Last week a Kootenay woman called the Star office with an unusual request. After careful consideration she had decided to share the story of her husband’s suicide, with the hope something good would come of it.
Though tentative, I told her I was willing to listen. She arrived on a weekday afternoon, just after we’d put the paper to bed. I pulled out a pair of computer chairs for her and the iPhone-consumed child attached to her hip, then invited her to share.
Having covered the intensifying mental health crisis in the area for months now, I had a theoretical understanding of the conflict, but this was my first face-to-face with someone from the front lines.
She looked emotionally exhausted, still reeling, and at first I didn’t know how to broach the topic. She began by describing the trajectory of her 13-year marriage, which deteriorated in the last half-decade due to her spouse’s alcoholism, depressive thought patterns and mental health struggles.
“We were both activists and we tried to walk our talk and live our values. We were both free spirits, hippies, and we travelled around in a van for years. We were soulmates,” she said.
“He was genius, highly skilled at what he did. He devoted himself to his work and his customers. He was a gentle person, a quiet guy, and very intelligent with a photographic memory. He was a good provider for many years, and he had really good intentions. Those are the good things I remember. That’s the person I’m always going to love.”
The pair travelled throughout their adult years, living overseas for a time, before moving back to the Kootenays to be close to home. They settled off-grid, and her spouse found work in a different community.
That’s when familial strain and stress started to take its toll. Bills started to pile up. Childcare was overwhelming. As they struggled, he started to drink more.
“Alcohol is a solvent,” she said. “It dissolves things like trust.”
She was horrified by her husband’s transformation, and found her own mental health crumbling.
“When you’re with an alcoholic you start going insane. In some ways you’re more insane than they are because you believe their crazy talk. You want to believe the lies they tell, and I think alcoholics believe themselves too.”
When she realized her husband recklessly put one of their children in danger while intoxicated, she tried to leave him. This was a painful, soul-scorching experience.
“There had been many straws, but what happens is, when you don’t do anything about it, the event becomes a past event. That softens the impact of what it really was, and makes it easier to disregard.”
She stayed longer than she would have imagined.
“There were a lot of ultimatums and threats. ‘I’m going to leave,’ pleading. I thought my actions would have an impact and he would stop drinking, but alcohol is a disease. Nothing I said or did seemed to make a difference.”
She said it was painful to realize the most “loving thing to do would be to leave.”
Eventually, after her departure, her spouse took his own life. And though she was initially plagued by guilt and regret, she knows she made the right decision.
“I found out I’m powerless over it, so all I can do is focus on myself and my actions. I have to take the focus off the alcoholic and put it on myself, which takes away that dance of blame where it’s always someone else’s fault.”
She said she feels fortunate that she escaped with her life, primarily because she’s devoted to her children. And though the emotional trauma is intense and at times she felt like there’s no hope, she was adamant it’s there, no matter how bleak things seem.
“If people think there’s nobody there, they should know there is. There are people waiting to help. Let go of that rock in the raging river that you’re clinging to,” she said.
“For someone who’s with an alcoholic: no matter how much pain you’re in or how much fear you have, if you go to Al-Anon or one of these organizations you’ll find a whole room of people who’ve been where you’ve been. There’s always something who cares. You’d be surprised.”
Sitting and listening to this, reflecting on some of my own experiences surrounding mental health and substance abuse, I was struck by this woman’s bravery. She credited her current health to the hard-working mental health workers in the Kootenays, repeating over and over that resources exist for those who need them.
Her testimony was interrupted a few times by her child, who was hoping to purchase a new iPhone app, and eventually she shook my hand, thanked me, and continued with her day.
As I watched her walk down the Hall St. hill I couldn’t help but wonder how I may have fared in her circumstances. She was already back in full-Mom mode, her life continuing relentlessly amidst the grief, and it amazed me. For me, this was an assignment. For her, it was what she lives with daily.
During our talk, she praised local clinician Peter Ellis, who has supported her throughout the years.
When I called him at her suggestion, I found he couldn’t speak to me for confidentiality reasons. But before I got in touch, I listened to his unique voicemail recording. After assuring listeners he’ll return their call promptly, he offers a heartening message.
I thought it would be a good note to end on.
“I would very much like you to remember that love is the most tremendous and the most mysterious of cosmic forces,” Ellis says. “May this force be with you and embrace you as you open your heart to yourself just a little more.”