Allow me to preface, my divorce is my divorce. It’s not your divorce, your parent’s divorce, etc. Please understand, because I surely do, that divorces are painful and while my divorce was the best thing that ever happened to me, that is an individual experience and summation and is not meant to diminish, deride, or disparage anyone else’s marriage or dissolution of marriage.
Months into a difficult separation and impending divorce I ran into a friend I had known for many years, over the course of my marriage and prior to. We were acquaintances and at one time colleagues. I liked her. She was married and had small children and she was also many years younger than me. I only mention that because I was quite young when I married (and subsequently divorced). We greeted each other in the grocery store parking lot and what happened next stunned the shit out of me.
She shamed me.
She’d heard about the divorce and she shamed me.
Before I knew it, I was an unwitting guest at a grocer storefront reckoning. My host, a paragon of domestic virtue — who couldn’t believe I was sitting by acquiescing to the quiet passing of my marriage. I didn’t know where this was coming from, both her staunch faith in marriage and her critical judgement of me, but the latter felt ugly and completely unearned. She knew nothing, but that didn’t prevent her from speaking. The longer her disapproval went on — the more her words began to tighten around my neck, similar to the way my husband’s hands had on that St. Patrick’s Day weekend in Savannah. I didn’t know if she’d ever stop, I was suffocating as she spoke. I felt my face growing hot while the rest of me became paralyzed. Would everything always feel this way? Would I experience every confrontation through the eyes of a victim? No, surely not. But this feeling and this woman who, without provocation, wants to destroy me—level me. At least, it felt that way. Am I being defensive? Shouldn’t I be? Oh god. Would everything always feel this way? Yes, for a long time it would.
For a long time people would misunderstand the circumstances surrounding my divorce, hell, I was one of them. My ex is a good man who loved me. I can write that with sincere honesty and it looks great on the page. Maybe our marriage did too. Good? Loving? This is what many people think a marriage should be. But what about everything else? Trust, respect, appreciation, and reciprocity. What about self-love, self-respect? What about seeing someone as not just your half but a whole, and not yours at all?
My ex is an alcoholic. That’s a fact, not a judgement. I am an alcoholic too. My mother just celebrated 25 years sober. I grew up attending AA and Al-Anon/Alateen. My awareness of the disease is well documented, well informed. I can tell you that my ex-husband is an alcoholic with dogged certainty.
One example of my ex-husband’s acute alcoholism is that he didn’t even realize that I was an alcoholic. After noticing that my social media activity indicated I was drinking a lot he confronted me, “You drink so much now. Why didn’t you drink this much when we were together”? His tone was full of sorrow and regret, implying that if I drank more when we were married I would have been more accepting of his drinking…and we would still be together. Of course he was wrong about this. It was hard to have to tell him, “I did. I did drink this much when we were together. I drank everyday. We drank everyday. I drank to keep up with you, I drank to keep you, I drank to lose myself”. It was like having to tell Bruce Willis he’s a ghost.
Maybe the most significant incident illustrating his disease was that St. Patrick’s Day weekend. That time he threw me over a coffee table onto a pull-out sofa. From there he pinned me down and began choking me. He choked me nearly to death. The only reason he choked me nearly to death and not to death is this — he passed out. He slept through the night. He woke up not remembering anything. What a lucky guy. I am not as lucky. I will always remember what it feels like to not be able to speak, scream, or even whimper. To helplessly grasp at the hands and arms around my neck, until my own arms become numb and fall away. To feel a calm come over me that I want to believe is a reprieve but it is just a clarity, an aura that comes in the last moments before death. Suddenly everything is numb. I feel nothing, nothing save a single hot tear on my cheek. How did it escape? Why couldn’t I? I stopped fighting. I let go. And just like that, he does too.
Despite what happened, I intended to stay. That’s hard for me to admit. I grew up in the golden era of Lifetime movies. I swore up and down that I would never find myself down and out with a man who didn’t treat me right. I was too strong, too educated, and loved myself too much to suffer abuse at the hands of another. At least, that’s the fiction the television producers decided on and I bought into — the truth is anyone can be a victim. It’s the boiling frog, the creeping normality of domestic abuse. Death by a thousand cuts.
I suggested counseling. That was something he would not entertain. No. A hard no. I don’t know why it offended him. I could still feel the bruises on my neck and he was offended? I offered we go together. Still no. He didn’t suggest any other solutions and one night, while I was at work, my friend’s and sister came to me and told me I wasn’t going home. They were taking me to my sister’s and I could go home in the morning. They didn’t think I was safe.
When I did come home he finally offered a solution. We would get divorced. He decided our lives (his) would be too complicated together. Now that most of our friends knew, he didn’t think he’d be able to face them. I remember feeling relieved, but divorce had become an established threat for him to make. We’d drink too much, we’d fight, he’d threaten to leave me and move to Las Vegas (a move he eventually did make). I asked him solemnly to confirm this is what he really wanted. “Yes”. He added that he had been sober all morning while he reached this decision, a detail he included to add legitimacy to his choice. And it did make it easier for me — because it was now the only choice I had. There was nothing left here for me. The door was closing and this was the window opening, this was my way out. This was him waning on the strong hold he had over me, and I could breath again.
Divorce is the best thing that ever happened to me.
That doesn’t mean it was easy.
