Tuesday, December 22, 2015

How To Survive Christmas Without My Kids




The other night, I sat on the floor in front of my Christmas tree, listening to holiday standards, while wrapping presents for my kids, and cried.  Big, splashy tears that streaked my shirt; snot ran over my upper lip.  I won’t be with my kids this Christmas; they’ll be with my ex-husband and the girlfriend, and my now lost family in Wisconsin. 

Year on, year off. It seemed like such a sensible solution when we wrote up the divorce settlement: we each get the kids, every other year, for the holidays.  Easy (or easier) to divide everything up rationally, “equitably,” yours and mine.  Except when you’re holding the (spoiler!) Star Wars Millennium Falcon Lego Set, and Frank Sinatra is crooning, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas.  Let your heart be light.  From now on our troubles will be out of sight,” and you realize this totally, amazing, awesome gift for your son might turn out to be THE duplicate gift because someone else already gave it to him on Christmas Day.  This is the paranoia of grief and longing.

But what I’ve learned this year (besides the fact that divorce is painful and lonely, but liberating) is how good I have it when it comes to my friends (include family here).  The night when I was a puddle on the floor, my sister called to tell me that she sent a “Christmas Family Movie Night” gift box: gifts to be opened in conjunction with a movie, at coordinated times.  Twenty-one gifts.  She wanted us to have an early Christmas together before we had to separate.  

My kids, who no longer believe in Santa, are giddy with excitement, and circle the box, feeling the wrapped gifts, trying to guess what each might be. 

“#2, says to put it in the microwave,” Sophia said.  “Popcorn!” 

Alexander shook it.  “Definitely!” 

In the grand scheme of things, Christmas is just another day.  At least that’s what I’ve been telling myself--another day to get through.  But my sister sent a box of joy.

This is how my friends have surprised and sustained me all year.  Not necessarily with actual gifts, though there have been those, too (yoga lessons when I couldn’t afford them, flowers, books), but with their unwavering presence.  By presence, I don’t just mean their bodies on the couch beside mine, though that, too, as a hand, a shoulder, and a hug are pretty good antidotes to the flattening loneliness of the weeks by myself.  By presence, I mean their loving, supportive, patient attention.  Listening to me, walking with me, running with me, feeding me, answering the phone, the texts, the need I have had this year for love, proof of love, after its absence for so long.  Heartbreak is greedy and the broken self clamors for reassurance: who am alone without (his) love?  My friends remind me that I am necessary to them, that I am worth the irritation and frustration and disappointment because most essentially, I am funny and intelligent and compassionate and help complete their world.  My history, to them, is part of what makes me enough.  

“Really, who is going to want to stick around with me after I tell him about [insert here: Bipolar/Anorexia/Alcoholism/Disability]?” I said to my sister one night. 

“Stop it,” she said.  “The right person will come along and none of that will matter because it’s part of you.  He’ll love you for living through it and not giving up.”

My friends often interrupt my doom-laden forecasts with equally absolutist optimism: “Stop it. The universe has a plan for you.  It won’t always be this painful.  It won’t.” 

David Whyte, in his book, Consolations, writes this of friendship:  “In the course of the years a close friendship will always reveal the shadow in the other as much as ourselves, to remain friends we must know the other and their difficulties and even their sins and encourage the best in them, not through critique but through addressing the better part of them, the leading creative edge of their incarnation, thus subtly discouraging what makes them smaller, less generous, less of themselves.”  

Movie night boxes.  Netflix binges.  Countless cups of tea and seltzer (my friends always ask if I’d rather they not drink around me).  Pasta dinners with my kids.  Vegetarian haute cuisine when I’m alone.  Time, so much of their valuable time (they have families and work, too) given to me.  It is why I will make it through this Christmas.  My brother and sister-in-law bought me a ticket home to New York for the holiday so that I will be with family, instead of waking up in an empty house, with gifts under the tree that won’t be unwrapped for days.  It is why I am blessed instead of merely broken.    


Thursday, December 3, 2015

How To Recover From Infidelity




…And after
the first minute, when I say, Is this about
her, and he says, No, it’s about
you, we do not speak of her.

