Friday, May 31, 2013

Mental Illness, Death, Life

Five years ago today I stood at the bedside of Stew Young and held his head while he died.

That sounds overly dramatic and sad, when I say it like that. How about this:

Five years ago today I had a very bad day. For Stew, it was the last very bad day in a long line of them.

After years of living with mental illness, it was cancer that got him. I’m never sure if I should be participating in cancer walks or mental illness walks. Stew would find that amusing.

But Stew should not be remembered as the guy with a mental illness, or the guy with cancer. Those were not his primary traits, those were things that happened to him, and those things don’t tell us anything about him. None of us are defined by the things that happen to us, by the illnesses and accidents and events that distract us as we go from here to there. We are not those things.

Stew was a writer. He co-authored the book we wrote, though it wasn’t published until several years after his death. The delay was my fault, not his. He was a good writer, but not, as he would happily concede, as good as me. I’m not sure that’s grammatically correct, but I said I was a good writer, not an excellent one. We would argue about comma placement, punctuation being one of the ways we kept the rules of the world straight.

He made me laugh. Even when things were at their worst and I didn’t know how I was going to pay both the rent and utilities, not to mention his meds, he would make me laugh. It helped me get through the times he wasn’t all there with me, when his mind would be in such chaos that he couldn’t function at all, when he could only think of harming himself, or when there was no expression at all. I always had hope that the person he was would come back out and he would make me laugh again, and he always did.

The laughter was often in relief, but still, we take what we can get.

He had an amazing relationship with his parents. When they couldn’t understand his illness, because they had no experience of it, they learned everything they could. They were always supportive of him, of me too, and all they wanted was the son they knew to come back from wherever he’d gone. And Stew just wanted to make them proud. He did, of course, because they loved him no matter what – it wasn’t conditional upon anything.

Stew was intelligent, so very intelligent. His dream job was to analyze data and make it into something meaningful. Or being a screenwriter. One or the other. Something other than the crazy guy on disability. He was politically conservative (to my dismay), loved corporations and big pharma (who he credited with keeping him from complete destruction), and loved to debate online.

He loved our dog, Honey, though when she first moved in he thought, because of her inherent Chowness and love of me, that it wouldn’t work out. But of course it did, and when she stayed with him she slept on his bed, and he would do anything for her. She gave him a sense of responsibility, and she gave him a reason to go out when he mostly wanted to hide from the world. But the dog had to be walked, and though he’d often come back and tell me of the things he’d seen that didn’t really exist, it was good for him.

He’d learned to live with the hallucinations, and later on they subsided. The voices were worse because they told him things no one should have to hear, and fighting voices coming from inside one’s head is so much harder than those coming from another person. It’s hard when you can’t tell if it’s you or them, when they’re telling you that you deserve to die and you know it’s not you, but the voices are inside of you, and they’re demons.

I can’t imagine it. The voices telling me I’m unworthy were implanted long ago, and I know, mostly, that while they’re a part of me, they’re not necessarily accurate.

Sometimes he forgot that life wasn’t all bad, and so I’d watch, and wait, and when he laughed or smiled or was having a good moment I’d turn on him and say, “Hah! Look at that!” It was so easy for him to forget that in a life filled with pain, there were still plenty of shiny happy moments. There was still the light bouncing off the Sound, the dog who would let you cuddle with her, books to read, pizza, watching me eat crab (which he always found amusing), and even the dark clouds of a Seattle day, heavy with rain and the promise of a good cleansing. He loved the dark grey days.

He loved his family, his friends, his dogs, and me. Later, he loved my new husband. That’s how he was –he wanted me to be happy. He always wanted that, no matter what happened between us. When people rejected him because of his illness he would react with anger, because it made him sad. Stew was always willing to help people, always seeing the good side of people. He fought his battles the best he could, and he had plenty of battles to fight.

A day or so before he died he told me he was afraid of doing it wrong. Of dying, that is, as if there’s a right way and a wrong way, as if the process should come with some sort of instruction manual. That’s how he was, he wanted to do things the right way, the proper way. I told him that he was going do it just fine, that there was no wrong way to go about it, and that so far, he’d done everything just right.

Sometimes just doing things the only way we know how is the only right way.

No one with mental illness is just that person with mental illness. It’s just something that happened to them.

It’s what we do with what happens to us that matters.

Stew wrote because he wanted people with mental illness to know they weren’t alone, and he wanted people without mental illness to know what it was like. He wanted to increase our awareness, and he wanted others to not have to go through some of the things he did.

But mostly he liked people to be happy, and he liked to laugh and get others to laugh. He loved his family and his friends. That was his thing. On this day I remember him for his life, not his death. It was his life that mattered, and death was just something that happened to him.

Laugh. Be happy. Look for the rays of light.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Panic Attack

There’s still a hollow feeling in my chest, a sort of numbness and a tingling, but the tingling is so muted that I’m not really sure it’s there.

I swear I was fine this morning. Or as fine as can be expected.

I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed, if you must know, but not any more than usual, and I’ve been pretty damn happy lately, even with the depression lurking in the background. It sits back there, coming out when I’m really stressed, or grieving, or in pain. Mostly I keep it at bay, thanks to pharmaceuticals, a happy family life, good friends, and a really accommodating dog. (And the now gone dog, Honey, who I must mention because it feels wrong not to.)

But I’m good. Occasionally something trips me up, because that’s how life works, and that’s how I know I’m doing stuff. If I never did anything, nothing would happen, good or bad. I’m just doing my thing, trying to remember my place in the world, and that I have one.

