The Signs

For months people have asked me if there were signs.

That they could live with a liar and not know it terrified them.  That they might have no say in the goings on under the roof of their marriage is most peoples’ deepest, darkest fear.  That we have no true say in our own life because someone takes it away from us without our consent, and without us ever even fully knowing is a very scary thought.

That is exactly what happened to me.

I was caged in a marriage where I knew there were many things wrong.

I habitually confronted those things, in deadly accurate terms.

I knew exactly what was going on.  I named the person, the start date, and the ongoing nature of it.  But I was rendered powerless by a refusal to own the truth.  So I had no choice but to carry on.  No proof.  Just a gut feeling.  All of my dearest friends knew my gut feeling.  All of them agreed there was cause for concern.  All of them agreed I had no recourse but to confront and take the answer at face value, which is exactly what I did.

And my life in my marriage was forever tainted by this deep and profound knowledge that something was wrong.  My trust vanished.  My joy vanished.  My friends and my children were my life.  My spouse was a person in my life.

I watched this person become someone else over the course of two years.  And did my best to raise our family just the same: his mistress’s shadow hanging over my children’s father, hanging over my head.  There was another woman in our family.  Her words impacted everything he said and did.  She was a part of my marriage, judging me and advising the course of our family from afar.

I suppose I could have up and left.  But to uproot 3 small children, with no financial prospects at all and on unconfirmed suspicion of an affair, made little sense.  But there was always doubt.  Always fear.

In retrospect, now that the smoke has cleared, I am sorry to say that yes indeed.  There were warning signs, and I am now able to name them.  These are the horrendous warning signs, of which I was a victim for multiple years of my life: if these make your heart pound, your hands sweat, if they make you go to a scary place, you are not alone.  They did for me too.  I am crying as I write this because I know this will ring bells for more than one person.

  1.  Character assassinations that are profoundly inaccurate.  When people do terrible things to their spouses, they find ways to justify it.  The easiest way to do this is to villainize the victim.  In my case I was beat to the ground verbally with assaults on my character.  #1 on the list was that I was irrational.  Another was demanding.  Another was that I was cold.  More than once I heard “you don’t know me and you never cared to.” And, “there is no room for me in our marriage.” I took these to heart.  I took them to therapy.  I worked on them every day in good faith.  They destroyed my self esteem and love for myself because I believed them.  I heard them so much that I believed I was all of those things.  Of course, he never once agreed to go to couples therapy with me, nor attend therapy himself.  He was more than happy to let me carry the load, beat myself up, and work on all my “problems”.  Those things were said so frequently and so cruelly that they wore me down completely.  But one day my heart and my soul said, “Sarah.  You are none of those things.  Not even close.”  And of course, I wasn’t.  When people have something to hide they will often go full court press.  Beat you into the ground so that you feel like you’re drowning.  If you are on your heels playing defense it’s very hard to go on offense.  If your spouse or partner is doing this to you, this is abusive plain and simple.  And beyond that, more than likely, there is an underlying issue with them that they are attempting to hide by making you feel so bad that you won’t notice what they are up to.  And if you do notice, they will roll out the horrendous and heart shattering insults on your character so that you are so destroyed you don’t dare question anything.  That is what happened to me.  My spouse tried to portray me as someone I was not.  And in doing this, he managed to victimize himself to himself.  He also managed to devastate my self esteem.  That is what allowed him to participate in a covert affair for so long.  He would sometimes say things about me that were so out of character, even for him, that it made me wonder who had fed him those lines.  Someone had.  Someone fed him poison, and it was regurgitated to me in the cruelest of ways.  Those character assassinations, that in no way represented who I was, absolutely leveled my self esteem and put him in a mental space to justify the affair.

2.  Meaningless Lies.  When your spouse lies about little and irrelevant things, it is a safe bet that there are larger lies on the horizon.  I frequently heard my spouse embellish stories when we were out with friends.  He would add details that never happened.  More than once on a drive home, I would confront him and say that those things never happened.  He dismissed me wholeheartedly, saying that he must have misremembered and it wasn’t a big deal.  He would trot out how irrational I was and how silly of me it was to even notice something that.  Sometimes it was a big deal to me though, because those stories often involved me and representations of me that were utterly inaccurate.  This bothered me deeply, and made me wonder what he said about me and his life in my absence.  By the way, this is a purely logical inference, that where there are small lies there are bigger ones.  Think of all the ways in the world in which this is true: where a small part is visible above the surface there is a huge portion of it underneath.  This is true of small and meaningless lies.  It shows an ability and willingness to misrepresent, and assert control over any aspect they feel like they’d like to.

