Tag Archives: Grief

Making Sense of Your Emotions After Divorce and Beyond

guy hiding under desk - the great courses daily

It wasn’t quite this dramatic. ;) (Image/The Great Courses Daily)

I walked into my ex-wife’s house following a quick knock as I do a few times every week to pick up my son after work.

I had a bag of our son’s clothes with me full of specific items I’d promised I’d return, and when I walked into the kitchen to set the bag of clothes on the counter, I saw the red envelope leaning up against the bottle of whatever liquor she had bought her boyfriend for Valentine’s Day. This is their third or fourth Valentine’s Day together.

You feel something when you see something like that. Even six years removed from marriage. You feel something.

Sometimes, I have these conversations with myself when I feel that something. Because, what does it mean?

Does it mean that I love my ex-wife and miss her desperately and wish we were still together?

No. She’s a fine human being and the best co-parenting partner and mother to my son that I could ever hope to have. But, I don’t sit around my house (the one she and I used to share) wishing that she still lived there.

There’s no evidence that she and I could have a good marriage—even now that I understand so much more about my failed marriage than I did back when I assumed all of our problems were her fault.

I DON’T WANT a shitty relationship full of uncomfortable conversations and conflict INFINITELY more than I want to be in another permanent romantic relationship that might be a stepping stone to another marriage. Regardless of who that other person is.

“Given all of the changes and strides you have made in your own growth and understanding of how things went sideways, is there the potential for reconciliation with your ex-wife?” a reader asked me in a recent blog comment.

I’ve received that question many times over the past five years.

There’s a faction of people out there invested in the story—my story. The almost-redemption story.

The shitty husband who is just like their spouse.

And if I can figure it out, maybe they can figure it out.

And if I can figure it out AND want to reconcile with my wife and maybe have a great marriage on the second try, maybe the dream is still alive for them too.

I hope they know their dream can remain alive regardless of what happens with me.

Because a beautiful marriage might be in my future, but there’s virtually no chance my ex-wife will have any part to play other than hopefully having a positive, peaceful relationship with whoever I would invite into our co-parenting inner circle. And that’s more than okay.

I think what I felt when I saw that Valentine’s Day card was shame.

Do I—in a spiritual sense—regret that I was a shitty husband and now we’re not married, and I have to drop my son off in the morning to be cared for by the guy sleeping with his mother? Absolutely.

Am I jealous? No.

It’s more nuanced than that.

It’s not pain. But it is discomfort.

I’m ashamed at who I was.

And just maybe, ashamed at who I am.

What’s wrong with me that all these years later, my ex-wife is in this super-stable relationship, and I’m still ordering takeout with my fifth-grader?

Trigger City Looks Nice Until You Hit That One Part of Town

The next morning my son didn’t have school, so I dropped him off back at his mom’s house before driving to the office. Her boyfriend was the only person who was going to be home with him for the first couple of hours that morning.

I neither hesitated nor thought twice about leaving my favorite little human in his care. I can trust him unequivocally to be good to my son and his mother.

If you don’t know how much that’s worth, you’ve never shared a child with someone who doesn’t live in the same house.

I have what I consider to be a mature, well-thought-out and healthy mental and emotional position RE: my ex-wife.

Married people with children have never thought about what it feels like to wrestle with the stress, fear, and anxiety that you encounter the first time you realize that your ex who you share children with are now in total control of what happens to them whenever they’re not with you.

They can date, live with, marry ANYONE and there’s not one damn thing in the world you can do about it.

When the divorce first happened, I couldn’t breathe.

Not the way normal people breathe.

I couldn’t sit still or sleep or think or talk or in any way behave however I perceive ‘normal’ to be.

Someone at work asked me about it. About the time I was adjusting to a new world where I felt like I had Iost half of my son’s already going-too-fast childhood, and where I felt like I’d lost ALL control over his safety and wellbeing.

If I can’t influence who she sees, how can I protect my son from the bad ones?

A huge percentage of the panic I felt back then was being stripped of that sense of control.

That slice of the Pain & Horror pie chart got tossed into a cauldron with all of the other stuff—rejection, embarrassment, fear, a sense of failure, emotional brokenness, and surely some other bad-tasting things I’m forgetting.

Holy shit, is this really happening? I quietly thought to myself while I recounted that story from six years ago. Because I started to feel it.

I’d just sit at my desk sometimes staring straight ahead on the verge of tears, trying to draw long breaths and hoping no one would notice or ask me any work questions.

Sometimes my hands would shake a little in conference room meetings. Every guy at the table had a wedding band on but me, and they were all super-interested in the work conversations just like I used to be before the world ended.

I didn’t speak. I didn’t make eye contact. I didn’t do anything except hide my jittery hands under the table and concentrate really hard on pretending to be tough and stoic so that I wouldn’t cry in front of my friends and coworkers.

Those were the hardest days I’ve ever known.

Those were the days where I used vodka as a crutch and started smoking again after having kicked the habit. Those were the days were I felt so dark and shitty and uncomfortable down deep where no medicine can reach, I FINALLY understood why some people give up. After a lifetime of not getting it, I finally “got it.”

If every second of your life HURTS—excruciatingly—and you lose hope that you can find your way back to where it doesn’t hurt (or tragically have never known a life without pain), then it makes sense to be more afraid of living than dying.

I wasn’t suicidal. That never happened. But I remember thinking that if some semi coming the other direction crossed over center and pulverized me that it would feel merciful.

That’s when I knew I was damn close to rock bottom.

After a lifetime of being afraid of lots of things, I wasn’t afraid of much.

It’s the super-power of grief. It’s the ONE cool thing about it. Everything sucks. Things can’t get worse. So—boom. A liberating taste of fearless living.

When we have things to lose (the best things in life) it makes sense that we’re afraid of losing it.

When we’re out of things to lose, it’s not super-neat that we suffered a great loss, but you are gifted a healthy dose of perspective that I think most of us need.

There were all of these things in life that I had wanted. That I’d made a goal. A certain amount of money. A certain kind of house. A certain kind of job. Etc. Material-ish things, in many cases, as a measure of having “a good life.”

But then I felt like dying, and it occurred to me that even if I had my dream home and the largest bank account I could think of, I STILL would have felt empty and broken in that moment.

There’s nothing we can buy or acquire to protect us from that feeling down deep inside where the medicine can’t reach. Once I discovered that important truth, I developed a healthier, more appropriate perspective on finances and material possessions.

I felt that feeling return.

The bullshit one that nothing but time can fix.

And all it took was me retelling the story to a couple of friends at work. It all came rushing back. The nausea. The anxiety. That feeling of tears welling in my eyes that I hope no one noticed.

I went for a walk, just like I did six years ago. Just a bunch of quiet deep breaths and the music in my headphones. Maybe no one will know.

The problem though is that I knew.

WTF is happening right now?

Our Scars and Stories

I was fine by the time night rolled around. I didn’t think about it over the weekend.

I’m only thinking about it now because I wanted to write this.

We have all of these souvenirs from our past lives. Maybe they’re tangible objects. Maybe they’re foggy memories. Maybe they’re razor-sharp feelings triggered by things we see or hear or smell or think about.

These souvenirs are comprised of both our scars and stories.

Our scars are proof that they happened. That we’re still alive.

Your ex-husband is seeing someone new, and you don’t like it, even though you left him AND would never choose to be with him again? It hurts somehow but you can’t explain why?

You don’t have to. Scars. Stories. Yours.

Your ex-wife is seeing someone new and it’s totally fine, but the memory of your wife leaving you, and losing control of your son, and all of those nights thinking about how much she was loving being with that other piece of shit while you sobbed at home alone on the couch makes you FEEL that all over again? Several years later? And you can’t explain it?

You don’t have to.

I don’t have to.

Scars. Stories.

Yours.

Mine.

Everything’s going to be okay.

Really, it already is.

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Preparing for that Last Goodbye

goodbye gravestone

(Image/Thrive Global)

Nothing sparks contemplation for me quite as intensely as the news of someone’s death.

