Can You Think Your Way Out of a Depression?

I’m sorry I’ve been out of it for a while. I tried to keep myself from thinking about Beau too much. I thought it would go away. This horrible pain and loneliness. But it’s back. I spent so much time thinking about so many things. I spent so much time trying to make sense of it. I figured i should write it down. It would help because it helped me before. But I’ve become lazy. But I came across this article posted on my FB account from a friend of mine. It spoke to me. I wanna stop thinking but I’m wired that way. But reading this made me realize I might be digging myself into a deeper hole. I hope it helps someone out there too.Image

Can You Think Your Way Out of a Depression?

Think about it
Published on April 26, 2011 by Jonathan Rottenberg, Ph.D. in Charting the Depths

Whether it’s advanced language, ability to reflect upon the past and plan for the future, or our access to a rich shared culture, our unique human traits are usually a source of pride. But, in my last post, I explored the riddle of rising depression in humans. It seems that the same capabilities that enable our species to harness fire and put a man on the moon lead to self-defeating efforts to control low mood. Do our special cognitive capabilities play into a uniquely human pathway into depression?

A main function of low mood is to draw attention to threats and obstacles in unfavorable environments. The consequences are a pause in behavior and a more careful analysis of the environment. In humans, this analysis is more explicit than in a tiger or a tree shrew. Our advanced language ability permits construction of detailed theories about where painful feelings come from.

It’s natural to expect, “If I understand why I feel bad, I will know how to fix it.” Humans have unique powers of mental simulation (we don’t need to put our hand on a hot burner to know it would be a bad idea to touch). Although it’s easy to make fun of coulda, shoulda, woulda counterfactual thinking, our skill at understanding why bad things have happened helps us to prevent their recurrence. By forewarning ourselves, we are forearmed.

As a scientist who studies mood, I’m naturally all for the examined life. Insight-oriented psychotherapy, weekly talk therapy sessions with the guidance of an expert, can be helpful for depression. It’s also possible for a novice to think their way out of low mood and depression by themselves. But humans are not nearly as good at this as they think they are. Here are several pitfalls of trying to think your way out of a depression.

(1) Repetitively thinking about the causes and consequences of low mood can become habitual. Some people do it even when there aren’t significant challenges in the environment. Research shows that excessive use of this strategy, sometimes called rumination, is associated with depression.

(2) Our advanced language and ability to hold ideas in mind forms a dangerous echo chamber for mood. We are in a sense too good at meaning-making. We can easily think about the meaning of a troubling situation well after the situation has passed (my boss seems mad at me; maybe it was that email I sent three weeks ago?). A bad mood can prompt a potentially unlimited number of stories and implications. These may or may not be relevant to the source of the mood. The meaning-making machine might be doing its thing 24/7, in full overdrive, coming up with dozens of reasons for “why I am so blue?” All the while, low mood could be due to a thyroid deficiency, or some other “meaningless” source.

(3) People tend to be overconfident in the use of thought. It’s much easier to list these pitfalls than to recognize in the moment when thinking is not working. The belief that, “I can just think my way out of depression” comes partially from the fact that we humans solve so many other problems by thinking!

(4) Our meaning-making machine can get stuck.  The worst situation is when persistent thinking does not arrive at a stable theory of the problem, does not solve the problem, and cannot come to terms with the problem; it simply perseverates on the fact of the problem.

(5) As time wears on, the focus of analysis turns away from a problematic environment to a problematic self. This escalating-self-focus is far from benign.  A chimpanzee does not lie awake at night thinking, “I am a terrible mother.” A human does. The next day startssleep deprived, with a mood hangover and little new wisdom won. What started out as an environmental analysis ends up as vicious deconstruction of the self.

(6) Repetitive thinking on the failings of the self is associated with a deepening of depression. Again, this exposes a unique human vulnerability. A dog does not ask itself, “why can’t I just get over this?” or “why am I so weak?” An elaborate conceptual self puts us at greater risk for serious depression when sustained analysis of mood holds the thinker at fault. It’s as if we humans are constantly playing an action film of our own life in our heads. When times are good, we are the hero; when they are bad, we are the villian of the piece.

(7) Once the meaning-making machine is up and running, it’s harder to change gears than you might expect. Our meaning-making machine does not respond to the easy advice, like “snap out of it” or “stop thinking about it”. One must be quite clever to avoid getting sucked into a spiral of negative thoughts. Talk is cheap. Totally squelching mood-relevant thoughts is almost impossible once a serious depression has taken hold. Rather, the trick is to critically engage your thoughts without getting embroiled in them. Some people figure out how to do this on their own. Others use several therapies such as acceptance, mindfulness, or cognitive behavioral –all of which involve techniques for turning down the volume on the verbal meaning analyzer. The goal: To become a detached spectator of your own mind. As you learn how to stand apart from your stream of nasty cognitions, you can question them as they occur, a first step in reclaiming thought for psychological health.

