Nothing Good or Bad?

…for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
Shakespeare, Hamlet 2.2

My name is Denise, and I’m honored that Becki asked me to guest-post for her.  She’s got an unbelievably devastating story, yet since she found my blog, Forever 21, she’s made me a concern of hers. And for that I’m grateful.

I started my blog one year after learning my son, Philip, died from an overdose. It was sudden and unexpected, like it often – catastrophically – is. He was 21, sharing an apartment with some friends near Rutgers University, where he was a junior. He was a funny, kind and happy kid. He was also a kid who was playing around with drugs, and he lost. As did I, his father, his sister, and all who knew and loved him.

I write to keep my sanity, to keep it real. Because as devastating as my reality is, my only other option is to get lost in a fantasy of what-ifs and I-should-haves and why-did/didn’t he-s. So while much of the time I think it sucks to be me, what I am is what I’ve got.

So here goes – and if I write, “Philip said,” or some such thing, it’s because part of my story is the fact of Philip’s continued, palpable presence in my life:

I just finished a two-week session about grief, given by John, my grief counselor. Not everyone there was suffering the death of a loved one, and no one was suffering the loss of a child. Some people were losing themselves, their sense of “who they were” and didn’t know where to turn. Many of them spoke of wanting to “get back to the joy” or the “happy” or whatever word they used to say, “I used to feel good, now I don’t.” And a couple of people thought it was important to be positive about things.

I suppose we could debate the merits of “acting as if,” but it doesn’t work for me. Change comes from within, and I don’t get there by smiling when I’ve not a reason to. And “change” is usually a by-product of whatever psychic work I’m doing, so that yeah, maybe I’ve changed, but it doesn’t feel like change so much as there’s one less block between me and the truth I’m seeking.

And I’m thinking about this because during the group, I spoke about Philip’s friend Max. Max and Philip were friends since they were kids. Max is the one who brought the heroin into the house, the one who banged Philip’s bedroom door in and found him lying dead on the floor. He’s the one who cried to me at the wake about giving Philip the heroin, to which I replied, “Look. You didn’t stick it up his nose. You can’t spend the rest of your life feeling guilty.”

Except it didn’t take too long after that to realize I was goddamn enraged at Max. A couple months after Philip died I saw him, which I wrote about here. I talked to the group about what that was like, and it left some weird impression on me. Like I conjured up a ghost, one I could feel hovering around and behind me. And next day Philip nudged me. Call him, he said. So I did. But I warned myself not to expect anything. Something had blasted my heart open to Max and if love was an open heart, that’s what I felt for him. But open is also vulnerable. I was doing this because I felt a need, one I hadn’t yet defined. My need wasn’t Max’s, and while it would be nice to have that zing of a Special Moment where we both swallowed hard and got a little wet behind the eyes, if I expected that, I’d have one more reason to be pissed at Max if it didn’t happen.

Which it didn’t. I called, told him the holidays had me thinking about him. I hoped he was okay, wondered what he was doing. I wanted him to know I wasn’t angry at him, didn’t blame him; he was a connection to Philip and that was what mattered. He didn’t have much to say, so I wished him happy holidays and hung up.

Here’s the thing. I had an idea of what forgiveness was, until it actually happened – and it felt more like it “happened” than like I did anything. My idea of forgiveness was that even though you screwed me, I’d no longer be angry at you. As if I could truly forgive you while I really still blamed you. And there’s a certain arrogance to that. It’s sort of God-like; I’ve judged you and now I’ll absolve you. As if I know everything there is to know about all of it and I’m right and you’re wrong. And in the eyes of the world, there’s a certain truth to that – a relative truth. But I’m after capital-T Truth; Truth that’s unchangeable, not just relative. And with Max, it’s the truth about and beyond the anger, what it’s really made from, what it’s really for.

Anger is hard.  Hanging on to it seems easier than letting it go, because its psychic effects aren’t always obvious. Like, let’s say I think I had shitty parents. Let’s say I tell my shitty story about my shitty parents and we all agree how shitty it all was. I don’t walk around every minute thinking about how mad I am about all this shittiness, but I find myself resentful at my boss or my teacher or my-best-friend-who’s-a-better-writer-than-me because I’ve put them in a position of authority and the original anger has become the pile of shit that ate the world. My world. And there’s something seductive about holding on to anger. Like it’s a way of punishing the one I’m angry at. Like if I’m not angry, then I’m letting them get away with what they’ve done, which is unfair and intolerable. It’s also not true. If I stay angry then I’m re-living the situation a thousand times over, and the one who’s being punished is me.