One of my best friends from childhood—the best man in my wedding, and my roommate for four years of college—lost his father.

I just found out.

And then my head goes to the place where my fingers need the keyboard.

No other life events affect me like death. The same must be true for many of you. The news—the shock and inflexible reality of it—forces you to rewire your brain in real-time, because what you know to be true is no longer true. And there’s no do-overs or rewind buttons. There’s just adjusting uncomfortably—sometimes very painfully—to the new world you didn’t want nor ask to travel to.

My friend’s dad was a doctor. A surgeon. A kind and funny and generous one.

In addition to welcoming me into his home for what seems like the majority of weekends throughout my senior year of high school, this man indirectly had a profound impact on my life.

He graduated from the same university I attended. So when his son and I were exploring college options, he was the one who drove us to campus one weekend to check it out and see a football game.

That trip cemented my friend and I’s decision to attend that school together and be roommates.

It was at that school where I switched majors so that I could make writing my career.

And it was at that school where I would meet the young woman who would later be my wife and son’s mother.

If Doc doesn’t invite me to visit his alma mater with his son that fall weekend in 1996, then almost everything about my life—right this second—could be radically different.

Heavy thoughts.

A favorite writer of mine starts his day by reading obituaries.

He believes that reading obituaries each morning helps him better appreciate life, focus on the present, and live each moment more fully.

There’s a simple brilliance in that.

Another favorite writer of mine will walk down the streets of New York City, imagining that every person he sees is terminally ill. That they will die in the coming hours.

He says that allows him to behave more kindly, more patiently, more empathetically, more thoughtfully to the hordes of strangers that are otherwise easy to de-humanize as they honk their horns, stand in your way while you’re in a hurry, and make daily life in the city more frustrating and less pleasant than it might otherwise be.

They do this because—one might argue—we are our best selves when we’re mindful of the fragility of this life.

We are not promised tomorrow.

How would we treat our spouses, our extended family, our friends, our children? How would we treat strangers?

If we knew they were going to die?

If we knew we were going to die?

It’s funny to me—not Ha-ha funny—that they are going to die. That I’m going to die.

The conditions are ALREADY in place for me to show up and be my best self to others. In that same way I naturally feel right now upon learning the news of Doc’s passing.

We shouldn’t be sad or morose or uncomfortably morbid all of the time. That doesn’t seem useful.

But we should be mindful. We should always be mindful of what may be.

Our time is precious.

Who deserves our forgiveness? Our patience? Our compassion? Our attention? Our love?

There’s a higher path we can choose to walk. I’m often operating several levels beneath it.

But now—right now—I feel how much I want to be up there.

And even if I—predictably—fail to stay up there as I cycle back into routine and normalcy and acting as if my life and my things are the center of the universe and nothing else is happening out there, it can’t hurt to spend right now reminding myself how laughably untrue that is.

That life is happening in other places and it matters.

That other people are fighting their own battles, and they’re hard, and what can I do to help them fight them?

That no matter what has happened in the past, between any of us and all of the people we know, there’s a farewell coming. One way or another, there’s a Goodbye up ahead.

Maybe we could make it a good one.

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The Moments When Men Lose Their Wives

Cesare-Pavese-Quote-We-do-not-remember-days-we-remember-moments

(Image/Quotefancy.com)

Our relationships work like a weight scale. Like a math equation.

With every person we know, there’s a ledger. There are no accountants. No bookkeeping. No visible scoreboards.

Just the running score we have in our minds and hearts. The math is impure, of course. Subjective. No two people will score their relationship with one another exactly the same. And without super-honest—sometimes uncomfortable—communication, neither person will necessarily know where they stand in the minds and hearts of the other.

We’d all like to believe in unconditional love. I always have. And I’m sure there have been countless examples of people providing it to loved ones who other people would have cut out of their lives under identical circumstances. But we’re only human. Even the strongest among us have weaknesses and breaking points.

Provide enough negative experiences for another person and they won’t want to be around you anymore. Provide enough emotionally painful experiences for another person and they won’t even want to know you. Hurt someone intensely enough, and they won’t even be the same person anymore.

This is how good marriages turn shitty, how faithful spouses turn to affairs, and how people who love one another and share children end up disliking one another so much that they’re willing to uproot their homes and children’s lives just to escape.

It’s been said by me and much smarter people several times already—marriages or long-term romantic relationships rarely end from one, big, obvious, dramatic moment that came out of the blue. Most of the time, relationships end after thousands of tiny little moments that escaped our notice piled up enough that the scale couldn’t hold up anymore. One side gets so weighed down, that the entire thing crashes to the ground, splattering all the sadness, anger, pain, shame and fear on anyone standing close enough.

Misdiagnosing My Divorce

I’m definitely an idiot, but I’m like a smart-ish idiot. I’ve always been fairly analytical, curious, and interested in getting to the WHY behind, well, everything. I always want to how or why something happened, and how or why someone or something behaves as it does.

My mental aptitude is in the top 10%-15% if you place any stock in standardized academic testing.

And even though I’m kind of smart-ish, when I applied all of my brainpower to figuring out the WHY behind my wife wanting to divorce, I settled on a totally incorrect conclusion.

Misdiagnosing things is VERY bad. If you get it wrong after a relationship has ended, and you don’t actually know why, you’re likely doomed to repeat the experience. If you get it wrong DURING your relationship, you’ll spend all of your time and energy on things that won’t make anything better. Which is why people sometimes FEEL like they’re working hard on their relationship, only to continue eating shit sandwiches from their ‘ungrateful’ partners who aren’t responding emotionally the way the Misdiagnoser wants them to.

That was me. A Misdiagnoser.

My wife’s father—my father-in-law, a man I loved and respected intensely—died out of nowhere one autumn day. We’d all had dinner together the night before. Everything was fine. Happy. Fun. The very next night, I learned the tragic news from a phone call, and was suddenly facing the task of telling my wife the most painful news she would ever hear.

The following month was a blur. I tried to play the role of Good Husband and Good Son-in-Law for my wife and extended family.

But that woman wasn’t my wife anymore. She was someone else.

I thought it would get better eventually. It never did.

I lost my wife when her father died.

So you know what I did? I pointed to that tragic life event, and interpreted it as my wife mishandling the situation emotionally. I convinced myself that my “overly emotional” wife was showing her true colors once again—putting her feelings ahead of more important things like our marriage and family.

And here’s the worst part in terms of the modern-day divorce crisis: I’d argue that that story makes sense. It’s easy to believe.

I think there are many thoughtful, intelligent people who would agree with that initial analysis, make a snap judgment about my ex-wife or me, and never put any more energy into digging for more truth.

“Yeah, Matt. That’s terrible. Something similar happened to my other buddy, Trey. She’s being selfish, and putting her sadness ahead of your marriage, and now your family is suffering for it. I’m sorry man. I wish I knew what to say.”

It doesn’t always matter what’s true. It doesn’t always matter what’s real. People will act on their BELIEFS—independent of whether we agree with those beliefs, or even know that person has them.

If you value your relationship with someone, it will be helpful to come to terms with this truth. When we love people, we have to honor THEIR experiences—THEIR reality—in order to connect with them on an emotionally healthy level.

There’s Famous Precedent for This Phenomenon

For 1,500 years, early astronomers used Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the solar system to create astronomical charts. ‘Geocentric’ means that the Earth is the center of the universe, and everything in the night sky is orbiting around it.

Today, we know this isn’t true. Nicolaus Copernicus got suspicious and theorized we were actually the ones moving around the sun. Later, Italian genius Galileo Galilei proved it.

But for 1,500 years prior, every educated person in the world believed the sun revolved around Earth. And it wasn’t because everyone was a bunch of stupid morons. Given the mathematical parameters and limited technology of that time, you can PROVE Ptolemy’s model.

For 1,500 years, the smartest people in the world—every scientist, navigator, educator and thought leader—knew how the sun, moon and stars would move in the sky. They could ‘prove’ it convincingly by accurately predicting what would happen next in the night sky, even though EVERYTHING about their prediction model was based on false information.

