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.