“With a little help from my friends..”

Scrub that.

Not ” a little” but “a lot” of help from my friends.

When I wrote recently about my late wife’s struggles with mental health, and her final, nearly completed, suicide attempt a friend who had known us both well at that time, wrote to me, saying,

“..how you coped with it I will never know!”

My response was

“how I coped with it” – one day at a time, and with a lot of help from my friends.

I wrote previously about what was (almost) the end of our difficulties together, but there was also the beginning. In some ways at least, this was almost more difficult, because it was all so new and unfamiliar terrain, and because the children were so much younger, aged just 18 months and three years.  I could not have come through that time without extensive support from both friends and family.

This support was crucial again, through all the crises during the marriage, and at its end. After the marriage finally broke down, there was the help of a support group for divorced people: I was at home one afternoon, when a stranger appeared at the door. She was the Polish mother of a daughter’s classmate, and instructed me, forcefully, “You come Divorce Workshop Group!” So I did – and found it immensely valuable, for the hard information I gained, and for the friendships formed.

Later, when I moved from to Johannesburg to Cape Town and finally came out to myself and then to others that I was indeed gay, again I found that simply meeting other gay men, and forming friendships with them, was helpful – as was my membership of a gay/lesbian support group, “Gasa Rand” (i.e., Gay Association of South Africa, Witwatersrand region). I joined their committee and introduced an adaptation of the tools used by the DWG, that I had found so helpful for divorced people in Cape Town. These proved to be equally successful, in supporting gay men and lesbians in Johannesburg.

Still later, after moving to London, I was faced with the challenge of coping with living once again as a single gay man, and attempting to reconcile the apparent contradictions in being both gay, and Catholic. During this time, the support, resources and regular LGBT-affirming worship services of what were then known as the “Soho Masses” were yet another lifeline.

More recently, in my journey with GIST, it’s been the GIST Support UK who have been invaluable, with the information on their website, the listserve email group, and their biannual conferences.  Conversely, during my major surgery last February to remove the tumour and with it my stomach, I was acutely conscious of the support and prayers of this GIST support group, but also of my LGBT friends in queer faith communities worldwide, as well as my local parish community.

I am now more conscious than ever, that in times of difficulty, I “get by with a little a lot of help from my friends,”

Fadographs 1: Fallen griefs. (She is gone, my wife that was, the mother of my daughters).

“Finiche! Only a fadograph of a yestern scene.” (Finnegans Wake I, 7)

“And after that she wove a garland for her hair. She pleated it. She plaited it. Of meadowgrass and riverflags, the bulrush and waterweed, and of fallen griefs of weeping willow. “(Finnegans Wake IV,  207)

So – she is gone, my wife that was, the mother of my daughters.

As I’d like to remember her – Picture taken from Robynn’s instagram feed.

I heard the news last Friday evening, via two emails from my daughter Robynn.

Just fyi – Mom is in hospital, expected to die within a few days. It’s *probably* cancer, but she refused to go to a doctor for so long, by the time she was admitted she was far too weak for them to do the usual tests, so it hasn’t been confirmed. In any case she’s in a very bad way and apparently now shutting down.

Just thought you should know.

followed a short time later by

She died 3 hours ago. 

The suddenness of her passing, as a result of having refused to see a doctor, was no surprise.  Later, Robynn shared her thoughts in a blog post, including this,

You can’t grow up hearing constantly that your own childish neediness was the reason she’d tried to kill herself, and the reason she still wanted to, without sooner or later thinking “Well then – get on with it!” 

Ever since, my mind has been turning repeatedly to that time, thirty five or so years ago, when her suicide attempts and threats were a constant part of our lives together. It’s ridiculous of course, to have blamed the girls for her mental health difficulties – at the time of the final, very nearly completed attempt, Barbara was just barely eight years old (almost exactly the age that my granddaughter Claudia is now), and Robynn only six. Nor do I accept that I was myself “to blame”, as she also would have alleged. However, with hindsight I must accept that I was indeed part of the problem.

That’s not how I saw it at the time of course. Throughout her many difficult periods, I had done my best (as I saw it), to support her in every way I could. Because she had difficulty coping with too much stress, I had taken on responsibility for pretty well all the cooking and shopping, and as much of the childcare as I could, when not at work. When she was willing to see therapists for her depression, I took time off work to get her to them, saw them with her when required, and attempted to comply with all their recommendations. When things became too much for her, I did what I could to ease the pressures and soothe her distress. When it all tipped over the edge, I was the one that got her to psychiatric casualty at Groote Schuur hospital, a place I got to know far too well. Throughout, I also tried simultaneously to maintain as normal, calm a life as possible for the two young girls, in situations that were very far from normal. In my own mind, I was doing everything I could to be part of the solution.

The reality I could not then see, was that while not the “cause” of the difficulties, I was very much part of the problem. As a gay man, I should never have proposed marriage in the first place – something I had done at a ridiculously young age, impulsively and without proper forethought. When we married a few years later, it was on a precarious financial footing, and we never developed a sound, partnership based approach to managing household finances. Two young children arrived too soon. The first pregnancy and birth were difficult – with post partem depression exacerbating an existing mental health difficulty, quickly compounded by a second pregnancy.  As the years went by, the marital difficulties mounted, and depressive episodes, emotional meltdowns, threats of suicide and actual attempts became a constant in our lives. She came to demand a divorce, which I refused. Although no longer by then a practising Catholic, I clung to the myth that marriage vows are sacrosanct, and must be forever.  How wrong I was. It’s little wonder then, that feeling trapped in what had become a destructive marriage, she chose to get out in the only way she could.

The time has come that I need to write about these times. I do so, not with any intent to complain about or to disparage Marie-Jeanne, but just to describe what it was like, especially as it concerned my daughters. They lived through some extraordinary conditions in their childhood, but somehow not only survived, but in the end thrived. Both are today strong, capable and independent women and excellent mothers – in spite of their parents.  I salute them.

“These Fragments I Have Shored Against My Ruins” (TS Eliot, The Waste Land: What the Thunder Said)

(For more, see Fallen Griefs (contd): The Night of the Balrog)