Reflective self-portrait

I just checked the calendar to confirm what my soul suspected: it’s been almost exactly six months since I announced to the blogosphere that I’d separated from my now-ex husband. Attuned to the predictable rhythms of my psyche, I’ve been bracing myself for this next stage: the aftershock, that weird, vulnerable, emotionally tenuous place where you feel something surprising struggling to be born from the apparent tranquility of acceptance.

Reflection among flowers

Much of the post-traumatic coping in the aftermath of divorce, I’m learning, happens subconsciously, roiling under the surface like an emotional leviathan. On the surface, I’m doing swimmingly: I go to work, I teach my classes, I pay my bills and walk the dog. I shop and sightsee, take and post pictures, and spend time with friends old and new. In a word, I have a life, and I love it: never have I regretted leaving a relationship that was dying and (frankly) taking me with it. And yet at the same time, I’m only gradually coming to grips with the repercussions of living my life with a healing wound: scar-tissue of the soul.

One morning last week–the morning before my ex-husband’s birthday, in fact–I woke before my alarm with a panicked startle: “I’m divorced!” It was as if the enormity of the split had suddenly dawned on me, like I’ve been walking around in blithe disregard of what dire fate has actually befallen me. For a moment, I thought I’d burst into hot panicked tears right there in my bed, the sun still hours from appearing. It wasn’t that I missed or regretted “losing” my ex-husband since for several weeks now I’ve had occasional, fragmented, and barely remembered dreams where he’s appeared unannounced at my doorstep, in my car, or in my apartment, sudden and uninvited. In each of these dreams, I’ve felt the same sickening emotions that led to separation: the cringing worthlessness I felt being married to someone whose expectations I felt perpetually doomed to under-satisfy.

Mirror shopping

No, that morning’s panic had nothing to do with my ex-husband but everything to do with me, with the inexplicable shame I feel being “a divorced woman.” As much as I never fit the role of what a good wife (whatever that is) is supposed to be, I struggle even more with seeing myself as being the kind of person (whatever that is) who would divorce.

I never thought I had a judgmental view of divorce; I’ve never been conscious of looking down on someone because their marriage didn’t work out. But in my own case, I’m gradually coming to realize how much guilt and shame I’ve been carrying, a seething cauldron of psychological poison bubbling just under the emotional surface. My marriage failed…I failed. I’ll always be tainted with that irredeemable flaw: I’m a divorced woman, my first marriage having failed.

Reflective lamp fixture

It’s as if I’ve long labored under a subconscious notion of purity: in a day and age when more folks than not, it seems, have at least one failed marriage under their belt, I felt aloof and different: pure. Marrying young, before I had much experience with the dating scene, I could pretend I was a wife from a different era, pure and virginal, someone who could years later boast of having been married for 30, 40, 50 years: a boast as precious as gold in a tawdry and tarnished time.

Instead of being able to boast late in life that I’d made my marriage work–that I’d kept my sacred vows and successfully forsook all others for as long as we both did live–now I’m forever besmirched with human imperfection. Divorce. Another way of spelling failure, quitter, breaker-of-hearts, starting with one’s own. Although I’d never lob these hideous invectives at another soul, they stick so perversely when I toss them on myself. Married as a good Catholic girl who really believed those priests who said Marriage is a Sacrament, I never again will be so young or so naive. Nope, now I’m Used Goods–tainted–a second-hand car that’s been ’round the block more than a couple of times and is showing the usual wear and tear. The old gray mare just ain’t what she used to be: I’ve gone from being not-so-good as a good-little-wife-wannabe to being exactly what the status on my car insurance says: once Separated, now Divorced. Not whole but severed: patched but forever broken.

Mirror, mirror

Lately, on scattered occasions, I’ve had bouts of panic about being alone. These aren’t emotional feelings of loneliness: this isn’t a matter of missing my ex-husband or yearning for a man’s companionship. Instead, I’ve felt occasional panicked feelings of vulnerability, as if I were by nature a herd animal–antelope or gazelle–that suddenly has been singled out from the herd, alone and defenseless, as a hungry leopard approaches, lean and swift. I am a newly divorced woman living on my own some 700 miles from my closest kin. If I slipped in my bathtub, who would notice? If I fell victim to some accident or disaster, who would care?

These are, of course, the illogical questions of a frightened mind. Simply being coupled doesn’t save you from accident or mortality, and even while I was married, I spent a large portion of my free-time alone, preferring solitude or the company of friends to that of a spouse from whom I felt increasingly estranged. But panic, I’ve come to believe, is a telling symptom; in my meditation practice, I’ve learned that panic, like a hiker’s double-blaze, often preceeds a marked and unexpected turn. Sometimes panic is the overture to a more lasting trial; sometimes facing panic–the imaginary beasties under one’s bed–is how we prepare to face the long haul of meaningful change and new beginnings.

Mirror shopping

For in the very midst of these dark emotions that churn and roil beneath the surface, clarity and strength arises unbidden. This past week I said goodbye to a friendship that had gone sour, an acquaintance I deeply admire but who had become increasingly difficult for me to deal with. I feel no hard feelings toward this friend: I just reached a point where I no longer had the energy to second-guess another’s actions and motivations. After having spent too much energy of late apologizing for ways I’d unwittingly offended simply by being myself, I reached the same point in friendship that I’d ultimately reached in marriage. Sometimes quitting is a necessary thing: sometimes you simply need to say “enough” rather than continuing to push a stone up a slippery hill.

This past weekend at the Providence Zen Center, several old friends had not yet heard of my divorce, leaving me to explain (awkwardly) the current state of my love life when faced with the seemingly innocuous greeting, “So, how are you guys?” Now that I’m no longer half of “you guys,” I stand alone in the face of people’s questions: “My husband and I divorced in November, and I’m doing fine.” As awkward as it is to deal with the wide range of emotions such an announcement evokes, it ultimately feels good to answer the question honestly, no longer needing to pretend my marriage was something it wasn’t. Instead of clinging to some boastful notion of purity, it’s a relief to acknowledge that both people and relationships change and grow, that even crushed and shattered souls can ultimately find the strength to move on.

Yes, I’m still obsessed with reflective photography, having uploaded several of these images to the Mirror Project. You can find my past submissions here, or you can check out a random assortment of Mirror Project submissions.