How do we find ourselves again?

I can only tell you how it happened to me:
First, I was in college when DH and I separated and divorced. It was the first time I’d realized I am intelligent; it was my first major success.  He tried to sabotage it, but I knew that leaving school to follow him, when he announced his intention to leave, would have catastrophic effects on me. Deciding to stay where I was and to let him move out alone was one of the best decisions I ever made.  Brutally difficult (remember, I didn’t know at that point that he was gay), but worth it.

A few years later, during the course of my job, I came across a wonderful pamphlet, “Do You Love Me?” a reproduction of a talk by John Barger, founder of Sophia Institute Press. As Barger detailed the story of the death and rebirth of his own marriage, and the death of his much-loved wife, I found that the ideals I’d always held of marriage, of intimacy, were not, as DH had insisted, “unrealistic, naive, and irrational,” but were legitimate. And, in fact, were the teachings on the nature of marriage by the Catholic Church. This one event was huge.  It validated my deepest instincts and intuitive understanding, which DH had repeatedly ridiculed.

In the fall of 2005 I took the advice of some friends and auditioned for, and was accepted into, a large regional chorus. This activity placed me in the company of some very fine men and women, some of whom shared my ideals, values, and faith; all of whom were intelligent and accomplished people.  The camaraderie I experienced there gave me an increased sense of fitting in among good people, something I’d not pursued since I’d graduated from college, after the divorce.

A group of us would go out for a late supper after rehearsals, and the conversations around the restaurant table moved me to shake off the residue of the attitudes I’d put on in order to try to “get along” with a man who simply would not, could not, be gotten along with.  I found myself beginning to turn again to values and ideals I’d thought I’d “outgrown,” but in reality had only stepped away from in order to accommodate a difficult person and situation.  As I returned to them, I found more clearly who I am, in my own integrity.

I learned through reading, studying, and simply observing what matters to me, what I find strong and enduring, and what is fleeting, artificial, and unsubstantial. I jettisoned the latter bit by bit, and reinforced my understanding and love of the former.

One lovely thing that happened was not of my choosing, but the happy “accident” of biology, I think. One morning, in my late 40s, heading into menopause, I woke up one morning thinking, I have spent my entire life being told I have to be careful not to upset or worry or offend other people.  Well, it’s time for those other people to start worrying about not upsetting me!

I distanced myself from people who revealed that their acceptance of me was conditional upon my altering myself to satisfy them.  I’m not talking about holding a moral line — goodness knows, those are easy enough to cross. And too often, people who are critical of some things are astonishingly tolerant of immorality (so long as it doesn’t inconvenience them) — I mean, rather, that if I didn’t alter my personality, or my temperament, or my Faith, or my interests/tastes, etc. then those things were subject to criticism.  Sometimes we can’t physically distance ourselves — it’s a relief when we can – but we can mentally and emotionally draw some lines in the sand and withdraw from that point.  And we can do so with dignity, calm, and clarity.  It may take some practice, but it can be done.

Everything we encounter becomes an invitation to affirm our true nature:  we either bend with the prevailing wind at that moment in order to try to get along, or we stand in the growing certainty of what is right. This might be a subjective right — discovering one’s proper work, for instance; I have worked as a shipping clerk and as a secretary, responsible positions that my practical family and friends greatly approved of, and I did my work well enough, but I was very unhappy with the bad fit of what I was doing and the disuse of my real gifts and abilities.  Or it might be an objective moral right — the defense of marriage, of the vulnerable and defenseless among us, and so on.

There is great strength in solitude. A younger woman with children to care for might find this very difficult. A bit of quiet each day is barely enough to keep the inner batteries charged for facing the day’s challenges, much less to find solid grounding and healing. We use what we have and must trust God to provide the rest.  I didn’t have money for a vacation when DH and I divorced, nor for many years after. When it came, it was like the old-fashioned “rest cure.”

