Defeating Depression, Evading Anxiety
Mindful memories of marriage
Posted Feb 11, 2018
Yesterday was what would have been my seventeenth wedding anniversary. The fifth anniversary of my husband’s death is coming up in a couple of months. In the midst of organizing a whole bunch of paperwork for my taxes, I spent some time thinking and writing about my husband and our marriage. For the first time since he died, I didn’t cry.
Instead, I let my thoughts wander through our marriage. We were colleagues in the same department at a university. We were friends for years before that first date, when we went to hear Dawn Upshaw sing. Our friendship remained strong in the marriage: we enjoyed each other. He was 28 years older than I, and took pleasure in introducing me to the things that gave his life most of its meaning: his children and grandchildren, movies, classical music, international travel, and American literature. We eventually found a few of the things that give my life meaning that he was willing to share: poetry, mostly, and human behavior, and a cat.
When we got married, our age difference, while substantial, didn’t feel monolithic. We were both active, full professors in our department, and the difference in our fields of study (English lit for me, and American lit for him) kept us clear of entanglements about curriculum and schedule, the two factors that are the bane of any academic relationship. We had our own friends, and while I felt sometimes that he wasn’t interested in getting to know mine— “They’re so young!” he said once—I very much enjoyed getting to know his. His friends were artists and authors and philosophers, many lived abroad. They were all interested in things like jazz, abstract expressionism, contemporary dance, international politics. My friends worried about their aging parents and adolescent children, liked to camp, worried about money, worked out at a gym. Sometimes our friends overlapped: we had a party with a range of people, or discovered that the philosopher was on a committee at school with the historian. We were able to make a rich life together.
After my husband retired, and we moved back east when I went back to school, our life changed more than we had anticipated. He left a lot of his professional identity behind. I got engrossed in a new career. The age difference between 48 and 76 felt really different from the age difference between 35 and 63. He had spinal stenosis, and after much debilitating pain, which he bore with great stoicism, he had major surgery, twice. He recovered well, became active again, but the pain gradually returned. Walking became difficult. He sometimes seemed like an old man. Depressed, he became quiet, and when I encouraged him to see a therapist, and then to consider an anti-depressant, he resisted until he finally found a social worker with a deep interest in jazz. They talked about Billie Holiday and Bill Evans, he told me. I made an effort to make time to listen to Sibelius, go to the movies on a week night, go to the Museum of Modern Art with him. I learned to love that time together, even though the experiences often ended with him falling asleep from the pain medication, or needing to lean heavily on my arm as we walked back to Grand Central to take the train home.
He died suddenly, and the trauma of finding him dead hit me pretty hard. Like most people who have lost a beloved spouse or partner, I couldn’t see my future, and that terrified me. Because it was so scary, and because I knew something about grief from earlier experiences and my professional work, I focused on not looking ahead, not looking back. Sometimes I focused on not looking at all, and wrote fantasies about love and romance with some unidentified person. I got a new job. I moved out of our big house and into a duplex in town. I weathered my own spinal problems and a broken ankle. I dated for a while. I adopted another cat. I cried a lot. I had help from friends and family. I gradually settled into a routine, called in the literature about grief, my “new normal.” As I approach five years as a widow, I find I’m happy.
I don’t look back too much, and I don’t look forward too much. I do try to keep my eyes open these days, and focused on the here and now. I’m writing a book on grief, and it’s a fascinating experience: I’ve spent almost a year figuring out what the book is really about, and I’ve gotten an agent, and I’m working on getting some of the complicated issues ironed out. I’m accepting help I would have resisted a few years ago. I’m seeing myself more accurately: as someone who needs help with some things, as we all do.
There’s a truism that my more sophisticated colleagues would choke before they’d say: that depression comes from looking back, and anxiety comes from looking forward. Like most simplistic truisms, there’s some truth in it. I got up this morning and refused to think about the appointment I have with a lawyer tomorrow because it makes me anxious. Instead, I made coffee and oatmeal, and sat down to write this post because I knew I could write it with pleasure and ease. It’s about the moment I’m in right now, 17 years and 1 day after David and I got married, and 63 days before April 15, the day he died. The moment is informed by the past and the present, but it isn’t imprisoned by it, as it would be if I thought too long about my marriage, nor is it aquiver with fear from the knowledge I have that life could end at any minute, as it did for Dave just under 5 years ago. Instead, it’s simply a moment, a beautiful and happy moment, in the process that is my life.