“Stop LOOKING at me!”
They were all staring.
Every. Last. One of them.
My heart was pounding and trying to escape through my head and the only thing I could hear was a high pitched frequency. My dad had his hand on my elbow, encouraging me to take another step. I was moving in slow motion and simultaneously spinning. My mouth was dry and I couldn’t see.
“Take a breath, idiot! It’s just another performance. It’s just another performance. It’s just another performance.”
But it wasn’t. I was twenty years old and it was my wedding day.
“I didn’t think this through. I want my mom. I can’t disappoint all these people. It’s too late. This is it. This is the choice I made. Deal with it. What the hell am I doing?! Dad, help me!!”
I couldn’t actually say those things. I smiled and continued with the “strong, stable” demeanor everyone had come to expect.
“More like an untethered wrecking ball.”
My dad reserved a suite for us for our first night of “marriage” at the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. It all felt so wrong. It was supposed to be the happiest night of my life, but the only thing I could see was my father’s sobbing face after the blur of a ceremony. That face haunted me for weeks. Months. I wanted to go back and be his little girl again. I wanted to reassure him that he hadn’t lost me.
Or maybe the wedding coordinator had just handed him the bill.
During my second year of graduate school and after four miserable years of forced and divergent communication, unresolved childhood anger issues, infidelity and a couple of crash courses in marriage 101 for the painfully incompatible with counselors I never connected with, I finally ended it.
I was devastated. I became a pathetic, self-loathing, fatalistic piece of wreckage and was so wrapped up in my shame and failure that I couldn’t slow down enough to figure out what had happened. “My family doesn’t do divorce.” I was experiencing panic attacks over how this would hurt them, particularly my Southern Baptist Preacher paternal grandfather. I wrote him a letter of apology, telling him how broken I was and how badly I felt for letting everyone down. He promptly responded with: “Even God would not want you to endure a lifetime of hell on earth.”
I think that sentence may have saved my life.
I hadn’t planned on being a single mom. Years after my first divorce, and after ten years of marriage to the father of my children, that’s exactly what he accused me of when I told him I wanted out, due to his very serious alcohol addiction and refusal to get help.
“You finally got what you wanted!”
I guess you could say that. Here’s what my singles ad would look like.
“ 37 year old single mother of three lacking job, house, car, savings account and employment history with zero hope of reviving past music career quickly enough to support said kids, so embarking on a BRAND NEW career while competing with eager young, child-less, fresh-out-of-college 20-somethings! Bonus: Brimming with credit card debt! Wanna date me?”
Divorce sucks. Nobody wants it. About half of us go through it at least once. Some of us take that ride more than once. The majority of us were raised with the narrow definition that marriage vows are a sacred commitment and a promise for life. The end. We are taught to do well in school, plan for every step of our future and are then thrust into a world where the only constant is change. How can we possibly predict how our partner will change? We certainly can’t control it.
As much as I struggled with my first divorce, this one was exponentially worse, because there were children involved. It took years for me to come to the decision to leave because of how I thought it would affect them. I tried everything to salvage it, but nothing worked and eventually, I had nothing left to give. I finally realized I was becoming a liar and a bad role model simply by staying.
Over the years I have had countless conversations with my children about how the divorce affected them. In the beginning, they were, of course, shattered. What child doesn’t want mommy and daddy to live happily ever after? They are young adults now and in a recent conversation with one of them I heard this: “You gave us a better life. By making the decision to leave, you showed strength in choosing happiness and emotional health over a toxic marriage and we learned so much by not being raised under those circumstances. You gave us the truth and a chance to learn about the reality of relationships. You also gave us a place to go when we realized how miserable we were on the nights we were under our alcoholic father’s roof. I don’t think our family unit would be as strong as it is if you had stayed married.”
The Mayo Clinic actually defines the word forgiveness, which supports the theory that it is beneficial to our overall health. It describes it as “a commitment to a process of change” and says “you can forgive the person without excusing the act.”
It takes a lot of courage to set aside our egos and forgive those who have hurt us. To believe that someone we once loved is hurting us intentionally is a negative and toxic choice. It took me as long as it did to leave my unhappy relationships largely because of my fear of hurting those people. What purpose does it serve to assume their actions were born out of a desire to hurt me? It healed me to forgive them and it healed me more to forgive myself. I initially clung to my anger because it was easier than owning my choices, acknowledging my mistakes and allowing the hurt. Anger is a mask for pain. The only hope for a future and successful relationship meant stripping myself of that mask.
The practice of self-forgiveness is an ongoing one. I had to begin by taking a look at the sudden twists and turns of the rhythmic gymnastics ribbon of a road I was on. Almost every plan I have ever made for myself has taken a quick and unexpected turn. Navigating and surviving those turns has made me stronger.
During my darkest moments, I have often returned to the words of my grandfather. No matter what my religious or spiritual beliefs, those words resonated with me for many years because I knew what that statement meant to him. I kept his letter and have returned to it many times as a reminder that I am human and forgiveness is essential.
Hate is a strong word, but it only holds power over us if we grant it. To grasp it is to give up on the abundance of beauty always within our reach. I am grateful to my first husband for the things I learned about myself. I am forever indebted to my last husband for the most precious gifts of my children. Without him, they would not be here, nor would they be the incredible individuals they are.