I have been avoiding this blog for months now. Part of it is self-censorship. How can I possibly start talking about what happened without getting too personal or saying too much and hurting my children? (I can’t. Warning: this is going to get personal). Part of it is that the pain and anger and tidal wave of grief and trauma does not leave much room for anything else, let alone writing.
But enough is enough. I feel muzzled. I feel like probably many women do: weirdly ashamed and not wanting to burden people with what are relatively small betrayals and traumas in the grand scheme of all that is crap in the world. Mostly I feel like I am not supposed to talk about it.
To that side of my brain I say, Whatever. Get over it. Trauma is trauma. Hurt is hurt. I can talk about whatever I want, stupid voice inside my head. Go away now.
So excuse this rambling post. I have decided to just write it already, and publish something today even if it fills me with just as much dread as the thought of a U.S. Government led by Donald Trump. (Ok. Maybe not that much dread. But a lot.)
So I’m going to rip off this year old band-aid that’s been covering my mouth and just blurt it out:
My husband left me. It was not expected. I didn’t see it coming. I went to bed with the person I loved one night and woke up the next morning to a stranger walking out the door.
Just to pour salt on the wound, here is a post I wrote about my marriage back in 2010. Yeah. Naiveté in retrospect feels like a small insect with large pincers gnawing at one’s heart, don’t you think?
Suffice it say, that yes, it is a textbook midlife crisis, with all of the accompanying bells and whistles. (I tried to tell him this, but I think it is akin to telling a woman that she is emotional because of her menstrual cycle; there might be some truth to it, but nobody wants to hear it. I get that. But still…)
Most of me still can’t accept it. Still wonders what I did wrong, why I did not see it coming. Wonders how a person can love you one minute and not the next. How he could just leave without even trying to work it out (in all fairness, I didn’t even know there was something to work out- guess I missed the memo on that one too). Wonders why he didn’t love me enough to try and get through this together. Wonders why he could not talk to me. Wonders why our family, the life we built together, the trust we had and the commitment we made to each other were not enough to make him want to try his best to see our way through this crisis together.
Repeat all the above and you have the hamster on the wheel inside my head, cycling over and over all the things that I just don’t understand, that I can’t make sense of.
This year has been the year of the anvil on my chest, of feeling like every second is like that garbage compacter in Star Wars, but with no rod to stop it from closing in on me, no R2D2 to open the door. (See how I lightened that mood with a Star Wars reference? You are welcome).
In short, I am broken. I feel broken, like I should just hop a boat to the land of lost toys, and live amongst the one-eyed dolls and the three-legged plush animals.
One of the reasons I have not written about this is because I am not a good enough writer to convey this pain. I spent literally half my life with J, 20 years to be exact. I loved him with everything I had to give. I tried to support him the best way I could. Having him withdraw his love so abruptly feels like he reached into my chest and ripped my heart out.
So here I am, 41 years old, single mother of two teenaged daughters, with a big crater in place of a heart.
But I am still here, right? Though I am broken right now, I know it won’t always be the case. I am learning how to see the darkness in front of me as a place of possibility. I am using up all my energy to not let the anger turn to hardened bitterness.
Anyways, now that it is out, I can start talking about all the different aspects of this situation: what has helped me, the lessons I’ve learned, why this is such a large phenomenon with men (honestly, it is crazy how many women I’ve met in the last year who’ve had the exact, and I mean exact thing happen to them. It is like an epidemic or something, a plague that affects forty-something year old males only).
This year has been the year of the violent metaphor. When J first announced to me that he “wasn’t sure he wanted to be married anymore” (yes, that is the way he put it), it was a bomb exploding on my lap. No. He was the bomb and I was caught in his blast radius.
I have been Dorothy’s little farmhouse getting thrown around in a spinning, violent vortex as he hemmed and hawed, became more distant, where “I need more space” became “I hate the word hope”. Where my world was spinning out of control so fast there was no anchor, nothing to ground me from spinning away myself.
The knives in the back. The shrapnel to the heart as more bombs exploded.
The anvil on the chest. The drowning in hurt and grief and anger.
Then came the final blow, the definitive “I don’t want to be married anymore” and I became a used kleenex: thrown away and completely forgotten.
All of these metaphors describe this experience as something done to me, that it was a violence that I could not control, that I did not ask for, that it was a storm buffeting me around.
