A Ten year retrospective

(Originally written for Bell’s Let’s Talk day — in which Canadians are urged to discuss their trials with mental illness)

H. was a woman who loved to laugh.

We met online in an environment for our brand of geek. She was in a leadership position when I arrived, and over time as we grew familiar to each other, the idea of us grew.

But stop. Here’s where I should turn back and revisit the processes that made this all possible. As you’ll see quite soon, this isn’t a love story. Instead, this is more of a cross examination, a long overdue postmortem probe. A necropsy of a love gone to sickness, despair and suicide.

I escaped my hometown at the tender age of twenty-two, reaching for something beyond the slow mechanical death of $7 an hour, twelve hour midnight shifts, at the cheesie plant. I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted, but I’d experienced enough to know that I wasn’t going to find it in the slow-moving streets, stumbling drunk and numb from the beds of bored married women searching for one final thrill before age and bitterness claimed their beauty. If I wanted more, I’d have to aspire for more.

College provided an avenue but not an escape. Classes were fun, hard and challenging. At the time, I’d wished I’d discovered the willpower required to endure the white-knuckle nights spent alone in the lab or the dorm. Instead, I filled my spare-time with lovers.

K. was special, but even more confused than I was. T. was (and still is) a dear, whose affections I didn’t deserve. But nobody could fill me with life like H. I left them all behind to traverse the frozen wastes to the desolate existential gulag known as Winnipeg where H. and the best summer of my life awaited.

In the winter, Winnipeg feels remote. Snow falls in perpetuity. Nobody sensible leaves their home. The streets are a barren undiscovered country for the hearty traveler or midnight reveler. The poorer neighbourhoods carry the esthetic of a post-apocalyptic film, where bands of survivors huddle in boarded-up buildings avoiding the predators of their specific milieu. It’s not far off either. Instead of killer robots, plagues, zombies or bands of psychotic marauders, it’s poverty, racism, violence and the ever-present cold.

But I arrived in summer. The snows were long gone and people had long since emerged to feel the sun on their faces. Summers in Winnipeg take on a carnival atmosphere, and there was a sense of the convivial, almost carnal, community spirit to that first summer. Oh how I loved her in those few short months. We built a little place of our own where none could reach us. I worked and wrote. We played games. We experimented with sex and drugs, and love. Always love. Then it was over. I was back chasing my final year in college. I had no idea as I was leaving that nothing between us would remain the same.

Skip ahead.

School’s over and I’ve made the trip back — this time for good. I discover immediately that the previous summer had been a prelude to a much longer story. There was a distance between us now that I couldn’t pinpoint. H. had always been both complicated and moody and I suspected that the transition may take its toll. I’m an advocate of space and time in the face of such reactions, so I backed off briefly.

Her depression became my nemesis. She introduced me to her friends, her music, her life, and then hid from it all. I grew accustomed to the changes. Soon, instead of passion, we had complacency. Rather than experimentation, we had fear. When she trembled I thought it was out of passion restrained. How could I know? Once her frozen communication frayed even further, I gave ground. She needed time. I waited. We moved into a bigger place. I got my own bedroom, which I converted into a writing room and slept beside her, and then back into a bedroom as we unraveled further.

The depression deepened. Traveling from the bed to the couch or computer chair became her Herculean (or Sisyphean) daily task. I developed some perspective about the subjective nature of suffering from watching her fail to make the twenty-foot journey. I grieved for her, and my grief sharpened when the knives came out.

I came home one morning after a midnight shift to a grisly scene. Little drops of blood led fro the kitchen through the living room to the bathroom, where larger quantities sat dormant in the sink. Worried and confused, I searched for H. and found her in bed. Nearby, I found one of our steak-knives. She’d carved into herself, masking the internal ache with bearable external pain. Gradually, I began to see other aspects of our life together in terms of a palliative for her. It wasn’t long before I saw our summer together as a temporary reprieve from her agony, which suffered diminishing returns as I came back.

When the world’s gone crazy and it makes no sense, and there’s no easy argument to use in your own defense, sometimes your eyes search the room and only one friendly face is all you need to see. So enter D. A bright, lovely fellow writer with a stretch of darkness wide enough to complement my light. H. and I had long agreed on a poly-relationship — her with her depression and me with D. My biggest regret with D. was that there wasn’t enough left of me to go around.

She was wonderfully adult about the whole thing. A scintillating, shining star in an otherwise cold empty night. Without her patience, empathy and poise, I don’t know that I would have pulled through that hectic period when the knives were a regular occurrence. We lasted a year and then I couldn’t do it anymore. I was through with the desperate isolated winters; the deep antipathy I felt for H. as a defense mechanism to the inevitability of her suicide; the sense that unless I did something, this would be the rest of my life. So I did. My father had escaped from our hometown a year after me, and had settled finally in Vancouver. That seemed as good a destination as any. D. didn’t take my departure well, and that’s my biggest regret, but it was ultimately the right choice.

H. contacted me a month into my new life wanting to talk. I called her and soon realized that this was a closure call — a rare event in a lover’s life. She didn’t blame me for leaving, and was actually surprised that I stayed for so long. She told me that the difference (and the distance) between our summer together and the life we shared was formed in one singular moment of violence. During my school year, a neighbour forced himself on her during a cocaine-fueled binge. Afterwards, trust was impossible. No touch felt right. Intimacy became unattainable. I’d moved into a house with someone who didn’t know herself; had no sense of personal power or confidence, and for whom communication was a struggle.

I’d had no idea. I tried to stay in touch, but….

Now, on the tenth anniversary, I sometimes search the places where we used to play hoping to catch a glimpse of the light I left behind so many years ago. I have hope that she’s still out there somewhere, having found peace, and filling up someone else’s life with laughter.