What Happens Next?

“If you let yourself shatter and then you put yourself back together, piece by piece, you wake up one day and realize that you have been completely reassembled. You are whole again, and strong, but you are suddenly a new shape, a new size. The change that happens to people who really sit in their pain – whether it’s a sliver of envy lasting an hour or a canyon of grief lasting decades – it’s revolutionary. When that kind of transformation happens, it becomes impossible to fit into your old conversations or relationships or patterns or thoughts or life anymore. You are like a snake trying to fit back into old, dead skin or a butterfly trying to crawl back into its cocoon. You look around and see everything freshly, with the new eyes you have earned for yourself. There is no going back. Perhaps the only thing that makes grief any easier is to surrender completely to it. To resist trying to hold on to a single part of ourselves that existed before the doorbell rang. Sometimes to live again, we have to let ourselves die completely. We have to let ourselves become completely, utterly, new. When grief rings: Surrender. There is nothing else to do. The delivery is utter transformation.”

Glennon Doyle, Untamed

For the first time since I separated from my ex, I feel free. Like, really free. It is not just that the shackles of marriage have been removed. I have been liberated from the pain and anxiety that being in a broken marriage caused. And, for me to reach this destination, I had to allow myself to breakdown. I had to sit in my pain and discomfort. I had to face all the ugly truths about myself from which I had been shielding my eyes. I cried a lot and wondered if I would ever feel better. I wondered if the pain I was feeling was part of my new normal. I had no idea how to navigate the complexities of sharing children when we barely wanted to interact with one another. The residual anger and frustration that sat uncomfortably just below my surface needed to be managed for, if I didn’t, it would be unleashed at the most inopportune times. And, sometimes it did.

This process began long before we split but rose to a head when he finally moved out of the house. The reality of the divorce came into focus and I was forced to take responsibility for the state of my life rather than take the easy route and blame my ex for all of my discomfort. As I began dating, I had to reckon with my shortcomings that were being showcased in bright neon lights. It is easy to hide inside of a long-term relationship. The malaise that comes from getting too comfortable and failing to put in the same effort is actually a safe harbor from your own roaring seas. The ugliness in yourself that you might witness can be blamed on the relationship and its troubling dynamics. He brings out the worst in me. I don’t like who I am when I am with him. Removing the scapegoat forces you to the front of the stage under the spotlight. For me, this was terrifying, despite the fact that I had spent years confronting my shortcomings. Addressing my weaknesses from the safety and comfort of my relationship afforded me the luxury of avoiding the question of why I felt lonely because it had to be the result of the relationship dynamics. I never had to confront the ugly truth that I might be the cause of my loneliness because I was not ready to be the person I needed to be for myself.

I sat in my therapist’s office recently lamenting my choice to date soon after my marriage ended. “Maybe I am not ready to be with someone,” I sighed to him. “Maybe I have not done the work.” He challenged my thinking on this and encouraged me to see myself as he did. He pushed me to sit in the space I was in and try to objectively comprehend where I was. Of course I had done the work but nothing could prepare me for the reality of being alone and navigating a new course by myself. I couldn’t possibly foretell how I would feel after weeks, months, years of settling into new routines or adjusting to a space that was now mine. For some, this is a welcome relief. For others, it all feels empty and sad. For many, it is a combination that requires patience and trust that you will get to the other side. I have no patience. Trust is not easy for me. I like firm contracts that guarantee specific deliverables. That is where I am most comfortable and confident. Or, at least, that is what I believed to be true about myself.

With my ex, nothing about our divorce has been “normal.” We didn’t go through the normal process where one of us moves out of the marital home or we find a place to birdnest so our kids could stay home and we could go back and forth. Instead, my ex slowly moved his way from our bedroom, to the living room, the basement, to his girlfriend’s house part time to his girlfriend’s house full time. He never actually acknowledged that he was moving there and simply referred to it as “crashing.” He didn’t hire a lawyer and didn’t really participate in the legal matters surrounding the divorce. As in our marriage, he left all of it to me. As a result, I felt like our separation and impending divorce was simply an extension of our marriage. I needed to continually follow up with him on things and needed to manage the process. This steady drain on me removed the delineation of married to not married because I still felt like I was operating under our same marital construct. Except, of course, I now had lots of additional responsibilities since he was no longer in the home.

