…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