“Jason! Jason! Are you there? Jason!!” I opened my eyes and looked at the clock which read 11:30 pm. The date was March 26, 2010. The voice continued calling my name and as the fog lifted I realized it was coming from inside my house. In a state of near total disorientation I called that I would be down in a minute as I scrambled to get dressed. I ran downstairs to find two police officers, a man and a woman, standing inside my front door. “What is going on?” was the entirety of what I could muster. At that point I realized that there were also two other women with them.
“Brother, I need you to sit down, ” instructed the male cop. I complied as I couldn’t think of anything else to say or do. “There is no easy way to say this….Cindy is dead.” I don’t remember exactly what went through my mind other than, “What the fuck am I going to tell the girls?” Then I wept. I wept for a life that was lost, kids’ lives that would be forever changed and in the interest of full disclosure I think I partially wept out of a sense of relief.
Naturally the first question I asked was what happened. They told me that Cindy had committed suicide earlier that evening. While it was an outcome I had always thought could happen, I also thought that it would never happen. I didn’t ask the details at the time because it really didn’t make any difference and I guess I just didn’t think to ask. 11:46 pm. How many hours and minutes left before the kids woke up and I had to tell them that their mom was dead? Whatever the answer it wasn’t nearly enough.
I called my parents in North Bay and told them they had to come down. I called my girlfriend Tanja, who was on her way over and told her what happened. There wasn’t really anything else to say.
The police, who were Cindy’s coworkers, left shortly after and I was left with two nice women from Victims’ Services which is an organization I had not heard of before. They gave me some pamphlets and basically just stared at me while I waited for Tanja to show up. They meant well, I’m sure, and it takes a special kind of person to volunteer for that kind of job but they were driving me insane at the time. It’s not a situation that is overly conducive to idle banter.
About an hour later I received a call from the OPP letting me know that two detectives were on the way over to interview me. They arrived at approximately 1:45am, we drove to the Orangeville police detachment and they interviewed me for an hour or so. During this time I was thinking about our acrimonious divorce and what Cindy had been saying about me for the last year and half, wondering if I am some kind of suspect in their minds. They went through their litany of questions of which half my responses revolved around the theme that she suffered from bipolar disorder and was very ill. After the interview they dropped me off at home went on their way.
My parents arrived around 4:00am, having clearly left immediately after my phone call. It was reassuring to have them and Tanja there but now there was nothing to do but wait. I can’t recall a time in my life when I have ever felt like an inanimate object was my enemy but I felt that way about the fucking clock on my cable box. The minutes ticked by incessantly. I could hear the tick-tock in my head.
At about 7:30am Chloe (6) and Melody (5) woke up and came downstairs. They were very excited to see Grandma and Grandpa. Heartbreaking probably doesn’t describe the feeling of watching them play, oblivious to the bombshell I was going to drop on them. I rehearsed the speech 1000 times throughout the night trying to think of and plan for every possible permutation of the forthcoming conversation so I didn’t look like a stammering fucking idiot.
At about 8:30am my mom, dad and Tanja left and I asked the girls to sit on the couch. “I have something really bad that I have to tell you.” Their first reaction was to giggle until they saw my lip start to quiver and tears start rolling down my face. My well-rehearsed speech went completely out the window and I told them, “Mommy died last night.” I could see their eyes searching mine, looking for the possibility that this might not be true or more likely trying to comprehend what it even meant. Chloe asked me if Mommy was in heaven to which I replied that she was and is an angel now. Melody asked me when she was coming back. “Never, Melody.”
And so that’s how it ended. It’s also how it began anew.
This is not just my story. It’s the story of a woman, wife and mother. It’s a story of our kids. It’s a story about the ravages of mental illness and how insidiously and completely a life can be destroyed. It’s a story about family and how you can take them for granted until you really need them. Finally, it’s a story about love lost and love found again in the most unlikely of places.
My goal with writing this is to chronicle our lives and how we managed to navigate the uncharted course of dealing with a spouse whose could no longer outrun the demons that seemed to lurk, waiting at every turn. There are many things I did that I am proud of and things I did that I am not. I will attempt to cover them all in the interest of honesty and catharsis.
How do you go from a seemingly idyllic, perfectly planned life to one of complete chaos and maintain your sanity while trying to raise two daughters? Homeless shelters, rehab centers, electro-shock therapy, drug and alcohol abuse, divorce, Children’s Aid and near bankruptcy numerous times are not typically on the radar of the average working schlepp. When these things happen, either one at a time or all at once it can be exceptionally hard to process, let alone deal with, as I’m sure you can imagine.
What has to take place in a person’s mind and body to devastate them so completely? A woman raised in a broken home with a schizophrenic mother, who overcame it all. Or so it seemed. A college and university graduate, a police officer, undercover drug cop, athlete, mother – gone…forever.