Mockery of a Vacation Leave

“Oh! Really? Aaaaaahhhhhhh…”

Awkward silence. Inner struggle. Brain shifting. Gears cranking. Losing self control. Eyebrow raises. Itching to ask. Cannot help self.

“So if you’re not working then what have you been doing then?” 

I find it almost hilarious how some people around me react when they find out I have asked my office for an extended leave. I’ve come to expect the bewildered look on their faces. I can tell from the slow creasing of their foreheads how puzzling it is for them that I, always put together, responsible and dependable, would choose to simply wallow in my grief and misery and decide to do NOTHING. Once I answered back to say I was doing a lot and received another bewildered “Like what?”. Hysterical! Makes me wonder what they think my grieving is like. Do they imagine me sitting batty in a bathroom corner, twirling a strand of imaginary long hair, feeling sorry for myself all day? I imagine they would expect the old me to be more productive than that. Time is a wasting. And it won’t help me to allow myself to drown in sorrow. Indeed. I know it. And I am fighting tooth and nail to fish myself out of this quagmire.

As it turns out, when your life gets turned upside down in an instant there is an insane amount of work to be done. Let me begin with what is tangible and physical. Beau and I were married. We lived our own life, in our own little home. There, in our humble studio we’ve kept the stuff of our lives that describe who we are. There is the stuff that show the things we loved to do together. Ropes, harnesses, carabiners, chalk bags, rock shoes, a crash pad that doubled as an extra mattress when we had friends too drunk to even get out the door. On our refrigerator door is a chaotic display of magnets collected from places we’ve traveled to, small reminders of experiences shared, people we’ve met, cultures we’ve learned and appreciated. There was a lot of space left for more magnets, space that spoke of future dreams, space that allowed for possibilities, for the growth of love and wisdom that should have accompanied what i thought was a certainty of graying hair, facial wrinkles, sagging body parts and the smell of liniment. Our pantry is a picture of our duality, painted by packs of rolled oats, whole grain cereals, skim milk and a variety of herbs and spices sitting uncomfortably beside Beau’s party sized packs of chips, instant noodles, bottles of insanely hot pepper sauce, soy sauce, fish sauce, fish paste and other liquids that guarantee a gall bladder surgery at some point in the future. Shopaholics that we were, our cabinets were full to bursting with dry-fit shirts, running shorts, cycling jerseys, and jackets. How he loved jackets. He would obsess and discuss excitedly the benefits of tape sealed seams, the differences between a parka, a windbreaker, a fleece. I had always wondered in bewilderment what we would do with all of them, in a tropical country where I honestly would rather enjoy the rain on my face rather than rivulets of sweat. But he had them all, in brands that branded him, us, as members of a proud fraternity of outdoor adventurers. He had taken most of his clothes when he had left to search for answers, but still, now that he is gone, I am left with the task of discovering what has been left behind.

Storing a past, present and future is no easy task. And while there are kind souls who have helped me pack away, I am alone in the pain brought by each memory attached to every material thing that disappeared into those boxes. I sat and cried while friends wrapped our matching dinnerware in newspapers, to go into the box where the fine cutlery gifted to us during our wedding had already gone. A wedding still so fresh in my memory that the end of a marriage seemed like the most grievous of lies. I sat and smelled every stray shirt of his we found in the closet and despaired when I was told to let go and put it in the pile we were going to hand over to his brothers. Better for them to be used instead of constantly cried on, I was told. Let go, they say. In the bathroom I smiled sadly as I gathered up the badges of his vanity; bottles of men-specific toner, facial wash, moisturizer and after shave.

Weeks after, the boxes clutter up my old bedroom in my parents home where I’ve moved back into. And still, our apartment remains unoccupied, with still a few more boxes of things left behind as I have still been unable to get myself to go back and completely close shop.  It simply takes up too much energy to re-arrange a life. Moving days are usually exciting even while stressful. They usually mark a new beginning. I too have a new beginning. But to begin from where I started is understandably different. It’s like having to start from the beginning when you’ve already gained momentum. It takes time. Packing takes time. Unpacking takes time. And trying to hold myself together while doing all of this takes time. How much time? I’m only starting to find out. Days for sure. Weeks just as likely. So no, I’m not on leave simply because I am lazy. I truly am just more than a little unwell.

Trying to heal my fractured psyche takes up a lot of time and energy as well. Going to therapy has been helping me immensely but it exhausts me just as much as running a marathon, with the endorphin rush replaced by a feeling of release brought about by a waterfall of tears and boxes of used tissue. After two hours of pouring your heart out one is left bleeding and raw, as if every integument, both clothing and skin, are stripped from you and you are left naked as the day you were born. Imagine dissecting your soul, layer by layer, peeling off year after year, trying to get to the bottom of the mysteries that magnify the pain of your loss. It takes time to go back in time, to revisit dreams and childhood experiences in the hopes of healing wounds long left untended. Old wounds I never thought I even had until a loss so colossal brought them all to surface.  The sessions are so physically and emotionally draining that I have been asked to refrain from driving, to start taking medication to regulate my sleep, to meditate and pray and the most difficult of all, to abstain from thinking too much.

