I’ve been writing about the day in the spring of 2012 when my husband and I had the conversation to separate, the day I took the same run for the first time, when the sensation of running both towards and away from something was so urgent I felt I might spin right off the land into the deep, endless waters.
Maybe it’s the passing of another birthday, or that I’m coming up on a year sober (?...!), but I’m thinking a lot about time lately. A dozen times in the past couple weeks I've been asked, either on this site or in-person, a version of the same question: WHEN?
When will I feel better?
When will I stop thinking about drinking so much?
It’s been almost three years since my ex-husband and I separated. I don’t write much about our marriage, or what we are like now, because he asked me not to and because I respect the delicate privacy of our history. But I also strive to put down what’s real, to unearth the truest narrative I can because I think that’s how we come to understand each other, and life. Sometimes not writing about it feels like a barrier. Sometimes it doesn’t. It’s a tough, but necessary balance to strike, and I’m learning. I think I can write about this, though. I think this is less about me or him or us and more about the way love shows up in our lives.
Yesterday was shit. I was stuck. Heavy, heavy stuck. I had no muscle memory of anything good or light. I was sure I never felt much joy to begin with. Any past sweetness felt very far away.
When I get like that I am wholly un-loveable and too needy. Nobody will ever want me again. I was feeling rejected by one person and so I felt all the rejections of a lifetime. I heard all the men who've ever said, “No,” and “No, thanks,” and “You’re the most wonderful, but I cannot.” They were the only voices I could hear.
All day the pain wouldn't budge. Not even an inch. No amount of yoga, prayer, running, TV, hot water, wise words from friends, ice cream, writing, or logic was making a dent. I thought about drinking and wished it still worked. I dragged myself to a meeting and rubbed my eyes the whole way through. I tried to read the best bits of my go-to books but couldn't focus. I waved a white flag on Instagram.
I railed on myself for spending the day I took off from work in this headspace.
But nothing was moving, except the clock. I was reminded by Momastery that pain is not a mistake.
“Pain is not a sign that you’ve taken a wrong turn or that you’re doing life wrong. It’s not a signal that you need a different life or partner or body or home or personality. Pain is not a hot potato to pass on to the next person or generation. Pain is not a mistake to fix. Pain is just a sign that a lesson is coming.”
Pain is just a sign that a lesson is coming.
So when I woke up this morning, I hit my knees first and said, show me in a way I can understand. I sat down and wrote. Pen to paper, freeform, three pages, without editing myself.
Afterward, I was drawn to pull out a stack of post-its. I started to write something about myself on each one. Something I’ve accomplished. A way I’ve changed (one of the recurring thoughts yesterday was that I cannot change, that I haven’t, that I don’t know how or have the capacity to). A shift in perception. A marker of growth. On each square I wrote something real and true about me in the most simple words possible.
They said things like:
YOU CAN DO SMART THINGS WITH YOUR BRAIN.
YOU KEEP YOUR HEART OPEN.
YOU HAVE RUN MARATHONS.
A lot of the notes are specific and new to my life in sobriety:
YOU ARE NO LONGER CAUGHT IN AN INFINITE LOOP.
YOU CAN HANDLE CRITICISM.
YOU CAN SEPARATE OTHER PEOPLE'S OPINIONS OF YOU FROM YOUR OWN.
YOU CAN READ BEDTIME STORIES.
YOU CAN OPEN ALL YOUR MAIL.
YOU CAN TELL THE TRUTH.
And some were just regular, but profound, reminders of where I am:
YOU LIVE IN A BEAUTIFUL PLACE.
YOU ARE COMFORTABLE IN YOUR BODY (This was not always true.)
YOU CAN SPEAK IN FRONT OF PEOPLE.
YOU ARE TEACHABLE.
In the end, it looked like this:
The post-it that’s crumpled up didn’t seem to fit with all the others. I folded it up just after writing it, unclear where it came from, or how it belonged.
It has one word on it: my ex-husband’s name.
I let it sit there all day with the others – my weird little grid of affirmations, or whatever we want to call them – on my kitchen countertop. I went through my day. Ran six miles. Did laundry. Sat in front of the coffee shop and watched people walk their dogs. Opened every piece of mail I have. Called the IRS.
I thought about the black, dark, stuck place I was in yesterday. How I'd bound such deep, existential pain to one particular person, one rejection I was feeling, and that it just didn’t add up. I wondered what I was getting at with all those squares of paper?
I thought about one of my favorite quotes from Cheryl Strayed, “Don't surrender all your joy for an idea you used to have about yourself that isn't true anymore.”
I think I had to write out all the other pieces of paper - all 31 of them - to get to the one I crumpled up.
