One of the many feelings that you have to live with when you are in the grips of complicated grief is that of isolation and withdrawal, which is further complicated by the covid pandemic where unfortunately we have been forced to keep apart and this has unfortunately played into my hands as a convenient excuse to stay in my castle.
Firstly I must reiterate that grief is a personal thing and everyone’s experience will be different, so this is my story in my words, but I do hope that I can help others understand the feelings through my journey and what it feels like. All these stories are intended to affirm what you might be feeling and in a way say it’s part of the process, so you are not alone in your thoughts and feelings. Having said that, complicated grief is not normal for the majority after losing a loved one, but it can manifest itself into complicated grief, which unfortunately is the direction of travel for me at the moment.
You will probably read this and say under your breath that I’m a nutter or just saying things to draw sympathy, well I’m not, in fact I’m trying to explain what no book explains and to be honest, no bloke would ever discuss, such is the programming of the male sex that any public display of emotion will be seen as a weakness and you will lose your Alpha Male status. Well, all that putting bluntly is a load of boll***ks! This “tough guy” suppressive attitude is a major contributor to male mental health problems and sadly has led to suicide in far too many cases. The incessant need to show how big your doodads are to everyone might be a thing of male adolescent bravado but has no place when it comes to adult grieving.
Trust me, keeping your emotions trapped inside like you have miraculously got over it just leads you into a Jekyll and Hyde lifestyle, on the outside you appear to be getting on but on the inside you are a monster.
It is not a widely recognised as a condition, a bit like grief itself, all these emotional, mental states are so wide ranging and vary in depth at a moment’s notice. It’s always in the background so you have a propensity to default to a general lack lustre mood or worse. Depending on the relationship, its intensity, duration, the dependency on each other and for that matter your lack of independency from each other can dramatically affect your ability to cope. So when it comes to diagnosis due to its vast and varying range of feelings it is normally just diagnosed under the “one name covers all” heading of depression.
Well complicated grief has many a manifestation. I try to be stoic, but the intense sorrow and loss and repeated re-living of the events is overbearing at times, mainly when I’m at home when the sudden sense of loneliness overwhelms you. I’m getting used to being alone but loneliness is a totally different thing. My house is a heavily fortified castle, I’m safe in there, it has all I need to maintain physical life but nothing for my emotional wellbeing, yes I can distract myself with hobbies, I can go or a walk, bike ride or late night drive to nowhere and back, which kills the time, but that’s all it is, a distraction to what is an empty loveless life behind the safety of my front door. So whilst I’m safe, I’m also a prisoner, the only difference is I have the key to my cell.
I need to withdraw and isolate myself from the outside world, it’s for self-preservation, when I am in my castle, I can’t be hurt, I can’t see the normality of life and therefore cannot be hurt emotionally or reminded of the life I once had. As I’m being honest, I feel angry and bitter towards others enjoying life, often choosing to go out when there are fewer people around walking or riding off the beaten track so I don’t chance upon a happy couple walking hand in hand. So I spend a lot of time in my self-imposed imprisonment. Many a time I lack focus on anything other than my loss and that makes me angry, for I have a life and my wife had no choice but to give hers up, what right have I got to feel this way, it’s just self-pity and I am better than that or I thought I was at least. The loneliness just offers time for me to pine and to think that this life has no purpose. My sleep pattern is getting worse, for example, it’s nearly 4am as I write this and I probably won’t go to bed until I have finished this. Late nights and a lack of motivation mean that I get up gone nine o’clock in the morning with little routine to follow. In fact when I do set a target, I just simply ignore it because I can.
I’m conscious that people worry about me, and that upsets me, as I know they care and even love me, but I can’t help being like this. I cry far too much mainly because I can’t enjoy life and this I know upsets the people around me, luckily the sanctuary of my castle hides all the tears, but they know me too well and see right through the thinly veiled masquerade.
Withdrawing from normal life protects me but frustrates and hurts me. I want to enjoy life, enjoy company, and go out for meals, pictures days out even holidays, to feel life coursing through my veins instead of fear. My heart needs to feel and look forward with hope instead of feeling guilt, self-blame, anxiety or being judged, is that really too much to want? I haven’t done anything wrong so why do I beat myself up so much, why can’t I just get on with life, why do I entrap myself, why don’t I just live a little. My heart hurts for the life I had and for the life I deny it. Shutting the door on my heart is killing me and I don’t know what to do.
So I have tried counselling, it took many months to get to this decision and it did help in the first instance, mainly as I was talking to a kind stranger on the end of a phone whose manner, approach and hopefully experience played to my needs. In a way she was helping to fill the gap by calming my mind and despite the relentless beating I took by having to recount my experiences, which I have to say left me exhausted, sore eyed and numb, needed to be done so she could understand where I was, the depth and the enormity of my grief and where I was in my journey.
