When the Holidays Are Marred by Loss and Complex Grief

Written For The Mighty on 11/19/2020.

Holidays are usually seen as a happy time, when friends and family get together to celebrate. They are a time filled with the warm glow of decorations, delicious foods to fill our stomachs and wonderful memories in the making with the people we love. 

But sometimes everything is not that simple. When you lose someone you hold dear during the holidays, it creates a dark cloud that looms over the entire celebration, making it harder to enjoy it as you otherwise would.

Loss is hard any time of the year. But a loss during the holidays can be especially painful because everyone else expects you to be happy during the holidays. It is hard to celebrate anything when you don’t feel festive inside. It can feel near-impossible to smile when all you want to do is cry. It is hard to be around others who are happy and festive when you feel anything but, leaving you to wonder if it is just better to stay home and not ruin anyone else’s time.

Holidays are often rooted in nostalgia. Current celebrations bring back memories of other times, better times, when your loved ones were still there to celebrate with you. The sights, sounds, tastes and scents alone can make their absence even more glaring and jarring. What once were joyful recollections you shared together of other years become gut punches that leave you fighting back tears.

It can be doubly hard when you carry conflicting feelings about the person you lost. People often say that you should never speak ill of the dead, disregarding the fact that rarely in life is anything solely black or white, good or bad. The vast majority of relationships in our life exist somewhere within the realm of grays, where they are not one or the other but rather a complex combination of both. When your grief is complex, it makes mourning that much more difficult. 

My mother passed away 10 years ago Thanksgiving day. 

All my childhood holiday memories revolve primarily around my mother. She was the cook, the baker, the decorator, the present-wrapper. The holidays were largely constructed and orchestrated by her two hands. Almost every holiday tradition I’ve carried with me throughout my life originates with her. There is not a single major holiday I celebrate that does not have her fingerprints all over it.

She was my mother. She taught me to cook and bake, to sew, knit, embroider, darn and craft. She implanted in me my stubborn will to keep fighting and my love for the holidays as a whole. She is a big part of the person I am today.

She was also one of my primary abusers throughout my childhood, physically, verbally and mentally. She is one of the reasons I struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. She is proof that very few things exist simply as black or white. 

She is my mother. I love her as every little girl loves her mother. And at the same time I hate her. I love her for all that she has taught and given me, and I hate her for all that she’s put me through. I miss her with every fiber of my being and at the same time I could never forgive her for the darkness she put over the holidays for me. 

To better help you understand our relationship, I feel it is important to divulge a little background. Growing up, my mother was very abusive. She was struggling with often untreated, always undertreated bipolar disorder with frequent bouts of rage and I was her primary target. Our entire house was a war zone where the only way to be heard was to yell louder than the next person, and the only way to shut someone up was to lash out with the meanest, cruelest thing you could think of. After over 20 years of combat, my father walked out on our family shortly before I turned 16. My mother retaliated by driving to his work and shooting him twice. She spent the next few years bouncing between jail and mental institutions until it was ultimately pleaded out. But the damage had already been done and my life had been changed forever.

Her actions that day made it very clear to me exactly what she was capable of doing during her bouts of rage. Yet she still refused to seek help, frequently breaking down into tears or exploding with anger with no prior warning at the drop of a dime. For years, I watched in fear for my own life and the lives of my children until I finally admitted to myself that I did not feel safe. My mother and I had been estranged for a couple years when she passed away.

My mother’s death was officially listed as an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. My mother suffered from a lot of maladies and had medicine for all of them. She took dozens of different medications over the course of the day. Presumably, she had taken her medication for the day, forgotten, taken them again, forgotten and repeated this pattern multiple times before succumbing to an overdose.

I do not believe it was an accident. My mother had always been meticulous with her medication, separating it into containers designating not only days of the week, but times of the day, as well, so that she never missed a dose. 

I believe she killed herself that Thanksgiving morning 10 years ago and that, in the process, she robbed my holidays from me. 

Every year now when the holidays roll around, I struggle to enjoy them. My entire holiday season is marred by her loss.

I love her. Everything I do during the holidays comes directly from her. Yet she also hurt me worse than any other person ever has and made me feel largely unsafe in this world. She wasn’t all bad. I miss her. I feel guilty for not being there when she died. There’s an emptiness in my heart that nothing seems to fill, yet I also carry so much anger towards her. From Thanksgiving through New Years, my emotions are continuously all over the place, repeatedly being pulled one way then the other. I want to be happy, be festive, to enjoy the holidays with my family, but it’s a constant struggle.

It’s become a matter of taking everything one day at a time, sometimes one minute at a time. Allowing myself to feel everything that I am feeling because all my feelings are valid. And accepting that sometimes I’m just not in the right mindset and I need to pull back, regroup and recharge. I have learned to be gentle with myself. I do what I can when I can, and forgive myself for the things I am just not able to do during the holidays. I do my best to live in the moment and embrace the joy, but I don’t pretend that the darkness isn’t still lurking in the shadows, as well. It isn’t easy, but it is better to acknowledge and face all of my feelings, good and bad, than to shove them down deep inside and pretend they aren’t there. I celebrate when I can and step away when I cannot.

After all, none of us has to be festive all of the time — especially when we are not feeling it.

Republished on MSN on 11/20/2020.

Republished on Zenith News on 11/19/2020.

Republished on The Mental Guide on 11/2020.

My Grief and Loss Is Intertwined With My Mentally Illness

I admittedly don’t know what loss and grief are like for most people. I have been battling my mental illnesses my entire life, so I don’t know what it is like to exist without them. Whenever I hear people offering their condolences and reassuring others that it gets easier over time, I can’t help but wonder if that’s actually the truth for some people because I know it is not a universal truth. Things most assuredly don’t ever feel like they get any better for me.

