When you discover that loving someone too much can literally kill you. (CW: depression & suicidal thoughts.)
Until a few years ago, I didn’t understand why people were so afraid of vulnerability and intimacy.
Don’t get me wrong, I understood that fully opening up your heart to someone came with the inherent risk of heartbreak, but I’ve always been a risk-taker, and it seemed obvious to me that this was a risk worth taking. Having experienced (and recovered from) my fair share of heartbreaks, I knew it was painful, but I didn’t think of it as dangerous.
Four years ago, however, that all changed when my mom announced at a “family meeting” that she’d tested positive for the gene for FTD: a genetic form of early-onset and rapidly-progressing dementia.
I suppose I should pause here and tell you that my mom is, and has always been, my person.
It’s not just that she’s an amazing person, although that’s true. The last of five kids, she pretty much had to raise herself, which makes the fact that she turned out to be so independent, driven, adventurous, compassionate, curious, and courageous all the more impressive. And it’s not just that she was an amazing mother, although that’s true too, as evidenced by the fact that she raised three kids who all believe in themselves, and still want to hang out with her as adults.
But our bond (like all good bonds, I suppose) goes deeper than any of that, and can’t be captured in words without poetry or metaphor, so all I will say here is that my mom feels like the sun. She is my best friend. My person.
When I found out that my person was going to disappear— first while her body remained on earth, and then when she decided to take her leave— I lost my fucking mind.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had depressive episodes. There’s always been a bottomless pit of darkness inside me, and whole stretches of my life can be measured by how close or far I was from its roaring abyss. Some years I spent sitting on its edge, wondering why some part of me wanted to jump in so badly, and some I spent in the next town over— grateful to be further away, but always aware that it was there.
I met my fiance only a few weeks after learning my mom has the gene.
Falling in love with Drew was a revelation; a spiritual experience. I’d never let myself love, desire, or need someone so intensely, and the vulnerability of it was sometimes overwhelming. He made sure I knew I wasn’t alone in my feelings though, and that I was safe to go as deep as I wanted. It was terrifying, but we were in it together, so I let his love remake me.
For several months, I’d been simultaneously processing the news about my mom and falling more desperately in love than I ever thought possible, when COVID hit. Soon after, Drew and I decided to take a leap of faith, and moved across the country to live with family for a bit to weather the pandemic and figure out if our brand new relationship had legs.
A few months later, I found myself at the very bottom of the abyss.
It’s hard to put into words how physically painful depression can be, and how disorienting. My memories of that time have so little to do with the reality of what was actually happening that I now understand this level of depression to share far more in common with psychosis than with sadness, but at the time all I knew was that being alive was agonizing, and I didn’t want to do it anymore.
I was out on a walk one night, on the phone with my mom, when I first named how dark things had gotten. She begged me to consider antidepressants, and it was the anxiety in her voice more than anything else that finally made it click. I am unwell; I am unsafe.
I went home, took a telehealth diagnostic quiz, and sat with my new diagnosis: severe depression.
Many Big Life Things happened while I found meds that worked for me and wrestled my way out of the abyss again. Drew and I got engaged. We bought a house and moved to Asheville NC to be close to my family. I got my first book deal, and started writing. The meds kept me alive (and functional) throughout that chaotic time of upheaval, and I started working my ass off in therapy to understand and heal the underlying source of my depression.
I knew it was related to my mom pretty early on, when I spoke my darkest and scariest thought out loud to my new therapist: I simply do not want to be alive in a world she’s not in.
This was a useful insight to be sure, but knowing it didn’t mean I could heal it. A world without my mother was so scary and painful that trying to think about it made me feel like I was going to die. It was locked behind a psychic door I couldn’t open, and couldn’t imagine ever opening, if I’m being honest.
Around this time I started having panic attacks, and vulnerability with Drew became a lot harder.
I had met the love of my life on the heels of a shocking and terrifying discovery: that loving and needing someone too much could literally kill you. I hadn’t known that it was possible for a heart to be so broken that staying alive would no longer be an option, and by the time I realized this, it was too late— I had already let Drew in too deep.
I suddenly found myself struggling to keep my heart open to him, and battling an out-of-control urge to run away or make him hate me. At first I wondered if these episodes meant I didn’t love him, but every time he brought me back to a place of softness and safety, I would shake and weep and cling to him in desperation, overwhelmed by the depth of my love and need for him.
My body had developed a fight-or-flight response to the intensity and vulnerability of my own feelings.
It became a cycle, in which deeply connective, open-hearted, or vulnerable experiences with him were followed by me shutting down, withdrawing, panicking, starting a fight, or pushing him away. The closer I let myself experience my love and need, the more unsafe I felt, and the worse the backlash would be.
This cycle caused so much distress for both of us that it eventually felt safer to just keep some of my walls up all the time, and keep those intensely vulnerable feelings at a bit of a distance. And the antidepressant I eventually found helped me maintain that distance, by sort of flattening out and dulling all my feelings.
It’s not like either of us was exactly aware I had done this, mind you. Our relationship has always had an extremely high degree of vulnerability and intimacy because we’re both so committed to it. Looking back though, it feels like we were connecting intellectually and emotionally, but lost access to the spiritual part of our connection that had first drawn me to him and changed my life when we met.
When I first realized what was going on, maybe a year or so ago, I was surprised to discover that I didn’t particularly want to change it. My lifelong belief that the big vulnerability of open-heartedness was worth it had disappeared, and my only goal for a while was to just be open-hearted enough that Drew wouldn’t leave me.
I’ve made huge progress in therapy since then, and have been feeling a lot better. In the spring, I decreased the dosage of my antidepressant, and a few months ago I decreased it again. Both times were difficult, because I had to integrate a wider range of emotions back into my daily life (and all at a louder volume!), but it’s also been amazing to feel more connected to myself and the world again.
A few weeks into my recent decrease though, I felt my mental health struggling again. I had wild mood swings and was often irritable and combative, and started pushing Drew away again more often.
It was when I was telling Drew I was considering increasing my dose again, because I didn’t want to hurt or lose him, that something cracked wide open again inside me. It was like the glass bubble I’d constructed around me shattered, and all the love that had been kept at a distance by the meds (and the fear that it would kill me) suddenly rushed back into my body.
The experience was more somatic and spiritual than intellectual, but on the other side of it I knew two things for the first time in years:
That heartbreak will not kill me, and
That it’s worth it.
I cannot tell you the relief I feel writing this. I feel safe again, in a way I wasn’t sure I would ever feel again— in my body, my relationships, and the universe. I will stay alive in a world without my mom, and love cannot kill me. Which means for the first time in years, I get to turn my attention back to the extraordinary project of open-heartedness and vulnerability… and I cannot wait to see where it takes me.
Yours in courage and love,