Monthly Archives: March 2015
It was 1997 when I fell from the cliff, and hit a bottom that I never saw coming. I suppose that most people when hurtling through the air, knowing that the sudden stop is coming, close their eyes not wanting to see the ground rushing closer and closer. But it happened.
Of course, this is a metaphor… I write, and because I write I take liberties with words and phrases to make you think… to make you wonder. More importantly I do it because it is simply what comes out. Something happens inside me that triggers me to stop what I am doing and begin to write and often I do not know what is coming. This, however, is not one of those moments. I write now to stop thinking. I write now to get rid of pain, to use skills, to survive. I write now because I see that cliff in the distance again and I can’t… I CAN NOT risk getting too close. I am talking about depression and suicide. They often go together, you see, but sometimes at least in my view, sometimes they don’t.
My dance with depression began before I ever even heard the word used to describe mental illness. Depression was for weak people. Depression was not for me, of me or about me. Looking back now, I see that I began to change. I see that somewhere along the line, something happened in my brain and I became a different person. I was depressed and was sinking fast, but had no idea at all….
It’s funny… the looking back part. You don’t see yourself, not at all. There is no clarity when you are actually depressed. The disease lies to you and tells you that you are tired, or not eating right or getting exercise… and you believe the voice, but… you do nothing. You sit. You think. You hurt. It gets worse. Sometimes you get your head above the water to breathe and for a while you function. For a while you keep going and make it through each day. You function. You go through the motions.
I tried therapy… and meds, but never for long because I didn’t believe in them. I refused to believe that there was truly something wrong that I could not fix myself. Ah, and that was the biggest problem because nobody can convince you any different. You don’t see yourself falling… but those that love you, well, they see it… and they know it and desperately try to make you see… For me, I was suddenly angry at stupid things. I lashed out and I cried and I raged, and then after the calm would come, and I would wonder why I felt this way… I would wonder what was happening to me… and I thought and believed that I needed changes, what changes, I did not know, but I looked for them, and I found them in places that were wrong… so wrong… but you don’t see it… you only know that for a while, you feel something besides sad….
I am back in 1997 now and it is spring. I am looking out the window of my beautiful home that I share with a beautiful woman and we have plans, so many plans and life seems perfect… I look out the window into the back yard, where the ground calls me to plant a garden… it is all exactly what I have always wanted… then why… I think to myself… why am I so unhappy?
I am spiraling now, but working at my job, which I love, with people I love and I come home to a home and hearth that I love… and then…. one fall night my world comes crashing down in an instant. I remember how it felt, like some spigot was opened up and my life spilled out of me. Suddenly I was alone and desperately trying to hold on. My job laid me off and gave me unemployment compensation, which was a blessing I can never repay. Even they saw that I was in trouble. I was. I was in a terrible emotional place and I have no words for the kind of crazy I was experiencing, but somehow, with the urging of friends and family, I signed up for counselling… and medications… and I decided to give myself over to the process. I decided that if this is what life was going to feel like as a depressed person, that I wanted to die. So I decided to see what would happen if I just laid down my sword and let myself be broken and damaged and see if it was true… if something or someone could help me get back to the place where the sun coming up mattered. I wanted to wake up in the morning and be happy about it instead of cursing the start of another terrible day. Depression had me and was dragging me and I was willing to go. I wanted to go.
Instead, I did what I was told; week after week I went to counselling individually and in groups. Three times a week I went. Days I didn’t go I had to call and check in. I took the medications, often through tears because I hated taking pills. It scared me, but I did it and in those counselling sessions, they wanted me to talk, so I talked… and I talked and I cried… and then I would listen to the stories of the others in the groups. I would read the pages in the book we used to lead us along the road to wellness. I still have it. I still refer to it now and then.
There were ups and downs; there were deep and terrible times when the counselors urged me to check in to a hospital. There were weeks when the big victory was simply going to the book store to pick up a stack of free magazines. I remember going with a friend to a concert, and she said, you really can’t be happy about anything, can you… and it was true. Nothing moved me and nothing brought me out of the dark… until one day, I realized that I was changing. It was sudden, like the click of a light switch. I began to come out of the horrible place I had been in for so long. This is when I looked back for the first time and saw the road I had travelled. I saw how sad I had been and it came as such a surprise to realize that I had been that depressed. You can’t see it when you are in it. It is a startling moment but it happens to so many of us…. And then there are so many who never make it out; so many who perish by their own hand without knowing that there is something more than that pain. I almost made it out that way and the struggle to live never stops… the tantalizing voice is never quite silent.
