This post isn't going to talk about running but I hope you'll stick around anyways. I've heard and been asked all kinds of things since Mark died. The two most common are:
"How can you (insert task here)?" And then follow it up with:
"If I were you I would be (insert commonly assumed coping mechanism)."
First, there is no right way to grieve. There is no calendar. There are no milestones to meet or boxes to check off. Don't even get me started on the stages. I honestly don't care about stages or phases or cycles. They don't matter to the grieving person but they do seem to provide a straw for family and friends to grasp at.
People will say that they can't imagine how hard it must be, or what they would do if it happened to them. And they are correct. But that does not seem to stop people from suggesting/telling/expecting/assuming how you are feeling, how "healed" you should be, and when you should be "over it." With that in mind, I think it is time to let you in on something: my experience living with mental illness.
I never planned to talk about on this blog. Why have I chosen not to talk about it until now? Because I'm not obligated to share that with anyone I don't want to. Because I worry about how such disclosures will impact my current and future employment. Because I don't want to embarass my family. Because the stigma around mental illness is real and I am in no place to pick up that flag and fight yet. I have lived with depression and anxiety since I was a teenager. Over the course of the past twenty years (oh Lord, has it been that long?), I've learned quite a bit about therapy, psychopharmacology, coping skills (good and bad), and basic human survival.
Ok, that's all well and good Pam but what does this have to do with grief? I'm getting there. I never thought I'd get to a place in life where I could say that I appreciate having a mental illness (notice I did not said that I was glad I have it). Surprisingly to me, my experience with depression and anxiety has prepared me for enduring grief. This is not to say that grieving has been a cake walk. Far from it. However, the darkest hours of my mental illness helped me differentiate between healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms. I learned to know when it was bad enough to ask for help and then actually ask for it. My support system had their trial by fire already so I knew exactly who I could turn to. I also had a fairly decent idea of how resilient I was and proof of it to point to.
By no means am I saying that I was ready to face a life after death. I don't see how anyone could be unless you've done it before (I have not). What I am saying is that I was able to get into the driver's seat, rather than the passenger's. I knew that Mark's death had the potential to take my own life. Full disclosure, right there. But my life shaped by mental illness meant that I knew what steps to take to prevent that from happening. Schedule emergency appointment with psychiatrist? Check. Secure two months of EAP-sponsored grief counseling? Check. Find a support group for young widows? Check. Encourage friends to reach out to me and make myself reach out to them? Check.
Was any of that easy? Fuck no. Did I want to stop going into the office, live in my pajamas, force-cuddle the cat and walk around our house weeping? Hell yes. But that is not what Mark would want. He took such good care of me during our time together. He knew what living with mental illness looked like, intimately. My failure to do everything possible to take care of myself would be slap in the face to him, our life, and how much we meant to and loved each other. Relying on what I know about myself and using that information to honor Mark is how I get out of bed, go to work, eat healthy food, and run regularly. It never felt like a conscious choice. Or that I had a choice at all. It just happened.
There are two things that do not exist in life after death: Normal and New Life. Normal also does not exist in life with mental illness, so at least I have that in common. As far as my new life goes, there is before and after. There is no new. I don't make plans more than a day or two in advance. I have no interest in thinking about where I'll be 3, 6, or 9 months from now. That is an unproductive thing to do both with mental illness and with grief because those thoughts can overwhelm you before you know it. Feeling overwhelmed when you are already vulnerable is a recipe for disaster. Knowing that, owning that, and doing something with that knowledge is critical. As much as a minute, hour, or day with mental illness or grief can be intolerable, it is survivable. When thriving isn't an option, you focus on surviving. If nothing else, I've got that part down.