Somewhere in March 2019, I landed softly in dark times. Perhaps that is the way most people find themselves hanging out with the black dog, I’m not sure. I know that I was managing my affairs at school, showing up for class and navigating the corridors of the university without any catastrophes.
A few months prior, I went to see my doctor, who had been helping me with some medication for sleep and anxiety in the weeks following Susan’s death. Sleeping had normalized and the anxiety was not nearly as fierce as before. However, I was quite listless. I felt like I was treading water. Not swimming, not drowning, but I was concerned a bit because sooner or later even the strongest swimmers tire out.
My doctor wanted to get me off the Benzedrine drugs. The “benzos” are an effective anti-anxiety drug category but they are dependence-forming. She suggested I try zoloft, an SSRI antidepressant drug that is often used to manage anxiety. I started off at what she called a geriatric dose and pretty much remained there. It seems to help, it might even be a placebo effect, the dosage is so small. I had tried a litany of SSRI cocktails for depression about 8 years ago with no appreciable results and abandoned them. But the zoloft seemed to take a bit of the edge off things. And then my dearest friend (thanks Dan) began praising the merits of apple cider vinegar so I started drinking that kool-aid every morning. Zoloft at night, apple cider vinegar in the morning, meditation and gym workouts slotted in around the rest of my life.
I was, however, horribly tired most of the time. Reading Week arrived near the end of February. Reading Week is a break in the university term, in which there are no classes and students can catch up on essays, homework and reading. Sardonically, when I did my undergraduate degree, it was known amongst students as Suicide Week. Meaning that it was the point in one’s academic year when the realization came that one had fucked up so badly, skipped too many classes, and was so miserably behind that all hope was lost as far as passing courses was concerned. I was briefly released from class preparation. I took a meeting with a research colleague in an effort to kindle my new project. That was all I managed. I had neglected to take notes and within a few days I had forgotten what we had discussed. By the start of classes the following week I was slipping. I know the low end of my mood has almost bottomed out when I start spending my evenings surfing vintage motorcycle sites. That’s been my go-to porn for the past 10 years, and it’s my tell on the state of my mental health. I spent my free time combing over images of pre-1969 BMW Airheads, Japanese muscle inline fours from the 70s, the coveted mid-70s Ducati 860 GTS, and of course The Vincent HRD. Once I have exhausted my usual browsing sites I drift into obscure stuff, like pre-WWII European engineering. Ooh la la!
I had been hitting the gym hard, less yoga, but I was eating well, consuming lots of protein and carbs. I think I had managed 8 days in a row of heavy lifting. But I wasn’t smiling. I recall training with Susan, sometimes at home, or the gym, or out at the high school track, and she was always, I mean always smiling. Sometimes the workout would be so intense that I would have to stop. And then I would watch her. She would be completing these strength exercises that I’m sure most MMA fighters couldn’t manage, and she would be smiling. She would smile at me, at her effort, at the beauty of being able to do the things she was doing. Marvel. It was something to marvel. But during my long stretch of physical training, I would catch my look in the mirror and I wasn’t smiling. I was the opposite of smiling. What is the opposite of smiling? Frowning? Grimacing? Sadness? Whatever it was, I was full of it. My mouth was tense, lines in my forehead pronounced, jaw clenched. My body was doing its best to respond to the effort I was demanding. But I felt and looked like I might explode into a million particles of dust. That’s a “tell”. I told myself to smile because the act of smiling can actually change how one feels. I smiled. Oh the horrors of that smile! I looked like the clown from the Stephen King movie.
Alone in my hobbit’s 4 ½, I could see I wasn’t doing so well. I could see it in the mirror and I could feel it from the inside. My internal awareness of such dark matter is quite sharp, but all the strategies I had for coping didn’t seem to alleviate anything. And when I couldn’t get it together, I began scolding myself. And self-scolding is another tell.
Then the naps started.
Everyone loves a good nap. For me, I need to nap when my brain and my anxiety consume me and I become drained. One nap is probably healthy and everyone should take one. Five a day is not, which is where I was hovering. Five a day is a sign that some type of funk is not just coming, but has arrived. Being able to recognize the meaning of the naps is a good start, but it is often difficult to change directions. By this point the inertia glued my body and mind to the floor. Knowing one needs to address something is different than having the ability to actually carry it out. If you were ever addicted to anything, nicotine, alcohol, gambling, heroin, then you know of what I speak. Wanting to quit smoking cigarettes is about 1% of the effort required to actually pull that task off!
Aware that the naps meant I had sunk further, I decided to ramp up the self-scolding for not being able to get my shit together. Always helpful to top up the inertia and depression with a bit of shaming.
