I Let Depression Tarnish the Last Months I Had With My Husband

Confessions of a guilty widow

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

If I confess my deepest darkest regret, will you think less of me? Will the colorful image you had of my character fade to gray?

I guess I really can’t be concerned with such matters. The need to be authentic compels me to admit:

During the last months of my husband’s life, I was a wretched wife.

When your spouse is diagnosed with cancer, a halo is promptly bestowed upon your head. People behold the aura of an angel, a selfless guardian.

The moment your beloved dies, you are bequeathed sainthood. No canonization investigation required — you’re decreed a living martyr.

I wasn’t worthy of either title.

For years, I was able to pull it off

From that fateful day in 2001 when his leukemia was detected and throughout the stem cell transplant in 2003, I was my husband’s fierce warrior — his faithful companion.

I eagerly attended every doctor’s appointment. During the transplant, I sat by his hospital bed with my notebook of lab results, daily stats, and Q&As for the attendings. I kept track of how many ounces he drank — and expelled. I’d help him shower if he had the energy to take one and especially when he didn’t.

For eight weeks, I monitored and worried. His steadfast sentry, nothing was going to be missed on my watch.

The 45-minute drive home each night was my time to cry — that is, if I could allow myself the release. Gasping sobs would have to wait. One can only shed so many tears when navigating a freeway.

Our two young sons, ages eight and ten, would greet me at the door, anxious for news about when their Daddy — their hero — might come home. I never had the heart to tell them the odds were he wouldn’t.

Once he was released from the hospital, the location had changed, but the vigil continued. He was in lockdown for 100 days while his immunities were rebuilding. Every morsel of food and drink was strictly controlled to prevent contamination. I flushed his Hickman twice daily so we wouldn’t need to hire a nurse.

My husband’s only excursions were visits to the doctor, where I diligently came prepared with my ever-expanding notebook. I reported on his progress and tattled on him when he “misbehaved.”

Part scolding, part admiration, the three of us would laugh and cry, smile and cringe about the pace of his recovery.

Throughout it all, he would hold my hand and thank me. Silently sing my praises with a sly smile. I would soak it all in — letting his pride in me briefly douse the dread simmering in my soul.

I was a triumphant wife.

Reality settles in

We soon learned the harsh reality of “surviving” a stem cell transplant. Remission does not equal well. It only means cancer-free.

When they bring you to the precipice of death, there are going to be consequences.

My husband was in a ceaseless war. His immune system had been overthrown by the transplant and it wasn’t going to give up without a fight. Every skirmish left a little more devastation in its wake. His body was the battered battleground.

As he bravely soldiered on, I slowly withdrew. I continued the day-to-day activities of being a wife and mother, but I retreated from us — from him.

I was a fraudulent wife.

I was repulsed not by him, but by the disease slowly taking him away from me.

Every ailment withered his physique, but strengthened his resolve. The more he suffered without complaint, the more I wanted to scream about the injustice of his illness. I seethed with selfish anger and writhed in empathetic pain.

The two of us continued on in a stoic hush, not wanting the world — or each other — to realize just how fragile we were.

Not comprehending that isolating our feelings would soon isolate us from each other.

I could handle much of it: the perpetual sores on his feet that he spent 30 minutes each morning dressing, the near loss of his vision requiring contacts only available across the country, and the limp that took stole his weekly game of basketball.

It was the rest that made me go AWOL

First, it was his drastic drop in weight. I used to joke I didn’t marry a man who was thinner than me, playing on his ego to try and get him to eat. But that was only the truth floating on the surface. From the center of my being, I ached for his strong, muscular arms that would make me feel safe and protected.

Each pound he lost tolled how precarious our life had become. He finally stopped telling me his weight. I would never ask again.

Doubly desolating was the siege of his mouth. Dry and full of sores, he couldn’t muster enough saliva to eat normal food nor tolerate any sort of spice. Nearly every meal I could make caused him pain. When he stopped joining us for dinner, I gave up on cooking.