My experiences have changed me profoundly. Or maybe they haven’t and I feel like that’s what I’m supposed to say. I hope it has accentuated some good characteristics that were looking for an opportunity to become more pronounced. It has made me far more empathetic to the plight of others and much, much less judgemental than I was before. It also made me realize that while my career is clearly important as a source of income it will always pale in comparison to the importance of my family. Having said all that, this journey has introduced some other situations and I wonder if they would have occurred had things happened differently. To be a single dad who found love again has been incredibly rewarding and not nearly as difficult as I had imagined. However, going from being a single dad to one of two loving parents is very rewarding but not without its interesting moments. More on that later…
I also want to articulate in vivid detail what living with a spouse suffering from mental illness is like both for the sufferer and their families. Day after day, year after year of low after low and the grasping at straws for anything that remotely resembles a positive sign regardless of how real it is takes a toll on everyone. It is an experience that has to be lived to be truly understood but if my scrawling can provide some insight and compassion then I will consider this to have been a success.
When your life as you know it starts to implode it quickly becomes apparent that you need some help from someone, or likely, many people. What I realized that while there was nothing anyone can do to really change your situation having people to blurt out your story to can really relieve the tension. Even if you’re not much of a talker you’d be surprised how little it takes to start talking about it. Standing in line at the grocery store holding some bbq sauce and the nice lady in front of you makes eye contact….”MY WIFE IS BIPOLAR AND MY LIFE IS A DISASTER.” It can make for some interesting social contact and many awkward moments. The help can come in a million different ways. It can come from my parents taking the kids, to listening, to having a place to stay when you are driving all over the province trying to find your wife.
I will also talk about the frustration of trying to get help for someone who is mentally ill whether they want the help (hard) or whether they don’t (impossible). I never in my life imagined that the phrase, “She’s not a danger to herself or others,” would have the effect of making me want to punch the person who uttered it. This reaction really started after hearing it for the thousandth time. I don’t typically walk around wanting to punch people. I have this fear of being punched back. It’s funny how your preconceived notions that you have held, for no other reason than you thought they were right, can be proved so wrong. Visiting a psychiatrist is not like visiting Niles Crane and lying down on his couch. It’s more like getting 15 minutes time each month from a drug pusher who has no clue what the hell is going on. Or how, no matter how ill the client, there will always be a lawyer there to bleed you both dry. Or how the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) told me there was nothing to worry about 2 days before Cindy committed suicide. Or how the cops, who came over to the house looking at a clearly mentally ill woman, could do nothing but tell me I’m lucky I didn’t get arrested. Or….never mind, you get the idea.
Did you know they actually still did electro-shock therapy? Me neither. But having your wife call you from the locked ward bawling that you never come to visit when you still in the car on your way home from visiting her is a surreal experience. How about having my grandmother die while Cindy was out for the weekend and her having no recollection of it? One of the small moments of humour we had during this time was me showing her a new pair of running shoes I had bought and each time I visited and pretending they were brand new. I was on the 6th time showing her before she remembered.
I also realized how badly the human psyche wants to return to a sense of normalcy and how that can lead you to be completely unable to see the level to which things have deteriorated. I am typically an eminently logical person but I was incapable, at the beginning, of seeing how bad things had truly gotten. I suppose it’s partially because I was just trying to make it through each day but I think it was more that I was in denial about how bad things really had gotten. Contributing to this was the fact that Cindy was very charismatic and when she was manic she was exceptional making everything that was going wrong my fault – while standing 6 inches from my face screaming at me – at home, in the car, in the mall, at the grocery store, at the side of the road and every other place imaginable and some that aren’t.
True friendship is tested and remains unbroken when times are hard. Despite the fact that Cindy had hurt some of her closest friends the way they rallied around her to try to help her was beautiful and inspiring. Eventually though, everyone reaches the limit of what they can do. Cindy eventually shut almost everyone out. In her manic moments it was out of rage and perceived slights. In her depressed moments it was out of guilt and shame. Unfortunately she was manic or depressed almost all of the time and the results were tragic.
I think the most important message to get across is the flower of happiness that can bloom from the ashes of tragedy. I hereby promise not to try to get literary like that last abomination of a sentence again. In seriousness, things get better and time incessantly marches on making things easier. If you use the lessons you’ve learned to find love again you’ll make an excellent choice. Kids are resilient and the pain is replaced by memories which are supplemented with the new memories that are being created every day of their beautiful little lives.
It’s been very close to 2 years since Cindy’s death and I have felt like I have wanted to do this for a long time. So why now? Why the hell not. It’s been long enough that I am able to reflect with the benefit of time and space in a more rational and objective way. On the flip side, the memories are still relatively fresh but fading every day so I wanted to make sure to get this out before my geriatric, nearly 40 year old mind fails me completely. I expect this to happen at any time. I have done some good things since Cindy’s death like raising money for the Canadian Mental Health Association and participating in a video on mental illness for the OPP. I feel like I have some valuable things to say so let’s see if this is an outlet that can make a difference.
I’m not a writer so I ask you to look past my sloppy prose and terrible punctuation,: (kidding). I am a man, a father, son and partner that is hoping to be able to help anyone living through something remotely similar to what I went through. There aren’t a lot of answers to be provided although my hope is that through writing this down I’ll find some that I didn’t know where there.
This is our story.
- by Jason MacKenzie
To see Jason's video that he filmed with the Ontario Provincial Police to help their members understand bipolar disorder and to share his story, click here.