3. Witholding of Relationship Information on the Grounds of a Character Flaw in the Other. There were many small lies over the years, but a few of them were big to me.  The best examples I can give are lying about money, and lying about personal habits (tobacco, where he was, who he was with).  When I caught him in these lies that had an impact on me too, I confronted him.  Never on the tobacco itself, but on the need to lie in the first place.  One day I said to him, “just because you might not like my reaction doesn’t mean you get to NOT tell me.  That isn’t your right.  And that’s not how marriages work.”  He of course knew I was right.  Unfortunately, after that conversation he fooled me because from then on he was careful to be forthcoming about everything BUT the affair.  He’s a smart guy.  The cruel character assassinations continued though.

I had never given him reason to withhold the truth, and even if I HAD reacted poorly, it is STILL wrong to withhold information your partner DESERVES to know in a marriage, just because they don’t feel like sharing or getting any grief from their spouse.  A spouse is by definition an equal partner in a marriage.  As soon as one spouse unilaterally controls the flow of information, there is a problem.  They are hiding something.

When I confronted him on the bigger lies, or more accurately the nondisclosure of the truth, the response was always the same: I couldn’t tell you because you get so irrational.  If you reacted better I would tell you.  There’s no room for me in this marriage so I feel I can’t tell you things.  And of course, these horrendous words would shut me right up.  If you are in a relationship and things you have a RIGHT to know about are being withheld from you, with the excuse that if you were a better person they would tell you, your spouse has something to hide.  It’s an abusive excuse to lie.  Plain and simple.  God I hate to say that so much.  But if you are reading this and your palms are sweaty and your heart is pounding, there is a reason.

These are unacceptable occurrences in any relationship, let alone a marriage.  Just unacceptable.  If you are suffering from any of these things, seek help.  Know you are not alone.  MAKE your spouse get counseling with you.  Don’t let them be in charge of that decision.  Because they’ll never go.  Liars don’t want to face the truth until THEY decide to.

This life is yours.  This life is precious.  And so are you.

So this is an answer to the often asked question.  Yes.  Absolutely there were warning signs.

As the heaviness lifts and I regain my sight, I see so clearly now that I was none of the things he said I was.  Not one of those things.  I am grateful every day, for what it’s worth, to be free of someone who thought so little of me.  I am grateful every day for my freedom.  Painful and horrible and scary though it has been, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

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The Little Flame

I went to my friend’s house on Friday night. I was surrounded by women who are my neighbors and friends. As we chatted and laughed and drank beer, we huddled in the cold darkness around the bright embers of a little gaslit fire pit. Instinctively, we all reached out for it, holding our hands above the flames to warm them. The orange light illuminated our faces as we leaned over it. We talked about coyotes and gun control and periods and lawn mowers and raising our children to be kind. We talked about the big houses across the street and our smaller ones in this neighborhood: about gratitude and oneupmanship and many other things. We giggled and laughed and shared serious moments too.

At one point, to be funny, one friend messed with the flame control on the fire pit and it caused the flames to go all the way down and almost extinguish. And every time the bright light nearly went out, more than one of us would gasp at the suddenness and the extent of the cold and darkness. It closed in on us immediately and horribly. We were desperate for her to turn the flames back up, and she did. And we would lean in again like our lives depended on it. Those dancing flames have been in my head ever since.

Because light in the darkness is what we all seek. Sometimes that light is bright and bold and strong and sometimes it’s weak and small and fragile.

In all of our hearts is a glowing flame.

Mine has been burning so low that it was nearly extinguished. It has been truly valiant, this little ember, glowing stubbornly, if weakly, against all the wind and the dark and the cold.

Picturing that small flame in my heart has filled me with love. It has filled me with tenderness, and given me the overpowering urge to shelter the ember, to fan the flame gently and lovingly, until it is burning bright again.

When I think of myself as a human, a flawed person, a depressed or sad person, I am overwhelmed. I don’t want to try. How can I get back to that place of happiness?

But when I think of a tender little glowing ember that needs to be sheltered and tended, guarded and teased back out into its correct shape, I can suddenly picture warmth and hope and a light in the darkness.

The flame for me, in some way, becomes a baby to be cared for, not a needy flawed and sad 37 year old woman. The flame to me, somehow, is worth saving, worth protecting, worth sheltering.

It has been burning so low my soul has been gasping in the cold, leaning in for warmth.

So in my mind’s eye I see a sweet little bright flame, deserving of love and protection.

And I am doing my damnedest to bring it back, doing my damnedest to shield it from the wind and the cold and the dark, to keep it glowing. And eventually the heat it will cast will be stronger than it ever was. It needs to be tended.

Because once it’s out, it’s out. And the darkness closes in.