My technology was not being cooperative today. Sometimes that happens. That’s no big deal. But the good news was, I didn’t need to call the IRS for a client after all! So yay! Just another day of working in the office. No appointments, so I can get some real work done, a dog sleeping at my feet, my husband in the next office, and the world doing what it does.

Suddenly, like a thunderclap but without the noise, there’s nothing left. There’s just darkness, and I’m falling down a hole that doesn’t appear to end. My heart does its own thing, it’s no longer a part of me, it beats furiously, trying to escape its cage.

And I know with absolute certainty that nothing will ever be okay again.

I can’t talk, not at first. I get up and go into the hallway, and my husband looks up from his desk and says, “What’s wrong?” and I can’t tell him because not only do I not know, but also because I can’t talk, I just want to cry and not stop.

I do know what’s wrong, everything is wrong, the world is a mess, and I’m a mess, and what am I even doing here?

So much drama for such a little panic attack.

A lot of people I know have had them, and they are never little. They are never undramatic. They are scary and big and overwhelming. They can lurk around before emerging full blown, tiny spiders running around the rim of our consciousness, or they can come out suddenly, with no warning. They can happen when we’re happy, and when we’re not.

They can feel like a heart attack, or, in my case, like a major depressive episode coming on like a freight train. The ground shakes, the rails rattle, and there’s that bright headlight blinding me to anything but the crumbling of my world.

And then it starts to pass, and when the freight train is about halfway past me I can talk again, even though there’s sound and vibration still passing me by, and then it’s gone, leaving behind the vast emptiness, the stillness that’s only outside of me, and silence.

It takes time for my heart to calm, for my mind to settle, for my perspective to return. It takes time. But everything will be okay, even if I’m still not quite certain of that.

Everything will be okay.

Monday, May 6, 2013

It's Been Awhile

It is now May of 2013 and somehow the last six months just slipped away, falling down the slippery slope of life. Isn’t that always the way?

Not always, of course. It’s just a phrase I like to throw in to pretend I’m saying something profound when I’m not.

We spent much of the winter running a doggie hospice, which in itself was exhausting, but what else are you going to do? When the dog in question gets to be 15 and just can’t keep up her end of the agreement, made when she was 3 or so, which was that she would live forever, and starts her slow decline, it’s just what you do.

When we made that agreement, she and I, she promised she would keep up her end of it. Her promise was unspoken, because she was a dog, and dogs, even in my world, don’t talk, but still, I’m pretty sure she made it.

Or maybe not. She probably just promised to do the best she could, and so she did.

We are not alone in this – I know far too many people who have lost loved ones this year, one way or another.

I’m not supposed to equate the loss of a pet with the loss of a human, because everyone knows that pets are not on par with humans. And so I won’t. Anyway, they’re so different. Pets are often furry, and humans are sometimes not. Sometimes they are. Not usually. Depends on the human. (I realize that many people have non-furry pets, such as fish and snakes and the hairless varieties of dogs . . . ) Pets are nonjudgmental. So are the humans I hang out with, mostly. If they start being judgmental I do my disappearing act (patent pending). Pets, unlike humans other than my husband, can sleep in my bed with me. This comes in handy when the next ice age hits Portland and our heat has been turned off.

Will come in handy, I should say. It hasn’t happened quite yet.

Pets are also predictable. Every time I come home, whatever dog(s) are around come running, as if I’m the great benevolent dictator, which I am. On the other hand, I’ve had people run out of rooms upon my entrance, as if they had just remembered a very important meeting. You know the feeling, right? You walk in somewhere, see someone you know, start to walk over to them to say hi, and he or she gets a wary look in his or her eye, as if I’m about to hit him or her up for money, mumbles something about having to be somewhere, and rushes out, clutching his or her pocketbook as if his or her life depended on it.

This never ever happens with pets. Unless I’ve threatened to give a bath, but even at that, they can’t get far, since they have yet to master the intricacies of the door knob.

(And isn’t this something to be grateful for? Dogs who can open doors is not something we need in our world, though it does sound fun.)

Pets are awesome, if you’re into that sort of thing.

So we survived the failing health and death of a much loved dog. There goes months, right there. It’s exhausting, knowing the end is coming inexorably, even if slowly. Then there’s the work. So much work to do. Fortunately a few clients have been accommodating in removing themselves, thereby freeing up more time for me to work on newer clients. I think everyone should change whoever’s doing their books every so often.

I’m thinking of having someone else do mine, but so far I haven’t found anyone who will work for free.

So between dogs and work and putting things off (like mammograms and dentist visits and healthy eating and more time on the bike), it’s been about all I can do to get this far.

Oh! And I gave up writing. Just stopped altogether. THAT was a huge time suck. It’s amazing how much time can be spent on NOT doing something.

It may not be a permanent thing though. Sure, I said it was, but I say a lot of things that aren’t true.

(For example, last week I said I was going to accomplish A, B, C, and D, but I only got as far as A. This week I plan on completing B, C, D and E.)

I’ve sort of decided that I’d rather have less work and more time to write, though writing can be work, can’t it? It IS work. But it’s work that doesn’t involve the IRS, at least not the way I do it. (Which is to say, not profitably.) So I’m working on that idea.

We’ll see. I had so many things I wanted to do, and then I found out, much to my disappointment, that I couldn’t do all of them, at least not all at once. But that’s always been my way – big ideas, little follow through.

Maybe I’ll just start with some little things first.