NOVEMBER 2007 – NO. 19
After the loss of his wife, Richard Clewes writes his way out
I could say my profession acclimatized me to look at the world as it really is — and provide a new and improved perspective instead. But that's not completely true — it's in my nature to idealize. The worse Erin's mental state became, the more determined I was to manipulate the explanation of her condition to my family and friends and myself. It was clever, the way I did it. I simply denied anything awful was happening. Especially to me — that was the key. I saw Erin's mania and depression — and how it emptied bank accounts and vaporized love — and managed to look right through it. I don't say I didn't feel its sting; just that I gawked at depression's fury. The way you gaze at footage of floods, hurricanes, and tsunami disasters on TV or slow down to take a good look at a car accident. In this case, I was more than an innocent bystander. I don't think my eyes can be trusted now. As far as seeing the future, they're more likely to provide false testimony than a fresh perspective. I have to speak to someone. But who will listen to a man as foolish as me?
People criticize advertising for its shallowness but that doesn't begin to go deep enough. Beneath the thin layer separating consciousness from cash registers, there is, frankly, nothing at all. Advertising is about making one particular moment last forever. Messages charged with cultural nuance neatly packed into shiny little boxes (or flat screens). I've spent more time worrying about what happens in 30 seconds than in my own life. I'm grateful to be working and the distraction of the past month has been good, but can I stay in this real world? Making ads is the only thing that keeps me aloft; it's been like living in the calm center of a hurricane. If there is relief out there, I doubt I'd be able to see it. What I know is this: those who don't keep up professionally get whipsawed. That kind of thinking encouraged me to feed the store with money.
I never saw Erin's storm coming.
A well-intentioned accountant friend who deals with divorce settlements suggested my situation is better than it could be. Maybe he's right. Maybe I'd resent making support payments to Erin for the rest of my life. That's one of those "what ifs" and I have too many of them already. The depression slowly drained my love for her and, I must believe, she realized I hung in anyway. For her? For me? It's complicated. I keep reminding myself: we were separated and heading for divorce.
You couldn't help but love Erin. Everyone did. She possessed a genuine warmth and easy way with friends or total strangers. Despite her struggle to hold on to mental equilibrium, she displayed grace almost to the end. I felt lucky when I first met her and I still do. For all the baubles and trinkets of the modern, middle-class, overachieving lifestyle that she sold in her store, Erin had no pretensions that possessions conferred status or happiness. The spas, the shopping sprees, the dinners — they were narcissistic gestures out of her normal character. But, over the last two years, I subsidized the store to the edge of personal bankruptcy while buying her gifts that were way over-the-top. Who was sicker?
The moving van arrives tomorrow. I think I see now that my intention with money was as much to distract the pandemonium in Erin's head as to make myself feel better. Her depression was a mobile, 24/7 vortex pulling everything into a thick chaos. Erin's sharply swinging mood rules our days. If up, I stayed out of the way, letting her deflate, as she did eventually. If down, I actually got stuff done. That was the working theory at least. It didn't always delineate itself so neatly, but it helped me avoid walking on pins and needles all the time. Tonight, I wandered around the property and circled our house one last time. So many buried dreams and secrets. It was like walking through the killing fields.
Thank God for my friends. Last night, they brought dinner and housewarming presents to this new place, a cabin I've decided to rent in the village. Being with them without Erin reminded me of all those dinner parties when she cooked an elaborate meal and we tried to have a "normal" night. This morning I listened to the peal of the church bell, quite loud and just a block away. Somewhere along the line, we stopped attending. Instead, I used to lie in bed at night and pray before going to sleep and once I noticed Erin did, too.
There was no one to talk about it. What was going on with Erin was a secret we kept so well we didn't breathe a word of it to one another. We were so good; the obfuscation became a kind of remedy. Occasionally, when we saw Erin's therapist, it was possible to admit to the presence of depression but after a few days, things returned to — I was about to write — normal. Actually, we'd go back to saying as little as possible about the Heavy Thing. We thought we'd make some progress the last time we saw Leslie together. Our last appointment was September 11, 2001.
About twice a year, always during a manic phase, I warned Erin she was drifting away. As if she didn't know that. I blurted out, "Your references aren't to this marriage." How pompous I must have sounded. As if maybe she'd misplaced her marriage, her feelings towards me, and who she used to be. And, of course, that was all true.
