I used to think life was following a map. That it was long stretches of dirt roads, trails snaking through mountains and valleys, occasionally approaching rivers to find the bridge was out. Then, I started to think of it as more of a maze, as if upon entering the teenage years, you’re unceremoniously dumped at the entrance to a labyrinth with a flashlight and a pack of beef jerky and expected to follow your instincts to the end of the thing hoping with blind faith that everything will work out like you want. Now, though, I think it’s even worse than a maze. Sometimes I think it’s more like wide open canyon beneath you as you tiptoe across a regulation-width balance beam, leaving no room for error. Or a damsel in distress hiding twenty stories up on the side of a building while on-lookers below watch entranced, waiting on the fire department to arrive. Lean too far to the left or right and you are officially game over.
That’s what it feels like to live your life with grief, depression, anxiety, or even just the minutiae of the day to day human experience when you feel as if you’ve lost your way. It feels like you’re walking down a hallway, through a door, minding your own business, but all of the sudden you’ve stepped out the window and onto the ledge, and you’re not sure what’s going to happen next. I’ve talked to My Crazy Lady and Christina Yang about feeling like I’m directionless, and they both say the same thing. In the past, I had the comfort of knowing I had my mom to guide me and confirm or push back against the decisions I was making, and now I don’t, and I’m having to learn to trust myself. I know deep down that I’m a (probably) capable adult, but without the confirmation of my mom’s wisdom, I feel like I’m a leaf blowing in the wind rather than someone actively making decisions about the trajectory of my life.
I know people think it has been long enough and I should just be better, but trust me when I say, if I knew how, I would. I wonder if those people have ever been through a series of losses so devastating that your life is forever divided into the before and the after. I hope they haven’t. I hope they are never able to understand.
The thing about the ledge is that sometimes you walk confidently, having a few successes behind you to bolster your confidence. Then, sometimes you lean a little to the left, lose your footing, and spend the next 3 weeks convinced of your sure destruction, now carrying the weight of feeling inadequate while still trying to balance without falling to your death. Some weeks are OK, and some weeks are plain old bad. Let’s just say that Tuesday was a rough day.
Nothing new happened, really, just the seemingly hopeless constancy of carrying the same worries, the same sadness. I came home from work in a terrible mood, lasted about 10 minutes at the kitchen table, and then got up to leave before my family had to witness any more of my behavior. I went to see Mom. I got out of the car in my bare feet and then I sat there in the grass on a scrub jacket I’d worn at the hospital, realizing too late that I hadn’t brought a blanket this time. I told Mom about everything that had been going on, the decisions I had been facing, how unfair I thought things were turning out, how I didn’t know what to do, how my family deserved so much better than what they were getting from me, and how I didn’t see a way for life to get better. Tears streamed down my cheeks, leaves swayed in the gentle breeze, and my feet settled in the grass, unwilling to leave until it was completely dark out.
Some days I’ve seen glimpses of my former self and felt hope, and other times I’ve wondered if things would ever get better. If I would ever be even half the person I used to be. The one who laughed freely and easily, made inappropriate jokes and confidently held my head high in the face of adversity. My challenges made me isolate myself even more, trusting fewer and fewer people to know what has been going on in my head. As my circle grew smaller, one of my biggest fears became that my pain would be too much for the people I relied on so heavily, and I would be left alone.
That’s the thing no one tells you about anxiety, depression, grief, or any combination of the three: it’s not just for the afflicted party. It’s experienced by their entire support system. I have been both the sufferer and the innocent bystander, and both experiences are painful. As the caregiver you wonder what it is about you that isn’t enough to make your loved one feel like life is worth living, and as the sufferer you wonder if you’ve been right all along— you really are hopeless and defective and don’t deserve other people to love you because you are every negative thought you’ve ever had.
My experiences over the past two years have gradually stolen little pieces of my spirit, one by one, like a crow carrying away shiny things to store in its nest and hiding any light-reflecting potential beneath a shroud of dark black wings. At first it wasn’t so bad. I mean, everyone has difficult times at some point. But over months and weeks and years, as one by one you lose the people and circumstances you’ve always hidden behind, you’re left feeling vulnerable and exposed, and it becomes more and more impossible to pretend that you’re resilient and unaffected.
I remember coming to my breaking point, that space where I was finally ready to admit that my coping skills weren’t enough, and letting people see how much pain I was in, and I remember how I was too exhausted to care what they thought about it. I thought that was rock bottom— a place to build on. After all, what better foundation could there be to start over? I remember how I expected life to get better, and how I thought that healing must be right around the corner. How I told myself this was just wound debridement, and it couldn’t go on much longer because all the wounds were raw and gaping open with nothing left to cut away. I remember short bursts of hope. And I remember the disappointment of waking up the next day, feeling back to square one, wondering what was so permanently broken about me that I couldn’t hold on to the fragile peace from the day before.
For better or worse, when bad days come, the burden falls to a few trusted people of the inner circle. My husband, my kids, my dad, Christina Yang, and My Friend. They keep loving, keep supporting, keep showing up when it would be easier to walk away, when I feel like I deserve to have them do just that so much of the time. Not every day is a bad day. Some are pretty great. But sometimes, when you think you’re over all the trauma, all the sadness, all the bad, it seeps back in out of nowhere and you feel as if you’re starting over again. It’s so demoralizing, and yet so human.
But then there are hugs from your family, and “Why didn’t you tell me” texts from Christina Yang, and trips to Asheville with Other Half so that I can run away from the life that I should be oh so thankful for. And Mary Ann telling me how she prays for me every morning just like I pray for her. And Benjamin Button’s hilarious pick up lines. And text messages from my dad promising things will be better soon. And phone chats with My Friend.
Sometimes life can be so incredibly difficult, and sometimes it’s achingly beautiful, and sometimes it’s both in the same day, the same hour even. Either way, the thing you have to remember about the bad days is that they won’t last forever, and that the people in your circle make it worth the effort to keep fighting.
I told My Friend this week, “You’ve always been good at talking me off the ledge, but now 2 days later you have to do it again.” That’s the shameful part. The most difficult part. Letting people see you, broken and bleeding, wishing you were somehow stronger or more in-control while instead they see you at your most fragile. My Crazy Lady once told me that, because I so vehemently avoid giving it, my vulnerability is my gift to the ones I trust. It’s so risky, letting people see just how bad it really is on the tough days, and then holding your breath while you wait for their reaction, afraid of what you might see or hear. Afraid of being told that enough is enough and you just need to get it together, as if that’s not exactly what you would do if you knew how.
My Friend responded with the most beautiful thing. “That’s OK. There are a lot of ledges.” The gift of acceptance from someone else when I can’t even accept myself, giving me a little nudge of encouragement to keep going. If you have the chance to do that for another person, do it. Maybe it’s all they need to make the next tremulous step forward, and maybe that one next step will take them off the ledge and into wide open spaces.