Aside from therapy there are visits to the doctor for medication. I’ve had to resort to a cocktail of anti-anxiety pills and anti-depressants to control my morning panic attacks, ones that began to visit me daily the second consciousness returns after a night of restless slumber. As it turns out, getting the cocktail right is an exercise in trial and error, with some combinations requiring up to a month before we can evaluate results. The first try was a nightmare, with the sleep medication leaving me completely lethargic. I would sit in our darkened den, refusing to leave the house which left me alone with my thoughts all day and night. It is a dangerous thing to be taking drugs that are supposed to help alleviate depression when you can read labels and research on the net and find out that results could be the complete opposite, with some side effects causing an increased risk of suicide from the depression that it was trying to cure in the first place. I have increased respect and compassion for psychiatrists who carry the burden of healing diseases that are hardly tangible, where medication is so personalized that science can only guide and not necessarily provide.

I’ve had to take care of my spirit as well, and a good number of hours are spent in the company of a Jesuit priest who patiently listens as I process my anger at God, my questions on life after death and my search for meaning and purpose now that the love of my life is dead.

I feel my hackles rise defensively when it is even insinuated that I am milking the situation for what it is worth, using it as an excuse for a break. I would rather be shackled hand and foot to my office chair rather than be on this mockery of a vacation. What kind of happy holiday would it be when shopping becomes a compulsion brought about by the need to fill a void nothing can ever satiate? What time would you have to enjoy when half the day is spent deciding what to do because thoughts paralyze you so much they render you incapable of movement for hours on end? Thoughts can be like sticky spiderwebs that keep you rooted in space while time continues to flow. How I would rather spend my hard earned money tanning on a beach with my well built husband, rather than spending my leaves and salary on professional fees and feel good pills.

Unfortunately surviving my husband’s suicide is so much more than doing nothing. It takes so much of everything inside me that it leaves little room for anything outside of me. If there was any valid excuse for self-centeredness it is this. It takes work to find one’s center after you’ve been rocked violently at the core of your being. It is like having your insides rocked by a cataclysmic earthquake so massive it is beyond the Richter scale.

There is nothing I would like more than to gain stability and recover enough of my old self to go back to doing the things expected of me. my employers deserve nothing less and I expect nothing less of myself. But time seems of the essence, especially when nothing, not even the loss of a stable, well paying job can compare to the loss of a future I was so excited for that we celebrated it with a promise in front of God and loved ones, balloons, ribbons, confetti and yards of white indian satin, in a place with a view so breathtaking that it deserved to be captured both in celluloid and digital. My marriage was meant to last a lifetime. I’ve been on leave for a total of two months give or take. Perhaps it is but fair to give me a break.

Mourning my Mornings

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I’ve started to wonder why people fear the night and find comfort during the day. For the past weeks the dawn of a new day holds more terrors for me than the quiet solitude of twilight.  It had not always been so. I used to find dusk so forlorn and desolate, the slow goodbye of the sun sinking into the pallid blanket of the evening. Nowadays i find twilight restful and peaceful, the demise of the sun bringing with it the soothing comfort of anonymity, of escape. The darkness is welcome. Shadows hide a face swollen with tears shed in the stark blinding brightness of daylight and camouflage a heart wracked with guilt and doubt.

I used to love mornings. I loved waking up early to spend a few minutes staring at my sleeping husband’s face then getting up silently to prepare a breakfast that I would insist he share with me despite his protests that breakfast had never been a part of his morning rituals. I loved the smell of coffee brewing. It was a daily reminder that I had to wean Beau from his belief that 3-in-1 sachets can actually be considered a suitable replacement. I would take great care in setting our tiny table for two, obsessively insisting that we eat “proper”. There was love in a pretty looking meal, in beautifully made plates that brought out the sunny colors of food meant to jumpstart your day. I loved when he would wake up and just watch me while I puttered about, smiling a lazy smile as he wondered what all the fuss was for when he could just as easily enjoy a breakfast straight out of a cereal box.  There was comfort and reassurance in starting the day together, basking in the comfort of each others presence, sharing each others plans and knowing that the day ahead would end peacefully in each others arms come nightfall.

Our days had settled into a routine, but they were never simply habitual or mechanical. Beau had defined my mornings. He smelled of sunshine, of trees, of wind and song. Even in sleepy grumpiness he always managed to make me smile, for he was mine to keep, mine to care for, mine to spoil, to serve, to love. It was the rest of the day that to me was routine and uninteresting. Events animate and gain color only when I was back with him in the evening. It is at home, tired from the workday and from climbing,  armed with stories to tell, tales of the successes and failures of the day, that everything comes to life. He was genuinely interested in me, happy for me, angry for me, sad with me. And when he would share his day I would find calm in his joy and simplicity, in his ability to be happy with the most mundane of things.  Back then it was sleep that I wanted to delay, to do away with if only it were possible. Because when I slip into slumber, no matter that I do so cocooned in his arms, I lose consciousness of the blessing of Beau that I had in my life. Before I slept I would already look forward to the morning, when I would rise and watch him sleeping, his chest rising and falling with the cadence of peace. A peace that shattered. So suddenly. So abruptly. So incomprehensibly.

