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If you follow my EyeJunkie writing you may have noticed it’s been absent for a while. After the holidays, I decided to take a sabbatical from writing for a few months to regroup and maybe reframe my thinking.
Last Fall, I heard words like “moving” and “inspiring” and “heart-breaking” and even “brave” from readers as I shared some of the story of losing my husband in September to suicide after his struggles with depression. I don’t know about the accuracy of all those words, but I certainly hope the writings have brought comfort or understanding or even hope for some of you out there. For me, I somehow found a new and deeper level of honesty and transparency in writing about our sorrows and survival that has helped me to clarify some of the overwhelming complexity of this situation.
But, I needed a break.
The holidays were difficult, as I knew they would be. And they were more difficult than that. They were a push and pull of steps forward and steps back, of thinking I was further along and accepting that I wasn’t. In many ways, the pace and “spirit” of the Christmas season were overwhelming, and I found myself emotionally right back where I was in the first weeks after Mike’s death. I needed a break.
I needed a break from the severe honesty of revealing all the layers of a husband lost to suicide. I needed a break to find how my voice in this journaling space would be reshaped. I needed to find how my life in this new season would reshape. I needed a break from the ever-presence of death so that I could find new ways to create and love and live.
Of course, taking a break from writing didn’t really give me a break from dealing with Mike’s death. Only from trying to articulate it succinctly. But, it did become a symbol and a catalyst to give myself some emotional space to just be — in whatever ways I needed to be through the first months of 2013. To experience the ebb and flow of continuing on without the need to describe it. To let it come. And go. As normal life tends to do. And perhaps in some kind of normalcy, I could gain an edge on death and begin to let other things rise to the surface.
I have a dear friend who, several years ago, after looking through EyeJunkie for the first time, wrote to me that it “crackles with life.” It was high praise from someone I admire, and it served as confirmation that my “message” was getting through. This writing space has always been about life. About ways to really see and experience the scenes of life. To glean their meaning in joy and sorrow. Now. While the moments are here. Before they “go” in that perpetual come-and-go. It’s always been about life. And this Spring I realized I wasn’t willing to surrender it to death.
As much as I loved Mike and admired his perseverance through the struggles of depression. As much as we miss him in this world and the idea of what he might have become on the other side of depression. As much as I’ve wanted to preserve a legacy for him with my children and as much as I need to fully deal with the remnants of his life on this earth, I don’t want my life to be about his death. I don’t want my life to be about sorrow and the mere reflections of this tragedy. And I don’t want my writings here to be a chronicle of death. As healing as it has been for me to share openly about my heart through this process and as vital as it has seemed to become a voice for some kind of truth for others like me, I don’t want to surrender this space to death. For that is not the whole story. Of writing. Of living. Of life. It’s not the story. And it’s not the story I want to write.
And so, I took a sabbatical. Until I could write again about other things. And perhaps about death while LIVING beyond it.
Today marks the 5th anniversary of EyeJunkie. It seems a fitting day to begin again. Five years ago today I launched this foray into blogging with a poem called “the work of angel wings.” As I’ve reflected on writing during this four-month hiatus, I’ve realized that this space has a newer purpose. It began as simply a creative outlet. Now, with a design business, a second design + life blog, an adventure in block printing and the crazy schedules of three itty bitty creative types, I have almost too many creative outlets. Now, my pursuits are more about finding the best places to invest that creativity. Still, I find the process of writing and well-crafted expression to be just as vital in making those choices, especially as I move through a new life as a single mother.
As I continue sharing in this space, I hope it continues to chronicle my “adventures in paying attention.” The newer purposes center in old ones — remolded and re-imagined through hard times that make the call to pay close attention to this precious life all the more real. I’m committed to the same level of honesty begun last Fall about sorrow, and suicide, and depression. The process of healing and living continues, and I believe honesty is necessary. It’s crucial in the prevalence of mental disorders in our world today. And it’s crucial in acting out real life and faith as a human being, But, I’m equally committed to keeping death and sorrow in their place among the broader pageant of living. One newer purpose gleaned in this sabbatical has been the fierce pursuit of joy. And how vital it is to commit myself to finding joy in each day. To make the choices and decisions that bring joy. Lasting and real joy. To see it rise. To weather the ebb and flow of life’s experiences in such a way that allows joy to rise to the surface as evidence of what life truly is. And in this space of thinking and writing, to rightly give joy — and not death — the last and most profound word.© Haley Montgomery
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About ten years ago, my husband, Mike, was diagnosed with depression. The diagnosis was a relief. It gave us all at least a partial answer to the frustrating question of why his thinking was always so labored. Why it was such a struggle to think clearly and concisely and without circular rationale. It gave him a context for the obsessive patterns of thinking he could remember even from his young childhood. The diagnosis provided a doable plan of treatment that allowed him to find relief from what he described as a rampant and never-ending train of thought (about whatever concern was taking over at a given moment) that took every ounce of his energy to control. And the treatment worked. With varying stages of success for those ten years. Until through a series of converging circumstances, it didn’t.
