Monday, June 26, 2017

Feeling authentically you when things aren't what they appear

I posted a pic on Facebook the other day. It's of my three gorgeous children. The occasion is my youngest's grade eight graduation. My kids are smiling. I know I sound like their mother but they are radiant.
I could have commented something about endings and beginnings. I could have written about the awesome teachers and incredible school my daughter had the good fortune to attend. Or about the sibling love and loyalty so apparent in their hugs and their grins.
Instead, I posted something perhaps oblique to those who don't know us well. I wrote that it's tough to be a kid. I noted that some hurdles had been cleared but we know there are more to come.
I was referring, without coming right out and saying it, to the mental health issues that my youngest – our current grad – has faced. Two years ago, she was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and, at her worst, begged her father and I to kill her because she couldn't endure another minute of her thoughts. Instead, we found her help and she participated in an out-patient program at our local hospital. For weeks, she underwent what's called Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), a therapy that slowly exposed her to her worst fears – contamination – and taught her that she could not only endure it but, with time and training, accept it.
Today, though she needs to routinely do mindfulness work to stay on track, you'd hardly know she will have OCD for the rest of her life.
I was referring also to my eldest who was recently diagnosed with Bipolar Spectrum Disorder and who, in the past couple of weeks, has been on 24/7 watch to prevent her from harming herself. She's doing better but we are, by no means, out of the proverbial woods.
To most who saw the photo I posted, I'm a proud mom of three beautiful children. Which is true.
But it's only part of the story.
And that's a challenge most of here face, isn't it? How to accept that something can be true – and no less true for being only part of the story.
It can be true that my husband loved me deeply. And also true that he cheated on me.
It can be true that my mother valued being a good mom. And also true that she routinely drank herself into incapacitation.
It can be true that you are an amazing person. And also true that your husband cheated.
It can be true that your husband is a kind, good-hearted soul. And also true that he made choices that hurt you deeply.
Our job, in the wake of betrayal, is to learn to accept these seeming paradoxes. 
And it's to discover that not telling everyone the entire truth of our lives isn't the same as lying. 
You don't owe people the whole story of your marriage, of your life. What people project onto you – that your life looks "perfect", for instance – is about them, not you. You're under no obligation to open the whole of your heart.
Human beings are natural storytellers. And we often fill in the blanks of what we don't know. We peer in from the outside and think we know the inner mechanics of their relationships, of their quirks.
But we don't know.
And we never will know what it is like to live in another person's marriage. That, however, rarely stops people from projecting. We see the put-together woman with her healthy beautiful children and we figure the inside story is as glossy as the outside version. And so we're shocked to discover that perfect makeup is to hide the bruises. Or we see the frazzled mom who's routinely late and are surprised to discover she's a well-respected CEO.
We are so swayed by external evidence that we, again and again, forget that it's a package. The contents can be wildly different. And the we humans are full of contradictions.
And while it's disconcerting to discover another person's life is not what it seems, it's devastating to discover that's true for our own.
But his cheating doesn't alter who you are.
And though at first you struggle to reconcile what you believed to be true with this new information, it can become easier.
This isn't some sort of semantic hocus-pocus. There is unquestionably parts of my marriage, before D-Day, that were a lie. I believed things about my husband that were patently untrue.
But I've learned that the larger part – that I was loved – can remain true.
And, more importantly, that I am a person worthy of love isn't changed by his choice to betray me.
All of which is to say, I get to choose the parts of my story that I share with the wider world. Choosing not to tell casual friends or acquaintances – even those who express envy at my "perfect" family – isn't being inauthentic, it's having clear boundaries. I don't owe anybody my whole story. Our lives are our own, and we get to decide what parts of our lives we share with the around us.
We choose who to tell about the mental health issues we're currently struggling with. For instance, we've chosen to tell close friends. We haven't told my daughter's landlord. We've told some family members but not others.
Don't confuse authenticity with full disclosure. Authenticity doesn't require you to reveal everything about yourself, it simply requires you to be fully present and fully yourself. It requires you to be honest with yourself. Always.
I know a lot of us struggle with this and feel as though we wear a mask. Give yourself time. Share your story with people who've earned the privilege, who will hold your pain in their hearts. Or don't. The choice is always always yours.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Is Hope Lying to You?