Now, mornings terrify me. I am so mortified by the coming of day that I weep in my sleep during the night, my tears saline witnesses of nightmares that I cannot remember no matter how hard I try. When I speak of panic, I mean panic. My heartbeat races like I’ve run a marathon instead of having come from a rest meant to prepare me for the day ahead. I cannot breathe and I am attacked with severe anxiety from the fluidity of the hours that lie in front of me. I feel pressured at any thought of things I have to do and I feel pressured at the thought of not knowing what to do. It is like waking up having to make a daily decision that is neither wrong nor right, left or right, here nor there. It is waking up afraid because there is nowhere to be, nowhere to go yet nowhere to stay. It feels like standing on a razor’s edge, afraid to fall yet desperately praying that someone, something would tip me over one side or the other, to tell me where I should be, where I belong, where I am organic. My chest fills full to bursting knowing that even those who love me would not really care as much where I end up. At least never as much as a husband who is half of me in spirit.  To ask me to make my own decisions on what to do and where I should be feels almost cruel. It is mocking torture. Because in my heart I knew I was meant to be making a breakfast for my life’s champion.

Even the memories of our nighttime conversations are now poisoned. When once they gave color to my otherwise mechanical day, they are now memories of signs I missed, of things I regret not having understood.  Instead of the joy and simplicity that I had seen in his smiles I now remember the days when he would come home frustrated and angry about things that were just as “simple”. I now remember his inability to see solutions and possibilities, how each problem sounded so insurmountable. They were moments, that were fleeting and seemingly insignificant. They were challenges that were Lilliputian to anyone not haunted by the ghosts that I now know plagued him. And he was a master at hiding. I realize now I was only privileged to have been let into his private world, the darkest parts of which he kept only to himself.  I wonder daily if it was something I should have caught, something that shouldn’t have escaped my notice, if it were somehow a lack of attention on my part that had disabled me from saving him from self destruction. But was it a crime for me to have seen the smiles instead of the frustrations? Was it a mistake to have seen what was whole in his simplicity instead of its brokenness when it was Beau himself who taught me to be grateful for all things given?

I mourn for my Beau. I mourn for my Beau-tiful mornings. I am angry that I am accused of choosing to dwell on my misery. I am frustrated at being asked to simply make a decision to get better.  What I would give to not have to wake up afraid to live another day. What I would give to wake up refreshed from a full night of undisturbed sleep. What I would give to find joy in delicate tableware, in matching placemats, in coffee brewed to aromatic perfection. My mornings are no longer those I have come to know. I wake up in a place cluttered with boxes of my married life just waiting to be put aside. I reach out desperately, repeatedly, for help in the mornings and know that sometimes there is no help to be found. Then I take it one minute at a time until I am embraced by the velvet ebony of night.

Anatomy of a breakdown about to happen

I’ve always been an emotional person but this depression is a first. It is emotional torture so powerful it takes on shape and form yet is still effervescent and fleeting. Impossible to grasp. You cannot tear it apart, throw it away or smash it against a concrete wall.

I feel stifled. My breath is insufficient to nourish me. My throat is dry and painful and my eyes feel like they are permanently swollen. My tears hide under my lids but come flowing unbidden and without warning. They flow after my chest feels a tightness, a constriction that caused my stomach to churn as if I had ingested something rotten and have to retch. The sadness feels like a second skin, with an adhesive so strong I feel like rubbing myself raw to clean myself. Sometimes I scratch my face and head so vigorously I feel like I am going to literally tear myself apart. The pain is soothing compared to the embrace of frustration. Its like an itch that you cannot scratch but this time it is a pain you cannot soothe.

There are days when I have to lie down on the cold tiles of my bathroom floor because it soothes the searing heat of my body. Sometimes I feel like tearing my hair out because it feels tangible at least, something concrete to grasp, something real to battle. My muscles complain as if I’ve been working out for hours even if all I’ve done was try unsuccessfully to get some sleep. I feel stretched out like an overtuned guitar string.

In the mornings, my heart pounds frantically with a terror I cannot explain. It is so strong I shoot straight up and jump out of bed because I fear that  if I stayed lying down it would choke me. I need to shake my extremities to get rid of the pins and needles that send warnings of their arrival. There is a pressure in my chest that grows. It is like air pushing down on my lungs instead of through them. I could almost hear screaming in my head, there is that incessant droning sound.

