Every time I travel alone, I get into a funk. I always start off excited and optimistic, anticipating the independence and liberation and freedom of solo travel, but pretty much just minutes into the trip, I start listening to tunes, and my mind wanders off to all sad thoughts.
For months, I’ve been looking forward to this trip. The original purpose was to attend a nonprofit tech conference, which I attend every year in different cities across the country, but since the event this year was in DC, I also made plans to combine a host of other things— visiting my family, hanging with my college buds, and checking in on our townhouse in Virginia. Yes, I thrive on multitasking and keeping a busy schedule— it makes me feel alive.
Earlier John had mentioned possibly joining me for the trip, but I wanted to just do my own thing. I had planned to stay with my Duke roommie, and frankly, this was going to be an opportunity to be nostalgic, reconnect, and just hang. Plus at the time that I had made the plans, I actually wanted a break from the relationship— not a hall pass or anything, but just a respite from having to deal with another person.
This past week was very emotional. The weekend prior, John felt depressed again for no identifiable reason. Then through a series of small incidents, I grew disappointed, frustrated, and also depressed. Sunday was spent mostly in bed. I tried to cheer myself up on Monday night by doing a DIY project. On Tuesday, I made a mental note to celebrate International Women’s Day.
Tuesday morning started off pretty ordinarily. I was running late to work and I asked him to tie my new bracelet. After hemming and hawing over how to tie the knot, I lost patience, said just forget it, and stormed off to work. When I got to work, I started drafting an email apologizing for flipping out about the bracelet. And then I realized this wasn’t about the fucking bracelet. I was tired and exhausted from having to be and do so many things all the time and for so damn long. For years, I had researched resources, trying to find solutions to his depression— searching desperately for ways to make him happy. This was about me realizing that I no longer enjoyed spending time with him. I no longer had a best friend. What had happened to the joy he used to bring? Was this simply the inevitable aging of a relationship? Fatigue, annoyance, frustration?
I thought about the happy days. Were they insincere? Fake? How long ago were they? And then I just lost it. Right there in my cubicle with an outburst of sobbing (the magnitude of which had previously been elicited only by Marcus in About a Boy and Noah and Allie in The Notebook). On hearing the commotion, my coworkers rushed to my cube. Was it Remy? I knew this was a breaking point.
For years, I had tried the “project management” approach to his depression. I had researched resources, read stories, gathered data of other peoples’ experiences, tried individual therapy, couples therapy… nothing helped, and people suggested that I was possibly pushing him too hard. That he needed to reach a place on his own, with his own schedule. So I stepped back. I didn’t ask for a time line, I just waited. And to occupy myself during the wait, I focused on elements that only I could control— hobbies, activities, solo trips to visit friends, work, exercise, my hair, my skin, etc. These focal points brought me happiness, and I enjoyed learning new skills, but I also noticed a growing distance. Slowly, I stopped wanting to spend time with him; I didn’t want to ask him to do things just to hear him express disinterest or ambivalence, so I essentially turned to others to fill the void of losing my best friend.
In response to my meltdown email, John apologized and admitted that he hadn’t realized how much this situation had worn me down. And almost immediately, he started to step up the game, tackling all sorts of things that had languished on the to do list.
Meanwhile this week I scheduled an appointment to resume therapy. I learned a lot of things from my session on Thursday. First, the therapist acknowledged the “tremendous patience” I had demonstrated living with a depressed person for so long (almost 4 years). And then she said that even though I thought I was doing the right thing by doing my own activities and by letting him try to work things out on his own schedule, I had in fact denied/neglected my own needs for the relationship. And without knowing, perhaps I had enabled the depression by giving it more space. Wow. Seriously, how is anyone supposed to know the “right” approach? Fucking A.
Leaving for my DC trip today, I felt pretty good. I was seeing changes in his behavior and attitude. In addition, he had agreed to participate in couples counseling, and I was feeling optimistic that things were going to be fine. And then, as I boarded the plane, John sent me a text message. His best friend from college was dead. WHAT??
Here was a guy who had grown up with privilege. I didn’t hold it against him (after all, who am I?). He was a dreamer/idealist/iconoclast of sorts– even though our personalities clashed in many ways, I could identify with his never-ending search for something (happiness perhaps). He might have been physically lazy, but his mind was always thinking about the next thing— a business venture, a new exercise plan, SOMEthing. And over the years, I came to see that his conversations with John were stimulating in ways different from our own conversations. Eventually, I had forgiven him for past transgressions, bad decisions, and foolish behaviors. Maybe he wasn’t a “bad” person after all.
In the last several years, John told me he had gotten into drugs and alcohol. I couldn’t understand the self-destructive behavior, the squandering of love and opportunity from those around him. I can’t even remember the last time I saw him. And now he’s dead. The details are unclear. Maybe I’m drawing conclusions.
Goddamn, mortality is so freaking depressing. I think of people I know who are currently battling advanced stages of cancer. What is it like to feel the finiteness of life? I spend so much time keeping busy, filling my time slots with activities… what’s it like to realize that those calendar slots are limited? How would I fill them differently? Am I living my life as I should? People always say that in the face of death, they realize there are so many things they would have done differently. Is that difference only elicited when faced with the unexpected/untimely end, or is that new style of living supposed to be implemented “as if” life were to end sooner than later? Ugh, it’s all just too much. I feel anxious and unsettled.
What is important in this life? And is their importance constant or variable based on all the other conditions? I don’t honestly know. My guess is that the answer is somewhere in between, in the gray area. I love the color gray, but Jesus, I hate gray areas in life. I really do. My brain just doesn’t know what to do with it. I don’t know how to juggle opposing ideas/situations/thoughts. It’s so damn chaotic.
So now I am thinking about his friend again. I used to think he was a bad person, because he asked so much of the people around him. He never seemed to give back. But over time, I saw that he offered something to everyone around him. Maybe it wasn’t a balanced friendship, but he provoked thought, he was unconventional, and in many ways, he was unafraid. I feel so sad. Sad that he was so troubled for so long. I feel sad for his parents who never gave up trying. I feel angry— why couldn’t he find happiness with all the resources he had around him? Why didn’t he convert everyone’s love and good intention into something positive?
Substance abuse. I’ve lived a life very sheltered from such demons; I don’t really see it or hang with people who blatantly abuse. And yet, I know people who have fallen into that rut: I have heard about the feelings of betrayal, of frustration…
Is it fair to blame people for not getting better? Why do I feel a need to place blame somewhere and on someone? How do we protect against abuse? Argh. Some say it’s genetic, chemical, biological. Does that mean we should demonstrate more leniency? More patience? Admit defeat and give up? Can we demand that the person override what may possibly be intrinsic to his/her DNA? Is that just an excuse? I just want people I care about to be happy and safe and healthy. Why does that sometimes feel like asking the impossible?
He died too young. I had been rooting for him too. I thought that one day in the near future, we would hear good news from him. I didn’t want this to be the end, and honestly, even though death is always a possibility, I had never fully considered it a viable outcome. I wonder if his parents will eventually find relief from his death. Is it better to watch helplessly as someone you love self destructs, or is it better to have ongoing pain and frustration end but to suffer grief from loss? People say the human spirit is remarkably resilient. After enduring unspeakable pain, it can still remember and recall hope and promise and love and joy.