I Am Not What I Feel

A few days ago, I returned from Camp Widow San Diego, where I attended and gave my 10th comedic presentation. Since 2013, I have been a presenter at Camp Widow in all three locations; Tampa, San Diego, and Toronto. Last weekend was my 10th time standing in front of over a hundred widowed people, and hearing them laugh. It is truly one of my favorite sounds.

The week that I spent in San Diego was incredible. It was filled with friendships, old and new. I learned lessons, I experienced realizations about my grief and my process, I had moments of helping another person through their tough emotions. There was dancing and drinking and swimming and relaxing and healing and laughing and crying and loving. It was absolutely wonderful.

And then I had to come home.

There is this feeling that those of us who attend Camp Widow refer to as “Camp Crash.” It is a very specific sort of deflated and depressed feeling that one gets, after having been in the supportive, loving, understanding “everyone here is just like me” bubble of a camp widow weekend. It is a very real and powerful set of emotions, and it can truly mess with your head. Well, my crash began the second I stepped outside of the Marriott Hotel in San Diego, about to get into the cab to the airport back to NYC. As I stepped into the taxi, my face felt the PERFECT weather of San Diego, and instantly I got very sad.

Then, on my red-eye/overnight flight home, the WiFi wasn’t working. I was seated next to a couple who argued and fought with each other in a cruel manner, the entire 5 hours. The TV’s weren’t functioning either, so I had no way to escape my own panic and anxiety that comes with every single flight. I hate flying with a passion. It terrifies me.

Suddenly, in mid-air, and seemingly out of nowhere but not really, I started to miss my husband who is dead. I mean, I really started to miss him in that visceral, all-consuming, pit-of-your-stomach way, where you just want to find the nearest corner and sob your guts out. Except I was in mid-air, on a plane.

My husband Don was in the Air Force. Years before I met him. He was Flight Crew Chief and Mechanic, for the F-16 planes. He made the planes safe, just like he did with everything else. His job in life was to make things safe, and he made me feel safer than anything, just by being near me. When we flew together, he would put his arm out and say: “Just hold onto my arm, Boo. I got you. Nothing’s going to happen to you. Just squeeze my arm, or dig your nails into it. Whatever you need to do. And if something scares you, ask me about it and I’ll explain it. Nothing is scary once you understand it better.”

But those days of grabbing my husband’s arm and feeling safe were gone. This time, I grabbed at the arm-rest to my right in the aisle seat I was in, as I tried really hard not to cry out loud. The couple next to me kept arguing and screaming at each other with the attitude and clueless-ness of two people who know nothing of the sudden shock of death, and I sat there, like a child, on the verge of a tantrum stemming. Suddenly, I couldn’t think of any other thought than how much I missed my husband, and how much I wanted him and only him back, right this minute. Suddenly, the unfairness of how HARD my life is now without him, how hard EVERY SINGLE THING is, and how exhausted I feel after doing every goddamn thing ALONE and by myself for 5 years, came rushing into me. Suddenly, I just wanted to run far away, except there is never anywhere to run when you are in mid-air on a plane, and your husband is forever dead.

The last 90 minutes or so of the flight were awful. There was something like turbulence, but worse. I don’t even know what it was really. The plane kept dipping over and over again, dropping really fast in altitude, and making my stomach do flips. Nobody else seemed to notice or care, and I was alone in my panic, holding onto the arm-rest for dear life. The plane shook and made weird noises – noises that my patient and loving husband would have explained to me in a calm and non-condescending voice, if he were alive. Noises that wouldn’t stress me out, if he were still here to make sense of them. Nothing is scary once you understand it better.

Once we finally landed, my luggage ended up on the wrong carousel for almost 2 hours, and when I finally retrieved it, I had to walk with it half a mile throughout the airport to find where the taxis were to get home, due to construction in the airport. My phone was dead and not functioning right, and my brain was even worse. I plopped down in my bed, fixated on the picture of my beautiful husband in his EMS uniform that says “Everyday Hero” in the frame that his work gave him, and sobbed my guts out.

Suddenly, and finally, I couldn’t stop crying. This was more than just camp crash. This was life crash. I lost my Summer teaching job last month, so I have no job or income until September. I’ve been stressing out about this for the past month, and looking everywhere for work before my cash supply officially runs dry, and my stress and emotions finally came to a head the second I landed in NY. As did everything else. The reality of my situation. The exhaustion of living life without my husband for almost 5 years. The confusion of dating and trying to find love again, and being in situations that involve other people’s fragile emotions, and that I have no control over. Wanting things that I can’t have, and not knowing how to make my heart feel differently about them. Knowing that the heart feels what it feels, and I can’t stop it. The frightening thought of hurting someone, or hurting myself, or trying to do everything right and still ending up alone anyway. Trying to just be in the moment, but always terrified of the future and what’s around the corner. The feeling of having absolutely no idea what I’m doing, where I want to be in life, or what comes next for me. In life, I feel exactly as I did up in that plane – suspended in mid-air, and terrified.