Whilst I was not under any time pressure, there was limits, normally around an hour in which she asked the typical open question which denied me of the simple “yes / no” reply. The process I well-engineered to get me to spill the beans so to speak, which I was happy to do, the gap needed to be filled by offloading my desperate muted screams for help. As the weeks went on I was being asked why I felt this way. Well because I have lost my wife and don’t know how to deal with it! Was the sort of reply I offered? I know why I feel this way and still do, but what I wanted was some suggestions or answers to resolving these issues, not simply regurgitating what I have been through all over again. I realise that this was a course that was a few weeks in length and had an agenda which was followed even down to the questionnaire asking how I felt between 1 and 10 to questions. I suppose it was progress of sorts but just struck me that once I showed a favourable score, an exit plan was being hatched. But the trouble is that on a good day, I would score better than on a bad day so as soon as I realised what was happening, I just called it a day, I wasn’t going to get the help I needed which I understand as I am just one person in 1000’s and most of those are probably more in need. However, when I was in the program I felt better as I thought they could help, this gave me an artificial high of sorts, a false sense of security, someone was helping me, but when I finished I fell down deeper than when I started especially as I had to go through all the early stages of my journey. There final parting words of help were the offer of a phone line to talk to someone or the Samaritans if things got too bad.
Well if things got too bad, I would just do it, it would be freedom from this constant pain, I don’t consider it to be a cowards way out, you have to be strong to take that decision, but I would feel selfish, as I would upset so many people and leave such a trail of destruction behind me that my conscience won’t allow it.
So did professional counselling work for me, partly but in the end it didn’t give me any tools to help with my handling of grief and if anything I felt more lonely as at least I had someone to talk to other than family or friends that was going through grief and loss at the same time. It may work better for some people than others, but in this instance it didn’t.
The doctor said some 6 months or so ago that if I still feel the way I do after a year then he can offer me medication for both sleep and to improve my mood. Well 15 or so months on and I know I’m worse now than the early months, the only difference that I was grabbing all the attention I could get and showing the macho signs of dealing with it whereas now I’m not gap filling but consciously withdrawing into my lonely fortified castle.
THE CURE ALL ……
Whilst I don’t deny that I feel depressed at times, and that’s a lot for me to admit too, what is more troubling is that there is very little that is done to help those other than counselling and or being prescribed pills or potions to help suppress the feelings or raise the mood. Both are intended to help you deal with the situation and work for a lot pf people which is a good thing. Who knows, I might end being one of them. My concern is the deeper you are with your troubles, the greater the need and therefore the longer the duration you are likely to be on tablets. A doctor will do his best to prescribe medication that best fits the need and send you off on your way. You will no doubt feel better and that I fear is when the dependency starts. This to me is another gap fill by way of supressing your feelings which in turn will allow you to cope whilst you come to terms with your loss or at reconcile with it, but I don’t know to be honest, so forgive me if I have it all wrong. As I say, I’m not here to judge or give advice, just simply put my feelings into words in the hope that it might help me as much as anyone else. I want to strike an accord of sorts not anger or vilify the reader.
Going down the medical intervention route is not for me at this point in time so please do not think I’m trivialising or dismissing this route who knows I might end up with that as the only option, as I say, grief is a personal thing, it’s your journey and like me, we all have to find our own way through this so for me, I want to try and find my own way out of this maze while I can still reason with my grief.
I have mentioned in my story “The pendulum effect” about gap filling, and how I wanted so badly to do this. For those that haven’t read it, here is a shortened version. In the early months after losing my wife I sort any comfort I could which made me feel like I was before, I loved loving and receiving love, it’s what I’m about and spent nearly 50 years living this truly unique experience without knowing it.
When I realised that I didn’t have that anymore, it felt, and still does to be honest, like I had been struck by a cannon ball in the chest, I feel at times I can just look through the gaping hole in my body at the emptiness where my world resided in comfort. This void wants to feel like it did before, with all that lost, there is an immense desire to fill the chasm so that it can function as before. I soon realised that all I was trying to do was replace the feeling of belonging, being loved and loving in return. Of course, in time I realised this and knew it was wrong, it’s a quick fix, like having a drink, smoking or coffee, and they are all “get me through the day” feel good ways of coping. Well I’m afraid that I have done all that before and much worse, all of which made me falsely feel invincible but when I stopped, boy, the crushing fall took me lower that I was before I started, and the need to get the euphoric state back was so great that you just started again So for me, the drug I needed so much was to be as I was, as we were, before I lost my sweetheart wife. Well this cannot be done, it’s not right to replace what you have lost with something else; you are playing with not only your feelings but the feelings of others. So you have to take that crushing realisation that to gap fill is completely the wrong way, and that where it gets hard. Your heart is in conflict with your mind, denying yourself the “gap fill” exposes you to such a sense of helplessness that all you can think of is what happened, I found that I have an extreme focus on the past and not the good memories that bad things like my loss, which try as I might, I had no choice but to capitulate in front of my enemies, namely bitterness, anger, guilt, blame, anxiety and trust, which in turn ultimately caused me to consider if life is worth all this pain.
