Jekyl & Hyde

My favorite things about my husband were his kind heart and his openness about being a flawed individual. He often told people he had no filter, but he meant well. I may have hated that he took his shoes off in public and sat like a cross-legged Yogi in formal settings, but more than anyone in the world, he taught me not to hide behind society’s conventions.

I lived with a Jekyl and Hyde personality. If you have lived with a person with mental illness – such as bi-polar, schizophrenia, personality disorder, ADHD, PTSD, and others – and in particular with any substance abuse accompanying it, you know how these 2 entities can coexist. How you can love the person and not their disease and the appalling choices they make.

Many find that incomprehensible. They advocate throwing the baby out with the bath water. Living for yourself and letting the other person go. (And this may become necessary, but that’s a topic for later.) They might want you to pretend that there is no disease. They may claim you are tarnishing a memory by voicing the Mr. Hyde side. They may want him to be only Dr. Jekyl in retrospect. What they don’t understand is that it isn’t bad all the time.

As I write this, I am thinking of the person I loved most in the world. The one who cried as hard as our infant daughter when he accidentally scratched her cheek with his fingernail. The one who was so pleased with himself to buy me a huge bouquet of flowers, only to be deflated when I remarked that they were silk. (He couldn’t tell the difference.) The one who listened patiently to my desire for a chicken coop, screened-in sunroom, weaving loom…and then went out and built them for me, when he had never done any of those things. There are a thousand times I wish I could turn and share that secret look over our children’s heads in some private joke that only co-parents understand.

I imagine him looking over my shoulder here, aware that I may be telling things that others find uncomfortable, unseemly. He would have felt sorry that they couldn’t move beyond whatever private issues they had to see the heart of another. He would have told them he couldn’t change the past, but that was no reason someone else shouldn’t learn from it.

I can see him pointing out things I should mention. He’d want me to tell about the time he locked himself in the chicken coop when it didn’t have a lock (yeah, I never figured that one out either), or mowed an already-cut lawn at 11pm with the headlights on, or donned hip waders to sit in the water garden after dark like it was a giant hot tub – all when he was too trashed to behave rationally. The two of us would have rolled our eyes at those scenes and agreed he was a moron. We’d shoot for a better tomorrow and talk about no experience being wasted.

I miss our frank conversations. Our ability to be blunt with each other. To know that our love for each other went without saying. It hurts when people question that. He used to tell me that people didn’t like my direct way of talking because I spoke to them as a person instead of a woman. I’m not subservient enough. He believed his wife to be mentally equal to any man. (And now I’m not fit for anything else.) It’s why he thought I was the only one who could talk him down out of his tree, and I did that a lot. We traveled a long road together, I just could not walk the last mile with him.

I’m proud of our 20 years of tenacious dedication to each other. I hate that we will never have a 30- or 40- or 50-year anniversary. It’s not likely I have time to have those with anyone.

My daughter just shared something I didn’t know. Not long before he left, he told her how good it was that she had her art. He said, “You have to find a way to help yourself. Because someday there will be no one around to help you.” He was an advocate for sharing your story if it would help someone else. The author is the first person who gets helped. The rest is a gift. He spent most of his good days practicing this.

These memories rest side by side, the good and the bad, the precious and the ridiculous. But life is light and shade. For you, maybe not to the extreme that my experience has been, but to be dishonest or lie by omission would be to discredit our time together and the things we learned.

We did not end our time together in a happily ever after. But neither, my friends, will you. I know the truth hurts, but it is a truth you already know. There will be an illness. An accident. A betrayal. Old age. It is coming for us all. That is why it makes you angry, or ashamed, or eager to blame, or just look away.

But rather than live in fear or bury our heads in the sand, we have an opportunity to wake up. Pay attention to the life we are living. Celebrate the good in people. Learn from the bad. Let go of guilt and pride and regret. And know that somewhere the Jekyl and Hyde personalities we have loved are coming together to form the whole person we knew was there all along.

Don’t Say It…

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Now that I’ve had a year to ponder my life changes and follow all the advice for the unexpectedly single (don’t make any big purchases, don’t plan too far into the future, etc.), I have made one big discovery.

