They want to blame me.
As if I haven’t blamed myself enough. As if I don’t go through every single day of my life and wonder what I could have done to change his decision. As if I don’t re-read text messages and emails and re-listen to phone messages over and over again, searching for the one piece of understanding I missed all the previous times I sought answers.
I get it. They don’t want to carry the blame or shoulder the responsibility. Its much easier to place that burden on someone else to relieve oneself of the self-imposed weight. They don’t want to take responsibility for knowing about his mental illness his whole life or for ignoring it, passing it off as a phase. They don’t want to admit they knew he suffered, self-medicated, self-harmed. They don’t want to see that his actions and words forewarned of this for years and years before he made good on his word. They want to blame me. His wife. The woman who took vows with him, who loved him unconditionally, who told him in no uncertain terms that she would stand by him through anything. The woman who saw him for the beauty he was even through the veil of darkness. Me. They want to blame me.
In a text message exchange with my husband’s sister, I sincerely expressed that I would love her forever, as my sister and family, because her brother, my husband, was the reason we shared a last name. She responded to that message by saying that it was unhealthy for her to continue to communicate with me because her brother and I had gotten into arguments “right before he died.” The horrific and blame-filled implications of her message shook me to my core and sent me into a frenzied spiral of the deepest depression melded with terrifying anxiety attacks that led me to moments of considering taking my husband’s way out for myself. I was blindsided by someone who had previously promised me that I had absolutely nothing to do with his decision.
The last time I saw his parents I said to them, “I hope you know how much I loved your son. He meant the world to me. But he was sick.” His father responded, coldly, saying, “I know you loved him and I know he loved you at the beginning but I don’t know about how it was there at the end.” His words are etched into my mind and soul. The blame behind his words shattered the already broken and scattered shards of my heart.
That’s right. You didn’t know. You don’t know now and you never will.
I let their blame consume me, drown me, send me to places I never thought I’d go. I had no idea my mind could travel into such dark corners until I felt the weight of their blame for the suicide of their son and brother pulling me into the same kind of darkness that lived inside of him. If they feel like that about me, why should I live? How can I bare the burden of this blame when I know I am innocent of it? What do I have to live for if my one true love leaves me by his own hand and I am standing here, alone, and believed to be the cause of his untimely exit? How much more can I possibly take?
Self deprecating question followed self deprecating question. It almost destroyed me.
But I realized that blame was the problem. It wasn’t me who was the problem. It wasn’t they who were the problem and it certainly wasn’t my husband who was the problem. The need to place blame on somebody for something that nobody is responsible for is damaging and causes denial about the reality of the situation, the actual problem. Mental illness is what took my husband away from me, from my children, his family.
This is where I change the dialogue about not who, but WHAT is to blame.
As angry and as hurt as I am sometimes, I don’t blame his family. I don’t blame anyone. Not even myself anymore. Could we all have done something different for him? Sure. Do we all wish we had? Absolutely. But he was a grown man who knew of his troubles. He had both seen and refused to see counselors, he had done therapies, he had tried hobbies and travel and self-medication. He tried it all. I can’t say for sure if he was ever diagnosed with a mental illness. He never said, and from what I know about what he discussed with his closest friends, they knew nothing of a clinical diagnosis either. But it was so clear. At the very least, he suffered from manic depression. I believe he also suffered from Bipolar II Disorder.
Its a deadly combination. As many as 10% of people diagnosed with Bipolar disorder end up taking their own lives, according to Thomas Joiner, researcher, psychologist and suicide survivor, in his book, Why People Die By Suicide (Joiner, p.10). My husband suffered from manic episodes, severe mood swings, deep bouts of depression, alcohol abuse, other destructive and addictive behaviors I will keep private for his sake, self-harm in the form of cutting his skin and suicidal thoughts and behaviors ending in his eventual and successful suicide.