Which is where perception comes in.

What happens to me is a fact. I’m the one who gives it meaning, who makes a decision about just what it is. If I reduce my circumstances to either “good” or “bad” and leave it at that, then I live the life of a victim. The way to transcendence is neutrality, which means acceptance, and which I call no-resistance. No-resistance is remembering to breathe, and directing that breath into the hurt and rage that’s got my heart shut down, dense and immovable. And breathing until I feel a loosening, even just a crack, where maybe some of that rage and hurt can escape through. No- resistance becomes transparency, which allows feelings to move and shift instead of sitting in my gut like the rock that Cronus swallowed, and which he wound up vomiting up along with everything else he swallowed that he shouldn’t have, because if it doesn’t belong there, it’s going to come out one way or another.

But no-resistance is not happiness. It’s living with the bloody bitterness of life without wanting it to be something else.

Later that night I told Natalie what I did, how Max didn’t have much of a reaction. “He was probably scared when he realized it was you,” she said. “And you don’t know what good you did. Maybe he needed to hear that, even if he didn’t say so.”

I didn’t consider that; I didn’t consider that maybe Max needed to hear what I had to say as much as I needed to say it. Max and Philip were best friends. He not only has to live with the fact that he brought the heroin into the house, but also the shock and devastation of finding Philip dead in his room. I could look at him like a monster who “did” this to my son, or the flawed human being he is – like I am, like we all are. I can’t make Max a prisoner of my anger without making myself one along with him. If I want to stop re-living Philip’s death and begin to honestly deal with the fact of it, forgiveness is key because forgiveness is the way to make peace with myself.

And in this way is forgiveness selfish – because it’s not about being kind to the-someone-I’m-forgiving. It’s about doing something infinitely harder; it’s about being the kindest I can be, to myself.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

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27 Responses to Nothing Good or Bad?

  1. Pingback: Nothing Good or Bad? | Forever 21

  2. cc70458 says:

    I learned long ago that forgiveness has nothing to do with the person we are forgiving. It has to do with us letting go of our anger. It is a gift to ourselves and not to the cause of our grief. If anything being forgiven often makes the grief worse for the person who caused it, not better – since they can no longer focus on you as part of the equation but are left with a single irrefutable and unchangeable thing done in the past, that cannot be undone. Congratulations on taking that step, and good luck in your quest to take back your life and happiness.


    • Thank you, Colin. I got a direct experience of freedom of forgiveness through Max. But I’ve so much work to do; you don’t get to do it once, you have to figure out how to live it.

      I appreciate your thoughtfulness and wisdom.


  3. I am so sorry for your loss. Drug addiction is a terrible thing. I’ve seen it destroy familes. I have one uncle who after so many attempted intervention by his family chooses to go back each time and his famiky is suffering from his “absence”. He is there with them when he is really not.
    Thank you for sharing your story.

    • And thank you for reading. I’m an addict; I know what it does. Like any parent, I’d hoped my warnings would work. But kids will do what they will do; some survive, some don’t. Philip didn’t, and everything becomes now-what?

      I miss him; I just goddamn miss him.


  4. JackieP says:

    That was raw, honest and truthful. Forgiveness is not easy. I myself have found I have to forgive many times the same person before it actually happens. Great writing and I wish light and love for you always.

  5. Very powerful Denise. How were you doing through Christmas? Thinking of you xo

  6. tersiaburger says:

    Oh my dear friend – I am so grateful that you have found some peace. There must be peace in forgiveness. I still have so much anger in me. I have thought of you so much yesterday. It must have been very hard for you. It was terrible for me. Much love.

    • And I’m thinking of you today; it’s your first Christmas without Vic, yes? Yesterday and today were hard; I went to work without makeup for the time today because I cried so much. Sometimes it seems so futile…oh, Tersia, what do you do? How do you get through it? How do you talk to yourself? I keep thinking of you because I know how much you suffer.

