How fragile life is, and how easily we forget the myriad shapes of human suffering and the courage it takes to soldier on. Can we say with any certainty what pushes us over the edge, makes us fragile, afraid, and suicidal
Caregivers of those with mental health issues are also in for the long haul. Even looking after our loved ones, we cannot know exactly how it feels to be them.
I received an amazing submission from a writer who wishes to remain anonymous. This essay is about what it feels like to live inside the reality of a breakdown, and to then live beyond it.–Marylee MacDonald
On the Eve of Our Tenth Year
I am writing this to my husband on the eve of our tenth year as a couple. This tenth year, when he has become less my partner and more my caregiver. You see, I am suffering an unusual affliction that frightens us both to our core.
Our ninth wedding anniversary–this past September twenty-first–almost passed without us noticing, until Facebook–of all places–reminded us. Mostly I felt bad because it meant I’d forgotten my brother’s wedding anniversary to his wife, on the same date but a few years later. My husband, L., and I don’t do holidays and important anniversaries, birthdays, or things of that ilk very well. Lots of pressure is involved, and it may be that our wallets have naught but cobwebs at key times, but at least we try to treat each other kindly every day. We scramble to give the kids the Right Sort of Memories, and pay proper attention to the holidays kids make note of: Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Easter, Independence Day, their birthdays. But it has always been hard, and has become harder.
Since October of 2013, I have been (well, allegedly, supposed to be) on some sort of reduced work schedule, first with an official Short-Term Disability for Psychiatric Cause. I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, Severe Anxiety, and Suicidal Ideation. This left me with forty-two days to “get better,” according to the officials in charge of such decisions. But even with frequent visits to a psychiatrist and a bevy of pharmaceuticals tried . . . rejected . . . replaced, and accepted, I have only gotten worse. I left my formal job and did what I knew I did best: hung my shingle as a full-time freelance writer. I had been getting work over the years in addition to my daily job, but didn’t realize that my functions had become so reduced that I was about to create my own personal hell, one that would lead me to something that in turn resembles dementia, or agoraphobia, or a sort of amnesia that requires (on occasion) full-time care.
My psychiatrist had told me in no uncertain terms that “mothers don’t commit suicide. That is a selfishness they do not possess. It is extremely rare. Who do the children turn to when they are hurting? When they are sick?” He paused, looked at me with a stern expression that I didn’t feel that my rolling tears deserved: “THE MOTHER.”
I kept silent. For years before the recession, I had been a very high-earner, traveling across the country with a competence that leaves me breathless in retrospect, standing in front of decision-makers wearing a lapel-mic, convincing them to spend tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Then I’d make my way home again, heels clicking through the airport, on the phone with my executive assistant telling him to please never book me into that particular hotel chain again, and didn’t he get the message that I had needed a mid-size, and not an economy car rental? I would sip from my expensive coffee beverage and sigh, readjust my laptop bag that was digging into my shoulder. And my husband was the one at home, tending to the children . . . contrary to my psychiatrist’s retrograde presumptions, their primary caregiver.
And eventually, after a year filled with a truly marked amount of personal and professional devastation, disappointment, and abject failure, I turned a corner and went somewhere I’d never gone before, and it changed my relationship with my husband . . . forever, I think. One night towards the end of this past summer, while trying and failing and trying and failing to win the bids and land the gigs I needed to hold up my teetering end of the financial see-saw so we would just balance, I lost my mind. (My psychiatrist called it a “psychotic break,” but I had thought–still think–that’s an outdated descriptor. But never mind. I don’t even bother to look such things up anymore.)
I had been surrounded by under-scheduled and over-stimulating children 24/7 in a messy house crowded with visiting neighbor-urchins and not enough bananas and yogurt tubes to go around, trying to earn my hourly minimum in the nightgown I’d been in for days . . . week after miserably-hot week, with nothing to show for it but unpaid bills and vitriolic calls from creditors. So on this one night, I was urged by my loving husband (rightfully so) to clean up, get dressed, and move my work location to my favorite café. I saddled up my bike as the sun set (we have long since had no car,) and after an initial burst of inspired relief, I remember it going just as it had been, at home. I rocked back and forth in my chair and cried right there in the café.