No amount of breath mints could disguise the scent and flavor of sickness inhabiting his mouth. The mouth that gave me my first kiss. The one I used to spend hours savoring was now sour — a distasteful reminder of a life being vanquished. Our affection became relegated to pecks on the cheek.

He developed a form of scleroderma. The condition marched across his skin, laying the foundations for its eventual sarcophagus. Disfiguring and immobilizing everywhere it advanced, we knew it was only a matter of time before it hit below the belt.

I was a neglectful wife

Each night, my husband would retreat to our bedroom soon after dinner. A full day’s work for him was exhausting. After the kids were put to bed, he’d ask me to join him. Sometimes for intimacy, mostly for simple companionship.

To my profound regret, more and more often, I’d come up with a reason to decline his request.

From “I’ve got a headache,” to “There are bills to pay,” to “My favorite TV show is on,” I guiltily spouted them all. Dejected, he eventually stopped asking.

My love for him never wavered, but truth be told, I was resentful, morose, and a sad excuse for a wife. I fumed that every waking moment was dictated by his disease. Embittered that our children didn’t remember life with him well.

I was despondent over being robbed of our happily ever after, even as I was robbing him of the closeness he needed — and deserved.

I was in mourning before he was dead.

It never occurred to me I was suffering from depression.

The other shoe drops

For seven years, the WHEN? shadowed us during the day and loomed in our dreams at night. We tried to pretend it wasn’t there, but it haunted us all the same.

His death brought forth a cavalcade of emotions: Shock, sorrow, and deep-seated anguish that left me hollow. It also brought relief. Relief that he wouldn’t have to endure another minute of suffering. Relief that cancer no longer ruled our lives.

Relief that I didn’t have to take care of him anymore.

Then the guilt would wash over me like Bactine. I would sting mightily with shame and then go numb.

I was a grieving widow.

Clarity comes in the aftermath

It’s been 12 years since he’s been gone. A dozen years living with this secret disgrace.

I’ve chastised myself a thousand times for falling short. Remorse still prowls my cheerful memories, waiting to pounce and condemn.

Only recently have I acknowledged I was depressed. The years of “being strong” had left me weak. There were only so many hours in the day I could keep a smile on my face. I was also suffering from an autoimmune disorder that sucked dry any reserves I may have had.

Desperately working with my meager coping skills and failing miserably, I simply thought this was par for the course when confronted with cancer. Too dumbfounded to recognize that I needed — we both needed — help.

I was doing my best, but I know it must have hurt him deeply. If I could change one thing, I would have swallowed my pride and reached out to someone.

Maybe then, I could have settled into his embrace each and every night of those last months. Let him kiss me like he did our first time under the mistletoe.

Remind him — remind me — that our love could soothe all wounds.


Cancer caregivers experience depression at more than double the rate of patients

The American Society of Clinical Oncology reports that up to 59% of cancer patient caregivers experience some sort of depression, compared to up to 25% for patients. Continual, untreated caregiver burden can negatively impact the health of the caregiver as well as the patient.

If you are a cancer patient caregiver and feeling overwhelmed, please don’t keep it to yourself.

Most cancer centers will have an oncology social worker on staff that can direct you to nearby resources. Seek out support groups where you can express your anxiety in a safe space. Check out the National Cancer Institute’s Caring for the Caregiver.

Getting assistance will only help you — and your loved one.


This piece was originally published as an P.S. I Love You Editor’s pick on Medium.com

How Do You Confront an Identity Crisis During a Pandemic?

2020 has prompted me to question everything.

Image by klimkin from Pixabay

No death, no doom, no anguish can arouse the surpassing despair which flows from a loss of identity.
― H.P. Lovecraft

To my family, friends, and acquaintances: please read the following at face value. It is not a cry for help, a play for sympathy, or a prompt to initiate bringing me back into the fold. It simply is a reflection upon the uncertainties I, along with many others, are feeling at this time.

