Burn Out Brightly or “Just Keep Swimming”

The news of Robin William’s tragic death by suicide yesterday has left me reeling. He was a favorite actor and comedian of mine, as he was for countless others. 

This loss hits so close to home for me. My mom’s story is very similar, only her life isn’t ending as abruptly or as brutally. But, it is just as tragic. She too, has suffered for years with severe depression and addiction.  She too, could just never get that damned monkey off her back…always wanting more of her…no matter the cost.

You want to know the hardest part of my journey right now? My mom has no memory left of the path of destruction her abuse of chemicals created. Her world of denial, in which we always dubbed, “Donna World” is now permanent. She is now trapped for good, living in a prison that she helped to create. So each time she so desperately looks at me with those confused eyes and says, “Why am I here? Why can’t I go home?” I have such polarized internal reactions, that sometimes I literally feel physically sick from the intensity of my emotions. 

A part of me wants to scream out at her, “YOU PUT YOURSELF HERE, REMEMBER MOM? YOU FUCKED IT ALL UP, REMEMBER?” (which is cruel irony, since she can’t remember) In those crazy feeling moments, I need to make a conscious deliberate choice of taking a very deep breath, counting to 10, and praying to God for HELP to control myself, so that I don’t actually yell those things out loud.

At the same time, another gentler, forgiving side of me wishes to whisper, “Don’t worry, I will be your memory and eyes. I will guide you to the peace you’ve sought after for so long. I will be your angel.”

Each time I hear of a death of a much loved actor or celebrity from addiction or depression, it feels like a bandage is being savagely ripped off of a healing wound (my grieving heart), leaving it bloody, gaping and rawly exposed once again. That may sound a bit exagerated and dramatic to some. And I suppose it is for those who have never experienced the hell that is the world of addiction and severe depression. 

For most of my life, (since I was about 10 years old) I have suffered on and off with severe depression. I am not talking about the “oh, I feel sad” feeling that leaves the next hour or day. I am talking about the “can’t get out of bed, or face another day of debilitating blackness and sorrow” kind of feeling that persists for days, and sometimes even weeks or months. 

Much of it stemmed from the turmoil I was surrounded by as my mom struggled to stay sober and the helplessness I continually felt as I watched her spin out of control again and again.

As other 13 year olds were thinking about what dress to wear to the dance that weekend, I was busy consoling my dad after mom yet again fell down the long flight of stairs in her drunken stupor, as he clinged to me pleading, “What do I do, Mary?” What do I do? Tell me what to do” I thought at the time that I was supposed to know the answer to that question. When I didn’t give him an answer, I felt even more helpless.

When it got really bad, I remember hiding behind the chairs in the living room as mom and dad fought about her drinking and lack of control. I remember all to well the one and only time that I confronted mom in her rage, begging her to “please stop doing this to us”. She responded by slapping me very hard across my face, leaving it very red and burning. And, like many codependents do, I remember being preoccupied by finding her bottles and pouring out her liquid gold. But I was careful not pour out all of it so that she would know… just enough that she would wonder when she had drank that much of it. Call it tricks of the enabler’s trade.

When I was a teen things got so bleak, so helpless, so dark for me that I locked myself in the bathroom one Saturday night when mom and dad were out for dinner, with a serrated steak knife, a towel, and a bottle of tylenol. People wonder how a person could ever DO something so horrific as cutting themselves. What they don’t understand is that in some odd twisted way, the searing, hot pain of the cut is in some way a relief from the intense overwhelming dark emotional pain going on inside. It numbs the intense pain inside for just a minute, and provides a sort of release, even though it is a deep pain of a different kind. 

I chickened out, thank God, and didn’t take it to far. I listened to my inner voice of truth telling me to stop this destruction, that it will not really solve any of my problems. I still have the scar today that reminds me of my deep deep pain, yes, but it also reminds me of my strength. It reminds me that I have been through so much, but I have made it so far. 