Yet in my head there was a sharp counterpoint to these metaphors, a voice I thought I had left behind a long time ago, that told me that I was the cause, that all of this was not happening to me, but caused by me.
You are unloved the voice said. At first it began as a bewildered whisper. You are unloved. Huh. But it is J. I know he loves me.We love each other. That is the one constant in my life.
No. You are unloved. Get that through your thick head.
And then it gained momentum. As I struggled to not fall apart at work. You are unloved. As I tried to keep it together for my children. You are unloved. I would go for long walks and runs to get away from it. You are unloved. But it only got stronger, became a chant, a mantra, a rhythm to which I began to keep pace, began to move through my day. You are unloved you are unloved you are unloved.
And then it began to elaborate. This is your fault. There is a piece missing in you that makes you unlovable. You have been found out. You can try and try and try but it won’t matter in the end because you are defective you are unworthy you do not deserve love. You are unloved and will always be unloved because you are not a complete human being.
The trouble is, for the first time in my life, I couldn’t figure out what I did wrong. My marriage was something I was proud of, that I diligently worked at. I actually thought (stupid me) that it was the one thing I did right. I believed we could get through anything as long as we had each other.
Because I was so desperate to figure out how I was to blame (because if I had done something wrong then I could fix it, right?) I think I scoured the darkest, dustiest corner of my subconscious and unearthed my greatest fear: that if anybody ever got close to me, they would find out who I really am and realize I was not worth the trouble.
Ouch. That was hard to write.
And also, according to Brené Brown, the very definition of shame.
As an aside, the only book that I have ever come across that reflected so accurately this feeling was Prep by Curtis Sittenfield. I just re-read my blog post about it and realized that that voice has always been there, ready to rear its ugly head.
To continue the violent metaphors, I feel like I have been flayed alive. Like angry Willow has turned her black eyeballs to me and blasted all my skin off. All the little maggoty ideas and thoughts about who I am are now exposed to the light and they are wriggling uncomfortably in the glare. I am hoping that instead of trying to bury them again, if I concentrate my magnifying glass on their pallid, soft bodies, if I observe them long enough, they will burst into flame from the pressure.
The most castrating thing J said to me this last year was, “Lina, you’re a wonderful woman.”
Oh, there were things, small cruelties that might on the surface seem worse, especially as most of them were untrue. But the, “Lina , you’re a wonderful woman” comment stung the most. Why, you may ask? That seems like a nice compliment, right?
Yeah, no. The hardest part of this year has been confronting my reflection in J’s eyes, facing the person he thinks I am.
He has poured a mould over me, a mould made out of all his hurt and shame and frustration with the unavoidable domesticity that comes from having children, a mould of his own feelings of fear and inadequacy (at least that is my story, but more on stories in another post) and shaped me into this one thing, this 2-dimensional character that is hardened into certain characteristics that, when not viewed with the lens of love and compassion, are completely unlovable.
What I see reflected in his eyes is a person that makes lists and plans and needs to know everything in advance. A person that has to go to bed early because of her routine, who has to make sure everything runs by clockwork. The mother of his children, the executive assistant, the person who gets things done.
The trouble is, all that has a modicum of truth to it. I am that person. Partly I am that person in reaction to him. Someone needed to get stuff done in our marriage and I happen to be highly organized and efficient (I am starting to come to terms with this, on a personal and professional level. I am a competent person. There. I said it. So sue me.) The organization, the running of the household, the making sure everyone is taken care of, that fell to me (still does, actually). In order to do that and still pay at least a little bit of attention to my own needs meant that I had to set up a pretty strict regime for myself.
In short, a “wonderful woman.” Not a woman you want to hang out with. Not a woman you want to undress and have in your bed. Not a woman you want to wake up next to, make coffee and share the newspaper with. No. A wonderful woman is someone you don’t see, someone in the background who makes your life run efficiently but is carefully bank, in business suit grey. A wonderful woman is neutered of all complexity, creativity and desirability.
But that is not all I am. Like most people I am a flurry of contrasting characteristics, of a tension between wanting safety and wanting to blow it all up, between wanting to feel solid and not solid at the same time. I am a woman who wants to feel desired and feel desirable and at the same time afraid of that part of me. I am a writer who just wants to have the time to write better. I am an introvert who is coming to terms with some extremely extroverted tendencies. A social person with an old habit of shyness.
