Monday, July 17, 2017

Crawling towards the light

"The hardest times are when no one is watching and it doesn't really matter whether you're strong or not. The times when you think life is circling the drain, and the bedrock aloneness of it trumps everything else. That's when animal instinct kicks in and most of us start to crawl toward the light.... We like to call it courage, but the body doesn't recognize it as such. You just put your head down and keep moving."
~ Gail Caldwell, from the memoir New Life, No Instructions

Even now, I find myself sometimes thinking of those around me who know nothing of the struggle I fought after D-Day, "if you only knew..." Because while it's great that I survived and, to most, appear to be a healthy, stable, happy middle-aged woman, sometimes I want credit for what I had to do to get here. Sometimes I want people to know what a badass I am. How heroic I am. How many dragons I had to slay to arrive at healthy, stable and happy.
You all know. Because you've either slain your own dragons or are slaying them as I write this. 
You know the courage it sometimes takes to get out of bed and show up at work so you don't get fired. You know the particular brand of heroism required to nurture your children and keep their hearts safe even as your own feels shattered and abandoned. You know the white-knuckled self-discipline required to not smother your husband in his sleep, or resist firing off that brutal e-mail to the OW, or bite your tongue hard when your mother-in-law, who hasn't a clue about her son's, um, extracurriculars, comments on what a "good boy" he's always been. 
Those who've been decimated by heartbreak, by the particular brand of grief known to those of us who discovered we were, literally, sleeping with the enemy, know what Gail Caldwell means when she talks about crawling toward the light. Though there are many days when we're not really sure there is light. So many days when we just can't convince ourselves that there will ever be light again.
But that's where the others come in. That's where those of us who've gone before wave our lanterns from farther along the path, to beckon you toward us. To give you the light as a compass. To remind you, as often as you need reminding, that the light is in fact up ahead. Just a little bit farther. To assure you that, no, we didn't believe it either. We didn't believe we would ever laugh again, feel happiness again, trust again. But here we are. Mostly healthy, stable and happy.
Keep crawling, warriors. If you can't see the light, then follow the sound of our voices. 
You may not call it courage. You may barely be able to admit it's survival. But whether or not you consider it heroic, let me tell you that it is. It's heroic to reach out for help. It's heroic to tend to your wound. It's heroic to insist that you deserve respect and kindness and honesty. When the "bedrock aloneness" threatens to convince you that nobody can possible understand your pain, it's heroic to find your voice and share your story.
Crawl toward the light, my exhausted warriors. We're up ahead, waiting. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Lie of the Sisterhood

"If we do not transform our pain, we will always transmit it – to our partner, our spouse, our children, our friends, our coworkers, our "enemies." Usually we project it outward and blame someone else for causing our pain."
Fr. Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation

Some call it the "law of the sisterhood". Others refer to it as "girl code". What it stipulates is that we don't go after each other's husbands or boyfriends. What it stipulates is essentially a sort of moral high ground, in which we respect each other's relationships, no matter how cute we think their significant other is, or how much he flirts with us.
But sometimes this sisterhood feels like we're the only ones in it. I sometimes think it's the lie of the sisterhood.
My 19-year-old discovered that this week when she learned that a close friend had hooked up with an ex-boyfriend. Now the rules get a bit fuzzy with exes, at least for some people. And I've gently reminded my daughter that she was well and truly done with this guy. That, she tells me, is not the point. What hurts her more than the two of them hooking up, she insists, is that her friend did it behind her back.
And so, my dejected daughter insists, she's wiping her hands of this friend.
And I'm (mostly) keeping my mouth shut.
But here's the thing: While I don't condone her friend's behaviour (if we're being sneaky about something, that's generally our first clue that we know it's hurtful to someone and we don't want to deal with the consequences), I can empathize. This girl has had a miserable childhood with a truly appalling mother and her series of equally appalling boyfriends. This girl gets into relationships with guys who treat her badly. She craves attention, no matter where it comes from. And so, with this ex of my daughter's, she was willing to gamble her friendship for the short-term thrill of his attention.
Does that make it okay? No. And she's lost (at least for the time being) my daughter's friendship. As my heavy-hearted child noted, once someone has broken your trust, you never quite look at the them the same way again.
Tell me about it, I want to say. But I bite my tongue.
Hurt people hurt people, we often say on this site.
Father Richard Rohr says that if we don't transform our pain, we will transmit it. Those of us here were the collateral damage of that transmission.
But when we can recognize that, it helps us shake off any responsibility we might feel for how people treat us. It helps us realize that their pain is for them to deal with, that we cannot and should not be blamed, including by ourselves.
My daughter's black-and-white view of the world might soften as she ages – my own certainly did (though I remain an adherent to the law of the sisterhood). But she has reminded me what it looks like when we hold hurt people accountable for the pain they transmit. It looks like self-respect.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Why You Should Tell. And Who