I have struggled with many types of loss throughout my life. Loss of innocence stolen too soon. Loss of safety and security. Loss of home, relationships, friends. Loss of babies who grew inside me but never got to take a first breath. Loss of both my parents a decade ago. And most recently, the loss of both of my emotional support animals. To say I am intimately familiar with the feelings of loss and grief is an understatement.

My depression often leaves me teetering between periods when I am raw and over-emotional, feeling everything too strongly, and periods where I shut down and am numb to the world, unable to process any emotion at all. Because of this, my grief often comes in waves. When there’s a lull in the storm of emotions, I often assume my heart has begun to mend, only to have it tear wide open again as another wave hits. My numbness deceives me into believing the worst is over for days at a time, only to awaken one day feeling raw and overwhelmed once again. And as is often the case with rough seas during a storm, multiple waves often crash seemingly at once, as older pain rides in on the heels of new.

My anxiety makes me question every loss I have experienced and meter out assumed personal accountability for ever heartache I have ever experienced. I over-analyze and criticize myself for things I have convinced myself after the fact that I could have, should have done differently. I find myself worried again and again that my actions or inaction will repeat the patterns of old losses and create new ones. Yet, instead of those fears promoting change, they often spark my fight or flight response, causing me to flee. Or worse yet, I become like a deer frozen in the headlights, terrified that any choice I make, to stay or to go, to act or not act, will ultimately be wrong.

My PTSD has caused me to relive some of the more traumatic losses of my life multiple times over the years. When those moments are triggered again in my memory, it is as if I am reliving those experiences again in real time. Having a flashback of old losses renews and resets the whole trauma for me.

It is not that I am dwelling on the pain and losses of my life. I try to focus on positivity as often as possible. I have a mental wellness toolbox full of techniques and exercises intended to help keep me grounded and centered. I spend time with family and friends, partake in hobbies and activities, and otherwise attempt to distract my mind from the pain I often feel. I thoroughly embrace and practice the art of self-care. I never sit home intentionally focused on those feelings of loss and grief. Yet somehow, those emotions seem to know about every crack in my armor, seem to always find a way back in.

I am not intentionally avoiding facing my grief and loss, either. I have spent many hours over the years talking about my feelings in therapy. I have further processed my emotions many times over by writing about them and the impact they have had on my life. I am not walling myself up, building an unfeeling facade that cracks under the pressure of pain. I have attempted numerous times to process my emotions, to rationalize with myself and heal. But the healing never comes.

I have allowed myself to feel both sorrow and rage. I have forgiven myself and others. I have accepted that I cannot change the past. I have done every single cliched suggestion thrown out there about moving on and letting go.

I want to heal. I don’t want to keep hurting over so much in life. But I honestly don’t know how to shut any of it off. Every time I think it is over, another wave hits or a different wave. It could be a few hours, a few days, sometimes as long as a week. But those waves of grief and loss always manage to find me, old waves and new, compounding on each other and seemingly ever-increasing as my heart develops new cracks.

And the moments are so seemingly random and sporadic that there’s no way to brace for them or adequately prepare.

My fiance and I were binge-watching old seasons of Hell’s Kitchen and came upon an episode where the contestants were preparing a dinner service for a young lady’s sweet sixteen. As quick and as simply as flipping a switch, my entire mood and demeanor shifted. One moment, we were laughing and joking, engrossed in the show. The next, my eyes were welling up with tears. I couldn’t stop thinking about how I never got my sweet sixteen, the sweet sixteen my mother had promised me for years. Three months before my sixteenth birthday, my father walked out on our family and cut all ties. I tried numerous times between that February and my birthday in April to get in touch with him but he always dodged my calls. I called up his work on the day of my birthday, sure that he wouldn’t deny me on that day, only to hear him in the background tell his co-worker “tell her I’m not here”. My sixteenth birthday was the first time I tried to kill myself.

Just like that, every emotion, every feeling of heartbreak and loss came rushing back.

My fiance lost his father to cancer shortly after we got together. The cancer, the hospice, everything triggered the loss of my father again and again. He’s still grieving the loss of both his parents and every time I attempt to comfort him and ease his pain, my own grief for the loss of my own parents renews.

For the last decade, I had two sugar gliders registered through my doctors as emotional support animals. I could take them everywhere with me, which helped immensely with both my depression and anxiety. One passed away roughly three months ago, the other last week. Losing them was like losing part of my heart. I cried inconsolably and went numb in waves, sobbing until my eyes ran dry and my voice went hoarse more than once. I watched the clock with pained precision, unsure what to do with myself each day when feeding time rolled around. I beat myself up horrendously for the fact that they passed at all, as if I could have spared them old age and death by sheer willpower alone. The truth is that they hadn’t been sick at all. They were just old and the time runs out for all of us eventually. Yet I still felt to blame for them not living longer, not living forever. I found myself taking in two sugar glider rescues last night, not because I was over the loss of my Lilo and Stitch or because I assumed they would fill the hole that loss left in my heart, but simply because I desperately needed that distraction. I needed new babies to keep me busy, new babies to love and to care for, a new purpose to keep going. Their adoption was bittersweet, though, because I am still raw from losing my other babies. But at least when feeding time rolls around again, I have something to focus on other than my grief.