The struggle NEVER stops. Depression… chronic depression never goes away. It will keep talking to you, sometimes whispering to you to give up, to sit down, curl into a ball and quit. You must return to the beginning and talk to yourself and remind yourself and take the pills and Talk. To. Yourself. Life becomes work. It is now a never ending job to keep my brain from shooting the bad chemicals into my bloodstream, the chemicals that cause the pain and sorrow. Sometimes, the happy pills will do some of the work. It is like having a friend who is constantly shoveling coal into your dark and smoldering engine. It is a dirty, ugly thing. But you keep feeding it because you must.
At some point, I felt well enough to call myself a survivor. I had met the demons, my demons, face to face; each and every one of them and most of the time they are quiet and remain behind the curtain but sometimes they leap out. Sometimes they wake you up. But now, I know how to take care of them, and I do with a violent internal bloodletting. It is what I must do, have learned to do, to survive. It is a category called PTSD. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. The hard part is, people have said to me, why don’t you just get over it… and that is a fair question. I want to just get over it, but you don’t. I don’t. If I could, I swear, I would. It is out of my control.
With PTSD you must recognize that what you experienced, the terrible thing… broke you. It broke you and your mind and body are staying broken. There will always be nightmares and flashbacks. Little things will trigger a moment that drops you into that moment again… I never know what it will be… and fortunately the right cocktail of medications have reduced these things significantly. The last one I remember clearly. She touched my shoulder as I walked away…. I reared back with my fist clenched… and it was over… it was a moment… followed by days of racing thoughts and crying. PTSD… not for the faint of heart. This is why I claim SURVIVOR as part of who I am. I have been surviving for 18 years now and it will be my lifes work to simply make it to the end, whatever that is. My promise is that it won’t be by my own hand. The truth of it is that it is a promise I sometimes wish I had not made… that is how powerful the voice is that calls me, to all of us who suffer with depression.
Why did I pick today to write this down? It was a bid for survival. It was a way to keep myself from falling, to puke up all the pain, all the loss, all the negative that has been screaming my name. It is also a way to share a glimpse of what depression is and how it can change a person. It is a clue as to what is happening to someone you love and what you need to do to help them. It took years for me to find my way through the door of the counselling center and keep returning… and I did it for me. THAT is why it worked. I was doing it for me and I still do it for me, because in those moments where my mind is clear and I am looking out at the world, I am just happy to be in it, and see it all and to feel deep inside the happiness that comes so easily to most people… Think about it… how you would seek happiness if you had to work at it in your mind just to feel it. Think about that when someone you love is sad… and not all sadness equals depression… so be vigilant.
I was fortunate to have the love of friends who pushed me and supported me… a sister and niece who showed up to protect me when I truly needed protecting and didn’t realize it. I made new friends along the way who dragged me along into the light and finally, I found my way back to me, to a ME that I hadn’t seen in decades. I owe everyone along the way a debt of gratitude… even though many didn’t know how important their roles were in my life through that time. Imagine, you could be that light to someone. You could be that light to someone right now and not know. You could also remain aware and be the light for someone struggling, and guide them to help. Imagine that. We all have the power to be a positive force just by being a friend, by listening, be cheering someone forward… by reaching out your hand. A few words… a few of YOUR words could change a life… save a life… so be vigilant, even when it seems there is no reason to be… be vigilant.
Pepper was a dog of presence, of formidable presence. He was big and dark with subtle curls and whorls of color winding across his great shoulders and back. He looked like a combination of Boxer and Mastiff. If you were a friend, he was a friend.
If you were a foe, God help you.
He had massive feet and a broad head that held black intelligent eyes. He would stand like a soldier, looking at you and waiting for you to declare yourself. He was willing to let you make a mistake. He was more willing to jump up, put those big feet on both shoulders and smile at you, maybe lick you.
With his nose close to yours you could look into his eyes and see gentleness. A dog so big, looking so fierce would be enough to change the mind of anyone considering stepping onto his territory. But the eyes told a different story. He would almost wink at you, sharing the secret of the big heart hidden in that chest; the playful pup in the lumbering body. He was glorious duality on four legs.