People can believe things that can’t be proven—big and small. Don’t get hung up on the countless religious and political examples of this in world history. Just think about the people in your personal life. They might believe something about you or about your relationship that isn’t true, whether or not you realize it.

And if you’re constantly operating outside of THEIR reality, you’re bound to disagree with them, fight with them, confuse them, frustrate them, anger them, and hurt them.

This is the way your marriage ends.

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The Moments—Big and Small—When We Lose Those We Love

We call them small, but shouldn’t. MOST of life is small moments, so it’s the collective pile of these small moments building up in people’s emotional bank accounts that end up being The Big Thing.

It’s the pinpricks—the paper cuts—that end us. We just never see it coming, because each moment seemed too minor to present a serious threat. In isolation, none of them seem to cause enough damage.

Then, one day, one more thing gets thrown on the negative side of the scale, and it comes crashing down.

The Small Moments – Minor Life Setbacks

We’re always trying to make progress. To achieve something. We want to get a new job, or succeed at a project or hobby, or whatever. But life doesn’t always hand us victory. Sometimes we have to take it on the chin a little first until we quit trying, or overcome it.

But the setbacks hurt. The disappointments are hard to swallow. Sometimes that’s because we hold ourselves to super-high standards. But, if you’re anything like me, it’s because these setbacks feel like failures for the people you love as well. Like you’ve let them all down by not earning the job offer, or not winning the competition, or working on a project at home or work that doesn’t go as well as you’d hoped.

So, you’re feeling the shame of failure, but you’re PRETENDING not to. You’re wearing the Tough Guy mask. You’re imagining your wife, kids, friends, parents—whoever—are all talking about what a loser you are (even though most or all of them love you, and are NOT actually thinking or talking about what a loser you are).

You withdraw from your spouse or romantic partner and hide because you’re feeling sorry for yourself, OR you’re leaning heavily on her for support. To nurse you back to health.

No matter which reaction you chose, you forced your wife to invest a bunch of emotional/mental/physical energy into trying to navigate your feelings (often the same feelings you belittle her for demonstrating when they’re about something that matters to her).

If you withdraw, you leave all of the work of home and children, etc. to her.

If you vampire her energy to prop you back up, you leave her short of what she needs to get through the days with her workload.

But here’s the worst part:

When SHE has a minor setback in her life, maybe you don’t see it as being a big deal. Or. Maybe you try to help her solve her problem with all of your superior man-wisdom, when all she really wants is a trusted confidant who is steadily, reliably in her corner.

These are the types of little interactions, where we are taking more from our spouse and marriage than we are giving to them.

And once one end of the scale is weighed down by enough moments, shit breaks.

The Small Moments – Illness

These are broad generalizations. They do not apply to everyone. They simply apply to me and many other people.

When my wife was sick, I certainly went out of my way to bring her meds, food, drinks, blankets, etc. And I thought by doing that, I was being a good husband.

You know what I WASN’T doing—ever?

I wasn’t thoughtfully taking care of things my wife would have taken care of while I was recovering on the couch. If I was sick on the couch, not only would my wife have brought me food, blankets, meds, etc., but she would have also kept the kitchen spotless, kept the laundry going, managed the family calendar, and much more.

My wife—and many wives/mothers—don’t get days off even when they’re sick. Because in their experience, if they’re not taking care of certain life duties, they’ll never get done. They can’t count on anyone else to do them.

This arrangement can work for a few years. It takes a while for things to pile up on the scale.

But eventually? Something as seemingly innocent as a sick husband asking for more Advil from the couch where he’s watching movies while his wife is packing two school lunches and getting two kids ready for bed can make a person snap.

The Small Moments – Parties and Social/Family Gatherings

I was nicer to strangers than I was to my wife.

Not always. Just often.

Someone I didn’t live with or barely knew could say or do something, and get total politeness from me. But if my wife said or did that EXACT SAME THING, maybe I’d find some way to voice my displeasure, or make it clear to everyone in earshot that I didn’t agree with whatever she had just said or done.

Someone I saw a few times a year, or maybe never again, would get my BEST treatment and behavior.

But the person I claimed to love above all things, and promised to honor for the rest of my life got a bunch of subtle or overt dick-headed commentary and treatment.

I’d be kind and charming to strangers. Laugh hysterically with my friends.

But I couldn’t extend that same kindness and charm to my wife? I couldn’t whisper in her ear how amazing she looked, and how grateful I was that out of all the people in the room, I was the one that got to take her home?

I never said or did things like that.

And if you don’t think that matters, you have the same disease I used to have.

The Big Moments – The Wedding

Listen. Weddings are bullshit. I get it.

They don’t HAVE to be. They SHOULDN’T be.

But they often are.

A big, expensive party celebrating the beginning of a living arrangement statistically likely to suck ass 5-10 years later.

We put so much time, effort, and energy—culturally; societally—into weddings, and I’m not the least bit shy about saying how asinine and bullshitty it all seems to me.

But you know what weddings are—independent of all the pomp and circumstance?

They are DAY 1 of what is supposed to be FOREVER.

And the significance of that can’t be overstated.

Weddings seemed like “girl stuff.” Bridal magazines, dresses, cakes, flowers, and a bunch of stuff I didn’t really care about. Weddings were “the bride’s day.” So, I just checked out unless I was asked for my opinion. I barely helped with anything. I was 24 and 25 during the year of my engagement. Thinking about marriage isn’t something that happened. I was too busy not knowing how much it mattered just like the rest of the world.

Our lives already looked how it would look when we were married. Forever Boyfriend and Girlfriend. Easy!

We can’t know what we don’t know, so I couldn’t have known it back then. But I started to lose my wife during our engagement, when I demonstrated total disinterest in something that mattered so dearly to her.

I didn’t participate—actively—in what people often refer to as “the best day of their lives.”

THAT is how I chose to begin our journey to FOREVER, and never once considered the dangers of doing so.

The Big Moments – Having a Baby

I left my crying wife in the hospital about five hours after delivering our only child, right on the heels of her being in labor for 24 hours.

I don’t like talking about it, because it’s the worst thing I’ve ever done.

We talk about safety. We talk about trust. And people think they know what that means. But sometimes it takes on different meaning in romantic relationships.

After that day, my wife couldn’t trust me anymore. Not to be there for her when she needed me to be. And because she couldn’t trust me, she couldn’t feel safe. The future felt too unsteady, too uncertain.

The day of my son’s birth was the true beginning of the end. And it was 100-percent within my power to have made a different choice.

I didn’t know how to give more than I took. I chose me, taking for granted that my marriage would always be there.

Through the prism of hindsight, the outcome was predictable.

The Big Moments – Trauma and Grief

“The straw that broke the camel’s back” is a famous idiom which describes the seemingly minor or routine action that causes an unpredictably large and sudden reaction, because of the cumulative effect of small actions.

And it’s truly the way most relationships end.

Someone suffers a major emotional trauma, or are grieving the sudden loss of a close family member or friend. It’s so significant—they break so much on the inside—that they never get to be themselves again. It’s not a concept a person gets to understand until they suffer through it themselves.

When people break on the inside, they feel worse than they’ve ever felt before. It’s emotional and physical rock-bottom.

But something interesting happens in that moment.

When life feels like it can’t get any worse, you stop being afraid of anything. Maybe for the first time in someone’s life, they fear nothing.

People aren’t afraid to leave their spouse when they can’t feel any worse. People aren’t afraid of potential judgment from their family or friends when they can’t feel any worse. People aren’t afraid of the unknown when they can’t feel any worse, because they’re ALREADY in the midst of I don’t know what’s going to happen next.

If your relationship was already in bad shape, a significant traumatic moment, or the grieving that can occur after a tragic loss, can and will cause the scale to collapse.

If your relationship was NOT already a mess, then THIS IS YOUR MOMENT. This is when you write the story of how you show up for your partner in relationships.

How you show up when it’s inconvenient. When it doesn’t feel good. When it’s hard.