Rightly or wrongly I had to shut the doors on my heart, to try and stop feeling the need to love or to be loved for that matter. I needed to do a system reboot and wipe out all the things that allow me to feel alive, a form of sanitising so I can start again. I’m not saying this is the right thing to do by any means and is probably not, but for me at least I felt it was the right way at this moment. It seem to make sense to withdraw from the outside world, because that where all my memories were and what better excuse to use but the pandemic. Most days I have trouble with routine, I have sleep issues, not nightmares or restlessness, I just don’t sleep when I should do. Once again I have been offered pills to help me sleep but I really don’t want to go down that route, I want to crash and then resurrect myself somehow, having experienced in the past chemically “quick fixing” a problem and the subsequent lows when you come off them. I need to find a better way for me and the “cure all pill” that is freely given as a panacea to right all wrongs, but it might be the only answer so it is something I will keep in mind hopefully before I put the Samaritans on speed dial.
I’M ON THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN ……..
Being withdrawn isn’t the answer, whilst I am sort of getting used to being alone, the thought of the continuous loneliness is a real game changer. I have an image of an old man that has wasted the life I had in permanent grief, in a cob webbed house, like a male version of Miss Havisham from Dickens Great Expectations, well a bit melodramatic, but you get the idea.
I wish I knew why I put myself on the outside looking in all the time. I make excuses for not joining in and then creep about looking through the window of life wishing I was on the inside enjoying myself. When I say excuses, what really happens is that I know I’m not good company and anything I’m invited too I will just sit in silence on the edges of all that is going on, it’s a bit like waiting to be picked for a dance and all the preferred people are taken and I’m the old fat one that ends up being left.
I used to be part of the couple’s clan but now absent myself preferring to look through the window observing the life I used to have before. I retreat metaphorically into my castle to allow self-preservation to take effect. You all have you lives, your routines, your loved ones and that right and proper, it’s the natural order and by entering your world as a singleton especially where we used to be as a couple is hard for me and I don’t want to spoil it for others.
I don’t want to be on my own on the outside looking in, I want to enjoy a better life, but that means stopping grieving. But even though I want to release its grip on me, I feel disloyal, that I might be judged or seen to be getting over it as I have filled the gap with something. I am aware that I’m second hand, but I do have a history that was unique and that will be off putting to most plus I think my old fashioned ways are not needed or regarded as a quality be modern society or even worse, be seen as the stereotypical widower. I feel that women will avoid me saying under muted voices, “don’t get involved as he is an emotional wreck, he can’t be trusted because he will have a secret agenda; he is a single needy bloke and after all they are only after one thing!” Or words to that effect, why do I feel this???
I have had a wonderful life because of my wonderful wife, but enough is enough, I can’t go on this way I must continue my journey but to do this I must free myself of these self-imposed shackles. I’m not a bad person, my history will bear witness of that, I have no agenda, to be frank, I’m too tired and exhausted to have one and simply getting through the day is enough.
Is the only answer, to get pills down my throat and change me yet again into something I’m not, I really don’t want to go down that route and spend the rest of my life being dependent. I should be able to get a grip with this shouldn’t I? And I want to try.
Please don’t take this the wrong way; we all need to find a way to cope with life’s ups and downs, so do what works for you, as I have said before, I’m not being judgemental, I just don’t know which way I’m going.
So I’m trying another approach, it’s a form of cognitive behaviour therapy, a self-taught version of course based on a blend of trying to understand why I feel this way, what are the triggers and how do I remove the self-imposed threats to my well-being. Writing and sharing this chapter of my journey is a help, I read it not as the author but as the sufferer, a sort of third person in the hope that I can see myself and analyse my feelings against what has been written. It’s difficult to understand, but writing it down does help to focus the mind by thinking and trying to explain what it’s like.
I suppose the fact I have a little understanding and can openly and honestly write about it is a positive of some sorts, but I still need to do something about it, I cannot just keep going on along this road hoping that one day an epiphany suddenly strikes me in the shower one morning. The fact I can write this is one thing, but the feelings are real and I am living this every day, it’s not a story, its fact, so I must act on the points raised somehow, some way.
