Grief, guilt, depression: a self-help journey ~

On a sad and foolish day in mid-May during which I got emotionally needy and expressed myself histrionically to a sometime-reader of this blog, he accused me of being unwilling to “take a single step” to help myself with my depression and social isolation. This criticism infuriated me not least because it was grossly untrue.

Nonetheless, his assertion got me to thinking about the whole question of self-help, and I found myself still thinking about it several weeks later. I realized I was beginning to forget some of the things I’ve done in the past eight years, since I left my husband and found my own life spiraling out of control after he died. As a way to preserve this piece of my self-history for myself and for any future counselors I have—and, I hope, to help others—I decided to list and discuss the things I’ve tried to reduce my guilt and grief over my ex-husband’s death and to alleviate the severe depression and social isolation that resulted. What helped? What didn’t? What did I not try, and why didn’t I try those things? Why did I abandon some of the things I tried?

This is an extremely long post, something of a primer on depression, isolation, and loneliness, and it’s not intended for casual readers. Rather, it’s meant in part to give some perspective and advice to fellow sufferers and those who love them. Therefore it comes with the standard disclaimers: I’m not a doctor or therapist; these are strictly my own impressions based on my own experiences; consult a professional if you suffer from depression; get help if you’re feeling suicidal. Okay? Please act in your own best interest. Variability also comes into play. Tolstoy wrote “[E]very unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Every depressed person, I think, is depressed in her own way. The fact that my depression has been inextricably bound up with guilt, grief, and loneliness does not mean that your depression is as well. Consequently, what this post has to say will not be of use to everyone (and maybe to no one).

I’m not taking into account here the year and a half I hung onto my job after my ex-husband’s death, or the many ways I tried to help him before he died. I’ve written about that elsewhere in this blog (“Into the Confessional“). Nor am I taking into account the endless repairs I had to coordinate for the house I bought for myself and my disabled sister, or the many ways I’ve helped her, or the work involved in selling that house after she bought her own, or my own house search and second move, or the fact that I supported an on-again/off-again boyfriend in 2014, the fourth and final year of a turbulent relationship. All those things fall under the headings of work and trauma. What I want to do here is recall the things I did to try to keep my head above water. Although most of them didn’t help me, I believe each of them could be valuable for others.

That leads me to another caveat: My depression was severe enough to keep me mostly in bed for several years, which means I have little stamina or strength. That in turn made it harder for me to help myself. This probably is not a typical situation for most people. In addition, I found out about a year ago that I have severe anemia, which is contributing to my exhaustion. It’s possible I’ve been anemic for years; there’s no way of knowing. For two or three years before I left my husband—we’re talking at least 10 years ago now—I experienced increasing trouble getting going in the morning. I’d also begun having occasional days—most often Saturdays, at the end of the work week—when I was so tired I stayed in bed all day. I attributed this development to overexercise and the (very slow) approach of menopause. It may in fact have been due to iron deficiency. My fatigue was exacerbated by depression. Without the disabling fatigue, I might have been able to keep my job, or to find fulfilling volunteer work, or to more easily take steps to counter the deconditioning I experienced from being in bed.

Anyway, let’s start with the standard therapeutic stuff.