The fact is that nobody is at fault for these things. Nobody is to blame for his mental illness and nobody is to blame for his suicide. There wasn’t anything I could have done in the time that I knew him that caused him to make that decision, especially given that I was in the dark about the depth of his mental illness until after his death. There wasn’t anything his friends or family could have done during his life to cause his mental illness to take over his mind and force him to make the decision he did either. All the years of his struggle and trials with mental illness culminated into a chaotic pile of broken lives and dreams as the end of his life came to be. For the sake of anyone else dealing with mental illness, either themselves or loving someone who suffers, I want to share what this looked like from my first hand perspective.
During the last three weeks he was alive, he was going through manic phases on an almost unfathomable level. It was literally minute to minute in regards to his mood swings and they were fueled by an uncontrolled consumption of alcohol. He would drink in the mornings, all day long, while on the clock at work, through the night until he passed out…it didn’t stop. He would finish a fifth of tequila over the course of a three or maybe four hour time frame. A whole fifth. Straight out of the bottle. To himself. He would be fine one minute, tipsy and emotional the next and then swing into a drunken rage unlike anything I could have ever imagined from him. Manic behavior on fast forward. The cycle could be over the course of a whole night, moving through each phase slowly and deliberately and sometimes the spinning would happen so quickly that I could see each stage of the cycle over and over for hours on end. I never knew what was going to happen or at what speed we would travel.
His normal state of being was glorious. He would send me messages and emails all day expressing his love for me. He would call me just to say he just needed to hear my voice because he missed me. He would FaceTime with my children because he loved them. He would come home from work, flowers in hand, and spend the night entangled with me and assuring me with his words of pure love. He spoke of forever and growing old together. We talked of the places we would travel and the adventures that we would take on our path together. When we were in public and people asked if we had children, he would answer, “we have two badass children at home.” And when I would speak of “my” kids, he would raise his index finger in my face, shake it and correct me, saying, “OUR kids. They are our kids.” His smile never left his face, his touch on my skin was electric when the physical connection between us was made. We danced around our house, for hours sometimes, to our favorite songs, jumping up and down, singing along and spinning each other around as we accompanied the songs with our laughter and shouts of “I love you!” How much I loved dancing with him. We slept wrapped around each other in a way that let us exchange breath and it was the most amazing feeling in the world to feel his heart beating in time with mine.
Then, sometimes, we would go out for some drinks or stay home and open a bottle or two of some liquid libation. That’s when the rough parts of the cycle would begin. It would start out as a couple drinks being enjoyed, allowing him to relax and have a good time. Laughing, dancing, entertaining with eyes wide and bright, his smile taking over his face, his hands placed on my body in a way that let me know that he loved me and that we were meant for each other. We would have the best of times when it was like this and up until the last three weeks, he kept it right here. Then he would knock back a few more. The dam that held back all of his emotions, that he guarded so closely, would break wide open and he would cry. He would cry out of joy, telling me that he was so grateful for me and our love and that he had a family in his life, showering me with tearful affection. He would cry out of sadness, missing his many relatives who passed before him. He would cry for the relationships with his family, his parents, his sister and he would cry for my relationships with my family saying that he wanted to repair any brokenness that existed on both ends. At first he would let me hold him, comfort him, sit next to him while he buried his head into my shoulder, my hand on the back of his head while I wiped his tears off his cheeks. Then, out of nowhere, the swing would happen. He would change.
The shift was instant and shocking. It was not representative of the man I knew, loved and married. His luminous eyes would fade to dark, all the warm light by which I recognized him extinguished. His tears would dry instantly, the white salt streaks lingering on his mocha colored cheeks the only sign they ever existed. The register of his voice would lower, his laughter would die away and be replaced with a harsh and splintered, uncaring tone. His usually soft and loving hands that were typically wrapped around me would stiffen and he would hold them up in front of him, stopping me in my path if I tried to come near him. His features would harden into solid stone, leaving only an expression of disdain on his face, seen in his narrowed eyes, curled corner of his upper lip and clenched jaw. He would disappear completely and this other version of him would show up and take over his body, mind and physical space.
