I am living a life I never though could happen. Here I am, sitting on a terrace outside of my hotel in Berlin, anxious and nervous and excited to begin my classes tomorrow. I am working on my Master of Fine Art, a dream I didn't think I would ever get to realize, definitely not so early in life. I am lucky, blessed, whatever you want to call it, because of loss. Loss that hurts my heart, loss that requires a fair bit of explanation to understand.
I turned 34 last week. I gave up my hopes to work on my MFA, to further my art and my career, at age 26 when I moved to a small rural Utah town to work on my failing marriage. A marriage that had started out wonderful, blissful, and full of possibilities had become a cage, built me and a man who was once beloved. I don't quite know where or when things began to degrade, but it became a coupling of people who loved each other but were no longer in love with each other.
We cut each other down with words, never physically, but we hurt anyway. It took me a frightfully long time to admit that I was in an abusive relationship, a place I swore I would never be, because the abuse was all mental and emotional. I didn’t fear for my physical safety, but I was afraid to be happy. I was afraid to reach too far for goals. Dave had not completed his work for his master’s degree, and I think he was scared that I would succeed where he had failed. So I was given an ultimatum after I received my BFA: move to Vernal with him or get a divorce. I was terrified of a life without Dave, as he had conditioned me that he was a huge part of what gave my life meaning. I was also terrified of the term divorcee, as in my mind it conveyed failure. I moved.
I realize now that this was a way he could control me, in a world where he felt he had very little control. I thought I was being the dutiful, loving wife, supporting Dave in his new career and working towards repairing our relationship. The move was not entirely bad. While I had stated I would never move back to the small town in which I had despised growing up, I found myself back with family and making new friends. I found a calling as an educator, teaching small humans all about the beauty of art, the ways to make it, to appreciate it, to speak and learn through art. Almost immediately my artwork took a backseat to my teaching. I was overwhelmed. I had no background as a teacher, so on top of teaching 700 students each week I was taking courses at night to earn my Utah Teaching License.
At the end of the day I had so little emotional or physical energy that I usually ate dinner and went to bed. But that itch remained, that urge to create, to speak without words, to make art. I would try to make meaningful examples for my students, but the work always seemed to fall short of relieving the urge. I got some relief with cosplay, but it still didn’t fill that void. I also realize now that much of my emotional energy, which fuels so much of my work, was being diverted into David. His struggles with deep depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, and bipolar tendencies spilled into my life and well-being. I will give him credit though; he saw therapists, psychiatrists, doctors. He took the prescribed medications, and sometimes they worked. Sometimes his doctors seemed to cycle him through every drug in their books. Nothing seemed to work for long, though.
Sometimes, he would self-medicate. Other times, when the drugs were working, he would stop taking them thinking he didn’t need them anymore. He was embarrassed that he needed medical help for his depression but didn’t seem even remotely worried about his glasses. In my mind, the two are similar. They each let you lead a better life, but Dave wanted to be cured. I think he though if our marriage were what he thought it should be (read: what others told him our marriage should look like) it would be easier. It wasn’t. It hurt. There were moments where it was excruciating, watching a man I had loved to disintegrate, watching him cut himself off from all his support, including me. He would lash out, hurting most the ones who were trying to help.
For my part, I had done my best to hide just how crumbled our marriage was from friends, family. They would catch glimpses of it when Dave would have an episode and look at me with unreadable expressions. I had a few friends who were honest with me. They had been there, on both sides of the mental breakdown, and I finally admitted to what I had been pretending didn’t exist. The abuse. You see, my mother and sister were both victims of physical abuse by a spouse; I swore I would never let myself be in a similar situation. I swore I would never let someone hurt me, wear me down, control me. Abuse doesn’t just start with a bang, it seeps in like an odorless gas, filling the room before you realize it. I loved Dave and he loved me, surely, he wouldn’t ever intentionally hurt me?
When I had finally come to terms with the fact that this was an abusive relationship I was ready to take a step back. Dave had had one final, horrendous meltdown, in front of all our friends, that sealed my resolve. He told me I couldn’t leave, even for the night, or he would kill himself. It was not the first time, sadly, that he had used this tactic to control my movements and emotions. However, this time I saw it for what it was, and was tired of him manipulating me with this threat. I had taken the gun out of his hand, we drove home, and his parents thought they had taken all the other guns out of the house. I spent the night at my mother’s house and ignored his calls; I told him I needed space to think.
