Note: This blog is part of a cross-collaboration between the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness. This piece originally appeared on the NAMI Blog.
Apr. 17, 2018- I slept a lot. I woke up each day wondering how soon I could go back to bed. Sleep medicine became part of my daily routine, and I didn’t see how this change was problematic. After all, it was just a lifestyle habit changed to cope after losing Preston.
When I got the call that Preston had died, I was woken up several hours before my daily alarm. The news was so nightmarish it felt like a dream. Suicide? In my family? Preston… out of all the siblings? But he had always been so even-keeled, stable and he never asks for help. I called him after the news, sent him a text telling him to reply—so sure it was a dream. But he never answered. It wasn’t a dream.
The Kubler-Ross Stages of Grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance—are unpredictable. The intensity of each stage depends on the person experiencing it and the event itself; it’s not unusual to experience a stage more than once, and there’s no timeframe for how long each stage may last. My shock and denial persisted for nearly three months.
Then, as depression took hold, I re-encountered denial and shock—but it was directed at myself, instead. My internal script was the same: “I’m not depressed; I’m just tired. Preston isn’t coming back, I know this. Everything is as okay as it will be, and we all must keep going. I’m not depressed; I’m just… tired.”
What happens when you’re “tired?” I withdrew from numerous social commitments because I couldn’t force a smile or bear to answer how I was doing for the thousandth time. I isolated from family to avoid talking about “what happened.” I lost my appetite but gained considerable weight because when I did eat, I picked the easiest food to consume and didn’t follow it with any physical movement.
What was perhaps most indicative of my “exhaustion” was a total loss of interest in music. Despite a lifelong passion for songwriting, I wrote just one song, “Lullaby (to Preston),” the week after Preston died. The next several months were spent avoiding listening to, playing or writing music. It required more creative emotional energy than I could manage. I insisted vehemently to myself that I wasn’t depressed. “I’m just tired. I need a break,” went the script. But a break didn’t help.
Four months into life without Preston, every task overwhelmed me, from choosing clothes to wear to signing a birthday card. Sleep became an enemy. When I wasn’t having nightmares of traumas I had compartmentalized earlier in life, I dreamt of Preston—vivid memories of him as a child or a painful playback of his funeral. The thrill that once came with going to bed was replaced with the anxiety of knowing I would wake up the next day, when my thoughts were a constant reminder of my perceived weakness and worthlessness.
Though it wasn’t the pivotal event that motivated me to seek help, co-writing a song with a close confidant helped me feel less alone and admit I wasn’t “just tired.” Kristen is a musician and music therapist like myself, and she also lost her brother to suicide shortly after I lost Preston. Our griefs were similarly aligned, and the reprieve of sharing social space together was desperately needed. I could be tired, withdrawn, overwhelmed and simply, sad. So, when we began writing “Free,” the collaboration flowed naturally.
Kristen came to the session with lyrics that had permeated her mind since her brother passed: “In a room, in a house, where no one sees...” Almost as soon as she shared her words, the song was finished. We identified intensely with the need for a private space, both physical and mental, to feel our hurt and sorrow without questions from others or mental anguish engulfing us. The first lines of “Free” begin:
“I can’t explain where I’ve been,
and though everyone wants to understand,
it doesn’t mean they comprehend.
They can’t grasp where I am.”
We didn’t fault anyone for being unable to empathize, but in this musical moment, we could relate how heavy it felt to bear this unique sadness. And as we wrote the song’s final lyrics, “I thought I could find relief in my sleep, but I’m not safe even in my dreams,” I was forced to admit that the mental script I’d been defaulting to wasn’t working. I was not tired. I did not need a break. I was deeply depressed, and if I kept going it alone, I was going to break.
Fortunately, I was not alone.