The trick, however, is to embrace the solitude and its temporary discomforts, and not to try to hide from it/them with noise and activity.

 

 

 

 

Time for ourselves

In my previous post, I talked about how relationships and sex can become a distraction and an anaesthetic against the pain of discovering our husbands are gay.  I want to pursue that train of thought a bit further, please.

We are created by God, we women, with a deep desire for someone to love, and to be loved. Frankly, I’m not sure that the need to have someone to love isn’t the greater of the two. So it’s very natural that we should not like to be alone, that we should want to immerse ourselves in loving someone as soon as we can, after our marriage ends.

We also have a distorted need, because of the twisted dynamic of being married to a man with same-sex attraction (and probably sex addictions involving pornography, now), to make up for the time we lost in our bad marriage, or the desire to compensate for that loss — maybe even the desire to erase the nightmare from our conscious minds.

But the same distortions that made our marriages so bad also shaped us — our efforts to accommodate our husband’s disordered inclinations have bent our expectations, our sense of ourselves, our reactions to conflict and challenges, etc. This is a hard reality:  we have been warped and bent and bruised and wounded by our husband’s homosexuality.  

We must take time to get well.

Rushing into a new relationship only compounds our wounds. We can mistake different for better. I’ve joked about my alcoholic Peter Pan second husband, “. . . but he was straight!” but that, too, was a bad marriage that ended in divorce and left me feeling used and dirty.

We need to give ourselves time, frightening as it is, as condemned to it as it might appear, to recover from the disordered, narcissistic expectations and pronouncements of our gay husbands. After twisting ourselves into emotional pretzels to try to accommodate a disorder we didn’t know we were living in, we need to learn how to untwist, to stand up straight. We have to know who we are, in our own integrity — what is important to us, what are our strengths and weaknesses, what motivates us (beyond panic and the desire to have someone to love and to be loved). . . .  Truly, discovering who we are, out of the toxic and manipulative environment of the mixed marriage, is an exciting adventure.

Don’t deprive yourself of this.

Straight up the middle

The quarterback snaps the ball, and, darting first to the right then the left, suddenly puts his head down and goes straight up the middle of the field, plowing through the opposing team members like an icebreaker through Arctic waters.

It makes a good metaphor, you know? Life hands us the ball, a situation we didn’t know we were going to have to face. We can’t just stand there; life demands we move. And time moves us whether we wish it or not. We cannot throw that ball down, it will rebound into our hands. If we try to duck to right or left there are opposing forces waiting to trip us up and to lay us down to the ground, to pile on us in a mound. But those forces also loom at us from the road ahead as we can see it, and we don’t have any easy alternatives.

It’s a very human response, wanting to avoid pain and suffering.  However, there are those events we simply cannot avoid in any healthy way. YIELD! the crisis demands, and we must, or the hardship and suffering will follow us and haunt us and be dragged out far longer.

There are several ways we try to avoid our suffering:

Alcohol and drugs.  You may have seen the story from more than three years ago of the friend whose doctor placed her on an addictive sedative and left her on it for eight years. The addiction didn’t give her time for the pain to go away; it held that pain at the ready for a more sober occasion, it actually compounded that pain to her grief and adjustment. “Gina’s” story does not have a happy ending:  nearly three years after I wrote that post, she was found dead of alcohol poisoning by one of her children. Beautiful and stylish, funny, brilliant, enormously talented . .  but it wasn’t enough. She was absolutely certain she couldn’t cope with the situation she was living with. She tried so hard to avoid hurting, at all costs, but there was never a full payout to be free. And in the end, her avoidance method killed her and left her family coping with the collateral damage, in its wake.

