Tuesday, August 26, 2014

For Maggie

Ten Years Ago...

Ashley and I had been dating for a relatively short amount of time when I found myself as the caretaker of a four year old Chow/Shepherd mixed breed dog. Because Ashley couldn't have a pet in the residence hall where she was serving as Hall Director, Maggie was living several hours away with her mom. I offered - out the kindness of my heart (and blindness of infatuation with Ashley) - to serve as host for Maggie while we were both working at the University of Georgia.

Just a few days into our new living arrangement, Ashley was astonished when I told her Maggie was voluntarily sleeping every night in the bed with me. It turns out "Maggie doesn't do that with anyone" except for her. She was "too independent" to do such. While Cricket, my dog I had adopted in 1994, preferred to sleep on the floor next to a cracked window for fresh air, Maggie apparently preferred my company to the bed she had.

We joked that if we ever broke up, we'd have to discuss who got to keep Maggie. But still, at the end of the day, Maggie was Ashley's dog.

Seven Years Ago...

Nothing says fun like an interstate move with two dogs. Maggie and Cricket had tolerated each other as roommates for a few years, but they had never truly gotten along...until we moved them to Miami.

We joked that the trauma of packing up their house and then driving them for several hours stopping only for breaks in the grass might cause them to bond, but we didn't know the depth of truth to that idea until the first afternoon we we in our new apartment in south Florida.

Maggie and Cricket slept side-by-side. Cuddled next to one another. Maybe it was out of solidarity ("If they try and pull this crap again, we've got each others' back, right?"). Maybe it was out of comfort. Maybe it was out of love.

Maggie was still Ashley's dog, but she was also now Cricket's best friend.

Six Years Ago...

For days, Maggie would just walk up to and stare out the glass door she last saw Cricket being carried out of. Late one night, Ashley and I had to take Cricket to the Pet ER after she started breathing irregularly. Maggie kept waiting for her best friend to come home, but Cricket never would. The tugs of war between them for chew toys, the competition to see who could look the most pitiful when begging for scraps, and the question of who could mark the most territory outside had come to and end. Maggie grieved in her own way the loss of her companion. The thirteen years Cricket was with me would never be enough.

Maggie was still Ashley's dog, and they mourned together.

Five Years Ago...

We weren't sure Maggie was going to be okay with this new addition to the family. We didn't know how she was going to deal with not being the focal point of attention, and no longer being an only child. 

But she astonished us: she was incredibly protective of the little bundle of stinky diapers that came into "her" house. Any time someone came to see Kai, she would sit at attention next to me or Ashley, whichever one of us was holding him, guarding her new baby. His crying never bothered her, she never got upset at the late nights/early mornings when all our sleep was disturbed, and his making food rain upon the floor at mealtime was just an added bonus.

Maggie was now Kai's, and Kai was Maggie's.

Ashley who?

One Year Ago...

We upended her world yet again by adding a second baby to the mix. This time out, Maggie was less protective when people came over; maybe she finally realized Ashley and I weren't going to drop him or forget to feed him all the time, so she could relax her patrols a bit. 

But Eli and Maggie have a special bond, a different bond. The number of times I've come into a dangerously quiet room only to see him sitting on the floor next to her, cuddling her like she is one of his toys, is innumerable. They're a team.

Maggie is the boys, and the boys belong to her. 

Today...

Maggie is at peace.

We made the hard, almost impossible choice, to let her spirit go free. Ashley discovered a pet hospice center that would allow her to pass on in the comfort and love of the home she felt comfortable instead of the comparative clinical coldness of a vet's office. 


She'd been sick for a while, not herself in the least. Unable to rest, unable to eat, unable to walk. Unable to play. 

But for one day, for her last day, Maggie was more like herself than she'd been in weeks. Attentive. Responsive. She gave Ashley and I the most beautiful of gifts: a day of remembering our daughter as she was, not as she'd become. 

For today and for eternity, she is now running in fields of grass, her best friend by her side. Chasing squirrels together, playing with her chicken, and resting in the most warm of sunshine. Her pain, confusion, and discomfort is at and end. And as best I can, I take comfort in that knowledge. 

Ashley will grieve a deep grief as only a mother can.

Kai will grieve with questions, as the harsh realities of our mortal life shake him to his core.

Eli will look for his "da?" and not find her.

Me?

Maggie may have been Ashley's dog, Kai's protector, and Eli's cuddle buddy.

But she was my friend. My closest friend in so many, many ways. She was my at-home buddy for over five years. We shared numerous memories, secrets, treats snuck together, and walks a-plenty.

My heart is broken with the loss I feel.

Our house will be painfully quiet without the sound of her nails on the floor as she goes on patrol.

Maggie was - is - our baby. Not dog.

Forever.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

This Present Darkness: Depression, Hope, and the Struggle Between Them

The sudden and tragic death of Robin Williams has rekindled a discussion surrounding depression and its effects not only on the individual who suffers from it but also what it means to the friends and family members of the individual. Many find it shocking that someone like Williams whose life was spent as a beacon of laughter for millions of individuals could choose to end it all.