An old friend from high school killed himself. The last time I spoke to him was less than a week before he died. Whenever I think of him, I wonder whether he would still be here today if I had said anything differently or called to check on him again. It doesn’t matter that we had grown somewhat apart over the years, living separate lives, and barely talked anymore. We used to be close so I feel responsible because I didn’t maintain that friendship better, didn’t reach out more, didn’t try harder. The rational part of my brain knows that line of thinking is irrational, but a larger part of my brain and my heart just won’t let go of those thoughts.

So many things can set off waves of grief, some large and obvious, others seemingly small and trivial. I’ve found myself sobbing uncontrollably over Hallmark commercials or sights and sounds, songs or movies that reignite memories. Empathizing with the pain of others reignites my own. As simple as that, in a flash, those feelings refresh and the grief is renewed. I can be fine one moment, laughing and joking, and be biting the inside of my cheeks the next in a futile effort to fight back tears.

I know mental illness is a liar and a master manipulator, capable of twisting truths and spinning lies. I know deep down that I am not responsible, directly or indirectly, for many of the losses in my life and that hindsight is 20/20. But my rational side knowing these things does not stop these emotions from flowing or my grief from being felt. And therein lies the problem. I can rationalize all I want but I cannot shut these feelings off.

Perhaps I’m just wired differently. Perhaps I’ve been broken too many times, been cracked to the core so often that I am incapable of fully healing. Perhaps some wounds just never heal. I honestly don’t know. I just feel like I’m in perpetual mourning, eternally haunted by every loss I’ve experienced in my life, whether one at a time or intertwined and flowing as one.

I honestly don’t know if those promises that things will get better is an old wives tale, something people just say when the silence becomes too heavy and they need some words, any words, to cut the tension and the pain in the room. I don’t know if for some people it does actually get better over time. I just know that for me, as someone struggling with mental illness, grief and loss never seem to fully go away.

The Truth About Depression and Suicide

Suicide has quickly become one of the top killers across all age groups, races, sexes and socio-economic classes. You cannot go a week these days without seeing multiple stories in the news about suicide. Celebrities. Children. Veterans. And those are just the stories the press finds newsworthy enough to report on. Across the country and all around the world, people are dying by their own hands every single day at alarming numbers. And yet it is a topic nobody wants to talk about until it hits close to home. Even then, most people would rather talk about it in hushed whispers, a shameful secret they wish would just fade away, than to openly talk about it.

I have struggled with major depression my entire life. I have been suicidal more than once. I am honestly not sure how I am even still alive today because with each of my attempts, I told no one, I secluded myself, I gave no forewarning or signs that things had gotten so bad that I wanted to give up. Though people knew I was struggling, nobody really knew how badly. I didn’t want anyone to know because I didn’t want to give anyone the opportunity to stop me. More than once, whether by the grace of God or some strange twist of fate, someone came through a doorway to find my unconscious body barely clinging to life. More than once, I woke up in the hospital not sure how I even got there.

I have also been on the other side of that fence, losing people I cared about to suicide. I have been blindsided by their death, torturing myself for feeling like I didn’t see the signs, not realizing how bad things were, not being there to help when they desperately needed someone. I have spent endless hours thinking back over missed opportunities that I might have been able to intervene and make a difference. I have been haunted by words I did not say and calls I did not make that might have made the difference between life and death.

Part of me, though, knows better than to torture myself with hindsight. I have been on both sides of that fence. I know all too well that unless you actually know what to look for, the signs are usually not even visible until someone is looking in the rear-view mirror. But by then it is too late. The crash has already happened. And you can’t turn back time. The best anyone can honestly do is to be proactive, to talk openly, honestly and regularly about their own mental health and that of those they care about. We need to make everyone’s mental health as much of a priory as our physical health.  As hard a topic as suicide may be, it’s harder still to bury someone you love. I believe this difficult conversation is long past due.

Please know that most people don’t normally wake up one day out of the blue and decide to kill themselves. Barring some drastic, life altering circumstance or great loss that seemingly destroys someone’s entire life in a heartbeat making them lose all hope in an instant, suicidal feelings usually develop over an extended period of anguish. The weight of the world is piled on again and again, making everything feel increasingly hopeless.  Eventually, you reach the point when you cannot take anymore. You’ve found the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and you collapse under the weight of it all.

You don’t go directly from life being fine to choosing to die like a car going from zero to sixty in a few seconds flat. It is a slow build. It begins with feeling overwhelmed with life itself. Everything feels increasingly too hard, too overwhelming. You begin to feel like you’re drowning, like you can never fully catch your breath. It feels like no matter what you do, nothing is ever going to change, that you’ve been dealt a losing hand and there’s no way to exchange your cards. The deck is rigged and you’ve lost big time.  Everything in life begins to feel like a struggle, an uphill battle, a fight you cannot win. You feel like you no longer have any control of your own fate.  You become mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted, not sure how much more you can keep going, how much strength you have left.

The first suicidal thoughts that creep in are abstract. You’re not making specific plans to kill yourself. You look outside during a snowstorm and ponder how long you would have to be exposed to the elements before everything just faded to black. You look at the currents of the river coursing by and ponder what it would be like to just be pulled under, swept away. When you pass a set of train tracks, you wonder where along the tracks it might be dark enough that they wouldn’t see you until it was too late. The thought of death is more of a fade to black. A sweet escape. Death itself becomes a daydream. Those abstract thoughts are commonly referred to as suicidal ideation.

With suicidal ideation, it isn’t so much about dying as it is about wanting to be freed from a life you feel is too painful to continue. The thought of death almost feels like a peaceful, sweet release. You become increasingly consumed by the thought of ending your suffering, of fading away, of just disappearing from the story, not having to fight or cry anymore, of just being free.

