Discovering myself

After my wife died, I fell into a very deep, very dark hole of grief and depression. I was so consumed with loss, guilt, pain… I couldn’t function at anything more than a very basic level. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t work. All I wanted was not to be here, to put an end to the unendurable pain of being without her. I planned my suicide down to the last detail.

But I had always been the responsible one. The money earner, the bill payer, the organiser, the logical thinker, the left side of our mutual brain.  She was the carer, the intuitive one, the fun one, the people person, the dreamer. In so many ways we were one person. Together, we were capable of anything. Without her, I was lost.

But the responsibilities of taking care of our cats, our house, all the admin of settling her estate, meant that I couldn’t carry out my wish to disappear from the world. At least not until everything was done, until all the loose ends were neatly tied up. I felt I had no choice but to go on.

I saw my GP, who referred me to a psychiatrist, who put me on antidepressants, anxiolytics, and mood stabilisers. She was determined to keep me alive. So determined that I would not become a black mark on her record, that she just kept throwing more and more drugs at me. Drugs that I knew would not only turn me into a zombie incapable of taking my own life but also entirely incapable of thought or action.

So, I confided in a good friend who happened to be a psychotherapist, who recommended another psychiatrist as well as a psychotherapist she thought I could work with. My new psychiatrist changed my medication. The therapist and I connected. Both of them are amazing people who obviously care and take the time to listen. Who understand and do not judge.

I’m still on antidepressants and may be for life. I’ve been in therapy for about two years now. I think my therapist knows more about me than my wife did even after 22 years together – not through any fault of her own, but because there were things I could not tell her because of my own insecurities. Perhaps she knew them anyway because she was so intuitive and because she loved me unconditionally, as I love her.

Of course, I still have plenty of bad moments, when a thought, a song, a memory or the scent of her perfume hits me out of the blue, and I find myself leaking tears or sobbing uncontrollably. I am okay with that. Sometimes I even welcome those moments because they evoke precious memories.

But, with the help of my therapist, I am gradually discovering who I am. I am learning how to be me. It isn’t easy, and I still have a long way to go. I am alone, and that’s fine. Because whatever I do, wherever I go, whatever I become, my wife will always be part of me. Perhaps we were somehow prescient when we chose an e.e. cummings poem for our wedding program: “I carry your heart with me. I carry it in my heart.”

I will carry her in my heart forever.


Is there life after loss?

Two years, one month and four days ago, my wife – my love, my muse, my rock,  my soul mate – passed away, seven short, awful and precious weeks after we found out that she had cancer. We had been together for 22 years, and friends for five years before that. It is not an understatement to say that she was my world, or that I miss her more every day. I have a photo of us where I am wearing a hoodie that says ‘lost’ on the front, which describes exactly how I feel. 

When I lost Julie to cancer, I lost everything that mattered. I not only lost my best friend, my confidante, my heart, I lost my world, and with it, all my hopes and dreams. We had been talking a lot about the future, about how, now that our house was paid for, I would reduce my working hours so we could spend more time together, so that finally we could do the things we wanted to. Travel. Grow old together. 

These past two years have been harder than I can say. The pain of loss is indescribable. I had never imagined life without her. She was only 54, 10 years younger than me. I guess I had assumed that I would go first. Losing her turned my life upside down, as if the law of gravity had suddenly been suspended

Yes, I went back to work. Yes, I manage to keep the cats, and myself, fed. I pay the bills. I sometimes even get together with friends. I watch tv. I get my hair cut. I talk to my mother once a week. Yes, I cry. Sometimes a thought, a smell, a memory, flashes through my mind and my stomach goes into knots and I want to scream, and cry. And all I really want to do is hug her.

But all I’m doing is going through the motions. I’m not really living. And I’ve realized that I don’t know how. I don’t know how to be me. I knew how to be Dena and Julie. But I don’t know how to be just Dena. When I think about the future all I see is blackness. A dark, empty hole where our future used to be. I don’t know how to move forward. I think about it sometimes, especially at night when I can’t sleep. But it feels like fiction – like I’m a character in some book. I imagine different plot lines, imagine things this character could do, but none of them seem right. Or real. The only thing that’s real is the blackness. 

Maybe it’s because, though I know that she is gone from this world, I can’t really accept it in my heart. Maybe because I keep hoping that this is all a terrible nightmare and that eventually I’ll wake up, and she’ll be beside me. Because without her I am like that dark hole. An empty space. Nothing.

Sunday blues


Sunday night, is one of the oddest, if not the oddest time of the week, don’t you think? One the one hand, it’s time for enjoying the weekend’s last gasp, arriving home after a weekend away, finishing up those odd jobs around the house, etc. For me, Sunday evening also means a phone call or Skype session with my 90-year-old mother on the other side of the world.

On the other hand, Sunday night means Monday morning is just one sleep away. And as soon as that realization arises, the weekend comes to an abrupt end. Monday looms on the horizon.

Funnily enough, that is both bad and good news for someone like me, who suffers from depression and anxiety. Monday means setting alarm clocks, trying to get the house straightened up, deciding what to wear to work, etc.In other words, Monday brings some structure to my life. The downside is that Monday means five days of frustration and exhaustion ahead. Five nights of coming home just plain worn out.

Like many other depression sufferers, I work with people who don’t have an inkling of what it is like to live with depression and/or anxiety. Of how much effort it takes on most days just to get out of bed, let alone how difficult it is to be in a high pressure/high performance job (I am a copywriter working in an in-house agency at a major South African retailer). There are times when my brain just won’t focus on the job I am working on. It just goes into neutral, and leaves me staring at a blank page. Or an idea just refuses to translate into words in the middle of a sentence. And there is nothing I can do. Except feel like a failure again.