Most mornings, you'll find me in the woods, hiking through the bush with a friend. As we trek, we talk – about kids, about spouses, about work and friends and life.
Over the years, I've heard often about a friend of my hiking friend. This friend of my hiking friend has had a heap of health problems, she's medically obese, her finances are a mess. And her husband has had a long string of affairs and visits to prostitutes and people on Craigslist.
She says she's finally ready to leave but has a long list of reasons why not quite yet. And it has been years of this. Years that have impacted her health. Years that have drained her finances. Years in which she has felt miserable and invisible and utterly devalued.
Her list for not leaving is long. Her religious faith dictates, at least in her mind, that marriage, even to a philanderer, is sacred, that lying (about, for instance, setting up her own bank account, which he didn't allow) is wrong. But mostly, she's been held in place by hope.
Anyone who comes to this site knows that I'm fully supportive of staying in a marriage after betrayal when both partners are willing to do the work to rebuild. Or staying while you figure out your next right step. Or staying until you gather the money, education or whatever it is you need to leave.
What I struggle with is hearing about people who stay because they hope he's going to change. They hope things are going to be different. They hope that he will wake up, become a new man and they'll have their "old" life back.
Hope is "the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all," writes Emily Dickinson. "Where there's hope, there's life," wrote Anne Frank. "It fills us with fresh courage and makes us strong again."
Well, yes.
But not always.
Sometimes hope keeps us where we don't belong. Sometimes hope tells us lies. That things will be different. That he'll change.
The problem is when hope is passive. When we cling to it like a life raft instead of swimming like hell.
Hope, as the saying goes, is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.
What this means is that hope makes demands on us. You're hoping he'll change? What evidence is there that this hope is well placed? You hope that your marriage will be stronger? What are each of you doing to make that happen? You hope that your kids won't be devastated by the impact of his affair? How are you supporting them or finding them support outside your home?
In other words, roll up your sleeves and get to work. Don't let hope do all the heavy lifting. Let hope inspire you to do some of the lifting yourself.
I'm all for hope. Especially when the word feels dark and hopeless. But pay attention to what hope is telling you. Is it making promises that depend on others to change? Is it keeping you small? Or is it reminding you that, no matter what, you are going to be okay? Cultivate hope that is active, that sings your song, that gives strength. That other hope? The type that keeps you rooted in place? That's just fear telling you a fairy tale. Use real hope to write your own happily ever after.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Six Things You Must Know About Being Cheated On

I will not say that my husband's affair was a good thing. The cost of his betrayal was too high. My ability to meet my children's needs was undoubtedly compromised when I could barely get out of bed. My career suffered when discovery of his betrayal coincided with the publication of my book, along with a number of related opportunities that I simply didn't have the energy or confidence to pursue. And I continue to wonder about the impact all that stress had on my physical health.
However, I recognize and acknowledge (such as here, here and here) that through healing from my husband's betrayal, I've learned and grown in wonderful ways.
Put simply, I'm not the person I was. And though I wouldn't have admitted it at the time, that is a good thing.
But when you're still in the weeds, it helps to see someone standing on the shore waving you in. So I've put together a half dozen things that you need to know about being cheated on, plus a bonus one. 

1. Affairs are about escape, not "trading up".
The stereotypical Other Woman is a sultry siren, dressed in a short skirt, and with long flowing hair and perfect teeth. So we're often shocked to discover that the Other Woman is, well, ordinary. Or younger but crazier. Or skinnier but nastier. Or chubbier and a raging alcoholic (as in my case). But his affair was never about so-called trading up. It was about escape. Consider this from New York magazine: "It might be reassuring to know that most people have affairs not because they’ve found somebody better or hotter or more perfect (perfect people don’t tend to have sex with other people’s spouses) but because affairs make us feel alive and seen; they counteract feelings of numbness or flatness or disconnection that seem like they might kill us, if we don’t kill ourselves first. And since we aren’t up for suicide, we find a work-around." 
In other words, the affair offers a distraction from those awful feelings he wants to avoid. They're the coward's way of dealing with problems. And his affair isn't about you at all. You're just collateral damage.

2. Happiness really is a warm puppy or fill-in-blank-here.
I discovered, by accident, that the way out of my pain was noticing those fleeting moments of contentment and holding on for dear life. In my case, I took great comfort in my giant white dog whose love for me felt solid and certain. I would walk him in the morning, which not only got me out of the house and into the world, it reminded me that the world can still hold beauty even when I'm in pain. I would marvel at the sunlight scattering on the fresh snow. I would notice the birdsong. I would delight in my dog's ability to be entirely in the moment – not miserable about yesterday or terrified of tomorrow. 
So, for me, happiness was my warm puppy. For you, it might be your newborn daughter, or your grandchild, or your blank canvas, or Mozart, or the weight room at the gym, or your garden, or...,or...or.... Whatever it is, be grateful for it. Prioritize it. It will save you. 