Most people who are suicidal honestly don’t want to die. For days, weeks, months, they’ve been soul-searching and agonizing, looking for any reason to keep going and not give up. It isn’t a decision made lightly or spur of the moment. They’ve been secretly fighting to hold on, to live, to find any reason to cling to so they don’t give up.  They have just reached the point where they feel they cannot take anymore, cannot hurt anymore, cannot go one more day living in their own personal hell.

Neither suicidal ideation or suicide itself are a plea for attention. It honestly is not about anyone else at all. Nobody who tries to kill themselves is thinking “I’ll show them!” or “they’ll be sorry when I’m gone!” like a kindergartner contemplating running away from home. By the time someone has made that ultimate choice to give up, they aren’t even thinking of anyone else beyond being convinced that others would be better off without them. They feel completely isolated and alone, in agonizing pain that they can no longer take. They are convinced their life is out of their hands and there is no way to fix anything in their life. Death is the only exit they can see in the darkness.

People often describe a loss by suicide as “unexpected” and “out of the blue”. Those who have lost someone to suicide often feel lost and confused, bewildered about how anyone could give up on life when they “had so much to live for”. The problem is that by the time someone is at that point of giving up, they have fallen so deeply into the darkness that they can no longer see any of the light. All they can feel is hopelessness and despair. And they feel utterly alone.

It’s nearly impossible for those who have not been there themselves to understand how anything could possibly get that bad, how anything could feel so hopeless, how anyone could feel so alone. I have frequently seen suicide aptly described as a bi-product of depression, heard others refer to suicide as a death caused by a person’s mental illness. Truer words have never been spoken.

Depression is a nefarious and deadly disease. It eats at your mental and emotional well-being just as surely as cancerous tumors eat away at a person’s body. And just like cancer weakens the immune system, making it harder to fight it off, depression feeds off your ability to distinguish reality and see anything but the darkness and despair that the illness wants you to see.  It systematically breaks and devours you until there is no will left to fight anymore.

Depression is not an illness you can easily disregard. You cannot just “suck it up”. It will not go away because you spew out some tired cliches about life or insist someone just try a little harder to be happy. Depression cannot be cured by taking a walk, going for a run or getting yourself a dog. It is not mind over matter or learning to toughen up. It is a serious medical condition and one that can have deadly consequences if left untreated.

People talk about being dumbfounded by someone’s suicide, of not seeing it coming. But honestly, there are plenty of signs there if someone takes the time to actually look and listen.

Has the person withdrawn themselves from family and friends, frequently making excuses about being too busy, swamped with life or feeling under the weather?

Have they stopped doing things they enjoy? Quit groups or teams? Given up hobbies they once loved? Are they spending a good portion of their time alone seemingly doing nothing?

Have their sleep patterns changed drastically? Are they laying down and sleeping more or are they up more with insomnia, tossing and turning, unable to sleep?

Has their appearance changed drastically? Losing or gaining weight? Not showering as much or wearing dirty clothes? Keeping their hair pulled back so they never have to tend to it or not shaving for long periods of time that is inconsistent with how they used to present themselves?

Is their room or house even more of a mess than usual or are they frequently wearing stained clothes like they just don’t care anymore? Do they always seem to be asking you to “excuse the mess”?

Are they frequently talking abut being exhausted, overly tired or fed up? Do they make comments about being tired of fighting or regularly insist life shouldn’t be this hard?

Are they frequently edgy, snippy and short with everyone as if they’re trying to push everyone away? Does everything seem to annoy them?

Are they frequently uncharacteristically silent as if they’re lost in their own world? Do they seem more scatterbrained than usual, life their mind is always off somewhere else?

Are they frequently sad, overly emotional or teary?

Do their emotional responses in general seem more raw, exaggerated and over-the-top as if they are feeling everything much stronger than usual?

Are they smiling and laughing less or are they pursing their lips together when they smile as if it was forced? Does their laughter seem less frequent and insincere, as if they’re trying to give you the reaction they believe you want even though their heart is not really in it?

Do they often blame puffy eyes or stuffy noses on allergies even when it’s not allergy season or they have not ventured outsides to be exposed to seasonal allergens?

Do they often insist they’re “fine” with no elaboration and claim they don’t want to talk about it when pressed, using dismissive phrases like “it is what it is” as if they have no control over their own life?

These are just some of the common signs of depression. Though they do not necessarily mean a person is currently considering suicide, it is likely they are struggling along that path. If you see drastic changes in mood and appearance, don’t be afraid to speak up and ask whether they’re okay. If someone doesn’t seem like themselves, there is usually a reason why. Don’t be afraid to call attention to drastic changes that concern you.

And please know it should never be a “one and done”. Even if you inquired once and they insisted they were fine, you can’t shrug and walk off, telling yourself that “hey I tried”. If someone’s depression has gotten bad enough that you can see multiple signs, it did not happen overnight and it is not going to be resolved overnight either. It might take multiple times of checking in and reaching out before someone is finally able to open up.

That is because depression isolates us. It gets into our head and convinces us that nobody cares, that we are all alone in the world. It is easier for us to believe that someone is asking how we are just to be nice or to make polite small talk than to believe they’re genuinely invested in our well-being.
People struggling with depression also have a lot of trust issues. Most likely, we have tried talking to others in the past and have been shot down or had our feelings minimized. Or we have heard you or others talk dismissively about their struggles so we’re unsure how supportive you’ll be for us. We’re afraid of being seen as weak or broken or crazy. We’re afraid to let anyone in only to get hurt again. Everything has felt like a fight for so long that we’re weary about letting anyone else in, too. And we don’t want to be a burden or to let anyone down by admitted we aren’t “strong enough”.