This version of him would express the worthlessness and hatefulness he felt for himself by unleashing harmful and resentful commentary aimed at the person closest to him, which was me, during those last three weeks of his life. His inner monologue would escape from the confines of his tortured mind and come to life in a way that allowed me to feel and experience the heaviness and utter agony caused by the pain he lived with on a daily basis. The unleashing of this pain to the physical realm would cause him to act out by throwing or smashing objects, such as a ring of keys or a glass full of water, and letting vitriol erupt out of his mouth with no concern. His words sliced through me, his actions were terrifying. These words and actions cut me to the bone, the way he had cut his own skin, leaving scars and permanent reminders of the aguish. I felt like I was blown apart and left for dead by this version of him, just as he was left the night he took his life.
At the time, I took his words and actions personally as if it they were meant for me. An intended affliction. I didn’t realize, or maybe I was too selfish to realize, that the pain inside of him was so excessive that it was too much for his gorgeous soul to contain and there he was, trying to hand some of it to me, pleading with me to help him carry it. The words he was so violently releasing were really meant for himself and I didn’t see it. I wish I had been more aware and realized the burden I was being asked to bare. I wish I had stood my emotional ground, open hearted, and shouldered his darkness for him in the moments that it was too much for him to handle. I wish I had said and done more, been more selfless, loved him harder. But its so difficult to be inside of that situation, in the midst of a verbal and physical assault by someone you love, without understanding the real determinant, and keep your understanding about you. I failed both of us in that endeavor.
I thought what I was dealing with was an addiction to alcohol and the repercussions of such a habit, but the alcohol was only the surface. I didn’t see what lay beneath the surface of the addiction. I took it literally when I should have seen it as a metaphor. I wish I could go back to him in those moments and stand in front of him and instead of crying and breaking down, hold my head up and look at him with more compassion. I wish I could go back to him in those moments and assure him that no matter what, I could handle what it was he was holding, that I could help him bare his load, that he wasn’t alone in his strife, that I understood him. It is incredibly painful to look backwards and see how you could have done something better, especially in what was literally a life or death situation. In this life or death situation, where his life was on the line, I had the option of fight or flight and I chose to fight. However, I fought for myself, my bruised ego, and instead of seeing it for what it really was, his cry for help, I allowed myself to become a victim instead of his hero. I didn’t realize I needed to fight for him in the way that was needed. For his life. His beautiful, precious life.
And so he took it. He took himself away from me a mere three weeks after he started showing this side of himself that I had not seen up to that point. I didn’t have time to process, repair damage or even see it clearly. By the time I did it was too late.
For I had failed him. Every one of us had failed him in some way. He had failed himself.
I have learned so much from all of this. I have learned to look beyond the words being thrown at me and to step back, remove myself from the situation, to not take this affliction personally and to really look into why someone I love is behaving in such a way. I have learned how mental illness appears in so many different ways. I have learned that I too needed to learn how to handle mental illness and that it was not just his burden to bare, but ours. All of ours. I have learned how to remove my ego from the situation and give full attention to my loved one instead of unnecessary attention to myself. These behaviors are cries for help and if seen as such, instead of seeing them as personal attacks, much can be done to extend compassion to someone suffering. I have learned that love outweighs the problems associated with a relationship in which mental illness rears its ugly head as long as you can be aware of the true reasons someone is acting out. My husband taught me to love unconditionally. Truly, without conditions. For better or for worse. Till death do us part.
Unfortunately, these lessons were learned much too late.
Hopefully you won’t find yourself in the same boat.
