I really can't believe it's been three years. Time flies so fast now, that it really only seems like a year or so since she took her own life. A lot has happened in that time period, but the memories of the night of her death are still very fresh. While I'm a little more numb to them now than I was even a year ago, they are very vivid. Even when I'm old, I don't think I'll ever forget that knock on the door in the wee hours of the morning. Those moments stick with you. They slip back into the recesses of your mind and your heart, but they bubble back up when you hear about or witness someone else deal with a tragedy. I sometimes think the final stage of grief is being able to keeping that boiling pot of feelings at a simmer 95% of the time instead of the full rolling churn it can often be if we let it consume us. And that churn is really what brought Sissy down. That, and the fact that she relied on dangerous vices to navigate her melancholy days.
Sissy's depression started in earnest with the death of her son. The day he died is the day she stopped living. She fought it for a little while but lost the urge pretty quickly. About a month after her son died, her husband underwent a kidney/pancreas transplant. She spent long hours at the hospital dealing with her husband's fight for life, and in an effort to cope, she started drinking regularly to block out the nightmares of her son's drowning and her husband's condition so she could sleep. And once she started drinking, she never stopped. Through her husband's recuperation, their eventual divorce, his death and those early years after my nephew's death, she grew to rely on alcohol and eventually her prescription medication to get through the days. She lived several hours away from us , and when we visited her, she kept herself together to the point that it took us a long time to realize she had an issue with alcohol. We truly didn't realize how severe it had become until she moved to Florida following the suicide of a close friend of hers. In Florida, she tried to take her own life.
She called us that afternoon, and as I talked to her, she sounded distant. When I tried to call her back later, I got no answer. And even though she hadn't given us any indication that anything was wrong, I just had this horrible feeling in my gut that something was wrong. I felt this panicky, sick feeling that wouldn't go away, and I called some friends of hers who lived in that same city, and I insisted that they check on her. They had seen her only hours before, said she was fine and were skeptical of my concern. I had to beg them to go, and they finally did. When they arrived, they found her half dead in the garage in a running car. It was the first of what would be many times she tried to kill herself.
We moved her home to Kentucky and for the next three years, spent just about every hour of every day trying to keep her alive. It didn't work, and the morning the deputy knocked on our door, we knew the news before he spoke a word. By that point, we had made many trips to the hospital with her, following ambulances, standing in ER rooms and riding the rolling coaster of her attempts to end her pain. We had done everything we could. And it didn't work.
It took six days to find her body and pull it from the river into which she had jumped. For her last suicide attempt she had chosen a bridge. She wanted it to work that time. She just didn't want to fight her demons anymore. And while we were profoundly sad, I was glad she was at peace finally. So many times she had told me through tears that she just wanted to be at peace.
I think about her often. When we drive over that bridge, I can't help but imagine what it was like for her that night. I can't imagine the courage it took to climb onto the side and take that fateful step. I wonder a lot of things about that jump, but I can't think about it for very long or I start to crack open the lid on a box that I don't want to crawl back into. Because we live in her house now, I sometimes think about her when I'm lying in bed, in the same part of the bedroom where she slept. I lay in the dark, imagining what it was like when she lacked the strength to get out of bed, when she felt lonely and when she was thinking of death. I wonder how that felt, how she got to the point where life hurt so bad she just wanted it to stop. And I can't imagine that feeling. I just can't. I've always loved life too much. And I've always had hope. I don't know what it's like to be without hope. Thank God, I don't know what that's like.
I think about her when I hear her favorite song. Just yesterday, Somewhere Over the Rainbow shuffled through my iPod. We played that song at her funeral. The version on my iPod is from Eric Clapton, and it reminds me of the time she and I saw him in concert together. It was the last great time we had together, and that song makes me smile and cry at the same time.
Back in April, I was running at lunch on the anniversary of her death, when I passed a beautiful bloom that had fallen from a magnolia tree. I had to smile at the obvious metaphor. Sissy was like that bloom. Beautiful but knocked off its foundation and doomed to an early death by a strong wind she just couldn't withstand. Lovely on the outside but likely to crumble at any time.
Throughout our struggles with Sissy in those last few years of her life, I chose not to write about a lot of what we endured. Partially, for the privacy of the family, but also because it just hurt too much. Living closely with and caring for someone who is crippled by depression and substance abuse is overwhelming. It consumes you. And that's why I'm writing about it now. Not because I have any great words of wisdom or solutions. Hardly. There are things I'd do differently if I were doing it all over again, but I know we did our best, and that's all anyone can do. I'm writing because I have learned in the past three years that there are many people dealing with the same situation. Because Sissy chose to die in a very public way, the whole community came to know about our situation. Since then, several people have told me privately that they have a loved one who is an alcoholic or is suicidal. Out of embarrassment or shame, they deal with it quietly. And they hurt.
If you are in that position, you are not alone. There are people and organizations that can help. Do not be afraid to seek them out. I found Al-Anon to be a great help for me. And more than once, I looked up at a meeting to see someone I knew (I live in a relatively small town) wandering in out of desperation and frustration over a loved one's addictive behavior. They were surprised to see a familiar face but glad to have someone they could share their pain with.
You have to find ways to take care of yourself or else your loved one's issues will consume you, too. For three years, we went to bed every night wondering if we would find Sissy dead in the morning. We started each day wondering if she would make it through the day. We were afraid to go to sleep, so we stayed exhausted and sick. I couldn't keep weight on my body. I got down to 113 lbs, which was way too low. No matter how hard I tried to keep food in my system, it either came back up or roared through my intestines. You have to stop focusing 100% of your energy on the afflicted and take care of yourself. It's okay to step away when you need to in order to keep yourself healthy.
Know that you cannot control someone's behavior. You can help them. You can even save them if they want to be saved. But you cannot force someone to want to live. That's a very hard concept to accept. The head knows it, but the heart doesn't understand. Do all you can, but know that if your loved one dies at his own hands, it's not your fault. You are not to blame. You are NOT to blame.
I've always thought suicide was a selfish act. And I still do, but I'm more forgiving of it now. I know Sissy didn't want to hurt us when she chose to die. She just wanted her pain to end, and she couldn't see past that. I'm not as angry at her as I used to be. I'm still angry at her psychiatrist, whom I feel fueled her addictions with a blind eye and a heavy prescription pad, but that's an entirely different post. In the end, the blame for her death lies mostly with her. If she had not chosen to live in the bottle after my nephew's death, she might still be with us. Maybe not. I will never know the answer to that question. I will never know what triggered her jump on that particular night in April of 2009. I stopped looking for answers many months ago because that's living in the past. Living in the past and not the future led Sissy down a path I don't want to take.
Her death hurt then, and it hurts today, but not as much as it did three years ago. It gets better as time goes by. I am a changed person because of that experience. I hold my loved ones close, often too close, especially Teen Angel. I live with a dread of loss. I am wary of the willingness of doctors to dole out prescription drugs at ease. And while I enjoy an adult beverage now and then, I'm leery of its power. But I live passionately. I don't just dream, I work to make my dreams come true and I try to find joy in every day. I live somewhere over the rainbow, if you will. I think Sissy would want it that way.