My eyes feel so tired and heavy lidded all the time. I look out through them with difficulty. It feels like a white veil has been put over them and sometimes things take awhile before they register before me. I have to blink and close my eyes several times before the blinding brightness goes away. And when it does, I feel the stickiness left by tears that I must have shed even while I was asleep. And when I look in the mirror, the image is distorted. I can see every single flaw in my face, the unflattering curves and bulges on my bloated body and I feel like collapsing inward. I am constantly on the verge of falling asleep but don’t really get to sleep. I know because after 5 hours of sleep I wake up feeling even  more tired than ever.

My taste buds seem dead. It is tiresome to even eat but I do anyway. I eat a lot because it breaks the monotony. Something else that enters and exits my body other than poisonous thoughts. But everything tastes the same.

Everything feels wrong. It feels like my body is not my own and I watch things hovering beside, behind or above myself. I fidget a lot and pace, as if moving would shake off the choking sadness the way I could shoo away a pestering fly. The thoughts come in and out of my head and they irritate me.  Sometimes that is exactly how it feels, like an insect fluttering about me with that grating whirring sound of little wings. If I could I would put my brain in my hands and handle it like I would a ball of clay, pounding it tightly until it was packed, solid and hard then throw it through a sheet of tempered glass.

I am a writer but my words fail me. One must experience to understand. Am I going insane I wonder? I do not know. I know nothing. I feel everything. I want it desperately to stop.

Alone after the home run

I thought we would have learned how to live with each other now, this alien band of brothers that have come to visit. I knew it would be an extended stay but now I fear my guests are bent on overstaying my forced welcome. I’ve tried to get to know them all, they who have come knocking at my door. Grief, Depression, Guilt and Loneliness. They’ve hung around for so long I swear their faces had begun to morph into one another. I can hardly tell them apart and it hardly mattered, given that they’ve all wrought the same devastation on my once peaceful spirit. I’ve engaged with them, maniacally so, trying to understand how they’ve managed to convince my husband that he had nothing to live for. As the days passed I’ve come to understand the conversation they had with Beau and where it brought him. But the longer they stay with me I am beginning to dread where I would be, if, when and how I manage to push them to leave.

I’ve let myself go because I could not let him go. I drink too much coffee, smoke too much, exercise too little. I eat nothing but indulgent poison — the most luxurious of desserts, laden with gargantuan amounts of sugar, chocolate and butter; evil disguised in swirls of happy colored icing, beautiful bronze baked goodies that promise familiar highs, only to be sunk back into an even more dismal abyss when the sugar rush disappears. I need a haircut. I’ve moved back in with the ‘rents and need to start organizing the mess of my life which I had brought with me. I am on a deadline, the time I’ve borrowed from sympathetic employers was running out too fast for comfort and I seem to be on pause. Indeed, time waits for no one and life is in an ironic rush. What does it matter that life as I knew it had changed drastically and without warning?

In the beginning I had gotten on that same train of mad, frantic activity. And everyone was there, cheering from the bleachers as I rushed to cover all the bases. And I did just that.

I tried to understand what happened. I researched, read, consulted, conversed and concluded. Beau was a victim of suicide. The end result of a long fight with major depression likely caused by a genetic predisposition. He could have possibly been bi-polar or had borderline personality disorder; complicated by the trauma of losing a father at an age when he was only beginning to learn about the relationship of “cause and effect”. Freud had discovered it, the construct of “learned helplessness” where a child, unable to process the traumatic event, learns that there are things that happen in this world that are beyond our control and therefore, when challenges come up, no matter how small, he would be powerless to fight it. He told me once before that he had watched his father burn. A child watching a cremation is a nightmarish tableau. Whether it had actually happened is of no consequence. For Beau, it was his reality. Had he agreed to seek professional help he would have discovered he was suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome as well. My own therapists say it would have been a textbook diagnosis, what with the death happening the day after his birthday and the constant reminder of his father’s ashes in the family home. There were other reminders, other questions, too private to share, that had left wounds that festered. He had grown into the body of a man and yet, somewhere inside him, an 11 year old boy continued to stare into the flames.

Apparently there had been prior attempts to take his life before I had even met him, usually triggered by a relationship gone awry. He feared rejection and magnified abandonment, attaching all sense of hope to relationships that he perceived in his mind to be all that he had in his life. I had saved him twice he said, having talked him through the demise of two of his past romances. He had always threatened to end his life at the end of his relationships. I had always thought he meant I had saved him figuratively. Now I know better, too late.

Even if I had known his threats to be true, I would have thought marriage would have put an end to the suicide ideations. After all, the promise of forever keeps the threat of abandonment at bay. And for all intents and purposes, as far as I knew, we had been the giddiest kids on the marriage block. But I suppose all marriages have its own challenges, and the monster that lay dormant inside him waited for the opportunity to rear its ugly head.

