Category Archives: mental health

Sorry

On a beautiful summer day last year, I found myself standing next to my wife, looking at her. She didn’t look her normal self: she wore make-up, which she rarely did, and her hair was done in an unusual way. Also, she was lying in a coffin.

I didn’t know what funerals in Greece were like and just let things happen. I didn’t know whether there would be an opportunity to see her before the funeral, but there was and thus I was standing there, thinking of something to say.

I thanked her. For everything. And I promised her I would go and do great things. I don’t know the exact words I used but that was the gist of it. Then I went outside again.

I didn’t say sorry. Death makes a lot of things alright and the things I regretted or wished I had done differently suddenly didn’t matter any more.

But now, more than a year later, I am sorry. I am sorry that I didn’t fully appreciate her health problems. Not because they likely caused her early death, but because they made her life before that more difficult than I realised.

I am also sorry I didn’t fully appreciate her difficult childhood and how that had continued to affect her.

I think in practical terms I did alright to make her life easier and she certainly showed her appreciation for that. But it isn’t always about the practical things. I wish I had understood her a bit better back then. It would have helped her. It would have helped me.

Saying genuinely sorry is one of the hardest things to do. I certainly haven’t always been able to do so at times when I should have, especially because a good apology should come with a real intention to do better next time.

I don’t know what my next times will look like. But I know that I am able to do better. Because I am genuinely sorry.

Coupling

We were not one of those couples who would spend most of their free time together.

We were not one of those couples who, when not together, couldn’t wait to see each other again.

We were not one of those couples you would expect to ever be a couple.

And because we were not one of those couples, I didn’t think there would be much decoupling to be done.

But we were that couple who deeply cared for each other, in ways that I am only slowly starting to fully appreciate.

When I decide about what next steps to take, be they big or small, and I am honest and true to myself in doing so, I invariably end up going for what she would have wanted me to do.

Thus her caring for me continues, just like my caring for her continues by telling her story and honouring the gift that she has given me.

Decoupling is a lot harder than I thought it would be, but this is in part because not everything needs to be decoupled.

Because we were that kind of couple.

We are that kind of couple.

Imbalance

It was the evening after my wife’s funeral and my mother, who had come over for it, my wife’s mother and her father were sitting in our living room. “She wasn’t an easy wife” I found myself saying and her parents responded by saying that she wasn’t an easy daughter to have either.

I cannot express with how much love this was said and it remains one of my most treasured moments of that week.

My wife wasn’t an easy one to live with. And especially now that I look back at our relationship, this is actually one of the things I am most grateful for. An easy life is rarely a satisfying one.

I wasn’t an easy one to live with either. Knowing how to deal with my own feelings isn’t something that comes natural to me and frankly, I am still learning. Various things going on in my life made the first year of our marriage a particularly difficult one.

My wife wasn’t someone to give up easily once she had made up her mind, but I am certain that during difficult times, the thought of quitting had gone through her head. It did then, but also later, go through my own head.

It was never a thought that stayed for a long time. But as I am processing our relationship, I realise there was something unfair about it: for a number of reasons, including but not limited to me having a stable job, leaving would in practice have been a lot easier for me than it would have been for her.

The decision for her to do poorly paid or unpaid work was a deliberate one that we both fully supported. And it was fine, then but even more so now, because so many things become fine after death. But I don’t think I ever fully appreciated this imbalance.

Of course, should we have broken up I believe I would have done the decent thing and continued to support her. But in such circumstances people don’t always do the decent thing they intended to do.

For unrelated reasons, I have recently done some reading on relationships that are both abusive and very hard to leave. Alhough ours wasn’t like that in any way, it has made me realise the importance of being able to leave a relationship with relative ease and making sure the other party can do too. Because many relationships don’t end, like ours did, with death.

Minister

Italian for Beginners” is a Danish romantic comedy that I watched in the local art house some fifteen years ago and then again a few years later with my wife at home.

I don’t watch a lot of films but I often find myself thinking of this one, for it has one of my favourite film characters: a Lutheran minister who seems so calm and grounded as he talks to others about their various problems.

I have always wanted to be that person.

When I am confident enough, I think I can be that person. My wife used to say I had a lot of potential and even though that was often in the context of me not fully utilising it, I think she was right.

When calm and grounded, I do feel very strong. I have been called “the voice of reason” in meetings more than once and though often insecure about my own abilities, I do think this is an accurate description. It is also when I feel most myself.

But I am usually not calm and grounded. Fears and anxieties often get in my way and my ignoring of these fears and anxieties make things worse. This has always been true and is true even more so now, as I slowly come to realise that what happened last summer really did really throw me off balance.

As I was discussing mindfulness with someone the other day, I thought of the minister from the film and remembered a crucial detail: at the beginning of the film, his wife has just passed away.

