Thursday, 6 July 2017

And the grief goes on

I thought I'd finished my blog with a positive post about finding new love. It seemed like a hopeful ending and I've been been trying to wean myself off blogging. I don't want grief to define me. I'm a writer and grief is just one of the things that I can write about. I also want to be a fully rounded human being and loss is just one of the things I have experienced. But I'm also a person who is committed to telling the truth, and the truth is that I have been struggling lately.

I was warned that this might happen. The people further down the road in online support groups told me that the second year of widowhood is routinely found to be worse than the first as the shock wears off and they adjust to the reality of a new normal without their partner. Not for me though, I thought. I am different. After all, I'm not a widow. I don't have grieving children and I don't have a whole life to rebuild. Neither do I have all of the secondary losses that I read about: I haven't lost my income; I'm not having to learn how to be a single parent (I've had that t-shirt for four years and, like me, it's worn out); I haven't lost my identity as a part of a partnership because Paul and I were only just becoming a couple and still lived mostly independent lives. Yet, I have lost a lot and the repercussions are still being felt, like aftershocks, long after the the debris from the original earthquake has been cleared up.

To the outside world, I probably look like I'm doing well. I have a lovely new house, I'm working, I took the kids on a foreign holiday on my own, I no longer walk around crying in public and I occasionally manage to go out and smile at social occasions. I imagine that I've lost the haunted look of the newly devastated and the bags under my eyes have gradually faded. Most importantly, I have a new boyfriend which is surely the ultimate indicator of my success in embracing a new future. I lost one boyfriend and found a new one. Job done, surely?

But, no. In fact, having a new boyfriend, like every forward movement, has unleashed a whole new tirade of grief. I proclaimed my new love to the world like someone who was one step away from winning that slippery game of Snakes and Ladders and promptly landed on a snake which sent me cascading back to the beginning again. It happened a month or so ago on Paul's birthday. I woke up smiling in my new boyfriend's arms, looked at the date on my phone, realised its significance and everything began to fall apart. How could I have woken up happy on such a sad day? And how could I be sad while my new partner was happily basking in the glow of new love? Even worse, how could I have forgotten the significance of the date? (Not so hard for me because I never spent a birthday with Paul). As a friend helpfully said, "it's a headf**k!" I couldn't hold so many conflicting emotions in one body and I slid down that snake into a pit of anxiety that I'm gradually trying to climb out of. I've been waking up with that lurching feeling in my stomach again, walking on a tightrope again, feeling like I might fall at any moment. I am full to the brim with emotions that threaten constantly to spill out and I am vibrating again like I was at the beginning, shaken to my very core, feeling unsafe.

Things got so bad that I went back to see a therapist  She tells me that I am suffering not just from grief but from the repercussions of trauma which has been triggered by the very thing that you'd think might have made me feel better: falling in love. It turns out my whole being is trying to protect me by screaming, "don't do this again! It only ever ends badly." My mind is on red alert, looking for signs of danger in the strangest places - in the tattoos on my boyfriend's arm, in the words that he speaks, the messages that he sends, the love that he gives. My therapist has me recording my anxious thoughts and the other day I'd written down twenty-four of them by 10am. She says I'm like a victim who has been in a fire who now registers every whiff of smoke as a life threatening situation that I need to get out of when, in reality, I have a faulty toaster (my brain) and a bit of overdone toast (a new relationship which, like all new relationships, is a bit scary and not 100% perfect.). When my boyfriend mentioned the idea of one day meeting my children, my anxiety went a level higher. The last time I introduced a partner to my children, he promptly dropped dead. The one before that left and broke all of our hearts. Ok, logically I know it's unlikely to happen again. Maybe it will be third time lucky. But logic has nothing to do with anxiety. My limbic system is out of control and is over-ruling the rational part of my mind. The therapist explains that the amygdala stores my memories and determines my fears based on the strength of my emotional reactions and my amygdala has learned in no uncertain terms that love and the grief that ensues when it ends, is terrifying and not to be messed with. And yet, the part of my brain that can still think really wants to love, and my boyfriend and I are very compatible and he's lovely and is doing his best to understand........

So, I went for some hypnosis and I've seen the herbalist who has increased the anti-anxiety herbs in my medicine. I've been to the GP who has prescribed me pills that I look at every day, wondering if I can manage without or if I should give in. I talk to widows online still and find that, though their circumstances are different, they are still struggling too. Many of them are receiving treatment for anxiety or depression, one, two, three or ten years down the line from the event that changed their lives forever. And, though I don't have all of the secondary losses that they experience, I do notice that I share some of them. No-one talks to me about Paul now. Since his mum died I have lost my main connection with the people who loved him. What do I do with his memory now? And like other widows, my identity has changed. For one thing I've acquired this identity as a person who writes about grief. What do I with that as I try to move forward? Do I keep blogging, write a memoir or just leave it here and move into a new future? Meanwhile, the romantic novel that I was writing when Paul died is still on hold and I'm not sure I can go back to it. Do I start something new? What would that be? I'm a writer and I don't know what to write about. I'm a reader who still can't read a book. I'm a person who still can't watch films or TV. I'm still in transition, out of my comfort zone, trapped between the past and the future, between sadness and happiness. It's not an easy place to be.

And like the other widows, I have lost touch with some real-life friends. I retreated inward when Paul died, needing to be alone to process my grief and spending my time online with the only people who truly understood. Now my Facebook newsfeed is over 50% grief-related and most of my life is lived online. It's been a safe place to be but I know it's not healthy. In the real world I've not been much fun to be around and understandably people assume I should be back to normal by now. The friends who used to call to check on me don't call anymore (I don't blame them as they have busy lives and gave me so much love and support in the early days). I don't have people inviting me to go on holiday with them this year either. Life goes on and I need to stand on my own two feet. I'm no longer a special case. But the grief goes on and, sixteen months in, I am still struggling to keep reaching for the light.

I repeat the words of the hypnotherapist like a mantra: "Love is always stronger than fear," she said. Somewhere, deep down, some part of me believes her. And so I keep going and keep trying to hang on to love.