  • I attended Al-Anon meetings before my ex-husband’s death. This lasted two or three months, until I could see that Al-Anon’s philosophy had nothing to offer me. As part of this effort, I also called people from Al-Anon who volunteered conversation and advice. I should note that Al-Anon has helped many people; I just happened not to be one of them.
  • Because my husband had attempted suicide and because I myself felt suicidal, I tried a suicide support group. Again, for various reasons this wasn’t a helpful group for me.
  • I also tried a grief support group at my town’s Center for Independent Living. I gave up on this very quickly, because the participants spent most of the sessions talking about their efforts to gain financial stability. This was extremely important for them, so I’m not denigrating it, but it wasn’t my issue or the purpose of the group. If another grief support group had been available, it would have been a better bet.
  • I tried new medications. Eventually my psychiatrist put me on a second antidepressant. I also tried an adjunct therapy, Abilify, which substantially relieved my depression…for about six weeks. Although it made me feel spacey, it worked beautifully during that short period of time. Unfortunately, it coincided with:
  • My participation in what’s called an outpatient partial-hospitalization program. This particular program involved three full mornings of group therapy per week for four weeks. Thanks to the Abilify, I was temporarily (and deceptively) doing very well. The program itself, however, was unimpressive; I thought it was much too superficial to help someone with severe depression or suicidal thoughts. Similar programs offered in different parts of the country might be much more effective.
  • I underwent a voluntary two-week hospitalization in November 2009 for six sessions of electroconvulsive therapy. The idea of ECT terrified me, and it took two years of desperation for me to work up enough courage to try it. I re-entered the psychiatric ward—again, voluntarily—the following month for three more treatments. ECT seemed to help a little, but not dramatically, and the effects quickly wore off. (NOTE: It remains the case that ECT is the most effective treatment for depression; it helps about 70 percent of people.) In July 2014 I checked myself into a psychiatric hospital in St. Louis, ready to do another round of ECT, but for reasons I won’t get into, I immediately negotiated an early release predicated on my agreement to undergo at least one ECT treatment. Unlike my previous treatments, this one had bothersome side effects. More worrisome to me was that it was not conducted by the psychiatrist I initially spoke to, and was not done according to the protocol we agreed upon. Given that troubling circumstance, I insisted on the early release. My sister later was in this hospital for almost a month; ECT helped her, but the shortcomings of the hospital countered her improvement.
  • These stays, incidentally, opened my eyes about psychiatric wards. Much of what I assumed went on in such places does not in fact go on. For example, I assumed I’d be meeting with a therapist or psychiatrist daily. Not so; I met with one, once. I assumed that group therapy would take up much of the day and would be extremely intensive. Not so; there was a singularly nonintensive session each morning. There were no facilities for exercise, which is something proven to help many people with depression (not me, unfortunately, but many). I never imagined that time on the ward would be spent instead in kindergarten-level crafts sessions. I’ve spoken to various doctors about my experience, and I’ve observed my sister’s experience on two psychiatric wards. Unless you’re unfortunate enough to be committed to a state institution, or fortunate enough to be able to afford a long-term stay in a private hospital, the goal of hospitalization is to stabilize you and get you out of there. (Those last few words are quoted verbatim from a psychiatrist.) It’s unusual for most places to keep you more than two weeks, which simply is not long enough to assess the effects of various medications on your depression. If you’re psychotic or suicidal, hospitalization certainly has a place, and it also has a place if you can’t get ECT as an outpatient.
  • I did quite a bit of online research on other treatments for depression, but these were still pretty experimental, expensive, and not covered by insurance. One of them, transcranial magnetic stimulation, does basically what ECT does (disrupts certain neuronal pathways), but less effectively. My research accords with what my psychiatrist asserts: TMS hasn’t lived up to its early billing. The other treatment, vagus nerve stimulation, involves surgery and still doesn’t have a long or especially notable track record.
  • For a year and a half, I saw a grief counselor, a former faculty member who specialized in death education, among other things. Once a week after work I went to her house and talked with her for one to two hours. She did this for free, an amazingly generous effort. Although the work we did and the exercises she suggested didn’t help me, she is now one of my best friends—and as a friend she has helped me considerably. Friends help. Let me qualify that: Friends with some understanding of what you’re going through help.
  • I also was seeing a conventional therapist during most of the years since my ex-husband’s death. When the first one hadn’t helped after a year or so, I switched to another one for several months. I later switched back to the first one. Perhaps I should note that in my adult life I’ve seen 14 or 15 therapists—men and women, young and old, with differing qualifications and differing approaches. Some of them I saw only two or three times. Some of them I saw for years. None of them helped me resolve any of my problems. YMMV. There was a key benefit, though: the ability to blow off steam and to direct toward the therapists some of the despair with which I would otherwise have burdened my friends.
  • Did I mention that I called friends? During the worst of the depression I would be seized every afternoon or evening with an absolutely panicky need to call somebody. I tried to cycle these calls among my friends so that no one person would be overburdened, especially since much of my talking was mixed with crying and I was hard to understand. Inevitably I lost friends, though, and it’s hard to replace friends when you’re not working.

These therapy-based efforts didn’t pay off for me, but they can help others and they’re all worth considering. What helped me more were other things I tried.

