Hellish Years: Five Years Later

It has been five years. Five. Half a decade since my husband told me in one breath he was having an affair and didn’t know if he wanted to be married anymore. (Turns out he did want to be married, just not to me. But whatever. Why split hairs at this late date?)

Five years is a quarter of the time we were together. In the first five years of our relationship, we moved in together, both finished our undergrad, went on an epic trip to Europe where we got engaged. We got married. Had our first child. We witnessed the violent dissolution of our arts collective —a group of friends and mentors who got together each Sunday to talk about art and review the work of the week—and buried one of the mentors. I made the important discovery that if I treated all creative writing as an exercise, I could get over the fear of failing and actually write. I even got published.

All that to say, five years is a long time. Many things can and have happened. Since J left I have accomplished many tangible things. I moved the girls and I back to the West Coast. I found a new career that even if it isn’t writing, is still pretty meaningful and interesting. Most of all it is stable enough to pay most of the bills. My girls are thriving. I have my very own car that I don’t share with anyone else (ok, the girls borrow it sometimes). I am blessed with amazing friends and family and am seeing a lovely man. Hell, I even have the cutest puppy ever. My house is a place where people feel safe and welcome, where there is a lot of laughter and love. I built that. I did.

I have a lot to be grateful for, a lot to be proud of. And I am, daily, on both counts.

Yet what I am most proud of are the intangibles, the way I confronted some old patterns and beliefs that weren’t serving me and changed them. By far my greatest feat is learning compassion for myself. Learning how to be in the world where I am not constantly beating myself up for not doing better, trying harder, being more or being less.

And though it sounds silly, I am also in the process of healing my relationship with time. I practice reminding myself daily that I am not on the clock, that time is not my enemy and that everything will get done. I am learning how to trust myself. This has helped reduce my stress exponentially.

These are big things. I have come a long way in these last five years.

And yet.

Now the dust has settled and the work has shifted from the less labour-intensive building of a life to the daily practice of maintaining it, what is left for me is a crater where love and trust used to be. The worst is,  I am ashamed of it, because I, as well as most of the people around me, feel like I should be over this by now.

It was only when I read this article entitled How a PTSD Expert Developed a Viable Cure for Heartbreak—where a psychologist specializing in PTSD studied the effects of reconsolidation therapy on people who have experienced romantic betrayal—that I felt I might not be crazy. It was validating to see in writing that the kind of break up I experienced had another layer of pain to it, which, after a little more research, I found out is called betrayal trauma. Here is how this article put it:

You cannot experience betrayal where there is not a deep sense of safety and trust. But when there is a deep sense of safety and trust and you uncover an unknown addiction or infidelity, it can be the most debilitating moment in your life. These forms of betrayal are extremely traumatic, and you can experience devastating mental, physical, and emotional consequences.”

When my husband left so suddenly, among the many beliefs he shattered was the belief that I was loved unconditionally. That particular loss has snowballed into an inability to trust that I was ever loved in the first place and that I ever will be loved or love again. There is a part of me that feels permanently shut down to the world, though my best intentions were to face the unknown with an open heart.

The grief is big. It is It is even bigger because the doors I have closed in my heart are very hard to pry open again. Because, you see, I actually believed I was loved. I trusted that he loved me. I mean full-on, unconditional trust that this man would do right by me even if romantic love faded like red pigment in sunlight.

I may never forgive myself for that.

Let me be very clear. I am not stuck. I am not idealizing him, nor do I wish a return to my marriage which is now tainted with his initial betrayal, as well as the complete lack of consideration and support of the last five years. I don’t want him back. I don’t feel like a victim. And I really don’t mean to spend as much energy thinking about him.

And yet I do. I am constantly thinking of him. Constantly having the same, looping imaginary conversation with him inside my head where I try to get him to see me, to see the pain he’s caused. Constantly being blindsided by the anvil that will suddenly drop on my heart. It’s exhausting.

People rarely talk about how long healing takes, even when you’re actively committed to it. They rarely mention how goddamn boring trauma is, how much drudgery there is in carrying it. It is like being forced to watch the same bad movie with the same ineffective script every day. You can’t turn it off, however much you want to. All you can do is sit with it. Let it play out. 

It has been five years. I am doing great. I really, really am.

And I am still heart broken. A memory will flash through my mind or I will have a dream. Or I will simply be at work, looking over a spreadsheet and the betrayal will come over me like a wave and I will be right back in his studio, looking at the two portraits of his lover (now his wife) while he is telling me about their affair and how he doesn’t think he wants to be married anymore.  At these moments it is like a gong rings out in my heart and for a few seconds all I am is reverberation. I have learned to withdraw into my internal bomb shelter and wait it out.

It probably happens when I am talking to you. You probably won’t notice unless you are really paying attention. When it’s done, I will likely have to ask you to repeat yourself, as I can’t hear anything over the din of my broken heart. But don’t worry, that’s all I will ask of you. After all, I am just as tired of talking about it as you are of hearing it.

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