I have been thinking a lot about the concept of "home," and what it really means to me. I am sure this is being stirred up as I have spent many months setting up temporary residence with my family, all of my things in a storage unit hundreds of miles away, not feeling particularly rooted to any place or anyone. This question naturally comes up as I shed each of my identities, one by one - lawyer, widow, and even daughter, friend, and auntie.
What do I think of when I picture what "home" is? In the past, it has always conjured up visions of a physical structure, one where my possession are housed, where I go to lay my head at night. But, I have moved so many times since leaving my family for college that I began to question whether it could possibly be the actual brick and mortar that made me feel like I was home. With a few exceptions, I have moved almost every year for the past 17 years, and I certainly have not spent that entire time feeling homeless. If not the structure itself, was it the stuff inside? Well no, that couldn't be it either, because I am constantly acquiring and getting rid of things and I have but a few items left from even several years ago let alone my childhood.
When I started doing some casual research on the subject of home, familiar themes popped up. "A home is a foundation; a place where everything begins." "Home is a safe haven and a comfort zone." "Home is a place where we can truly be ourselves." There were, of course, other ideas that were more directly tied to the concept of a "house" rather than a "home" (i.e. "A home is a place where we build memories as well as future wealth"), but I was more interested in the responses that evoked feelings rather than facts because I have established that, at least for me, home is not the building I live in, nor the things I put inside.
What words do I associate with home? Safe. Comfortable. Peaceful. Warm. Calm. Love. Love - yes, maybe that is what it is all about. As a child, I envisioned my home being where my family was. More recently, it was where my late husband Patrick was. But what about all of the years that I lived alone, or with roommates whom I had no relationship with apart from our physical proximity to one another? I don't remember having a constant feeling of being without a home in those situations. Actually, it was quite the contrary when I lived alone - those years were some of the most grounded I have ever felt.
Another one of the words that popped up frequently in my search was "stable." I constantly saw people talking about how their lives were going to unfold, from vacations they would take to families they would start, once they had a "stable home." According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, "stability" is defined as "the property of a body that causes it when disturbed from a condition of equilibrium or steady motion to develop forces or moments that restore the original condition." So, it would seem that many people regard home as something that is unchanging and reliable; something we can count on to stay the same, regardless of the circumstances life throws at us. Right there, it should be obvious that this concept of home is a dangerous one, because there is no way to secure life with a safety pin at any point, tethered in time to remain unaltered. As soon as something unexpected occurs, in this scenario the sense of security that home brought would be violently yanked away leaving the person again drifting aimlessly through space. This idea of home is nothing but an illusion, because it assumes that things cannot, will not, and should not change.
I was recently in San Diego for my annual trip where I visit friends and celebrate another year sober. (This time it was ten years, which still blows me away. I know what an absolute miracle it is, and I don't take it for granted anymore.) While I was there, I spoke about my process of letting go of attachment to the different roles I have engendered for myself, and just how hard -- but how freeing -- it has been. A close friend of mine commented that she does not have attachment to her job in the way I did, but that instead her attachment was to her family. I cringed a little when I heard this, beautiful as the intention behind it may have been. What happens if the family unit falls apart at some stage, or a relationship is irreparably damaged? What happens when (not if) members of the family die? Who are you going to be when your husband gets ill, or even when your children are grown and leave the house? Will your sense of home be gutted as well?
Also during my visit, another friend was packing up and getting ready to sell her house. Her husband mentioned to her that the change would be hard, as this was the place where they had all three of their young children; where they took their first steps, formed their first memories, and started becoming tiny people. Having moved out of my childhood house after my freshman year in college, I recalled my own experience with this painful process. I was completely devastated at the time, and angry at my parents for making a decision to leave. I thought, "You can put all of our stuff into some new place, but it will NEVER be home." Now, of course, it has been 16 years since that move and the house they now live in unquestionably has all the feelings that our first house did.
The hardest detachment from "home" that I have ever experienced was when I was forced to move out of the apartment where I lived with Patrick. It was not only where we had built a life together, but it was also where we had gotten married, where I cared for him during his blisteringly painful experience with brain cancer, and, most importantly, where he died. I felt like I was somehow betraying him in leaving, but minus his substantial income and the disgustingly high rent in the Bay Area, I was no longer able to afford to stay. I remember tears streaming down my face as I packed not only our things but the hope of our future into countless boxes. I had to have a loving friend come and take the things of Patrick's to be donated, because I could not stand the thought of watching someone carelessly unload what I had come to view as our lives into a dusty bin to be redistributed. It certainly did not feel like just "stuff." It felt like memories being stripped away from me, replaced by fear that someday it would be as if this part of my life never actually happened.
When I left Northern California in November of last year, I expected my stay with family to be short - maybe a month or two. So, I put all of my worldly possessions inside a 10x15 foot storage unit which is completely full from floor to ceiling with stuff, all of which at some point seemed incredibly important. The largest items are the couch and living room tables that belonged to Patrick. When he was sick, we rarely talked about how it would all end, but one day he looked at me with tears in his eyes and said "I want you to have the sofa." We held each other and cried, as this was his first real acknowledgment of his mortality and the fact that the end of his life was drawing near. Patrick spent almost all of the days he was sick on that sofa, aside from the times he was in the hospital. It was where we laughed, where we cried, where we loved - and my attachment to that piece of furniture has been real. It was symbolic of our love story, of his death, and of my own journey back from the devastation of his loss. Much like when I gave away many of his clothes, I was afraid that letting go of the couch would be like losing him all over again.