You cannot let yourself be discouraged, though. Continue to reach out every few days, even if just to check in about how they are doing. If someone seems to be cancelling plans a lot to go out, offer to come over and visit. If they make excuses about a mess, offer to help them clean it. If they claim they feel under the weather, offer to bring soup. Whatever you do, don’t let them continue to isolate. Let them know you miss them and just want to see them. Reinforce that they matter.

Coordinate with others in their life. Take turns checking in and offering reassurances. Make it clear that multiple people care and that they are not alone. Create a united front where everyone can face the depression together.
Most importantly, make it clear that it is okay to talk about whatever they are feeling and to get help. Don’t further stigmatize doctors or medication.  Don’t suggest it’s all in their head or tell them to suck it up and get over it. Don’t treat them like they’e crazy or broken. Remember that they are sick and need help. Be supportive. Be part of the solution not part of the problem.

If you are seeing yourself in these words, if you are exhausted and struggling to keep going, tired of fighting, tired of hurting, wanting to give up, please realize that those feelings are not reality. Your depression is lying to you, making all the bad in your life feel exaggerated and overwhelming and is snuffing out the light. Please know that you are not alone and there are others out there who understand completely what you are going through. You’ve got to fight this. Don’t give up. Reach out. Talk to friends, family, a therapist, a pastor. Someone. Anyone. Just don’t give up. Don’t shut everyone out. I know all too well that siren’s call that death will bring peace but it really won’t. Not for you and not for everyone in your life that you’ll be leaving behind. You can get past this.

Looking back, I am grateful I never succeeded. I feel blessed to still be here. Because now I have the ability to reach out and help others, to be the voice that shines like a beacon to light up the darkness. I am in a unique position where I understand not only the great loss that comes with losing someone to suicide but also the steep descent into the hopelessness of depression myself. Suffering in silence for years almost killed me multiple times. I can only hope that by finally speaking up, speaking out, I can help save others from succumbing to that darkness themselves.

Depression and suicide have robbed the world of so many beautiful souls. Fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, children, friends. They have stolen so many lives from us far too soon. We can no longer stick our heads in the sand like an ostrich then claim later that we didn’t see the signs, didn’t know things were that bad. We are one society, one world. We have to start acting like it. We must start looking out for one another, be there for each other, truly listen and hear. The signs are there. We just have to take off our blinders and see them. We cannot pretend everything is fine because we don’t want to have an uncomfortable conversation. Inaction kills. We need to be proactive, not only with our own mental health but towards those we care about, as well. We all have the power to save lives if we are willing to actually reach out and try.

Four Days on Suicide Watch

Everything had been building up for months, years.

It was not that I didn’t have wonderful things in my life to be grateful for. I had healthy, compassionate, intelligent children that were growing into incredible adults before my eyes; I had reconnected with my first crush ever who has turned out to be the love of my life and we have a wedding to plan; I had finally found my calling as a mental health advocate and had the start of a promising writing career; I finally understood my struggles with my mental illness, having found a clinic that not only helped me to find the answers I needed, but also actually gave me hope for the future. In so many ways, my life was finally looking up.

However, it was overshadowed by a lifetime of struggling. I had been battling my own brain my entire life. And in recent years, the government and my insurance company, as well. It felt like all I ever did anymore was fight everyone, again and again. It seemed never-ending. I was so exhausted from fighting all the time, never getting to catch my breath, never getting a break.

Add to that discovering not one but two meningioma tumors on my brain. I had survived years of abuses that left deep scars that would never fully heal. My fiance and I were facing a possible pending eviction caused directly by the government’s prolonged inaction in my case and direct refusal to comply with a judge’s previous fair hearing decision in my favor.

The straw that broke the camel’s back, however, was the fairly consistent presence of someone toxic in my fiance and my lives under the guise of one of his  childhood friends who was hell-bent on causing problems in our relationship, repeatedly trying to split us up.

To give a little background on the situation, she had known him since she was thirteen and had a crush on him for close to thirty years, bordering on stalkerish. When he was staying with his parents following the end of his marriage, she would intentionally show up hours before he was due home from work and say she would wait in his bedroom for him as an excuse to sleep in his bed. Though they never had any type of a relationship because he never saw her THAT way, for years, she regularly borrowed hats and shirts from him and kept them, much like a girlfriend would normally do. Despite having a crumbling relationship at home she should have been devoting her attention to, she tried repeatedly over the years to supplant herself into my fiance and his family’s lives in any way she could whenever she could, often causing drama in the process.  Though he later forgave her to an extent, she even played a crucial part in the break up of his first marriage.

From the time we got together, she had been trying to cause problems between us and split us up. The first time I met her was a month into our relationship, shortly after his father went into hospice. She pulled me aside and tried to convince me that I had no idea what I had gotten myself into or the mess he was going to be so I should just walk away before I got in over my head. She told me he was mentally unstable, that she knew him well enough to know I could not handle what was in store. She seemed thrown aback when I told her I had known him longer than her and I was in it for the long haul.

When she could see I was not going anywhere, she switched tactics. Over the course of the next year, every single time she came over she would make negative comments about me and my mental illness, lecturing me that I needed to stop being lazy and do something with myself and my life. Whenever my fiance and I would both jump in to defend me and attempt to explain the disability diagnosis my doctors had given me, she would interject that she worked in mental health, too, and she “knew what she was talking about”. She worked in a mental health care adjacent position, as a glorified overnight babysitter at a facility that housed mentally or physically disabled adults, a job you didn’t even need a high school diploma or any certification to get, yet she swore repeatedly that she knew better than all my doctors over the years. She frequently trivialized my mental health writing as a waste of time and criticized everything from the cleanliness of my apartment to my cooking, as if nothing I did even remotely met her standards.