So these past few days, I have been picturing a flame.

And I have been reminding myself to shelter this dancing, valiant, flickering, delicate little flame.

It warms me in the cold, and lights up the darkness.

It must be sheltered, loved, protected.

Dilute the Salt

My therapist told me to broaden my world.  A teaspoon of salt in one cup of water, she said,  makes the water too salty to drink.  A teaspoon of salt in a gallon of water is not discernible.  Dilute the salt, she told me.  So I have spent 6 weeks trying to do that.  I have been reading quite a bit, and going out with my friends as much as I can.  I have walked so many miles around North Park that I injured myself.  But I keep walking anyhow.

I’ve been watching documentaries, and I’ve been listening to podcasts.  TED talks have been a salve for me: a reminder of the great world that lies beyond the confines of my own.

Dinosaurs, resilience, outer space and depression.  How to spot a liar.  Talks on courage, on Autism, on the brains of fruit flies.  They suck me in as I sit at my kitchen table, and they take me far away.  I forget my sadness for just a bit, and learn something new.

There is a world out there.

In my haze, I have met three other women in my exact circumstance.  We are all going out on Friday.

I am trying to step out on my wobbly, woozy feet.   I am injured.  But I keep walking anyhow.  Even when I think I can’t.  Even when I think I’m not.  I am.

I am still caught off guard by moments of profound sorrow.  They creep up on me when I least expect them, and I find myself crying in the grocery store parking lot with no warning at all.  A sudden memory, or a realization.  A song.  These things can derail me completely.

But really, these are all just steps in grappling with what has happened, and steps in diluting the salt.  Really, everything dilutes the salt.  Time, effort, tears, sleep, friends….and my salty water is starting to taste better.  A little.

Today I went to Starbucks to grab a coffee.  As I was walking in I turned and looked, and there was the most *handsome* stranger looking right at me.  He was talking on the phone but he was staring at me.  When our eyes met he gave me the biggest and sweetest smile– I nearly fell over I was so surprised.  That smile was very clearly meant for me.  This, in and of itself, is not that big of a deal.  But it caught my attention.  It made me realize in an instant that there is this whole big world out there.  And  it made me realize I was in it.  That I am in it.  That I am diluting the salt.  And that some day, even though I’ll know it’s there, I won’t be able to taste it.

 

Suffering

When I step out into the world I feel like my suffering is showing.  Like toilet paper stuck to my shoe or my skirt tucked into my underwear.

They can see my suffering.

They can see it on my face like a wart, or a boil or an open oozing sore.  Maybe they wonder to themselves, what’d she do?  That’s gross.  Cover it up.

Not only is it ugly, it’s so profoundly isolating, this sorrow.

The more I reach out and speak, the more isolated I feel.

They don’t want to hear about it.  It’s too much.  They don’t know what to say.

I am tired of being the one to need.

I feel shame.  I feel weak.  The sadness in my heart is just a pit sometimes, that has no bottom at all.

Everyone has the same advice: time heals.  Perspective is good.  Take care of you.

I am tired.  So tired.  I have endured so very much in the past 7 months, I can’t believe it.  I get the constant reminder to be grateful for the health of my children, and my own.

I am.

But friends, as it turns out, gratitude does not erase sorrow.

Gratitude does not heal.  They are two such separate and distinct things.

Focusing on the positive is an ideal thing to do.  But it doesn’t remove the negative, nor does it lessen the pain.

These things, as it turns out, must be faced head on.

The new bar for me is simply survival.  If something makes me smile, it’s a bonus.  If I feel a fleeting moment of freedom, peace, or hope, I notice.

There is so much heaviness and darkness in my heart.  So much sadness.  And, now, the thing I was most afraid of: anger.

I am afraid of anger, because I am afraid of bitterness.  And I am not sure how to separate those two things.

But here is where meditation helps.

I will not put a head on my head.  I will simply say, I am feeling Anger.  This is part of me.

I don’t need to feel grateful, or focus on the positive.

I need to feel all the feels with loving compassion.

So do we all.

Can’t go over it, can’t go under it.

Nope.  Gotta go through it.

The End

The end came and went.  And of course.  I’m devastated.  I haven’t heard from the man who was my closest friend for many months of the most intense time of my life.  Just like that, no communication, no friendship, no nothing.  My kids talk about him because we all often played together.  They don’t know what happened.  They don’t miss him or ask when he’s coming back.  But they have lost here too.

My stomach hurts when I think about it, about quiet shared moments, about friendship, and the potential road that could have lay ahead, if it had been permitted.  And now, it has just fallen off the cliff.  There is no future.  No summer days or cookouts–no little road trips or funny shared moments.  I won’t get to know his little girl anymore who was quirky and silly and kind and deep and strange.  She loved dancing.  She was phenomenally active, a sharp bright mind, quick to anger, quick to forgive.  A darling little girl.

