[I started writing this months ago- crap. Just clicked the link- November]
I was listening to CBC this morning. The Sunday Edition was airing the second part of an episode on the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Michael Enright was talking to Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen about her new book and the lasting effects of the Soviet Union. She said this, and I have not been able to get it out of my head all day:
“[In Nazi Germany], the way the terror was constructed, the people who had been killed had been “Other.” There was a clear distinction between victims and executioners and bystanders. In the Soviet Union, there were no bystanders. Everyone was either a victim or an executioner. But the worst part is that everybody was a victim and an executioner. Every family contained within itself both victims and executioners. People were victimized by becoming executioners, and then executioners were executed on trumped-up charges, becoming victims. We have never seen a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for that kind of thing, for the crime of having done this to ourselves, for generations. It may not be possible to atone for that kind of violence.” Masha Gessen
Wow. “We have never seen a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for that kind of thing, for the crime of having done this to ourselves, for generations. It may not be possible to atone for that kind of violence.”
She is talking about a whole society living through about 70 years of terror. About a generation who lived their whole lives never sure what moral morass they would need to wade through in order to survive.
So, yeah. The following comes with a huge “WITH ALL DUE RESPECT FOR PROPORTION” caveat.
It was that one phrase: “the crime of having done this to ourselves.” That has been a pebble skipping on the surface of my brain for the last few hours. I don’t know how to say this in the face of the bigness of the Soviet Union, except to say that patterns echo on a small scale as well as a big scale. It is foolish to think that what we manifest in our personal lives does not echo on a grander scale, and, of course, vice versa.
Because, in the end, all our stories are the same. The way we hurt each other stems from the same root: shame and a refusal to take a solid step into what it means to be a real grown up and truly be accountable for our actions and emotions.
I am convinced that in the end, if we become monsters, we do so in the same way: shame. Whether on the scale of a Trump or a Putin or Stalin, or a government employee like, say me, or my fellow civil servant made famous by history, the Nuremberg trials and the brilliant Hannah Arendt, Eichmann.
The crimes we have done to ourselves. These are the hardest to forgive. The way we shut ourselves down. Talk to ourselves. We build up our own self-liturgy throughout our lives, a comforting mantra of cannots and then believe our own lies. We end up in places we do not want to be and then, instead of taking responsibility for the choices and beliefs that led us there, we blame the ones closest to us. We continue to do this for one simple reason: it is easier. It is easier than breaking down the wall we built and confronting the unknown on the other side.
It is not easy to face oneself. It is not easy to admit to your own agency. Here are some of the books that helped me…how can I put this? Not break myself on the shoals of my own pain.
They are in no particular order here, but I learned a valuable lesson from each one. Actually, now that I think about it, the overarching lesson, the hub of all these literary spokes is only one: self-compassion, but more on that in another post.
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead by Brené Brown
I want to start with Brené Brown, because her work on the power of vulnerability and shame has probably been the most influential for me. I know I am not the only one either. She’s like vulnerability’s celebrity advocate at this point. If you haven’t seen her TED talk, well then I will forgive you because you have obviously been living for a few of years in a cramped position under a rock.
She pretty much tells it like it is in the first couple of pages:
“Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines on the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.
When we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that many not be recoverable, we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on our gifts, those unique contributions we can make.”
Trauma can strip you of your armour faster than it would take you to strip off bed-bug infested pants. Having your husband of twenty years suddenly tell you that he does not love you and does not want to be married to you anymore? Yeah. Trauma. Consider my armour stripped and my ass bit. In those first few months I felt like I was going about my life without any skin.
Interestingly, I didn’t care. I didn’t have the energy. I knew I wanted to survive this lighter, even if that meant amputating some old parts of me, I just didn’t know what parts were gangrenous or not. I had no idea what I was doing wrong. I really, really wanted someone to tell me.
Well, Brené Brown did her level best. I was going through my life so afraid of not being enough, of failing the people I love, of someone finding out that I was unlovable, that I had a part missing, that I was constantly going, planning, coordinating, cleaning, organizing, solution-finding, multi-tasking, and…phew. Give me a minute. That was exhausting just to write. And beating myself up when I failed to live up to this mythical standard I felt I was being judged by.
Here is what she says about shame:
“First, shame is the fear of disconnection. We are psychologically, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually hard-wired for connection, love, and belonging. Connection, along with love and belonging (two expressions of connection), is why we are here, and it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. Shame is the fear of disconnection—it’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection. I’m not worthy or good enough for love, belonging or connection. I’m unlovable. I don’t belong. Here’s the definition of shame that emerged from my research:
Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” P.68-69
Ugh. Ok. I have to stop myself from quoting the whole book here. But just a few more things. Shame is different from guilt, according to Brown.
“We feel guilty when we hold up something we’ve done or failed to do against our values and find they don’t match up. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but one that’s helpful. The psychological discomfort, something similar to cognitive dissonance, is what motivates meaningful change.”
Brown forced me to see that the way I have been going through life up to this point was a disservice to myself. Unlike guilt, shame has no grounding in reality. It is not a helpful, uncomfortable feeling that serves to guide our moral compass. It is a closeting belief, one where we are trapped by the fear that if we let our guard down, someone is going to find out our secret: that our very infrastructure is flawed and that we are not enough.
