LAYERS OF CLAY
On a cold night a few years back, I sat on the floor of a dark room in my best friend’s house. I stared at the wall for hours, reserve tanks of tears emptying from my catatonic eyes as I wondered how my life had gone to hell. One painful thought spiraled round and round in my head: After six years of constant togetherness, I would probably never spend another night with my kids in our home, never share those end of day giggles before clicking off the light switch and slipping from their familiar, messy room. I felt completely powerless.
It was the deepest pain I had ever felt.
A blizzard hit that week. Snowmaggedon, they called it. Some preferred Snowpocalypse, but I knew what it really was: a Claypocalypse, the death of all I thought I was and would be.
After a couple years of wedded bliss and a couple more of utter anguish, my marriage had gone down in flames. Life altering failure. You don’t walk away from a shredded relationship like that without scars.
Have you ever heard that part of the wedding vows where they talk about cleaving to the other person? I wonder who came up with that part. It’s the perfect, bipolar word. To cleave can mean either to stick together or to cut apart. The word cannot even stay true to itself. It’s why divorce is a horror show with throbbing wounds, severed organs, and LOTS of blood.
Maybe you’ve known such pain. Maybe you’re afraid you soon will. I’ve been there and want you to know you can make it through. I’ve never written about my divorce before but with the passing of some years I’ve discovered how powerful it can be for a drowning person to see a survivor planted firmly on shore.
If I could go back in time, I would slog through that raging storm to find myself on the floor. Here is what I might say to myself, and what you should know if you’re facing your own personal apocalypse.
1. You can survive this.
This feels like the end of you but it doesn’t have to be. You can make it through. When your breath fails and you fear your heart might soon do the same, believe you will survive. Even when your dark night of the soul appears to be endless and you feel dead inside, you do not have to stay that way forever.
This might be the hardest thing you ever face in your life, but I am not slinging clichés when I say it will get better. You’re going to take time to heal, and over weeks and months the distance gives perspective. The wounds begin to mend. It’s a long process to be sure, but a forward moving one.
2. People will come to your aid.
They may feel rage on your behalf or find other ways of trying to protect you. Caring people will feel sympathy and empathy in love, but here is the key:
You have to tell someone things are bad and ask for their help.
Good people are going to come through for you. You’ll connect with folks you never knew before all of this. You never know where help might come from. A person or two may appear from nowhere and move on soon after. Like angels they will be there for you just when you most needed them, only for a moment. Lean on these people. Reach out to them in your weaker moments.
Look to surviving members of the Divorce Force who escaped marital shipwrecks and crawled from those despairing depths—gasping and wounded—back onto the shores of tomorrow.
3. Beware of perfect Puritans.
I won’t lie. Not everyone will be helpful. When you’re divorced some people look at you like you’re wearing a big scarlet D across your chest.
There are people who somehow think all their failures are lesser than yours because they haven’t gone through divorce. Ignore them. You are not the sum of other people’s judgments. Don’t languish under the callous chides of the “I told you so” crowd. Gravitate towards compassionate, life-giving people who care more about you than about being right or protecting their moral code.
For instance, if someone tells you to stay in a marriage when you’re being abused, I disagree. I’m not a counselor, just a guy who went through a tough marriage, but if you are being abused get out of that situation. If anyone is telling you to stay for ANY reason, do not listen to them. Even if they claim to speak on behalf of God. And don’t let people tell you mental abuse isn’t as bad as physical abuse. Do what you can to get help right away.
4. Open yourself to metamorphosis.
Separation and divorce produces an identity crisis. Who you were as a spouse or even parent changes. I had been husband and step-daddio. Then I wasn’t. Such loss of identity is jarring.
In the midst of many fights, there will be a point when you both know it’s really over for good. That’s an ugly moment, a gut-stabbing realization that who you thought you were—and always would be—is gone. The dreams of what your family might have been are killed. It’s like attending your own funeral and being locked inside the casket.
You can let this be the end or you can choose restoration and recreation. You have to use this opportunity to grow even as you heal or you’ll likely repeat the same mistakes you’ve already made. You might lose yourself for a while, but when you find who you are again, it can be revelatory as you see that your casket was really a cocoon producing a better version of yourself.
5. Do what you are most passionate about.
What you pursue as you rebuild your life will help shape your new identity. Immerse yourself in something healthy that you love. Take a trip if you can. Workout. Take that cooking class you always wanted to take.
For me it was teaching and writing, something I was already doing and another I had long been unable to pursue. Communicating to students and crafting words helped bring me back to life.
What activities energize you? Pursue those life-giving practices, preferably alongside others who share your passion.
Inspiration might come from anywhere. Seek healing through art, music, nature. Speak positivity to yourself. Find your anthem.
6. Restoration may be possible.
I’d also offer a quick word of hope for those whose relationship may be teetering on the brink. I’ve met people whose marriages appeared to be dead and buried, yet they came back. Sometimes spouses experience true remorse and contrition. People can change. You owe it to yourself to explore all avenues before finalizing a divorce, so you don’t one day look back and wonder if you should’ve tried more.
Unfortunately, many marriages don’t survive, but we can survive divorce.
You can come back stronger. Someone in your future is going to need you to walk through their marriage meltdown with them, and you will be there as they navigate their own personal hell.
I didn’t know all these hard-earned lessons years ago as I faced separation and divorce. I was slumped on the floor in my best friend’s room, broken, thinking the future was lost.
But it wasn’t.
The terrible storm passed. I’m still involved in my stepkids’ lives. And when I look at the walls now I don’t see a dead future but a promising canvas of endless possibilities.
Believe me, my friend. The shore is off in the distance. We survivors are here, torches and life preservers in hand. Look to the light. Breathe. Struggle. Strive. Survive. You can make it. I promise.