The next morning I was headed to my classroom to set up lessons and supplies for the next week. I had ignored phone calls from everyone so far, but then my sister-in-law called. She never called me. She said I needed to come to the hospital, that Dave was there. I could feel the knot of unease tighten in my stomach. I hoped he was just there for evaluation, or maybe even institutionalization, but he spent a lot of time there. It was okay. I was wrong. When I pulled into the hospital I saw my big beast of a brother-in-law crying. Sobbing. The back of my brain knew right away what happened, but the front of my brain didn’t register it till the words were said aloud by my mother-in-law.
David was gone. He’d shot himself with the last gun, the one I thought we had taken away. I swear I felt the universe stop spinning, I felt the world hold its breath. I fell and wretched up bile, as I hadn’t been able to eat since the day before. I remember the smell of antiseptic and the cold tile under my hands, heat and pain on my face. I felt like my heart was going to explode and then I would fold in on myself like a black hole. I had been contemplating a world where Dave and I were no longer married, not one where he didn’t exist. I didn’t want to fathom a world where he didn’t exist. I had loved him, and still did in a way, but now he was gone.
I spent the next week in a haze. There were tears from friends and family, hundreds of questions, and people who stepped up and took care of things because I could not. I was empty; I was a shell. I felt untethered to reality and to my body. I only ate when forced to do so. Friends gathered our cats and took them to a rescue till I was able to care for them. My house, where Dave had shot himself, was cleaned of anything offensive so I could go in and gather belongings. I couldn’t- I had a panic attack just trying to step foot on the porch. There were so many little things that were huge that I couldn’t bear. My guilt was enormous and suffocating. Then there was the funeral. All I really remember from that day was crying in the front pew while people from a church he didn’t believe in anymore spoke of a man I didn’t recognize. Then we buried my husband.
When I finally came to, when I felt in my body and mind again, I was scared. I had bought a house, had student loans, had loads of bills from his hospital stays, the costs associated with his death, the costs of the funeral. I didn’t know how I was going to survive. I didn’t think I would be able to access any of our life insurance as his death was a suicide. I couldn’t bear to be in the house where he made that fateful choice, so where would I live? What would become of me, my life, in this new existence?
Thankfully, I had amazing people in my universe who were able to sort all my financial issues out; the life insurance came through just as my friends has raised money for us, there was a safety net. I was able to pay off all the big bills, settle his debts, repay the family his funeral costs. I even had a nest egg for the future. The future. It was terrifying. I had never imagined what my life would look like without Dave in the world.
I went back to work eventually, but I felt like I was putting on an old sweater that didn’t quite fit anymore. I felt completely on display in our small town. Everyone seemed to have their own ideas on how I should be grieving, how I should or shouldn’t be living. I felt like my every move was taking place under a microscope, and suddenly things that had been of no consequence were in full spotlight. It was stifling and enlightening.
Slowly but surely, I began to live again. For a long time, I was just going through the motions, eating when expected, teaching what I could, trying to regain some of my old joy, and all the while drinking excessively. I drank a lot of my sadness, my confusion, my pain. I felt guilty the first time I felt happy again. I struggled with his ghost, as so many of my friends were his friends, his family was my family and mine, his. I lost a lot of friends to his ghost as well. People didn’t know how to feel, act, think around me, and I am certain that many of his friends distanced themselves from me because it was easier than being reminded of the loss. I realized that I would never be able to really move on without physically moving.
I had made the decision to live. Initially, I had joined support groups to help wade through the anguish and guilt, but I saw so many fellow widows and widowers that allowed their spouse’s death to be the defining moment of their lives. I wanted more for my life than to be just Dave’s widow. (I hated that word, that pitying word, and it didn’t help that the first time it was said around me was in a fit of jealousy by my mother, only three weeks after his death) It was a conscious choice to not waste away, to try to see the good in the wreckage of my life. I think I did what Dave had hoped for me, I lived.