  • I took singing lessons for three years. There were days that I was too fatigued or depressed to get out of bed, but I hung in there. The singing lessons were good for me because I enjoyed them and they involved personal interaction.
  • I volunteered for one semester at WSIU’s Reading for the Blind program (SIRIS), until it became clear that my voice couldn’t handle both this and the singing lessons. I chose to give up SIRIS because they had plenty of volunteers (there was actually a waiting list) and because it was a totally isolated activity (you’re in a room by yourself, reading into a microphone). I would like to do more volunteer work, but I haven’t yet. Why not? Without the structure of a job, my sleep schedule has turned nearly upside-down. In addition, my depression and my debilitation combine to make me an unreliable volunteer who must rule out many activities because of physical limitations. For the same reason I haven’t sought out a part-time job.
  • I did, however, jury into the Visual Artists Cooperative in Cape Girardeau (I do fine-art photography), where I was a member for about two years. This involved displaying a new piece every month and participating in exhibit change-out days. When I became too debilitated to drive round-trip to Cape and also pull my weight on the change-out days, I felt I should resign, so I did.
  • I set up, but never publicized, a freelance copyediting business. Why did I not go through with it? Just after I’d finished the website, but before I’d done flyers or ads or business cards, a faculty acquaintance asked me to edit some things for him. I did a job application letter for him, then his CV, then his website. Working was good for me, but at each juncture I found that I simply couldn’t charge him any money. I set aside the idea for the time being, although I may return to it.
  • I took my on-again/off-again boyfriend on a trip to the Rocky Mountains, which he had never seen. It was great to travel. The flip side was that it was also demoralizing to see how much trouble I had walking, when the altitude had never bothered me before. I knew I needed to get back into shape. So:
  • I met three times with a personal trainer, until it became clear that he was not equipped to help someone as debilitated as I already was. Next:
  • I tried physical therapy three times a week in 2013. These sessions exhausted me, sometimes putting me in bed for days. After about three months I had to quit. However:
  • I tried again for several months in 2014, this time doing two sessions a week. They still exhausted me. In retrospect I realize that I was severely anemic during both PT attempts, which undercut my efforts.
  • I took a silversmithing class at the local community college. I made it through about two-thirds of the class; unfortunately, the work flared up my longstanding tendinitis, so I had to give it up. I do, however, now have a much greater appreciation of the work done by jewelry makers and the costs of their materials. It was fun while it lasted, even though I accidentally set my towel on fire once. I’d already taken most of the other community college courses that interested me, although I check the listings each semester. If I can regain stamina, I plan to apply for a community listener’s permit so that I can sit in on some courses at the local university. Right now I’m too debilitated to walk very far from the parking lots to the buildings. That sounds pathetic, but it is what it is.
  • I took two solo road trips: one to Memphis and New Orleans, and one to Clarksdale, MS. These confirmed my ability to travel alone without any qualms, and I enjoyed what I did. However, I severely overextended myself in Memphis and arrived in New Orleans so fatigued that I could barely drag myself around the aquarium and to Café du Monde. Clarksdale was a more manageable trip. My fatigue level is now too high to make a trip of five or six hours comfortable; I could no longer drive from Memphis to New Orleans in one day. But if you’re physically able, I highly recommend solo road trips for reaffirming self-confidence. If you’re single and lonely, they can make you more acutely aware of your loneliness. But they’re worth it. Traveling with a companion also is a good idea. You need a change of scene.
  • Depression tends to be socially isolating even for people with extended family or strong friendship networks. It can be much worse for single people, childless people, and retired people whose friends are busy with work and family. If you’re forced as I was to retire quite young because of depression, you quickly find that work constituted much of your identity and provided much of your social interaction. I use Facebook to keep in touch with friends and acquaintances. A few months ago I made a special post there explaining that I was looking for activity companions; this yielded very little. I’ve also reached out privately to a few acquaintances, both men and women, to see if they had time to do things together, but that also yielded very little. That brings us to online dating sites. When I felt ready—though I probably was not ready—I signed up for OkCupid. I’ve also subscribed to eHarmony twice; Match.com three times; OurTime once. I have met guys on these sites whom I’ve dated or just been friends with. This is a double-edged sword: Dating decreased social isolation but increased heartache. Rejection on these sites can eat at your self-esteem (which is already low if you’re depressed) and can make you feel even more lonely. Rejection is the rule for me now that I’ve gained weight, but dating sites are still the most viable place for me to meet potential partners. For people who have extended family or lots of friends where they live, or who are churchgoers, perhaps, this may not be true.
  • Finally, when I’ve been able, I’ve gone by myself to movies, plays, and lectures. That too is a double-edged sword for single people: You have the activity to enjoy, but it can be depressing to see almost everyone paired up. Go anyway if you can.
  • Oh, and I started this blog. It’s been intermittent, but I write when I have something to say, and I try to get out when I can to take photographs.

