Normal

I’ve been making friends. This is something new for me, something I haven’t really done in years. The majority of my long standing friendship are still intact but they all live about 20 minutes away (or a lot further). Not insurmountable by any means, but not always easy to make work either. In the past I had Christine to keep me company, now I sometimes feel like I’m alone on a island.

So I’ve been going out and talking to people. It’s not very comfortable, and I’m not very good at it, but it’s getting easier and I finally know a few locals.

Last Saturday I went out with one of these people to hunt down a Christmas tree and it turned into a full day. We met around 10:30 for breakfast and left to find a U-Cut farm that is still open in the Great Christmas Tree Shortage of 2018. After a couple misses we found one. The old guy running the place informed us it was the only U-cut open for dozens of miles so we got to work.

It was pretty bleak, having been harvested heavily in previous weeks, but after hunting around a bit we found a nice one and murdered it.

The person I was hanging out with decided she wanted to check on another farm her friend worked at just down the road. When we got there it was open and she was incensed, but upon further inspection we found there were only pre-cut trees available. We got some cider and left.

I thought that was it for the day and we’d go our separate ways but she grew up in the area and offered to take me on a tour. We visited an old mining town now owned by a single person who resides in what used to be the local school. We explored a couple abandoned houses, one of them housing a rat as big as a raccoon. Then it was off to a bar I never knew existed and a drive to the top of a mountain.

We drove through country roads, under the canopy of huge trees. In between each unscheduled stop our conversation drifted. She talked about growing up in the area, how different it used to be before the Microsofts and Amazons grew Seattle to the breaking point, forcing up real estate, causing people to move to what had once been rural areas. I learned about her upbringing and her family life.

She told me about the people that have come and gone from her life. I named them strays and included myself in that number.

Her: Yeah, but you’re the normal one.

I was taken aback. Me? The guy who has spent the last several months falling apart? How could I be the normal one?

Me: That’s because you haven’t been around for my breakdowns.

Her: That’s what normal people do. They have breakdowns away from everyone else.

Me: I used to feel normal. I don’t anymore.

Her: All the stuff you’re going through is normal. You’re feeling the same things anyone would who went through the things you’re going through. You’re normal.

I dropped it.

We had a few more stops including hiking a trail in the dark along a ravine before we finally reached a waterfall we couldn’t see because it was pitch black by the time we arrived. She took me to a scarf party and then we found a cover band that wasn’t terrible. Finally it was back to the place we started our day for a nightcap  before parting ways. In the most platonic way possible. Settle down, I’m still on the no dating train.

It was a fun day.

When I got home I thought about what she said, about me being normal.

Wait, that’s a lie. When I got home I had a double Jameson and passed out.

The next morning was when I did my thinking. Normal.

I’ll admit to being a little bit upset by the tag at first, especially because I feel so incredibly abnormal right now. And I am. I’m not the person I was. I never will be again. So in that sense I’m not ‘normal’.

But that’s my normal, or it used to be (and for the love of God don’t you dare think or say ‘you’re finding your new normal’. I hate that one).

Now I’m learning to live in a post-love era. It’s different. It’s awful. It’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. I think back a few years ago when we were broke and times were hard. How awful I thought life was, how difficult. But I always had her. I wish I could find 2011 Ben and shake him, scream at him ‘enjoy every second, you idiot’.

But that reaction and all the feeling and pain and heartache and tears, it’s normal to feel that way when faced with traumatic loss. I think I lost that somewhere. Or just never thought about it. While this is terrible, absolutely horrible, there are countless people who came before me that felt exactly the same way.

There’s something comforting in that. I’m not sure how else to say it. It’s comforting that as lonely as I feel, I’m not alone in my response to grief.

I’m normal.

Musical Interlude – Little Talks, Of Monsters and Men

This song came up on one of my playlists the other day. It isn’t new to me, but it is the first time I’ve heard it since I lost Christine.

It’s a duet sung between a man and a woman. She sings about some trouble she’s having, and he responds with words of comfort:

Her: I don’t like walking around this old and empty house
Him: So hold my hand, I’ll walk with you my dear
Her: The stairs creak as I sleep,
It’s keeping me awake
Him: It’s the house telling you to close your eyes
Her: And some days I can’t even trust myself
Him: It’s killing me to see you this way

I’d always assumed it was about a woman left behind after the death of her loved one, lamenting the loss and loneliness. At some parts in the song they sing together:

You’re gone, gone, gone away,
I watched you disappear
All that’s left is a ghost of you
Now we’re torn, torn, torn apart,
there’s nothing we can do,
Just let me go, we’ll meet again soon

When I listened to it I knew I’d probably end up writing about it because the feelings it stirred in me were intense and raw. The thought of Christine out there, watching me and wanting to comfort me was… I don’t know, because that’s not what I’m writing about today.