The weirdest part of bipolar mood disorder is that while its victims swing back and forth, spouses try to keep their own head from being chopped off by the emotional pendulum. When she was at the bottom, it was impossible to get mad at Erin. But it wasn't unthinkable to lash back at her during a manic phase. Of course, I regret losing my temper. My frustration couldn't have pushed her any farther away, but then maybe in her mind my reaction justified her dramatic exits. She'd blow out the door in a whirl of righteous indignation and check into a hotel downtown and crank up the credit car. A day later she'd come home as if nothing had happened. Anger, guilt, worry, and exhaustion: this was the cycle, probably for both of us. I let her disappearances go: what else could I do? Nothing was going to fix Erin or our future together. Depression tore up the marriage and ripped our finances apart. Despite this, I thought the important thing was to carry right on, demonstrate loyalty to a bygone time in our relationship.
I couldn't "read" Erin when she was alive, so why am I trying now? The power of depression to crowd out her personality was truly stunning. I lost track of it — of her. I carried the responsibility for keeping up appearances but no one asked me to. As fast as I cancelled her cards, she'd get a new one through work and run it past its limit. So the question is this: if I'd had the financial means to keep up with Erin's "buying trips" to Atlanta and New York, could I have placated her, saved her, slowed her down at all? Given enough money, would she still be alive today? Would I even want to be with her? So many secrets, all of them carried away, out there in the night.
Don't be afraid to find out.
I wake up every night at exactly the same time: 2 a.m. Last night — or I guess it's this morning — I thought: I tried to compete with her mood disorder. Maybe if it appeared to Erin that we were a normal couple, or capable of a normal life, she'd recognize my support and choose to come back. But to Erin, all the signs and markers of a normal life were written in an unintelligible language. Now I'm wondering if the signs were so good, why can't I see them anymore. I need my own landmarks. Home's long gone.
I was looking at my feet for what seemed like several hours today. I moved them only to move the shadow. It made me think in the end the surface became the only substance in my life. The big house, the popular store, our social life — these were dazzling props in our facsimile world. These things are meaningless. I'm embarrassed even to point this out.
Am I angry that I lost it all? My best friend asked me that today and I didn't know what to say. It's not what I feel. I'm not angry at Erin for killing herself and I don't really care to keep the house even if I could afford it. The thing is, her life, my life, our home became so tangled up I can't separate any of it. So I'm relieved. What does make me angry are the people who come up to me in the grocery store and say, in a confidential whisper, how worried they were about all the weight Erin lost. Invigorated by seeing me standing over the lettuce, they shoot me this look of restrained disapproval. They want to say, "Didn't you notice it, Rick?" Why don't they just say so and be done with it? If they did I might feel better for hearing such stupidity.
The question really is: how did Erin and I know to pick each other ten years earlier? The precision is mind-blowing. If we'd never met, what then? Would she still be alive? I am wary of so much self-awareness. I have to lie down almost every day around 2 p.m. for an hour or so. I can't seem to put in a full work day without a nap.
June 6. AGAIN.
Erin would know how to decorate this place. When I met her she lived in a tiny apartment, decorated within an inch of its life. When I met her she was doing just fine. I screwed her up.
I am restless and yet I just sit here after dinner until the sun goes down. It feels like this feeling inside will last forever. Not despair, not fear, just a profound emptiness. And an utter lack of perspective on "my loss." Loss? It's more like extinction.
I don't feel abandoned by God but I'd be interested to see what He's been up to outside these four walls. No water again. I have to decide if I want to shower or do laundry. I can't do both without losing the prime on the well.
Two months and our tenth wedding anniversary. I have learned that up to 10 percent of people with depression attempt suicide. I rejected joining a suicide survivor group. There's an organization downtown that starts groups every six weeks. How's that for tragic? I need to know the secret that explains not why Erin took her life but why I've been left behind to deal with it. I couldn't finish the last book on suicide; I need a spiritual explanation. I understand Erin jumped off her mother's apartment balcony because she couldn't stand another day living with her brain. These books are as ineffectual as Erin regarded her drugs, therapy, or my pep talks about the store and her health.
