When I found him he was cold.
White foam filled his open mouth,
Foam stiffened like lace spun with bone,
Stiff as an age-old argument.
Death wins it.
He lay aslant his bed,
felled before he could stand.
His eyes were closed; sealed and done.
The dog was barking and barking
Over her empty dish.
David, with whom I had a turbulent on-again/off-again relationship for four years, died last November. What I wrote here is true, but I’m not sure what I think about the poem itself, or the fact that I’m posting it. I wrote two poems tonight, the first serious poems I’ve written in decades that I did not immediately discard. This is the second one, though it’s labeled Poem #1. When I come apart I go backwards.
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.
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.
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.
One of the many bits of wisdom parents perpetrate on their children is this one: “If you leave it alone, it’ll leave you alone.”
This is a blatant lie, especially where stinging insects are concerned.
It is true, of course, that you’re at much greater risk of harm if you provoke a bee or yellow-jacket or some related critter. When my sister was about three years old, she was riding her tricycle down the alley when she tipped it over directly into the path of a bee, thus simultaneously bagging two highly improbable achievements. The bee, of course, promptly stung her, but who could blame it? It was just cruising along minding its own business. A bee doesn’t expect a tricycle to suddenly come toppling into its flight path.
My sister soon got her revenge, though. One early summer evening my dad called me and my mom to the back screen-door of our house. Our tiny lawn was filled with clover, and hence with bees. My sister, who was forced to wear heavy orthopedic shoes when she was young, had discovered that she could kill the foraging bees by stomping on them. Very possibly Dad suggested the idea; if so, she carried it out effectively and ruthlessly. She was stomping with glee; Dad, delighted and impressed, was snickering with approval; and Mom and I were staring at both of them like they were crazy.
Our family had no more run-ins with stinging insects until several years later, when I was a teenager. In the early 1970s Mom and Dad bought five acres of land with an old two-room house on it. This was just outside Perryville, Mo., the town where my grandparents lived, and it was intended as a weekend retreat. The house had electricity but no running water. There was an outhouse and a cistern, a small yard with an old wire fence, a chicken shed, and an enormous dump. (The ancient farmer who’d owned the property had just chucked all of his trash, from food cans to rat poison, over the backyard fence. For years. But that has nothing to do with this story.)
The cistern, it’s important to mention, didn’t last much longer. Two miles away, blasting for Interstate 55 was taking place. As most dedicated cavers know, Perry County is basically a huge chunk of limestone riddled with caves and sinkholes. One weekend we arrived at the house to find a big, deep pit at the back corner of the house where the cistern had been. Dad didn’t bother to fill it in or cover it. I think he may have put up a token sawhorse between the side door and the cistern hole, in case someone had to get up in the middle of the night to use the outhouse.
Anyway. The house itself came equipped with virtually nothing except wasps. It had a narrow, fairy-tale–like door that gave onto steep steps that led up to a small attic. Up there lived a veritable wasp society, possibly composed of multiple colonies. But this menace could be dealt with by simply never opening that tight-fitting door. The real problem was the porch, where an especially aggressive colony of red wasps had set up housekeeping in one corner. These wasps would come after you if you so much as looked their direction, and often if you didn’t. Unfortunately, whether you were inside or outside the house, you couldn’t get to the car or the rest of the property without passing the porch.
No matter how much I pleaded, Dad wouldn’t get rid of the colony. I gave these wasps as wide a berth as possible. “If I leave them alone, they’ll leave me alone,” I would chant to myself sardonically as they made threatening forays.
One day the wasps apparently had had some sort of bitter family dispute, and they were more pissed off than usual. I was walking cautiously in the yard toward the front of the house, so far away from the porch that I was practically scraping the rusty old fence. Maybe 12 feet away. Maybe 15.
It wasn’t far enough. One of the wasps zeroed in on me at warp speed and landed in my hair, which was extremely thick and long. I started running when I saw the wasp coming, but I didn’t have a chance. When I felt it tangling in my hair I flailed around with my hand to try to get it out. Instead, I accidentally closed my fist over it. In the midst of this mayhem, I had time to be impressed by the stone-like solidity of its body. Then a needle-sharp heat shot through my palm.
Meanwhile I was still tearing around the house. As I rounded the back corner, the cistern hole suddenly loomed directly in front of me. I’d forgotten about it. Like a palsied football player, I leaped sideways with a graceless lurch and almost ricocheted off the chicken shed. Still running, I managed to fling myself through the side door of the house. Somewhere along the way the wasp had escaped to live another day. Thank god only one of them had gone on the warpath. Since, unlike my sister, I’d never been stung by so much as a honeybee, I was unprepared for the amount of pain a wasp sting can cause.
That was some 40 years ago. My wasp phobia has abated somewhat. For a time, in my mid-twenties, I lived alone and therefore had to deal with any wasp problems without help. I lived in the second story of a house—essentially a large, finished attic, which had some little doors leading to unfinished storage spaces. Wasps lived in those spaces, and periodically one would squeeze through into my territory.
A coward to the bone, I didn’t know if I was more afraid of the wasps or of the toxic bug spray I needed to kill them. So I invented a different solution. Whenever I spied a wasp, I grabbed my bottle of 409, set it to “Stream,” and hit the wasp with a jet of liquid from as far away as possible. My aim, focused by adrenaline, was pretty good. The detergent in the 409 would gunk up the wasp’s wings, disabling it just long enough for me to move in with a blunt object for a safe kill. Then it was simply a matter of wiping up the 409. (My apartment was unusually clean in certain sectors.)
Anyone who’s afraid of wasps—or bug spray—is free to use this method. You’re welcome. Use at your own risk, however. Remember, it only works on one wasp at a time. Don’t try to wipe out a nest with 409 or everyone will deem you an idiot, assuming you live to tell the tale. And if for some reason you fail at this method, or if wasps have evolved a detergent defense over the past few decades, don’t sue me.
Also, when it comes to wasps, don’t ever tell your kids that if they leave it alone, it’ll leave them alone. Tell them to leave it alone and get the hell away.