As if the constant attacks were not enough, she also was constantly attempting, albeit admittedly very poorly, to  blatantly flirt with my fiance in front of me. She would try to run her fingers through his hair and insist he let her cut it, to which he would pull away and say I will cut his hair when he needs it done. When he stopped shaving for no shave November and the couple months afterwards, she commented repeatedly that he should shave because he looks so much better clean shaven, that she prefers him that way, even offering to do that for him, as well. She was forever reaching out to touch him, swat at him or rub him with her hand while she talked, trying to take sips out of his drinks like a girlfriend might do and regularly found excuses to lift her shirt or drop her pants in front of him under the pretense of showing off numerous bug bites and bruises. She would often announce wildly inappropriate things that people wouldn’t normally discuss with friends, like she had just shaved her nether regions or talk about having sex, watching porn or masturbation when she came over.

We tolerated much more than we should have because honestly we felt sorry for her. She was always desperate for attention and, according to her, her problems were always ten times worse than everyone else’s.  For example, when we attempted to explain about my doctors finding my brain tumors, she cut us off by saying, “That’s nothing! Did I tell you I had to bring my car back to the shop again?!” as if car problems were somehow worse than brain tumors. She was loud, obnoxious, crass and crude with no concept of respect or boundaries, always saying or doing whatever she could think of to get all eyes on her. She was always talking badly about someone when she came over, usually my fiance’s ex-wife, even though she was supposedly still good friends with her, to the point where we began watching everything we said around her to avoid becoming part of her gossip. She also had severe substance abuse issues. In a year and a half of seeing her once to twice a week on average, I never once saw her even remotely sober regardless of the time of day – she was always drunk, high or both. We knew from everything she had talked about that things were bad for her at home, that her relationship was in shambles.  A lot of people had written her off already over the years for her behavior but we understood that she had a lot of issues so we tried to cut her some extra slack.

I had tried my best to be kind to her. On more than one occasion, I took the time to show her sons my sugar gliders and explain more about them. I even watched her youngest once for over an hour while she ran an errand. If we had leftovers when she stopped by on her way to work, I would send her with a plate or bowl. She would regularly fill her purse from treats I had put out in snack bowls. I baked her family Christmas cookies and sent her with extra for both home and work. I once even lent her an old pair of pants that were too big on me so she had something clean for work when she stained her own. I listened sympathetically when she complained of relationship issues, health problems or other stresses, trying to extend an olive branch of friendship. I even did my best to overlook her steady barrage of flirtation with my fiance because I realized it must have been hard to see someone you crushed on for decades happily with someone else.

But despite all my attempts at kindness, both her attacks on me and her inappropriate flirtation with my fiance not only continued but steadily increased. What originally may have been one off-handed comment about her believing my disability was nonsense became full-fledged rants. She began making snippy and snide remarks and telling us to stop whenever my fiance and I were affectionate to each other as if she resented anyone else showing him attention or love.  Over time, it had all became too much to bear. When my fiance and I began contemplating marriage, she declared we were not ALLOWED to both get married a second time because she had never even been married a first. When we officially announced our engagement, she responded by referring to me as (please excuse my language) his “fuck buddy”, saying outright that the only thing I did for him was give him my “roast beef curtains” and insist that he deserves better than me. That was the last straw and we agreed she was no longer welcome in our house or our lives.

For two weeks afterwards, she did not come around. Then late one night, well after one in the morning when we were already in bed, we heard a drunken knock at our kitchen window. We both knew exactly who it was because she was the only one we knew with the audacity to think that would be acceptable. I was livid and wanted him to tell her to leave immediately. He wanted to quietly let her in to avoid her making a drunken scene in our apartment building, to wait to tell her she was no longer welcome here another time, during more reasonable hours when she might be somewhat more sober and perhaps slightly more reasonable. Everything quickly escalated.

We were both beyond stressed at the time, not at all with each other but rather with life circumstances in general, topped off by our unwelcome, uninvited guest. Beyond all my own issues, he had been struggling terribly, as well. He had a lifelong battle with his own mental illness. In the last year, he had lost first his father then his job. The family dog that had been his parents’ for well over a decade had to be put down and he was struggling to keep his truck, one of his last physical connections to his deceased parents, on the road and in working order. We were both well beyond our breaking points on many fronts and the culmination of everything with her pushed us right over the edge. We fought terribly, something we don’t often do even in a mild sense.  It may have been the worst fight of our entire relationship. Afterwards, I retreated to the bedroom to cry, locking the door so I could be alone.

I did not have any plans to commit suicide. The thought honestly had not even crossed my mind.  I was not trying to hurt myself in any way. I loved my fiance and my children more than I could ever put into words and would never have wanted to hurt them in any way, either. I was hurt, angry and distraught over our fight, disgusted that we had tolerated someone so blatantly toxic for so long, and I was exhausted and overwhelmed with life in general.  I just wanted to be alone, wanted to try to calm down, to catch my breath, to stop feeling like I was free-falling through a world where I was never allowed to just be happy, never allowed to just rest and be at peace.

I dumped the basket of pills out on the bed and fished out various bottles of my take-as-needed anti-anxiety medications. In between sobs, I took a few. Then I vomited.

Seeing the pills floating there on top, I took a few more to replace the ones I had lost. I continued to sob and to vomit. To vomit and to take more pills to replace the others.