Not talking about all this has created a dam on my creativity and my ability to express myself on everything from global warming to which shampoo I prefer. Deciding to break my silence on the one-year mark of my husband’s death was both terrifying and liberating. A tiny hole was pierced in the dam that I had built, and I felt a lightening of my soul. A very small lightening, but more than I had felt in a long time.

I’m going to be exploring more of the lessons I’ve learned from this experience, and if it makes you uncomfortable please feel free to unfollow or unfriend or whatever un-thing people do now. You won’t hurt my feelings. This is for me. And for people who like me. And for people who are like me.

I want to be very clear about this, because people can be quick to jump to conclusions.

I’m doing really well. I came through a trying time in life, in which I found very few people to identify with. I’m stronger now, and hope to add one small voice for the next person who is desperately searching for support.

It isn’t all I talk about here, but it’s become a huge part of who I am now and must logically be included in the writing that comes from me. I’ve made peace with it (I think). But it’s okay if you can’t.

What I’d like you to think about though, is what not to say to someone like me. And you WILL meet someone like me.

Soon.

The grieving widow, or widower, or parent, or child. And they are grieving their loved one, who may have been hell to live with, but loved all the same. Some of these can be found in this very helpful article, which had one very important point I’m saving for the end.

Don’t criticize the griever. This seems obvious, but lots of people think they are being helpful by suggesting “solutions” in retrospect. “You should have gotten him into rehab.” (Really? Why didn’t I think of that? Oh, wait. Now I remember. He was there 4 times. You know who wasn’t there? You.) “I don’t know why you ever married her in the first place.” “What would <insert name of deceased> think if you did/said/wore/thought that?”

Don’t criticize the deceased. Yes, we know he was abusive/she couldn’t be controlled. We’re painfully aware of the dual burden of feeling the keen loss of the person we loved (including all they might have been) at the same time feeling a sense of relief that the madness is finally over. We may talk about what is true for us and our experience, but at this particular time, what survivors need from others is unflinching support and love. That doesn’t mean we sugarcoat the past. We may say things you’d rather not hear. But it’s for us to say.

Don’t tell the bereaved how to feel. We don’t need to hear who is to blame, how we should feel, when we should “get over it”, or that it was part of God’s plan. Ditto for preaching about how we should behave in front of the children, the parents, the dog, whatever. We’ve been dealing with a lot, and we’re going to feel a lot of different things – sometimes all at the same time. This is going to last possibly forever. Grief is not a process. It is something you process and continue processing as long as you live.

Don’t keep silent. If you don’t know what to say, say, “I don’t know what to say. But I’m here for you, praying for you, and loving you.” We don’t need you to know how we feel (and we wouldn’t want you to. It’s horrible.) But we need to know that you still care. Your silence translates to us as “I don’t have time for your pain. You’re a downer.”

I know, logically, that saying insensitive things – or nothing at all – is more about the other person’s discomfort or inexperience. But at a time like this, the grieving person literally has no room to make you comfortable. It’s like that time you slammed your hand in the door and a telemarketer calls. Your brain is so overwhelmed with pain that it shuts out the usual routine tasks and just hangs up the phone.

Here’s the really important part of why you should PAY ATTENTION to your words. The survivor of a traumatic death is extremely vulnerable to what they hear because they are very likely suffering from PTSDWhen it was first suggested that me and my kids had multiple symptoms of PTSD, I was confused. I thought this was for soldiers and people who saw some kind of “action”. But the “T” is important. It stands for “Traumatic”.

All death is traumatic. For those who got sudden bad news, or held on to the end, or sat vigil by a bedside, or otherwise have seen what you have not, they are going to be traumatized. You are dealing with a damaged person who has had all they can take.

This is your opportunity to be a balm to their soul – or another brick in the wall of misery they are facing. Prepare now for the conversation to come. Practice your response so you aren’t caught off guard. Buy a couple of simple “thinking of you” cards and some stamps so you can send a brief note of love when the time comes. Make a note on the calendar of other people’s important dates so you can give them a phone call to let them know they were in your thoughts.

They may be struggling with many things. Don’t let your ignorance be one of them.