A friend told me today about the elaborate plans he had for him and his girlfriend this weekend: a tango lesson and dinner at an uber fancy restaurant. It sounds nice, but it took me a little while to realize why this particular date was a big deal, and it took me a little longer to figure out why it made me uncomfortable. It’s Valentine’s Day this weekend, for starters. Which reminds me that I’m newly divorced, not dating, and looking back on a marriage that makes me slightly ill to remember.
It’s not that I didn’t know it was Valentine’s Day. I’ve been thinking about something nice I could do for my kids. I’ve also been thinking about some of the Valentine’s Days I shared with my ex-husband—before he was my ex. We were a couple almost sixteen years, so there were fifteen Valentine’s Days. The first one, in particular, keeps replaying in my head. We were dating. I was pregnant.
I wrote out quotes and Bible verses about love, cut them out, borrowed a key from my ex-husband’s roommate, and taped the verses, etc., around his place while he was at class. It took time and care and dedication, the kind of effort and love I put into so many of the gifts I gave him. Now all of that seems bitter and a waste, and I find myself nursing self-hatred and shame for how much I cared, how much I loved, how stupid and blind I feel I was.
My friend apologized later today, realizing that I’m probably having a tough time with regards to “love” and that maybe I didn’t want to hear about his wonderful plans. I told him not to worry about it, and I meant it. I was already stuck in a whirlpool, spiraling downward toward where I might drown. The sadness I felt at his joy really had nothing to do with him at all, but he did give it some life.
Two days ago I was talking to my counselor about going through boxes and cleaning out old things, trying to get rid of the stockpile of useless junk I took with me when I moved into my own apartment—I’m striving for minimalism. I told her how exhausting it was to come face to face with reminders of the relationship I’d shared with my ex-husband. Pictures, a ring he gave me, movie ticket stubs. I told her I didn’t know what to do with everything.
You see, I have this fear that I will wake up one day and remember good things from my marriage, and that at that time, I’ll want keepsakes from those good things but won’t have any left. So I think that I need to keep things. But since I don’t know what times I’ll remember as good, I think I need to keep it all or I’ll regret throwing things away. But throwing away is what I want to do right now, with all of it. Or burn it. Or smash it.
My counselor looked me in the eyes after I told her of this fear of regret, and she told me what it turns out I already knew, deep inside: because of what my ex-husband did to me, my memory of my marriage is forever changed. I can’t go back. I might remember good times, but my relationship with my ex-husband will always be tainted. And the things that I fear might be meaningful, they aren’t going to be. They’re painful memories now, and they’ll stay that way. I knew that she was right, and the truth made me angry and frustrated with myself.
I find that I’m ashamed of how much I put into dating my ex-husband, how much I put into our marriage. I find that I’m ashamed I loved him after he hurt me so much and that I wasted sixteen years of my life on him. I want more than anything to go back and change things, to have a redo so that I don’t have to feel the anger and sadness and pain inside me right now. At the height of this fantasy of mine, I go back to my nineteen-year-old self and tell me to walk away, or I tie me up and drag me away if I won’t listen. I keep accusing myself of having been stupid. I keep muttering “what ifs”: what if I’d never met him; what if I’d gone to a different college; what if I’d broken up with him; what if I’d left my marriage sooner?
I know this is not the correct method for healing. Logically, I know I can’t get lost in hoping for things that aren’t possible. Those sixteen years are gone. I loved him the best I knew how. And now we’re divorced and I have a new life ahead of me. I need to move on. When I can shut down the shame, I know that new life is what I should be focusing on. When I can’t, the past swallows me whole. I know all of these things, and yet I’m still very sad and still blindly wish I could change things.
This is not something I can fix with advice from my counselor or unconditional love from my grandma. It’s not something that will heal because of sheer willpower. I hurt. I have regrets. I’m angry and I’m sad. These things aren’t going away anytime soon. So I think what I need to do right now, tonight, is to allow myself to feel all of this, to tell the truth about the way I feel and about the things I want. I can’t face them or deal with them until I admit they’re there. It wasn’t until I confessed to my counselor about my fears that I understood my marriage would never be good again. And it wasn’t until I understood that that I could be honest with myself about how I see my marriage now.
It’s all a process, like writing a book. You write a little and then delete most, if not all, of what you wrote, and then you write something better. You take three steps toward healing, stumble back two or three or even fall on your ass, but then you get up, dust yourself off, and take four steps forward again. Inch by inch, fall after fall, I know I’m moving toward healing. It’s exhausting. But I know if I can accept what exists inside me, allow me to be me, and be honest about it all, I’m already better off than I ever was in the sixteen years I was in love.
My friend didn’t know that sharing his Valentine’s date plans would make me sad, that they’d make me think more about what this “holiday” means to me this year compared with the past so many. But he didn’t know there would be a silver lining either, that his words would loosen my tongue and give me the wherewithal to be honest. For that, I am grateful.