Reading these thoughts, expressed exactly as my own brain thought of them, was earth-shaking. I was not the only one who felt this way. I was not the only one going through life feeling like I had a piece missing. Who knew?
The Journey from Abandonment to Healing: Surviving through and recovering from the five stages that accompany the loss of love by Susan Anderson
Out of all the books I read, I think this might have been the single most helpful, and thus the most hard to write about. Why? Because from the first moment I opened this book I recognised myself. Not just the post-marriage me, but the me of my whole life. All my fears, my sense of self, my feeling that I am not enough and that I have to earn my space in the world, comes from a deep sense of abandonment I had in childhood.
This was hard for me to accept at first. After all, it wasn’t like my father chose to die in a plane crash. It wasn’t like my mother chose to be consumed by grief for a while. How could I feel abandoned by people who did not abandon me? Who loved me and would do anything for me? The idea that I was abandoned as a child seemed self-indulgent, the worst kind of psych 101 self-help.
That is, unless you understand what Susan Anderson means by the term:
“Abandonment is about loss of love itself, that crucial loss of connected-ness.”
Oh. Although the book touches on that kind of grief, Anderson mostly focuses on the loss and connectedness one experiences after the break-up of a marriage.
So much so that the first couple of pages seemed to be talking directly to me:
“Those of you who have been left to pick up the pieces may wonder about your lost partners, who have already replaced you with new lives and new relationships. You’ve been left to do the soul-searching…Anyone who feels this pain is in legitimate emotional crisis. Many feel as if they have been stabbed in the heart so many times that they don’t know which hole to plug first.”
I cried when I read those words, I so needed to hear them.
One of the worst parts of living this divorce story is that it is so common. Because it is so common, people (especially the ones leaving a relationship) tend to dismiss the terrible, emotional pain it causes. As my ex recently put it, “People leave all the time. You and the kids are resilient, you will get through it.”
These kind of comments make you feel even shittier for feeling shitty, for having such a hard time with the loss of love. People get cancer all the time. People die. They get raped, abused, assaulted. Bad things happen to people all the time, yes. Knowing that other people are going through this same pain is not much of a comfort.
If people leave all the time, that just means there are a whole lot of people that are in a lot of real pain. Anderson acknowledges this real pain, breaks it up into five stages (shattering, withdrawal, internalizing, rage, and lifting) and then gives some very useful tools to help you move on with your life. Having been left by her partner of twenty years as well, Anderson never once invalidates the pain you are going through, but helps you understand it and ultimately, use it as an opportunity for growth.
This would be the number one book I would recommend to anyone who’s partner has left them.
Runaway Husbands: The Abandoned Wife’s Guide to Recovery and Renewal By Vikki Stark
Ha. This is one of the first books I bought. Just checked the helpful Amazon site: May 18, 2015. The author also happens to be a marriage counsellor in Montreal and we ended up having a couple of sessions with her, which would have been very helpful if J’s heart was at all open to me and our marriage, which it was not. Anyways.
Here is what made me buy the book:
Hallmarks of Wife Abandonment Syndrome
Do you suspect that you’re a victim of Wife Abandonment Syndrome? Here are the ten defining characteristics that will let you know if you are. You don’t need to check off all ten to fit the definition.
- Prior to the separation, the husband had seemed to be an attentive, emotionally engaged spouse, looked upon by his wife as honest and trustworthy.
- The husband had never said that he was unhappy in the marriage or thinking of leaving, and the wife believed herself to be in a secure relationship.
- The husband typically blurts out the news that the marriage is over “out-of-the-blue” in the middle of a mundane domestic conversation.
- Reasons given for his decision are nonsensical, exaggerated, trivial or fraudulent.
- By the time the husband reveals his intentions to his wife, the end of the marriage is already a fait accompli and he often moves out quickly.
- The husband’s behavior changes radically, so much so that it seems to his wife that he has become a cruel and vindictive stranger.
- The husband shows no remorse; rather, he blames his wife and may describe himself as the victim.
- In almost all cases, the husband had been having an affair.
- The husband makes no attempt to help his wife, either financially or emotionally, as if all positive regard for her has been completely extinguished.
- Systematically devaluing the marriage, the husband denies what he had previously described as positive aspects of the couple’s joint history.
9 out of 10!!! He didn’t do #3. Well, ok. He did half of it. Instead he asked me to come to his studio and told me he was having an affair with the person whose two portraits were staring me in the face and that he wasn’t sure he wanted to be married anymore. So let’s say 9.5 out of 10 then.
It is simultaneously comforting and enraging to know that your story is not unique. Flipping through these pages even now, I still feel a sense of rage at how tightly my ex was sticking to this script without knowing it.
Here is how Stark differentiates Wife Abandonment Syndrome (WAS) to other faltering marriages:
“What makes Wife Abandonment Syndrome so devastating for a woman is not merely that her husband decided unilaterally to leave the marriage. Rather, it is the way in which he does it. The fact that his departure was so completely unanticipated, and that his wife believed herself to be in a good marriage, makes it so destructive. Although the woman being left certainly contributed to whatever problems existed in the marriage, the important fact is that she was blindsided and lied to by her spouse, who had a secret agenda. There are some things in the world that are black and white, right or wrong, and it’s just not fair for a man to walk out on his wife without having let her know that her marriage was on the rocks.”