I had always envied him for his freedom of spirit. I was jealous that he had built a life of simplicity doing what he loved. But even before we had gotten married he had always talked about wanting to do something else, to find his fortunes elsewhere and to keep climbing as a hobby rather than his career. It had been frustrating for him, and I knew that the conservative man that he truly was, he wanted to prove that he could provide for me somewhat. There was never any pressure on this front, at least not outwardly, and not that I was consciously aware of, although I know that sometimes circumstance itself could create them. I had tried to control the situation at any sign of insecurity, although if there were any, he was such master at keeping them from me that despite my vigilance, it was only in the last three months of his life that I recognized any discontent. I had supported him by asking him to simply pursue what he was passionate about. There was much trial and error but in the end he had still hoped against hope that he could make something out of the sport that he loved. I believe it was his failure to make this happen that was the trigger for his last and final episode.

He loved bouldering. And the competition which had been named after him was his pride and joy. He had attempted to put up the event a year into our marriage. It had pushed through but at great cost. He had taken it hard, given that I had to step in to bail him out. He declared he was done with the competition, done with climbing in general and moved on. or so I thought. A year after he announced he was going to try to put the event up again and against my better judgment, I supported him once again. This time, despite his constant assurances that the postponements and delays with sponsorship contracts were just minor snags, the event did not push through. We argued about it for a day or two and I thought that was the end of it. But apparently he had again talked to some people about taking his life out of shame and embarrassment. I thought he had gotten over that particular hill, he had decided to embark on a new challenge — to get certified as a personal trainer. But now I know this only added to the weight he carried. He had put all his hope in that basket, telling me repeatedly during those days when his frustration and stress were poisoning our marriage that it was all he had going for him. I tried to refocus his thinking and emotions into positive things, to the dreams we had created together for the future, but he was incapable of looking forward and insisted on collapsing into the past. In retrospect I know now that nothing I said would have made a difference. Unless he was given the medication he needed, he was spiraling out of control towards his own self destruction.

You would think that all of the above would absolve me of my guilt. It does not. A psychiatrist would describe him as a textbook case and any diligent researcher armed with an internet connection and a laptop would agree. The illness is what killed him. It was not anybody’s fault. He was psychologically disturbed and did not have the skills to deal with life’s challenges. Cerebrally it all makes a lot of sense. But as his wife, I look at what happened with different lenses. And what a different story my heart can see.

I remember a man excited for a future. I remember a husband narcissistically proud of a happy marriage. I remember conversations about the children we were going to raise, the trips we were going to take, the long bucket list of things we needed to do. My heart cannot accept what all the research and professional consultations have logically confirmed. I have hit a home run with all the bases loaded. But now the bleachers are empty, the game is over. Everyone has gone on to their homes and life continues on. The numbers on my blog have dwindled. The hundreds of likes and comments of support on my Facebook page have all but disappeared. Very few ask how I am anymore. And I sit in the ball park alone, enveloped in the blackness left by the shut down of the stadium lights.

They wait for me, my unwanted guests. Grief, Depression, Guilt and Loneliness. They took my husband away and now they await me. I am beginning to dread where I would be after all is said and done. Because as of now I am back on first base. Bleachers empty. Alone after a cerebral home run that has done nothing to heal the pain in my heart. Beau is gone. Game over.

Heartbreak Hill

It was called heartbreak hill for a reason, that stretch of road on the fringes of the university campus. For neophytes, the short steep uphill was a cardiovascular nightmare. Only pride and willpower could overcome the pounding of the heart and shortness of breath that initiate the novice runner into a route more challenging than the academic oval where most recreational runners can be found. It had been quite some time since I’ve last been here. And now that I am, my heart began to break for an entirely different reason. Heartbreak hill marks the beginning of a route my late husband Beau used to run with me. And now, a few weeks after his death, for the first time, I run the route without him.

It is the first training day of Team Beau, as we had taken to calling our motley crew. The jock that he was, his brothers and I, along with the rest of his family had committed to honor his memory by continuing his athletic pursuits. Now, it was the members of his family that flanked me.

Chey led the pack, being the most experienced and most consistent runner among us. He shared Beau’s love of the outdoors. In fact, it was through his influence that Beau found his greatest passion, rock climbing. With Beau gone I ran behind Chey now, allowing him to set the pace. I remembered it was my husband who had convinced his brother to start running. Chey reminds me the most of Beau because they really did enjoy the same things — climbing, running, boxing.  I can see my husband in his brother’s face, the same proud nose, the same lash-fringed eyes, the same rise and fall of mellow notes when they speak. Only a few weeks ago, Chey finished his first full marathon. In the agonizing last kilometers, when pushing to reach the finish line felt more torturous rather than victorious, Chey told me he remembered something Beau used to say: Pain is temporary. Quitting is forever. That buoyed him to the finish, a finish that made Beau inordinately proud. Beau had immediately sent a message to his eldest brother Mao, telling him to congratulate Chey for the accomplishment and pushing him to join next year’s race. Beau’s pain must have been unimaginable. It must have felt permanent. Otherwise, he would never have quit.