The option of aging

Somehow this post vanished. It was / is about turning 65 this week.

All I can say is that it was my first birthday since the death of my wife last November, and how empty and meaningless what is a milestone in life feels like without my beloved beside me. So instead of celebrating, all I felt like doing was / is ending what to me is a useless, meaningless existence.

We had no children other than our three cats, I am still working more or less full time, and trying, through therapy, to find some reason to go on without her. I have yet to find a reason to endure the indescribable pain of loss.

Julie was my life, my heart, my muse, my soulmate, my best friend. I am more alone than I could ever imagine. This was supposed to be our time. I was supposed to protect her, and when cancer struck her I failed. It’s like I only had one job in life – to keep her safe – and  I couldn’t.

I failed.



Survival of the species

Here’s a question for you: at what point in your life do you stop being a work in progress? Or are we continual works in progress from birth until we shuffle off this mortal coil?
I think the answer is different for each of us. I know some people who still say the same things, do the same things, and have the same beliefs and attitudes at 50 that they had at 20. But I also know a few who continue to learn and absorb, who are open to new ideas, new ways of thinking, at 80 and beyond. 
I think the difference may boil down to how secure we are in our own skins, in our own minds. How deeply we value our independence of thought. And ultimately, how adaptable we are to change. 
If we aren’t adaptable, we are doomed to go the way of the dodo. Never having had a natural enemy, dodos were virtual sitting ducks when man came along and started hunting them. They never changed, never learned to hide or flee, and so died out. 
At the other end of the scale are the hawks and kites that have adapted to human cities. Who have made the rooftops, ledges and balconies of our high rises into their cliffs and crags where they build their nests and raise their young, and from which they hunt their urban prey of pigeon and rat.
So I guess what we must do, individually and as a species, is decide if we are dodos or hawks.
Which would you rather be?

Life on a knife-edge

I read an interesting Pinterest pin about depression and anxiety the other day. In a nutshell, it said that anxiety is caring too much about everything, while depression is not caring about anything – but that living with both is its own special kind of hell.

Welcome to my world. My current world, that is. It hasn’t always been like this. I’ve gone years without either troubling me too much, although I admit that I am generally prone to worry – which I think of as anxiety’s baby brother – and that I’ve been through some pretty bad times with depression. But neither had raised its energy-sapping, soul-destroying head for a long time. Life was comfortable. I was content. I was sharing my life with the woman I love with every atom of my being. We were happy. Settled. Thinking about our future. Things were good.

But life has a way of kicking you in the soft parts. My wife – my partner of almost 22 years – suddenly developed bad back pain. She thought she had pulled something while stretching at gym, and asked me to make an appointment with the physiotherapist I was seeing regularly. She went for treatment every few days. She saw our GP, who gave her an anti-inflammatory.

Three weeks went by, with no real relief for her. By this time, in fact, her pain was so severe that she could hardly move without screaming. You need to understand that she had always been the indestructible one. The one who rarely got sick, who would shrug off a cold in two days, who had ignored a broken finger and a couple of broken toes, and whose positive attitude got her through chicken pox (no fun when you’re an adult), a stroke (fortunately minor) and the deaths of her mother and father, and me through innumerable broken bones, various surgeries, asthma attacks, and more.

We – our physio and I – finally persuaded her to go for x-rays, which showed a fractured vertebra and got her a next-day appointment with a back specialist, who immediately admitted her to the hospital, got her on better pain meds, and ordered an MRI.

The next afternoon, he walked into her room with a woman we didn’t know in tow. His words shattered our comfortable life, our plans for the future, and my heart. “I have some bad news,” he said. “You have cancer,” then added, “There’s nothing more I can do for you, so Dr __ will be taking over your case.”

He left. We sat, holding hands as tightly as we could, trying to take in his words. Her new doctor ordered more tests. We still had no idea how bad it was. No one was telling us anything, and I think at first we were too stunned, and too afraid, to ask.

It turned out she had breast cancer. Stage 4. It had metastasized to her spine (causing at least one vertebra to collapse) and her lungs. The surgeon told her she would have to have a mastectomy, but said she would need radiation to shrink one of the two tumours in her breast beforehand. We got an appointment with an oncologist in two days’ time. And then the nightmare of a rollercoaster ride really started.

I don’t want to go into all the detail of the next six weeks. It’s enough to say that those six weeks turned out to be all the time we had. So little time for everything we wanted to say, to hold each other, and, finally, to say good-bye.

And I kept it together. I don’t know how – adrenalin, a few amazing friends, the knowledge that I had to keep it together for her, and her belief that I could.

Afterwards, I organised memorial services, comforted her family and her many friends. Followed her wishes and planted a tree – a frangipani – in our front garden with some of her ashes. Told our three cats that we were still a family.

That was nine months ago. It feels like no time and forever. Nine months of trying to stay on top of everything, keeping our home organised, our cats fed, the bills paid. Nine months of coming home every evening to a silent house. Of meals for one, of going to bed alone, and waking up alone. Nine months of one-sided conversations, sleepless nights, talking to my therapist, and listening to well-intentioned family members, acquaintances and colleagues tell me, “It will get better with time.”

You know something? It doesn’t. It doesn’t get better. Or easier. Or less painful.

It gets worse. Slowly, inexorably, it cuts more deeply, hurts more, paralyses me, crushes me, and leads me, inevitably, to one conclusion. She was my life. She’s gone. How am I supposed to go on?

Do I even want to?