This is your chance to show up—not for you—but for them.

Your golden opportunity to put your marriage and the person you claim to love above all things AHEAD of your immediate wants.

This is the moment when you must give more than you take.

Not once.

But over and over and over again, even when there’s no certain date on the calendar when it will stop feeling hard.

When life will feel good again.

This is your opportunity to walk the In Good Times and In Bad; ‘Til Death Do Us Part walk.

And you must. If you want to have a marriage that goes the distance, this is the path. This is the price.

Love without expectation.

Giving with no hands out.

Effort without seeking pats on the back.

Every minute is another Small Moment to invest in her. In your future. In your family.

Every major life event is a rare Big Moment to step up and do everything better and differently than I did.

It’s how we beat this.

It’s where heroes are born.

There probably won’t be statues and parades.

Just your family. Always.

And all around you, every day, people learning to follow your example. Changing the world.

Not just in the big moments. In all of the moments.

That’s where the real fight lives. In the hiding-in-plain-sight everydayness. In the ordinary.

You just didn’t realize it.

But she has.

Just ask her.

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The 4th Wedding Anniversary (That Wasn’t)

Lucky 13 carnival

(Image/Halloween Forum)

Yesterday would have been lucky-number 13.

My wife and I celebrating 13 years of marital bliss.

Only we didn’t. Because we stopped at 9. In large part because the final couple of years were anything but blissful.

Also, I didn’t remember.

I hadn’t noticed until I flipped a daily calendar to today.

And all joking aside about my totally suspect ADHD calendar management, it’s significant that I didn’t remember.

Maybe some people feel completely fine and normal after getting divorced. But other people feel shitty and want to die a little bit and cry a lot more than they’re proud of while feeling like the world’s biggest loser and binge-watching a lot of shows on Netflix and assuming they will spend the rest of their lives celibate and alone while their exes are having orgasm parties with some wildly successful entrepreneur ready to sell their tech startup for a billion dollars and pretty much guaranteeing a lifetime of their children respecting and wanting to be with the other parent more than them.

I was a member of the latter group.

Even my grandma (the sweetest, most-prayerful and non-judgmental person I know) was probably like: “My #1 grandson seems extra-losery lately. If he doesn’t get it together, he’s going to die alone, because no woman will ever want to kiss him on the mouth, let alone play fiddlesticks in his nether regions. I’m demoting him to, like, #4 in the grandson ranking.” It’s difficult to know for sure how she felt and/or whether I’ve reclaimed by spot atop the family grandson rankings.

It’s significant that I didn’t reflect on my wedding anniversary yesterday, because that’s exactly the kind of thing you tend to do when you feel broken and depressed after divorce.

Every major holiday.

Her birthday.

My birthday.

Our son’s birthday.

The Fourth of July (our “engagement anniversary”).

There were all of these things that triggered the most powerful and unexpected emotions for the first couple of years following the end of our marriage. If you’d told me some date on the calendar had the power to trigger something within me that would make my entire body revolt, I’d have called you crazy.

But then I lived it.

I felt in the most intense ways what a particular anniversary could remind you of. If it wasn’t something on the calendar, it was one of those asshole Facebook memories that seem to randomly pop up and try to ruin your day, or it was me driving by a particular building or location, or maybe hearing a certain song, and then I’d feel all the things rushing in again.

It wasn’t just hard because it hurt.

It was hard because it reminded me that I wasn’t fully back yet. I hadn’t recovered. I remained weak and fragile. It reminded me that I didn’t have control over emotions, which meant I didn’t have control over myself.

Once every day stops hurting after a major life trauma, the next phase involves unpredictable and intermittent flare-ups.

Rock-bottom has one perk. NOTHING scares you anymore, because (even if it isn’t true) it feels like it can’t get any worse.

But once the healing begins, some of the fear returns, because the ability to just behave normally during the day without all of the hurt and fear and anxiety becomes this really important and valuable thing that you had always taken for granted until you knew better.

So when something sneaky triggers us into a mini-relapse, it can shake you up because you don’t know if that’s ever going to stop happening.

It’s hard to feel like you don’t have any control about your baseline state-of-being. As if you don’t know which “you” you’ll be when you wake up tomorrow.

I often wondered when these triggers would finally go away.

And Then Something Funny Happens

You don’t really notice because you forget to look for it.

The same way that resentment and shit-festival rides and funnel cake booths sneak quietly into our relationships and go undetected until we finally bite into some funnel cake we overpaid for and it tastes like goat piss, and then we pop three balloons with our skilled dart throwing to win that awesome stuffed monkey, but instead of giving us the awesome stuffed monkey, the carnie gives us the middle finger and divorce papers…

The same way that happens, goodness and normalcy slowly creep in when life feels like it’s beating us down.

I wanted so badly to hack the process.

I researched whatever scientific studies I could find on happiness. I went to guided meditation classes. I drank a little more beer, tequila and vodka than usual.

I wanted a shortcut, and if I couldn’t find one, I at least wanted to know when the terrible pain and sadness might end.

What is the thing or the time I can look forward to because that’s when I’ll know this is mostly behind me?

I took comfort in some of the stories and experiences of other divorcees.

But still. When will it be my turn?

And then the funny thing happens. You wake up one day and realize you’d stopped counting. You’d stopped looking for signs. You’d stopped wondering when tomorrow will come because, holy shit, it’s ALREADY tomorrow and I didn’t even notice.

There was no magic to evoke.

There was no exorcism or major therapeutic breakthrough (not that there’s anything wrong with leaning on psych pros—I’d have done so if I was financially comfortable enough to shell out $250/hour).

There was no one thing I can point to that took me from the painful and debilitating shit-festival to today. The day AFTER a wedding anniversary (that wasn’t) that I never got around to noticing.

The path to today wasn’t complex or hard to explain even though I hadn’t realized I’d arrived here. The path wasn’t around. There were no shortcuts or helpful detours. There was only one straight path that could only be traveled at the speed with which I move.

There were unpleasant and difficult obstacles from the get-go. And it turns out, Life doesn’t magically remove all those obstacles to make the path easier to walk. Dealing with each obstacle by climbing over it, or blasting my way through simply made me good at navigating them.

I wanted it to be easy and fast. But it didn’t feel that way. It felt torturously slow.

But as I look back today? Four wedding anniversaries (that weren’t) later? I don’t know where the time went.

But I’m here now. (Hi!)

The path was hard. But then it gets a little bit easier. Then a little bit easier. Then a little bit easier. Then you accidentally get so busy living again that you forget to measure the difficulty.

Hope is the carrot at the end of the stick, and it’s worth walking toward. When you’re emerging from divorce or some other awful life event, how much better tomorrow can be than today is so incremental, we’re unlikely to notice it. But it IS better.

And when you wake up and breathe enough times, you stop, look back, and really see how far you’ve come.

The only path was through.

Never easy. But always worth it.

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How to Be Comfortable Alone on Valentine’s Day

guy sitting alone at restaurant

Totally NOT this. I promise. (Image/Its Box Office Forums)

If I’m hospitalized or incapacitated from a car accident or emergency health problem, my ex-wife will be the first person anyone calls.

That’s because, even four years after our divorce, she’s still my emergency contact.

In a reverse-scenario, I’m probably the fourth person to get an emergency call about her. Yes, I’m aware of how pathetic that sounds.

On a night where she might go out for dinner, drinks and whatever else with her boyfriend if our son wasn’t at home with her, I’ll sit alone in my kitchen writing things for a client after grabbing a takeout dinner on the drive home later.

I have no way to prove I’m not just writing this in some lame attempt to sound cool or tough, but I have exactly ZERO problems with my Valentine’s Day plans today.

I want to talk about why, because I think the things that make people feel lonely on Valentine’s Day are the same things that compel people to marry someone before they’re ready, or to ignore their partner’s behavioral red flags, or jump into a relationship super-fast after a breakup or divorce and ultimately suffer for that choice.

I remember when it wasn’t this way.