I have always seen what happened last summer as an opportunity to do really great things and becoming the person I always wanted to become is one of these things.

But to do so, I first need to learn to deal with my own anxieties. That is more difficult than I realised as I constantly need to fight my tendency to escape from the anxieties for some false reality.

Instead, I need to stay focused on these anxieties to learn to properly deal with them. This is part of the reason I started writing about them on this blog. It hopefully helps me remain patient too.

And then the prize at the end is going to be great.

Grief

I have long felt connected to the ancient stoic philosophers and in particularly to their attitude towards death. There isn’t anything one can do about death, so there is no point in worrying about it, or wishing it wouldn’t or didn’t happen.

This didn’t change when my wife suddenly died last year. I have never, not even for a moment, wished her back, or felt angry about what happened. That just seemed pointless. It simply felt like her death at 37 was something that was always going to happen, except that we never knew about it.

It often seemed that other people were more affected by what happened than I was. As I was speaking to my mother-in-law earlier today, she mentioned that she didn’t remember much of what happened during those days. It feels like I remember every single moment.

There exists a great amount of literature, and other kinds of media, on grief, but I carefully avoided these, for I felt so little connection to them. It seemed that everyone else who lost a partner also lost part of the will to live, at least temporarily. I went out to buy a new bag three days after my wife’s death and felt happy and very much alive.

It is well known that everyone experiences grief differently and I just seemed to experience it very well.

“Did you really?” the psychologist sitting in a big armchair asks me. And I proudly and a little too quickly answer that “yes I did”. And then slowly realise that this pride was at least part of the problem.

“Doing well” was something I had become proud of, something that I almost defined myself through: I was that guy whose wife died and who was doing so well.

As with many things I write down here, this is a bit embarrassing to admit. Especially because after a while I wasn’t doing that well any more.

Sure, I was dealing well with the narrow definition of grief. I was never upset or angry about her death. But grief is so much broader than that.

It includes feeling lonely. Feeling unsettled. Being anxious about the future. Worrying whether you will ever find someone who will know you that well. Missing the things we did together. Missing looking after someone. Missing those things that were really ‘us’. Struggling with the questions that will forever remain unanswered.

In my wish to be doing well ─ and to appear to be doing well ─ I ignored all these aspects of grief, sometimes right until they hit me in the face. And then I tried to reason these worries away.

“You know it doesn’t work like that, don’t you?” the psychologist, still sitting in the big armchair, points out. And I don’t answer because of course I do. But patience isn’t something I am particularly good at.

A few months after my wife’s death, someone said I seemed to be embracing grief. And at the time, I did indeed. And then I stopped doing that.

Apart from the fact that I was feeling somewhat proud of my way of dealing with grief, I also felt that focusing on it got in my way of moving on. Which it did, but only because I was trying to move on too fast.

In recent months, I have started to embrace grief again. No, I still don’t feel upset or angry about my wife’s early death: that aspect of my dealing with grief was genuine. But I have suddenly become the kind of widower who uses his wife’s picture at the background image of his phone. And that is more okay than I thought it would be half a year ago.

Saying that we are again dealing with my fears and anxieties together sounds cheesy and isn’t really true either: I am very aware of the fact that I am really on my own and that she isn’t there to give me advice. But as long as I feel connected to her, I can gather the strength and patience I need to move forward. At whatever speed is appropriate.

Still in my heart retain her wonted place

Yet is remembrance of those virtues dear,
   Yet fresh the memory of that beauteous face;
Still they call forth my warm affection’s tear,
   Still in my heart retain their wonted place.

In the eastern outskirts of Athens, there is a neighbourhood named after Lord Byron. On the eponymous cemetery, my wife lays buried. I have always found it fitting that the final resting place of the woman who taught me to love poetry is named after a poet.

The cemetery is a happy place, where the hills and trees look after her and the stray cats keep her company. I don’t go there very often, but when I do, standing next to her grave always does more to me than I expected.

Today, a service was held to commemorate the anniversary of her passing. She didn’t die until the 18th, but as she took almost six days to die, any day of that week would have done. This just worked out best.

As I entered the church and saw her photo on the altar ─ the one in which she laughs a very happy laugh ─ I suddenly got overwhelmed with emotions and cried louder that I think I have done since last summer.

It was great.

I felt very connected to her in a way that I haven’t always done in the past year. I missed that connection when I was trying to live an easy, care-free life, or when I was pretending to myself to be further ahead than I really was.

Now I realised that as long as I remain true to myself, I will always be connected to her, wherever in the world I am and whatever happens in my life.

I will always carry her in my heart.

Untangling

My wife and I got together in December 2004. We got married in June 2006. Our relationship ended with her death in July 2018.

Except it didn’t. After her death, I still felt very much part of us. I remember that same evening, as I was sitting in my office and staring at my book case, how I got this strong sense that I wanted to continue the work that we were doing, even though I didn’t have a clear picture of what that work really was.