I think Glennon was right in that I just had to let pain do its job. If I could still, it would show me the way home.
The crumpled up note has my ex-husband’s name on it: four letters that still spell out a large part of my heart, even though we have moved on. They spell out mercy and grace and finding a way through our individual shortcomings to build a peaceful space for our daughter. They signify so many apologies I've yet to make, so many regrets about the way I handled things before I knew a better way to handle things.
The note has his name on it, but when I hold it in my hand and close my eyes, I see these words: YOU ARE ALREADY FORGIVEN.
It was May, 2012. I'd been drinking a lot during this time. Daily. Not during the day, but daily. A lot of wine. A lot of dosing myself with countless glasses of it and Ambien each night. I wanted to completely black out of reality as often as possible and that combo worked. I'd often come to at 3 or 4 am with a freight-train rush of adrenaline and the smell of red wine searing my nostrils from the inside and out. I was soaked with booze inside and also often laying in a pool of it, having spilled the last glass upon passing out.
Sometimes the walls and floor around my side of the bed would be spattered with maroon, like dried blood; shards of glass scattered about from the fallen glass. I'd whip my head around to find my husband either situated as far away from me as possible in our bed, or not there at all. I'd frantically scan the bed, floor, nightstand for my phone, running my shaky fingers across the surfaces until I felt it. Once I’d find it I’d blink a few times hard – willing my eyes to focus on the screen – to check the time, scan through my texts and calls.
Did I make phone calls?
Was my last memory really the last thing I did? (It almost never was.)
This was a nightly routine and it was horrific. I'd been caught in this dilemma in the true, greek sense of the word, “a problem offering two possibilities, neither of which is practically acceptable” for too long at that point. Leaving or staying, staying or leaving. Both outcomes were undesirable, painful, unfathomable.
I drank to numb this reality. I drank to pursue it. I drank to find the truth. I drank to un-know it.
One Wednesday that May, I was making my way to a conference room after eating lunch at my desk. My agency was in the final rounds of a pitch to the state of Massachusetts tourism board and we had a prep meeting to walk through our presentation. As we were filing into the room my stomach suddenly started aching badly. Stabbing pain with waves of nausea. I sat down at the table and took a few deep breaths, assuming this was just the regular-grade anxiety I had in these types of situations. But with each breath my stomach and chest only clenched tighter. I leaned toward my boss and quietly told him I'd be back. I hurried to our bathroom, shut the door, and knelt in front of the toilet. I placed my forehead down on the cool tile of the floor. What was happening? I needed to throw up. I started to shake. Gasped for air. Tingles radiated from my chest out to my limbs. I stood up and paced the tiny circle of this bathroom I'd cried in so many times before. I wrung out my hands, shook my head and whispering loudly to the whir of the fan, no no no no no no no no.
Whatever was happening was escalating fast and I needed help. I stumbled out of the bathroom to face the open landscape of the office. I spotted my co-worker Kelly across the room and made my way over to her. It took years.
"I need help. I don't know what's happening."
She nodded in that knowing way and helped me to one of the couches. I was positive I was dying. My hands curled in on themselves, sweat poured out from everywhere, my chest was getting crushed, and my face went numb while I repeated over and over what’s happening, what’s happening, what’s happening. Concerned faces hovered above me as the scene played out (it is not a large office) – the partners, my boss, a few others – and then, the EMTs. An oxygen mask went on. They said I’d be alright. They wheeled me out on a stretcher, onto the elevator, down four floors, I was gone.
Anyone who’s experienced a panic attack knows just how terrifying they are. That you actually, truly believe you are about to die. That death is a flit of a second away.
So naturally when the terror passes, you are washed over with profound exhaustion and relief. A kind of rawness I’ve only ever experienced after childbirth. I rode in the back of the ambulance to Boston Medical, still holding Kelly’s hand.
She asked me what was happening.
I heard my voice speak these words, “I know it’s done, Kelly. I know my marriage is over.” With those words came a river of slow, hot, salty tears - each one carrying an equal amount of pain and relief. There it was. I had said it. I let the words hang out there in the space of that ambulance. Without further explanation, justification, debate, backtracking. I just let them be. I closed my eyes.
I got checked in, Kelly called my husband, and eventually he came.
Despite all we’d been through – the countless ways I’d hurt him and he’d disappointed me, despite our colossal failings and unresolved resentments that preceded this moment – he sat at my side and held my hand. Under the hard armor of grief and frustration, I saw a trace of old, familiar kindness in the back of his eyes. The softness one has for someone with whom they’ve fought a war. The marrow part of love.
