Lancing the boil

Every now and then, a flood of very ugly, bitter memories overwhelms me. This week has been one of those seasons. I hate it when it comes, but there it is. This morning I woke up, feeling much better after talking with a lifelong friend, last night.  I called this process “lancing a boil.”

The years immediately following DH’s leaving me were more horribly difficult than I can begin to describe. In common parlance, I had a nervous breakdown. Okay, for the sake of accuracy, I’m told there’s no such thing, medically speaking, as a nervous breakdown. The term is a sort of lay umbrella term that is so nonspecific that it doesn’t really mean anything.  It covers dozens of situations and so becomes pretty meaningless. The neighbor who had a bipolar episode requiring hospitalization could just as well be said to have have had one as I could, dealing with the nightmare stress and anxiety of going through the separation and discovering DH is gay.

More, at the time, I was under the impression that a nervous breakdown meant someone had been found curled up in the fetal position mumbling incoherently to herself, and couldn’t be pulled out of it. I wasn’t nearly so bad, I thought; I was functioning (more or less). Besides, I couldn’t think of things like that, there was too much at stake, I had a family to take care of, and I had to keep going.

But this is what I experienced. I am sharing so that others going through this can know they’re not losing their minds, but experiencing something not at all uncommon among us:

* I couldn’t concentrate.  This was particularly inconvenient since I was in college at the time, and English majors read a lot.  I’d look at a page for long minutes and not be able to figure out what it said. I’m not really sure how I was able to graduate and keep a B average.
* My mind was all over the place. Mostly, as I remember, was a litany of “I’m so afraid” or “I don’t know if I can do this” sorts of thoughts. Worse, a lot of my thoughts, and the interior voice that comes when one is reading silently, were screaming at me.
* I wanted to sleep all the time. Sleep was an escape. Plus, I was so, so overwhelmingly tired all the time. I could drop off to sleep so easily, and I hated waking up and having to be in the real world again (I still love to sleep, my dreams can be so entertaining! but I am also glad to wake up again.)
* I felt tense and anxious all the time. I came to refer to it as feeling as if I were living on the epicenter of an earthquake. Every single thing I did, no matter how normally inconsequential, seemed to loom in front of me as possessing potential for catastrophic consequences. I was certain that whatever I did, even to choose the pink button-up blouse over the blue knit pullover, would be WRONG.
* I couldn’t cry.  I just couldn’t. Still don’t. I pretty much isolated myself with my children and tried not to go to pieces. Complete isolation was impossible, being in college, living on campus in married student housing, having children. But I curtailed a lot of activities and kept to myself, still and quiet, as much as I possibly could.
* I felt on edge, had “the jitters,” all the time. No respite. For years.
* I had already established overeating, and eating the wrong foods, as a way of self-medication during the bitterly unhappy marriage. This continued through the Dark Days following the separation and the discovery that DH is gay. I’m not sure it actually increased, but it might have done.
* For months, people urged me, “Don’t deny the rage.” I didn’t know what rage was — until a horrible tragedy befell a friend, a year after DH moved out, and the cork popped.  Once it popped, there was no shoving it back in, and I seethed and boiled and simmered with rage. It wasn’t just that I developed a short-fused temper (also connected to my fear of catastrophe striking again at any minute) but my usual sense of humor turned sharp-edged, sarcastic, “black.” The negativity and resentments came out sideways. So did an overabundance of profanity.  Frankly? I didn’t like myself at all during this time. But I couldn’t seem to stop.

These things I simply attributed to “stress,” but it was stress to the breaking point.  For fun, I took one of those “stress tests” that assigns number values to different stressors — highest number for the death of a loved one, down through a series of other situations to more minor situations like car repairs.  A test similar to this one. The test warned, if one scored above an 85 over a six-month period, one’s health might be in jeopardy from excessive stress over the time indicated.  I scored 320.  Okay, I stretched the six months to 18 months or thereabouts because most of those issues were still currently causing problems.  But that was still a frighteningly high number.

Being unable to recognize what was going on, I didn’t seek professional assistance. I’d already dropped out of therapy because DH cashed and kept the Blue Cross/Blue Shield benefit check that was supposed to have gone to our therapist for “marriage counseling,” and I was terrified of debt. I didn’t realize that I might be in need of medication to see me through the worst of it. I couldn’t see that continuing in therapy would have been a very sound investment for my recovery and my future life.

I had no family support. None. Due to problems in my own family, some of which deserve a post of their own, I had no help or support whatsoever from my parents. My evangelical church, which DH left as soon as we separated, was no help; the pastor laid the whole burden of blame on me. The support and encouragement I did have came solely from the college community, from faculty and administration who knew me.