At this point, I was no longer thinking clearly, caught in a nightmarish loop, wanting desperately just to calm down, to stop feeling like this, and to get some much needed rest.

Eventually, sleep came. I started to feel dizzy and thought to myself, “..finally.. they are starting to kick in..”  It is the last thing I remember for almost two days.

I woke up a day and a half later in the hospital. He was seated at my bedside, looking ragged, like he hadn’t slept in days.

Baby! You’re awake! Oh my god I love you. I am so sorry about everything. How are you feeling? What do you remember?

I was confused and disoriented. On oxygen. Had a bunch of tubes and wires all over my body.  It took me a few minutes to realize where I was and what was going on. I could not remember anything since taking the pills, crying and throwing up repeatedly. I was not even sure what day it was.

I can’t believe you don’t remember any of it. I had to kick down the door, to call the police.

My chest hurts.

I can only imagine. One of the cops did a sternum check, pushing really hard on your chest, hoping for a reaction to the pain. You were completely unresponsive.

My throat hurts.

You had tubes down your throat. They had to restrain you for a bit because you started to flail and grab at the tubes. You have no idea how much you scared me baby. What you looked like, laying there hooked up to all those machines, all those wires and tubes. I thought I was going to lose you. Please don’t ever scare me like that ever again.

I wanted to talk about it all, to explain, but my voice was raspy, my throat raw. It hurt to talk. I couldn’t stop coughing. I wanted to insist I hadn’t meant for any of this to happen, to swear I wasn’t suicidal like I had been all those years ago before we were even together. I wanted to apologize for scaring him, for fighting over stupid things like people who were inconsequential and irrelevant. All I could do though was cry as he held me close, my tears flowing freely with his.

I had lost a day and a half.

But more importantly, I tarnished our relationship in a way I can never take back. The sight of me laying there unresponsive, of being carted out on a stretcher, of my laying there as the doctors frantically worked to revive me, will forever haunt his nightmares.

I spent the next day in intensive care as they closely monitored my heart, followed by three days on a secure floor on suicide watch. Again and again, I tried to explain it all to whoever would listen, to insist I was not suicidal.  However, protocol required a few days of observation no matter what was said.

My heart was constantly monitored, my vitals taken every few hours. My IV was moved numerous times as my veins collapsed and fresh bruises appeared up and down my arms. I was stuck in bed for the first couple days upstairs while I waited for nurses to find me clothes other than hospital gowns. The clothes I had arrived in had been cut off me in the emergency room when I arrived. I could not wear other clothes from home until after I was cleared for discharge.

I was not allowed many other items often taken for granted such as a phone charger or silverware. Well-intentioned staff reached out repeatedly to try to convince me life was worth living. Meanwhile, they rushed to confiscate any cans or other sharp items from meal trays and to take endless notes on everything I said and did to assist with my psychological evaluation. I had a constant companion, a nurse or aide to sit with me at all times to prevent me from possibly further harming myself. Though I was never by myself during those four days, I had a lot of time to lay in bed alone and think.

I was not suicidal but I have been in the past. I did not intent to harm myself, but I had in the past. Intentional this time or not, I found myself in the same place and, like my previous attempts in the past, it had not solved anything. On the contrary, it made everything much worse. It hurt the people I love, scared my fiance and my children to death.

I didn’t get any time to calm down, didn’t get that moment of peace I had desired so badly. The majority of the problems had not gone anywhere. I lost a day and a half, woke up in pain and discomfort only to face new problems created by my own actions.

I was extremely lucky just for the fact that I am still here to tell my story. I could have just as easily become a statistic that day. My story could have just as easily ended with my obituary, the words and questions of others left unanswered, adrift in the wind.

I cannot apologize enough for what I put everyone through. I feel stupid, ashamed, that I should have known better. There are no words that could adequately express my remorse. I would do anything to take back that night but there is nothing I could ever say or do that would erase the past.

I would love to say there is no excuse for my actions but when my depression and anxiety reach certain levels, I no longer always think clearly. I become increasingly overwhelmed, the world feels largely hopeless and I am no longer able to cope. Even when I am not actively suicidal, which I have not been for years now, I struggle regularly with suicidal ideation, not exactly wanting to die but no longer wanting to continue living my life the way it is, either. Though I never meant to fall apart like I had that day, unfortunately once I reach a certain point, I react before rationalizing the repercussions of my actions.

I would love to say there is an easy solution to this, that I could take a magic pill or think some happy thoughts and my mental illness would just fade away and disappear. I wish I could say it was a temporary phase even that I would eventually get over. My mental illness is caused in part by a genetic mutation. I was born with it and I will have it until the day I die. There is no cure for me. It is permanently hardwired into my genetics. I can receive therapy for past traumas and current issues, I can take medication to provide my brain with the chemicals my body cannot make itself, I can fill my coping toolbox with techniques and strategies for dealing with harder days and attend things like tai chi and yoga classes until the day I die. Yet I will always have a mental illness. It is a lifelong, permanent diagnosis for me.

Mental illness is my cross to bear. Though I truly appreciate that my loved ones are willing to stand by me and support me through my struggles with my mental health, it is not fair or right for them to suffer like they have for my diagnosis. Although I never intended to do so, I severely hurt everyone that matters to me. They all have tried to be compassionate and understanding, to forgive me for an illness that often wreaks havoc in my life, for a condition frequently beyond my control.

However, I am not sure I will ever be able to forgive myself.

