Now and then, especially given the small space of my new home, I clean and purge. This holiday, with just the dog, seemed a good time to purge.
Wednesday, I cleaned my guest room. It has become a storage space of sorts. Bike, sewing/embroidery bits, stationery, cleaning supplies, and tools. All the things I don’t use daily but need regularly reside there. I have a china cabinet/hutch in that room that belonged to my paternal grandmother. I sorted through it and found some items from my second marriage.
I have clung to these things, believing that I wanted the good memories with which they were imbued. I found photographs, cutesy keepsakes, jewelry, and pens. All were weighed down with emotions.
Instead of feeling the warmth of good memories, I dropped into rage, ambivalence, or indifference.
Part of the process of recovering from divorce is learning to be alone through all events, good or bad, right? Still, therein lies part of my anger. I was never meant to be alone at this stage of my life. This should not be. Yet here I am.
Thirteen months ago I was more alone than I’ve ever been in my life despite being married. Thirteen months ago I was convinced I was unneeded, unloved, and a burden. Thirteen months ago, I tried to end my life in a very feeble way—by swimming out to into the Gulf of Mexico on a red flag day. At the time, I didn’t even view it as an “active suicide attempt.” I just thought, “If I drown, I drown. No one will be the wiser.” After a treading water in crashing waves, then a quiet panic, and finally finding my feet on the third sandbar again, I made my way back to shore in tears.
Now, I’m divorced, not dating, COVID-19 forces me to avoid being too social, and my child and grandchildren are 240 miles away. Yet, I do have more friends in my life than ever and more care and concern for and from them than I am accustomed to. My siblings and I are closer than we have been in years. Life, while constrained by a virus, has opened up by working on the beach, rescuing birds, and reawakening my interest in human interaction. Some days, many days, in fact, remain difficult. Some days I just wait to get to nighttime so I can shut my eyes and shut out the world.
But I never want to swim beyond that third sandbar again or take any other drastic measures as I wanted to many times in previous years. I am grateful I failed in my attempt.
I will spend the coming holidays with Sammy making new traditions just for us. Many thousands who have lost loved ones this year will not have that luxury. I hurt for them, knowing as I do that my loss pales in comparison to theirs.
I now have new and better memories I am building in this life. I expect to spend future holidays with my daughter and grandchildren and create still more memories. I will create things for this space and those to come that I won’t need to purge.
I let the day go by without comment. January 13th — the first anniversary of the day our Big Dog left us. I couldn’t bear to note it or comment. I’d been sick (Christmas flu leftover cough) and various levels of grief were simply too much to tolerate. His picture showed up in my social media feed several times that week. I reposted some of them.
The fourth anniversary of my father’s death was January 12th. The fifth anniversary of my mother’s death is January 29th. June’s anniversary of my sister’s* death will leap out on a Texas summer day and throw its cloud over everything.
Dominoes falling in my heart.
My heart was beaten and bruised with the losses of my parents. My heart was absolutely shattered when Big Dog died. I have never recovered. I keep waiting. We have adopted a new dog and I love the furry monster, but I feel the loss of Big Dog daily.
I have struggled with this constantly; why this sticks in my heart like some sort of parasite chewing away until I have so little to give anymore. I have tried to pull it out by loving Sammy the Mutt as much as I can. I spend a great deal of time with him. I hug and kiss him (he loves it, he’s weird that way), let him sleep on the bed with me when I’m writing, and take him for long walks. When I’m well, I run him alongside my bicycle. Love and spoil him as I do, my heart aches every time I see the large box of ashes on my dresser. Some days, a moment of complete silence in the house without BD snoring next to me is a moment gone dead.
Articles on the internet about grief are, by and large, about the loss of our human loved ones. I can’t, for even a moment, imagine the loss of a devoted spouse or a child, nor do I want to. I know that, in the long run, the loss of a pet is not the same. But bear with me, for this loss is still no small loss.