I believe I couldn’t have changed him. It wasn’t in my realm of capabilities to change him, fix him, make him truly happy, and honestly, that wasn’t my job. Nobody could have done that for him. He was the only one with the real capacity for making himself a better version of who he was. And even then, I don’t believe he was in control of that either. It is not as easy as saying to someone, “just be positive,” or “you have the power to make your day better,” or “you can choose to be happy.” It wasn’t easy for my husband. People who suffer from mental illness don’t have these luxuries. They are controlled, like a puppet on a string, and often times can’t be happy under any circumstance. Or, as in the case of my husband, they can get so high on something amazing that transpires in their life that they truly believe they are happy. I believe this is what happened when we married. He had never experienced such a high and I knew, and still know, that his happiness was real. However, for every high high there is an equal low low. People who suffer from mental illness rise up into the high of happiness only to crash lower than ever before off the intoxication of the joy. My husband crashed off the high of our marriage in a way that I never saw coming. He was gone from me four months and three days after we spoke our vows to each other.
Mental illness takes a hold of its victim and squeezes every lost drop of who they are out into the ether and fills them back up with despair, worthlessness, a sense of ultimate burdensomeness. A state of mind in which one can feel, with the utmost confidence, that their life has no value, that they won’t be missed when they are gone, that it is better for their loved ones to be without them. A state of mind that allows someone to tie a noose, open a blade or load a gun knowing that the end of their life will come of these actions. It defies all of our animal instincts to end our own lives and to be in a state of mind that overrides this most basic of survival mechanisms is something only those who have been there can attest to. Unfortunately, for those of us who crave and require the understanding of this concept for our own sense of sanity, the success of such an attempt leaves us without these answers from those we love for an eternity. A black hole in our hearts, sucking in and vanishing our own happiness and ability to reason, sleep, eat, function and even live.
This is nobody’s fault. Blame is not, nor should it ever be, a part of this dialogue. The mentally healthy person does not choose to end their life over an argument, an internet bully, the break-up of a relationship, a rift with a family member or even the loss of a loved one. Mental illness creeps into the minds of the unwilling and makes this choice an option and more than that, convinces some that it is the only option. Mental illness comes in so many shapes, forms, colours, sizes…an infinite list of ways mental illness can show itself. It doesn’t discriminate based on race, gender, age, financial status, sexual preference or any other characteristic.
This is where we have to change the dialogue. End the stigma. Shout at the top of our voices. Mental illness cannot be ignored. It is needs to be addressed and respected.
We also need to support the ones who love those with mental illnesses. They need support and education too. Those of us who have been there know that our love trumps any aspect of mental illness, we can see through the darkness into the light of the person we love and that given the opportunity, we would do anything it takes to make sure our loved ones know their worth and importance in our lives.
Every day in the United States alone, according to The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, there are 121 successful suicides. For every successful suicide there are 25 attempts (www.AFPS.org). That is a mind-shattering 3,025 attempted suicides per day in just this country. That equals 60 people, per state, per day who attempt to end their lives by their own hands. That is 11 people PER MINUTE dying by suicide every single day. 11 PEOPLE PER MINUTE! 11 families a minute torn apart. 11 people who leave behind loved ones who will never be the same. 11 lives a minute that were taken in vain. At least 11 people per minute, if not more, who have to find their loved ones in a state of total brokenness and live with that image for the rest of their lives. 11 times a minute that mental illness wins over our loved ones and all of us alike.
Suicide and mental illness go hand in hand. Mental illness is not indicative of suicide but suicide seems to be indicative of mental illness. How many people have to suffer and live a life less joyful, painful and torturous when we have the ability to offer assistance, support and compassion to those suffering? We must #EndTheStigma and we must not ignore any longer. We must accept that it can be a part of the human condition and treat it, and its victims, with the deserved respect. We must make it acceptable for those suffering to speak out and make it known that they are hurting. We must come to their aid the way we do with cancer patients or the physically disabled. We must do this to save lives. We must do this to save ourselves. We must end the stigma. We must.
“American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.” AFSP. Np., 01 Feb 2017. Web. 03 Feb 2017.
Joiner, Thomas. Why People Die by Suicide. USA: President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2005. Kindle Ebook. Pp.10.