I remember how excruciating it is when your body is still learning how to operate with entire pieces of your insides missing. Crying, even though you never cry. Unable to breathe, even though you’re always breathing.

I remember.

Because Valentine’s Day is hard for a lot of people. We like to associate that feeling with single people and maybe feel sorry for them as if they’re all alone because no one will ever like them or find them worthy.

To be sure, many divorced people will be afraid of that. I was afraid of that. Maybe still am.

But I don’t think single people are the loneliest people. I think people in broken marriages, or people who are the givers in one-way relationships that just haven’t broken yet, are the loneliest people.

Being married or carrying the “In a Relationship” label DOES NOT prevent loneliness.

Connectivity to others prevents loneliness, regardless of whether you share an address or exchange bodily fluids with them.

Self-love (self-compassion and respect, not narcissism) and self-acceptance prevents loneliness.

And something else does, too: Getting used to being alone.

The Reason I’m Single

Save it, dicks. Of course not everyone finds me attractive. Of course not everyone likes me.

But that’s not why I’m single.

I’m intentionally single today in a way I wasn’t four years ago, and I want you to understand why because it matters.

I am divorced primarily because I spent years taking my wife for granted, leaning on her to do most of the heavy lifting of Life and household management, including paying our bills, coordinating our social calendars, planning holidays, developing a caretaking system for our newborn, and executing the day-to-day management of everything required of working adults with a child and a mortgage in the 21st century.

I think MOST divorce today stems from this same toxic condition.

I can’t speak for other guys. Just me.

I grew up in a small Ohio town. When we were all together for large holiday gatherings, or when I visited friends’ houses, or just my experience with my mom at home, I almost exclusively watched wives and mothers doing things like cooking, clearing the table afterward, broom-sweeping the floor, washing dishes, changing baby diapers, folding laundry, vacuuming carpet, cleaning bathrooms, etc.

I’ve heard so many men call this stuff “women’s work” and seen so many men retreat to the living-room recliner after dinner to let their wives, mothers, sisters, daughters take care of the cleanup, that I felt OFFENDED by my wife wanting me to do more housework.

I’ve had four years to think about this, and finally see it for what it is.

First, I was a baby and small child, and everyone did everything for me.

Then, I was in grade school and high school, and all I had to do was show up, get decent grades, and have fun with my friends the rest of the time. My parents did all of the heavy lifting.

Then, I was in college where even the super-rare chores were things I was doing with my best friends, usually while drinking beer or after sharing a joint.

Then, I was with my girlfriend. The same one who, 16 years later, would be my Life-emergency contact despite being divorced for four years.

In other words, every second of my existence from my earliest memory until the moment my wife walked out the door and never came back consisted of me having almost no life responsibilities other than staying alive, and a constant support system INSIDE the walls of wherever I called home.

Later, I either had my best friend or my wife under the same roof. An adult I could count on to back me up, and trust with everything I have including my favorite little human on Earth. Someone I could talk to. A living, breathing human being exchanging stories, ideas, hugs, kisses, comfort.

Then the only vinyl record I’d ever heard, the same one spinning for 33 years straight, screeched to a halt, and all that shit drove away in a white SUV with a woman I used to know behind the wheel, and the other half of my entire world sitting in the backseat.

I freaked.

Some of you remember.

I remember.

So when people are having a hard time on Valentine’s Day, I’m not inclined to tell them to suck it up because breaking on the inside feels so much worse than breaking on the outside and I learned the hard way that’s not something you can know until you, just, know.

I Vowed I’d Never Do That Again

Not to my son.

Not to my partner.

Not to myself.

Because it does feel scary sometimes. I can’t hitch my wagon to someone who I’m not EXTREMELY confident I could potentially have a life-long marriage with.

No settling. NONE.

But someone else isn’t what scares me.

I scare me. Must be this tall to ride.

I won’t be with someone just because I want something from them, including the comfort of not being alone.

So, here’s the task I’ve given myself: Get comfortable alone. Get comfortable taking care of yourself. Get self-sufficient in all of the areas you spent your life relying on others. 

Because my biggest relationship failing was that. Relying on others to take care of things for me.

And that’s not okay. Life is hard enough. We can’t expect others to carry all of our things too.

And that’s where I am today. Right now.

That’s where many single people are. They’re not unlovable or unsexable rejects. They’re not all a bunch of emotional charity cases.

They’re just walking the path for the first time without a trail guide and learning to find their own way.

Maybe all of that changes tomorrow. Or maybe in three years. Or maybe never.

In the meantime, I must arrive at a place where I have complete and total faith in myself, and where I demonstrate a strong capacity for self-care and self-sustainability.

THEN. Then I can be a good partner to someone else in a way I wasn’t in my marriage. Maybe other people are that way too.

I don’t think we can NEED someone else.

That’s a bad power dynamic, and frankly, unattractive—so we’ll have a hard time finding viable partners like that anyway.

But we can be whole all on our own.

We MUST be whole on our own.

Because I think when we’re whole all on our own, we’ll be ready to deliver on the things we talk about around here.

How to Get Comfortable With Change

We have a tendency to resist all kinds of changes because change is uncomfortable.

We struggle with loss because life changes dramatically, and it’s uncomfortable.

We feel uncomfortable behind the wheel of a strange car, or sleeping in a strange bed, or moving to a new town, or starting a new job.

But, inevitably, if we stay alive long enough, the new things become familiar.

The new things become the new normal.

And we get comfortable.

Step 1 – Breathe.

Step 2 – Do your best at whatever you’re doing.

Step 3 – Repeat.

We all want painkillers or life hacks or magic fast-forward buttons to zip us past the shit storms, and we so rarely stop to feel grateful for the opportunity to gradually adjust to things in a sustainable way. No one would ever succeed at, or be comfortable with ANYTHING if we always hit the “Easy” button every time things got hard.

And things do get hard.

So, hug.

Cry.

Scream.

But also.

Smile.

Laugh.

Hope.

Because tomorrow comes. Just by breathing.

You start the journey crying in your kitchen alone wondering when the journey will end and someone will save you.

But after enough steps, you realize the journey NEVER ends.

And that it’s you who has to save yourself.

And that you can’t save others. You can only encourage them to save themselves.

Not with heroics or anything dramatic, but by doing the simplest thing we do absent-mindedly more than 20,000 times per day and 8 million times per year.

Just breathe. Everything’s going to be okay.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

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And Then I Woke Up Three Years Later

(Image/Paramount Studios)

Are you mentally playing the Top Gun Anthem in your head right now? You should be. (Image/Paramount Studios)

I spent the first year depressed and freaking out.

I spent the second year using reading and writing to get to know myself.

This past year, time seemed to move faster than ever.

And then I woke up this morning.

My wife left on April 1, 2013. We’re funny about anniversaries. We can be five years removed from an event, and we feel good and our lives are in order, but then that date pops up, triggers a bunch of memories, and we’re left sorting through a bunch of feelings and trying to figure out what they mean.

I’ve yet to find a better word than “broken” for what I felt in the immediate aftermath of my marriage failing.

Not many people in my personal life knew how bad it was at the time. But it was bad. Your vital signs indicate being alive. But nothing else does. I roll my eyes at all the motivational posters and sometimes cliché- and a little-bit-fake-feeling “You can do it!” messages we’re bombarded with on social media, but some of them are cliché because they’re true. And one of those truths is how valuable of a life experience excruciating emotional and psychological pain can be once it’s in the rearview mirror and it’s not violently stabbing your chest and skull every day.

There’s the me before experiencing that, and the me right now.

Before experiencing that, I didn’t know how to empathize or even what it really meant.

And now I do, for having been through it. Success in love and marriage, in parenting, in super-close social and business relationships appears impossible without the ability to empathize. Maybe some people can learn it without having to hurt first. I hope so.

I tend to learn things the hard way, which isn’t the optimum path to personal growth, but it’s got to be better than never learning.

I was a WRECK. A total mess of a person. My chest felt tight every day. My head hurt every day. I felt full-body anxiety often. It made me vomit a lot.