I have avoided this blog entry. It is difficult. It is self-centered. It is self-pitying and self-indulgent.
It is time.
The few articles I’ve seen about the loss of a pet focus on the idea that we miss our pets because of the love they devote to us and how innocent and good they are. The words “unconditional love” are thrown around.
I don’t, honestly, believe in anything called “unconditional love.” My dogs have all, to varying degrees, had conditions: food, water, medical care, attention.
And this is where I think a lot of these articles fail to really understand or address at least one major reason why this loss of a pet is so profound: This little creature we have spent every blooming day feeding, watering, giving treats, loving, walking, seeing to their toilet habits, bathing, doctoring, training, playing with, sleeping with, framing our day around, has died.
This constant presence in our lives, like one of our limbs, is just gone.
Suddenly we are at loose ends.
My days** with Big Dog were completely structured around his needs. I got up at a certain time to give him his meds. I took him up and down in a lift at all hours of the day (we live in a beach house) because his hips were failing. If the lift failed or he simply insisted, we took the stairs and I held onto his harness to take the weight off his hind end. He always handled his blindness well, but in his last months he lost his hearing and suddenly he was getting lost in his own house. Now I was having to help him find his way around the house. Of course, I took him to the vet regularly to monitor his failing heart. Come nighttime, there was the last round of medication for the day, diapering (one of the drugs was a diuretic), and finally settling in. At least, until a 4 a.m. wake-up because he didn’t like using his diaper. Down we’d go in the lift in freezing January or rainy March or mosquito July. He’d shuffle into the grass while I kept my eyes open for coyotes and back up we’d go. We went nowhere without first considering the impact on Big Dog.
The point of all this is not to tell you what a great dog mom I was. I had many failings: missing medication doses, losing my temper at silly stuff and scaring him, forgetting to fill his feeder. The point is, every day was Big Dog day. Every day revolved around this furry little being that had the mind and utter dependence of a toddler. He could not have survived without us.
By extension, I became completely dependent on him. He became my reason for living. My husband can live without me. My child is grown and can survive without me. (technically, I’m not talking emotions, here). There was no one in my life that couldn’t keep moving on without me. Sammy, this big, Shepherd-mix goof sleeping next to me at this moment, is self-sufficient and could survive without me and has done so before.
Big Dog needed me absolutely. My husband had all the tools to care for him but not the time and BD would not allow a stranger to care for him.
And he’s gone.
Being needed may be the most basic human requirement for existence. Many suicidal people can often justify leaving this world by saying the words I implied above: the people I love will be okay without me. I can go.
When Big Dog died, I felt I’d lost purpose. I still do.
I spend a lot of days at loose ends.
This January 13th my head was filled with the stress of upcoming doctor appointments for both my husband and me, but I’m thankful for those things because I’d probably have simply dangled off those loose ends until I couldn’t breathe. Now I just have to breathe and look toward the next domino on January 29th.
*Elise was my sister-in-law but she was my sister in my heart.
**My husband did this many times as well. As I said, this is a self-indulgent post because I was the primary caretaker.
The Void. The Beast. The Black Dog. The Pit. Depression and Suicide are once again prominent in the news cycle. Once again, we swim through speculation and rumor in social media and the word “why” ricochets off Facebook walls and inside our heads.
When someone we perceive as successful, intelligent, wealthy, or otherwise gifted with all those things we think make people happy takes their own life, we ask, “Why him? He had it all?”
Here’s the short, sharp response: Why does cancer take one person and not another? When we ask that question we typically decide chance/a whim of Nature bestowed a bad illness on a good (successful/beautiful/wealthy/young) person. We should view depression no differently.