“Unspeakable,” Sharon Olds

 
How do you recover from infidelity?  You don’t.  At least, not quickly.  Every day I wrestle (narcissistically) with the questions: “Why wasn’t I enough?” and “How could I not have known for all those years?”  Naively, I trusted my marriage contract, that vow to faithfulness (often dismissed by recent researchers who say that we are hard-wired for infidelity and shouldn't expect more from our genes).  Even when an open marriage was suggested (and I said “no”), I attributed that to mid-life fantasy (rather than an actual woman my husband was furtively seeing).  In the New York Times article, “Great Betrayals,” psychiatrist Anna Fells writes, “Frequently, a year or even less after the discovery of a longstanding lie, the victims are counseled to move on…But it’s not so easy to move on when there’s no solid narrative ground to stand on. Perhaps this is why many patients conclude in their therapy that it’s not the actions or betrayal that they most resent, it’s the lies.”  Lies, yes.  I found out about the affair through a third party who wanted to tell me about my then husband’s extramarital relationship years ago, believed I deserved the truth, but my husband and the other woman convinced him that if he told me, I would kill myself.  Do I need to comment on this self-serving assumption?

For months now, I’ve been mired in grief.  Someone attributed this to my mental illness, rather than, say, to my divorce, not yet a year in fact, or to my discovery that my ex-husband had been having an affair for the last three years of our marriage with a mutual friend.  Easier to point to my Bipolar disorder as the reason for difficult, unshakeable emotion.  That attribution is a reflex, even for me—checking and rechecking in with myself and trusted friends about the legitimacy of what and how much I should feel.  Certainly, before stability, before the balancing effects of Lithium, my moods flipped between free-wheeling suicidal despair, anger, and mania.  In recovery, I ask friends, “Is it okay to still be depressed over the divorce?  Is it okay to be angry that the other woman sits on the sidelines at my kids’ games and eats off the china my grandmother gave us for our wedding?  Is it okay that I’m not okay?”  
It’s easier, more ladylike to write about grief over the end of a twenty-year relationship.  Every day (especially at night), I feel like I’m in a UFC cage with Ronda Rousey, pummeled to the floor until I’m knocked out.  It’s easier to write about the loneliness of being on my own, without a partner, without filial love.  Easier to write about my guilt over my years of illness as the cause of marital collapse.  “I’m sorry,” my then-husband said when we first talked of divorce, “but your illness changed the way I saw you.” 

I wasn’t angry when he said this because I agreed not-loving-me could be the only rational consequence of my illness.  Could I really expect his continued love after he hid knives and medications from me?  After he followed me to the toilet after meals, making sure I didn’t purge?  After he visited me in the psych ward over and over, eventually believing, as most, that recovery was impossible?  Similarly, who would blame his infidelity with a crazy wife like me?

“People said I should leave you,” he said.  Again, I wasn’t angry but grateful since shame annihilates self-worth.  But would this same counsel be offered for an unremitting physical illness—cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s?  Mental disorders are often misrepresented as acts of (ill)will: you can choose to think better, act better, feel better, but you don’t.  
I’ve been afraid to write about anger.  Anger is dangerous and disruptive.  Angry women are seen as irrational bitches (“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”).  Women worth loving keep quiet, ride out the storm, placidly smiling even though the boat is sinking.  But my anger is not about being scorned but about being lied to. 

The last time I was inpatient, over four years ago, I was on the hospital pay phone, listening to my then-husband tell me that this was my last chance to tell the truth to my treatment team, that our marriage depended on it.  Ironically, at the very same time he was demanding my honesty, he was with the other woman who had come on a clandestine visit while I was in the hospital. “You lied first with your drinking and eating disorder,” he said in later explanation.  A screwy logic but one that comes back to the acceptable, mutually agreed upon source: my illness, and thus, also my responsibility.
Most of my anger, though, is about revision.  Though my memory’s hard drive was wiped out by electric shock treatments, a few scenes surface and repeat, ones that I’ve held onto as evidence that married love survived those years of pain: our shared rhythm at the end of the day, managing kids and meals and dogs and cats; lying next to each other on the beach in Greece or Jamaica; sprawling on the couch watching movies, eating pizza, relieved that our life was again reliable.  And of course, I recorded here, on this blog, all his assurances of love and fidelity and our shared future, which in painful retrospect, were lies, as simultaneously, there were secret phone calls, emails, and meetings with her. 

All of these memories are now corrupted.  My version, representing fused, marital time, is in retrospect, false: he was not with me, but already with her, and I just didn’t know it.  No way to trust my narrative because after we watched those movies, said goodnight, (“Love you, Love you”—the short cuts of reassurance and recommitment), and I went upstairs to bed, he called her, and they talked of love and desire and their future together.
Eventually, I’ll move towards forgiveness, but for now I’m trying to banish shame and acknowledge anger.  Living in truth is always the hardest choice.