I feel like a failure. I feel scared. I feel like I should know what Im doing by now, or like I should have it more together than I do. I feel like a fraud – like someone that people look up to, and really they shouldn’t , because I’m just as clueless as everybody else. I feel tired of making decisions, and I feel sick of struggling. I seriously feel like I cant make one more decision, after 5 years of making EVERY decision, big and small. I just want somebody to say: “Relax. I got this. Let me take care of this for you.” I feel like dirt when I can barely support myself. It feels bad. When you don’t know how you will pay your next bill or next month’s rent, it makes you feel less human. I feel shaken up by life and trauma and grief, and I feel like that shaky feeling will never leave. I feel like having a temper tantrum. I feel, I feel, I feel …….

And then I remind myself, I MUST remind myself, that I am not what I feel. I am not my feelings. They are just feelings, and they matter, and they are revealing, but they don’t mean that is who or what I am. Just because I feel like a failure right now, does not mean I am a failure. Just because I feel terrified, does not mean I will be terrified my entire life. All of these feelings and thoughts are frightening for me right now, because I have never felt them before, and therefore, I dont understand them. And things that we don’t understand are scary. Nothing is scary once you understand it better.

I no longer have my husband here to make me feel safe in the world. And that sucks. Sometimes it REALLY sucks. And I don’t have him to lean on when I’m scared, or to help me when I can’t pay the bills, or to say: “Its okay, Boo. I’ll pick up some extra shifts this month, and we’ll get through this together.” That is no longer a thing. Nobody says that anymore. And I do not want to go through the rest of my life with nobody saying that anymore. I can’t do it. I want to have that teammate in life again. But until then, I need to remind myself that I am not what I feel.

Maybe if I keep repeating it enough times, I will finally, actually believe it. Or, if anything, I will understand it better. And nothing is scary, once you understand it better.

The Fog

Every single night since my husband’s death has been an adventure. Not the fun kind of adventure; like when you are on vacation and anxiously await what today will bring in the way of new and exciting activities. No. This is more like the: “what kind of hell am I facing on this night, as I simply try to get a few hours of sleep so I can perhaps function and be a human being in the world tomorrow?” type of adventure. The word FUN does not exist in this reality.

The very idea of going to sleep each night brings on anxiety, panic, and unease. There are just so many factors involved. If I have done a lot of intense crying that day; which normally is the case but not always; then I might want to take some kind of Excedrin or Advil for my horrible headaches that always follow the massive crying spurts. But then sometimes my back, shoulders, and entire body are aching so badly from doing things Im not used to doing yet; like lifting EVERY SINGLE THING I OWN from my car in the parking garage across the street; to my apartment on the 3rd floor; day after day after annoying goddamn day. Heavy bags of groceries, cat litter, lugguge from spending time at my parents place, boxes of Demo Products, my gigantic shoulder bag for teaching, the microphone stand and mic I bring for my stand-up comedy students; and on and on and on. All things that Don used to just automatically carry for me, always.

In addition to that, Im doing all the cleaning, all the car stuff, and basically anything and everything else that needs to be done or comes up. Although we both did quite a bit of “stuff” around the apartment, Don was always the “take care of things” guy. He did all the carrying of heavy things, all the fixing of things that broke, and all the killing of frightening bugs or other unidentifiable creatures. That is just what he did. I would panic – he would fix. Now I just panic. And ache. So if its been THAT kind of day; then I might need some sort of Ibuprofin pill to stop aching so much so that MAYBE I can get 3 hours of sleep that night. Of course; just falling asleep and then staying asleep is another terrible adventure in itself; as in; it rarely happens. So 90% of the time, I take two Tylenol PM to help get me to slumberland. This doesnt always guarantee I will get a good nights sleep, but it will, at the very least, knock me out for an initial 3 hours or so. After that, who the hell knows what will happen; but it almost always ends or begins with the clock somewhere around 4:30am, and Sammy the cat on my pillow, pawing and clawing on my face.