Mike’s depression often manifested itself in obsessive and compulsive thinking, especially at times when control of his thoughts was more of a struggle. In more recent years, I came to believe that he developed his own views of reality to cope with what his mind would not allow him to accept about his life. His thoughts were consumed with greater and greater levels of anxiety and often moments of panic as he began his last downward spiral.
Mike was a gentle man by nature. He was so much more than a man plagued with depression, although the illness impacted him daily in ways even I can only imagine. I had never felt any cause for concern with Mike, never any ounce of fear except for the hard presence of his occasional suicidal thoughts. But, in those last months, I noticed myself feeling afraid, then pushing it aside. Afraid of the desperation I saw in his eyes. The fear he, himself, had — not knowing how it might manifest itself. The sheer and unreasonable lack of control brought on by this illness called depression became overwhelming. I found myself afraid to leave our children with him simply because I knew his own drowning thoughts would prove far too great a distraction. In the last few months, I saw growing evidence of how manipulative the disease can be — how it warps reason in the mind of the one battling it. And how quickly and extensively I saw Mike become manipulative in an effort to maintain the fragile order of his mind and the reality within which he could cope with living. It frightened me. It frustrated me. It blew my own mind. It stretched me more than anything I’ve ever faced.
Why do I write these descriptions?
Because it’s time. Isn’t it time? In the wake of the unspeakable tragedy those in Connecticut (and indeed our nation) face, isn’t it time to speak? When we see and try to make sense of the horrific, unfathomable actions of a man mentally ill, isn’t it time? For, don’t we assume this gunman was mentally ill — to target those who are so glaringly innocent of crime, to overcome every instinct of humanity from protecting our young to self-preservation? When we’re faced with picking up these pieces, isn’t it time to finally speak?
My husband had a mental illness. He struggled with it for many years, and for most of those years, I considered this fact to be his story. I rarely spoke of it, mainly out of protectiveness for him. So he could stand in equal footing with those he met, with a clean slate, and none of the preconceptions that are so prevalent. I always felt it was his story to tell — in whatever way and to whomever he chose. Yes, there were those in our family or close circles who knew of his depression, but I felt the dialog of the illness should be authored by him. And rightly so. He was the one dealing with it. Some would say suffering from it.
It wasn’t until the level of frustration in my own head became more than I could handle that I began to crack the shell of what was really happening in our family. To acknowledge for myself and to those closest to me the poor decisions stemming from Mike’s thinking that were jeopardizing all of us. The disappointment. The fear. The anger. The hurt. The irrational nature of an illness not in proper treatment. The inability to discern what was Mike’s choice and what was prompted by depression and thinking patterns. The moments of crisis invading our lives.
When Mike died, I had to let go of the need to protect him. It was the only way to cope. His story of depression became my story. Living with mental illness. Surviving mental illness. And I finally realized that it had always been my story too. A story just as relevant as his, though the illness wasn’t mine.
In the wake of tragedy in my own life, I’m forced to ask, “Isn’t it time for courage?” The courage to speak and the courage to listen. As the whole nation mourns the loss of these little ones, isn’t it time for courage — to boldly speak and to just as boldy listen to the stories of mental illness impacting our lives, our families and our children? Would the outcome for Mike have been any different if I had chosen to open those stories sooner — when the specter of suicide wasn’t so blatantly and relentlessly present? Would that intervention have saved his life? I don’t know. Would the story of Sandy Hook Elementary have been just another pre-Christmas Friday if this man’s stories had been exposed sooner and more comprehensively? No one can know. But I have to believe if there was ever a time for the relentless courage to speak and to listen, this is it.
It’s time to find the courage to speak. To acknowledge our pain, our confusion. To reveal the realities and reject the stigma of mental illness. To recognize that secrecy and shame are our greatest enemies in this battle. And to speak. When we know in our hearts something just isn’t quite right — to speak. When we notice the shift in predictable actions — to speak. When we wonder, “is this normal?” — to speak. When we know we need help — to speak. When it’s getting harder than we think we can handle — to speak.
It’s time to find the courage to listen. To close our mouths to gossip and disdain and whispering. And to open our ears and eyes to understanding. And compassion for these silent struggles. To dare to open our lives and thus our hearts to others, finding it so much harder to reject what we’re determined to love. To put aside the notion of tiptoeing through the backyards of the lives around us, sneaking criticism and comparison. And to step up. To step to the front door, in plain view, and knock. To knock insistently with love and compassion in hand.
I’ve been blessed by those people knocking. Even when my instinct was to run away, to shush, to deny. The insistent blessing found me. And now it’s my turn. Isn’t it time?