In an effort to not come across like an idiot I decided to look up how others interpreted the lyrics. I was taken aback.

Most of the explanations I found were not about a lost loved one. Instead, the majority of people agreed it was a chronicle of a person sinking into mental illness and their lover’s response as he attempted to comfort her.

I’ve listened to it several times since and read the lyrics more. I can still go either way.

But see, that’s the thing. That’s what I’m writing about tonight.

I was struck by the similarities between death and watching someone decline into debilitating mental illness. I’ve been through both.

Kind of.

OK, here’s the contest again. The one about how other people have had it worse. Most days with Christine were good days. I didn’t watch her totally disappear. She was around more often than not. Then there were the episodes.

I hate that word but I don’t know what else to call these events. Episodes.

I’m coming up on the anniversary of the first one. It was New Years 2016-17. I didn’t know at the time it was a beginning. It was so angry. So furious.

And then it kept going. Everything would be fine one minute and then the next things were out of control for days. It usually started with a disagreement. Then she would get upset. She’d change the order of events, or make things up, accusing me of saying things I never said. This would last for days before I could finally talk her down.

It always ended with her collapsing into tears, emotionally and physically exhausted. Then she’d go to bed and wake up herself.

It could be days, weeks or months before it happened again.

So, I still had my wife most of the time, but then this other person would come out.

And the strain of it was eating her alive.

Back to the song. Watching her go through this, watching her struggle everyday, convinced the world was against her… it was like watching something die. Not someone, but something.

I’m struggling here.

The other night when I hung out with the other ‘wids’ one person talked about losing his wife to cancer. He talked about the years of slow decline.

Me: I also watched my wife slowly decline into mental illness.

I’ve thought about that a lot the past few days. Obviously I knew things were not right, but I had no idea (most of the time) of the finality of her struggle, of the outcome.

Feelings and feelings and feelings. They afflict my judgement when trying to think my way through this. And why not? I don’t share her struggle. No matter how hard I try I’ll never understand what was happening to her.

And then I come back to the dark thoughts, the ones that haunt me at night. Why didn’t I do better? If her arm was broken I would have demanded she saw a doctor. Why didn’t I push harder?

I have no answers. I’m so upset I don’t.

God I miss her so much.

This is the most disappointing end to one of my writings I’ve had. Why didn’t I save her? Why not?

There’s one part of the song:

Don’t listen to a word I say
The screams all sound the same

They did. They all sounded the same. I tried to understand it through a logical mind. I tried to fix it. I wanted to save her.

I failed.

Fuck I miss her.

Tilting at Windmills

“When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”

                           ― Cervantes, Don Quixote

My dad hung a lithograph displaying the above quote in our basement bathroom when I was young. I must have read it thousands of times. It’s ingrained in my memory. I come back to it constantly when things seem out of control. I’ve thought of it often the past months.

When I was a boy I didn’t know anything about the source material. It wasn’t until I had to read it in a lit class did I get the reference. Christine and I also attended the musical years later.

The story is about a noble who reads so many chivalrous romance stories he loses his mind and becomes a knight-errant, a hero in the tradition of King Arthur in a world moved on from such ‘antiquated notions’.

In one famous scene he falls under the belief that windmills are in fact giants attacking the countryside and rushes to face them.

Since the book was written the phrase ’tilting at windmills’ has come to mean attacking perceived but imaginary enemies.

I think I do that. I think I have become so ready for something new and painful to come along that my first instinct is often to fly into battle, attack before I can be attacked.

That might be a poor description though, because just as often I flee. Flee from feelings. I also tend to take an imaginary issue and find my way to the worst possible outcome and assume life will become what I’ve just dreamed up.

Overthinking. Fantasizing. Imagining. Expecting. Worrying. Doubting. This is how I tilt at windmills.

Back to the quote at the top of the page. It’s been on repeat in my head for months, especially the last bit.

‘And the maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!’

This is the moment when Don Quixote realizes his madness, when he realizes he’s been fighting the imaginary. It’s poignant prose.

As he’s recovering, as he’s raising himself from the depths of mental illness, his conclusion is that life, by its very structure, is mad. It doesn’t make sense.

And that’s it, isn’t it? It’s why we wonder, it’s why we think to ourselves ‘How can this be happening?’.

How the fuck can my wife have killed herself?

She should be at work as I write this, finishing lunch, thinking about our evening plans, stressing about her holiday party coming together. But she’s not. She’s dead.

It doesn’t make sense. None of this makes sense.

And there, in essence, is my windmill. Trying to find reason, logic, anything that will bring me some type of understanding of how she could do this.

The answer is simple, of course. It doesn’t make sense. Not to me. It never will. I don’t know what it’s like to be in a place so bleak you see no escape. To be unable to recognize how loved you are, how incredibly important you are to so many people and how much you’ll be missed when you’re gone.

It doesn’t make sense.

And so I tilt.