My first wife Cindy took her own life after a long and tragic struggle with bipolar disorder. She endured six years of misery as she inexorably declined to a point from which there was no escape. In the end she decided the only way to end her pain was to end her life. The passage of time has allowed me to better understand the magnitude and impact of the loss we have experienced.
Cindy’s illness and death took a terrible toll on me but it was one I couldn’t understand until recently. Almost six years after her death. I see clearly now I was living the life of the man I thought I was supposed to be. I was strong and resolute and I provided guidance to those that needed it. The idea I might need it myself one day was antithetical to the image I projected to the world.
I watched my wife die for two thousand days and hardly ever talked to anyone about what I was going through. I didn’t see the point. I talked to people in the beginning, to gather the information I required to solve the problem we were facing. I reached out when things became so desperate I could see no other option. But talking without a clear outcome was a waste of time. Talking wouldn’t make Cindy not sick. Talking wouldn’t change the fact that I had to keep my wife alive while raising two young daughters. Talking wouldn’t stop the nightmares from haunting me.
I was the man who viewed logic as a strength and emotion as a weakness. Strengths were to be exploited and weaknesses were to be mitigated. In order to survive, I needed to keep my head separate from my heart. A few people suggested I “talk to someone” but I dismissed their advice out of hand. Talking about my feelings would mean more important things weren’t getting done.
So instead I drank. Every single night. It was a way I chose to numb the pain and stop my feelings from overwhelming me. My singular focus was to keep myself together and that meant being a soldier. The only alternative I saw was my total collapse and the consequences of that were too horrible to contemplate. I had two little girls who needed me.
I’ve not touched a drop of alcohol in two years and I am confident I never will again. I remain vigilant because I’ve learned you can never be certain of what tomorrow will bring. My sobriety has created the time and space for me to heal and reflect on my journey. In so doing I have learned an awful lot about myself and the importance of cultivating vulnerability.
I know now the emotions I was struggling mightily to suppress are part of my humanity. They have nothing to do with strength or weakness. Labeling them in that manner applies judgment to that which should not be judged. I was watching my wife fight a losing battle for her life. Instead of foreshadowing a collapse, allowing myself to cry would have been cathartic and natural. I’d have been a stronger man in the long run.
I should have talked about the events that were happening and my feelings about them. Getting them out of my head would have allowed me the space to glean new insights into what was happening. I needed to admit what was working for me and what wasn’t. If ever there was a worldview that needed to be challenged and shaken to the core, it was mine. I never gave anyone the chance so I suffered alone.
I isolated myself like the solitary warrior I thought I was. Vulnerability would have allowed me to lay down my shield and ask for help. We create deep and meaningful relationships with people when we share our story with them. We create a safe place for them to do the same. When we connect as our authentic selves we all benefit. We are stronger together than we are alone.
There is no roadmap when a loved one struggles with mental illness. You will do things you are proud of and things you deeply regret. You’ll think thoughts which cause you to feel shame. You’ll reach your limits and then some. You must find strength wherever it is to be found. You will find it in being open about what you are experiencing. I was as alone as I chose to be. You can make a different choice.