One of the reasons severe depression is so pernicious is that it renders a person so helpless. It’s tremendously hard even to get out of bed. Simply taking a shower can be a major achievement. Getting your groceries and pushing through the aisles of a Wal-Mart Supercenter are arduous exercises. If you live alone, you must be your own caregiver. People who haven’t experienced severe depression will be impatient with you and may, despite their good intentions, say hurtful things. You will probably lose friends; most people with severe depression do.

Given these realities, I feel pretty good about the number of things I tried, even though my results were lousy and I think I should have done better. But readers may find that things which didn’t work for me will work for them. So much depends on circumstances. For example, I suspect there’s a great variation in the effectiveness of grief support groups. For what it’s worth, I believe the best things are getting out of the house whenever you can make yourself do it, getting back to nature (I took frequent drives to a nearby wildlife refuge, and still do), engaging in creative activities, working part-time or volunteering if you’re able, and getting the hell out of town whenever you can—with a companion, if you can.

As for me, right now I’m undergoing iron infusions that I hope will give me enough energy to start an exercise program. If I can regain some stamina, more opportunities will open up for me to take some of my own advice.

Advertisements

Please stand by ~

To Higher-Ups:

The Technical Team has noted serious technical difficulties with Blog entitled “Vapor and Flow,” with no forward (or backward) movement observed since mid-January. Blog is currently parked in the Driver’s front yard, where it seems to be accumulating trash. Driver has not yet had it put up on blocks, but Technical Team is on alert.

Team suspects a problem with the fuel injection system, though without hands-on investigation it is impossible to tell whether the gasoline tank might simply be empty. Team had noted some juddering of the steering wheel, accompanied by slightly erratic driving, in December and early January, indicating the need for immediate tire rotation and rebalancing. In addition, tires should be checked for wear. Driver has done none of this.

Driver herself, rather than repairing the Blog or addressing various ethical quandaries in her life at the moment, has become obsessed with the dog urine stains in her carpeting and the possibility of replacing the carpeting with something that can simply be hosed down. She daily repeats a monologue that always begins the same way (“I can’t stand this! What am I going to DO?”) and ends the same way (“But how would they move the piano?”). Technical Team estimates that said piano, a tall, ancient upright, weighs slightly more than a Volkswagen Beetle, flower holder included. Unlike a Beetle, the piano would probably not float, although Team finds this an intriguing question and would very much like to be notified of the results of any experiments along these lines. LOL.

Excuse us, that was unprofessional on our part. To continue, Driver also appears obsessed with a new personal best in Scrabble: her highest-ever non-bingo word score (GAZEBO, 84 points). While interesting numerically, this is judged by Team to be a rather trivial achievement in the grand scheme of things and recommends that Driver should just Get Over It.

Excuse us, please ignore editorial comment. Finally, Technical Team notes that on multiple occasions recently Driver has stated that she “dodged a bullet” because the voice student portion of a recent music recital was cancelled. This comment has been flagged for further analysis, but Team can only assume that someone slated to attend said recital was prepared to use firearms in the event of Driver singing. Team has insufficient information to gauge (pun! LOL) the appropriateness of the posited firearm use.

Excuse us again; Technical Team is fatigued and too easily amused. Team judges that Driver is currently earning A’s in Reading and Scrabble (quantity only), D’s in Physical Therapy and Caregiving, and F’s in Voice Lessons (lack of practice), Problem Resolution (dithering), Diet Remediation (inaction), Photography (inaction), and Blog Repair (inaction and negligence). Given this poor functioning, Driver’s hair looks better than might be expected, although Team is not well trained in assessing such matters.

In conclusion, Technical Team advises continued close monitoring of Blog and Driver, with future updates as necessary.

—Submitted February 23, 2014, ungodly hour of the morning
(Technical Team wishes to note that it has worked overtime on this report and would like to be duly compensated. Thank you.)

The cheesecake ~

My second husband and I started dating in February 1984. By the time Steve’s birthday was approaching a few months later, I knew that he wasn’t a big dessert fan but did love cheesecake. So I borrowed a spring-form pan, determined to make him an authentic New York–style cheesecake.

As soon as that notion solidified into a definite ambition, my radar should have been on alert. I had once tried to make a special dessert—special only in the sense that I didn’t really bake, so everything was a challenge—for my first husband. We had married in January 1979 but hadn’t been able to live together until May. I had no obligations until graduate school started in August. But FH had to work that summer so that we had money to live on. Figuring that it was my responsibility, in return, to fix our meals, I spent a lot of time browsing through cookbooks. (This despite the fact that I’d never liked cooking or shown any natural talent for it.)