Relationships and sex. We were lonely in our marriage, and the fear of unending loneliness is huge. We also have to recognize that the very disordered marriage to our SSA spouse left us feeling unattractive and disordered in terms of our own value. Consequently, when we start dating again, when other men pay attention to us and put the moves on us, it’s a heady experience. The energizing rush of a potential romance is a welcome relief after living in an emotional desert.  But the hormonal rush of sex masks a multitude of problems.  It covered them in our marriage for a while, and to a degree. Now it’s easy to use “romance” and sex to hide from our fear of being condemned to a loveless life.  But we need time to heal and to find our own integrity, and a hasty relationship can be as bad, in a different way, as our mixed marriage to a gay man.  I briefly remarried an alcoholic Peter Pan who was, in the end, as selfish and disinterested in me as DH had been.  I recently met a woman whose second husband was a serial womanizer.  This is something to protect ourselves against.

There are other forms of escape:  Work. Absorption in our children. Church. Injudicious and uncontrolled spending. Fantasy and daydreams. Anything that is good in our lives and a good in itself (imagination is a very good thing, for instance) can take on inordinate importance, and gives us a false sense of being protected from our reality or a respite from it. We have to be circumspect. Always.

Because some things in life — and grief and loss are among them – cannot be escaped. There are no shortcuts. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. One has to go straight up the middle of the field. The only way through it is straight through it.

 

 

Forgiveness Is the Key

We’ve heard clever explanations of hanging on to a grudge, such as letting someone live rent-free in your head. That’s okay, so far as it goes –

But let’s take it further:  do you spend a lot of time thinking and/or talking about the bad hand you’ve been dealt by the Fates? the wrongs you’ve suffered? how unappreciated you are?  how you suffer?

We all know people who do. I know several on social media who rarely post anything other than the attention-seeking whining and complaining.  It’s boring.  And you know, I just don’t see how they can be happy people.

You want to be happy?  You want to be at peace?
1.  Give your whole life to God, and walk with Him.  That’s worthy of a series of posts, right there, because it’s important to understand Who God Is and what He requires of us as we live for Him and reflect His Divine Nature to the rest of the world. But nothin’, and I mean NOTHIN’! is better than that!

2.  Forgive the people who have hurt you.  Yeah it’l come round to taunt you from time to time.  Some times it’s a torment and it might not even be easy to recognize what’s going on.  It took me weeks, this winter, to figure out I was still living under the shadow of my parents’ choices.  But keep trying!

Forgiveness isn’t forgetting the past or pretending it doesn’t matter (things that hurt you at the core of your being matter a lot).  I think of it as letting go of the very human desire to be avenged.  To get even. To persuade the person who hurt you to see the hurt and regret it and to make amends. Tha’s out of your hands and you’ll drive yourself batty, obsessing about it. God will rightly judge and hand out penalties in the Judgment (yes, I believe in Purgatory, and it’s a good, healthy place); our job is to release our need to be made right to and to go on living. Yes, 70×7 for the same offenses.

Learn, if you’re still stuck, to get out of being the victim or someone’s emotional punching bag. Or rescuer or one to hide behind. Forgiveness is NOT about letting other people willfully and viciously use and hurt us!  Become strong!  Learn to value yourself (get counselling if you find this difficult — not for the rest of your life, but for a few weeks/months while you find yourself)

3. Choose to be happy.  Count your blessings.  Can’t find any?  Start a notebook.  You got a roof over your head? Clothes on your back? Food in your belly? Start there.  Recognize daily beauty — the song of a mockingbird or the flash of blue of a bluebird, or the serene ambling across your yard of a doe and fawn — and make a note of it.  Note the brilliant colors you encounter in Nature.  Find beauty all around you.  Put a pot of flowers on the table (heading into spring, I splurged when I really couldn’t afford it on bunches of tulips from our local grocery store.  My spirit needed them more than my body needed the food, and I can’t begin to say how much they lifted my spirits, what pleasure they gave me for a week at a time).

Study other people.  Who do you admire and respect? Why? Reach for those qualities in yourself.
Who makes you feel happier for being around them? Why? Emulate them!

Do you have friends? Be grateful for them. Look for ways to be a blessing to them.