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12 Days of Thanksgiving: DAY TWELVE
Dear friends, two months ago I made a decision to use this forum to open up some of the areas of my life that had been closed to public view for a long time. I made a choice to expand to a new depth the honesty I determined would govern this space when I started EyeJunkie almost five years ago. I wanted to tell a story I’d always considered to be Mike’s, but I now recognize is mine too. It was scary, and born of deep sorrow and disappointment. But, it was also born of a desire to rise from ashes. To break the mask of mental illness and emotional struggles. To lay them bare before an audience to somehow obliterate their shame and secrecy. To say that healing is possible. To say that life is valuable. And worth it. To say that we LIVE at all costs.
In private, I’ve shared with friends that I didn’t want my children to grow up with the life and death of their father shrouded in secrecy. I didn’t want them to be afraid to ask the questions that will inevitably come. To be able to deal in honesty and compassion with the circumstances of Mike’s death. So, I wanted the community around them (near and far) to have an honest and open, albeit painful understanding, and even dialog about these realities. And I wanted to communicate some semblance of a life lived and ended too soon.
Through the process, the voice of my own fears and private sorrows has consistently and quietly spoken, “hush.” But, the voice of so many of you has consistently and persistently urged me to “speak.” In your comments, your posts on social media, your messages and phone calls, your gifts of love and money and tangible things, your prayers and truths shared. All I can say today is thank you.
I’m learning through this journey… To speak is to heal. And to bring healing. So many of you have shared your own stories of struggle after reading something here. And although the tales are all different, the commonalities adhere. And healing emerges. Encouragement emerges. Hope emerges.
All I can say is thank you.
Day twelve. Whew! I have to admit it hasn’t been the easiest effort, to discipline myself toward thanksgiving this year. I think I’ve written about the biblical story of Jacob who wrestled an angel for a night to gain his blessing, and walked away with lifelong scars to prove it. I kind of feel that way. I’ve definitely wrestled. But, I’ve gained the blessing too. Through these different essays and lists and commentaries and images, I think I’ve realized that in this process of thankfulness, hope indeed emerges. To see the good and blessing around us — to recognize it and embrace it — is to defeat despair. There are empty chairs this Thanksgiving, but the table is still full. It is my decision, my choice, to partake. Joy and sorrow. Memories and new experiences. New steps made stronger by the road we’ve traveled. Laughter and tears. All evidences of a table richly spread.
And so, we end where we began.
With God. And His great goodness.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.© Haley Montgomery
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12 Days of Thanksgiving: DAY ELEVEN
I felt my own eyes light up.
I was trying to follow some story Bug was telling this afternoon. A bear and a baby bear were the key players, and I believe he was differentiating these bears from panda bears in terms of how long they stay small or learn to climb or something. Obviously, I didn’t get the full gist of it. I was trying to get the photo above to commemorate this day. And then I was distracted by looking in his eyes. Watching him tell the tale (which I now believe was grounded in some books from his K5 classroom). His face was pure pride and joy over the facts and the opportunity to convey them to me. And I felt my own eyes light up. I love how just listening to Bug lets me take so much delight. Just putting aside the other tasks or the need to hurry the story along or the impulse to answer every other distraction looming. I’m always amazed by the quietness it brings to my spirit to listen carefully to all that chatter.
It’s one of the lessons I continue to learn from Bug. I learn it from the others too, but it always seems more powerful from Bug. I imagine it’s because the other two don’t speak with nearly the passion and excitement that Bug does — at least not every single time. Bug is rarely indifferent. No, he has strong opinions, strong likes and dislikes, a strong sense of injustice, strong emotions, and a strong laugh. And yet, as the middle child, Bug so often finds himself in the position of compromise. Compromise and great passion don’t always easily co-exist, but I see him navigate those waters with grace. And I’m afraid his greatest bargaining place is often MY attention.
Bug daily teaches me the simple joy of listening. Because he listens. To everything and thinks about so much of it. And presents it back to me in his own ways of understanding. He teaches me about power of undivided attention. Because he needs it. Like we all do. Being that middle child, even I recognize that he sometimes finds himself on the short end of undivided attention where mommy-time is concerned — stuck between the baby sister and the older, more knowledgeable brother. He lets me know he needs more through constant questions, a healthy decibel level and by quietly sitting as close as humanly possible by my side. When I’m tempted to give in to the frustration of being in constant demand from my three-ring circus, I just have to look at Bug to be set aright.
Whatever story he is waiting to tell is poised in a very tightly reined exuberance that I know is just about to burst forth into something extremely important. At least extremely important to Bug. His stories are long and winding. He often starts over when he forgets his word or train of thought. He usually stops to ask, “can you please listen to all of this?” And then he starts again. It’s not necessarily an easy process to follow from start to finish. At least not while in the perpetually losing battle of multi-tasking. So, on a day like today I give up.