3. People love us the best they can. And sometimes their best sucks.
I owe this lesson to my mother, who pointed it out to me when I was in the "why would he do this to me?" stage of mourning my marriage. A graduate of the 12-step school, my mom had plenty of lessons to impart. And she died weeks after D-Day #2 (when I learned the full extent of my husband's betrayal). For the six months, however, between D-Day #1 and #2, my crisis provided the opening for me to really start paying attention to my mom's wisdom. To be so grateful for the rock she provided me when I felt like I was drifting. She was speaking about my husband at the time. But this particular lesson was true for her too. The worst of her alcoholism came during my teen years, when I desperately needed a mother. She loved me then the best she could. I know that now. And when she was better, she could love me better. 

4. Judgement masks fear.
Ohhhh boy. I shake my head when I remember how certain I was that my marriage was safe from infidelity. And when I heard rumours of infidelity in other marriages, I would comfort myself with the certainty that I wasn't like those wives – who nagged, who "let themselves go", who weren't much fun. Gulp. 
In the days following my own D-Day, I admitted just how judgemental I'd been. And I realized that I hadn't a clue what was going on in those other marriages. Just like nobody had a clue what was going on in mine. What's more, it became acutely clear that feeling invisible in a marriage does things to a woman. She just might nag. She might "let herself go". She's not much fun. None of which make it okay to cheat (or continue to cheat) on her. 
When we judge others, it's like a neon sign toward our own fears. We judge others to feel superior. To feel safe. I have a friend who, whenever she's being judgey about someone else, does this: On a sheet of paper, she writes down that person's name and underlines it. Then beneath that name, she lists everything about that person that drives her crazy. And then, when she's finished her list, she goes back to the top of the page and crosses out that other person's name and writes her own. Looking over the list, she says, she always ALWAYS finds a list of things she doesn't like about herself. And that gives her the clarity she needs to recognize that her judgement about others is really fear of judgement about herself.
Fear is often behind our worst behaviours. Judgement is no exception. 

5. Perfection is the enemy of joy.
Speaking of fear, I often hid behind a pursuit of perfection, certain that if I could just be perfect, then everyone would love me and I would never be abandoned or alone. Great theory right? All it did was leave me resentful and exhausted because perfection is always just out of reach. I was never quite skinny enough, or quite pretty enough, or quite a good enough cook, or quite intelligent enough, or quite successful enough, or quite sexy enough, or...or...or... 
D-Day forced me to admit that my life wasn't perfect. I wasn't perfect. I hadn't been able to  protect myself from emotional abandonment. In fact, focusing so much on being pleasing to others left me empty. I hadn't bothered to take care of myself. I kept many people at arm's length, lest they see behind the mask. 
After D-Day, it was all I could do to remain upright. The idea of perfection was laughable, if I'd been capable of laughter. Instead, I learned something my wise mom had been trying to tell me for years. That all I ever had to do in life was "show up". Showing up was all I could do (and even that felt impossible some days). But I discovered that showing up was enough. Showing up -- really showing up, in all my imperfect authentic glory -- allowed me to have deeper friendships, it created work opportunities I couldn't have imagined. I didn't have to do the ol' jazz hands to make me notice me. I just had to show up. 
Perfection keeps us forever on the path of not enough. It keeps joy out of reach. Joy, on the contrary, embraces us exactly where we are. As exactly who we are. Joy is laughter. It's a deep appreciation for our imperfect selves and all other imperfect selves. 