He would walk with his master on the quiet tree lined road leading to his home and sometimes, he would walk alone. He loved the woods and everything in it and his forays would bring him back home with stories of hunts and scents, holes dug and battles won. He was a delight to his human partner, but what Pepper gave was more than realized. Where he wandered left an imprint even larger than those paws… even larger than that enormous heart.
You see, his daily constitutional brought him down the road, across our neighbor’s driveway, down the hill and onto our land. The soil there is soft and often moist, having numerous springs that are fed by generous rain, so when I began seeing his footprints, I was surprised. I imagined coyotes, and all manner of wild things, but it was only Pepper doing his rounds, and each of his walks would bring him past our front door. The exact route would vary, but most every day, he would zigzag his way through, leaving his calling cards as he went.
To ease my mind, and to be sure that I was correct about Pepper being the owner of the footprints and not some wild and dangerous creature, I got onto my ATV with my little dog Chutney harnessed willingly in front of me, and tracked his journey home. To my relief, the trail went directly to his yard and Pepper was laying peacefully under his deck in the shade. Chutney and I made our way up and over the mountain and circled back home. I was relieved.
We never saw Pepper. He came and went in the quiet hours of the day and left his prints, his scent, and his calling cards which were…. Prodigious. I would sigh and began leaving a shovel by the steps. Chutney, however, had a different take on the matter.
Chutney was a “red zone” dog. She did not like other dogs, other animals or most people. We had adopted her from a shelter at 8 months of age. She had already seen enough of the world to make her want to be alone, away from other dogs, but she took to me, and I took to her. She never had the experience of playing with other dogs. She didn’t want to, and when dogs happened onto her territory, she told them to leave, vigorously. So when Pepper began coming by, I was nervous that the hundred pound dog and the twenty pound dog would meet, and the result would be bad. They never did.
What happened instead was Chutney would look forward to going out in the morning with a new interest. She would follow the trail that Pepper left to each of his stopping places and add a couple drops to let him know that she knew he was there. She excitedly crisscrossed the yard, the driveway or sometimes the road, snorting and puffing as she raced along. I would often have to call her back when the trail began to lead back to Peppers house and she headed happily up the hill.
My independent and solitary little Chutney was taking an interest in another dog, and she was obviously happy with her findings each day. She would eagerly demand that we go out, spinning, bouncing and barking for me to hurry it up. I would slip her collar around her neck, open the door, and out she would go and I would follow and watch her as I always did. She was never outside alone. She was a twenty pound dog in a world with coyotes and bears and bigger dogs… always bigger dogs. She never raised her hackles or growled. It was so apparent that this was something she looked forward to, and something she enjoyed each day for weeks and then months. Peppers excursions became Chutneys excursions, and though they never met each other on the trail, they messaged each other in the ways dogs always do. They had a relationship. They shared knowledge. They talked.
I noticed right away when the tracks stopped appearing, and before long I heard of Peppers untimely passing. This is the way of things when you love a dog. Their lives are so short compared to ours and even when we know this it doesn’t help the pain of their passing. I remember standing over the dried, once muddy spot where Pepper left one of his last footprints, knowing that the coming storm would wash it slowly away. After a time, Chutney stopped looking, and I wonder what she thought about the change. The hardest part of loving a dog is not knowing what they truly understand.
On February 25, 2015 Chutney lost her fight with cancer. She was 15 years old, and not old enough. I was not prepared to say goodbye to her any more than I was prepared for my neighbor to stop and tell me that his beloved Pepper had passed. I sat crying this morning thinking about them both and wondered if they had finally met nose to nose in some peaceful grassy place. I imagine them recognizing one another by scent, and wagging their tails and sniffing each other to be sure, then bounding off together into some lovely stand of trees, sending the dry leaf fodder flying.
While Pepper and Chutney never met face to face, they shared with each other as only dogs do. I have to believe that Peppers visits were deliberate, and that he looked forward to finding her calling cards as much as she did his. In this time when there is so much strife in the world, it does us good to watch for and appreciate the little things, including the delight of our beloved companions, the sweet dogs we love so much.
R.I.P., Pepper and Chutney. May you always run happy and free.