I give up and give him everything. All the attention I have. Listening just as passionately as he is speaking. With the same urgency as his need to share the information. And I feel the power of that concentrated listening as my own eyes light up to match the sparkle in his.
I’m reminded that one of the greatest gifts I can give — and the greatest blessing I can receive — is to listen. For as long as it takes.
Today is by far the easiest day to be thankful. Six years ago, my Bug entered this world and has been leaving his mark on my life every day since. Happy birthday, love. You never cease to fill my heart with joy.© Haley Montgomery
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12 Days of Thanksgiving: DAY TEN
I’m thankful for Mike.
I never imagined how painful it would be to write that. How much it seems to tear my mind apart. He hurt me so deeply on the day he died. In taking his own life. Abandoning life.
The lives of the children God gave us. He hurt me so deeply for years before that when I began losing him little by little each day. In many ways I felt like I lost myself in trying to be what was needed to help us all survive this situation. In the end, Mike didn’t survive.
It’s hard to push my thinking past that fact. You would think being thankful for my husband would be an easy one. I am and I have been. I AM thankful for Mike. His life. His character. His presence. But, I’m robbed of the joy of appreciating that blessing. At least for now. I’m robbed in the way depression and emotional struggles seemed to rob us of so many things. It blinds me sometimes with disappointment. Still, Mike was a blessing. To me. To our children. To so many people.
I’ve wanted to show the world some picture of the man I knew. The man I loved for so many years. Beyond his choice on this day two months ago. The day in September that makes THIS day the hardest in my 12-day journey toward Thanksgiving. I’ve wanted to see the man I knew as more of what he was. Beyond that defining moment. Before all this. Before the deep emotional issues plaguing him robbed me. Before I lost so much of him. A picture of the man I think he wanted to be. It’s a view of him that has been so obscured at times through our darkest days of dealing with mental illness and it’s warping of personalities.
Today, this is so hard to write, but necessary. One of my greatest prayers is that, in time, I will be able to think of Mike and speak of him with greater joy. That the flood of sorrow and disappointment brought by his death will be eclipsed by the joy that he lived.
Mike WAS a survivor.
The path of his childhood was a difficult one. He faced more struggles than I can imagine. Through the early evidences of depression — even as a young child, I believe — he developed his own personal ways of coping that amazed me. The resolve of his character allowed him to persevere and to emerge a gentle man.
Mike was kind.
It’s the attribute I think most describes him. He rarely raised his voice. He often had the ability to put himself in another’s shoes, showing empathy and sharing a compassionate word. I recognized through the years the great struggle it was for him to reign in his own thoughts and lay them aside to consider someone else. And yet, he set his mind to do it.
Mike was a seeker.
He challenged the popular phrases of religion. Simply because he had never heard them. But, he wanted to know. He wasn’t ashamed to say “what does this mean?” He committed himself over the years to be willing to ask questions.
Mike was disciplined.
I don’t know that there was ever anything for Mike that really came free and easy. Rather, he was so deliberate. About everything. This brought about a tremendous consistency. When he set his mind to form habits, he did.
Mike loved to play.
It’s one reason I think children loved him. He just enjoyed playing, and his playground was usually outdoors. He was a fisherman. And he rarely required tall tales to adequately describe his fishing trips. But, for Mike, he really didn’t need activity to enjoy Creation. He could sit and see and derive the peace he needed from it.
Mike could make you laugh.
He wasn’t gregarious by any means, and most people considered him to be quite shy. That’s probably what made him funny. His humor would sneak up on you. Dead-pan sincerity. Most people were shocked to learn he had great Elvis and John Wayne impersonations. They were funnier because they came from someone so quiet.
Mike was a helper.
He had a desire to serve. To lend a helping hand. We developed great memories in the early years of our marriage as he helped renovate our farm house. His help was always humble and filled with a willingness to do whatever was necessary.
Mike believed in Jesus.
His desire was to be the man God wanted him to be. It eclipsed every other pursuit in his life. And although he didn’t always succeed (none of us do), Mike worked hard to apply whatever admonishment came across his thinking. Mike’s faith was a simple one. A sincere one. He devoted himself to trusting God. I’ve said that he put all the faith he could muster into all he could understand about God. His was a true childlike faith, as God’s word describes.
Mike was a Daddy.
This in itself is remarkable because Mike never really had a father. His heart belonged to our three children, and he showed it through games and hugs and instruction and prayers and giving his time and attention. For as long as he could.
There are some things that must be said about Mike’s choice on September 20, 2012. Important, but hard truths that I won’t allow to become glossy in this tragedy of a life ended so young leaving a wife with three small children. But, those things are better left for another post. For this one, it is enough to say that Mike lived. And this is some of who he was. In these things, I have been blessed to share some of that life. And to have loved him at his best.© Haley Montgomery