6. It's possible to be happier after heartbreak. 
Raise your hand if you said, in the hours/days/weeks following discovery of your partner's betrayal, something along the lines of "I will never ever be happy again." I read it here all the time. Women who, in their agony, embrace hyperbole to insist their husband "murdered" any hope of happiness ever again, or "destroyed" their souls, or "shattered" their hearts and hopes. 
I know if feels like that. Lord, do I know! But let me tell you something I've learned on this path out of hell (there I go!): you will not – I promise! – feel like this forever. Emotions are transient. This too shall pass, the wise 12-steps folks try and tell us. And they're right. That doesn't mean it doesn't feel like your heart is in pieces. I know it does. But feelings are not facts, as my brilliant therapist reminded me over and over and over. 
And if you do the hard work of healing from betrayal, by learning how to be gentle with yourself, by learning to love and respect yourself, by letting go of any expectation of perfection in yourself and in others, you will come to a place where you not only feel happiness again, but you feel a greater happiness. It's a different kind. As one of my favourite poets, William Blake, tells us in Songs of Innocence and Experience, we gain a sort of understanding of pain having gone through this that will forever alter our understanding of the world. Our broken hearts are now capable of holding both dark and light. As Leonard Cohen puts it, the cracks are how the light gets in. 

Bonus Lesson: You do not need to be able to read your future in a crystal ball. You only need to ever know your next right step. Too often we think we need to respond RIGHT NOW to discovery of our husband's betrayal. And so we react – angrily, impulsively, thoughtlessly. We might file for divorce. We might light his clothes on fire. We might call his boss or his mother and give them an earful. We might run into the arms of another man. And frankly, any of those things might be a perfectly acceptable action. The key is to determine what you're going to do based on what is really the right thing for you. Not ready to kick him out? Then don't. (Just make sure some clear boundaries are in place.) Can't live with him in the house right now? Then don't. But before you make a difficult-to-undo choice, make sure it IS a choice. And not simply lashing out in pain. You don't want to compound your heartbreak. 
Your next right step. That might be an appointment with a therapist. It might be a facial. It might be changing the locks. But putting pressure on yourself to somehow know the absolute best way through this is setting yourself up for more heartbreak. Just focus on the now. And the next now. 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Am I letting him off the hook?

It feels like something of a miracle in those weeks or months following D-Day. Something makes us laugh and, for a moment, we forget that our life is a wreck. Or maybe we wake up one morning and the boulder on our chest feels a little less heavy.
Or perhaps our husband comes home to find us sitting at the table, colouring with our child and soaking up their innocence.
We almost smile at him. Then we remember. He's the enemy. And so we scowl instead.
Navigating those first few months is hell. Even if we've decided to stay in the marriage (for the time being, anyway), even if we're engaged in hysterical bonding like crazy, even if we can't imagine life without him, we can feel as though we're on opposing sides. We are loathe to, as we think of it, let him off the hook.
And what is the hook?
The hook is this misery he has cast us into. The hook is this heart of ours he has shattered. This life he took a wrecking ball to.
The hook is our fear that, if we even for a minute behave as if we're not utterly ruined that he might just think that what he did was okay.
And it was decidedly NOT okay.
It will never be okay.
But let's stop for a second and consider this mindset.
Do we really think that, without a constant reminder of the destruction he has wrought, our husband might think that he's off the hook?
Because, frankly, maintaining a look of agony, day-in and day-out for the rest of our lives in order to ensure that our husband knows he is not off the hook sounds exhausting. It sounds like manipulation. Not in the short term, of course, when we really do feel shattered. But eventually.
I remember the feeling well. I remember worrying that if I actually started feeling better and, more to the point, acting as if I was feeling better, that my husband might mop his sweaty brow, breathe a sigh of relief and think to himself, "whew. Glad that's over and I can get back to my job of ignoring her pain and doing whatever I want regardless of the impact to my marriage or her."
I might not have put it in exactly those terms. More likely, I thought of it as, if I am revealing that I'm healing then he will think he's off the hook. And he is not. He will never be.
And that has remained true.
Though it has been more than a decade since D-Day 1 and a month shy of a decade since D-Day 2, my husband is not off the hook. No matter that I now laugh, that I go days or weeks without thinking about his former infidelity at all, that I feel grateful to have him in my life, he is still not and never will be off the hook.
He knows that.
He knows that I can love my life and still never be okay with his cheating. He knows that healing from his betrayal will never make his betrayal okay. And he knows that, having been given the gift of a second chance by me, he would be a fool to ask for a third chance.
And so...I was free to heal. You are too.
You are free to laugh when something is funny. You are free to smile when you feel happy. You are free to feel whatever you might feel in the moment without forfeiting your right to NOT be okay with his betrayal of you. To never be okay about it.
You don't need to remain miserable in order to ensure his fidelity.
You can speak to him about it. Like an adult.
You can share your feelings with him. You can share just how difficult it is to heal from this and what a miracle it feels to be able to laugh again, to have a glimpse of a life that isn't utterly darkened by betrayal.
And, if he is a good, decent man doing the hard work of understanding why he made the indecent choice he did, he will listen to you. He will do his best to understand. He won't ever be okay with what he did either. He will always know that pain he caused. As my husband once said, the worst feeling in his life was seeing the pain in my eyes and knowing he had caused it.
If your husband has really acknowledged what he did and taken responsibility then he will think your laughter is the most beautiful sound in the world, not because it lets him off the hook but because it sounds like hope.
Hope doesn't erase the past. It opens the heart to the future.