So, the anxiety and ease has already begun before even attempting to sleep. Which pill do I take? What is worse: my headache, or my not being tired enough to NOT be up thinking for hours? If I have to be up at 6am to teach the next morning; this anxiety is then magnified. Or should I take something for this pain that is in my shoulders, back, and arms? My arms are absolutely killing me. They feel like they are on fire. Its got to be from all the lifting of incredibly heavy bags, but of course, the very idea that they are always hurting or feel sort of numb then throws me into further panic mode; thinking: “Holy Shit! Am I having a heart attack? Am I going to die like he did?” This thought goes through my mind on a loop, every single day. It is awful. Then the second, immediate thought is always: “If I die, Im totally alone here in this apartment. Nobody will even know Im dead. It could be days, or a week, before anyone knows Im gone. I will just be lying here. Dead.” When you lose your husband in an instant the way I did, you end up with severe anxiety that the same thing can very well happen to you, or to anyone you love. You end up obsessing and thinking about death way more than you should, because you now have the harsh knowledge that it can all be over, for any of us, in a split second. There is no sense of comfort or peace anywhere in this “journey.” (Those who have been reading and following so far know how much I HATE it when this horrific life of grief is called a “journey.” Yuck.)

After finally deciding on my drug of choice for the evening, I usually climb into my bed, and that is where the real “adventure” begins. First of all; it’s our bed. OUR bed. So every night; I have to get in it, look over to his side, and see the nothingness. The empty pillow with nobody’s head on it. There are nights I lay there for minutes or hours; just picturing his face looking back at me; or remembering a specific night of us being intimate, or kissing, or holding hands, or just talking. Or laughing. We laughed a lot in bed at night. Im not sure why. I think in a lot of ways, lying there together was like our “silly time.” It was where we would really let go and just be immature and make each other crack up at stupid things that wouldnt ever be funny to anyone else. We would sing silly songs to each other, or to the kitties; and they would climb up on us and purr. Most nights; when Don and I were sleeping facing one another; Sammy would wedge himself right in between us; and he would lay there like a little person; this third head right smack in the middle of ours. It was pretty much the cutest thing on earth.Then Autumn would sleep right at my feet; and I would always end up kicking her by accident several thousand times during the night.

 I also remember that anytime we would go to my parents house for the weekend; which was a lot; mom and dad would give us their bedroom to sleep in; and dad would sleep downstairs while mom slept in the smaller bed next to their bedroom. There were so many mornings where mom would say to us in the kitchen: “What on earth were you two laughing about last night? I heard you laughing like hell in there for the longest time!” I don’t even know what we were laughing at most times, to be honest. We just really loved to laugh. Now; there is no more laughing while lying in bed. There is just me; trying like hell to get through the night; so I can get up tomorrow and try like hell to get through the day. So that I can maybe get through the night. To get through the …. you get the idea. It’s an exhausting and endless cycle.

Lying in bed most nights; many things happen. I start thinking. Then I think some more. Memories. His voice. His touch. His hands. Things that were said. Moments. The tears usually come pretty fast while trying to sleep. One of the cats will jump up on his pillow next to me; or sleep behind my head on my pillow. A lot of times, the very presence of the kitties sends me into emotional turmoil. I think about how much he loved them; how he took such good care of them; and how much they miss him being here. How he would brush their fur and their TEETH so patiently. Yes, he brushed their teeth. It was amazing to watch. Now; in my new reality; several times; I have held onto Sammy and cried into his fur; holding onto him for dear life. The strange thing is; he lets me. He knows. He will cuddle up to me and let me cry, or place his head on my arm or up against me while I’m a sobbing mess. Most nights; Autumn will lay at the foot of the bed, by my feet. She is a lot less cuddly than Sammy; but she has gotten a lot closer to me since Don died. She will come up and purr into my pillow, or give me a quick lick on my hand, then rub her face all over me. We all lay there together; mourning and asking why it’s just us. I talk to them. I feel like a crazy person; like what everyone thinks a stereotypical “widow” is; but I talk to them. I might say: “You miss Boo Bear too, don’t you? I know, honey. I know you miss him too. I miss him so much.”

Sometimes I see Sammy on Don’s pillow, and he is looking at me with his huge, beautiful eyes, and Its like Im trying to see my husband through his eyes. It sounds nuts, because it IS nuts. But it’s what Im left with, and its what I do. I will look at Sammy and say: “Boo Bear? Are you in there, Boo?” Then Ill start laughing at how ridiculous I sound. As Don would have said: “You’re not all there, Boo. You’ve finally lost it.” We weren’t much on religion or Heaven or any of those things, but Don believed, or HOPED, that when it was his time, he would be with his kitties Isabelle and Ginger again somehow. He also believed that if there was a God; or whatever God was; that animals had the closest access. He believed that animals knew more than humans did; that they were on a different playing field somehow to that other world. Sometimes I feel him, or try to, through our pets. We lie there together with the TV on all night; for noise. I cannot stand the silence that comes with being alone. I need to keep the TV on, so I can trick myself into thinking Im not alone here forever. I hear noises. The realities of being a female alone in her apartment and vulnerable, hit hard late at night. I don’t feel safe. There are thoughts that go through my head each night; especially when the TV is off and there is darkness. It is a terrrible, unsafe feeling.

