined AA, but nearly 30 years later I still didn’t get what was so great about life, why after 30 years of therapy and 10 of antidepressants I still didn’t want to be here. But I’d spent the year-and-a-half or so before Philip died listening to Eckhart Tolle CDs whenever I drove anywhere – and often, to listen was the reason I got in the car in the first place. Accept it, leave it or change became my credo because it gave me a way to think about a given situation instead of reacting to it.

And I paid attention to the 24/7 film festival that was going on in my head, which was mostly playing reruns. Stories of vengeance, hate, anger, victimhood, all of which I wrote, produced, directed and starred in. Worst of all, I believed them, and my emotions acted accordingly. It wasn’t the situation that was causing the feelings; it was the endless, looping, dog-chasing-its-tail stories that kept my gut churning.

So I stopped. I became a spectator instead of a participant, stopped the show when I didn’t like it. Simple, but not easy. But the work was to stay here, in the present. Not in the past that was gone or in a future that never came except as the now.

When Philip was little, I used to tell him that I was going to paint on his wall, “Be here now.” I was so busy noticing he wasn’t present that I didn’t get that I wasn’t either.

Accept it, leave it, change it. This was the work I was doing at the moment of impact, the moment I crashed and burned on the landing.

© 2013 Denise Smyth