courtesy of miguelavg
It was an ordinary night in March of 2009. My husband Allen and I were living in Sarasota, Florida with his mother Gretchen who had advanced Alzheimer’s disease. As usual, neither Allen nor I got any sleep that night because Gretchen kept yelling “Yoo hoo” every 10 minutes. Every night she became anxious fearing she was all alone in the house because she couldn’t see us. Hoping we could eventually get some sleep, first Allen, and then I, took turns descending the stairs and checking on his Mom, who always said, whenever she could see either of us, “Thank God I’m not alone in this house.” The problem was that in another 10 minutes, she started yelling “Yoo hoo” again because she had forgotten that one of us had recently walked into her room to reassure her she wasn’t alone.
This was a particularly stressful night because Allen had just learned that morning that the Town in which we lived in Sarasota was planning on shutting down our rental apartments indefinitely because we allegedly had rented some of our units to “undesirables.” This meant we were practically broke. Allen was inconsolable because we were counting on the income from our rental units to enable his Mom to live in the style to which she had become accustomed. Even though she had advanced Alzheimer’s disease, Gretchen never lost her taste for fine jewelry, designer clothing and a luxurious home. The mere thought of forcing her to downsize was unthinkable. And, of course, Allen bore the brunt of this because Gretchen was his mother.
To say that our life was stressful would be a gross understatement. If the truth be told, at this point in time, our life was a living HELL. Allen was a lot sicker than I thought, and his spirit was broken. I had no idea what was ailing me, but there were times when I prayed that the Lord would take me in my sleep, assuming I was able to sleep. Sometimes I didn’t know if I would live or die and I really didn’t care. I had lots of pain and I was very depressed. One of the worst parts of the whole scenario was that none of us could financially afford to get the medical help we so urgently needed.
On the evening of March 25, 2009, Allen and I were both feeling ill and irritable. We argued constantly about what to do about his Mom. Allen knew he needed a heart operation, but he kept putting it off because he was worried about who would care for his Mom while he was recuperating from the surgery. Allen didn’t understand my medical condition or why I had to take prescription sleeping pills. It was funny how it was okay for him to take various heart medications but that it wasn’t okay for me to take sleeping pills. We often argued about my so-called “drug addiction.” Well, if I really WAS a drug addict, I was an iatrogenic one, that is, I was PUT on sleep medication by my doctors. Allen said he didn’t want to be married to a drug addict and that I had to get off the “drugs.” This alone made me for the first time in YEARS of marriage, question the viability of our marriage. In order to accommodate Allen’s wishes, I attempted to taper off the sleep medication at a steady pace, but he was concerned I would never get off the drug completely. I managed to half my dose by gradual tapering (that’s the way to do it with benzodiazepine tranquilizers), but I never completely got off the pills.
To add insult to injury, Allen and I couldn’t leave the house anymore because of his Mom, and I finally reached my breaking point. I told Allen he needed to put his Mom into a nursing home because our health was suffering as a result of his Mom’s condition. Yet, Allen just shook his head and told me he had promised his Mom he would never put her in a nursing home because he weighed only two-and-a-half pounds when he was born and she was the one who had kept him from dying. He felt as though he owed his Mom his life, and he refused to go for counseling or to listen to advice from others. And, she sure was good at laying that guilt trip on him, too. Considering that we had been taking excellent care of her for six years, I believed that, at this point in time, we had done enough for her and that we could find a nice nursing home where people spoke German, as she was born in Germany. When Allen still balked at the idea, I called him a “Mama’s boy” something I would probably regret for the rest of my life.
Allen recently started wearing funny orange shorts with a bold, black sign on his backside which read, “Get out of jail fast.” I reminded him that in a sense we were really “imprisoned” by his Mom’s condition and that, at age 62, we had a right to live, too. He didn’t see things the way I did, and he often asked me: “If something should happen to me, would you take care of my Mom”? I had to be honest with him, so told him I had no intention of staying in this “prison” should something ever happen to him. I just couldn’t lie to him because his Mom never liked me anyway. The ONLY things she liked about me were my piano playing and singing!
At 1 am on March 26, 2009, Allen took me into his arms and started crying. This was very unlike him. He told me the only place he felt safe was in my arms. I told him I loved him very much and that, if I needed to hold him all night, I would do this to make him feel safe. He also constantly checked his blood pressure which by this time was uncontrollable, in spite of the various heart medications he was taking.
