Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Something Stole My Laughter

In 1984, Neue Constantin Film and Warner Bros. released a film called The NeverEnding Story. It’s about a magical land, Fantasia, destroyed by The Nothing. The Nothing was just…nothing. Despair. Hopelessness. All-consuming darkness.

I know this feeling. I know it all too well.

I’ve lost many people in my family. From the time I was a child I knew what death was. Death took my brother before I was ever born. Death stole my favorite grandmother when I was 11, my aunt when I was 18, my cousin and my grandfather both when I was 20, my other grandmother when I was 26.

Yes, I knew what death was. I knew its finality, its permanence. Grief though…I never knew grief was permanent. I know this now.

Of course I grieved for each of those losses. Those were my family members that died, and I loved them. Family means more to me than anything else and I will defend my family to the death. But I couldn’t defend them from Death.

With each of those deaths, I felt loss and grief. I cried, I felt the hole that was left behind. But then something monstrous happened, something so massive that it left behind more than a hole.

It left behind Nothing.

My son died.

My son. “Grief” is too weak to describe what happened. Despair. Hopelessness. All-consuming darkness. This was my Nothing. It had come to destroy me. My family was there for me. My sister in North Carolina even flew in. Family supported me, encouraged me, looked after Violet, and kept me alive.

We held the funeral. The tiny white coffin was rolled out of the Cathedral and into the waiting hearse, and we followed it to the cemetery. Then there was the reception, and a couple of days after that everyone went back to their usual lives. I didn’t have a usual life anymore. After the flurry of sympathy and “I’m so sorry’s” and company and food, I was left with the tatters of my old life and an empty room where my baby should be. My life had suddenly been divided into “before” and “after” and I had to find a way to live in the “after”.

I got the feeling I wasn’t supposed to talk about my son. Just saying his name seemed to make people freeze. Didn’t they understand? I needed to talk about him. It wasn’t going to hurt me to talk about him. It was going to hurt me to pretend he hadn’t existed, that it hadn’t all happened. Please, for the love of God, talk about him. Give me the chance to speak his name again. I will never again get to take his picture. I will never get to feel his breath, or his hand wrapped around my finger. At least let me say his name. Don’t take that away from me, too.

People kept telling me to smile, that I shouldn’t look so serious or so down all the time. Forgive me. I just fucking buried my child. You’re right. I ought to be grinning from ear to ear. I think, if nothing else, I had earned the right be sad. How dare someone try to limit the time of another’s grief? There was no stopping mine. It settled over my mind like a layer of wet wool: dense, uncomfortable, dreary, and damp.

I was a terrible teacher that semester. I began a long-term relationship with Xanax in order to keep the PTSD flashes minimized. I mothered the child that was left to me as best I could, though I became extremely paranoid. I woke up several times a night to make sure she was still breathing.

But life, as they callously say, goes on: without mercy, without pause, without waiting for us to be ready. We carve out a new way of life to go with the new normal that we have to accept. I found a happiness I could sustain. I made a good life for myself, my child, and my new husband. The last time I felt absolute joy was when my husband and I heard the heartbeat of the baby we were expecting. We heard the heartbeat on February 14, 2004: Valentine’s Day. On February 18, 2004, due to complications of pneumonia and medication post back-surgery, my husband was dead.

I have lost the ability to feel joy.

I still have glad times. My kids make me happy. Welcoming that baby without my husband was a bittersweet moment. My family makes me smile. But I cannot feel joy. In fact, I feel a distinct absence of joy, as if there is an empty slot on my emotional bookshelf where it has been checked out and I’m just waiting for it to return. I know what it is, and I long for it.

This is the only way Emma has ever known her big brother.

Humor is what my family has always relied on to move through hard times. Less than a year ago, on December 29, 2013, my youngest daughter and I returned to our home only to find it fully engulfed in flames. We lost everything. Everything. We had left only what we were wearing. The house was not salvageable, nor were any of the contents. The city ordered it destroyed. Were it not for an irreverent sense of humor, the support of my family, the incredible people I work with, and my community, I would have crossed over to the dark place. I was teetering on the edge with this blow. There are only so many times a person can bounce back before the bounce just isn’t there anymore.

They never could tell us the cause of the fire.

Utter devastation. Total loss. There is nothing left.

Bones tried to help Violet cope. It wasn't easy processing the enormity of this personal disaster.
We stayed with family as we tried to get back on our feet.

I’ve been on antidepressants for a long time. (Am I allowed to say that openly, or are we still repressing that sort of thing and pretending that it doesn’t exist?) But there’s a problem. They aren’t working anymore. The darkness is creeping in again and covering everything that should be light. What do you do when the very medicine you take for a mental illness no longer helps that mental illness? And what do you do when no one around you will talk to you about how you feel? “Oh no, you can’t say that! You can’t talk about that, dear.” It’s taboo. It’s uncomfortable. But don’t you see? That’s the very reason we have to talk about it. Everyone should be able to talk about it, to feel safe talking about it, to seek help without feeling judged.

There are so many different ways I could describe how I feel, but I fear they will come across as just a jumble of images:
  • I’m surrounded by an invisible glass box. It separates me from everyone and everything so that nothing touches me as acutely as it should. Sounds aren’t as sharp, emotions are less intense, and life – overall – is less engaging. Most of all, that glass box keeps others from reaching me and keeps me from reaching them. I’m isolated.
  • I’m covered by a veil. This veil dims the entire world so that everything looks darker than it really is. There is a part of me that knows, rationally, that the sun is shining and it is bright and beautiful outside, but still everything looks dark and dim.
  • I feel like I’m always wearing a mask. I call getting ready for work “putting on my stage make-up” because to go out in public I often feel like I am playing the role of the happy, cheerful me. But I am not truly that person. It’s an act, a mask. I cannot be “me” and show the sadness that coils up inside me. Who wants to be around the girl who is unhappy? So I arrange my face into a mask of cheerfulness; I assume a smile, and people remark on what a happy person I am. They do not see the pain behind the smile.
  • There are so many versions of me in my head all telling me how wrong I am. I’m wrong to be unhappy. I’m wrong for wanting some alone time and not spending every minute I have with my children. I’m wrong about being wrong. I’m wrong in every choice I’ve ever made in my life. I’m wrong. I’m wrong about everything. And the fact that these thoughts are constantly sniping at me in my own head means they never go away. I can’t turn the power off. I can’t change the station. I can’t drown them out. I have no way of shutting them up. So they just go on and on and on.
I don’t expect to be Stepford-wife bright and shiny all the time. A) I’m not a wife, and B) I’m not a bright and shiny kind of person. But I don’t think living the way I’m living is actually living either. My kids deserve a real mom: someone who does more than considers the day a win if she wakes up in the morning.

I am an introvert by nature, but being an introvert does not mean a person is depressed. The depression is separate. The depression is a mental illness. And I am not ashamed to admit that. There are people who try to make me feel ashamed for it. “Just cheer up!” they tell me. As if it were that simple. “Do some yoga, or go for a run. You’ll feel a million times better!” I am not denying that there is a correlation between a healthy body and a healthy mind, but clinical depression won’t go away with a little downward-dog. I’ve tried.

I don’t have “people” because I’m not good at making or maintaining friendships. I want to. I try to. It sounds so silly to say at my age, but I don’t really know how to make friends. That isn’t meant as a “poor pitiful me” but simply to explain my sense of isolation. I laughed it off for a while: “I’m too cool for other people to handle; that’s what it is.”

But when the room is empty, laughter rings hollow. I don’t know where my laughter went, but I miss it. I do so love to laugh. 

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