"I did what anyone who's ever had to rebuild their life has to do – very slowly, one step at a time, find a way to walk back in the direction that's going to be good for you. That isn't about your sorrow and your suffering but is about your strength and your light. And it's about healing your wounds instead of circling around them neverendingly."
– Cheryl Strayed, Dear Sugar Radio, "The Wounded Child Within"
I ask your forgiveness of me and of what might seem like my relentless insistence that you will heal from this. So often your comments read like my own thoughts in the early days post-betrayal, when I was absolutely certain I would never ever feel anything but agony again. When I might accept that the day would come when I could function but I simply could not accept that this shattered mess where my heart used to be would once again be whole. And so I recognize your agony as my own. I remember as well my inability to recognize my strength, so crippled did I feel by my husband's infidelity. Your insistence that I'm wrong, that you simply can't heal from this, sounds so familiar.
And I'm guilty, I know, of sometimes forgetting the sharp edges of that pain. And so I respond, perhaps unfeelingly, offering up platitudes that healing will come, insisting that whether he introduced his OW to his friends is immaterial and that whether they slept together twice or two hundred times hardly matters. He cheated. That's what matters. It's, really, all you need to know.
Except this. You need to know this also even if it makes you want to punch me in the face: Your healing is possible. No matter how devastating his betrayal. No matter the depths of his depravity. You can heal from this. It will take a whole lot longer than any of us ever imagined it would. It will be really really hard. But, as the two Sugars on Dear Sugar radio told "Wounded Child Within", healing is always possible when we shift our gaze from what happened to what we will do about what happened. Or, as Strayed puts it, when we walk back in a direction that's going to be good for us.
Strayed is talking about her own self-destructive choices in the wake of her mother's death. Wracked by grief, she numbed herself with sex, with drugs, with aimlessness. Her choices felt like no choice at all. No matter which direction she went, her mother was dead. There was no changing that.
Which is a big part of what trips us up, I think. Our choices don't include a good one. Instead, we're given the choice between shitty and shittier. We can stay and keep our children's world relatively intact and not have to tell our dying mother that her son-in-law is a snake and cross our fingers that our "I'll-never-do-this-to-you-again" husband is speaking the truth. Or we can leave a marriage that seems irreparable and unhealthy, model resilience and fortitude to our heartbroken children, and cross our fingers that we can survive every second Christmas by volunteering at the food bank. I used to wail to my husband that my only choices were to sacrifice my happiness or my children's. Shitty. And shittier.
But a funny thing happened when I gave up on happiness. Once I'd resolved that I'd never again ever feel joy but decided that I would at least fight for feeling less horrible, I began to experience slivers of, let's call them, hope. In my pursuit of less horrible, I stopped focussing on my husband and all the ways in which he'd ruined my life and turned instead to what I could do to rebuild it. I still had no idea whether this rebuilding would incorporate my husband or not. I was leaning heavily toward not but was waiting until I felt less emotionally fragile before springing that news on my blissfully ignorant children. And so I shored up myself. With therapy. With long walks alongside my beloved dogs. With meditation. With an intention to notice those slivers of hope and stockpile them. I was, to again borrow Strayed's metaphor, walking in the direction of what was good for me. I was intentionally shifting my gaze from what my husband had done to what I was going to do with that. I had felt my sorrow and suffering – and I think it's crucial to feel your sorrow and suffering. You don't get to skip that step – but I was ready to recast it as strength and light.
I know it's not easy. It will probably be the hardest thing you've ever done. But it will save your life. It will ensure that the life you save is full and rich. There are no guarantees that you will be spared further pain. In fact, I can assure you there will be more heartache, in one form or another, to come. But that heartache will happen to a different you. One that is able to walk in the direction of strength and light. One that can feel her sorrow and suffering without letting it define her. And one that is more compassionate and more open-hearted for having suffered. One that savours every drop of joy that life offers, and I promise you, joy will come.