At some point I’d learned that FH liked custard pies. I looked up a recipe and saw that I had all of the necessary ingredients except for nutmeg. Since FH needed our car to get to work, I was without transportation. But I didn’t want to wait, and I wanted to surprise him. So in the summer heat, I walked a mile round-trip to buy nutmeg at the nearest grocery store.

Mixing the pie filling seemed to go well. When I poured it into the ready-made pie crust, it was almost brimming. (Yes, ready-made pie crust. Even as an ambitious new wife I wasn’t crazy enough to tackle pie crust.) No, I didn’t forget to put in the nutmeg. And I’d been careful to preheat a cookie sheet along with the oven. With high hopes, I slid the pie onto the cookie sheet and went back into the living room to read.

Shortly thereafter I heard a sonic-boom–like sound and knew immediately what had happened. Despite my precautions, the cookie sheet had flexed. I opened the oven door a crack and peeked. The pie was now sitting at a jaunty angle, with the filling touching the outer edge of the crust on one side of the pan and at low tide on the other side. Absurdly, I couldn’t figure out anything to do about this. I knew if I touched the pie the filling would spill. So I decided to just leave it alone.

When the pie was done baking, it resembled something a three-year-old might concoct. The surface slanted crazily, with a huge, nearly burnt surface bubble covering half of the pie pan and almost all of the custard on the other half. FH was game enough to eat the thing, or try to, but it wasn’t the pie of his dreams, unless he was having nightmares.

Consequently, I should have been alert to the potential for future baking disasters. But I’d forgotten about the custard pie incident in my determination to make Steve a cheesecake.

I didn’t have to walk to the store for anything this time, which was just as well. I was both a novice and a klutz, and making cheesecake turned out to be an aerobic exercise. For one thing, I didn’t have a stand mixer. My hands, which were scrawny and weak, almost didn’t survive the experience.

I also am a slow person in the kitchen. It took a ridiculous amount of time, something around 2 1/2 hours, for me to assemble the nascent cheesecake. Pressing the crust alone seemed to take half of the afternoon. I was afraid the ingredients would spoil before I got it into the oven. Just how long could that cream cheese mixture sit out without going bad, or at least surly? But I was too deep into this project to turn back. I ignored my concerns, pressed on, and finally got the damn thing into the oven.

What I ended up with was, by golly, a New York–style cheesecake. Except…heavier. The finished product had the approximate weight and density of a neutron star. Flung like a Frisbee, it would have been a deadly weapon.

Surprisingly, it tasted pretty decent. But it was so thick it took some effort to eat a slice, and so rich that I’m surprised it didn’t kill us on the spot. I kept thinking of Woody Allen’s line about feeling his aorta congealing into a hockey puck. We couldn’t even finish it. This marked the first time for either of us that we actually threw away part of a cheesecake—something that normally would have been unthinkable.

I had learned my lesson. From then on, Steve got bakery cheesecake for his birthday. (All gratitude to Cristaudo’s, our wonderful local bakery.)

I’ve dated a couple of guys since Steve died, but both were diabetics and had to go easy on sweets. Even if they hadn’t been, I never would have been tempted to make them some special dessert. Depression is mostly a bad thing, but it does help you thwart unrealistic ambitions. In fact, I’ve been living in my current house for three years, and I don’t even know if the oven works. I’ve never turned it on.

Doggerel no. 4: Dating sites ~

Over the past four years or so I’ve become an old pro at dating sites. I’ve tried OkCupid, Match.com, OurTime, and eHarmony (the worst!). I recently gave Match another half-hearted try because of a half-price deal. But I’ve become aware that dating sites have a dark underbelly that I can no longer stomach.

It isn’t the danger of encountering sexual predators or other psychopaths. You can protect yourself pretty easily if you heed the recommended precautions. No, the danger is psychological: if you aren’t popular, you must be thick-skinned enough to cope with rejection every single day.

You must be especially thick-skinned if you’re thick-bodied. I garnered considerably more interest on dating sites when I was considerably thinner. Now, after six years of depression and relative immobility, I’m nowhere close to the body type or fitness level desired by 95 percent of the men out there. Over and over I read “Slender; Athletic and toned.” Sometimes a generous guy will include “About average,” whatever that is these days. Let’s just say I fall much closer to the other end of the spectrum.

