Last December, I attended a neighborhood Christmas party. I wasn’t really sure I wanted to go because Christmas was hard for me this year. Dude loved Christmas and not having him around to help celebrate his favorite holiday was tough. I felt this constant dull ache throughout the season. I sucked it up and went to the party because it wasn’t too far from home, so I figured if I felt overwhelmed with grief, I could just leave and be home shortly after to be the mess that I needed to be.
The party turned out to be so much fun that I hope it happens again next year! I saw people I hadn’t seen since high school or elementary school even! That’s a long time – at least 13 years. “The kids” all sat a little off to the side with wine in hand (that probably helped me feel better ;-) ), and caught up a bit. The general consensus among the group was that 2012 was a difficult year. I could hear my mom blurt out to the people she was talking to, “Jessica has had the worst year of her life!” That is an entirely true statement, but I tried to play it a little cool among the group and just said that it was a tough year and I was adjusting. My goal was to make it through the party without divulging the details of exactly why it was a tough year (however, as loud as my mom was talking everyone could probably hear anyway!). I was using this as practice for when I am in new social situations and meeting new people and do not want to pour my heart out all over the place.
I tried and tried not to discuss the horrific moments of the year, but it became tougher and tougher. I felt this tug on my heart to share. I fought this internal battle with myself and then just decided when the group had dwindled down to just three people, I would spill the beans. Don't ask how I came to the conclusion that only 3 people would be a comfortable setting. I went on to explain that my very best friend had been diagnosed as bi-polar and took his own life in April. I feared the looks that I would get, but there, I said it. It was out in the open and there was no taking it back. Much to my surprise, Joe piped up with, “Hey, I am not being completely honest. My mom suffers from bi-polar disorder and I was just diagnosed a month ago.” I so appreciated this admission and knew at that moment that the tug on my heart was from God. That I was, in some way, supposed to help.
The first thing that came out of my mouth was “Keep going. Please keep going. I know it is a tough battle, but you are equipped to fight it.” I wanted to be as encouraging and empathetic as I could. It didn’t work for Dude, but it might work for Joe. Joe and I decided we would exchange numbers and look to meet up in the near future to just hang out and maybe seek to better understand each other’s perspectives.
I have to admit I had a blast at the party and knew I was there for a reason, but I went home and cried. Sometimes I get so angry when I meet people who have been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and live a normal life. Why is it that they can survive and Dude could not? It just seems so unfair. Life is not fair, though. To put it in more perspective, I like to think that depression is similar to cancer. Some people are diagnosed at Stage 1 and beat it. Others are diagnosed at Stage 4 and don’t stand a chance without a miracle. Knowing Dude as well I as I knew him, I would say he was diagnosed at Stage 4 (looking back there were signs from way back that I didn’t know how to identify, but I can’t beat myself up for that). Joe was fortunately diagnosed early enough and God sent me to be an encouragement to him. It is not about me and my loss. It is about what God wants to do through me.
After exchanging many text messages and having to cancel a number of times, we finally met up this week. On one side of the table sat a woman who lost someone she loved so deeply to an illness that the man on the other side of the table lived with on a daily basis.
I never had the opportunity to discuss Dude’s illness with him. We “lived” it. No, we did not live together, but we had daily conversations and I could “see” the pain and transformation occurring. In all of the hours we talked, we never specifically carved out time to discuss the actual illness and how it was affecting him. Maybe it is because we didn’t have to. We both knew it was severely affecting him and spent our breath only on what we considered the most important words – words of encouragement, words of affirmation, of love and support (riddled with many inside jokes) –on both sides – his and mine.
My coffee date with Joe was an opportunity to understand.
To understand that even though Joe was only diagnosed months ago, he reflects back that maybe this illness inhabited his body nearly 20 years ago. As he says, the seeds were planted long ago.
To understand why it is difficult for him to work at a 9 to 5 professional job right now.
To understand what it is like to live with this illness.
To understand that he is able to identify the triggers of what will send him into a “perfect storm of overwhelming circumstances”. These words he used are the exact same words echoed by Dude’s psychologist. This “perfect storm” is what led to the tragic outcome.
To understand that mental illness does have a stigma attached, but that Joe is open about his illness because it is hard to keep a secret and it is now a part of who he is.
To understand that Joe has accepted his illness and will do what he has to keep the triggers at bay so that he can live a normal life.
The coffee date was also an opportunity for me to encourage Joe.
To affirm him in being open about his illness.
To encourage him in the direction of being a peer mentor for others who suffer from the same illness.
To express the importance of understanding the illness, the triggers, and following the prescribed treatment.
To touch on the devastation and havoc that is now present in the lives of those of us closest to Dude. If only he had listened to people like Joe….
I was/am so proud of Joe. He is doing the things that Dude could not do. I will never understand why Dude could not or did not want to do them. Dude did not want anyone except those closest to him to know of his suffering yet his final act broadcasted it to the world. Joe’s approach is productive and positive. While it is not an easy road to travel, he has willingly accepted the journey. This will do wonders for him.
I look forward to meeting with Joe again in the near future to further understand the view from the other side of the table, to give him a little bit of my perspective and a lot of encouragement. And, to just hang out with him and his girlfriend because he is fun!
I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I wished the man sitting across from me was Dude…
But it’s not about me and my loss. It is about what God wants to do through me.