What? Yes. Please stop thinking of depression as “having a bad day/marriage/money problems/getting old.” Depression isn’t the devil. Nor is it some vague whine-fest because you haven’t gotten your way. It is a disorder and it is wrapped up in the way chemicals in our brain dictate our behavior. I am shorthanding here because it is complex and not fully understood, but depression is clinical, meaning it has a medical cause. The initial trigger may be situational (injury, stress, pregnancy, physical illness), but the result is a clinical illness.
Yet, when the celebrity takes his or her own life, we begin the fruitless and unsatisfying search for answers. When Robin Williams died, it was because he had a debilitating disease threatening his future. Kate Spade, according to so much pointless rumor, had marital issues. Kurt Cobain had everything to live for supposedly, so obviously Courtney did it. (Did you hear my eyes roll?). Now Anthony Bourdain has died and we ask why? Why this outspoken, energetic man with so much success?
Because: chemicals in the human brain.
I truly hate that depression has been labeled a “mental illness”. Oh, it is an illness. But to call it a mental illness slides it into the realm of a) incurable (it isn’t) and b) unknowable (it isn’t). It leaves people with the impression that people with depression, with this mental illness, are crazy and need to be shunned, can’t be fixed, and their “mental problems” are just too hard to deal with so Run Away, Run Away.
So, let me be forthright and let me talk about Mr. Bourdain for a moment as if he sort of relates to myself even though I know nothing about his particular situation.
I watched him only rarely. What I saw of him was, in outward appearances, the very opposite of me: loud, brash, opinionated.
Oops. Opinionated. So, not so opposite after all. As I read that character trait of his several times this morning, I realized something about all of us (humans) that is especially true of depressives; we have something to say and we need to be heard. Yet, we often feel as if we are screaming into a void.
I’m not saying this is specifically a precipitant of suicide, I am saying that ultimately, in our crises, a depressive is not someone wallowing in self pity and pain, but someone who IS in pain and feeling utterly unheard. In a life that is extraordinary, rich, beautiful, fulfilling and filled with love—none of that matters if you are not heard when you are hurting. NONE OF IT.
This is why I write. Pure and simple. I don’t write to create art. I have told myself that I do, but that’s bullshit. I write because, while I am a mouse in public, shy and so soft-voiced it annoys people, on the page I can put exactly who I am and what hurts (and what brings me joy). I am one of the most opinionated people you will ever meet, but unless I know you well, you will likely only ever see that in these pages (or a Facebook post).
I have moments when the chemicals in my brain say, “Sure, you are much loved by your spouse. Sure, you live in a beautiful place. Sure, your daughter and her family are happy, healthy, and financially stable. Sure, you are not grossly unhealthy. BUT you are an abject FAILURE.” In those moments, I need desperately to be heard.
I can’t tell you exactly why Mr. Bourdain or anyone else takes their own life (beyond that the chemicals in their brains are betraying them). I am not telling you that circumstances don’t play a role in their depression. Our pain is often (usually) triggered by very real concerns. But I can tell you this—in that crisis moment, when you aren’t being heard, when you believe no amount of talking or writing can express your pain enough to bring even one person around to understanding you, the chemicalsin your brain are winning. They can convince you that your loved ones really will be happier without you. (Because they won’t have to listen to you cry anymore. They won’t have to pay your medical bills or worry about the fact that you might off yourself.) They really will get over it. (Because you’re not much use to them as a depresso, so it’s like getting over a lost puppy, right?) They really will understand that your pain was too much to bear. (Because they saw that you were in abject misery like a dog that can’t eat or walk, right?)
I have been fortunate in that I have taught myself to flip the switch and shut out that screwy rationale through some mental gymnastics and meditative techniques. The ones who didn’t learn that, or learned it and lost their grip on it, they weren’t selfish or cowards. They simply couldn’t flip the switch and the chemicals won.
I ask again, with these latest celebrity deaths, rethink how you view depression. Perhaps do some reading. Talk to those who actually suffer with it and listen to them. The Pit is deep, but with more people understanding, perhaps those who struggle to flip the switch can be pulled out more often rather than succumbing.