Because of his Mom’s constant “Yoo hoos”, Allen and I didn’t get any sleep all night, as usual. By the next afternoon, at 3 p.m. on March 26, 2009, I told Allen and his Mom that I had to take a nap. His Mom said she would do the same thing. Funny how she napped during the day without screaming “Yoo hoo.” Maybe this was because she was afraid of the dark and it wasn’t dark out during the day.
Allen told me he was going into his bedroom to take a nap, too. We couldn’t even sleep in the same room because his Mom only had twin beds on the second floor of her house, although she herself occupied a King sized bed on the first floor.
I fell asleep, but I was awakened by an awful smell and a horrible noise coming from the garage which was right below my bedroom. When I heard the sound of a car engine revving up, I instantly knew what was happening. I jumped out of bed and ran downstairs to the garage. The door was locked and I had no way of getting in.
I ran to the phone and dialed 911. The operator asked,
“What is your emergency”?
I replied, “My husband locked himself in his Mom’s garage, got into my car, turned on the gas and is trying to kill himself.”
They asked me for the address and the EMTs arrived within five minutes. They broke down the garage door and they pulled Allen out of MY car.
The EMTs came into my mother-in-law’s house and told me that Allen was still breathing and that they were taking him to Blake Hospital.
They also told me to put on a jacket and put a jacket on Allen’s mother and leave the house immediately. They said we were suffering from secondary carbon monoxide poisoning and had to be transported to the hospital at once. I couldn’t even pack a bag for his Mom and me. In the interim, Allen was on his way to the hospital in a separate ambulance. While the EMTs were transporting Andy’s Mom and me to the hospital, she had a heart attack. She was under the mistaken notion that her son was in a car accident and I didn’t want to tell her the truth.
When I arrived at the hospital, they put me in the ER and told me they would have to treat me for carbon monoxide poisoning. They told me the treatment would hurt. I was so numb from shock I didn’t feel a thing as a tech inserted a long needle into my arm.
A nurse came over to me and asked me, “Are you going to be okay? Are you thinking of committing suicide”?
My automatic response was, “If you send me back to my MIL’s house with her now, I probably would go into the same garage and kill myself.”
With that, they told me they were going to admit me to the crisis center and that my MIL was already admitted to the cardiology ward, as she had had a heart attack.
I still didn’t know how Allen was faring, but I feared the worst.
About a half hour later, a doctor and nurse came into my small cubicle in the ER wearing long faces.
They didn’t have to say a word. I spoke first, saying, “You don’t have to say anything. He didn’t make it, did he”?
And, just like in the movies, they told me, “No, he didn’t. We are so sorry. We did everything we could.”
They asked me if I wanted to see Allen in order to say goodbye and if I wanted his Mom to be wheeled into his room as well, and I said, “Of course.” I definitely wanted to say my goodbyes to Allen, and I wanted his Mom to believe her son was really dead. When his Mom said to me, upon seeing her dead son lying there, “We have to be strong”, I felt like slapping her, but I just let her talk. After all, she did have Alzheimer’s and she often said things which were inappropriate.
Saying goodbye to Allen was one of the worst moments of my life. After I saw him lying there lifelessly, I cried for hours. I think I cried for days. I was in the crisis center fighting for my life, thinking my life was over.
But, at the same time I was angry. How could Allen have taken his own life without asking for my permission? I knew he didn’t want to take me along with him because I had overheard him talking on the phone saying to a friend, “If anything happens to me, would you promise to look out for my wife”? What was strange is that he didn’t ask anyone to take care of his MOM. Maybe he thought because she was weak, she would succumb to the carbon monoxide in the house. She didn’t, and I actually felt sorry for her at that point. I would feel sorry for any mother who loses her son.
After this permanent “break up”, I was never the same again. The Genie who used to be a relatively normal, balanced woman was no more. She died alongside her dead husband Allen.
My stint in the crisis center at Blake Hospital was a time I will always remember. I remember how I was in such horrible shock that I was unable to eat anything. I lost a lot of weight because of my inability to eat. After having been “threatened” with a feeding tube, I finally forced myself to eat. I hadn’t become so thin since I was in high school. Of course, I gained a lot of weight once I recovered. I also remember that I was very depressed. After I was in the crisis center for about a day or two, I met with a psychiatrist who put me on an antidepressant in addition to my sleep medication. At first, the antidepressant made me very nervous and I had trouble sitting still. I didn’t like this feeling of anxiety at all, but I kept hoping that it would pass in time.