While Susan was living while dying I developed a reflex of clenching my left hand, tight into a fist. Sometimes my forearm would be aching so deeply and only when looking at it would I realize I was clenching. I would release my fist and rub my forearm, unknotting the energy stored in those tight muscles. I suppose there are many interpretations as to what the clenched fist represented. For me it was a response to a fear of the moment, of my future sans Susan, some anger in there as well, but mostly a desire to hold onto Susan, a refusal to let her go, to let her die. After she died, this habit continued. My awareness of it was much quicker. But still, I was upset and curious about this. My body was reacting to things that were bubbling subconsciously. I was grieving as openly and as completely as I could, learning how to grieve as I went along. Grieving is a process of many things, and I felt I was coming to a point where I needed to do something important.
Then one night I descended deep into internet distraction. By now I was snooping around vintage board tracker motorcycles. That’s a fascinating period of motorcycle racing, circa 1915, in which large, oval, steep banked tracks made of wood were raced on. The motorcycles had only a throttle and a kill switch. No brakes. It must have been thrilling to ride and watch in spite of the fact that people died on those tracks. The need to connect and interact with others is a tendency of mine (and most others I imagine) and so I started emailing strangers on motorcycle auction sites to tell them I liked their bike. Not to buy it, but rather to start a conversation with them about something of theirs that I desired. I wasn’t doing any creative writing, I wasn’t living in the moment, I was just looking for distractions from my own imbalance and state of being.
And so, what’s wrong with distraction? Not much, except in my case, I found myself regressing into old patterns. Ways of thinking that included bitterness, anger, resentment, cynicism. And all the beautiful things Susan taught me about being in a moment and the joy of living were fading into the deep dark. As were all the gains I had achieved with my own hard work. Not quite the bottom, but I could see it from where I was falling.
The next day, Sunday, I was shaking with loneliness. I drove in from my suburban flat and attended a service at the Unitarian church where Susan had her memorial. I had not been back there since that day in September. The minister smiled at me, and I ended up sitting near a colleague from school. The theme of the sermon from that day was not particularly inspiring but the act of doing, of going to interact with others made me feel better. I spent some time afterwards speaking with my colleague and his partner, who told me they had started attending the church after Susan’s service. I stayed for lunch, spoke to a few retired humanities teachers, then climbed into my car and drove home.
It didn’t have to be a church, it just so happened that Sunday was the day after my online digression. Getting out of my place was helpful, and that it was to a gathering of people coming together in a sense of community was also beneficial. In my state of grief, decisions were difficult to make and actions equally challenging. And it just so happened that attending a non-denominational church service was the easiest decision to take, the easiest verb to embrace. But going to church, godless or otherwise, is a desperate act to my way of thinking. Somehow just the act of following up on a decision was a big part of feeling better. I haven’t been back to the church yet.
Connecting the dots of my thinking is confusing and I can’t really say how or where I arrived with my thoughts on that day. I do recall reading some Buddhist texts about letting go. That term gets tossed around to the point where it almost means nothing. But the simple idea behind the writing was that if one is carrying an object, or holding someone’s hand, or a coin found on the street, the only way to let go of that desirable object is to open the hand. My clenched fist was not helping me, it was creating aches in my body. The important thing I needed to do? It was time to open my hand, to let go. Let go of Susan.
The following days, I spoke to a travel agent and booked an all-inclusive beach trip for my son and me. At mid-week, my best new friend, Jackie, called and told me she had spotted an upper duplex for rent in a wonderful neighbourhood, had called the number and booked a visit for me. Two days after visiting the place I signed a one-year lease, and the next day left for the Dominican Republic. I returned home with change on the horizon. The past few months have been remarkable. Moving to a new neighbourhood I am engaged with my city once again. I am immersed in my research, and turning on the tap when I teach. Holding my sons and loving them from a near state of grace has been so welcomed!
It still happens, but rarely, that I find myself with a clenched hand. What I feel was most important in all this dancing with dark times was my own awareness of my state of being. Having a great therapist over the years is a big part of that awareness (thanks Jerry). Reading and informing myself about trauma and emotions, talking to family (thanks Betty Lou and Susan) and yoga (thanks Marianne), and eating well (thanks Vitamix), and meditation were all helpful. And once again, I got lucky. I had Susan. I couldn’t go to her for the much desired physical comfort, I couldn’t go to her for soothing whispers in my ear, I couldn’t ask her for reassurance, but I could see her smile when I closed my eyes, I could feel her nudging me toward the things I was afraid of, and somehow that helped me get closer to my own self, and to invite those fears in. That is not a very just description of how she helped me but maybe there are no words to express it. And while I have done my best to be transparent with everything I write here, perhaps I am meant to keep the nature of our love after her death solely to myself.
And so here I am. Hands open.