Some friends going through tough times asked for advice recently, wondering how I stayed so positive after they saw me go through a difficult divorce several years ago. I am in no way perfect, nor do I have all of the answers- we all have to find our own way through the maze of pain and grief that results from the breakup of a marriage. However, these friends got me thinking about the life-changing, cathartic, experience of navigating the change from a ‘we’ to a ‘me’ and coming out on the other side stronger and happier. For me, the key was believing in the fairytale- and it does exist.
As someone with strong perfectionist tendencies, and coming from a family where divorce was commonplace, I was determined to tough it out, to make an over fifteen year marriage work some how, some way. I finally came to realize that there was no prize in staying in a relationship that was irrevocably broken. I made the choice to seek happiness, and knew that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life feeling helpless and sad, nor feeling that I had to try to be someone that I was not.
I have always done my best to be a positive person, but I won’t lie- this was the darkest time of my life. My heart was broken, I was afraid of leaving life as I knew it, feeling lost and powerless. I had just completed my doctoral degree and was applying for other university jobs- so much was changing so quickly- it was like walking in quicksand. I remember teaching a class and having to walk to the back of the room to hide the tears that were rolling down my face. I was depressed, and the tears could come at any time, uncontrollably. I did my best to smile and pretend like everything was okay to those around me…but I’m sure that people who really knew me could tell that things were definitely not okay.
I had watched my mother navigate a similar scenario after twenty-three years of marriage and five children. She was forever marked in her mind, the shadow of ‘failure’ hovering over her until the end- she felt like a victim. I am in no way judging her- even after the horrible way he treated her, she loved my father until her last breath, and having children has to add such emotional complexity. Also, being abandoned for another woman breaks you in a way that nothing else can. You doubt your very worth, your attractiveness, seeing yourself as less-than. Mom and I had the same thing happen to us in our early forties, perhaps a time in a woman’s life where she feels more vulnerable as she tips the scale from youth to middle age. Mom had it much worse, as divorce in the mid-sixties was still pretty taboo, and she faced a lot of prejudice from people. But, you know what? While Mom embraced the victim archetype, she also had a strong determination to be happy. She found a way to enjoy her life, to thrive, surrounding herself with good friends, hobbies she enjoyed, and focusing on her faith. She was stronger than she ever knew, and I am grateful for the lessons she taught me; you can choose to be happy, you can build a happy and satisfying life out of the ashes of sorrow.
In my mother’s case, she had no job skills, as my father would never allow her to work- and she had a teenager, a ten-year-old, and a baby at home- I can’t even imagine. I was much more empowered thanks to Mom’s encouragement that I get a good education and always be able to take care of myself; I had a good job in a career that I loved, and I had never had children; I would survive no matter what decision I made. My mother lived under a constant emotional ransom- would the small child support check come from my father? I can still see her coming back from the mailbox with tears running down her cheeks when that check was late. She worked so hard cleaning houses and babysitting, but the little she was paid never made those ends meet. Ever.
I have thought long and hard- how did I stumble my way through to come out on the other side a stronger and happier woman aside from the example set by my mother? First of all, I found a good therapist to help me think through things and develop tools to move forward (in fact, ‘Move Forward’ became my mantra). I leaned on the loving support of my mother and a small circle of close friends, with whom I could be totally honest, crying my eyes out or being silent…their unconditional support was the rarest gift. I embraced a saying of one of my former professors, “Act your way into a new way of thinking.” In other words, if you want to be happy, do the things that happy people do, and over time you find yourself being truly happy. I kept a gratitude journal, and even when I’d be crying my eyes out, I made myself list at least three positive things that had happened during the day before I went to bed. I threw myself into my new job and into rennovating the old house I’d bought. I also threw myself into me, doing things to help me feel healthy and beautiful again (I even got certified to teach kickboxing).
I let myself be angry for a while. While I believe in the Buddha quote, “Holding onto anger is like holding onto a hot coal and expecting the other person to get burned,” I needed that anger to make me strong in the beginning, to give me purpose to move forward. I am someone that is rarely angry, rarely speaks up to say I am unhappy about something, so the anger was a tool. It didn’t make me an angry person- something I never want to be…it just gave me the necessary catalyst to leave my comfort zone. I let myself feel what I needed to feel, then worked my tail off learning to forgive and let go. I saw myself as a happy woman, believed with all my heart that it would happen. Of course there were bumps along the way, but the goal was to always move forward, one day (sometimes one hour, one minute) at a time.
Finally, I allowed myself to be open to the possibility of finding love again. I could have been fine on my own, but finding Dan was an extraordinary gift. However, before I could be open to finding Dan, I had to find myself, first. I had to believe that I was worthy of love, that I was strong and capable. I had to be happy on my own before I could ever be happy with someone else.
The fairytale is different for every one of us; it is not a place of perfection, but a place where we feel at peace. A place where we feel loved, useful, energized, excited about the possibilities the future holds. I am grateful that I believed in my own fairytale. It was worth every bit of heartache, every scary moment of change. We all have a well of strength and courage inside of us, and once we tap into that, fairytales can truly happen.