She liked me.  I cared for her very much.

All these relationships just cut short.  I cannot understand that.  A bomb dropped so that they all blew up, desperately careful though I was to protect little hearts, and my own.

Many have said to me that there will be no closure.  No neat and tidy little package to place in my closet.  There’s just a mess strewn out all over my mind and heart and body.  And I can’t tidy it up.  Nothing to say oh, that’s why that happened, or here’s where that goes.  Which was all I was seeking when the communication stopped completely.

Life is unfair.

Two loves lost.

Karen Maezen Miller said she wishes she could protect every tender heart.  But then, they wouldn’t be tender anymore.  Though my pain is deep, bottomless, profound, I have not lost my tenderness.  One thing can be certain.  I never will.  And maybe some day, someone will come along who wants and deserves it.

The end of this is the beginning of something else.  I don’t know what that is.  But one thing is for sure.  I’m in it.  Both the end, and the beginning.

 

Abandonment

It would appear that this relationship that I poured myself into, with this man who popped up somewhat out of nowhere, is over.  I asked him if it was, and he said no.  But I think he and I both know it is done.  I wish he would just say so.  But he won’t.  Because he won’t, I begin to ask myself if it is really just me, bringing all my issues from my previous relationship into this one.  Is it that I’m afraid he’ll abandon me too, so I act accordingly?

Am I sabotaging a relationship with someone I am deeply in love with, or is he stringing me along?

In my marriage I feared abandonment.  But not until I felt it might happen.  And for that reason I closed myself off to my ex husband profoundly.  When I shut the door permanently, he left.  I shut it because something told me I should.  My gut told me something was wrong.  And it is telling me the same now.

But is my gut a liar?  For 2 years I convinced myself that my gut was a liar.  And then I lived in lies.

I am trying to ignore my gut.  Trying to hang onto the rails of the Titanic.  All the while I am questioning whether or not I’m crazy, is the ship really sinking, and if it is am I causing it to do so?

There is a storm in my head.  It hurts so much.

Throughout it all, in these times of deep and bottomless loneliness, I try to be my own companion.  I picture myself putting my arms around myself.  I’m afraid to talk to people about this sadness.  Afraid people will think I am crazy.  And in these times of fear, I try to be there for myself, to let the rest fall way, and enjoy my children.

I did that yesterday, with the help of one of my best friends who simply showed up when I needed her.  I was painting the garage when she came with her kids, and I was planning to just be done at that point but she picked up a roller, the kids went in to play, and we painted and talked for an hour.  She carried my load for me that day, showed up so completely, so lovingly, so openly and so kindly.  She sat in the sun with me, listened and laughed and was that same source of steady kindness and comfort and humor that she has always been.

I have not been abandoned.  I was not enough for myself yesterday.  I just wasn’t.  My kids weren’t enough.  But she was.  And she was there.  So this week I am going to stop questioning myself, and simply focus on what is here, what is good, what is right in front of my face.  This week, and every week, I will be grateful.  And that will bring me back home.

In the Quiet

Life is incredibly hectic as I navigate its murky waters.  I still can’t see, but I’m trying to.

I’m squinting through the twilight.  Light has permeated the dark skies and I’ve grown accustomed to the weight of my tragedy.  It doesn’t feel as heavy anymore.

I am always slightly sad.  Always confused, overwhelmed, hopeful and dejected, and it’s often all at once.  I still run on the treadmill and I feel my soul creep to the back of my brain and rest there.  She hides or sleeps or just takes a break while my body takes over–heart and feet pounding in symphony.

When I’m done running, my soul tiptoes back out to join the world again.

She is timid and shy and uncertain, but she shouldn’t be.

She told me something in a moment of deep stillness.  And it has stayed in my heart and my mind ever since.

At the end of the day, it wasn’t the truth that crushed us.

It was the lies.

The truth is nowhere near as scary as the lies were.

Every person who hears the story goes through a process.  And what I see them grapple with the most, the thing that brings out visible fear and devastation, are the lies.

The truth as a stand alone thing is difficult.

But what no one can understand, the thing that leaves a dark cold hole in the heart, is the deceit.

And as awful as it can sometimes be, I have been liberated from the lies.

As I move through this process of squinting through the haze, my soul reminds me every day to seek the truth.  My truth.  God only knows what that is.

May we all be free of the lies we tell others, or tell ourselves.  They do nothing but harm.  And the truth we are trying to cover up is the only thing that will set us free.