“This happens when you're drinking too much,” he said.
“I know,” I replied.
Silence. A long silence.
“Are we going to be okay?” I turned to him, looking up from the hospital bed.
“Yeah.” He nodded quietly, knowing what I meant. That I was not referring to the married “we,” but to each of us, separately. Separate. That we were letting it all fall apart.
I do not remember the rest of that night. If we slept in the same bed, or alone. Who put our daughter to bed. Whether or not we ate. The moving out, the reorganization of drawers to fill extra space, the purchase of his new navy couch, the old hiking boots he left behind and never took back, waking up alone after a blizzard one Saturday morning in January and digging out my own path, for eight hours, hungover.
We could have arrived at that point dozens of other times before or after that. There were countless crescendos to fights where we pushed up to the edge of the end, but did not leap. Stretches of time we filled with day-to-day comings and goings, talk about our daughter, bills, a party, family, so we could turn away from the elephant – still unsure whether it had come to stay. But this is how it goes, doesn’t it? We hold on when we do not know whether to let go.
We stand still when can’t decide which way to turn.
We put our hands over our eyes until we are forced to peel them away.
We keep it together until we are forced to let it all fall apart.
We suspend disbelief and hold out for a miracle.
I've had these words bangin' around in my head for the past few days. They're from the one and only Pema Chodron in her book "When Things Fall Apart." I first came across her and this book back in the early days of my marriage, when life was throwing us one massive curveball after another, and I myself was gasping for air daily. I was in an unrelenting state of not wanting to be where I was. Wishing for things to be different than they were. Wishing I could disappear, runaway, and save everyone around me from the pain that would cause. I had no idea how to proceed.
I would listen to Pema on my iPod every night in bed, on my walk to the train, on the bus. Her words were oxygen. She told her own story of her marriage, how her husband approached her on their porch one hot, dusty summer day in Arizona and announced that he was leaving, that he was in love with another woman, and that she threw rocks at him and spit words of hate. She described the hot anger, the frightening rage she felt towards him and this other woman, the plans she made to hurt them, the arresting thoughts of violence and how her own mind attacked her moment after moment.
She also described how that experience set her life on a different course. Not immediately, and not easily, but it cracked her open in such a way that the former version of herself and her life were annihilated. In an attempt to find some way out of her pain, she was talking to a friend who recommended she read an article written by Chögyam Trungpa. The article was about how we relate to negative feelings - and that it's not the negative feelings that hurt us, but the stories we tell ourselves about them, which are often filled with thoughts of shame, self-hatred and blame. It awakened something in her. The possibility that there was another way to move through this. This set her on the path to being a student of his and eventually becoming the first Tibetan buddhist nun, a prolific author and one of the most renowned spiritual teachers of our time.
In my own case, working through her books and workshops and listening to her words helped me navigate the next several years. "When Things Fall Apart" is one of the seven ten books I keep on my desk at all times. As with all big lessons, they take different meaning over time. You could study buddhism until the day you die and never grasp it all -- the lessons never end. But there is something pure and essential about the idea that sometimes you just have to let everything fall apart.
Two years ago this concept meant letting go of my marriage without having any guarantee of what the future would hold. Letting it all fall to the ground without knowing if I would be forgiven, if I would be loved again, if I would be able to support myself, if I would have to fight to keep custody of my daughter, if I would one day regret my decision and if I could even make it through the next day, and the next, and the next without being swallowed whole by the fear. It meant telling the raw, honest truth about the mess we'd created and my own part in it. It meant not knowing a fucking thing but letting it happen anyway.
Today, the story has different characters and circumstances, but the lesson is the same. I've found myself thinking, again? We are here again?Really? But this is the part of the lesson I missed or ignored the first time around.
“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man's-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again. ”
Until we learn something the universe will keep feeding the lesson to us. This is the good news and the bad news. We are given a lot of chances. As long as we wake up, we have another chance. But we have to do the work to actually change. We have to jump off the cliff.
Two years ago, I jumped off the cliff that was my marriage. It turned out to be okay, but it was not okay for a long time. There was a lot of free fall.
Today, the characters and circumstances are different, but the concept is the same. I'd avoided jumping off the cliff into sobriety for a long time. Really jumping off; not just peeking over the edge or hanging from it looking down while still clutching onto the rocks and dirt. I'd asked others to push me off (they cannot). I'd even hung some limbs out there in hopes that maybe a big wind would just scoop me up and throw me over (also does not work). Turns out the only thing that works is actually closing your eyes, taking a breath, bending your knees and launching yourself forward. Only when you've jumped do you need to fly. I'm remembering I can fly.