Is there someone you know who needs help? Help her. Take the neighbor to the doctor and the grocery store when she’s not able to drive.  Pick up an extra bunch of tulips to cheer her up, too — or, this time of year, it’s little pots of miniature roses that are so beautiful.

Cultivate the habit of smiling at people.

Discipline yourself to stop bellyaching over every little thing. Everyone knows your sufferings by now; no need to belabor the point.  Now let them see your more cheerful and good-natured side.

Find one thing nice to say to everyone.

Get out of yourself.  Yes, take some time to rest and to be quiet and alone. But — bit by bit — “This week I will do this one thing” — get out of the rut.  It really won’t take long before you really have found some unexpected peace and joy and have become, very truly, your better self.

Springtime of the Soul

Winter doesn’t last forever. Thankfully, that’s not only true in our calendar or climatic seasons, but also to life seasons.

I usually live with depression of some description and to some degree or other from the first of October until mid-January.  That’s the season of all the family birthdays and some anniversaries, not to mention the great hype of Thanksgiving and Christmas as family holidays. But this year was different.  I got through the fall and the holidays fairly well, but I got hit hard in mid-January, just at the time I’m usually beginning to feel more myself.

It didn’t take much reflection to realize that I was very conscious of the 30-year anniversary of my separation from DH and the discovery he’s gay, but it took a little longer to realize that this anniversary reaction was compounded by the shadowy memories and continuing influences of other things that happened during the separation. My parents are dead, now, so it won’t shame them if I state that they were no help to me at all, and, in fact, abandoned me, even after they realized for themselves that DH is gay.  They blamed me for the divorce. I was in college, a single mom, and they didn’t come see me in two and a half years (they lived only an hour away from me, and my dad was in my town weekly for work purposes). I needed them and they weren’t there. That, as it turned out, was the largest factor of my descent into depression.

I don’t advocate the sort of self-absorbed introspection that renders us victims or traps us in an emotional childishness or leaves us with a myopic perspective; still, there are some things that need to be recognized and dealt with. I believe that if we are still and wait, if we look carefully, these issues will become clear enough that we can recognize them — and be given the means to lay them to rest. I’ve used the term “exorcise” and that’s not inaccurate, either.  The thing is, I believe, to be fully submitted to a discipleship in Christ, and not experimenting or immersed in any New Age or nonChristian framework; otherwise one might find oneself going into unhealthy spiritual and emotional places where one did not intend.

When I had realized that what was most deeply troubling me was the memory of my parents’ non-support — indeed, their abandonment — I was able to deal with it. There are techniques — you can find them in articles about mental health, or in talking with your own counsellor — but the one that turned the tide for me was pretending my Dad, especially, was sitting in the chair opposite me in the living room.  I gave him pure-T, unreconstituted hell for several minutes, and by the time I got to, “You used to call me your Winesap because I was the apple of your eye. How in HELL could you just abandon your little girl like that?” the cork popped and the tears started flowing —

I don’t cry easily or often; it had been more than two years since my last good cry.  Tears contain hormones, I’ve read, that influence or even control moods. Being unable to cry means that all those little bitty biochemical mood influences were trapped in my body and causing me to sink lower and lower and lower.  I told one friend it’s like standing on the wrong bass pedal of an organ — all that loud, discordant noise is there and can’t be ignored, no matter what delightful little fugue one might be playing on the manuals.  It’s an unpleasant weight around one’s soul.

Being able to cry was the wonder drug of the year. I followed up with a chat with a friend who does counseling and who knew my parents (that was important to me).  “Laura, I just never would have thought that your Daddy would have treated you like that.  I wish you could have told me – – ”  See? I’m not crazy and I’m not hateful.  Yes, I had a nervous breakdown. Yes, I was abandoned shamefully by my parents.  Yes, I forgave them (again).

YES. I SURVIVED.

And I survived the extreme depression season.  Crying worked it out of my body.  I found energy and interest and joy again.