It was, in fact, the most difficult thing I’ve done.
First, I had failed. Failing at anything is hard, especially this. I thought I was pretty good at marriage. But I had to stop seeing this that way. Maybe I had failed at marriage or maybe marriage had failed me? But life—I hadn’t failed at that, not yet. In fact, it seemed like life was actually a consolation to my marriage ending.
Another seemingly generic pitfall of divorce is that, no matter the circumstances, it is something that still needs to be mourned. There is the loss or division of property, the reallocation of friends and activities, and the unanticipated complete change of lifestyle; and when you’re done grieving all these tangible things you then have to entomb the loss of your future. Your life as you knew it. Every plan you ever made for yourself involved someone else. Someone who is now gone. Every picture of the future in your head has to be redrawn, cropped or edited. Some are more adept at this task, while others are wholly incapable. I think it is this critical marker that will define most people’s divorces. In order to move on, you have to first be able to imagine moving on. For many of us, this is the scariest part.
Next it’s important to observe that most people will undergo their divorce alone. This already isolating experience will probably lead to further separation and estrangement. At the time of my divorce I had many friends who had never been married, yet alone divorced. Even for those who have divorced peers, it’s still a hard subject to brave. I try not to look back to my divorce because it invariably reminds me of how few friends were really present for me, let alone helpful. All acrimony aside, I wasn’t completely alone. There were a few people who patiently stood by, like a custodian, making sure I didn’t completely self-destruct. For the record, I did try.
Then, there is the stress. The unimaginable almost inexplicable stress. Both your brain and your heart have been lacerated. You might be abusing some substance to feel better or feel less (as a bartender I was audience to many divorces in which this was true). My guess is you’re not sleeping well or as much (i.e. you’re now sleeping alone or in a different place). Tasks or chores you shared with a partner now have to be completed alone. Maybe your eating habits have declined or are just plain dismal because (I can vouch) it’s extremely difficult to cook healthy meals for one person, it takes some dedicated time to learn. And during all of this people are emerging from every dark corner of the world trying to date (fuck) you, yes even your ex’s friends.
For me, this stress and more had all sorts of surprising and adverse effects. I developed eczema and migraines. My ex would call in the middle of the night, drunk on the side of the road. He would send me letters and messages begging for reconciliation. He even started a band called No Second Chance, because he honestly believed that in all our time together a second chance was something he never got. I went to live shows to support him. I stood among our friends and listened to him sing songs he wrote about me. Songs where he called me a whore. Songs where he called me an angel. Songs where he talked about fucking other women, who he also called whores. It’s charming, I know. But I loved him and I wanted to remain friends, more so even — family. We had been each other’s family.
I did something very selfish and stupid to circumvent any decision I might make to reconcile. I started dating someone else—almost immediately. I knew that if I were committed to someone else, felt responsible for someone else’s feelings, that I would not go back to my ex. It worked — for me. It didn’t work for the person I dated because I ended up really hurting him. It also didn’t work for my ex because he didn’t have the ability to imagine moving on. He wasn’t able to edit that picture in his brain, even though I was projecting a different one. When he showed up at my new house unannounced and saw the picture of me and someone else, he responded by breaking my boyfriend’s car window and threatening us. My boyfriend called the cops because he wanted the damages paid for. Even after I talked my boyfriend out of pressing charges, the cops said they were obligated to bring charges and my ex-husband spent that night in jail. When the date was set for his hearing I wrote a letter on his behalf. In part because I believe that, for many individuals, being in the system will do more harm than good. I feared that, for my ex, it would make him more angry, hostile, misanthropic. It would set him back financially and maybe even emotionally. I do believe in reform, but I couldn’t see it being served in this case. My boyfriend was pretty upset and couldn’t understand why I would stick my neck out for my ex. I tried convincing him it was completely selfish, that my ex lived in the house with my name still on the mortgage and I needed him out of jail and making payments on the house. My ex boyfriend used to tell me that because he once lived with his girlfriend, he understood what it was like to be married. He didn’t. This argument is just like telling a parent that you “get it” because you’ve got a dog. [Take this advice if nothing else, don’t ever make one of those parallels.] The District Attorney called me one afternoon about my ex-husband’s case. He asked me if he’d ever had incidents of violence before and if I ever felt threatened by him. I lied. I lied on the phone to the District Attorney. I said no. I didn’t mention being pushed, threatened, or locked in a room. I didn’t mention any of the shitty things my ex used to say to make me feel like a terrible person who didn’t deserve any better and I definitely didn’t mention the night he almost killed me. I imagine a lot of women, men too, have been in a similar position and have done the same. And for what? Maybe I did the wrong thing? I can’t know for sure. At the time I did what felt right, and for some reason it felt right to lie.
Years passed. The most notable year was when we had been divorced more years than we were married. I think we both felt the weight of that. And then more years passed. And recently his mother passed. I can’t imagine how hard that was for him, but I do know that if he survived that, he can survive anything.
Divorce is the best thing that ever happened to me.
So many years have passed that most of my peers today didn’t know me when I was married. Enough years have passed that I question whether I knew myself when I was married. But the divorce I can always see. I see the lines and shadows it left upon me. I open my mouth and I hear all the evidence of my divorce. I’m alive. It looks and sounds amazing, like the best thing that ever happened to me.