Through the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of Mao, now running beside me, training for that marathon he promised Beau he would finish. Despite Beau having lived with his eldest brother before we got married, I never really got to know Mao very well before all this happened. And by his own admission, there were many things about Beau that he didn’t know either. It must be the gaps in our knowledge that bonded us now, as we ran beside each other. In the days following Beau’s death I had always felt an urge to tell Mao about our marriage, about how much we loved each other, about the truth of the days preceding his death that led his baby brother back into the family home. I yearned to help him gain some understanding, a look into his brother’s psyche to help him accept the tragedy that happened a few steps away from the threshold of his home. His eyes remain haunted. It makes me shudder to think of the images permanently etched behind them. He carries the burden of being the first in the family to see Beau’s lynched body.

I could never have survived seeing him dead on that stairwell. If one believed in God, then perhaps that was the one favor that he gave me. His family, they share my pain. I feel guilty that they had to be the ones to find him, that my husband was not with me during his last moments. There are many things I regret, many things I wish I could have done or not have done that I know will haunt me for the rest of my life. Beau had chosen to stay away from me for the past few months. He needed to figure things out for himself he said. Chey thinks he did that to save me from the pain he knew he would cause, knowing even in his subconscious, that he was no longer in control of himself. I would never know, and that, adds to the torment.

Behind me I could hear the easy banter of Bunny and Bobby, cousin and friend respectively, but brothers to Beau all the same, bound not just by blood but by a guileless love forged by time. If there was one thing the two shared with my husband, it would be the easygoing sense of humor, the carefree air that made everyone around them feel at ease. I’ve known them just long enough to know that the smiles and indulgent jokes hide their own soap opera lives and yet there they are, alive and well, running behind me while my beloved Beau had thrown in the towel before any one of us were in on the game. It left a bitter taste in the mouth. The thought that it was not even really his choice made it even more acrid. My husband was murdered, forced to take his own life by a malevolent disease that came in the dark of night.

I’ve been hanging on to them for dear life the past few weeks. I suppose its because if there was anyone in this world who shared my pain it would be them. Without children there is nothing of flesh and blood that I had left of Beau, except for his family. His only sister Rona, whom I had seen for the first time a few weeks ago when she had flown back to Manila to pay her last respects to a long missed brother, has become a daily salve. Although geographically apart, I’ve survived my morning anxiety attacks by reading her morning online messages. Love offered to me, a sister she has never really known. Love offered to a sister, whose only remaining connection with a brother is in a few bags of clothes and a grieving widow’s tears.

At times I feel overly assuming and am afraid that I might overstay my welcome. I’ve impinged on their lives, hanging over them like a black specter of death. This is the scarlet letter, the mark of Cain a widow carries. As much as I remind them of Beau, I also inadvertently, with my weeping and despair, remind them of his loss.

As I run I am acutely aware that my heart chooses this family, the same way my heart chose Beau. The future looms uncertain. I cannot even see past today. We pass over Heartbreak hill and pound our way through the route my husband used to run. I am not bound to them by law anymore. Death had released me from that. For now we are bound by tragedy, chained together by sorrow. We run together towards hope, towards love, towards a tomorrow we are forced to face because we continue to live.

They flank me as I run. Chey before me, Mao to my side, Bunny and Bob behind me. At the turnaround their wives and their kids wait for us with drinks to quench our thirst and cheers to appease parched spirits. This is the family that inherited me. And they are the shield I have around me.

I am reminded of St. Patrick’s breastplate. He declares: Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise, Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.

They say God sends angels to help us on our way. One only has to look with an open heart to see the magnificence of their wings.

My argument with God: Where are you?

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I never really knew what loneliness meant until my husband Beau passed away.

I am luckier than most. Lost as I am in my grief I can feel the love and support around me. In many ways, one can say I am never really alone. But deep inside, in that place where blood, bone and sinew cease to define us; where time, space and matter cannot reach, there is an aching loneliness that is beyond our humanity to comfort. The loneliness is intangible, something that cannot be experienced through touch, sight, taste, sound or smell; and yet, it brings an almost physical pain. It is the pain of the spirit, as real yet as abstract as the soul. And yet I wonder, in that place that no human love could reach, where do we seek salvation? Where do we seek relief from our suffering?

Beau was a faithful, prayerful man. I am certain, that in those dark days in his life when nothing I said was enough to comfort him, when my love was not enough to heal his defeated spirit, he had turned to God. Is it not God whom we were taught loved us so much that His love humbles our human love? So, where was God when Beau needed him the most? My spiritual pain is irrefutable and proves that intangibility does not mean non-existence. But if God is as real as this pain then where was he?

In the weeks following Beau’s death I had parked my argument with God. I was too busy being human to deal with abstract realities. I felt almost ashamed to pray, knowing that in my heart I questioned. But pray I did… perhaps by rote. Perhaps by blind faith, imprinted as it was by my Catholic upbringing. In fact, I don’t think I have ever prayed so hard in my life. I prayed from a place of desperation rather than hope. I was told to keep my faith, to believe that God would help me through this, that Beau was in a better place right now because of God’s love. I would nod, smile, cry. Too tired to argue. Too confused to even know how to express my doubts. If I were to understand and accept God as real, then I needed to have something to anchor my belief. Something more than abstruse promises of a heaven too far removed from my present reality to appreciate. Something that makes sense within my human limitations.

