It’s no secret that the holidays are a time of evocative nostalgia. We all work through the motions of what is familiar and customary for us.
But, this holiday season is different for me. Not bad. Just different.
Last year, shortly after my oldest son’s 11th birthday, I was handed papers in the church parking lot by a stranger. A process server. They were the papers telling me that my marriage was over, and there was nothing I could do about it. I have a lot to say about that experience and what led to it, but what I care to say now is that it opened the door to three months of grief, anger and a bizarre and guilt-inducing sense of relief.
I barely remember the holidays last year. I swam through the season with a lack of consciousness about most things. I showed up to church, I did my work, I was grateful for the hour of time to be surrounded by loving and kind people. And, then I went home to an often empty house. The sudden absence of my children half the time was more than I could bear. I found ways to avoid coming home, so that the crushing awareness of my isolation wouldn’t destroy me altogether.
But, even when they were home, the grief would come in waves. While making breakfast for them, I would reach for a plate: a plate that we’d registered for, argued about, conceded to go with for now. I remembered all of the intentions, dinners, tables, places and people who had shared meals with my intact family. And, the grief of loss would wash over me again and again.
I didn’t realize that divorce was like a death. But, my spouse died only to me, not to anyone else. The world got to keep him as he was. I, alone, had to suffer the loss.
I already felt isolated in my marriage and in this new place, where I struggled to find community. But, it was a year ago that I made a new friend, a constant companion.
He came to join me in the quiet moments, when I needed a friend the most. While cooking dinner, his voice would stealthily whisper in my ear, “Look at all of the No One who wants to enjoy this with you.”
As I would awake, Loneliness would press on my chest, squeezing my heart and mutter, “How does it feel to wake up alone, in a place you barely know, without your children?”
This new friend wasn’t shy. He would come over, uninvited. He would appear, unannounced. He came to work with me. He drove to hospital visits with me, and would share my footsteps as I left patients’ bedsides quipping, “How good that they have someone to visit them. Do you know who would come to see you in the hospital? Just me. I’m all you have now.”
I exchanged one toxic, unhealthy relationship for another.
Loneliness made me feel terrible about myself. I’d been feeling pretty miserable for a long time, but this new friend liked to sit with me and review all of my faults, all of my shortcomings, all of the reasons why we’d be together forever now.
I spent most nights crying myself to sleep, struggling to make sense of any part of my life. Loneliness took up a lot of space and time, and I didn’t recognize who I was when we were together. But, I couldn’t seem to get away. I was gasping for air, drowning in the suffocating co-dependency we’d cultivated.
I realized, slowly, that I had given a lot of power to my recent primary relationships; that I had given them the power over my happiness.
It was then that I made a choice. I made a choice to break up with Loneliness. He was, to be frank, an asshole, and I didn’t have the time or emotional energy to deal with him.
I did the only thing I knew to do. I prayed. Loudly, fervently, heartily, tearfully.
I prayed for something good to happen in my life, to make all of the bad make sense.
I prayed for an answer to the question, “Why would God allow all of this to happen? Why would the doors have opened for us to move here and then permit everything to fall apart?”
I prayed for the reasons to be revealed. Quickly.
I prayed for a new companion. A healthy one. A kind one. Because Loneliness knows that I don’t do well on my own.
And, almost immediately, something changed. I started spending my time with intention, purpose and joy. I met a new friend. A healthy friend. A kind friend. A very attractive friend.
The shift was sudden and astonishingly perceptible. Loneliness didn’t take no for an answer, though, and did his best to show up. He told me things about myself that were untrue. He tried to poison my thoughts about my new friend, but he made a bad case for it. Loneliness, as it turns out, is petty and weak.
As the months passed, I realized that I was untangling from all of the brambles that had kept me from thinking and dreaming freely. My mind began to wonder about things I’d never wondered about. I began to have visions, hopes… joy. I reclaimed parts of myself I forgot existed. I started to breathe and live and eat again. I laughed. I noticed the sun shining.
On our first real outing together, my new friend asked me where I saw myself in 5 years. Loneliness, who would still text me out of the blue, just to mess with my mind, sent me a message at that moment and said, “Alone. You’ll be alone, and sad. You’ll still be homesick and apart from your children, possibly so much that they won’t even miss you when you’re gone. Tell him. He already knows how pathetic you are. But don’t worry, I’ll still be here.”
But, something told me to ignore this. I reflected on how I was spending my time – so much if it awash in a confusing and heartbreaking legal process, much of it spent in meetings, and not enough of it spent with the people I love or doing the work I enjoy the most. I thought about what I was missing, and a deeper, truer, richer voice spoke louder than anything I’d heard in a while and gave me this: “Tell him you want to be doing more of what you love and less of what you don’t.”
And, that’s what I said.
As I said it, I realized that I didn’t need to wait 5 years to begin doing this. I could start now. I could start living into a reality that would bring me joy, rather than despair. I might have chosen to move to California for someone else’s benefit, but I could choose to stay for my own. I listened to my own voice give me wisdom, and I believed that I could start deciding what my own reasons were.
We finished our dinner and left, walking into the bright lights of downtown Los Angeles. I felt light and joyous. Things were easy and enjoyable. We said goodnight, and I drove home, reflecting on the choice I’d just made to make a happy life here for myself.
That was almost a year ago.
And, it’s worked. That was the day that I began to detangle from the thorny brambles that held me back.
Today, my new friend is now much more than a friend. He is my partner in all things. We laugh, we explore, we wonder, we create. The parts of my life that were put on hold are now starting to thrive and flourish. I could not have imagined all that would have come to be in this last year. I could not have imagined this kind of joy and hope in the wake of such grief.
And yet, that’s the gift that freedom brings. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t without pain. But it was necessary.
Here’s to the untangling, and the wide open path ahead.