Please note:  if you are trapped in severe depression so that you really can’t function, or are always sad, or can’t pull yourself out of it via ordinary means – sunshine, fresh air, exercise, a good venting cry or talk with a friend — do give some serious consideration to consulting your health care provider.  Life’s too short to spend it trapped in a misery which might find relief through medical treatments.

Also — I NEVER thought of harming myself:  life belongs to God, Period.  If you do think of hurting yourself, then I beg you to get some medical assistance. Your life has value and meaning and importance, even when you are temporarily unable to see it.  And, yes, it is temporary (even though sometimes it’s a long temporary) — the light of day always comes round at some point.  There is a redemptive end to all this.

 

More to Life

 

The arrival of spring invites us to reflect on how wonderful the seasonal changes are. My Gratitude Journal has been filled primarily with a record of the horticultural indicators that winter really is ended and spring is at hand — important when our temps are still a bit below average, right now.

The natural year and its seasons finds their match in our interior lives as well. The winter of our souls comes to an end, for a time, at least, as well, as the lengthening and warming days revives our energy levels.  And we discover that winter, with its cold, dark, starkly bleak days, is a time of hidden growth, a preparation for the fruitfulness of the coming summer. Winter isn’t only about rest from heavy productivity, it’s also a time of living off of resources, processing what we harvested before, of being still and quiet in preparation for an outburst of glory, with the lengthening of days and the warming of our lives.  Winter is when soil rebuilds itself. Winter is the season that makes us wise. Winter is the time when we go deep.

But at last it’s spring. Days are much longer, and for the most part a bit warmer, too. A lot of the trees and flowers have been blooming for the past month or so, and after this week my area is forecast to be out of the freezing temps for our nighttime low, even though our daytime temps are still running a bit below average. My energetic neighbors have long since planted their early gardens: potatoes, onions, sweet peas, cabbages, etc. Now that Easter is at hand, they’re looking at getting the warm-weather vegetables in the ground, too.

This is also a season when my neighbors are burning brush pruned earlier in the year, or “prescribed burning” the undergrowth or wood or yard debris of prior years. It’s a time to clean up – not just to make things tidy and manageable in appearance; it removes the fuel for out-of-control wildfires, such as the ones that swept through this region and destroyed so many homes a little more than fifty years ago.

A new season of productivity is at hand, in our minds and hearts as well as in the natural world. I’m spring cleaning. I have joint issues, so it’s going embarrassingly slowly; what might take a friend or family member an hour to accomplish, in a whirlwind of activity, I took a four-day weekend to do, this week, one step at a time. But the results are satisfying. “Brick by brick,” that’s how Rome was built, and it’s how my life is being rebuilt, too.

Like my neighbor burning brush cuttings last week, I’ve been trying to purge household debris that makes it harder for me to navigate the life and work God has given me. I’ve been living out of plastic bins for too many years; this weekend those bins and a metal cabinet went to the trash bin and a lovely wooden cabinet replaced them. Those bins were cheap and they were adequate, but the new cupboard, an old wardrobe fitted out with shelves, not only holds more, it’s also beautiful. We need beauty.

I got other things done as well, that aren’t so immediately visible, but also are satisfying. Writing work, administrative work for an organization I volunteer with. Music prep for Eastertide.

It’s a time to re-evaluate all sorts of activity. I told a friend Sunday evening that I really need to cut back on my social media time; it isn’t just a time suck, it has also left me habituated to the quick sound bite and short bursts of “conversation” that become a habit, a habit that makes it harder to focus for these longer (!) efforts like a blog post — much more so, an article or book.

Cutting back — reducing or ejecting — the clutter and debris. Cultivating the things we decide matter most — the relationships we value, or the skills that God has given us to use in His service —

Cultivating our own character: resolving to purge weaknesses, faults, defects and to cultivate virtue.

This is a season for renewal.

 

 

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)