I’ve been living like a robot, mechanically going through the motions of trying to understand suicide, poring through biological explanations on genetics and clinical depression, seeking counselors, doctors, priests… Even my tears feel automatic, with someone else playing with the switch. When my questions of science and biology have found answers somewhat I begin looking for something tangible in the intangible. I search for proof that there is something more than this life, something that continues more than his death, something that would give me a reason, a desire to survive. I’ve gotten absorbed in myself, looking inwardly to look for answers, summoning all my faculties of logic and intellect, following relationships of cause and effect. I am imploding with the burden of guilt, the burning need to answer why and the frustration coming from a helplessness I refuse to accept. I am exploding in desperation, reaching out to friends, strangers, anybody who would give me the time of day. I write without editing, words spilling out  like a fountain of blood from an artery severed over and over again, my thoughts running too fast to capture, keyboard a frantic clicking, as if a thought left unwritten would mean the loss of the opportunity for understanding. There is a mania about me.

I am in fear and I am running. I am running from the questions that hound me. No, not the questions brought about by the death of a beloved husband, but the questions I need to ask now that I am left behind.

Who am I if not a wife defined by the love of a man? Why does his loss destroy me?

Who am I if not a strong, intelligent woman defined by success in work? Why do I not allow myself to cry and heal today because I fear what my peers would say tomorrow?

Who am I if not the dutiful friend, sensitive and caring to others? Why am I ashamed to show weakness, to ask to be carried, to admit defeat?

WHO AM I? I asked the question. I had no choice. I’ve cycled and reached the end of my tether. I’ve run out of gas.

Then there I found myself. In that dark place where no man can comfort me, where I am helpless as a babe in the womb, where my spirit is stripped naked and cold. Where I can only assume my Beau was, desperately praying for salvation. And again I ask, where are you God? Beau was here and now I am, and still where are you?

There was nothing else to do but surrender. I threw in the towel and stopped fighting. I let the wings of sadness embrace me. I wept and still weep like there is no tomorrow. I am helpless. I cannot see beyond today. All I could do was ask my questions and pray… pray to an absent God for answers.

I questioned if Beau was at peace, if he was able to leave behind the suffering for which he took his life in order to escape. I questioned if there was truly life after death or if all consciousness ceased the moment he took his last breath. But if there is no life after death then he is now simply gone. And there can be no suffering when one is non-existent. If there is, then he would be in the hands of God. And if God is real, as we have been taught, then he is an ever loving God, as we had been taught; with a love far greater than mine can ever be. If so, then either way Beau would be okay. There is no certainty, none at all. But it offers sense and that offers peace.

I questioned why I had to go through this suffering? Why me? But then again, why NOT me?  If there was no God, no consequences, if everything were random then what is the point of living? So if one is to continue living, as I do, then we need to believe that there is a purpose for everything. That somehow, things happen for a reason, that there is such a thing as cause and effect. There is no certainty, none at all. But it offers sense and that offers peace.

I questioned why I continued to pray, despite my lack of proof, despite my anger, despite my doubts. My answer sounded shallow and embarrassing, even to myself. I prayed for Beau and his soul, I prayed for peace and strength just in case there was a God. I realize now that it was then, when I had thrown all logic and sense to the wind, when my only answer was JUST IN CASE, that what I believed in my heart to be true had begun to show. And in those prayers, left undefended and without explanation, I had exhibited a glimmer of hope — not from my mind but from somewhere deeper, from something intangible, from an indefatigable spirit.

I questioned who I am, when I am stripped naked of everything I use to define myself to be. I questioned who I am if not a wife, a daughter, an employee, a friend. I am soul. I am spirit. And from where do souls come from? Where do spirits begin their existence? Not from an egg, a sperm or any biological process we have come to know. If we humans then are not our creators, then who is? Perhaps God exists after all. There is no certainty, none at all. But it makes sense and that offers peace.

Where are you God? Perhaps, it is exactly there, in the gaps of our lives that you are. It is in this moment of absolute emptiness that i had begun to talk to you more, holding on to nothing more than hopeful faith. Faith that you exist. Faith that my beloved is safe and happy and alive with you. Faith that the promise of your love, your existence, your protection is more than just something imagined to give purpose to an otherwise meaningless existence.

In the end the answers to my questions lie in the reality of the pain in my soul. It is not a physical pain but a pain in the core of my being that no human love can reach. The loneliness in my soul is real. It is a certainty it exists, as surely as God must exist. It makes sense, and that offers peace.

They say it is through suffering that we experience God. I now know why. Dear God, HELP ME THROUGH.