I am angry right now. I may think better of this and back off from publishing it, but I need to write this out for myself and for every person who has had to pick up the shattered pieces left by someone suffering from pain, depression, bi-polar, manic depressive cycles, drug addicts, alcoholics, victims of abuse who cling to that excuse for 20 or 30 or 50 years. This needs to be said. I have been picking up the pieces of lives shattered since I was six years old. And there is not one on that list that has missed making sure I knew what they were suffering and not one who hasn’t said to me, “You don’t understand. You cannot understand.”
Really? Walk a mile in my shoes and let’s just see how we’re doing. That’s right. Leave your shoes at the door and enter our world. The world of the people who spend hours listening to you, taking you to a hospital, speaking with counselors, doctors, digging through the family life memory records, taking time off from work to rescue you, help you, calling the 9-1-1, and then years and years of dealing with the past, the present, and, if we’re lucky, the future.
A friend once said to me, “I know how intolerant you are of crazy people.” My brother asked, “Does she know you’ve used up your quota of patience and tolerance, way over and beyond what you were issued?”
I am not exaggerating when I say I’ve been doing this since I was six years old and I am now coming up on 59. That’s more than a half-century of picking up shards, carefully gluing them back together, being there when all I really want to do is run and hide. I’ve coaxed grown ups to drink coffee when my Mom and I went out on 12 step calls at 3:00 a.m. I remember reading Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka and writing an English paper about maybe that was how my brother, Patrick saw life when he got back from Viet Nam. He was a gentle guy who had no business going into the Marine Corps, but he did and we knew something was wrong before he left. He came home broken. As near as I have been able to piece together, they were on some hill protecting some piece of terriotry. It was late at night and he awoke and went to the latrine. The camp was hit. When he came out, he was one of two or more survivors. Doctors said he was schizophrenic, then later, they decided it was manic depression now known as bi-polar. Cocktails of drugs poured into his system. He would level out and then something, maybe an event or a chemical imbalance would trigger a cycle and it would be Mom and I dealing with a gentle man who was at heart an introvert, but when he went on a cycle, he was back in Viet Nam, under attack, or he was Johnny Rivers, the musician. He could change in a heart-beat and I could be flying across the room or being choked by two strong hands. Time period: 1967-2005.
There was my sister, who was eventually diagnosed as manic depressive, then bi-polar, who once cried out to Pat that it was unfair his hospital bills were taken care of. She too would cycle and again, she was an introvert, who suddenly would begin performing in public, singing on any stage anywhere. In the beginning, she was just profoundly sad and depressed and fearing something. That she might do something to herself. Wanting to be hospitalized, but no beds were available. Years and years of psychotherapy and whatever the current trend was, that was the newest label she received and that she bought into hook, line and sinker. From accusations of family sexual abuse to multiple personalities. Time Period: 1975-2009.
The time my sister invited me to move to Virginia after a period of rough years. “You’ve earned it, Huntie. You can have the guest house – it’s simple, but private. Take some time for you.” And, just as I finished having sent the moving truck off, put things in storage, and was cleaning up the apt, she called. “Um, I have to tell you something, Hunt.”
A shiver ran down my spine as I sat on the floor, studying the emptiness of my apt. “Okay.” I said cautiously.
“I’ve begun cutting myself, Hunt…”
“What does that mean?”
“Well, I take a knife and I cut myself – just my arms. I can hide it with long sleeves…”
“Why? Why would you do that?”
“Well, it helps relieve the pain I’m feeling.”
“Are you sure you’re not doing this because I am on my way?”
“No, oh, no, Hunt. I am looking forward to seeing you. I just felt you should know.”
And, each evening, as I drove across country with my cat and my dog, we would talk and she would give me updates. “Well, now, I’m cutting my hands…”
The day I arrived, she was hospitalized and I suddenly found myself taking care of her three children and her husband. None of whom were happy with the situation, all of them scared and freaked out, and attending my sister’s therapy sessions. She was not in for more than a week. I lasted three weeks before the whole edifice came crashing down. It was the dead of winter; I had maybe $100.00 and I was packing my car up when everybody showed up for the goodbye scene.
“You’re welcome to stay, Hunt.”
“I’d sooner trust a snow storm than you two.”
That was the same trip when another friend had gone through a crisis and thought I’d poisoned her dog, who died after I left…. The same one who thought I had no tolerance for crazy people.
The above does not begin to account for friends who threatened suicide. One of my friends called me from the hospital and when I got there, she was holding court with all the friends she’d called, recounting how she came to be there. As I listened, I came to realize that I would have been the one to find her. She had planned to slit her wrists in the bathtub and she was going to do it before I got there. That one, I lost my temper. I could feel her reveling in finally getting enough attention and I realized later that I had actually said, “Next time, do it.”
Or the people I worked with for years telling me stories of their woe and how I could not understand. Or, in one memorable conversation, she challenged me, “Prove it. Tell me just how bad your life has been…” I am ashamed I fell for that one – competing to see which of us had had the tougher life. That was the day I decided, never again. Let them win. You want to believe your life has been rough, go for it. People who tell stories with the same intensity as though it had just happened, rather than 20 years ago.
I realize I may well lose many of my followers with this harsh outcry by the healthy and strong against the weak and the victims and just plain old bad life choices. I get it. But there are so many of you, do you see? You have formed groups. Excellent. That is what they are for, because those of us who pick up the pieces cannot ever understand the pain you feel.
What tipped the balance tonight? What caused me to say, “Enough!”? Someone I love very much whom I have known a very long time has for the past year called me to say hi and check in. For the last year, he has talked of his right to end his life and each call might be the last one, ya just never know. He was astonished when I lost my temper.
“Do you have any idea how unfair this is?” I demanded.
“Well, yes.” “No.” “Maybe.” “Who else would I tell?”
After the Virginia trip, I had decided I would help those who truly wanted help, but for those who just want a listening post, I was done. Why waste my oxygen? (Pretty funny in retrospect, considering I have COPD.)
Being an analyst, there are a couple of salient points here. The common denominator in this is me. You can’t pick your family, but you can pick your friends. I am still very good friends with the one I yelled at, “Next time, do it!” She picked herself up, sorted herself out, and went on to great things, truly great things.
Point 2: There are very few people you can depend on to be there for you. People who will help pick up the pieces of a shattered life. Don’t burn them out.
Point 3: Everyone goes through hard times. Some recover, some do not, and some bath in their hard times, especially today with the celebration of victimhood. It takes courage, strength, guts, determination to turn your life around and no one can do it for you. Just because someone does not tell you of their hard times does not mean they have not had them. Just because someone is happy does not mean they have never experienced pain. I have a friend who is an amazing example of someone who should have just curled up and died when she was 12, and for sure by the time she turned 16. I met her later and had we never gotten drunk that night and swapped confidences, I would never have known what a remarkable survivor she was. The true definition of true grit. I count myself fortunate that I know this woman and that I know many like her, both men and women, who get up every morning and go to work, who are there for their friends and family, who are raising children of their own in spectacular ways we could not have dreamed of, who serve their community because they can and because they care.
Point 4: We have a responsibility to heal ourselves and one another, as we can. Dennis Prager writes that Happiness is a Moral Obligation. In it, he says, “Happiness — or at least acting happy, or at the very least not inflicting one’s unhappiness on others — is no less important in making the world better than any other human trait.”