I had to attend group therapy for a few hours every day. There were about 20 people in the crisis center with me. Some of the other “clients” were survivors of suicide. Others were suicidal themselves, while still others were going through a divorce or were simply nuts.
Although I felt lousy, it was comforting to realize I wasn’t alone. And, it was great that they had a piano in the guest lounge. I asked one of my friends to bring me music and almost every night I entertained the staff and the guests. It was the music which slowly brought me back to life.
I also learned that my overactive thyroid was causing my insomnia, weight loss and anxiety. I was diagnosed with Graves’ disease in 1999, after my Dad had died of the flesh-eating bacteria, but I had been in remission for a long time, and now the symptoms returned with a vengeance. I realized that I would probably put on a lot of weight once I recovered. I probably gained 30 pounds during the past few years.
My recovery was slow but steady. Soon I wasn’t anxious anymore and I was able to tell my story coherently and to accept the fact that I would never see Allen again. I also received grief counseling from a Presbyterian minister, which convinced me that I needed to find a Presbyterian church once I was released from the hospital. I found a wonderful church and the church members became my “family”, as I had no family left.
When the day for my return home from the hospital finally arrived, I became fearful again. I didn’t know how I could return to my home in Sarasota alone, but I knew that I had good friends who would be there for me.
Even though there was no reason for this, I felt guilty that Allen killed himself. I felt partially responsible for his suicide, although I didn’t do anything to precipitate his departure from this world. Guilt is a strange emotion. When we feel guilty, we feel vulnerable. We feel like a person who did something wrong and who needs to be punished. Besides feeling guilty, I felt angry. How dare he leave me like this after 24-1/2 years of a fulfilling marriage? After his death, I was numb at first, and I almost felt unreal. Intellectually, I understood why Allen did what he did. Emotionally, I didn’t understand it at all. I had expected Allen and I to grow old together. But, this was not meant to be.
In time I came back to life. Yet, I was no longer the woman Allen had known. His suicide unhinged me, and the only way I could survive was to pretend nothing was wrong and to remind myself that I was still alive for some reason. No longer the faithful wife, I had to learn to be alone. I had to learn to be my own “sole” mate.
After reading his autopsy report and learning how terribly ill he really was, I gradually stopped blaming myself for his death. Still, I believed he didn’t have to die but he chose to die. And I chose to live. Even though this wasn’t a traditional “break up”, I felt much worse than I did after my divorce from my gay husband. This was because the man I LOVED left me in the most horrible way.
After six months of hibernation, I was once again ready to take on the world. The gentle, loving woman I used to be died along with Allen. My loneliness and my need to connect with others transformed me into a totally different person. My transformation had nothing to do with Allen. It had everything to do with me and with my attempt to cope with what was.
Those who “know me” from this site know that I subsequently became embroiled in the most bizarre relationship with a former friend of my late husband’s. Those who know me know that I was in therapy for three years after Allen’s suicide and that it took a long time for me to heal.
What I learned from all of this is that life is very unpredictable. I also learned that sometimes relationships don’t last forever because of reasons unrelated to incompatibility. Sometimes people we love get sick or desperate and cannot cope with life anymore. Although it is hard for us to accept the idea of a permanent break up, these things do happen and we have to learn to forgive and to move on. I am still healing from this permanent breakup and I consider myself a work in progress. I try to help my friends who are going through rough times. I try to teach my students to become better human beings. But, ultimately, there is only so much any of us as individuals can do. We can’t save the world. All we can do is try to become better, more understanding people so we can help perhaps just a few people who are willing to listen to us.
I was fortunate to find another husband last year. Kenny isn’t Allen, and he never will be Allen. But, he is a positive person, unlike my ex-bf, the former friend of my late husband. He and I do things together, and we appreciate each other as we both survived a permanent breakup. Sometimes we connect with someone because we led similar lives or had similar experiences in our lives. My marriage is still a work in progress. And yet, I believe that life itself is a work in progress.
* All places and names except for my own have been changed.
Thank you for reading this. It was very therapeutic for me to write it. Your comments and votes will be appreciated.