Do you ever have that one nightmare, perhaps following a stressful day, or after polishing off the last of the stale pinot found lingering in the back of the fridge right before bed? You know, the one where somebody makes an announcement that just completely levels you? Maybe they’re moving, getting a new job a million miles away, they don’t like your cooking, they’re in love with your sister … “Luke, I’m your father.” You know, those types of life-altering revelations that make your stomach twist and send you plummeting down a bottomless pit.
Or how about this one: “I love you, but I’m not in love with you.”
Yeah, the trigger-barf factor is high with that one. And I almost did, when my now-ex-husband announced in similar fashion that he was done with his feelings for me and our life together after nearly 15 years. The eyes that I had fallen into when I was only 23 years old and had swam in every day since then, now only reflected a cool, black void in my general direction. I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t in some horrible, late-night-rotten-wine-induced nightmare. Unfortunately, I was not.
We had just had our son, and everything was … different. Pregnancy, birth, and now having a baby wasn’t nearly as idyllic as I had once imagined it would be, and rather than growing into the family I imagined, we were growing dangerously apart. He would say that it was coming, that I wasn’t listening to him or picking up on any of his signals for quite some time. And to be fair, maybe I wasn’t. I would say, somewhat desperately, that I didn’t realize he was so unhappy and that I was willing to do anything to save our family. He would say he needed some space. I would agree that some space would probably be a good idea. He would move out and reluctantly go to a few counseling sessions. I would stuff my post-baby body into a low-cut, navy blue number and arrive hopefully guarded to a Valentine’s Day dinner with our one-year old son, Huck, dressed in the cutest little matching vest outfit you could imagine. I was hoping to bait him back with an eyeful of the beautiful little family that he was on the verge of ripping apart. A precursor to winning his heart back. But I would not even come close. That ship had sailed, and so began my descent.
I remember the feeling as the solid ground disappeared from underneath me, the dizziness from the sudden jolt downward, the queasiness of my stomach, the inability to breathe as the air rushed past my face and filled my nose while I gained speed spiraling downward. I was losing consciousness. And then I felt the weight of my son in my arms, and everything stopped. Clarity is a tricky thing. You never know when it’s going to present itself. But in that moment of free fall, I came to. I held out my arms and grabbed for anything I could and found a plethora of strongholds to cling to. The outstretched hands of my friends and family, a mental fortitude that I didn’t even realize I had access to, and most importantly the love and trust of a one-year-old little boy.
After the fall always comes the climb. For me it was a trudge up a mountain of heartbreak, inconvenience, and revelation. Since that ill-fated Valentine’s dinner four years ago, it’s been a full-on slog up a rocky crag that I showed up to conquer wearing my Converse and a light jacket with fruit snacks and Kleenex in the pockets. Totally unprepared, but with my eye on the prize: happiness and stability for me and my son. The fact that my mind automatically switched into survival mode was my saving grace in those early days. My superior list-making skills came into play after years of applying them to measly grocery lists and workout routines that I never stuck to. This is word-for-word the list that I drafted up in the days following my plummet down the bottomless pit of rejection and divorce:
Paint the bedrooms and bathrooms.
Sell the house.
Go look at the Matthews Street apartment.
Do I qualify for low-income housing?
Look into food stamps.
Pick up divorce paperwork.
Mediator or lawyer?
Get a new phone plan.
Though quite pragmatic, it was basically the shittiest list I ever made…maybe tied with the workout routines.
But one thought continuously got me through. Huck and I, happy, peaceful, content, empowered, and taking on the world together. I read a poignant meme once that said, “Hurting while trying to raise children is like drowning while blowing up a life vest.” Bingo. But honestly, without Huck driving the cause, I might have just shriveled up and died. As I look back now, there is one image that stands out in my mind from when I toured studio apartments with my best friend, perused books on how to explain divorce to kids, and sat in a courtroom next to my ex-husband trying not to touch his leg with my own: the image of me and Huck lying in a field of lush, green grass, the tops of our heads touching, pointing out clouds, talking, and laughing in the sun. Just the two of us without a care in the world. Nothing felt more happy or peaceful than that mental image. Once I was able to conjure other similar images and replay them over and over in my mind, it helped transport me from the painful present to the hopeful future. Even while gasping for breath under a cascade of the strongest feelings of sadness and betrayal I’ve ever stomached, I knew that peace and happiness and grassy fields were out there.
And get this: I was right.
Since the “unthinkable” turn my life took nearly five years ago, I’ve had moments of complete, chill-inducing, face-contorting, don’t-even-take-a-breath-it-might-be-over-soon-style happiness that I honestly don’t think I would have achieved had my life continued on the course it was on previously. Happiness without my “perfect” family still intact? You betcha.
Sometimes we just don’t know what we don’t know, until the universe plays a really unexpected and awful game of “Think Fast” with us. “Here ya go,” she says playfully and wisely (because in my mind the universe is obviously a woman). “But don’t worry, I got you.” And you don’t even have time to pull the Kleenex out of your pocket or change into hiking boots. It’s slog-time. These are the moments when we have to make the decision. Move forward with hope or stay mired in sadness and anger.
I woke up the next day and the next. I took the next step and the next. I breathed the next breath and the next until I was no longer counting days or steps or breaths. Until eventually I felt like myself again, only a wiser, stronger, deeper, more compassionate version of myself. The me that I always knew deep down I could be.
But even beyond that, after a few years of breathing, stepping, and reflecting, I’ll take this feel-good revelation and raise it to the next level: My ex-husband followed his heart and his truth, and honestly, I don’t think I ever could have been that brave. Was it bravery or was it the opposite? It’s not my place to say. That’s his story, not mine. My story is that I’m happier than I ever would have imagined. I see things now that I didn’t see then, because I was committed to a life and thought process that I thought was serving me. And maybe it was at the time, but it turns out that life had a whole lot more in store for me.
Damn. It sucks being on the vulnerable and unsuspecting side of a plummet down a massive, bottomless pit of heartache. But the fall, coupled with the long climb up the other side, can be life-transforming. It took a navy blue sausage-casing dress, blubbering to the poor 17-year-old babysitter, several slumped-to-the-ground breakdowns, and a 24/7 strand of twinkle lights to keep away the boogeyman when I was scared at night to get where I am, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It has made me who I am.
So next time something truly awful happens in our lives, it may be worth considering that perhaps this is just the beginning of a journey in a new, amazing direction that we wouldn’t even have imagined. When life has us leveled and we can’t even catch our breath, when we’re plummeting down a bottomless pit, it’s in those moments of pure depletion that the magic can happen. There is momentum in those moments. Think fast. Amazingness might just be on the way.
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