When it’s (not) all my fault

So. Five months have gone by since my last post. I was actually planning to take this blog down, convinced my vision had changed, not so sure I needed it anymore. So what have I been doing? Living my story. I am still figuring things out here in Wisconsin, but the dust seems to be settling, and for the first time in almost two years, I have a routine again. A great job with amazing co-workers. Real friends. A kickball team. And yes, even a new romantic relationship. Wisconsin has surpassed my expectations, and life here is better than I imagined it could be.

But there has been a cost, and it’s been a steep one.

I’ve mentioned before that not everyone has agreed with my decisions. That some felt I was running away. That it was too soon for me to be involved romantically again (after a year and a half).  That I should stay in Iowa. That I should stay in grief.

For the most part, these voices were a minority. But the fact that they came from people I loved so deeply has been an unbearable pain, nearly as significant as the loss of my husband.

I tried to convince myself their opinion didn’t matter. I kept pushing forward. I kept following my heart. I thanked God every day for the friends who were sticking by me, cheering me on. And it worked well, for a time.

But then, well, that thing happened, and everything kind of fell apart. Just a couple of weeks ago, very publicly, I was accused of failing to prevent my husband’s suicide. More privately, I was told that my husband’s suicide was a direct result of the fact that I failed to be present when it happened. In short, I was told that it was all my fault.

All my fault.

And just like that, it was like it had just happened yesterday. And all of the pain that had begun to feel so far away rushed up to the surface.

I remember it all. I remember the screaming. I remember the keening from deep within me, and not knowing such sounds could come from my mouth. I remember my legs giving out so many times, as I would simply fall to the floor, unable to comprehend how any of this would ever be okay.

I remember what it looked like when I found him. I remember calling 911. My driveway filled with police cars. I remember hearing the officer making the call for his parents to be notified.

I remember realizing I was a widow at 31 years old.

I remember planning a funeral for the man that, 48 hours before, I had been planning to have a child with.

Mostly, though, I remember that for quite some time, I lost my desire to do anything at all. I remember everyone telling me how strong I was, but how I’d never felt so weak in my entire life.

Every. Single. Thing. I’d ever cared about or hoped for was gone. I woke up exhausted every day from crying in my sleep. I somehow got myself back to work, but my heart wasn’t in it anymore. My heart wasn’t in anything anymore.

I tried. I tried so hard that I lied about it. Because I couldn’t take the constant sympathy, the constant barrage of people wanting to know that I was okay. I wasn’t okay. I was never going to be okay.

It was five months before I found a day without tears. It would be several more before that could happen two days in a row.

But I also remember fighting. Going to a counselor – twice a week for quite some time, weekly for almost a year – ready to do the work. Ready to heal.

Because even though I didn’t know how I could possibly find my way again, I had to believe it was possible. The only thing more terrifying than how I was feeling was the idea that I’d have to feel that way for the rest of my life.

And so I fought. SO hard. I mean, you just have no idea. For the better part of two years, I walked around feeling like I had my fists up and a sword drawn. I could not relax. I could not give in. I would survive. I had to survive.

And very, very slowly, I did. I went on dates (long before I was really ready). I left my job in search of bigger things. I painted rooms. I stepped out of my comfort zone, because I had no choice. I reclaimed my home, just in time to realize I needed to sell my home and move on. I stopped going on dates. I searched for jobs nationwide. I thought about the kind of place I wanted to live in. And at just the right time and in just the right way, I found myself headed to Wisconsin. I landed a job at one of the best universities in the nation. I found real friends who have supported me and cared for me, before and after finding out about my past. I began to relax my fists and holster my metaphorical sword. With the pieces of my life more in place, I took my chance on a few more dates. I fell in love again. And every single day, I have proof that I am exactly where I am supposed to be.

Which is precisely why the naysaying hurts so much. The idea that I ran away? The idea that I’ve forgotten?

I could not possibly forget. The events of the past 20 months have left me with scars I will carry for the rest of my life. The pain was unspeakable and unimaginable. And of course it was. I put on my brave face out of necessity. But please remember that I lost my husband in the worst way possible. And that I found him, shot to death by his own hand.

I will never forget.

And when I am told it’s all my fault? I don’t just feel blame for the fact that he’s gone. I feel blame for all that his death did to me – what it did to so many people. For the aftermath that is still felt by so many.

I did not know that after all of this time, after all of this healing, that it would ever be possible to feel that wounded again. I was wrong. I cried in my sleep again. I felt it all again. I lived it all again.

For the record, I do not blame myself for my husband’s death. My husband was a victim of suicide. I firmly believe that. There are no words to describe how much I wish he would have asked for help. That he would have let someone know that he was hurting. But he didn’t. He chose to carry his burden alone. He was a victim of suicide, but he was also the perpetrator. It is a hard thing to accept, to be certain. But that does not change that it is true.

Despite knowing this, I’ve been carrying the extra weight of this accusation around for the last several weeks. Trying to find my strength again. Learning that I must live with the fact that there are individuals who place blame on my shoulders – and that there will likely be nothing I can do to lift that burden. Resigning myself to the fact my relationships with people I once dearly loved have ended. Grieving once again, in a very different way, for the loss of those who meant everything.