I can’t remember many instances of feeling more pathetic than the times I found myself teary-eyed, puking, struggling to calm my heartrate, knowing I probably needed some serious couch time with a shrink but couldn’t afford it, and thinking: This is why she left you. And now no girl will ever like you because you’re a total failure.

There were a million things I wanted to know, but the thing I wanted to know most is: When will this be over? Soon? Never?

How to Heal After Divorce in 3 Simple Steps

  1. Stay alive by breathing.
  2. Love yourself.
  3. Repeat.

I said it over and over again, even when it was hard to believe: Everything is going to be okay.

It didn’t feel okay after one year.

It felt kind of okay after two.

And on the three-year anniversary of the worst day of my life, everything is absolutely okay.

I wish I could pass out little manuals to everyone struggling with the end of a marriage and/or loss of their children at home, including the 2013 edition of me. But there are no instruction manuals for grieving. There’s no “right” or “best” way to suffer.

It took me a long time to understand that I wasn’t suffering the wrong way. I didn’t think at the time that divorce warranted the devastation I felt. I didn’t think it was worthy of so much hurt. I concluded weakness instead of letting it be what it was—a highly stressful, totally life-changing event which psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, and financially damages nearly everyone it touches.

Three years ago, I wanted to know what I could do to speed up the process. To fast-forward to the Okay part.

I never did find that button.

Here’s what worked for me:

1. I put my son first. He’s my baseline for all things. If it’s not good for him, I don’t do it. That helped heal the post-divorce relationship between his mother and I. It helped me build a kind, respectful, cooperative relationship with my ex-wife. I’d like to believe I’d care about her wellbeing regardless, but because she’s my son’s mother and an excellent parent and caretaker, one of the best things I can do for my child is treat his mom well. Which I try to do.

His long-term wellbeing drives my business endeavors and serves as a guidepost for me as I consider potential relationships.

2. I admitted that I don’t really know anything. Growing up, I thought being an adult meant you just knew stuff. The meaning of life. How to be disciplined and exercise self-control. How to not be afraid. Not knowing anything reduces the pressure. Not knowing anything allows you to ask better questions and stay curious. Not knowing anything helps you remain humble. Not knowing anything allows you to withhold judgment, and treat others and yourself better. Almost every adult is just making this up as they go. You’re not alone.

3. I wrote here. Putting thoughts and feelings to paper (or the keyboard) has long been touted by mental health experts as a good thing to do. Everyone’s experience will vary, but writing here created a lot of good in my life.

It forced me to look deep within for answers and explore uncomfortable topics.

I discovered other people who knew how I was feeling, and when life is hard, one of the most helpful things is the realization that someone else is walking the same path as you. It just helps when someone understands.

I got positive feedback about the writing, and that gave me confidence.

People sometimes said that it helped them, and that gave me purpose.

And the entire exercise of writing and asking questions and answering questions gave me something to pour my time and heart into when my young son wasn’t home.

And then I woke up one day and it was three years later.

My son’s mom and I had a couple friendly and peaceful text exchanges about our son.

I came to work and didn’t cry or puke in the bathroom.

I didn’t feel anxious, because I’m neither a wreck nor a complete mess.

Two different large websites published my work today in what has become a regular occurrence since the “dishes” post.

I like and respect myself—which is something a person should not take for granted—and I’m looking forward to liking and respecting myself even more in the future.

It was the worst day of my life. And God knows, conceptually, I regret the end of my family. But three years into the metamorphosis, I have to ask the question: Can the thing that changed me for the better, allowed me to explore relationships with my eyes wide open and an uncommon awareness, and granted me the opportunity to actually do something that matters to people, fairly be labeled the worst thing that ever happened to me?

I don’t know.

I only know that tomorrow arrived and everything really is okay.

And all I had to do was breathe.

Then again.

And again.

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When Someday Gets Here

someday

(Image/riereads.blogspot.com)

I used to believe depression was code for “weak,” and that criers were wimpy losers.

I had heard of people described as “broken,” but I didn’t know what that meant.

Then I lost everything that really mattered to me, and I broke. So now I know what that means, and that if crying is wimpy loserdom, I was a huge wimpy loser, and that if depression is weakness, then I was the opposite of strong.

It taught me one of life’s most critical and valuable lessons: empathy.

Now, when someone is grieving, I can more accurately guess how they’re feeling and am better equipped to support them.

Now, when someone is crying, I know they shouldn’t feel shame, and that it might just be years and years of bottled-up shit coming out in an inevitable and psychologically necessary purge.

Now, I know what’s really at stake. Inside of a person. Now I know the importance of taking off masks in relationships. Of a good night’s sleep. Of the support of family and friends. Of health and wellness. Of peace.

When the lights are off, and it’s just you laying in the silent darkness. Just you. Not the one wearing any of the masks we sometimes wear at work or school or church or socially or on dates or whenever because we’re so afraid of people seeing the real us and running away or pointing and laughing or telling us we’re not good enough.

When the lights are off, and it’s just you? When you take a deep breath, and smile, and feel good, because you like and respect yourself? There is no amount of money we would trade that for. Because there is no thing in this world that can heal that brokenness. When you come apart internally, you feel it every second of every day no matter where you are.

There is nowhere to hide.

People try to numb the pain with alcohol or drugs or money or sex or other escapism. But it just follows you around because wherever you go, there you are, which is, I think, why people sometimes kill themselves. Because maybe then the hurt will finally stop.

Learning about that hurt—and what it really means to be a broken person—changed everything for me. Forever. There’s no going back after that. There’s who you were before, and who you are now. And they’re not the same.

There’s Always Someday to Look Forward To

One of the best things about writing this blog was the discovery that so many other people knew the same pain.

People here got it. People here really understood. It helped. It mattered. I’m not the only one.

One of the worst things about writing this blog more than two years later is that I’ve crawled through the shit, and now I’m pretty much Andy Dufresne standing fearlessly and triumphantly in the cleansing rain while the thunderstorm rages, but countless others are still desperate to find a way out.

Every day, someone in the throes of despair—someone who can’t even catch their breath—discovers this blog for the first time and finds a guy who was once just like them.

And then sometimes they write me: “I’m so afraid. This hurts so much. How do you make it stop?”

But you don’t make it stop.

You just serve your sentence and bide your time. And when the time is right, you crawl through the shit tunnel just like everyone else had to. No cheats or shortcuts. Just the way. And then you’re less afraid. Because freedom no longer represents the loss of everything you were ever sure of—of everything steady in your life.

On the other side, freedom looks like hope and possibility.

I didn’t get much right in the early days of divorce. But on my darkest days, I always chose hope. That part, I got right.

I’m so afraid. This hurts so much. How do you make it stop?’

It’s good to be afraid, because it’s the only time we ever have the opportunity to choose courage.

It’s good to hurt, because when everything’s broken, it’s the only way you know you’re still alive.

And it’s good that we’re forced to be patient. Because forcing things generally yields undesirable results.

I used to give myself a pep talk to maintain my sense of hope.

And now I find myself giving it to others.

In the context of the human experience, I think it’s one of the most important ideas I’ve ever had.

Someday will eventually get here.

When we feel like we lost everything—when we hit the floor and know it’s rock bottom—we have a few choices.

But there’s only one good one. And that’s holding the following truth close to our heart and remembering to breathe every day, because your only job is to stay alive:

If you just keep breathing, tomorrow always comes. Someday eventually gets here.

Someday. When it doesn’t hurt anymore. When everything will change.

Someday. When something inexplicably beautiful happens.

Someday. When you get to feel like you again, only now you have these superpowers because now you have courage and wisdom and strength that you didn’t have before.

Because of fortitude. Fortitude and breathing and bravely getting out of bed in a brazen attempt to live.

And finally—finally, dammit—you get to look at a puzzle image coming into focus. A picture of your life that helps explain that you could have never gotten to today—to someday—without every single experience before it. Even the bad stuff. Maybe especially the bad stuff.