Since getting out of the hospital, my fiance and I have not talked much about the incident beyond him being thankful that I am okay and asking me to please never scare him like that again. I have reassured my children that I am okay, as well, trying to minimalize the severity of it all to lessen their fears. Again, I wish there were some magic words I could say to take away the pain and panic in their eyes. I fear no apology will ever be enough.

It took almost a week before we could even sleep in our bedroom again. While I was in the hospital, he slept on the couch when he could sleep at all, the spilled pill bottles, vomit and towels still sitting where they were when the ambulance carted me away. I insisted on cleaning it up myself when I came home, my mess, my problem, but going into that room felt like crossing into an alternate nightmare dimension. Nevertheless, I fought my way through a bevy of anxiety attacks and breakdowns to clean it all up. Even after everything was cleared away, no trace remaining, we opted to sleep in the living room for the next week on our air mattress. We knew what had happened in there, we had lived through it, yet we were still not quite ready to fully face it.

The first couple nights that we returned to the bedroom, I couldn’t sleep at all. He continued to cling tightly to me all night while he slept, as he had done every single night since we returned home from the hospital, as if he was terrified that I would disappear forever if he let go for even a moment. I laid awake both nights, silently crying for the pain and fear I had placed in his heart. A month later, my anxiety still rises whenever I enter that room, my sleep restless and plagued by nightmares old and new.

I know I need to change many things, to put safeguards in place to prevent something like this from ever happening again. I cannot change the fact that I have a mental illness, but there are other things I can address, precautions I can take. I never want to hurt my loved ones like that ever again. For instance, no more locking myself away when I am upset. No more taking extra dosages of medication early, even if I have thrown up the dose I just took. No more tempting fate when I might be too emotionally irrational to think clearly.

I have a constant pressing need now to reassure him that I am okay, that he doesn’t have to worry. I catch him looking at me, watching me, more frequently now, and checking in on how I am feeling. We are trying to heal from this, to move forward, though I’m not sure we can ever completely move past it. He almost lost me that day. He is always going to worry just a little bit more now.

We have also agreed to remove certain toxic people completely from our lives, those who prefer to add drama and conflict rather than happiness and support. We learned the hard way that some people will take advantage of our kindness and tolerance, repaying us tenfold with cruelty and drama. The nail in the coffin of that childhood friendship was hearing from mutual friends that she had been going around laughing and bragging about “putting me in the hospital”, proud of the part she played in my breakdown. We will never again allow anyone like that into our lives. Whatever it takes to never find ourselves in that situation again.

Some people say that suicide is selfish because all it does is pass the pain onto others. Other people attempt to explain that those who make attempts just don’t want to hurt anymore themselves. Many nowadays recognize that suicide is often a tragic byproduct of mental illness. I have been suicidal. I have been in those moments of desperately wanting the pain to stop. I have had suicidal attempts in my past and now an unintentional attempt because I was upset, irrational and not thinking clearly. I have lost loved ones to suicide, and known others who have lost people they loved deeply, as well, so I understand all too well how devastating it can be from the outside looking in. Regardless of where you fit in the equation, suicide is always heart-wrenching and tragic.

One thing I can tell you, whether you are suicidal or not, whether your attempt is intentional or not, the result is always the same. Pain. Pain for everyone you love, everyone who loves you. Pain for yourself should you survive. And not just physical pain from tubes and tests and IVs. Emotional pain as you see that haunted look in their eyes, that kernel of doubt that appears every time afterwards that you insist you’re okay. Pain that will continue for years, that will likely never go away, whether you’re around to see it or not.

Pain and overwhelming loss for everyone who has ever cared for you. They will never be the same. You might carry physical scars from your attempt, but theirs will run much deeper and never fully heal. Those close to you will retrace all your interactions, looking for signs, real or imaginary, to explain what happened. They will question whether they should have said this or should not have said that. People who you have not seen in ages will question if they should have reached out, as if they could have magically known things were bad and somehow made a difference. They will all blame themselves for your actions and choices. Whether you die or not, they will be forever haunted by that one choice you made, something completely beyond their control. Yet, in their pain, they will embrace that blame, caught in a cycle of imagining every scenario that could have prevented it.

To those contemplating suicide or just on that edge of not being able to cope with life anymore, please know that I understand completely how hard it can feel, especially when you’re struggling with mental illness. You are not alone. But I wouldn’t wish the kind of pain I caused on anyone, not my worst enemy, not my loved ones or yours. Once it has happened, though, you cannot ever take it back. Even if they don’t lose you, your relationships will never be the same. I cannot change the pain I’ve caused, but perhaps, by sharing my story, you can spare your loved ones from the same fate.

Please be careful. Be careful with yourself and be careful with your loved ones. Life is a fragile thing, a light that can be snuffed out in a moment.  It may be hard sometimes, downright unfair. But life is also precious. As is love. Don’t take either for granted.

I know all too well that mental illnesses are rarely rational. When we are upset, we often react based on pure emotion. So take precautions now, during the calm before the next storm. Do not leave ways to harm yourself readily accessible when you might find yourself too emotional to think rationally. Don’t set yourself up to fail or to hurt yourself or those you love.

I thankfully am very lucky to still be sitting here, able to share my story. Many others have tragically lost their battles with mental illness without ever having a chance to tell their tale. Their stories are told in yearly mental health statistics and on memorial pages created by those they left behind.  We’re all in this boat together and we only have two choices. We can either become a statistic or we can keep going, keep fighting, and find some way to make a difference in this world, even if only to show others that it is possible to survive our diagnosis. There are too many mental health statistics and enough pain already in this world. If we have to choose anything, let’s choose life and love.

Much love, compassion, hope and faith that even if this does not find you well, it finds you strong enough to keep living. ❤