I’ve passed by many interesting profiles because of this phenomenon. As for my own current profile (which does not specify “Slender” or “Athletic and toned”), it seems to be floating in an unpopulated sector of cyberspace. Occasionally I wonder if it has in fact been rendered somehow invisible to everyone but me.

When you experience rejection every day, you begin to hear the echoes of a hundred No’s in your head. Over time those echoes grow louder, until your self-esteem is shot and you yank your profile from the dating site in disgust. Nothing much to do about this humiliating experience other than write some doggerel.

Zip, Nada, Zilch; or Those Dating Site Blues

“Slender, average, athletic and toned”
Is all that the guys on the dating sites seek.
Even the chubby men, even the grubby men
Don’t want an overweight woman in reach.
What about intellect? What about heart?
I can make sweet conversation an art.
Yet most of the time, a fleshier gal
Is completely rejected as even a pal.

I try to be patient and just let things be,
But all of the silence discourages me.
Is this natural selection at work in my case
To keep my potential from reaching first base?
I’m still on the field, but I’m pretty done in.
Might be time to give up and leave love to the slim.

Into the confessional ~

Caveat: I’m abandoning my principles in making this post. There is nothing humorous here at all, and the few readers I have might usefully be advised to skip it. This post is principally for me to get the refrain of the past six years set down in writing. My friends have heard this ad nauseam, and they’re tired of hearing it. They needn’t read this. They’ve told me I’m not to blame, but I reject that judgment. One can’t absolve oneself of a great wrong because it is emotionally convenient. It doesn’t work that way.

____________________________________________________
Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice…
—Robert Frost

There was more than one nightmare on Elm Street. I lived on the street by that name in our town for 15 years, and the experience was bracketed at either end by deaths. One I had nothing to do with. The other I caused. There were accomplices, including the victim, but I dealt the killing blow.

The night before my second husband and I closed on the first and only house we bought together, a young man—a kid, really—raced his car up our portion of Elm Street, lost control, briefly went airborne, and struck the big sweet-gum tree in what would soon be our front yard. He died on the spot.

That’s what we learned when we arrived at the house the next day for the last walk-through before closing. The police had been so thorough in removing signs of the wreck that it took a moment to realize something very bad had happened. Tire tracks cut across the neighbor’s yard and her flower bed and disappeared into our front yard. On this balmy spring day, thousands of small pieces of glass glinted like ice over the lawn. An elderly woman from the apartment building next door told us what had happened the previous night. “If that tree hadn’t been there,” she said more than once, “I would have been killed in my bedroom.”

I felt sick for the boy and sick about this ominous development. Although my rationalism rejects superstition, my emotional side remains vulnerable. We’d looked a long time for a house, but now I wasn’t sure I wanted this one. I’d been afraid of death most of my life and I didn’t need my own front lawn serving as a perpetual memento mori. Everything seemed marred and wrong. I was prepared to forgo the earnest money and walk away, but when I brought up this possibility, the real estate agent said dismissively, “Well, it’s not as if someone killed himself in the house. I could see that bothering a person.”

We signed. Not having witnessed the accident made it easier to put out of mind. Still, I often thought about it when I looked out the living room windows. Fifteen years later, we were still picking up stray pieces of glass from the front lawn.

In my mind, that boy’s life ended in ice. My husband’s ended in fire.

We had a rocky marriage. I didn’t realize it until almost the end, but he was an alcoholic, and I fear that certain problems of my own caused his alcoholism to become worse. He lied about his drinking, as alcoholics do, and the lying was what really bothered me. Steve—I can write his first name instead of using initials, because what I write can’t hurt him now—wasn’t a mean drunk. Most of the time I didn’t even realize he was drunk. He went to bed early and I went to bed late. I didn’t know he was drinking in the mornings. I didn’t know he went home at lunch so that he could drink; he said it was to walk the dogs. I didn’t know much of anything. After his DUI he stopped drinking at the bars but found creative ways to hide his drinking at home.

Three times I told him if he lied again about drinking, I’d leave. Three times I went back on my word.

The fourth time I said I was leaving, I pushed Steve to call C., a friend of his who had gone through hell and successfully quit drinking with the help of AA. After the conversation he came into the living room, sat by me and cried and said I’d been right about calling C. The next morning he went to work drunk, clung to his boss and told her she was his family now, and was suspended for three weeks.