I found comfort in continuing to live our life. In the weeks after her death, I washed and ironed her clothes that were still lying around and then put them back in their proper place in the wardrobe. Almost all of her things are still where they were last summer. Her deodorant still on a shelf next to the bed, her tampons still in the bathroom. This is still our house.

But in the almost twelve months since, I have moved on. At times much faster than I should have. At other times more hesitantly than was necessary. But there has been a whole year added to me that’s not part of us.

And I find adjusting to this harder than I had anticipated.

“But who are you really, Martijn?” I imagine the psychologist sitting in a big armchair asking me. And I don’t always know the answer.

I spent a third of my life being together with my wife. We weren’t the kind of couple who did everything together ─ far from it. But we were a couple and my life would have been different in just about every aspect if we hadn’t been together.

And now I suddenly find myself wondering: what do I really want from life? How do I really like to spend my time? What kind of person am I?

Exciting though it is that the world lies open to me ─ and it is genuinely exciting ─ I find it also often unsettling. Life is easier when you have found some kind of pattern to follow. I am still trying to find a new pattern.

And then there is our relationship. After my wife’s death, I said that it had been a perfect relationship, but that was always meant in a Leibnizian “best of all possible worlds” sense: it was perfect in all its imperfections.

And imperfections there were many. Things that I regret. Things that I wish I had done differently. Things that I wish she had done differently. Things that we didn’t talk about and that now remain a mystery forever.

And much as I have said that the way our relationship ended was a happy one ─ which it really was ─ I still need to untangle myself from it. To digest what happened and here too, to decide what I want from the future ─ and from future relationships.

We approach the one year anniversary of her death and I find myself looking forward to that. It’s like a symbolic date on which I switch from my wife’s widower to that guy who once was married. An important step in the journey from us to me.

But I’m not going to fool myself and believe that everything will be resolved by then, and that the untangling will be done. This will take some more time.

And that is okay. It was a good relationship but also a complex one and it will take some time for me to properly unwind it. For us to have fully become me. Our relationship deserves that time.

Friends and relations

Not long after my wife died, I made the conscious decision that I wasn’t going to go out of my way to avoid spending Christmas or New Year’s Eve on my own. I wasn’t going to fly back to the Netherlands, just to be with some people. I did end up spending those days with friends, and it was good, but I’d have been alright anyway.

From when I was a small child, I have enjoyed spending time on my own. I rarely get bored and even within a relationship I enjoy finding some time for myself. These days, I don’t really mind coming home to an empty house or sleeping in an otherwise empty bed, nice though sharing a house and a bed with someone is.

I did not think I would get lonely now that my wife was suddenly gone.

Then I did.

It is of course a normal and healthy thing. If anything, it confirms I am a normal human being, who needs human contact to stay mentally healthy. As someone who has at times wondered how normal he really is, that is good to realise.

But I have also struggled with finding a new balance in life, now that the natural balance between friendships and the relationship with my wife has gone. And I have struggled more than I realised.

Now that I look back at the past year, I realise I have often been acting like a 15-year-old, at least inside my head. I got unhealthily excited about new friendships and equally unhealthily worried about existing ones when messages didn’t get answered, or when I thought I might have said something wrong. I have felt very lonely at social events because I realised none of these people were really my friends.

That same inner 15-year-old inside my head gets at times stupidly obsessed over confirmation on social media. Twitter likes meant far more to me than they should have. Even now, I often check Twitter first thing in the morning when I get up.

I find it rather embarrassing to write that down. I haven’t been 15 for a quarter of a century. I strive to be a grown-up, sorted person, who uses life experiences to become a better human being. I can deal with death, so surely I can deal with this too?

But then, I guess what happened threw me more off balance than I realised, and in ways I had not anticipated.

Thankfully I am a lucky person and I can turn all of this into an important life lesson and become that better human being that I want to become. It will take both a bit more work and a bit more patience though. And thus a bit more loneliness too. Tough. I’ll just have deal with it.

Ambitiousness, laziness

I spent the first half of 2018 worrying a lot. About small, practical things but also about the big questions of life. I was going to turn 40 in the summer and that bothered me more than I liked to admit. Was this the life I wanted to live? Was I really happy? What would the future look like?

Then suddenly my wife died. Already when she was in hospital and death was just one of many possible outcomes, it became clear to me that this was the life I was meant to have lead. This realisation helped me a lot during the next few days and then in the period after her death. I have not lost that feeling for a single moment since.

But I had been a bit naive in thinking that all those worries from before the summer had disappeared.

I am 40 now. On my own. Childless. Feeling rather ungrounded in life. Having come to realise I needed my wife more for my mental sanity than I ever liked to admit.

