Mental Illnesses are Real: Coping with Loss

By Chelsea Irvine

My friends amaze me.  This week, I’ve seen new friends and friends I’ve had for years pour their hearts out to perfect strangers about their battles with inner demons.  Depression.  Anxiety. Thoughts of hopelessness plaguing their days.  To share your deepest inner struggles in the hopes of helping someone you may never know you helped is the most selfless sacrifice a person can make.  I am so proud of my fellow girls on the grid for being so brave.

I’m not brave.

Make no mistake; I would never claim to be.

I’m the person who takes those inner demons, bottles them up and puts them in the bottom of the closet where even the most apt sleuth couldn’t find them.

But my friends are right.  Maybe if I speak up just for a moment, there will be that one person struggling like I do that will see the light at the end of the tunnel.

So here goes.

When I was 23, my dad was diagnosed with Esophageal Cancer.  They gave him six months to a year.  We got barely four months.  I quit my job to care for him.  He went from the healthy, boisterous, loving teddy bear I’d always loved as my best friend to my dad, the man who couldn’t walk down the stairs and needed help walking to the restroom and the shower.  His mind was there and he would still talk with me for hours about global politics, life lessons and why I really shouldn’t watch my stupid television shows (but dad, America’s Next Top Model teaches me important life lessons, like how to smeyes!), but his body just couldn’t do what it used to.  His cancer had spread so far when he was first diagnosed that chemo and surgery wouldn’t have done much good, so we did natural therapy of juicing, vitamins and enemas.  Who would have thought, at 23, I’d be spending my afternoons helping my dad administer coffee enemas, when I should be at Dollar Corona Day at Shakers?  (Yes, I said Shakers. #citrusheightsforlife)

On April 30th, 2006, we said goodbye.

And I sank.

I can’t explain in words how sad I was.

Nothing helped.  Not friends, not family, not cocktails, not sleep (as if I could actually sleep).  Nothing.  I’d sit at home, aimlessly looking at my emails that I didn’t care about.  Checking MySpace to see what people who were still able to have fun were doing.

I took a lot out on my mom and my brother.  Why couldn’t they have done more?  Why was I the one to quit my job and do all the shitty things, like throwing out the bowls of food my dad could no longer keep down?  To say I was angry with them would be the understatement of the century.  I could hardly speak to my brother.  Of course, my mom and brother were reeling too; but in my mind, I was the only one with the right to be sad.  Forget about the fact that my mom was married to my dad for nearly 40 years and had never known a life without him by her side.

So I spent a couple weeks in San Diego visiting my best friend.  I took trips to Las Vegas and Miami and Los Angeles and spent a month traveling Europe with one of my best friends.

And I came back and was still sad.  Sure, I was happy when I was gone, but then I’d come home to the home where my dad wasn’t there to welcome me back and hear about how much fun I had and have a glass of wine outside at sunset with.  I no longer had my buddy to talk politics with and listen to Noam Chomsky’s monotone voice talk the ills of the Iraq war with.  My favorite person to hold “No Iraq War” signs and get blacklisted at protests with was gone.  And not coming back.  What was the point?

I struggled with this for years.  I met a great boyfriend; he wasn’t a talker and it was perfect.  I kept my feelings inside and let them grow without acknowledgement while I had fun times wakeboarding and going out with friends, and ignoring my mom and my brother.

But I still cried myself to sleep and felt hopeless much of the time.  I saw a psychologist a friend recommended, and it helped.  But I saw her twice.  And never went back.  And didn’t do anything she said I should.   So I was happy on the outside and reeling on the inside.  Still.  For years.

And then one day, after one too many (or maybe just enough?) glasses of wine, I told someone I was sad, and why.  And it turned out they had lost a parent too.  And they were still reeling.  And it had been years.  And suddenly I wasn’t alone.  And talking helped.

Now I can (usually) tell people what happened and not immediately break down.  Now it’s the remembering and the talking about him that makes me feel better.  And I don’t feel so lost.  And I realize my mom and my brother have a right to be sad and I should be there for them, too.

Yes, it’s been eight years and I still feel like I shouldn’t get sad on his birthday, on Father’s Day, on holidays, on random days when I wish with all my heart I could just talk to him.  But I am, and it’s ok.  And many times when I let someone in and tell them what I never used to talk about, it turns out they know exactly how I feel because they’ve also lost someone special.  And I listen with intent while they talk about their memories and how much they still long for one more big hug from that person.   And we both feel a little better.

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