The first person I told was my mother. Though she and I had a rocky relationship when I was a teen (less to do with my hormones than her addictions), as adults we were the closest of friends. I could, and often did, tell her anything.
Her support was invaluable. While I was trying to hold it together and parent three young children and reeling from the news that my husband had been cheating on me with his assistant, she was my rock.
I then reached out to an old friend whose husband had cheated on her a few years earlier. She was no longer married and, I knew, it still hurt. Her response chilled me. "I couldn't stay married to him," she said of my husband, and made it clear that was pretty much all she had to say on the topic. She even defended the Other Woman, my husband's assistant as being completely entitled to a generous severance. While it might have been technically true, I hardly wanted to hear it.
Not long after, I confessed to a friend who worked in my husband's office. I told her mostly because of her relentless questioning about what the hell was going on between my husband his assistant but there was such relief in the telling and in her response: Her eyes opened wide with shock, then filled with tears. (A few years later, she discovered the same about her own husband and I was able to return the favor of unrelenting support.)
Over time, I told other friends. It wasn't so much intentional as natural. A friend concerned over my weight loss. A friend whose own marriage was dissolving at the same time but who I didn't tell until she was on more solid ground herself.
With that one early exception, those I told responded with concern, with compassion, with incredible kindness. And not just to me. With some time having passed, they could see my husband's shift. He had changed. And now they understood why.
The one exception was painful for me. I had reached out to her almost immediately. She was an old friend but our friendship had been rocky for a time when her boyfriend-turned-husband decided I was bad news. He later cheated on her and she reached out to me again. Now it was my turn. And her response hurt me deeply. I hadn't asked her for advice. I really just wanted someone to commiserate with. To tell me I'd get through this. Instead, I got judgement over how I was handling the worst pain of my life.
Lesson learned. Again.
Betrayal doesn't just change our marriage, it changes us. And it changes relationships around us. I became acutely aware of what role each friend played in my life. The people I spent the most time with – moms on committees at school, running group – weren't the people to whom I turned. I carefully parsed who could be trusted with my pain. My friend going through divorce herself at the time remains a close friend but she's never been good in a crisis. So scratch her off the list, at least right away. My friend who worked in my husband's office wasn't a close friend at the time. But her support and her loyalty to me during such hell meant so much to me. To this day, I know she has my back.
All of this is to say that I don't think I could have made it through this without having people in my life who could help me carry my pain. My therapist was a saint. I'm brought to tears by the memory of her "just happening" to drive my house one morning (she was friends with my neighbor) and stopping her car as I was loading kids in my van for the trip to school. She looked me in the eye, asked how I was doing, and assured me that I was going to be okay. She said it with such conviction that I had no choice but to believe her.
We need those people. The ones who see the pain in our eyes and don't look away. The ones who hold our stories as sacred, who don't turn our agony into gossip, who withhold judgement or advice. The ones who are whole enough to put aside their own feelings about infidelity to make space for our experience.
These people are rare. But sometimes they don't exist so much as they are created by us. Our courage in telling them our story gives them the chance, if they take it, to step up. To be brave themselves. To open their own hearts.
Infidelity triggers a lot of feelings in people. Awful feelings. Fear. Anxiety. Shame. The most judgemental people are usually the most frightened.
Know that.
Know that their fear often comes out as anger or disgust or a need to tell you, exactly, how you should respond.
But know also that there are people who've been through this themselves and learned the hard way about the pain of betrayal. And you might just be surprised at who in your life has learned this lesson.
Take stock of the people in your life. If there isn't a single person you think you can trust with your story, then part of your healing needs to include finding someone. Or a few someones.
None of us should go through this alone. And though this community always always amazes me with the way you reach out to each other, to the way in which you wrap your virtual arms around the most wounded, real-life support is crucial too.
Telling people is an act of self-respect. It is an act of courage. It is a way of insisting that your pain matters. That remains true whether or not people have enough courage to hear it.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