I told my therapist in a session that next week of how low things had gotten, and she, by law had to tell my parents. Opps, I thought, now I really blew it. They would probably freak. My mom’s reaction, even today, after all these many years later, still makes me so angry that It is hard for me to recall. Because she was so enmeshed in her world of denial, mom was angry with me for days and was disgusted that “I could ever do something so disrespectful to myself”. She hardly talked to me for a few days she was so upset about it. I remember feeling so flawed and ruined and misunderstood that it just made my depression worse. I like to think that maybe she was just so scared of how bad things had gotten, but I will never know. We have never spoke of it again after that week. 

Severe depression feels like you are swimming under water. Things start to move more slowly, like in slow motion, and you feel heavy and isolated. You look around at the others next to you through murky lenses, and wish that you didn’t feel so distant, even though they are standing right next to you. You get frustrated both because you don’t have the energy to try to clearly express how you feel, and because no matter what, they just never seem to see you or really “get” you. You are so close, yet so far away, and so stuck.

You look up, and see the sun shining, but you can’t feel it because you are hidden beneath the cloudy blueness. You hope you can reach it some day. You wish you had the energy to reach for it, but you are just so tired and you don’t know how. Now you have stopped swimming, and you don’t know what to do, or where to go, because the pain of keeping up the pace of your swim hurt almost as much as where you are now.

So, you think, maybe it’ll just be better if I just lie down here…it will make it easier for those I love who worry about me and easier for me…because it is just to hard to keep it all going. 

I think for many who struggle with mental illness/and or addiction, the pressure of living the way one is “supposed” to can sometimes become just to much. The race of always staying above the water, and stay in control, becomes suddenly just to exhausting. You start to lose the will to even care.

It takes a tremendous amount of will power, self discipline, emotional, physical, spiritual, and mental strength to fight these battles every day. Many lack one or many of those strengths, for many different reasons. Many, like my mom, are just not cut out for the long haul battle. It takes constant honesty, self-reflection, and commitment to overcome the obstacles these diseases bring. Many can maintain that level of balance and health, through determination, practiced faith, and accountability. But, it takes a lot more understanding and awareness from us and the world. 

And until we get there as a society, there will sadly be more lives who will burn out not so brightly. And we will be left striving to focus on the light that they emanated, instead of the darkness that overtook them. 


3 thoughts on “Burn Out Brightly or “Just Keep Swimming”

  1. Mary so hard to believe and understand the struggle life can
    bring. Yet I just as you can not wrap my head around addiction. I believe it is a personal problem – to pick up the glass or not. I have always been a forgiving person thinking that’s yesterday this is today. You have gone to meetings & therapy I refuse to go I know I should. I beat myself up at times with my son-in-law (a doctor) who lived in sober houses for the last 8 yrs. & past away at 53. He had to have mental issues that made him drink to give up so much. I get up everyday and thank God for giving me another day with my wonderful husband of 50 yrs. without alcohol. I am sorry you have had to live from such a young age with all the turmoil addiction & alcohol brings. Praise The Lord god has given you the strength to rise above and be the beautiful person you are today.

    • Thank you Gail,
      I so appreciate your honesty. I have struggled for years with believing addiction is a disease, & not just a personal moral problem. It is both…and it’s hard for people to accept that. It is a multifaceted problem, & one that requires help in many areas sometimes. But everyone is different…and one size does not fit all, you know?

      AA and Alanon are spiritual programs that help us to navigate through recovery, but it’s not easy. I am inconsistent at it, & avoid the work it takes. I take it one day at a time, make a meeting when I can (it’s been about a year), and try to keep a healthy balance in my life. Some weeks and months I succeed, & some days I don’t (today is a hard day). But I always try the best I can, and fight through it. Sleep, exercise, healthy diet are huge in the fight…as well as a strong faith life etc.

      I thank God for my life every day, and try to focus on the goodness, & the wisdom to always learn from the struggles.

      God bless you in your journey Gail…I pray for you 🙂

  2. You have such a beautiful way with words. I really understand why you enjoy writing. I feel a sense of peace and strength thru your wisdom and courage. I am not sure if another person has not gone thru what we have they would understand. I just pray everyday no one has to walk in our shoes. I also pray for the madness to end for us and how wonderful a day would be without worry and to have a peace within. I know this is God’s plan.

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