I want to be free of anything that makes me just one thing – I want to have a routine and explode it all at the same time (because really, that is what routines are for, don’t you think? sort of like a base station that we can come back to when we wander off, something to ground us when we need grounding, but that we can easily break free from). But mostly, I want to be enough, to be loved for, and not in spite of, my flaws. I want to be seen for all of these contradictions and above all accepted for who I am and not taken for granted.
The wonderful woman comment concretized me into this hardened, warped version of myself and all my personhood. All those things that make me a complex human being became like the lost wax in the casting: destroyed in the process. Now, when I look into J’s eyes, it is like being confronted with the medusa head: staring back at me is a distorted, stone likeness of myself.
I understand why he needs to do this, why he needs to cast me into this one thing who is not worthy of love anymore, but simply an automaton, an administrative assistant, a closed, boring individual.
It is easier to rationalize hurting a statue of a person than an actual one.
I get that.
But it is the single most hurtful thing in a whole litany of very hurtful things. Love dies when you stop seeing people for the blurry messes they are, when you start building bricks around them and seeing them only as one thing.
I found out after J’s announcement that he had so distanced me and the girls from his life that a lot of the people he worked with didn’t even know he was married and had children. He had relegated me so fully, so completely to the domestic, that despite our life built around his art, around talking about and thinking about art, I was no longer worthy of being a part of it.
I am still reeling from this. Because despite being the one always keeping the home fires burning, despite the struggle I’ve had to keep my own creative juices alive in the face of the everyday drudgery of work and home, I thought I was still apart of that creative life I so valued. I thought it was something that we shared together.
This has been the catalyst for a true existential crisis. It has made me feel like I literally might not exist. And I mean this on a molecular level, like I am simply a collection of molecules with delusions of grandeur at being a human being.
Which is kind of funny actually. I realize that I have spent a lot of my life with the dualistic quest of trying to be invisible yet still longing for someone to see me. This last year has brought both of these desires in sharp light. I am afraid of being seen yet now that I am confronting true invisibility, it is way worse.
A lot of who we are is created by how the people around us see us. I know this is not a popular thing to say, that I should espouse a sense of self that is completely inner-made, but I don’t think that’s true and it is harmful to try to convince ourselves that it is.
If our loved ones stop seeing us, or if they see us as only one thing, it is hard to maintain a sense of self that is something different from the one reflected back at us. We then take on this mono-identity and are in danger of thinking of ourselves as only this one rigid thing.
The result: a soundproof box that we walk into willingly but which is then locked from the outside. No matter how much we bang on the door, how much we scream and cry to be let out, the person on the other side won’t hear because from their point of view we are just a box with nothing in it, just empty space.
I have still not found a way out of this situation except for staying as far away from J as possible. Every time I see him I am transported to this box he has put me in and I can’t get out. The urge to bang on the door, to try and get him to see me is so strong that I end up screaming and crying and banging on the confines of my box, shouting at him to see me! see me! Remember the person that you loved! I am here! Just turn around and see me!
It doesn’t work. He has made up his mind. I am an empty box. All I get for my trouble is bruised knuckles and a hoarse voice and an all-consuming feeling that I in fact do not exist.
But I do exist, at least I think I do. [insert the requisite I think therefore I am joke. Or Pun? Cliché? Philosophical statement? Oh, whatever] And the only thing I can do is leave. Stop banging on the window with the view of his back to me and make myself another exit (I imagine a Shawshank-like escape from my box: a small knife, a poster of Rita Hayworth and plaster dust in the cuffs of my pants).
I am walking away armed with a broom and a dustpan to sweep all of my molecules back into a pile and try to fashion them back into something resembling a human being. Hopefully this new version will come with a concretization-resistant formula that will let me move through the world as the fluid catastrophe I aspire to be.
For many years I had a post-it note above my desk with the words TRY HARDER on it. The letters were in all caps, scratched angrily into its small yellow square.
TRY HARDER. TRY HARDER. TRY HARDER.
If I didn’t find the time to write during the day: TRY HARDER.
If I felt too tired to make a balanced, delicious meal, or clean the bathroom, or play with the kids instead of propping them in front of the TV for an hour: TRY HARDER.
I feel exhausted just writing about it.