It’s hard to look back and to see just how bad things were. I shed a few tears, yesterday, thinking what I’d had to go through, and how utterly alone I felt (and, in fact, was).  “Bleak” skims the surface, and I don’t know of a better word to describe the experience — a thesaurus of words, maybe, would be required.

A regular divorce is bad enough. Stress enough. But a divorce PLUS the discovery that one’s spouse is gay? The world that I thought I knew was suddenly revealed not to have actually existed. The most essential realities of my life suddenly — not true. Or vanished altogether. The world had collapsed, a new world had to be recognized, and I didn’t know who I was in this unfamiliar place.  I was terrified of failure, but failure seemed inevitable.

This is NOT the end of the story — but it will suffice for now — again, as an assurance to other women going through this nightmare:  your experience is not singular, you are not in completely unchartered territory, although it’s not a well-travelled path.  You can survive this.  You can probably come out of it better than I did. Take comfort from my experience, and learn from my mistakes.

(To be continued – – – God’s Grace Carries Us)

 

Choices.

I don’t mind being an ex-wife defining my work. This is something I do, it’s part of how God redeems that experience and brings something out of it that, I hope, helps others.

But I’ll be damned if I’ll sit back and let being the ex-wife of a homosexual define my life.  Even after thirty years. The warping of the psychological and emotional abuse of that decade-plus may be too much to overcome, and I may not be able to find happiness in married love, but I will not go through my life as a victim.

A “wounded warrior,” maybe, but not a victim.

A friend I dearly love made a remark – I’m sure, now, it was innocently-intended – that set off a chain reaction of memories. . . miserable, bitter memories. And a knee-jerk reaction, “I hope you don’t mean to imply . . . ” that I’m cringing over, now — but that’s okay, he’s tough and he can take it. My life isn’t endangered because of an accidental trigger.

Memories. Weaknesses. We think we’re sailing along in calm waters, we think that, because it’s been a long time since we have been tormented by thoughts and memories and reactions that we’ve finally come clear of them, and WHAM! something slams into our gut and there they are again.

As far as I can see, there’s only one thing for it: grit my teeth, fight my way to the surface of the wave, and ride it out. If I have a hard time getting my thoughts back under control, I have a local counsellor I can talk it out with. I have friends who will support me. I have this writing as an outlet.

I’ve been through this before, I know it will pass.  And it takes less time, now, than in the early years.

 

Forgiveness: 70 x 7

You probably remember the story: Jesus is teaching his disciples, and good ol’ Peter, Peter the Impetuous, pipes up, “So, Lord, You’re saying we have to forgive seven times?”  Seven represents completion, perfection — Peter is saying he’s got this; Jesus is putting a definition on forgiveness, and it’s perfect.

But Jesus shakes His head, “No, Peter.  Seventy times seven.”  Oh, Peter, it’s so much more complicated than a mere “perfect” forgiveness — it requires so much more of ourselves.

First, let’s get this straightened out:  Forgiveness is NOT saying, “You did wrong, but I’ve decided it doesn’t matter.”  Forgiveness is NOT about eliminating consequences.  We are not being asked to be deliberate victims to wrong-doing, here.  We aren’t expected to be stupid in the name of forgiveness.

We are allowed to protect ourselves.  We are allowed to establish limits and boundaries and to hold them inviolable.

So — what is forgiveness?  I’ve heard several takes.  One is that forgiveness is that you choose not to let the other person live rent-free in your head, controlling your life.  But I find it most useful, for myself, to think of forgiveness is letting go of my right to get even, my right to be vindicated, even.

Sometimes we even have to let go of the very same incident, conversation, violation over and over and over again.  “I forgive” brings a moment’s quiet to the mind and spirit, but the memories resurface and boil to the top and our peace is once more disturbed, we are once again consumed with “What I would like to say/do to that revolving s.o.b.!” —- and we have to forgive, to let go of our right to be avenged or vindicated, to relinquish our right for “justice,” forgive the very same wrong again and again and again —

You have a right to draw your line in the sand, whether it’s sexual abuse, battery, emotional abuse.  “You may not cross this line!” and to take steps to safeguard that line.  I think being angry gives us power to decide what those lines are going to be, and the courage to defend them.  But to maintain our own peace of mind, which is the point of having the boundaries in the first place, we have to let go of bitterness, hostility, the desire to get even, to retaliate, to put the other in his place —

Again and again and again, all for a single offense.  Seventy times seven times.  A lifetime of learning to forgive.