In my experience, there is very little in this life better than anticipation. Like a child staring at unopened presents under the Christmas tree.

We don’t need much. Air. Food. Water. Shelter. And something to look forward to.

And that’s one of life’s secrets that not enough people think about: We ALL have something to look forward to. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know what it looks like or when it will happen.

Someday will arrive. Every single day we wake up, someday is closer.

Sometimes someday arrives. Awesome! But now we have no idea what might happen next. Afraid! Because the unknown is scary. That’s when all that courage and something like fearlessness helps. You earned those things. You earned them by crawling through the shit.

And now the wind, thunder and lightning don’t faze you. I’ve survived worse.

And now the heavy rain feels like an old friend.

Because salvation laid within.

When someday finally gets here.

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When a Partner Grieves: The Moment of Truth

hands1

“Your life is about to fall apart, you’re going to get divorced, and things will never be the same,” is what my wife’s cousin could have said.

But she didn’t. She told me in vague and confusing ways that we’d lost my father-in-law without warning and that I needed to tell his daughter.

Oh no.

She had to be mistaken. We had just had dinner with him the night before and he was the same great guy I’d known for a decade. He was fine!

It doesn’t always make sense when people die. I don’t think it makes sense for people even when they see it coming.

But sometimes we don’t see it coming.

We just wake up and have the same kind of day we always do. And then someone surprises us with a phone call.

And now, even though the earth will need to spin a billion more times before you can finally process it, you know: Everything is different now.

And it’s true. Everything you think and feel now has a new layer in it. Something uninvited. And it casts shadows. And makes things heavier.

The day my father-in-law died was the day my marriage died. I just didn’t know it yet.

Hold On, Don’t Let Go

One of my favorite cousins got married two Saturdays ago and I was fortunate enough to attend the wedding. It was the first day of my summer vacation visiting family and friends.

It was my second wedding since my divorce.

They feel different now.

I used to go to weddings and (even if I was wrong) I just knew they were going to be married forever. Now, it’s not like that. Statistically, one of the two marriages I’ve witnessed as a single guy will end in heartbreak and misery.

There are all these themes of love and loyalty and togetherness at weddings. All this talk of unselfishness and service and forgiveness.

It’s the kind of stuff most people tune out as they smile and take photos for Instagram and Facebook while looking forward to the party afterward.

I used to be just like that. But then my marriage died and all the symbolism and messages of love took on much deeper meaning. The sacredness of the occasion feels much greater now.

I look at these two people and (even if I’m wrong) I just know they have no idea what they’re in for.

Probably not soon.

Probably later.

Once complacency or resentment or sadness or grief sets in. My cousin is very close to her mother—my aunt. She moved to Florida a few years ago for all the same reasons I did after graduating college. Her daughter missed her very much. Would start crying the day BEFORE she or her mother would have to say goodbye to one another during visits, which is why my aunt moved back home.

It’s a beautiful mother-daughter bond. And one of them will have to say bye to the other someday. No one gets forever in this life.

My cousin is going to break on the inside when she loses her mother. She has a dad and brother, too. And lots of friends and other family members. Loss is part of life, but it’s one we don’t think about until it sucker punches us without warning.

Will her new husband know what to do when that day comes?

How could he?

I shook hands yesterday with a man at his wife’s funeral. I hugged his three daughters, all standing next to their husbands in the receiving line. And as much as I attempted to focus on these women trying to cope with and process the loss of their mother, I spent most of the time thinking about these husbands.

I can’t be certain this will be their greatest tests as husbands, but I’m pretty sure it will be their biggest one yet.

In Good Times, and In Bad

This is what we promise standing on that alter or in front of whoever is officiating our marriages.

We know there will be good days AND bad days, but we’re going to love our partners forever, no matter what. At least, that’s what we all say.

But then shit hits the fan without warning and life gets really inconvenient and THAT’s when we’re measured.

Everyone grieves differently.

I don’t know what I was expecting from my wife when she lost her father, but it wasn’t what I got. She seemed like a different person. One who no longer wanted me around. She said as much about a month into the grieving process.

I don’t know what the optimum way would be to deal with that, but I chose the wrong way. I moved into the guest room and felt sorry for myself every day until she left a year and a half later.

I would advise against that strategy.

I don’t know what it will look and feel like when your spouse or partner loses someone close to them. But it’s safe to assume they will hurt and feel brokenness on the inside. They’re going to feel lost and scared because they won’t feel like themselves anymore and that’s a terrifying experience.

I wish I could tell you what to do. How to make everything okay for your partner and you.

But there are no instruction manuals for this stuff. There are no blueprints to follow.

I thought it was unfair that because my wife was sad about losing her father that I had to be treated like a leper. So instead of being strong and EVERY DAY asking: “What can I do to make your day better?,” I pouted like an asshole instead of asking myself the hard questions about why my wife wasn’t coming to me for comfort.

When your spouse is grieving, this is NOT your time. This is THEIR time. Put them first. They hurt very badly. And you need to be the rock they can lean on instead of selfishly hoping he or she gets over it soon so your life can get comfortable again.

I write it a lot: Love is a choice.

When your spouse isn’t his or her fun self anymore and they don’t make you feel good because they’re lost in a vortex of emotion that changes day to day and they don’t know how to manage their own feelings, let alone yours, it’s easy to throw up your hands months later:

“Does she really think this is more important than our marriage?”

“If she’s not going to try, why should I?”

“Why is she doing this to me?”

The Moment of Truth

No one’s out to get you, and unless you and your spouse are master communicators (and you’re not, otherwise there wouldn’t be any problems) about half the things you believe your spouse is thinking and feeling are wrong. We’re sometimes bad guessers.

The phrase “The moment of truth” originated in Spanish bullfighting, referring to the moment in a bullfight in which the matador is about to make the kill.

Specifically, the dictionary tells us it’s “The moment at which one’s character, courage, skill, etc., is put to an extreme test; critical moment.”

When your partner is grieving and you feel your life unraveling because you don’t know how to help them, and you’re hurting yourself because you feel the relationship slipping away—it’s your moment of truth.

Theoretically, it won’t be the only one.

It’s hard to put yourself on the back burner and selflessly love without asking for anything in return.

But that’s what it takes. It’s a test of your character.

And you’re afraid. So afraid. Because you don’t know if the sacrifice is going to pay off because you’re not promised love and loyalty in return. It’s a test of your courage.

No one teaches us how to do this. To serve others at the expense of our own comfort, and sometimes, happiness. It’s a test of your resourcefulness. A test of your skill.

Because you’re being put to an extreme test.

And it’s a critical moment.

And many of us don’t make it.

Because we’re lost.

Because we’re not heroes.

But maybe you are.

And even if you’re not—maybe you can choose to be.

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The Milestones

shawshank1

Right after your wife leaves you and you’re crying and barely able to breathe, the only thing you want to know is: When is this going to end?

I’ve never had suicidal thoughts, but when I felt that for the first time, that’s when I knew why someone would do it. To shut it off. I was a naïve optimist who had never felt pain from life. At least not the kind that rewires you.

I liked talking to people who had been through divorce and understood what I was dealing with. I was always a little bit like “Fuck you” every time they’d sit calmly on the other side of the table with a smile on their face and assure me it was going to be okay.

They were smiling because they remembered and were so relieved they no longer felt that way.

“Just give it time. Everything will work out. You’ll see.”

I wanted to punch every person who said that to me. I would scream on the inside: “You can’t know how this feels! You must not have cared as much! You must not have hurt this much!”

One time, a divorced mother told me she sometimes enjoyed when her son was with her ex-husband because she was able to do fun things that would be otherwise impossible.

On the inside, I screamed: “You’re a shitty parent then! You must not love your son as much as I love mine! I will NEVER enjoy my son not being home!”

I’ll never forget feeling that way.

The rejection fucks you good. You’re not good enough!

But then all the sudden your child is gone half the time, too, and the combination of those two radical life changes just ruins your insides.