My need to TRY HARDER comes out of a very complicated place. It definitely has its roots in my low self-worth that I spoke about in one of the very first Hellish Year posts: the idea that I am not enough, that I am unlovable. But not in the way one might think.
Because, and as hard as it is to admit to myself at this juncture, J made me feel loved. And in our early years he asked me this question: if I thought so low of myself, what must I think of him for being with me? What did that make him, who chose to be with someone who sucked so badly?
I heard and felt that question the way you simultaneously hear and feel an earthquake: it was a sonic boom that shifted everything inside me.
I was loved. Somebody loved me. I could no longer believe that my actions did not matter. Somebody else would be affected by what I chose to do.
Now, it is not that I thought I did not deserve to be loved – everybody deserves to be loved. It is just that before this moment, I never really believed anyone outside my family did.
But now there was this man who loved me enough to get angry with me when I spiraled into one of my shame rants.
There was no way I was going to take that for granted. I would do everything I could to be worthy of that love.
And thus, the TRY HARDER mantra.
In a way, I am grateful for my low self-worth. I am grateful that I do not take the people around me for granted (at least I don’t think I do. I really, really hope I don’t.) That I realize that being loved is a miraculous thing, something to cherish and treat well, that requires maintenance and care. I am proud of that. Though it might have come from a dubious place, not taking people for granted is a practice I intend to continue.
The problem, though, is that I did not love myself (I know. I apologize for any inadvertent Jack Handy moments). No, that is too simplistic. It is not that I didn’t love myself (honestly, to this day I am not sure what that even means. How do you love or not love yourself? How can one separate oneself from oneself to project these emotions as if we were separate from ourselves? It confuses me, I won’t lie.) And I never hated myself, or at least I don’t think I did. I just wanted to be Me but Better.
I thought I could make myself a better person by beating myself up, by forcing myself to try harder, do more, be thinner and more attractive (I will tackle that can of worms in a later post when I work up the courage) like I was both drill sergeant and recruit in a BE A BETTER PERSON boot camp.
Thus the cycle of making unrealistic expectations for myself, failing to meet them, beating myself up about it, making more unrealistic expectations and so on and so on. In short, an unsustainable pattern.
This came clear to me in the months that followed J’s announcement. The first self-help books I gravitated towards were about women and sexuality (because obviously, if a man wasn’t interested in me anymore it must because I was somehow physically lacking, right? I know. I take solace from the knowledge that this is in part an internalized gendered response to the situation).
Anyways. Ironically, the most helpful thing I learned was not about sex at all. It came from a great book (which I think every woman should read) called Come as You Are by Emily Nagoski. She is talking about the need to replace self-criticism with self-kindness and women’s response to this:
“…When women start to think concretely about it, they begin to discover a sense that they need their self-criticism in order to stay motivated. We believe it does us good to torture ourselves, at least a little bit.
As in: “If I stop beating myself up for the ways I’m not perfect, that’s like admitting to the world –and to myself — that I’ll never be perfect, that I’m permanently inadequate! I need my self-criticism in order to maintain hope and to motivate myself to get better.”
When we tell ourselves, ” I can’t stop criticizing myself or else I will fail forever!” that’s like saying, “I can’t stop running/fighting/playing dead, or the lion will eat me!” [this is speaking about the stress cycle]. That’s absolutely what our culture has taught us, so it makes sense that many of us believe it. Its so entrenched in our culture that it sounds…sane. Rational, even.
But it’s not.
Think about it: What would really happen if you stopped running from yourself or beating yourself up? What would happen if you put down the whip you’ve been flogging yourself with for decades?
When you stop beating yourself up — when you stop reinjuring yourself –what happens is…you start to heal.
I read this and bam! Another sonic boom in my head. Because I have actually said those exact words out loud to people: if I am not hard on myself, how will I get better? Nagoski also asks the reader if they would say what they say to themselves to their daughter or best friend.
I read that and thought about all the things I tell myself. And then I imagined telling them to my daughters.
And also, ouch.
So. This is what I am working on: self-compassion. It has been sorely lacking through out my life and now I need to make up for it. This does not mean that I won’t continue to try and be a better person. I hope I always will (or else where is the meaning in this crazy journey?) The difference will be that I will stop the self-flagellation, the psychological hair shirts. I will practice treating myself the way I treat (at least I think I do) those I love: with kindness, respect and compassion.