He begged me not to leave. I knew he probably wouldn’t make it without me; he had no friends in town and was completely emotionally reliant on me. Still, I bought another house and I went to San Diego to move my disabled sister back to live with me—both decisions proving to be additional disasters in the making.

Meanwhile, Steve was reassigned to another job, which he lost after a little more than a week. This time there was no appeal, although I met with the university authorities and did my best to advocate for him. My sister lived with us for two months while I had repairs done to the new house. In retrospect I can’t believe I was cruel enough to subject Steve to that, and even to ask him for help in doing things.

At some point shortly after he lost his job there came a morning when I couldn’t wake Steve up. He was barely conscious. After my sister and I followed the ambulance to the hospital, I realized I hadn’t brought his wallet. When I returned home I went into the basement, Steve’s locus of operations. All of his pill bottles stood empty, along with an empty whiskey bottle. I estimated that he’d taken 200 pills of various types. He hadn’t left a note. He was unconscious for three days and in the hospital for nine. Only then did I really start trying to help him, but it was too little too late. Why not earlier? I don’t know the answer to that question. To say that I was stupid and naive seems insufficient.

The insurance company refused to fund an inpatient rehab program, saying that Steve needed to have failed at an outpatient program first. On his first day at an outpatient program, such a violent fight broke out between two participants that the police had to be called. Terribly frightened, Steve had an accident—he only told me this much later—and never returned to the program.

Not long after that I drove him five hours to an inpatient program that said they had an open bed. When we got there, however, the bed had been taken and the program had been told that insurance wouldn’t cover Steve’s stay anyway. I argued with the insurance company; the program argued with the insurance company. Nothing.

I scheduled him with a self-pay inpatient program locally, but the program required that the patient call to confirm that he’d attend. He never called. Two months later I tried again. He never called.

The day before Thanksgiving, he told me he needed help. After several hours at the local ER, a hospital two hours away accepted him into short-term rehab. Nobody mentioned an ambulance. I drove him up there in darkness; by the time we arrived he was vomiting. The day after Thanksgiving he called to say he was being released. Less than 48 hours in detox? I made the drive again. He said he would never go back to a locked ward. They had confiscated his belt, without which his jeans wouldn’t stay up, and his shoelaces, without which his shoes wouldn’t stay on. He was afraid of the other people on the ward. The next time he had to detox, he refused to go to the ER, so I persuaded him to detox at my house. All I knew to do for him was to make sure he kept drinking water. I had already begun suggesting that he move in with me and my sister, but he refused.

I proceeded with a divorce. The lawyer had said that assets from my parents’ estate, which were earmarked for my sister, could be jeopardized if Steve had a DUI and killed somebody. Much later I found out this was almost certainly untrue. Steve wanted to put off signing the papers, but I wouldn’t let him. When he finished signing, he gave me a look of rebuke and hatred. I deserved that.

I took him to doctor’s appointments, the ones he didn’t cancel or refuse to go to. Once you try to kill yourself, we discovered, many helpful medications are off-limits. Nothing allayed his anxiety. Finally his psychiatrist put him on Seroquel. I thought he was sleeping so much and missing AA meetings because he was drinking. He was, but he also was knocked out by Seroquel. One morning he called at 4 a.m., thinking it was afternoon.

I went to Al-Anon meetings, which I found useless. I called complete strangers from these meetings and blurted out every sordid detail of my behavior and his problem, but there was no consolation. Steve was dying in front of me. It was like watching a disaster unfold in slow motion. C. flew in from the East Coast to see if he could help Steve. When I called him later, he was pessimistic. Steve wouldn’t talk to him seriously, he said. Steve was in denial.

Filled with anxiety, I lay on my couch or in my bed day after day and tried to get warm. My bones were cold, a feeling I’d never experienced before, and I couldn’t stop shaking. Nor could I get to work very often. The roof, which I’d had inspected before I bought the house, leaked every time it rained. Then came a major ice storm, which caused a tree limb to drop straight through the roof and attic and impale itself in the ceiling of my spare bedroom. The sun came out then, blindingly, glaring off all the ice-covered surfaces.

When the end came, it was on a day we had argued. Two days later the coroner called me at work, at my ex-father-in-law’s request. Alerted by neighbors, the police had broken into the house on Elm Street and found Steve’s body. It wasn’t hard for them to reconstruct what had happened. Steve had run out of matches and tried to light a cigarette from the stove burner. When the fire caught, it caught him too—alcohol was on his shirt and his beard. He inhaled fire. The police said he could not have suffered more than a couple of seconds. They were soft-pedaling it for me, I believe. Steve had time to stagger into the dining room, grope at a chair, and overturn it as he fell. There were burn marks on the floor. There were burn marks on the buffet. His pocket watch, which the police retrieved, was burned; his wallet was not. At the hospital we weren’t allowed to see his body.