You pray and beg for relief. You drink vodka sometimes even though you’ve always had a never-drink-alone policy. You indulge in escapism with friends and books and movies, but when you wake up in the morning, life is still real and hard.

You’re still alone.

Your heart is still broken.

Your life still feels over.

And all you want is for your friends’ predictions to come true: Everything’s going to be okay.

Lessons From the End of a Marriage

That’s the name of the blog and book written by Lisa Arends who I like and admire very much. Yesterday, she published a post called “The Shortcut for Healing After Divorce,” which I instantly clicked because I want to know the secret and tell everyone!!!

Lisa’s clever post title compelled me to read the story where she expertly told me something I’d been figuring out along the way.

There is no shortcut. There is just… the way.

Nobody wants to hear it because we all want things now, now, now. There’s no immediate gratification when your spirit is broken. The amount of love and laughter and adventure and friends and family and new life experiences it takes to recover is pretty immense.

The journey for each of us is exactly how long it’s supposed to be. I think the road is the same length for everyone, but some people are better conditioned to run to the finish a bit faster.

No tricks. No magic.

Just slow, sustainable healing as you rediscover yourself.

Andy Dufresne: Forget that… there are places in this world that aren’t made out of stone. That there’s something inside… that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch. That’s yours.

Red: What’re you talking about?

Andy Dufresne: Hope.

Signs Along the Way

You’ll see them without even looking hard.

The first one I remember is that I could go have dinner with a girl without feeling that Everything is wrong feeling I’d had for so long.

And then you notice the silence at home isn’t so loud anymore. You can be there alone and just be still. And it’s home. It’s safe. It’s okay. That’s when I knew everything would be okay.

And then you develop new routines. Make new friends. Build a new life. I can do this.

And then you can drive by places that used to make you cry, but now they don’t.

And then you can walk by the very spot where you proposed to her and surprisingly your heart keeps beating.

And then you can sit with them at school events for your child and laugh like old friends.

And then you can learn about an out-of-town trip they’re taking without that familiar panic setting in: Where are they going? Who are they going with? Oh fuck. Oh shit. I’m dying.

It’s not something you could have understood two years earlier. It’s just… okay now.

You’re not dying.

It’s like magic, but it’s not magic. You walked the path.

Everything is no longer going to be okay someday. It IS okay. Right now.

You can live with your son being with the only other person on earth who loves him like you. You love him just as much, but don’t carry guilt for enjoying life even if he can’t be there, too.

You can feel tangible joy.

You can feel brave.

Strong.

I’m not just different almost two years later.

I’m better.

I am the best version of myself I have ever been.

You crawl out of the emotional shit tunnel just like Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption.

A huge gulp of air. Of emotional freedom.

And now anything is possible.

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It Gets Better

Image by Incessant Star at Deviant Art.

Image by Incessant Star at Deviant Art.

I read my text message and laughed out loud because my ex-wife wrote something funny.

One of my friends at the office asked what I was laughing about.

I told him. He smiled.

“You wouldn’t believe what a difference nearly a year and a half makes,” I said.

Sometimes my ex and I laugh about stuff.

The Darkness

There was so much darkness after she left. I freaked. Big-time.

Partially because something radical and different was happening, and change scares me. Partially because my little son wasn’t home all the time anymore and it feels like a piece of your soul is missing. Partially because the wounds of rejection run deep and can feel exactly like betrayal.

I was broken. Dazed. Crying, sometimes. It wasn’t pretty.

I have never gone back and read anything I wrote a year ago. But I think it’s all there.

Growing up, nothing extremely horrible ever happened to me. My parents’ divorce was the worst thing.

I grew up in this safe little Catholic school in this safe little Ohio town and had a safe little non-scary life.

Life had inadvertently pulled the wool over my eyes.

Then she left and started seeing someone else and I felt like dying.

Sometimes, I intentionally try to recreate the feeling because I don’t want to take for granted the peace I feel today. I NEVER want to forget how uncomfortable life can feel inside your own skin when you’re broken. Because that’s the fuel I need to build my new life.

The feeling is unmistakable and all-consuming. And you only know it if you know it. If you don’t know what it feels like to not be able to breathe because everything you ever thought was true just crumbled, then I really want you to keep your loved ones close, because you’re going to need them when it finally happens.

It hurts more than anything you’ve ever experienced. When you break on the inside. And the wounds are so deep they take an excruciatingly long time to heal.

But they do heal.

Sometimes my ex and I laugh about stuff now.

Clocks, Calendars and Fear

I was 34 when my wife left after a dozen years together. Mid-thirties with a son in kindergarten.

A single, graying, average-looking dad who just got dumped. My entire social network, altered overnight. My home went from a steady, warm, safe haven, to a quiet prison that felt much like a tomb.

I was (sometimes, am) afraid of so many things.

Who will ever want me?

How can I set a good example for my son?

What’s my purpose in life now?

Am I going to survive, financially?

Will I ever feel like myself again?

I wrote.

I read.

I watched a bunch of Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead.

I went out with friends.

I kept waking up each morning and breathing.

The clocks ticked.

The calendar pages flipped.

The sun kept coming up.

No Shortcuts

I don’t think so, anyway. I don’ t think there’s any way of cheating the process. When we lose things, we grieve. And everything I understand about grief and loss is that we all deal in different ways, but we all go through the same stages. Some of those stages take longer than others.

The five stages of grief are:

1. Denial

2. Anger

3. Bargaining

4. Depression

5. Acceptance, and Hope

I wasn’t shocked when she left. The shock happened a long time ago when the marriage went bad. The denial, too. She’s not leaving!

I was wrong.

But I didn’t have any trouble being angry and feeling like a victim. That part’s easy.

In the bargaining phase, you long for the past, forgoing the present by focusing on what might have been.

Then you get depressed.

I got totally depressed.

I wasn’t moping around, like how I imagined depression to be. But just a deep emptiness and sadness. You tend to not give a shit about a bunch of things you used to. Simple things, really. All my old hobbies—my favorite sports teams, poker, cooking, etc. I just didn’t care anymore. They feel so insignificant after something monumental happens.

And it turns out this is completely expected and normal. And there’s no set amount of time. Everyone has to walk their own path. And it’s important to remember that when you’re feeling so shitty. The depression IS the path. It’s the way out of all the suck. Keep moving forward.

And finally, acceptance. Hope.

This doesn’t mean you’re all better. Woo-hoo! I accept it! I’m totally healed now!

I don’t think that’s how it works. At least not for me.

My world ended on April 1, 2013.

A life that only exists now as a high- and lowlight reel in my memory bank.

And now I have to build a brand-new life.

With new goals. New dreams. A new script. A new supporting cast.

And you know what? I’m going to.

It’s not like I ever had much of a choice, but when you’re walking through all those phases of the Grief Path of Suckage™ you don’t feel much hope or really anything at all.

When I felt like dying, the thing that made me feel best was connecting with people who understood. Via this blog. Via real life. Crossing paths with people with the same wounds and scars. Crossing paths with people who had been through the exact same things and would pat me on the back, reassuringly.

“It will get better.”

And if you’re still in agony, it’s hard to hear. It’s tricky when other people seem happy or peaceful or unaffected.

Don’t they know the sky is falling? Don’t they know the sun might not come up tomorrow?

They walked through fire.

And they emerged stronger.

Better.

Taller.

And I know there are millions of people out there now. Having trouble breathing. Crying and terrified.

It makes my entire body hurt to think about because that feeling is still like muscle memory, just below the surface. It can still be recreated in short bursts. And it’s horrible.

But it doesn’t last.

It can’t anymore.

Because one day you look in the mirror.

Hey! I know that guy.

And someone else makes you smile.

Hope.

And your child fills you with enormous pride.

Love.

Because real healing has taken hold.

Because you kept breathing.

Because clocks keep ticking.

Because the sun is indiscriminate and it won’t stop setting, rising and dancing across the sky for anyone.

Because sometimes my ex and I laugh about stuff—strangers, but strangers who don’t hurt each other anymore.

Because everything is going to be okay.

It really is.

It might even be amazing.

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