Truth be told, I have been feeling tenuous for a while now. Many of the ideologies I have woven into my identity have become threadbare. The events of 2020 have prompted me to take stock of my mental wardrobe: Are my convictions valuable or vintage? Can they continue to spark joy or do they provoke dismay? Do they fit me any more?

The modern definition of identity was proposed by Erik Erikson as his fifth stage of psychosocial development. While our primary personality is established during adolescence, he postulated that our sense of self develops throughout our entire lifespan. Our “ego identity,” according to Erikson, is constantly being shaped by our interactions and experiences with others. A challenge to your ego identity can occur at any time, most likely when one experiences a major life stressor such as losing a loved one, loss of employment, confronting health issues, or experiencing a traumatic event such as — I don’t know — a global pandemic.

Developmental psychologist James Marcia further elaborated on Erikson’s theory. He proposed identity is based on the exploration of a variety of life domains including intimate relationships, religion, politics, and occupation. The status of your identity is either in crisis — “a time of upheaval where old values or choices are being reexamined” — or committed to a role within these domains.

Fear of commitment

Welcome to my 2020. Or should I say, 5150? Except my current detention is looking more like 72 weeks instead of hours — perhaps even longer.

Full disclosure: This is not my first identity crisis rodeo. That occurred a dozen years ago when I became a widow. I envision identity like a lasso — twisted of multiple strands and used to secure yourself to someone or some ideal. When I lost my role as a wife, I clung to the other fibers of my life for strength. I was able to keep the rope somewhat intact until recent events have caused it to further unravel.

The first thread to break loose was with my church. Don’t misunderstand me, my core faith is as strong as ever, if not stronger. It’s just the man-made constructs that have disappointed me. When I was initially widowed, there were the standard outpourings of support and they were much appreciated. But once the dust settled, things took a turn. Slowly, steadily, (and I’m sure unintentionally) I was isolated. No longer included in couples’ events, I was relegated to coffee meetups and the occasional ladies’ lunch. Dinner party invites became nonexistent. I looked into the widows’ support group, but at 44, I was significantly younger than the rest of the members. There was no place I felt I belonged — or noticed for that matter. I would sit in the pew by myself, missing my husband more than ever. Feeling lonelier each time, I eventually stopped attending.

The next thread tattered by disillusion was my political affiliation. A lifelong Republican and Californian, I will never forget the feeling of being 18, newly registered, and attending a local Ronald Reagan reelection rally. I was thrilled to see a sitting president in person and proud to cast my first presidential vote for a man I felt possessed honor and character.

I wish I could generate anywhere near the same feeling of admiration for our current candidate. When did buddying up with our adversaries become a GOP construct? Putting policies aside, I wish my president to be a person of integrity. I continued to be baffled by how many Christian leaders (and friends) can support him as a man of God. They somehow excuse or refuse to acknowledge his consistent name-calling and slander of opponents, mocking of the disabled and women, and utter lack of humility. This list can go on and on, but suffice it to say, I feel like I’m in an alternate universe where right is wrong and up is down.

So now I’m left, or rather, was left, with my occupation. I had finally settled into my dream career: travel event planning. COVID-19 not only unraveled that thread, it chopped it with an ax and seared the ends. I’m a 56-year-old woman with a convoluted resume looking to reinvent my career yet again. California has more than 2.5 million unemployed workers. How do you like those odds?

Compounding matters, I suffer from an autoimmune disorder that has flared and left me at limited capacity these past few months. I’m not sure if it’s safe for me to return to work, let alone be physically up for it. As an added bonus, my current medication has caused me to gain 20 pounds and completely altered my appearance. Not only do I not feel like myself, but I don’t even recognize the woman in the mirror.

Temporary Restraining Order or Stay of Execution?

