When my older son Paul died by suicide in 1999 after a seven-year battle with bipolar disorder, I knew I had to find ways to keep myself busy and productive or else I would wallow away in my grief. At the time of his death I was writing grant proposals for a homeless shelter, but I found too many reminders working from my home office. The solution, I thought, was to work outside my home.
After two false starts at part-time jobs outside – writing grant proposals for our local free clinic and managing capital campaigns as a fundraising consultant – I decided the way for me to live with the death of my older son was to get rehired by the aerospace company I retired from in the mid-1990s where I had worked off and on since the mid 1960s. When a job opening came up in January 2003, I jumped at it and was hired.
My job was to help my company produce proposals, a huge document or set of documents, meant to persuade the government to hire us to do their needed work. The job was challenging, meaningful, and very stressful – all necessary to keeping my mind so occupied with other things I would have no time to grieve. Each proposal project had a defined beginning, middle, and end so it gave me the opportunity to work with ever-changing proposal teams. I thrived on that socialization, the respect others had for my work, and the challenges of training engineers how to write in English.
Meeting stringent deadlines made me stronger, and keeping my mind on the job stopped me from dwelling on my loss. Plus, I gained skills in setting goals, organizing work and the people I worked with, and managing to a deadline – all skills necessary to my writing career now.
But I kept feeling the draw of creative writing. I had studied journalism in high school and college, I had taken many writing classes and workshops, and by 2009, I was already shopping a memoir I had written (in my “spare” time) about the death of our son and how our family survived. So I started to think about retiring from my day job again. Except I kept hesitating. I was afraid to take that step. I was afraid I would fall apart without my full-time job crutch.
Even though I asked myself: why was I doing my company’s work – of taking men and women back to the moon? Why should I do this work instead of working on my own writing projects? Why was I sabotaging my creativity and healing? I rationalized that I needed the structure, the socialization, and the money. I rationalized that I wouldn’t do well working from home again – alone. But it was none of those. I just plain refused to find out if I could live and survive on my own and as the full-time writer I so longed to be.
Well, I finally did retire, but it took me until April 2010, to do it. When I look back at all those years of indecision, I realize I just couldn’t make the final decision until I was good and ready. Until I felt comfortable enough with myself. Until I stopped carrying around the grief and sorrow.
And the timing was perfect.
Two months after I retired I got a publishing contract for my memoir Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide that I had been pitching for over two years. Almost immediately I was knee-deep in revising my book and getting it ready for publication and getting more and more involved with the social networking necessary to publicize my book. Best of all, after my book was published, I was able to move on to the career I’ve wanted to have since I was a teenager: as a journalist and creative writer.
I like to think that Paul’s death gave me the gift of this new career and a new mission in life. I created a book with the goal of helping others who have experienced a loss like mine; I am working as a web journalist for several online sites that deal with survival, healthy living, and being a vibrant over 60-year old; I’m busy writing a novel, and I discovered my most important work of all: helping to erase the stigma of mental illness and prevent suicide with the hope of saving lives. If my writing helps attain that mission, it will all be worth it.
Madeline Sharples Bio:
Madeline Sharples studied journalism in high school and college and wrote for the high school newspaper, but only started to fulfill her dream to work as a creative writer and journalist late in life. In the meantime she worked most of her professional life as a technical writer and editor, grant writer, and proposal manager. She sold real estate for ten years while her boys were growing up, and instead of creative writing, she took creative detours into drawing and painting, sewing, quilting, and needlepoint.
Released in hardback in 2011, her memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide, will be available through Dream of Things in paperback and eBook editions in July.
It tells the steps she took in living with the loss of her oldest son, first and foremost that she chose to live and take care of herself as a woman, wife, mother, and writer. She hopes that her story will inspire others to find ways to survive their own tragic experiences.
She also co-authored Blue-Collar Women: Trailblazing Women Take on Men-Only Jobs (New Horizon Press, 1994), co-edited the poetry anthology, The Great American Poetry Show, Volumes 1 and 2, and wrote the poems for two photography books, The Emerging Goddess and Intimacy (Paul Blieden, photographer). Her poems have also appeared online and in print magazines. Madeline’s articles also appear regularly in the Huffington Post, Naturally Savvy, PsychAlive, and Open to Hope. She also posts at her blogs, Choices and at Red Room.
She is currently writing an historical fiction book, but her main mission is raising awareness, educating, and erasing the stigma of mental illness and suicide, through her writing and volunteer work, in the hopes of saving lives.
MADELINE’S BOOK TRAILER:
Become a Facebook fan of Madeline Sharples (for book news and writing tidbits)
Visit her website, and Tweet her@madeline40
Sonia Marsh Says: Madeline, I don’t know where to begin with my praise for you, your courage and your determination. The way you chose to handle your grief by immersing yourself in your work, is probably the best way to handle such a tragic loss as that of a child.
On a lighter note, I’m envious of the skills you have:
“Plus, I gained skills in setting goals, organizing work and the people I worked with, and managing to a deadline – all skills necessary to my writing career now.”
I’m finding it so difficult to keep organized, and almost wish I had help to handle the paperwork and filing, so I could keep up with what I enjoy most: meeting people, networking and connecting. Any advice would be appreciated.
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