      So for what it’s worth, I’m sending you love and hugs and many wishes for peace, even just a bit.


      • tersiaburger says:

        Yes it was my first Christmas and my first New Year…It was HORRIBLE. I never stopped crying on Christmas day. I don’t know whether we ever recover. If it wasn’t for Vic’s Hospice I don’t think I would have had the courage to carry on. I wish you less tears, more laughter and understanding…Much love Denise!

  7. “But no-resistance is not happiness. It’s living with the bloody bitterness of life without wanting it to be something else.” That’s it. Exactly.

  8. Abby says:

    I really like your take on the whole forgiveness thing. I have tried the fake till you make and it doesnt work for me either. I cringe because I went to Rutgers U and I remember those days of the kids doing the hard drugs and imagine that your story could have been any one of those kids I knew in college.

    • I think we each have to find our own way. When I was in labor with Philip (he was born at home), at one point I was overwhelmed with pain and realized there was no way out but through. I was frightened. It hurt too much and I didn’t know when it would stop, didn’t think I could bear it. So he brought me full circle – because in his death, there is no way out but through. That’s what I have to work with every day, and “fake it till you make it” ain’t gonna help.


  9. dragonpack says:

    Oh Denise. I went and saw Qory’s best friend… the friend he first started shooting heroin with… the day after Qory died. Somehow I knew I had to go to him and forgive him. This is not in my nature at all. I wanted so bad to be mad at him, but I knew he didn’t stick the needle in Qory’s arm. He was high when I went to see him, and spent the next two years continuing to shoot heroin. I’ve often wondered about the unfairness of it all, even though I truly did forgive him and don’t wish for anything bad for him. Still. Qory was in and out of recovery. Qory loved recovery. Qory couldn’t resist the lure of “one more, one last time” with his drug. Qory died less than 12 hours into his last relapse. Qory’s best friend spent two more years out there shooting heroin, and now is in recovery. I easily slip in to the unfairness of it all. Why Qory didn’t get to make it back, and his friend did. Why so many others get to make it back. Why my boy had to die. So many why’s, and so little peace. Yet, I know that going to see Qory’s best friend the day after Qory died was the right thing to do. For me. Maybe for him too. Who knows. He contacts me now and then. Now that he’s trying to be in recovery, he’s having to feel the loss of his best friend. The anger tries to come back, because I’ve had to feel every excruciating minute and second of losing my son. That’s not his best friend’s fault, even if I would like to have him to blame sometimes. Anyway, thank you for your voice. You continue to inspire me as we trudge this journey of life without our Forever 21 sons side by side.

    • Thank you for sharing that. I’ve found I have to stop myself from asking “why” or I will go insane and they will have to carry me away like a raving lunatic. And I am serious. I try to stay with how-do-I-deal-with-this because that’s overwhelming enough. I had some thoughts about Max, and how I never wished it was him instead of Philip, which I wrote about here: I learned a lot about myself in that post.

      Peace to you, my friend; peace, love and hugs xoxoxoxoxo

      • dragonpack says:

        We do the best we can to survive the unthinkable. Enjoyed the post about Max. We have so much in common, and I am thankful that we can walk this journey side by side. Hugs.

  10. jmgoyder says:

    I am breathless with admiration for this beautiful, difficult, honest, heart-breaking post.

  11. Denise Hisey says:

    Raw and real, Denise…that’s what I really admire about you.
    Your journey of forgiving Max sounded much like mine of forgiving my dad. And as several others have mentioned forgiveness is all about freeing ourselves from the poison we’ve concocted. In the meantime, no doubt you gave Max an incredible gift and perhaps the permission he needed to forgive himself.

  12. I didn’t hit me until my daughter said that I didn’t know what good I might have done that Max needed that. Somewhere in his psyche, he knows I don’t blame him. I hope he works through this; he didn’t sound so good on the phone. Denise, I’ve known him since he was a kid and I swear I love him. My heart breaks for his suffering, too.

    Thank you.

  13. Lucia Maya says:

    Beautiful and wise, as you always are. So inspiring… Even in your most challenging times, you find the gifts of wisdom teachings. Thank you. love and blessings, Lucia

  14. Touche. Great arguments. Keep up the good work.

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