Marcia would most likely conclude I am residing in the moratorium identity status: in the midst of a crisis but seeking alternative identities. Working through the explorations leads to a commitment or “identity achievement.” Major life events — such as the death of a spouse — can create instability which triggers a MAMA cycle: moratorium-achievement-moratorium-achievement. I went through such cycles when I lost my husband, working through the identities of the widow, single mother, and middle-aged single woman.

Healthy adults will go through many MAMA cycles in their lifetime. It’s the natural progression of aging and growth. Some may term these events as reaching a “new normal” or acceptance of whatever stressor has been thrown in their way. Here’s the thing: most will encounter one upheaval at a time. What’s one to do, as in my case (and I’m sure many others) when you doubt multiple affiliations (religion, politics) and experience more than one loss (occupation, health) simultaneously? When a global crisis has disrupted society so much you’re constantly on guard, wondering what tomorrow’s shit show will be.

Do we hide, locking the world away? Do we appeal to God or fate to give us more time to sort this all out and/or complete our penance? Is there a remedy for this dilemma? Or vaccine to prevent it from happening again?

At the end of my rope, but not alone

I may be feeling unstable, but I’m not the only one. 2020 has taken its toll on everyone. A recent government survey reported 41% of U.S. respondents felt symptoms of anxiety and depression, compared to just 11% in 2019. As the year drags on, uncertainty continues to litter our collective psyche. We try to discard it, but our dumpsters are overflowing.

In a Popular Science article discussing mental health and the pandemic, Dr. Mary Alvord, a psychologist in Rockville, Maryland, states:

Humans look to have a known universe. That is how we keep ourselves safe,” he says. “It’s frightening to feel out of control. Sadness, hopelessness, fear — those will wear you down.

I honestly don’t know if these statistics make me feel better or worse.

What I do know is a few strands of my rope have remained intact and will be no matter what my revised identity turns out to be: My two sons, who not only support but motivate me to keep it together. My parents and siblings, who continually encourage and assist in any way they can. And my posse — my closest friends — who are always available to provide a listening ear, words of wisdom, and a glass(who am I kidding — a bottle) of wine when needed. These are my lifelines.

Eventually, with some introspection, exploration, and a little luck, I’ll channel my inner Wonder Woman and reconstruct the lasso of my truth. Surprisingly, I have found a gentleman who doesn’t view me as frayed and fragile, but as a woman of substance and strength. He wants to join me on the journey to discover a more suitable church to grow our faith. From now on, I’ll let my conscience — not my political party — be my guide when voting. As for health and occupation, I will keep praying and hoping that good news is just around the corner.

It has to be, doesn’t it?

Perceptions

My roles define the façade you see
I conform to your reality
Never unveiling my complete identity

The Woman in the Moon Face

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Image by Mona El Falaky from Pixabay

A pericarditis poem

Palpitations reverberate her ribs
Tremble. Thump. Squeeze. Tremble. Squeeze.
Staccato rhythms ricochet to her skull
Throbbing. Pulsating.
She awakens

Brain awash in a celestial haze
she levitates with caution
drifting to the vanity mirror
“Good Morning,” she sighs
to the Woman in the Moon Face

Half a year since the voyage began
Launched into orbit by an autoimmune flare
She tried to abort the mission
but there is no dousing
the combustion of chronic illness

Disease incarcerates her heart
Unrelenting gravity constricts her core
Shallow breaths through concrete
Each gasp measured
to preserve oxygen

Countenance circumnavigated by treatment
Her once lean expression
now eclipsed
Medications store plump reserves of blubber
encapsulating like a spacesuit

The image on her home screen taunts
A brighter, joyful time
Two years earlier
thin, carefree, euphoric
flanked by her sons beneath the Grecian sun

Averse to comprehend
this alien reflection
Reluctant to accept
the morphed figure as her own
The morning’s trek has made her weary

She retreats to her bed chamber
and dreams of normalcy