And so, once again, I find myself here, fingers on laptop keys, relying on the only thing I know that always seems to help, which is speaking out. Pretending everything is fine never quite worked out for me. At least I figured that out much more quickly this time around.

I think, though, that this may just be a part of the grief process that I didn’t know about before. That every once in a while, for the rest of my life, maybe it’s just going to jump up and bite me, catching me unaware in a time when everything seems to have fallen into place.

And maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s okay to be reminded of what I’m made of. We are all tested in the life, forced to endure things we shouldn’t have to face. And in many cases, those are battles we must fight alone. I have learned that the hard way. I remember it every day. But I have come out on top before, and I will come out on top again.

So I go forward. Knowing I already possess the strength to stand, and ready to continue loving the life I fought so hard to build for myself. Knowing that loss can wound me, and it can scar me, but it cannot break me.

Thankful that once again, even when darkness surrounds me, I remain determined to shine.

My inbox runneth over.

And over. And over.

Today is Day 5 in the life of this little blog, and I couldn’t be more overwhelmed by the response. Approaching 1,500 page views already, with many positive comments here, and tons over on Facebook. But what’s really blowing my mind is the state of my inbox. Dozens and dozens of messages – most of which I have yet to reply to – and over and over again, the message is the same.

“Me, too.”
“I’ve battled depression for the last 7 years.”
“I lost someone to suicide, too.”
“You never knew this about me, but I’ve been depressed my entire life.”
“Thank you for saying what I’ve never been able to say.”

These messages have me thinking. Why do we choose to stay silent? Is there still a stigma attached to depression? Are we afraid that we’ll be seen as weak or incompetent? Even after my husband died, it took me more than 9 months to speak up and admit the truth.

So what’s the deal?

I spent some time thinking about my own journey with the stinky beast called depression. Back in high school and college, I really had the opposite problem. I’d tell ANYONE who would listen how depressed I was. I’d complain about how alone I was and how it felt like no one cared about me. I was really just spouting off to get a response. To have someone tell me they loved me – even though there was really no chance I’d believe them anyway. It wasn’t about getting help – it was manipulative, and it wasn’t okay. And to those of you who chose to weather the storm and stick by my side anyway, I thank you. Please accept this belated apology. I knew I needed help, but I just didn’t know how to get it.

As I got older, I realized what I’d been doing. I healed. And depression became a thing of my past. As long as I stuck to my 3 rules, I pretty much stayed on top of the game. A co-worker (who later became one of my best friends) told me I was the “happiest person she’d ever met.” I was
floored. It seemed I’d really beaten this thing.

But battling depression is a life-long process, and for those who’ve dealt with it in any significant capacity, I think it lurks in the shadows, ready to emerge again when life throws you a curveball.

For me, that curveball was my husband’s suicide. And even though the entire world knew I couldn’t possibly be doing okay, I was determined to hide it. Because I didn’t want to be “that girl” again. But in reality, I hadn’t been that girl in years. I just had to trust the woman I’d become.

I would argue that speaking up when we are hurting, when we truly want help, when we really do need to know that we are not alone shouldn’t just be encouraged, it should be mandatory. Why do we decide to hide? I’ve explained that I didn’t want you to worry. That I didn’t want my friends and family to have to carry the burden of my pain. But really, isn’t that what love is all about? Aren’t we all really here, on this great big planet of ours, to take care of each other?

In the 5 days since I spoke out, so many of you have reached out with your stories. And this outpouring of the truth has filled me with joy. Not because you are hurting, but because maybe we can help carry each other along this path through life.

What if we all decided to stop pretending? What if we all took a moment to examine our deepest, darkest places and figure out why we’re keeping them from the people we love? Wouldn’t the world be a better, bolder, more beautiful place if we chose to be our most authentic selves?

In the words of the immortal Dr. Seuss, “Be who you are and say what you feel because those who matter don’t mind and those who mind don’t matter.” Maybe it really is just that simple.

I am so very thankful that the truth is coming out – for me, and for so many others. I’ve spent the last 5 days feeling lighter and freer than I’ve ever felt before. In some ways, it feels like I’m just one week old. As it turns out, there was really nothing to be afraid of after all. As it turns out, admitting I wasn’t as strong as I wanted you to believe might just be my greatest act of strength to date.

Time for the truth.

If you’re reading this, you know me already. Chances are, you came here from my Facebook page. You might be an old friend from Illinois, or even Maryland or Kansas. You might be a crafty friend or someone who read one of my earlier books. You might be one of my closest friends. Even a member of my family. Regardless, I owe you an apology. See, I’ve been lying to you – and it’s time to get real.

There’s a good chance you know a lot of my story already. A year ago, I was happier than I ever thought possible. I was totally in love, I’d moved to a beautiful new home, and I had plans for a family and a future. On June 26, 2012, everything changed. My husband unexpectedly committed suicide. Just like that, my world was shattered. And suddenly everything was so, so different.