Because I was the instigator in ending the marriage, I bypassed several of the stages of grief associated with such a loss. 28 years together constituted more than half of my life and just about my entire adult life. I fully expected some kind of delayed reaction and was anxiously waiting for the impact. It was as if I stepped up to the PA system on the plane and announced that we were about to crash, returned to my seat and assumed the crash position, bracing myself for the destruction as the fuselage made contact with the ground. But, it never crashed. Remarkably, once I put my head between legs, preparing myself, I felt the plane rise. The mere act of accepting a crash was imminent gave rise to growth and helped my plane climb back into the air. That is not to say there was no grief or anxiety related to my split – I just wasn’t grieving the loss of my marriage. I have come to learn that grief is a funny thing and we all process different emotions and experiences in different ways. When each of my parents died, I felt the loss notably differently. With my mother, I felt a sense of relief that she could no longer emotionally abuse me. With the death of my father, I felt a deep sense of sadness and loss of what never was. He and I had been estranged since I was 21 and, despite my efforts to reconnect with him, he never relented. When I learned that he had passed, I needed to acknowledge that there would never be an opportunity to bridge our gap and, even though I accepted the estrangement, I had to now recognize that our relationship would never come to be. My dad was an absentee parent and his death impacted me far more significantly than that of my mother who was a constant negative force in my life. When my marriage died, I didn’t feel the pain of no longer having the relationship, I felt relief similar to the feeling with my mother. What I struggled with was the loss of my identity. I had no idea who I was outside of my marriage. I was so wrapped up in the relationship and my role as wife and mother that I struggled to envision myself – or accept myself – as anyone else. And that’s where the nosedive occurred.

I instinctively knew that I had to transform. It was imperative that I allow myself to evolve and emerge as a new creature. I couldn’t effectively continue to exist in a modified version of the person I was for the past three decades. I had to rediscover me and architect a new persona. This was a terrifying endeavor because I felt weak and exhausted. Simply dealing with divorce would have been enough but the earth didn’t stop spinning. Pandemics grew larger, business got harder, money got tighter, seasons passed, children needed care and feeding. I wanted so desperately to persevere and I demanded that I do it on my own terms. I would have my cake and eat it too. And, it would be a strawberry cheesecake because that’s what I was in the mood for. It didn’t matter to me that the bakery was closed and, even if it was open, there was a shortage of strawberries and cream cheese. I would prevail and I would design what that survival looked like.

Sure, Tammy. Whatever you say.

I recently had a conversation about control. I don’t consider myself to be a controlling person because my focus is never on trying to control others. However, one of my key coping mechanisms is to create some semblance of control over my own outcomes, reducing the chaos. I never wanted to blow with the wind and leave things to chance. I always have a plan. I always have two plans. Sometimes I have three plans. Sometimes more if a situation is particularly volatile. So, as my marriage ended and I was assuming the crash position to control the impact, the voices in my head were screaming for me to surrender to the universe and allow the crash to happen. I resisted and dug my heels in deeper. But, as a mere mortal, I couldn’t stave off the tide of grief and I shattered. It came to me disguised as despair over a breakup with a guy I had been dating for a few months. Masked behind the devastation of the ending of that relationship was the fact that I had finally begun to break apart. The relationship appeared to be the next step in my evolution but, truly, was a distraction from my required metamorphosis. I assumed that I could pour my energy into becoming the person I wanted to be and see the immediate results in this relationship but I was the only one not in on the joke. Without going into my cocoon, giving myself the space and security to transform, I was simply wearing a mask and pretending I was born anew. For weeks following the breakup, I cried daily, crippled by intense pain that was in no way appropriate for the depth of the failed relationship. It took me months but I finally gained the perspective to recognize the gift of that experience. The universe provided exactly what I needed just when i needed it. I was not ready to look my grief in the face but was able to begin to process it through the sadness of the lost relationship. Then, one day I sat in my yard, got myself good and high, and wrote down everything I was feeling. The words kept pouring out of me, page after page. Emerging on those pages was the root of my pain. Hidden beneath the rubble of the relationship crash was me, broken into little pieces, screaming to be put back together. I kept searching for ways to do this, looking at my friends, seeking out love interests, reading everything I could get my hands on. And, just like Dorothy, the power was within me to get back home. I just needed to click my heels (or let myself feel the pain, as it were).

This past weekend I realized that, for the first time, I did not think about my ex at all. There was no PTSD of worrying about what I was doing or how he would react when I returned from the grocery store having bought 5 jars of pasta sauce (a shout out to my dead mother who hoarded tomato sauce and paper towels) when we still had 2 jars in the pantry. When I went out Saturday night, I didn’t have to explain where I was going, who I was going with or worry about what time I was coming home. There were no guilty feelings about laying in my hammock and reading a book in the afternoon. I didn’t question myself in any way. In fact, it was as if he never existed. I had no thoughts about him and his life and did not associate him with anything in my life. Perhaps this was because when I left therapy on Friday afternoon, I strode to my car with the quiet confidence that I was beginning to emerge. There was a peace about me that was unfamiliar yet very comfortable. My head was clear and I was not questioning or doubting my feelings. While I had not erased my discomforts, I had the self-assurance that I could make decisions and take actions to help mitigate the challenges I faced. I had been transformed and the ghosts of my marriage were no longer haunting me. I now had the space to allow happiness and contentment into my life. And now, I can truly do it on my terms except I am less concerned about controlling it all. The surrender to the crash allowed me to also give up my need to have control over all that happens around me. I can trust because I know, from experience, that I am wise and resilient and that the universe provides.

What happens next? Who knows? But I am excited to find out!

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