Being a human is hard

Beth Dolloff

In 2017, Beth Dolloff’s husband took his own life. In a blog post she shared in April 2019 on her website Standard Badge, she wrote, “My husband had bipolar disorder, a difficult to treat, chronic mental disorder. In his quest to quiet his mind, to find some relief from the pain and suffering that he was continually in, he drank. Self-medicating, he became addicted to alcohol, and most assuredly, prescription medications. I worried about his health, his inability to stop drinking, and was most concerned about him getting behind the wheel and injuring or killing someone else. When he took his life in 2017, it hurt like nothing I hope to ever experience again.  It still hurts, and it always will. But it was a relief that I no longer had to worry about him, about getting that call, about him hurting or his hurting someone else. That part of our suffering, and his, was over. Another had just begun.”

Beth reached out to me the other day to thank me for the work I do here on Catching Health — for telling people’s stories and connecting with them. Connection is important to her. She thinks a lack of connection was partly responsible for her husband’s death.

In response to her message, I asked if she’d be willing to share her story about how she is coping with the pandemic. I told her “There is a whole lot of grieving going on and I suspect a lot of people don’t even realize that’s what they are feeling. Maybe you’d be able to offer some clarity and at the same time, write about how you are coping.”

Beth answered that she recognized the pattern of grief right away and that, absolutely, she would like to write something.

This is Beth’s story:

The pandemic amplifies what is already there. Fear. Loneliness. Vulnerability. Obligation. Fragility. Disconnection. The control that was, in fact, an illusion, continues to ebb and flow. Replaced by puzzles, binge-watching, eating, drinking, and realizing that what we thought was “life” was in fact, a series of events, strung together, that created the narrative that we craved in that moment.

My husband and I were at his doctor’s office one afternoon, discussing his bipolar disorder and how to best manage the symptoms. His response, “to medicate the patient, as to be always in a state of low-grade depression”, shocked me. What kind of life is that for someone who has grown accustomed to feeling the highest highs and the lowest lows, at least half of that was “feeling great” to instead, just survive. It broke my heart.

COVID-19 has decidedly made a similar decision for each of us. For the most part, existing in this low-level depression, lamenting what we are missing, what we have lost, and what will never be. For some, this pandemic represents the biggest loss they have yet faced in their lifetime. In the reality of this space, I feel stuck in a somewhat smelly, dark theater, watching a loop of bad B movies, and I can’t get up and walk out of. Yet.

Depression and sadness are a part of my life and have been for a long time. The pressure and sadness that surrounded my family, the stress of managing care and life in my own “isolation”. Somewhat self-imposed, as I knew that my husband did not want our friends and family to stigmatize him because of his illness. Making excuses for missed events, less than positive interactions, or a rage-filled outburst, I tried to explain to my children what I did not have a full grasp of myself. I became an emotional caretaker, his only source of reality, good or bad, and the consequences that our family endured because of the lack of a consistent and healthy relationship. The one he had with himself.

It was because of the grief and sadness over the loss of my husband to suicide in 2017 that I barely survived myself. Now, a collective grief, a malaise has permeated the globe, little by little, town by town, house by house. The loss of freedom never comes easily. Adjusting expectations of the government, family, friends, bosses, and most assuredly, strangers has chipped away at me, bit by bit, until the wound that had been getting slowly better, was again visible. Newly painful recognition of a world that finds itself struggling for answers and looking for hope.

Hope is the most important thing to have in a time like this, followed by the desire to learn, grow, and change. Actively search out positive and life-affirming books, podcasts, and videos. Be aware of what you are feeding yourself, food, yes…but your mind in particular. Make plans for the future, as it always was uncertain, and that never stopped you before. Know in your heart, no matter what, that things will be ok. The only control you ever had was in what you chose to think and believe, and how you chose to act on those beliefs. Nothing has changed. Love is all you need.

Beth Dolloff

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Beth, for reaching out to me and for your words of wisdom. Lessons you had to learn in the worst possible way. I choose to hope and believe that because of the pandemic, many of us are becoming more connected. More deeply, and in ways we hadn’t even considered before.

Beth is a member of NAMI Maine’s Speakers Bureau. NAMI stands for National Alliance on Mental Illness and is the nation’s largest grassroots support, education and advocacy organization committed to the issue of mental illness. Beth also started a business called Standard Badge, where she sells apparel that encourages people to share their values with the world. Learn more on her website Standard Badge.

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Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. She now hosts and produces the Catching Health podcast and writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.