I knew I might be killing him by leaving him, and I left anyway. I didn’t have to do it. There was nothing I had to save myself from. My guilt and grief threw me into a severe depression that eventually forced my retirement and caused physical debilitation. It’s something I’m struggling to fight my way back from. Steve exasperated me with his unwillingness to converse or to plan for the future, yet I have missed him greatly over the past years. He will never leave me. One of the few things I’ve learned in life is that the people you’ve loved never do leave you entirely, even as you go on to love others.

The last time I saw Steve was at our local grocery store. He was wearing his ratty old suede jacket. I threw my arms around him and began crying. His face was impassive. As far as I can remember, he didn’t say a word.

I’m dying here ~

I’ve had little time lately to think about this blog, but as I grow older I’ve been thinking about my deficiencies and when life started going south. Flunking childhood had a lot to do with that. Take a look at the wondrous things I never mastered:

1. Blowing bubble-gum bubbles.
2. Whistling.
3. Hula-hooping.
4. Crossing the monkey bars.
5. Rollerskating, except for rollerskating on rough gravelly sidewalks.
6. Turning a cartwheel.
7. Standing on my head.
8. Throwing a softball.
9. Catching a softball.
10. Hitting a softball.
11. Sledding.
12. Swimming with any degree of competence.
13. Climbing trees.
14. Eating bugs.

What a dud! Even I wouldn’t have chosen me for teams in gym. (Interesting, the proportion of adults who claim the experience of being chosen last. Either their memory is impaired, or the last-chosen are very disproportionately represented among writers and actors and such.)

I could run, and I could ride a bicycle….I did love riding my bike. And I achieved one other near-mandatory childhood accomplishment: hurting yourself badly enough to require stitches. Yet even that I did in a sedentary way. Did I launch myself off the roof in a brief but glorious belief that I would fly? Sadly, no.

I was sitting on the back porch steps and somehow fell off, putting my front teeth cleanly through my….whatever the area between your chin and lower lip is called. But it hardly counts, since I did that when I was 2 and it couldn’t be chalked up to bad behavior. I had to be told some years later what happened, although I have a wispy memory—probably my earliest memory—of my mother rushing me to the doctor’s office across the street, and sitting on her lap across the desk from the doctor when all the painful stuff was over. I carry the scar to this day but can’t point to it as a badge of courage. Such a waste!

Like so many childhood duds, I found solace in books. I began reading at age 3, which led to several cringeworthy episodes, such as my mom making me read to my nursery school teacher to prove I could do it (they didn’t call it pre-school then). Yet both of my parents took a strong ethical stand against showing off or bragging in any context. It could get me or my sister into trouble, so we didn’t do it. My mother, the hypocrite! Dad wouldn’t have made me read for anyone.

Much more embarrassing was the day my kindergarten teacher sent me, alone through the echoing hallways, up up up to the eighth-grade class to read, sort of like a circus freak giving a show. This was not only humiliating, it was scary, because written on the blackboard was an equation, something like 8 + n = 14. Math with letters??! This was a truly alarming concept, and I was sure I’d never to able to comprehend it. Eighth grade would be my downfall. My struggles with performance anxiety may date to this episode.

Still, my early childhood was generally happy, especially during road-trip vacations in my family’s blue Volkswagen Beetle. But when I was 8 I learned that, like bugs and birds, I would someday die. On the instant I became terrified of death. Thus the end of Eden.

The fear of death has ruled and ruined my life. Some of my friends know this and some don’t. Medication has helped a lot over the years, but now I’m debilitated and the end isn’t somewhere beyond the horizon anymore. I don’t plan to write about it. I didn’t set out to write a confessional blog or a memoir. Bathos is pathetic (ha!). But like pitcher Nuke LaLouche in “Bull Durham,” I seem to be starting out with erratic control. You may remember this: In one game, after Nuke’s control has improved dramatically, the catcher (Kevin Costner, in what I think is his best role) instructs him to hit the team mascot with his next pitch. And so he does. Costner looks at the hitter and says, “I wouldn’t lean too far in.” He pauses as the hitter looks at him. “I don’t know where it’s going.”