Monday, June 5, 2017

What to Expect When You're Expecting

"People say that expectations are resentments under construction..."
~Anne Lamott, Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy

The day I turned nine was perfect. I awoke the morning after, went downstairs before anyone else was awake, and recreated the entire thing. I rewrapped my presents. I gathered up the kitten I'd been given the day before (not exactly the one I wanted -- I got grey and white when I wanted the ginger kitten but was a kitten!). And I felt that same sense of excitement and anticipation and delight that I'd felt the day before.
By my 12th birthday, my mother had abandoned any party planning. I invited a few friends over, cooked hot dogs, bought myself a cake in the frozen section of the grocery store. My mother, drunk but also sick with laryngitis, spent the entire party ringing a dinner bell to summon me to her bed for one thing after another. My friends exchanged looks. My helpless fury mounted. Finally, as my giggling mother requested that I get her water or fluff her pillows, I begged her to stop and let me just be with my friends. They left shortly after and I was left with my humiliation.
I've had a lot of birthdays since then. And for way too many years, I've been disappointed. However, as my old therapist would remind me, if your feelings are bigger than the situation calls for, it's always about old stuff.
My birthday is old stuff.
And yet...I can't seem to let go of those expectations.
For one day, I want it to be about me. For one day, I want people to spoil me. Just one day.
And though my family knows that this occasion takes place every. Single. Year. On. The. Same. Day. They can't seem to get their acts together to buy a card, bake a cake, choose a gift (or make one! I'm not picky!). 
Over the years, I've worked to accept reality. I know my family loves me. And I know my expectations are about "old stuff". (Though I don't think they're unreasonable.)
And so I organize something annually to mark my birthday. We see a play (and my son has sat through many musicals). This year, I bought us all tickets for a baseball game. I sometimes make our dinner reservations. This year, I bought all the ingredients for a cake and simply announced that "at some point, I would like a cake." My husband and daughter argued over whose fault it was that they'd forgotten. I didn't take it personally. I managed to find their spat amusing. 
I've come a long way. 
I've learned that, rather than nurse those resentments disguised as expectations, to give myself what I need. What I need is to feel valued. And so I value myself.
It can look different depending on the year. I might buy myself an outfit that I'd otherwise tell myself I didn't need. I might take the day away from my computer. Last week, on my birthday, I sat outside in the gorgeous sunshine and read a few chapters of a devastatingly beautiful book (The Mercy Papers, by Robin Romm). I ignored that little voice that said I should be doing something productive, like making money or taking care of someone.
I was taking care of someone. Myself.
It has taken me more than five decades to see the value in the simple act of taking care of myself. The value in not letting resentments gain a foothold.
My family loves me. I know this. They show me in many ways, none of which involve having a cake made on time or carefully chosen gifts. 
Instead they show me with last-minute promises, like my son's card that told me I'm the best mom "ever" and that he'll take me to lunch and then to the store that sells my favorite yoga pants and will buy me "anything". With homemade cards that, though created out of necessity more than desire, nonetheless are more beautiful than anything in the Hallmark store. With a cake that was, honestly, the best I've ever had, despite my daughter forgetting the eggs until the very last minute. I didn't taste even a hint of resentment in that cake.
Managing my expectations continues to be a challenge for me. People disappoint me all the time. But as I learn to go easier on myself, I'm able to go easier on others. It's not the same as letting people off the hook for bad behaviour. Rather it's about not expecting everyone to think and act like me. It's about letting them be who they are and to love me in their own way. 
But mostly it's about getting clear about what I need and then finding a way to deliver it to myself. That's what being a grown up is about. 
It's something I seemed to understand on that 9th birthday. That, even the day after, I was able to give myself what I needed, to remind myself that I matter. And, for the record, what I almost always need involves a cat. 


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