 And then, there are the nightmares. Every single night; I have some kind of dream. Most nights; I have several dreams; one right after the other. The most common one that I’ve had over and over again; is where I either re-live the morning he died, or make up some other version of it in my sleep, and then re-live that. Sometimes the nightmare is the actuality of waking up to the ringing phone, rushing to the hospital, being told he is gone, the utter shock. Seeing his body and talking to him, not knowing what I was supposed to say. Other times; the nightmare is coming from his viewpoint. Since I wasnt there when he had his heart-attack and can only go on what his co-workers tell me of that morning, my mind makes up the worst, most chilling scenarios, and plays them back to me while I sleep. I picture him lying there, collapsed, on a cold Petsmart floor. In reality; I am told he was there for a couple minutes at most before they saw him and called for help; but my nightmares have him lying there for ten, twenty minutes; begging for help. Nobody coming to help him. He reaches for his cell phone to call 911, or me, and he cant get to it before becoming unconscious. Or he is in and out of consciousness; and aware that he is going to die. He is scared. He wants to live. He wants to see me, see his kitties. I picture the ambulance ride to the hospital. Was he coherant? Did he know what was happening? Did he know the tables were turned, and he wasn’t driving the ambulance this time, but the one lying on the stretcher? WAS HE SCARED? I don’t know how Im expected to sleep with these kinds of thoughts inside my head. If I don’t get any sleep, I am exhausted the next day and can barely function. If I DO get some sleep, I have so many disturbing dreams, that I wake up exhausted from them and can barely function. Its an endless, ridiculous cycle.

The dreams that seem sweet at the time are almost worse, though. There have been many dreams that seem pleasant and beautiful. One night I had a vivid dream that I was pregnant; and it wasnt planned; and in the dream, I was telling Don the news, and he took me in his arms and jumped up and down with me, saying: “Wow! What a wonderful surprise, Boo! I’m gonna be a dad? This is so cool!” Another one Ive had often, is that I get the call from the hospital that morning, but instead of saying “We have your husband”, they say: “We have your husband. He had a minor heart attack, but he’s fine. He’s going to make it.” He gets a second chance, like so many others have. He gets to live, and I get to see him, and my world isn’t turned upside down in an instant. I have also had several dreams where Don and I are going through the process of adopting a child; something that we talked about doing many, many times. In these dreams; he gets to be the incredible father that he himself never got to have. He gets to finally be the dad that I know for a fact he would have been. The very thought of him never having that chance, and of me having to let go and mourn the idea of having a family with my husband, brings me to tears everyday. To be faced with families everywhere in the real world is bad enough – to dream about it all the time is awful. These dreams are unbearable, because you wake up happy and giddy for a few seconds; believing that what you just dreamt is the reality. Then you slowly realize it was just a dream. There is no baby. There will never be a baby. No child to give a family to. No family. Oh, and by the way, your husband didn’t make it. He died. It hits you like a ton of bricks and you cry for an hour sometimes before you can pull yourself up. And you have to pull yourself up. Employers don’t understand “I had a terrible dream” as an excuse to call out of your teaching duties.

There have been times where I’ve told people of these dreams; and they always say the same thing whenever I report dreaming about Don. “It was a visit. He was visiting you.” This drives me nuts. So far; there has only been ONE dream where I FELT like it could have been Don “visiting” me, or his spirit, or whatever it is you believe or want to call it. That was the dream that I referred to as “Eleven”; where we had sweet, very realistic dialogue, and I could FEEL his hug on me. That dream was so powerful physically and emotionally, that it affected me for days afterwards. I felt like I needed 2 days off just to recover from the intensity of that dream. As far as all the other dreams; they are just dreams, and most of them are not at all comforting. They are my mind and my heart, remembering. Wishing things were different. Wanting to bring him back.

The other night, I had a dream that was very basic. It was just me and Don, sitting at a Yankee game. We were enjoying a baseball game, the way we used to. Two people told me that dream was him “visiting me.” No it wasn’t. It was me wanting to be at a baseball game with my husband, and hang out with him again. It was me missing him. My mind never stops. The dreams never stop. The only thing worse than trying to get through the day, is trying to get through the night. It hurts to be awake, and it hurts to be asleep. Everything in between is a fog. Will there ever be any peace?