Keep calm and carry on

I’ve been struggling with how to write about this for over a week. I jot down notes or in some cases I’ve written what looks like a near complete blog post before sending it all to the virtual recycling bin. Something just hasn’t felt right about any of it and I think it’s in part because I’ve been trying to put a pair of rose colored glasses on past memories which isn’t particularly helpful when trying to be straight shooting and honest about an experience.

I found out two weeks ago that a man I dated in the summer of 2014 committed suicide a few years later. He wasn’t even 40 years old. The means by which I found out about this are bizarre to say the very least and perhaps I will write about how this information came to me at another point down the line. For now, I will say that the news about Tom reached me by way of Europe, which was inexplicable since our only connection to one another was from that summer we dated here in the US.

One of the things that I’ve been struggling to talk about is, in part, about who Tom was as a person. Keep in mind, I knew him 4 years ago and only for 11 or so weeks. But he has been one of those dating stories that has stuck with me as what I thought until now was a light hearted lesson on being more choosy in the online dating merry-go-round. As I remember more about him though, there’s been this real sense of unease that’s been manifesting itself as avoidance in my day-to-day life:  avoiding writing in my journal, smoking too much weed, thinking about day drinking (and in the end not doing it so cheers to me for that), and binge watching episodes of British period dramas on Amazon Prime, all in what I think has been an effort not to confront scary memories about the severity of his mental illness and how it made me feel at the time we were together. Also, this unsettling realization keeps forcing its way into my thoughts which is that Tom was an extreme example of a certain kind of man I’ve dated over the years who have all been on various points of a continuum of emotional need.

The memories I have of Tom are strong but they are not necessarily what I would recollect as happy. To be honest, I didn’t even clock that until I heard about his suicide and my mind started to spin back to 2014. As I mentioned, I had sort of constructed this funny, sardonic narrative around this brief relationship as a coping mechanism to talk about a period in my life that was actually a bit grim, unsettling and at times, scary. I do that a lot, particularly when I’m writing for an audience which I was on this blog back then. I brushed by the fling with Tom as a bullet I had dodged, making light of my experience with him as a means to calm myself down and shake off the feeling of disquiet that had draped over our summer together like a damp wool blanket.

Tom was a man living openly with a mental illness which he was honest with me about from nearly our first date. Having struggled with depression my entire life too I saw this as brave and courageous, him being so up front about his own grappling with severe depression and bipolar disorder. Tom was polite, sharply intelligent with beautiful blue eyes. And most important for me he was funny: self deprecating and deadpan, though his humor often had a subtle but hard edge that in hindsight confused me though I couldn’t put my finger why. As I got to know him more he opened up and shared in what felt like huge tidal waves of personal information in very short periods of time – namely, that he had been abused, badly and unimaginably as a child by members of an institution he should have been able to trust. I listened to these things wanting to be supportive but this was all new territory for me; I had never dated anyone in his position, nor have I experienced these things myself. Even as a former clinical social worker, it was hard to for me to understand what his barometer for normalcy was and where my own boundaries around empathy and care-taking (which I struggle to keep in check in even the best of circumstances) were supposed to land. I think I just accepted that severe depression and mental illness were a consequence that he now had to manage and as someone he was dating, I should be supportive and help him negotiate too. Jointly maintaining his mental health quickly eclipsed everything else in our relationship…and we had only been dating for a few weeks.

I keep having these flashbacks to that summer that come through almost as blurry after-images of conversations we had, or things we did together, and feel more like raw emotional memories instead of tangible, concrete visions. I remember at various times during that brief relationship having feelings of anxiety, trepidation, uncertainty, fear, guilt, and above all, a growing compulsion to run away from the situation because I felt like I wasn’t able to have my own challenges and problems since they were seemingly insignificant compared to his. Tom carried around this palpable mist of sadness, anger, detachment, and overall fragility like Pig Pen from Peanuts carries around that soft cloud of dust everywhere he goes. Everything vibrated on this very sad and anxious level that just wasn’t sustainable and in the end, I realized that there wasn’t enough emotional space for both of us to occupy in this relationship.

You have to put on your own oxygen mask before you can help others. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

There are other things I keep ruminating on. The first being that I felt no sense of surprise or shock hearing the news that he had taken his own life, just incredible sadness for his family and a sinking feeling in my chest to realize that he felt as if he had no other way out. I feel guilty about that, even though I know that there is no one-script-fits-all response for this kind of situation. But even though there’s no protocol for mourning or processing the death of someone that you used to know, there are still feelings there, right? So where in your heart do you catalogue that peculiar and very particular kind of grief?

The other bundle of thoughts that has been weaving anxiously in and out of my mind for the past week are the memories of how I felt or the things that were going on in my life that summer way back in 2014. That was the summer I went to something like six weddings and was in four of them. My best friend from elementary school got married. My cousin got married. I stood for a friend as she walked down the aisle for the second time in her life. There was another wedding for my oldest friend, and yet another for a friend from my Malawi days.

I would not characterize it in this way now but at the time I thought this was the worst fucking summer of my life. I was a train wreck. I was in a job I despised and working for a woman who was mean-spirited and controlling; I was partying a lot, doing way too many drugs and drinking every weekend; I was angry about not making enough money, angry about being single, angry that I lived alone in a decrepit studio apartment in Oakland. I was, if you haven’t picked up on this by now, depressed. And not surprisingly, my dating life was reflective of this:  disappointing, unsatisfying, and lined with this think film of anger and hopelessness that I really believed was something that was happening to me versus the result of the kind of life I was permitting myself to believe was ok.

Tom came into my life during this time, after a string of other men who were not so great for me but who I had allowed to take up occupancy in my emotional and psychic warehouse. I felt needy and unwanted and like emotional black magic that is exactly the kind of person I attracted to myself during those dark days. Thinking about it now, years later, it feels disconnected and surreal, like I’m looking at myself through the glass walls of a giant aquarium. What I see is a 34 year old me who feels like she is in control of nothing in her life, who believes that the unhappiness she is experiencing is just the way things are and will have to be, that the hand she’s been dealt is pretty shitty but there’s nothing to be done but to suffer through it. It’s like I recognize her but I can’t see her face. I hear her but I can’t understand the words. I watch her and want to tell her that it’s still possible to change her life, but also that it will not happen until she is willing to sink all the way down to the bottom of the dark blue sea in order to find the footing in the sand she needs to kick back hard up to the surface where there is light, fresh air, and relief.

The last time I had any contact with Tom was when I received a FedEx box at my apartment several weeks after we broke up. It was filled with some things I had left at this place – a pair of sunglasses, a bathing suit, sunscreen – as well as a sun hat and some other items that clearly belonged to another woman. On the label, my first name had been misspelled, and my last name was someone else’s surname entirely. My initial reaction was self-pity and anger, like ‘wow, I spent almost three months with a man who didn’t even know my name’. Over time though and certainly now with the news of his suicide, it just makes me sad and reiterates the sense I had while we were together that there was not enough space for both of us in that relationship. He was doing the best with what he had.

It is unsettling and sad to me that some of the personal perspectives I’ve drawn over the past couple of weeks came at the cost of learning someone took their own life. I am sad for his family and his friends. I am sad for him. And I also have this complicated sense of relief and gratitude for the fact that I am not where I was in 2014. Life can be hard and demoralizing and scary and sometimes it is fleeting, but it is brilliant and it is precious. Make it count.

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