I had to read this book twice. When I read it back in May 2015, I was not quite ready to believe my marriage was over. I combed through the pages trying to see how my ex differed from the other men portrayed in the book, how this was not and would never be our story. And indeed, the big difference was that though the announcement that he didn’t want to be married anymore and that “our marriage was in a ditch” was abrupt, he hedged for months before actually calling it. But even then I had to insist he actually tell me face to face and in no uncertain terms.
I think in his head he had already done so and I was just being obtuse.
The truth was I was not ready to believe my marriage was over though all evidence proved otherwise, hence the second reading a few months later.
Irritable Male syndrome: Understanding and Managing the 4 Key Causes of Depression and Aggression by Jed Diamond
This book I did not purchase but borrowed from the library as I was following a quote I read in the previous book about men “flipping a switch” on their love for their wives. It seemed to fit exactly what J did to me as well as my suspicion that we were in the midst of a volcanic midlife crisis and I wanted to know more.
Sigh. He has always hated this hypothesis of mine. And ok. Fair enough. It is irritating to have people try to explain your behaviour or try to show you that maybe there are causes you are not aware of. I have mentioned this before, but I think it is akin to telling a woman she is moody because she is on her period, or because she is pregnant. It never goes well.
Here is how Diamond defines irritable male syndrome:
“A state of hypersensitivity, anxiety, frustration, and anger that occurs in males and is associated with biochemical changes, hormonal fluctuations, stress, and loss of male identity.”
He also goes on to explain how it impacts one’s family and especially one’s wife:
“The Irritable Male Syndrome explains why millions of men are becoming angry and depressed and why they so often vent their frustrations on the women they love the most.”
Yeah. There is a handy little quiz to see if you or your spouse fits the bill.
This book was enlightening and did lend credence to my theory of midlife crisis. It explained why my ex gave me such stupid reasons for wanting to leave the marriage, and why he was so deeply angry with me. However, it ultimately was trying to explain someone else’s behaviour and not shed any light on my own.
Yes, all of this might be true. But knowing this and having some evidence to back me up did me no good whatsoever. I had no voice with my ex. He did not hear me. I had no say. His heart was already closed to me and no matter what theories, what books I read that I thought he should read to gain some clarity into his own behaviour, no matter what I said or thought about the situation it would be taken as bossy, controlling and didactic.
Perhaps it was. I don’t know. We spend so much time trying to understand our own behaviour, trying to fit the irrational into some sort of rational pattern that nothing makes sense anymore.
My own story at this stage has an uncanny valley feeling to it. I have no idea what has been real in my life and what I have simply convinced myself was real. From my 20 year past with this man, to my current beliefs of what the hell happened to my life, my marriage, my love, everything is shaky and shimmery, mirage-like.
I do not know anymore what love or trust or compassion means. What were once certain, solid concepts have become uncanny versions of themselves and I find myself walking through life with this perpetual vertigo feeling, as if I am on the deck of a boat on a windy day. Most of my energy these days is spent trying not to fall over as I desperately search for a glimpse of land.
And this is three years in. Pretty much every day around noon (I am not sure why at this time, but it seems to happen everyday) I will get this reminder like a punch in my chest that this person does not love me anymore, that he has no regard for me whatsoever. That I have lost my husband, my love, the father of my children, my best friend, and I still don’t know why and I will probably never know, because why is probably the wrong question.
Or it is the right question and it is a simple answer that is just too painful to process: He simply didn’t love me enough to try. He got a better offer, one that did not come with having to untangle some 20 year old stories. Or the worst one, he didn’t really want to be a part of a family anymore.
Usually I will be at work and I will have to hide the tears in my eyes and figure out how to breathe so I don’t make a spectacle of myself. Everyday. The energy it takes to just keep functioning, let alone try to build a new life, is staggering.
I am so tired. Tired of this story. I am so tired of seeing it happen to other people. I am so tired of not knowing what is real or not real, of not having a past anymore, or at least one that I can trust is real. I am so tired of wondering how I could have been so certain this man loved me, that I had a good, strong marriage when he so clearly did not.
That is the thing with trauma. It doesn’t go away in a day, or even a year. There are times when I feel like I’m doing well, like I’m getting some perspective and understanding this story with compassion for both myself and him. I can pretend that I am not feeling the chronic nausea that comes with a perpetually rocking world. And sometimes I manage it. Most days though, I am still at sea, trying not to puke over the railings.
These books help. They do. I have learned how to begin breaking down certain stories about myself that were keeping me down. I have learned how to begin practising compassion towards myself and understanding what it means to be one’s own steward. I am moving forward and making plans and building a new life for myself and my children.
But they don’t take the pain away. They can give you tools on how to manage it, but they don’t take it away. The reality is that this pain is now part of my ecosystem. I have to accept that it will be there forever and figure out how to live with it.