When I am feeling well, I am incredibly ambitious about my future. Not just about the many practical and meaningful things I want to do, but also about the kind of person I want to become. I have said I wanted to live a life that would make my wife proud, and nothing would make her more proud than me becoming a much better version of myself.

But ambitious though I may be, I am also lazy. I want to be a better person more than I want to become one. I also don’t really know how to go about becoming a better person and so I often find myself pretending to be further along the path than I really am.

I am a lucky person though and I know can find the help I need. While doing that, I find it helpful to regularly write on this blog, if only to hold myself publicly accountable and to avoid falling into the “I am fine” trap. Like mental health on the blockchain.

My ambitiousness clashing with my laziness is often interpreted as me being too harsh on myself. Trust me, I am not. If anything, I could do with being stricter with myself and with expecting more. No, losing a partner hasn’t always been easy, but I have caught myself a few times now using it as an excuse (to myself, mostly) for mistakes I simply shouldn’t have made.

I appreciate feedback on the things I write. It means a whole lot to me when people say what I write helps them in various ways. But just like there has never been a reason to feel sorry for me this past year, there won’t be a reason to tell me to be easier on myself. But by all means, if you feel like doing so, do cheer me on.

Thank you.

Not quite okay

Last summer my wife died. She had a haemorrhage on Thursday evening and died Wednesday morning the following week, without having woken up from an (induced) coma. She was buried the next day.

It was a strange week, but I experienced it very calmly, not because what happened didn’t get through to me, but because I was so very aware of it. I was experiencing my life changing forever in real time and I was able to handle it well.

The weeks and months after her death were some of the most beautiful in my life. I am sorry if this sounds strange; she would understand. It also made me believe I was able to do great things: it felt that if I could handle this, I could handle a whole lot. And I did really want to start doing great things.

 

Then things slowly started to slip. I started sleeping badly. I had a hard time concentrating. One evening I found myself crying over a work meeting I was to have the next day. I had never done that before. But I convinced myself it was work, not me, and dismissed it as a relatively insignificant incident.

My ability to sleep slowly got worse, to which I responded by having multiple short naps a day and drinking an unhealthy amount of coffee. I realise now that I am lucky that coffee is my go-to vice at times like that.

My ability to concentrate got worse too. I had a hard time focusing on the books and articles I read. I was feeling tired most of the time. The many naps I was having only resulted in me waking up restless.

Meanwhile, I thought I was fine. Or maybe not fine, but I didn’t think there was something structurally wrong with me. This has always been my response to not being well: to pretend everything is fine. And to convince myself this is the case. I am frustratingly good at it.

There were of course plenty of reasons for things not to be fine. It was never really the grief itself, I was and am fine with that, but I slowly started to realise that I was really on my own. That the children we had planned to have were gone forever. And that, happy though I felt about our relationship, there were some unresolved issues that had now suddenly come to a strange end.

Being on my own was a problem for a different reason too: I work from home. I think working from home has many benefits for both parties and I like to think I have shown this in the past decade. But doing so when you are on your own, not in a good mental state and don’t see many people in the evenings isn’t a healthy thing to do. Which is putting it mildly.

It allowed me to stretch my working days from 8 in the morning to 11 at night. Not because I had turned into a workaholic, but to make up for both low productivity and the many breaks I found myself taking.

Thinking back to some of the events I attended, some of the trips I made and some of the talks I have given, many of these appear to have passed in a blur. My output in just about every measurable sense was really poor. And my brain started to do some weird things.

I have been rather proud of my self-sufficiency this past year: I can cook and do things around the house because I have always done them. In practical terms, the past year has been easy. But it took me a good six months to realise I am not that good yet at emotionally looking after myself when I am really on my own.

And really, I should have known that. I have gone through enough mental health stuff in the past to know I find certain things difficult ─ even if I perhaps handle other things surprisingly well.

 

When my wife and I just got together, I went through a rather difficult time. She helped me and stuck which me, which I appreciate now more than ever. She also wasn’t shy of discussing what was going on and would often refer to the various weird things she found me doing. She regularly wrote about them on her blog.

I now realise how much this served as a reminder to me that things weren’t okay, because then as now I preferred to make things smaller and pretend I was mostly fine. I write this post in large part to remind myself that things haven’t been all that okay, now that she isn’t there to remind me of it.

 

Realising how not okay things have been is a relief in itself. Still, I have learned my lesson and won’t say I am okay while I still sleep badly and while I still struggle to concentrate. I now know to regularly check my logs.

But I do feel a lot closer again to the person I was last summer. And I still want to do great things. Heck, if I, with my privileged life and now quite a bit of life experience, aren’t going to try to make the world a better place, then who is?

But I won’t be able to achieve this without making myself a better person too. And that requires some more work.

The past year has been good. Even the past six months included many genuinely great moments and important life lessons. But things can be so much better, and it feels again that I have an unique opportunity to make that happen.

Onwards and upwards.