Wednesday, September 10, 2014

How to Put Yourself Back Together

We often turn to disaster metaphors to describe what betrayal feels like. It's a nuclear bomb, a tornado, a hurricane. Our lives feel destroyed, reduced to ruins, blown up. And we ourselves feel torn apart, broken, a wreck.
They're apt, these metaphors. And they speak to the truth that betrayal changes everything. Just like a natural disaster, nothing is left untouched in some way. Not ourselves, our children, our jobs, our friends.
Surrounded by rubble – whether literal or metaphorical – we're left with the task of rebuilding. How?

Fall apart: Well, that part might have happened on its own. But don't fight it. Even when others around you are insisting that you DO something, resist that urge. This is the time for extreme self-care. Eat what you can (smoothies, toast, soup...), sleep when you can, shut out the world if necessary, especially anyone without your best interests at heart. Watch hours of television. Go for long walks. Cry. Then cry some more. Breathe. Deeply.
Sometimes it's when we're stripped of everything we thought mattered that we come to see what truly does. And sometimes when the only thing we can trust is that we're still breathing, we understand that's all we need to know. At least for now.

But don't make yourself crazier: Here's what NOT to do:
•Stalk your husband's OW on Facebook.
•Drink/drug/shop/gamble to escape the pain.
•Pain-shop.
•Have a revenge affair.
•Seek revenge against the OW.
•Track down an ex just to reminisce.
•Go to any event or spend time with any person that will make you feel worse.
•Do anything that could lead to you having your own parole officer.
•Hurt yourself physically.

Sift through the rubble to determine what's worth saving: Your marriage looks like a wreck. You have no idea whether to give him a second chance or not. Your kids are frightened. Your parents are wringing their hands. Your friends are wondering why you're not answering their texts. You haven't showered in eight days. Now's the time to take a good long look at what really isn't working in your life.
That friend you're avoiding because she always makes you feel lousy? Time to delete her from your life.
That job you hate? Time to consider your options. Back to school? Dust off the resumé? No need to DO anything yet, just be open to possibility.
Those toxic in-laws? Maybe now the is time to figure out your boundaries and learn ways of taking care of yourself that leads to self-love, not resentment.
That extra weight you're carrying? Start by walking off your pain. Those schlumpy clothes? Buy yourself something that makes you feel beautiful.
You get the idea. Open yourself to the possibility of a you who's ultimately healthier, inside and out.

Find support: I made haste to a therapist who could hold my head above water until I could tread water myself and/or make my way to shore. But support goes beyond simply the paid kind (though it's generally Worth. Every. Penny.). Surround yourself with those who love you unconditionally. Avoid those who think they know exactly what you should do, unless they're suggesting a long, hot bath. Steer clear of those with an axe to grind (their own nasty divorce/cheating husband/miserable life). This can be hard on those who love you though. So recognize that sometimes they'll step in it. That sometimes they'll get frustrated with you for not healing fast enough (it's hard to watch those we love in pain). But no matter. Explain to your trusted inner circle that you need their support and compassion, not their advice. That you need a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold and, perhaps, a casserole or two left by the front door. Sometimes you might need a gentle kick in the pants to remind you that there's a big beautiful world out there that needs your presence.
Seek out online support that's based on self-compassion...and compassion for others. There's a lot of cruelty on the Web. Don't support it, don't take it personally, and don't contribute to it.

Practice gratitude: Ugh. This can be a tough one. But study after study has shown that practising gratitude leads to a happier life. Today you might be grateful that you didn't follow through on your plans to smother your husband in his sleep. You might be grateful that your four-year-old doesn't know what as asshole her father is. You might be grateful you still have all your limbs. With time, you'll begin to notice that gratitude will creep into your life in bigger ways. And it will give you a platform on which to build a better life.

Hold tight to your values: Betrayal is such a primal wound that it pulls to the surface our most primal responses. We want to kill someone. We want to curl into the fetal position. We want to retreat to a cave and never show our face again. Feeling all that is absolutely fine...and to be expected. Acting on it? Not so fine. Once this shit-storm is over, you want to be able to hold your head high. You want your self-respect intact. You don't want to be wearing an orange jumpsuit (orange, frankly, is NOT the new black). Continue to live a life of honesty and compassion and kindness, even when it seems you're the only person who does. The day will come when you'll look back with pride on how you handled yourself.

Share your story: Whether in the pages of a journal, in e-mails to yourself or to a trusted friend, or on sites such as this one, sharing our story is a powerful way of putting ourselves back together. It allows us to see our stories from the outside, which can give us perspective. It is cathartic, giving us the chance to offload our fury, our pain and our confusion. And it's an important and scientifically proven way to heal from trauma.

Trust the process: It takes a long time to heal from betrayal and it can often seem as if you're stuck. Assuming you're taking steps to heal (counselling, self-care, boundary setting...), you are getting there. Trust that the day will come when this is simply part of your life story, not THE story.

Extend a healing hand: It's enormously healing to guide others along the path. None of us want to be in this club, yet here we are. And extending a hand to those who are feeling the same pain, struggling with the same confusion, reminds us that we're not alone. That we've healed, even just a bit. And if we've healed a bit, then we can heal a bit more. And bit by bit, we become whole.




Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Opting Out of the Painlympics

I recently wrote about how betrayal can trigger past trauma. And many of you rushed to your keyboards with a "yes, yes, that's me!" response.
For one thing, let me tell you how much I LOVE knowing that I'm able to give words to so much of the confusion we feel post-betrayal.
And let me also say, I've yet to meet the person who doesn't have some pain in their past around abandonment, shame, neglect. We are most decidedly not alone.
But I've also noticed that to those of us whose stories include words like abuse and addiction and jail and so on – those of us who survived situations in which we felt powerless over the pain inflicted on us by the people who were supposed to be safeguarding our hearts – anything that sounds remotely like blame for our spouses' cheating makes our blood boil.
Which is why it can feel like another betrayal when so many of the "how to heal from an affair" books/sites imply that we're somehow responsible, even just a teensy bit, for our spouse's affair.
When you're seeking support for the incredible pain you're in and someone – anyone! – even suggests that you're the reason he cheated in the first place, it lands like a sucker punch.
And it's even more infuriating when it's our spouse. Some guy who's just ripped out our heart explains that he cheated because he felt neglected by us when we were nursing our cancer-stricken mother, or tending to our disabled child, or working to pay for our kids' tutor, or going to the gym to lose weight to get our diabetes under control or maybe just checked out because we were fed up from giving and getting so little in return. Or maybe it was his emotionally absent mother, his abusive father, his drug-addled older brother.
Well...it's at those moments when we should ensure we don't have access to firearms because Holy Bad Timing.
Thing is...he just might have a point, though, admittedly, his timing is a bit off.
I couldn't hear it at first. I didn't want a whiff of "excuse" from him. I wanted – and frankly deserved – total accountability from him. Nothing less than "I am so sorry and I will spend the rest of my life trying to be the husband you deserved all along."
But a big part of my inability to hear any explanation for his betrayal of me was my dedication to my own sad-sack story as somehow more deserving of sympathy than his.
I honestly believed that if there was a painlympics – a contest in which the suffering I'd endured was measured against his – that I would go home with the Gold. He'd be lucky to make the podium.
What's more, I felt I deserved a medal for having conquered those demons. Sure my childhood sucked, but I'd spent much of my adulthood trying to learn the right stuff and shake off the wrong stuff.
Besides, I figured I'd had my quota of pain. The universe owed me an easy time of it. I'd made peace with my addict mother. I'd dumped (or been dumped by) the bad boyfriends and married the nice guy. I was healed. Cue the hallelujahs.
Turns out, not so much healed as healing.
It also turns out that the universe isn't really keeping score.
But when we engage in the painlympics – measuring our own pain against others' in order to determine who's more entitled to victimhood – nobody wins.
I've learned this the hard way.
Case in point: A few years ago my daughter was disappointed that she didn't get the part she wanted in a play. She really wanted it. She worked hard for it. "It's not fair," she wailed. "I never get picked," she cried.
I was empathetic, at least at first. I understood her disappointment. I'd felt her disappointment. But then I got a bit tired of it. I tried not to sigh too loudly. I refrained my rolling my eyes. I didn't, however, manage to keep my mouth shut. There are children who don't have clean water, I pointed out delicately (not for the first time). There are children sold into bonded slavery. My point was clear: Your suffering isn't as bad as someone else's so get over yourself.
Fortunately, I was gifted with a daughter who'll have none of that. With the steely authority of a prosecutor, she admitted that, yes, she knows other children have it worse. But, she said, right now she didn't want to hear about them. Right now, it was about her. Right now, her pain mattered.
She was right.
Her pain, no matter how small it might measure on some universal scale of suffering, mattered.
So does yours.
So does mine.
It all matters.
Even the pain of the offending spouse.
There is, however, a deeper lesson there. I came to realize that I dismissed my daughter's suffering as somehow less than deserving of my empathy because it made me uncomfortable. I had wanted my daughter to succeed in ways I hadn't. I had wanted to spare her the pain of, well, living in this world. So when it became clear that I was powerless to protect her, I didn't want to hear it. My reaction was akin to covering my ears and insisting that she tell me a better story in which she felt loved and grateful for all her blessings.
But she was wiser than that. Not only did she make it clear that her suffering mattered, she also made it clear that she was strong enough to handle it. More than once in her so-far short life, she's told me, when I play my "children that don't have clean water" card, that she needs to just be left alone to cry and feel sorry for herself...and that she'll come out of her room when she's feeling better.
And that's exactly what she does.
I've noticed that she's equally capable of being with others in their suffering – no matter how "small" – without fearing becoming lost in it. She sees it for what it is. An open wound that needs love and compassion to heal.
Suffering doesn't frighten her, it pulls her in.
All suffering matters.
I know this is radical. And I know it pisses off those of us who hold firm to some deep belief in fairness.
People like me, for example. People who inwardly scoff at those whose suffering, in the grand scheme of things, seems pretty silly.
Like a husband who claims that he cheated on us because his mother didn't hug him enough.
Silly, right?
Not exactly.
It took me a few months before I could handle listening to my husband finally purging decades of pain that he'd adeptly buried. But once I did – once I could acknowledge his suffering as no less valid than my own – something shifted. He stopped being the enemy and started being a fellow human being, doing his best (which, frankly, sometimes sucked) to get through.
And that changed everything.

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