I'm not. Because I all too well understand the struggle he faced.

Some have taken to the airwaves and social media to condemn his actions, claiming that he was a coward.

His best film, in my opinion.
I can't, because anyone who has to find the strength day by day to simply get out of bed and keep going is impossible to label a "coward" or "weak." Having the audacity to condemn someone for a battle you know nothing about is the epitome of cowardice and cruelty.

Living with depression is exactly what the name implies: you live with it, just as you would live with a partner or spouse. It is there constantly, always in the back of your mind if not confronting you directly in the eyes when you look in the mirror. It is a state of being, not a phase you're going through, a rough patch, or temporary blip on your emotional radar.

What seems incredulous to many is that Williams, who seemed to be as larger than life in person as many of the characters he portrayed were, had this internal bleakness, starkness, and depth of pain that could not lift his spirits as he did for so many of us. "He acted so happy," "He was funny," and "He always made people laugh" are just a few of the seemingly contradictory actions in his life that make the tragedy of him taking his own life seem that much confusing and difficult to understand.

Again: I all too well understand. Those same sentiments have been said about me.

Perhaps some of us who struggle with depression erect this facade to distract both ourselves and others from what's really going on inside. It's not fakery (Williams was a remarkably gifted actor, but nobody's that good), as the clown and prankster are parts of our personas. We perhaps gravitate towards the other end of the emotional spectrum because to spend all our time where we feel emotionally drawn to would be utterly unbalanced and unhealthy. And there is just enough in us that cries out for peace and wholeness that understands the dangers of living in a perpetual imbalance. We may ignore this voice for seasons in our lives, but it remains as a tether - sometimes through a friend, family member, doctor, pastor, whomever - that gives us a reason to continue to at the very least look towards the light.

There is a wide, wide chasm between being depressed and having depression. Sadness or being depressed is often brought on by an incident or circumstance in your life, and is only temporary in comparison of length. Depression isn't just triggered; that emotional gun remains continually cocked, and the hammer can strike with the slightest jar to your life. And depression lingers, holding a tight reign on you for years, decades, or most of your life.

In high school, I kinda looked like I had it together somewhat: known but not "popular" in school, friends in most cliques, a leader within my youth group at church, moderately academically gifted, and my car wasn't an utter piece of crap. In public, I sang, acted, spoke at debates, and was out there for the world to see and interact with.

But the number of nights I sat alone in my bedroom in the dark with my door shut, alone with my thoughts of how ultimately worthless I was, how if I was gone no one would miss me, and how this sense of loneliness and isolation I felt would be with me throughout my entire life, making the sum of my life worth nothing at all...those nights can't be numbered. There were too many of them.

I never cried. I wasn't sad. It instead felt like a hollowness was in my chest, filled only by the consistent, unending sensation of the weight of me not being worthy of even being born.

Going to college didn't change these feelings. All that changed was that since I had a roommate for most of my undergrad days, there was someone I couldn't hide from. I operated from the presumption that if I acted un-Sonny-like, he would more than likely ask what was up. It was only in grad school when I began seeing a therapist that years of layers of hardened shells began to crack and I started to confront the darkness I carried with me.

I never took drugs to mask the pain (I hate needles). I never drank heavily to numb the pain. But don't mistake my inaction through these mediums for strength or bravery; I simply covered my pain through other actions damaging to my body and mind. Primarily, I hoped that if I ignored it long enough it might go away. I stopped eating. I was tempted to start cutting myself. I shut myself out of friendships and intentionally sabotaged some romantic relationships. I tried to kill myself emotionally, wishing that my physical end would come because I just gave up on everything.

These days, I'm better. Somewhat. Mainly. Mostly. It depends. I no longer physically sit in a darkened room, and I've learned how to keep myself out of one emotionally - but there are days, still, where I find myself sliding back into that mental state (part of which I wrote about here).

Williams wasn't a coward. He was a man whose artistry spoke to untold thousands of us who could connect with the gravitas he gave in his performances. His bravery on and off screen in living through the pain he felt should not be overshadowed by his choice at the end. Neither you nor I know the circumstances that led to his decision, if it was out of fear, pain, or a sensation of loss that could only be alleviated by taking what he thought was the only option.

Williams had a disease. Not a disease in the way some might consider, thinking all he had to do was make a run to CVS for an over-the-counter medication so that he could take two "Get Over It" pills and be better in the morning. Like most diseases, mixing drugs or alcohol into the equation can cause a worse reaction, something he was all to familiar with. But he was making strides in choosing to remove these additives to his pain.

Williams was not alone in his struggle, no matter how he felt.

I am not alone in my struggle, no matter how I feel at times.

You are not alone in your struggle.

Talk to someone. Reach out for a coffee date with a friend, family member, minister, teacher, or anyone you trust. If they don't understand your struggle, reach out to someone else. Don't take the ignorance of one person to be a definitive answer that everyone will treat you that way.

Depression is real. All too real.

But so is hope.