Last night, I moved my husband into the laundry room. For nearly the last two months, all of his stuff has been boxed up in my bedroom, our bedroom. His clothes, shoes, books, socks, wallet, had all been haphazardly packed up in the days after his death. One drawer of our dresser was packed full of all the random things I keep finding all over the house that belonged to him. Notes scribbled on papers, a pocketknife, a hat, parts of his police uniform, all shoved into a drawer that I subconsciously labeled “I don’t want to deal with this right now.”
But last night I decided it was time. I moved his boxes to the laundry room. It took me about ten trips up and down the stairs until I finally had everything moved. Our bedroom is clean now, and quiet, and it looks like a more of a reflection of me than of us. We have pictures of James all over the place, we talk about him every day, but moving his earthly belongings, even just to a different room in my house, felt like a tiny ounce of closure. And the weird thing about grief is that in the same moment I felt both relief and sadness. Relief that slowly our world is moving forward, and sadness that its moving forward without him.
We spent so much time apart during our seven year relationship between living in two cities, Army training, and police training, that I often have to remind myself that he isn’t coming back this time. It always feels surreal for a moment when I remember that. I have put kids to bed, gone to doctors’ appointments, been the sole caregiver for months on end, but he always came back. Now I sit in that weird, sad, surreal moment of remembering again that he is gone gone this time…. until I’m interrupted by a kid yelling from the other room that I need to come RIGHT NOW because Peppa Pig turned off and I need to fix it ASAP.
James was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder about five years ago. After several verbally and physically violent episodes where neither of us felt safe, he finally called the VA. He saw a psychiatrist, and was officially diagnosed with PTSD and started receiving financial benefits for it. It felt a little insulting, a couple hundred dollars for my husband’s wounded soul, but we were also super poor at the time. Like if we had over $100 in our bank account at the end of the month felt like we were BALLIN’. So we took the disability benefits, he went to therapy for a little while, and all was well for a little while.
Years went on and these episodes would come on, particularly in the middle of stressful seasons. Yelling, breaking things, hurting himself, threatening suicide… and then for a few months it would be mostly peaceful. I would slowly relax, and we would both settle into some form of normalcy until another stressful event triggered the next bout. I think it would have been hard enough being newlyweds alone, but we were 21 (BABIES), and like I said, we had no money, and suddenly I was pregnant with baby #1. We were both struggling to figure out how to be married and manage money and handle the stress of home ownership and having a baby when we ourselves were babies.
My focus shifted after we had Charlie, as I think happens with most new moms. When that new little person comes into the world, our Mom instincts go UP TO 11. Slowly the realization came that this baby would be here to witness everything, hear everything, someday he would start to realize what was happening in his home, for better or worse. This, tiny, innocent person completely relied on me to keep him safe.
At times I packed up our kids and left for a few hours because our home was not a safe place and the only thing I could do was remove our kids from the situation. I would pull back in the driveway a few hours later, kids in the back seat, tired, ready for bed, and walk into an emotional war zone. “I had a gun to my head, I was ready to do it. I wrote you a note,” he told me more than once. I found one of those notes once and realized in that moment that I could have easily come home to a body instead of my husband.
In all of this, I want to make ABUNDANTLY clear that James’ mental illness was not his fault. He experienced more than any person should with the loss of his mom at 17, joining the army at 18, and being deployed to Afghanistan at 19. It’s more heartbreak, tragedy, stress and fear than one person, basically a child, is able to process in a healthy way. It was not his fault.
James’ mental illness was not his fault. His mental illness was not my fault. It was not my kids’ fault. But despite that, all of us paid and are still paying the price. I was intimately involved and intertwined with his pain and exhaustively tried to help him heal, but there is only so much you can do from the outside looking in. I did my best to make his world, our home, safe and peaceful and non-triggering. But in the end, I know that I couldn’t do his healing for him, he was the only one who could have done that.
But now he’s gone. He is at peace. Nearly eight weeks ago, he ended his life. And I am left with millions of thoughts and experiences and words and emotions that I believe I have a responsibility to share with you.
I know without a doubt that I am NOT alone in this place. Service members cannot be expected to come back from combat and be ‘good to go’ and reintegrate back into normal life, and spouses/partners cannot be expected to take on the role of a trained, experienced therapist to help our loved ones learn how to do life again after traumatic events. I am going to be honest and transparent and real about my marriage and the death of my husband. I have an opportunity to open the door for Military members, Police, First Responders, AND their partners and families to be honest and transparent with their experiences too. That’s where the healing will happen.
Shame and fear keep us hidden away, scared of what others might say or believe about us, but there is freedom in telling the truth. I’ll leave you with this:
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you” -Maya Angelou