Forgiveness, the essential component

We go through a lot, we wives of homosexuals. The manipulations, the spiritual and psychological abuses… I think I’ve mentioned before that every one of the ex-wives I’ve ever spoken to or communicated with live with depression of some degree or other. Then there are the family battles, the drive to try to protect our children, or – I wonder whether this is prudent or a big mistake – even our husbands in the early days when we’re just discovering their homosexuality and geared toward “protecting” them and maybe even their families from knowing the truth…

And we carry this enormous load of sorrow and suffering and how do we survive?

The answer is simple: we forgive.

When we consider how he lied to us, we forgive.
When we consider how he mocked and ridiculed us, we forgive.
When we stand under a barage of insults, we forgive.
When we agonize in the neglect, we forgive…
When the manipulations get ugly and things we never dreamed of happen… we forgive.

Now, I want to make something VERY VERY CLEAR. Forgiveness is not shrugging our shoulders and pretending something awful didn’t happen. That’s not forgiveness – that’s unhealthy self-sacrifice. No! We can draw our line in the stand and take whatever reasonable steps are necessary to protect ourselves and our children – and in fact I am increasingly convinced we must, not only for our own sakes or for our children’s but also for his sake – so that we don’t become complicit in his self-destruction.

What we cannot do, however, is clear: we cannot, we must not, harbor bitterness, entertain thoughts of recriminations.Not toward him, not toward his mother, not toward the kids who decide he’s telling the truth and his being gay had nothing to do with the divorce…

No, Forgiveness means that we let God dispense the justice.

“Don’t Deny the Rage” — Part Three

Anger can be a powerful barometer to alert us something is Not Right in our lives, in our relationships.

It can be a powerful impetus for needed change. Anger at being abused, for instance, can motivate us to make changes to stop the abuse or to get away from it.

We have to be careful, though.  Anger, badly or recklessly heeded, can lead to some irresponsible or self-destructive choices.

Anger can be turned inward.  This is self-destructive. It’s been said for years that depression is “anger turned inward.”  It’s my personal opinion (and I’m not a psychologist) that that’s too simplistic an assessment, but there’s enough truth there for it to become an easy platitude. We punish ourselves for others’ wrongs, fault ourselves for not being able to “help” or “fix,” things that aren’t ours to begin with, and we become depressed.

I’ve seen anger lead to irresponsible and dangerous choices.  People who can’t cope turning to alcohol or drugs, for instance. Or flashes of rage and temper that cause us to hurt other people, in turn. Or a seething resentment that builds into a dishonest idea that we have a right to — get even, to get a bit of our own back, to have our needs met however dishonestly or dishonorably we have to do it.  I’ve known men and women who justified adulterous affairs by saying their spouse was “asking for it.” “I have a right to be happy” isn’t necessarily true — certainly no one has a right to be “happy” at the expense of others’ trust or if it means violating sacred principles.

I think more often anger is just a low simmering flame that reveals itself in our restlessness, an inability to find peace, an edginess in our relationships with others, punctuated by occasional yelling bouts and the like. Maybe we can’t stop replaying a conversation we had (or wish we’d had) and what we said or wish we’d said or would like to say. .     Maybe it shows up in an unaccustomed use of profanity, or door-slamming, or some other behavior that isn’t so self-destructive as alcohol abuse or the “I’ll show him!” affair — but still gives us that nagging warning that we aren’t doing so well with everything as we’d like to believe we are.

This is where we have to take ourselves in hand and be adult.  Some of these things, we can handle ourselves, and should. But there comes a time when you might just need some professional help to move beyond the rage to a place where you can start to be productive again, and to find some peace.  There’s no shame in getting help, although it can be hard to get started, especially with a stranger.  It’s worth getting through the discomfort in order to find some peace.

And life is far too short, and opportunities for joy far too infrequent, to have your life sabotaged by unresolved rage.

“Don’t Deny the Rage” — Part Two

A tricky business, is anger. Many of us find it frightening. We hold so much in, trying to keep peace, to get along, to win the love and respect of our gay spouse — we hold in and suppress and even deny the very healthy and needed benefits of anger —

Benefits? Yeah.  I’ve come to think of emotions as something of a barometer.  Anger is one of the emotions that should register with us that something is wrong, somewhere.  Either someone has violated something very important or threatened to do.  Something is out of balance, needs to be identified and dealt with.

But when we’ve been — or felt — compelled to suppress anger (like Scarlett O’Hara, who always put off dealing with unpleasant situations: “I’ll think about it tomorrow.”), then we deny ourselves the opportunity to diagnose a problem and to figure out how to deal with it.

There’s not a lot of allowance for anger in marriage with a gay man. We have to be the “sweet” one, we have to keep peace, sacrifice even ourselves in order to get along.