I've started weekly sessions with a therapist. At first, I approached appointments as if Marion was a skeptical client I had to win over with a really good creative concept. And I made a conscious effort to be likeable. I talked about Erin as if Marion was a colleague and we were having a fascinating chat about the worst thing we'd ever heard of. It began to gnaw at me. Then, after a particularly bad sleep and the 2 a.m. visit to the kitchen sink, I "heard" a voice that said:
Stop putting on a good face.
I don't know what frightens me more: hearing a voice within me, or the realization that it might know what it's talking about. I am too tired to fight this weird development.
The truth is the truth is an acquired taste.
In the car today, I found an undeveloped roll of film. I had the pictures printed and the first one is of Erin wearing a suede coat, smiling on a fall day. What was she thinking at that moment? Have I ever known? I put the photo on the coffee table then surrounded it with more pictures of everyone in my family. This is getting harder. You cannot "happy up" a depressed person. It's just as useless for survivors of suicide.
I see I am writing a lot about how tough the depression was on me. Just saying that somehow seems disrespectful of Erin. What saves me from becoming some kind of sad-looking "War with Depression" vet is keeping these feelings to myself. Whatever I am going through is so much easier than Erin's trials when she was alive. I don't know how Erin coped with her blackness. I can reasonably hope my inner voice isn't interested in self-annihilation.
Two days before she died, Erin called me and talked about returning to our marriage. Her voice had become profoundly detached and monotone. Her story sounded like she was talking about some couple we knew slightly. Or maybe she was letting me go by showing how unfixable she had become. My response surprised me. I was gentle but circumspect. Another kind of detachment. I feared my words were loaded with danger. I said, "You've done the right thing. You should pursue your instinct to move back to the city." Erin had more than enough talent to work for the best décor retailers. I reminded her of her reputation and following. As usual, I couldn't tell if she'd heard me. I wonder if I wasn't cutting her last connection to the real world.
Three months, six days. I measure the time since, as if it mattered. This morning I can't shake the guilt. Guilt is an intoxicating drink you pour yourself to take the edge off the false complicity. A wallop of self-pity chased with a hope to be let off the hook. What if I'd known more about Ativan, Effexor, or Paxil? Had I even done an adequate job of monitoring her medication? What if I'd been able to stop her going to her mother's apartment? She would have been 44 today.
Four months. I want to believe that Erin would have gotten better had she lived. Some days, she knew how far she had traveled from normal life. Some days, I felt like the character in the movie who realizes too late that the car ignition is rigged to a bomb just as the innocent driver turns the key. How do you get closure on that? Closure is a fantasy.
Five months. Erin alone formed the decision to take her life. It is a conceit to think otherwise, but I have had to re-read my diary several times this week, at 2 a.m. and now also at 4 a.m. There is no logic to her distorted, independent act. But, if that's true, then there's nothing to get my arms around. Erin's sister Sherry is pregnant with their first. Mom complains of chest pains.
Halloween. All Souls' Eve. Leaves are well off the trees. I've been watching the burning hulks of cars left by suicide bombers in Iraq on CNN all night. The only thing that might make possible sense: what is the soul if life's continuity? Would that make it an ejector seat, carrying your essence away from death to somewhere else, a safer place? I've never thought much about life after death. I've never taken the time to consider if it's worth fearing. To take your own life, that's fearful. And the horrifying part is I keep absorbing her suicide like these CNN reports. After a while, I numb to it but 24 hours later it's fresh again. Breaking news: Erin gone forever. It's odd, but stranger is the recognition of an internal presence that seems to be tuned into everything I'm thinking.
My clients are terrific but I can't keep this pace up much longer. How do you take a leave of absence from yourself? I have to admit I have no idea what to do next. So much for the high-functioning individual Marion is always talking about. I keep thinking about just stopping, leaving. Maybe a trip around the world.
I blurted out the idea of a break to a client today who said I'd been talking about a trip for weeks.
Went to my mother's for a pre-Christmas get-together with brothers and sisters and their kids. Love is noisy. On the way home, I had to turn off the Christmas songs and concentrate on the road.
Dave and Eddie have been married five months today. It was Erin who set them up. I could barely make it through the toasts to the bride. Last summer seems like last century. Erin's employees sat at my table watching for my reaction. I miss my house. I miss Erin, any version of her. I miss my life.
I bought the ticket.
Excerpted from FINDING LILY, copyright © 2006 by Richard Clewes. Used by permission of Key Porter Books, all rights reserved.
Original art courtesy Rob Grom.
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