When you feel forced to get back to "normal"

My husband would watch me like a hawk. Every twitch. Every smile. Every remark. He was seeking evidence that we were "okay". That things were "back to normal". He was seeking evidence that the crisis was over and that our marriage had survived.
And I was loathe to give him evidence because, whether or not I was having a good day, the crisis was not over. Our marriage might have survived but only for the moment. And I reserved the right the end it tomorrow should I so choose.
What's more, I'd be damned if I'd give him a moment's comfort, a second's reprieve from feeling like a louse. He deserved to be on tenterhooks for the pain he'd caused me.
Or so I thought.
A lot of us find ourselves there, don't we? Afraid to actually exhale and experience the slightest joy or relaxation or relief. Determined to make it clear that things are not "okay" and, perhaps, never will be again. That our marriage is being held together only by our inability to get it together and call a divorce lawyer. That he had better not make a single misstep or we're outta here.
Our message, loud and clear: Things are not "back to normal" so don't you even dare to think I'm "over this."
Beneath this message is a fear. A fear that "normal" means releasing him from responsibility for what he did to us. That "normal" is acting as if none of this ever happened. That "normal" means we never have to speak of this again. That by bringing it up, we're somehow ruining a good thing. A fear that he believes that everything would be fine IF WE COULD JUST GO BACK TO NORMAL.
I've got news for him. If by "normal" he wants you to go back to being the you who you were before he betrayed you, then "normal" is a fantasy. That you is gone. That you is forever changed by his betrayal. That you is replaced by a you that can absolutely get past this. A you that will laugh again and feel joy. A you that perhaps even feels joy more deeply for the gratitude it now holds. But a you that has also experienced a pain that you didn't anticipate, a wound that can heal but will leave scars.
And that's something that every guy who's ever cheated on a woman and then wants things to go back to "normal" needs to understand. "Normal" isn't an option. Not any more.
To those outside of my marriage, things look "normal". We have fun together. We are great at co-pareting our kids. We share a value system (which, now, includes the value of monogamy to each other).
But we know better. We know that our "normal" includes incorporating the painful lessons we both learned, it includes a gratitude for each other that's directly related to the recognition that we're only where we are because we worked our asses off to get here. Our "normal" recognizes that our marriage isn't perfect. That it's a process. That some days we make our marriage stronger – by listening to each other, by respecting each other's needs and wants, by making it clear to each other that we're glad to be together. Other days, well, we don't do such a great job. Which, come to think of it, is pretty normal.
But know this: You don't have to hold on to pain to make it clear that what he did was not okay. You don't have to resist any slivers of joy or contentment out of fear that he'll think things are back to "normal". You are not only allowed to talk to him about your pain, you are encouraged to do so. His ability to listen to you, to hold your pain even in the face of his own shame and disappointment, will make you stronger, will make your marriage stronger.
Don't let fear of "normal" control you. Your new normal will be a creation of your own. It might involve divorce lawyers. It will likely involve therapists. It might include new vows.
What it won't include? Amnesia. Pretence. Faking it.
But let your new normal include any bit of happiness you can. That doesn't negate what happened to you. It simply reminds you that you are healing. And healing is perfectly normal.

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