This is part of the abusive nature of the relationship, of course:  Shut up or you’re a bitch. You don’t have a right to be angry. Your needs are inconsequential. You are inconsequential. You are stupid. You are unreasonable. You are demanding. It’s all your fault.  Everything would be just fine if you’d quit nagging, quit actually expecting anything of me.

Wait a minute.  It’s my fault because I expect you to behave like a husband instead of an employer? a dorm-mate with whom I am barely acquainted? It’s my fault because I have expectations? You mean, you want me to sit down and shut up and leave you alone? You can’t, or aren’t willing, to stretch yourself to be a husband, a companion, a lover — and it’s my fault because I actually believe the spousal relationship means something? It’s my fault because I won’t let you get away with ignoring something when, truth be told, you just don’t want to be bothered?*  

This is where anger kicks in and gives us power:  No.  And, what’s more, HELL NO.  I will not take the blame.  My expectations are not unrealistic — your laziness and apathy are unrealistic.  What’s more, you’re a selfish, cruel s.o.b. to expect me to live without companionship or even basic affection. You’re an abusive s.o.b. for thinking all I’m good for is to be a front for you, so you don’t have to accept responsibility for yourself.

I’m not willing to live this way. No.  Hell, No. (and I’m really not being profane, saying “Hell, no,” because it is a taste of Hell we experience in that situation).

 

*DH actually told our joint therapist, a couple years before we separated, “I know a good marriage takes a lot of work, but, frankly? I don’t want to be bothered.”  He said it in front of me, and I sat there and I took it.  Numb.  Too messed up to fight back. Too cowed, too messed up to even have alarm bells ringing that something was gravely wrong for him to say that.  Memories like that still pop up from time to time.  I have flashes of anger, in remembering — now I’m angry; then I was dead, inside.

“Don’t Deny the Rage” – Part One

When DH and I separated, I received the same advice from several kind and wise people with whom I worked at the time:  “Don’t deny the rage.”

I had no idea what they were talking about.  I was living on the epicenter of an emotional earthquake, I was wary and scared and anxious and tense and many, many unpleasant things, but angry wasn’t one of them.  In fact, anger was such an alien concept to me at that point, I didn’t even know what they were talking about. I’d been angry for years, but it had manifested as impatience, short temper, etc., quick firebursts that just as quickly, vented, died back down. I didn’t know what rage was.

It took a year, nearly an entire calendar year before it hit me, and even then it required a catalyst outside my own experience in the form of a terrible drunk driving incident that killed the wife and three children of one of my dear friends.  For my friend I became angry, and that righteous anger popped the cork and — I couldn’t get the cork back in.

It revealed itself in several ways:  Bursts of excessive energy accompanied by the strong desire to inflict deep pain on those who had wronged me. Black humor, self-deprecating humor. Sarcasm. Profanity. An inordinate desire for revenge — I adopted a motto that reflected my resentment at DH’s efforts to sabotage my independence and success: Success Is the Best Revenge; sometimes, later, I would modify it: Happiness Is the Best Revenge.

It boiled, it exploded, it simmered. It waited still and quiet beneath the surface then it would erupt at unexpected times and under, often, unreasonable provocations.

When it didn’t go away on its own, I became frightened, by its intensity and by its duration; this was not my usual outburst but a months-long, years-long storm.

We women are told not to get angry.  We are told from childhood to hold in our tempers. A grown woman who lets her anger flare is dismissed as a bitch. We are told to be nice and to do whatever it takes in order to get along with even the most difficult and unreasonable people in our lives.  This is fine to a point, but it misses the greater point that sometimes a line has to be drawn in the sand and defended with might and main:

You may not hit me.  You may not tell me I am stupid and worthless.  You may not dismiss me as insignificant. You might think it, but it is an evil, nasty, unfair and abusive attitude, and you may not inflict it upon me. You may not abuse me.

Anger is the only reasonable response to abuse.  I read somewhere that anger is a secondary emotion to fear or hurt.  That’s true to a point — we have been hurt and so we are angry. We are afraid of abandonment or of insignificance, and so we are angry.  That makes sense.  But anger is also simply the only reasonable response to situations of violence, or moral outrage.  This is, I suspect, a uniquely Christian idea (“Be angry and do not sin” — Eph. 4:26) but an important one.

Maybe what made my anger so difficult do deal with was that it was a combination, a culmination of All The Above. It was secondary to hurt – “why am I never good enough?” — and to fear — “What is going to happen now? How can I manage on my own?” but it was also a gut reaction to the fact that I was being abused.

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