I know what I’m doing is wrong, this self-punishment is all home grown, I have no reason to be this way, continually berating myself as though I was to blame. I have done anything wrong apart from devote myself to my wife as my wife did to me, that’s no crime so why do I need to feel the pain she did, am I trying to prove my love through sufferance and if so to who? Is the only way to solve this is to take it to the next level and really hurt myself, end it or supress it so much that I’m nothing like what I was, acting like it didn’t matter, stuck in an alto egotistical life, either way it will be the same, I won’t be me and I want to be a combination of now and then, not the same, different, but still recognisable as me, faults and all.
This does sound like I’m seeking sympathy, well I’m not, that’s part of the problem, I won’t admit I need help, but if I was being honest, I am silently crying out for a solution, some tools to work with so I can fathom a route through these destructive feelings and thoughts. I thought counselling would offer some practical exercises, even some books to read or anonymous real life case studies. To be fair I was offered a group zoom meeting, but I can’t see how that would help. A group of sad lonely people talking about their loss, just further examples of the feelings I have, just expressed in a different way. I know this is a sort of normal process, so all the group would be doing is ratifying the process. If it turned out the same as the one to one did, it wouldn’t have worked, well for me at least.
So where do I go from here? I admit that left to my own devices I would become feral, living like a hermit embittered, snapping at anyone that cared to offer a hand, slowly becoming morose devoting what’s left of my life to loving a ghost and allowing loss to feast on my heart, sounds fantastical, a myth, a legend of folklore, but at times that what it feels like.
Counselling on one side, pills on the other, the grim reaper above and me in the middle! Well thinking of this image, it tells me about the things I don’t want so I need to cancel out those images by understanding them and removing their control, the threats that they have on me.
Many years ago I was exposed to situation I didn’t understand it until I was shown how to understand it, to see it from a different perspective and this is what I’m going to try and administer to myself.
I learned that instead of forcefully stopping the feelings, you must work with them, diffuse them little by little and reduce their hold, their control over you by way of dismantling the fear until you can live with it.
There are many examples of this, smoking, drinking, eating, spiders, the dark, fear of going out etc etc, all can be classed as compulsive, obsessive, frightening and many other terms but are generally driven by an event or a situation that has either upset, scared you or you have found the need to escape from or seek comfort to help you cope. We all have them but when they become more than a passing moment they start to control you. You then become a compulsive something or suffering from a fear of something.
Well I think grief is a combination of these effects. I can’t get away from the past it’s my compulsion. I am scared of the future, my fear. I am trapped like all those that want to give up something but are, powerless to stop, which then makes you anxious, so you ramp up your compulsiveness or fear and on and on it the vicious circle goes until it controls you.
Now just run with this for a bit, from personal experience of drinking, smoking and even coffee, they all helped me get through whatever the day presented, I didn’t want to stop so I didn’t, the more I was told the more I did. Whilst there is no comparison to loss and grief, it would be ridiculous to suggest that smoking related to losing someone, however the behaviour towards punishment, only looking to the past, guilt, trust, etc and the fear of the future, happiness, enjoyment etc are similar to a compulsive / fear disorder.
So for my purpose only I’m going to try and view it this way, why not. Like my compulsions in the past, I was coerced into changing the way I thought over time. I had a good teacher; she was my girlfriend at the time who then became my wife, the one that this is all about. She did not discourage me; she just weened me off bit by bit, held my hand and showed me that I didn’t need these talismans to help me. Different reasons different circumstances and this time I have to tell myself, which will be hard. It’s not going to be easy, and it might not work, but instead of saying no or why bother I’m going to try, instead of shutting myself away, I will try and get involved.
Going back to the example of me in the middle with counselling on one side, pills on the other and the reaper above, well if I look at that know, the counselling didn’t work for two reasons, it was a box ticking program rather than them buying into my feelings and frankly, I didn’t want to be helped. The pills scenario, well using drugs to make me something else is the same as drinking what I did, smoking what I could and getting high as kite on black percolated coffee, trust me 17 cups a day does make you high as a kite! It made me cope but it wasn’t me. As for the reaper, he represents denial, I am in a situation which I have to accept, I have no choice, it was not my fault, it was nature if I had to blame anything, what it gives us in pleasure at takes away with loss, the more of one the greater the other, the archetypal two edged sword. I have lost a lot and to be fair so have many. I need to remember that, so the reaper can stick his scythe sharp end first!
Well like all these stories, there is no real answer other than to keep trying, keep walking and keep hoping that one day I will find the path, a hand that leads me into the green fields of life where you can bathe in the warmth of hope, free from the shackles of your compulsions, your fears, your imprisonment, but showing with pride the tattoo of man that loved and now has learned to live at peace with the memory, with new spirit and the goal of continuing the journey as my sweetheart wife would always wanted for not only me but my family and when that happens she can transcend into the immortal world, be at peace and guide us all from afar.
Well in time hopefully ………..
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Ladybower Reservoir walk.
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We drove to the Fairholmes visitor centre set just in front of one of the famous...