From the very beginning, I decided I would be strong. Because I was still here. To give in was to lose my own life, too, and I wasn’t willing to accept that outcome. I was determined. I would find a way. And even though I spent much of those first few months face down on the floor, I did
find a way. I put my brave face on. I was back at work in less than two weeks. I listened to everyone tell me how strong I was, how great I was doing. How proud my husband would have been, because he loved me so much. But if he loved me so much, how could he do this? It took time for me to realize that his death had nothing to do with me. That he was hurting in ways that were far beyond anything I could understand or comprehend. I found comfort in the fact that he was finally at peace. With God. But again, I was still here. And what on earth was I going to do now?

I pressed forward. In a lot of ways, life had already prepared me for this. This was not the time to lie on the couch and cry. Goodness knows, I’d spent enough of my life doing that already. Years of battling clinical depression in my teens and early 20s gave me tremendous coping skills. I’d beaten darkness once, and I was determined to do it again.  

So I tried new things. I went to hockey games and ballets. I started playing piano. I attempted kickboxing. I painted. I danced. I started volunteering. I even left my day job to pursue my life-long goal of being a writer on my own terms. These were all great things, but in so many ways, I was really just going through the motions. I was still so very broken. But all I could hear was everyone telling me how proud they were that I was doing “so well.” Perhaps most significantly, I could see the relief in their faces. They were just glad I was “okay.”

I think this is when I started lying to you. I really didn’t mean to. But I was so very tired and I just didn’t want you to worry anymore. I didn’t want to disappoint you. And I think I thought if I didn’t say how much I was still hurting, that it might not be true.

So I told you that I went to California. I shopped on Rodeo Drive, hugged Mickey and Minnie, and visited the set of Pretty Little Liars. I went to a Dodgers game to cheer on his favorite team. But what I didn’t tell you was that while looking at a sales rack full of Dodgers merchandise, I burst into tears and ran out of the store. And then I just stood there in the middle of the street, crying into my cousin’s arms, unable to comprehend how I could possibly go on like this.

I told you that I gave myself a great new home office and painted it bright yellow. I painted inspirational messages to myself on the wall before applying the first coat of paint. I even let you vote on whether a quote from Lewis Carroll or Wayne Gretzky would adorn the wall. And I told you that it’s most I’ve ever loved a single room in my entire life. But what I didn’t tell you was that cleaning out that room was the single most painful thing I’d had to face since when they had become too painful to look at. And now I had to sort through all of them – his clothes, our memories. A stick of deodorant that still smelled like him. Hand-me-down clothes from my sister’s children for the child we never got to have – the child that was supposed to grow up in this very room. Each stroke of yellow paint represented a bright new future, but it was also a reminder of the hopes and dreams that I’d now never realize.

I told you that I went on a cruise with my best friend. We laughed. We swam with dolphins and rode horses in the Caribbean Sea. We basked in the sunshine and spent hours doing nothing at all. I told you that it was the best vacation of my life. And it was. But what I didn’t tell you was how seemingly every live musician we encountered – on the boat or on the streets in the Caribbean – chose to play my wedding song as I walked by. I realized then, through tears, that there is no escaping this story. I became afraid that as I carve out a new life for myself and even look toward loving again, this pain might always be there, lingering in the background waiting to gnaw at me when I least expect it.

I didn’t tell you these things because I didn’t want you to worry. I wanted you to be right when you would tell me how great I’ve been doing. And truthfully, I just didn’t want you to have to know how horrific it really was.

It seems, however, that it’s time for a change. Time to stop pretending that every single day is a great one. Time to be a little more real.  Because here’s the thing:

You’ve asked me how my new work is going. Do I enjoy writing every day? Am I excited? And I smile, and put on my brave face, and what I don’t tell you is that I haven’t made much progress. Until today. Because the writing I dream of? It’s not fiction. It’s this. It’s about emerging from depression and grief to find ways to shine against all odds. It’s sharing my story with the hope that I can help others get out of their dark places, too.

And I’ve come to realize that if I really want to make a difference, it’s not enough to share just the good stuff. Yes, I choose every day to be a person who lives a life of joy. Yes, I’ve become a person who finds the silver lining in any situation almost automatically. I am able to see the sunshine brightly because I have seen the darkest places this world has to offer – and I reject the idea that I must stay stuck in them. But if I’m not real about those dark places, if I’m not willing to share the rough edges, then none of it means anything. If I truly want to be a person who can inspire others to get up and out of bed, even when they feel like they have nothing left to live for, then I absolutely must be clear. I have been there. I get it. I know what it’s like to lie paralyzed, so consumed by darkness that the idea of even lifting up your head from the pillow seems like an impossible task.

But I also know how to get up. Over and over again, even on the worst of days. And while it’s always easier to remain in bed, I will never stop believing that the world has more to offer. That my best days are ahead of me. That the future holds more beautiful moments than I can possibly imagine.

And so I will continue to press forward into my brave, beautiful, bold, and finally authentic life.

Because I am determined to shine. And if you are, too, I think I can help.