The “content mills” where freelancers often turn for work were filled with a sea of foreign candidates who would write for so little! almost nothing! that I would lose bid after bid. I remember beating my head with my fists. (I had stayed up all night at times during the summer, sifting through these sites where writers ostensibly got work, and yet I could not penetrate this brick wall.) And we were in danger of eviction, losing utilities, losing our phones and Internet connectivity and everything we needed. Any moment I spent “tending to myself, taking time for me,” was a direct arrow into the slowing beast with a wounded gallop that was my family’s survival.
I have an aunt who had an aneurysm that changed everything about her; that’s the only way I can describe the way I felt when I came to a conclusion that seemed so obvious! So completely workable! Worth celebrating, even! And I can see, looking back, that this is where I lost my role as a partner to my husband and became what I feel is an albatross, although he would deny it to the ends of the earth. I left my purse in the cafe, because I knew I wouldn’t be needing it anymore. I got on my bike in the darkness, this time leaving my helmet and bike light off. I texted my husband a giddy goodbye, which is the only reason I am here to write this today. I said things like, “I am Leaving! Everyone will just know it was an accident. I fail at everything! You see? The children won’t feel left! They will grieve, but it won’t be the same! Oh, I’m so happy. I am so happy!” And while finishing these texts, I rode my bike out into the busiest, most dangerous thoroughfare in our area, straight down the middle, into the oncoming headlights.
All I remember is this: the feeling of overwhelming peace, relief, release, and genuine happiness. I shudder at the memory. And in those moments–Five minutes? Ten?–I could see bits of myself leaving, like silvery sparks out and up, to circle in orbit forever. I took delight in each part of myself that Left. I remember laughing at the sheer joy of it. I was Leaving. I could even see it! And the cars honked and pulled aside, voiceless mouths shouting angry epithets I could not hear nor interpret. They Didn’t Understand. I had to Leave.
My husband is a man of action. During our courtship, he would lull me to sleep on the phone by reading segments of some (military?) survival guide. This is a man who would rather see me in sensible shoes and a leather tool-belt than in lingerie. Prepare. Prepare for life to get a lot worse, be it socio-economic collapse or (semi-jokingly) a zombie apocalypse. He wisely sent an avid cyclist friend of ours, fit and slim as a whippet, one of my best and most calming friends, to come after me: C., who told me, “Hey, hey. Let’s go park our bikes and talk. Where’s your purse? Do you have your bike lock?”
And I looked right at him with a smile and said, “It’s all right. I’m safe now. I killed Her. She had to Leave. She’s gone now.” And he asked logical, quiet questions, like, “Well, who am I talking to, then?”
“A shell. I left one behind to Take Care of Things. Because SHE wasn’t doing it right. So she had to Go.”
And thus began episodes of what I later learned is “depersonalization.” And it doesn’t happen every day. I have clues as to when it will kick in, usually after an episode of great anxiety: my vision changes in subtle ways; the world looks like shards that don’t connect. And I know She is gone and what is left is the shell. And I text my husband, “help.” And he knows how to recognize it. He can spot the staccato speech patterns, the repeating of names, the strange narration I give to my activities. And I have what my “shell” self calls “Minders:” mostly church-affiliated folk who will sometimes give me days of constant care, remind me of basic tasks I need to do. Because a simple flat bicycle tire will throw me into a morning panic of how to get the kids escorted to school. And I might find myself in the grocery store in tears, saying, “Why am I here?” And my husband or another “Minder” will have to ask me what aisle I’m in, tell me to turn around and look for the bread that we “always get,” and I will cry more because I don’t know what that is.
I don’t know why my brain chose this path to take away some of my . . . grief? stress? PTSD from an abusive childhood? All the stressors of tending to a family of five post-Recession? All of it coalescing and becoming too much at once? But it is so hard to feel disembodied from the person you know you are, and to feel like you are a remnant left behind until things get better. I have learned to hide the symptoms better, and have found that providing comfort and solace to others reduces them.
And sometimes I resent my husband because he is able to relax and have fun–especially with our children, who of course have made note of the changes in me, as much as I try to hide them–and I have to live in this . . . this . . . partial existence. This self-invented answer to the non-solution of suicide. But then I think to myself: my poor mate, he doesn’t know what he’ll come home to. He has to care for someone so broken right now that she has put part of herself away for Safekeeping.