For the last few years I have been believing my own delusion that I will again have a home once I move into a place with that sacred sofa. I have been grasping to hold onto a life that no longer exists by holding on to the things that represent that life. What I have refused to see is that no matter where I put that couch, Patrick will never again sit on it. We will not laugh together watching "Elf" at Christmastime. I will not find him lounging there with the Warriors game paused because he knows I don't want to miss a minute. By continually dragging the evidence of our lives with me wherever I go, I am actually causing more harm to myself than good because it allows me to continue relying on people, places and things to give me a false sense of security.
So if it's not the stuff, the people, the actual building, what - and where - is home to be? The answer, for me, is as surprising as it is painfully obvious. The only place that home can possibly exist is within myself. It is the quiet, peaceful place where my soul can rest comfortably no matter where I am. It relies on no one, on nothing, to be okay. It is not dependent on having even basic physical or emotional needs met. Home asks nothing of me, least of all the impossible request that the facts of my life remain unchanged. It needs no specific location, or even roots at all. It is not rattled by wandering the planet without a fixed address, because it does not demand one. Perhaps most importantly, it does not need anyone else to play a part in my story, and it exists whether others come or go. All it needs is me.
It turns out that home is, in fact, where the heart is.
I am hereby calling out all the garbage I have been seeing on social media and in the news regarding mental illness and suicide. Why? Because it's ignorant, misinformed, and downright dangerous for people who this very moment might be contemplating ending their lives.
When news broke about fashion designer Kate Spade dying by suicide yesterday, so did my heart. As someone who has dealt with mental health problems and has gone through prolonged periods contemplating my own end in this way, I knew how dark it must have been for her. I don't ever pretend to know exactly how someone feels, whether they are happy, sad, or any other emotion, but I certainly can empathize with feeling like there is no way out. In those times, for me, I believed that the pain I was drowning in would never end. My dreams had been dashed. It was like someone had set fire to the roadmap I had drawn for my future. I could not see how my life would ever be okay. Suicide seemed not just like the most favorable option - it often felt like the only option.
I have been through several dismal epochs that evoked suicidal ideation, the most recent of which followed the death of my beloved husband Patrick to brain cancer in 2015. I was diagnosed with PTSD six months after he died after suffering from severe depression, panic attacks, extreme avoidant behavior of people and places that reminded me of him and his illness, nightmares, and reliving his death and the days leading up to it as flashbacks. These were only some of the symptoms I was dealing with related to my mental health. On the physical side, my chronic pain was inflamed so severely that I underwent surgery on my elbow and my back in 2016, with several other operations recommended; I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis; I had serious migraines almost daily. You get the picture. Oh, and my cat died of cancer. Throw some salt on the wound, why don't you.
I was not at all in denial of the severity of what I was going through. I had been in therapy weekly since two weeks before Patrick's death. I was active the recovery program that had helped me maintain my sobriety for many years. I sought spiritual counsel whenever and wherever I could. For a long time, I was on medication for anxiety and depression. I was engaged in every possible activity that I could think of to treat my mental and physical illnesses. I had the love and support of my friends and family. I had a good job as a lawyer and I was trying so very hard to be okay.
And yet, every single day I wanted to kill myself.
In the day and a half since the news about Ms. Spade broke, I have been hearing the ever-so-convenient narratives that suicide is the most selfish act one can possibly do; that it comes from a place of not caring about your loved ones; that it is somehow a moral failing by someone who is bereft of God; et cetera, et cetera. I feel a genuine rage brewing inside of me every time I see one of these ill-conceived anecdotes. While I cannot speak for the departed and have no delusion that I can vouch for everyone with mental illness who has been visited by these thoughts, in my experience there is absolutely nothing selfish about suicide. It is, in fact, the complete opposite. While I knew that the people in my life would experience sadness and loss, I truly believed that they and the rest of the world would move on and be better off without me. I felt like a terrible burden. I was ashamed of my constant struggle in and out of bouts of depression. I was embarrassed that I had to repeatedly go on short-term disability because I could not keep up with the rigors of my job. I looked at the mass of financial debt from my student loans and saw no way out, particularly given my inability to consistently work. In my mind, suicide would not have been an act of selfishness, but instead an act of desperation, with no motive other than making the pain end.
The other frustrating part of this news cycle is the immediate need to find someone to blame. Reports are coming out that she and her husband had been planning to file for divorce. Critics are immediately theorizing that her husband mistreated her, or somehow drove her to this. I believe this is another terrible side effect of our death-phobic society, namely that we always have to pin liability on someone when there is a tragedy. I get it, because I did it when Patrick died. I blamed myself for not getting him into a clinical trial, for not noticing signs of illness sooner, for honoring his request to stop treatment when he decided he'd had enough. The truth is, however it arrives, death eventually comes for us all. We would do a lot better to recognize the tremendous shock and loss that her family is going through than to entertain our sick and useless instincts to assign fault. Blaming her husband is no more true or useful than blaming her.