It’s been a long road, full of twists and turns, bumps and shocks, to get where I am now. I moved into an apartment, got my kitties, and kept teaching for one more year. I made new friends, lost some friends, and reconnected with others from my past. I struggled, but I began piecing together a new existence. I made the decision to quit my job teaching and to reconnect myself with my art. Just over a year after Dave died I moved to Salt Lake City with the help of countless friends, family, and new love.
I had a giant hole in my heart where Dave lived, the man he once was and the man he had become before his death. I was certain that my new existence would not involve feeling love again. I had tried, failing spectacularly, at dating as an adult. I had no idea how to do this dating thing. Many of my friends encouraged me to either keep at it or to not rush it, the only consensus being to do what felt right, as it had been just one year since Dave’s death. You see, I married David when I was 20 years old; we began dating when I was barely 18, so I had no experience at being a single adult. It was painful, dating. I had been ghosted, had awkward advances made, been stood up, rejected. So, I gave up on dating. I had made peace with the idea of being single and began to revel in it. I was not looking for a relationship at all when one fell into my lap. A friend from the cosplay community and I had reconnected through his work with medical research. We kept in touch as I traveled to Ireland and Hawaii, and when I needed a place to crash one night he offered his house up. It felt a bit like fate. Suddenly I was feeling things I thought I would never experience again. It was ridiculously easy to be with Ian, he knew all about my past and my loss and was supportive in ways I could only dream were possible.
There were days that some small thing would trigger me, and he would help me work through the tears and emotions. He helped me realize not every disagreement had to be a fight; it was always that way with Dave. He helped me mature emotionally, where I felt stunted before. He showed me an unapologetic love and understanding, and listened when I needed it, offered insight and we grew together. Ian has been so supportive of me achieving my dreams. He encourages, needles me when I need it, helps me blow off steam when I need to decompress. I cannot imagine a better partner, someone who is willing to discuss, compromise, and develop a life together where we both flourish. I’m grinning like a fool as I type this bit out, because he really truly makes me happy, and wants to see me happy. I feel the same way about him.
When I began really buckling down on creating meaningful art, on making works that would help me get back to my center, he was there offering support. He helped me set up a studio space and a schedule to work and pestered me when I wasn’t on plan. When I began my self portrait series, The Seven Stages of Grief, I was worried how he might take it. I mean, I was doing a series of nude self portraits that dealt with how awful I felt after losing my husband. I had no need to worry. Ian has always understood that he and Dave are very different people, who each mean different things to me. He didn’t feel threatened, he saw it as cathartic, which it has been. His logic balances out my emotionality. He was so glad to see me making new works that resonated for both of us on many levels.
Then came the time for me to start applying. I had researched many different schools, spoken with their advisors, recruiters, and it always came back to my gut feeling that I needed to be at Transart Institute. So I applied. I was a mess leading up to and after submitting my application. I was certain that they’d tell me I needed to work harder, develop more, be a better artist before applying again. I was terrified, but Ian and my friends had wonderful faith in me and my art. They could see how much I wanted this, and they rooted for me.
I thought I was going to throw up before my first interview with Jean Marie, and again when I spoke with Andrew. When I was finally officially accepted, I thought I was dreaming. My life is so unrecognizable from March 2016. I never would have imagined that I would be here, in Berlin, ready to start the next chapter of my life. I have a profound gratitude for the life I have now. I know I wouldn’t be here if Dave had not died. I wouldn’t have the financial weight lifted from my worries if he were still alive. I don’t know what I would be doing if he hadn’t pulled the trigger, but I can’t imagine being this happy.
I feel a smidge of guilt while not really feeling it… I think I should feel guilty, but I know somewhere that Dave would not want me to waste the opportunities life has given me.
Anything we create follows an act of destruction. Nothing can be made without first destroying something else. A house cannot be built without first cutting the trees for the timber, without digging the earth for the foundation. My life was destroyed, in a way, by the death of my husband. But I’m picking up the pieces and creating something new, something worth fighting for. I have worked to get to this point in my life and I am going to keep working hard, to help building and growing and creating. I am living a life I never thought could happen, and I am loving it.