When someone is injured in a car accident or has been diagnosed with cancer, most people are quick to offer condolences and help. Not so with often invisible mental illness. If one is brave enough to admit such suffering, she is often met with blank stares, awkward silence, and changing the subject. We are told to stop wallowing in our grief. It is suggested that all we have to do is exert our willpower, and - POOF! - all will be fine. We are not able to take time off of work to heal because of deadlines and quotas. Most people don't know where to go to get help. People who are in marginalized and under-served communities have no resources for mental health because it is one of the least prioritized medical issues. Although there have been some improvements over the years, the stigma about mental illness strongly persists. Then, someone dies by suicide and we are all shocked. There is no understanding that the person was sick. Instead, people speak in hushed tones at the funeral, speculating about who is responsible instead of celebrating the life of someone who was invariably so much more than the way she died.
To those of you who have not been touched directly by mental illness, consider yourself fortunate because almost everyone has at least some attenuated connection. Instead of obsessing over the details of someone's suicide, try to exercise compassion for everyone involved. Hold space for the pain of those who are grieving.
If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, please consider reaching out for help. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Most importantly, know that you are not alone. I have been within seconds and inches of ending it all, and I consider it mostly luck that my fate has so far turned out differently. It is never too late to get help, until it is.
My heart goes out to Ms. Spade's husband, daughter, family, and all those who loved her.
Have you ever had a moment where all of a sudden, the chaos of your life quiets and everything is perfectly calm? As if you've been given a glimpse through a window that previously was made of opaque, frosted glass, but without warning is now crystal clear? I haven't had many of those moments, but when I have they have changed the course of my life in drastic ways. As I write this, it's happening, and it feels too important to keep to myself.
I have written a lot about the pain of my life experiences - getting sober; the constant trials of an eating disorder; falling deeply in love and then losing my husband after his brutal battle with brain cancer; leaving my chosen profession as an attorney because it felt so unaligned with my soul's purpose; humbling myself as I stood on the brink of financial ruin; and letting go of my attachment to who I thought I was in order to discover and fully embrace who I am. It has often felt like I am dragging myself face-first through the mud, fingers bleeding, dirty, lonely, and broken. I have felt so lost, carrying the constant weight of having and endless abundance of love and healing to share but with nowhere to direct it.
There has never been any question that my own suffering would somehow be transformed into a powerful message of hope and redemption that can help others navigate their own trials. I have firmly believed that I am on a journey to turn my pain into purpose - so much so that this is tattooed on my skin! - but I couldn't see past the immediate physical and emotional misery enough to feel the warm light on my skin that is provided by complete surrender of one's will to the Universe.
I am not ready to talk publicly about the specifics of what I see for the future. Honestly, the details are not even important - details change all the time, and to obsess over them would be taking this divinely inspired message hostage and asserting my will over the outcome. Maybe it will materialize exactly how I am picturing it. Maybe it won't. For once, it doesn't matter to me. What is important is what is happening in this moment, and that is what I want to share.
I am fully present in my body.
I feel like my heart is bursting.
I have deep reverence for every one of the scars on my heart because they will allow me to change the way others approach their own suffering.
I respect my human form, and look at it with immense gratitude for carrying me in spite of the abuse it has been subjected to in various forms for many, many years.
I honor the perceived imperfections of my physical appearance, from the wrinkles on my forehead to the extra weight that doesn't seem to want to leave my waistline, because they are serving a purpose that I may not yet understand.
I am not afraid of what will, or what won't, happen.
I don't care if my life looks "successful" by conventional American standards.
My heart is open to moving forward and receiving love in whatever form that takes, with the unmitigated understanding of the risks involved.
I am allowed to dream bigger than what seems possible, because I am capable of handling anything that is thrown at me.
I can heed the call to a higher purpose because the Universe will provide me with what I need, which may or may not be what I think I want.
I don't have to ask myself or others "Is this weird?" when I am getting direct guidance from God, because I have learned to trust that I am not being steered anywhere that will cause me harm.
I don't have to understand why everything happens, or obsess over making sense out of it all.
I have been being prepared to take this seemingly drastic turn in my life for years, and it has taken every one of the events that I thought might kill me to make this possible.
Now, I am completely aware that I have not somehow evolved past the point of crippling self-doubt that will inevitably attempt to derail me. I am far too familiar with my tendency to sabotage myself when things get scary to believe that magically this has been removed. I also know that the subconscious mind hates change and I will (not may) struggle as I begin this new walk. But today, I have been given a reprieve from the incessant inner critic. Instead, I hear the voice of a confident, talented, loving woman encouraging me to breathe into this moment of peace that has been a long time coming. She is louder than any other noise I hear, or any distraction I feel. And she's here to stay.
Lisa O'Leary is a lawyer, cat mom, widow, sports enthusiast, truth seeker, soul searcher, meditator, and consciousness practitioner who is actively engaged in quieting down the mind to allow the song to play.