I didn’t get married until my relationship was seventeen years old. I never saw the point of it. And then a couple of people I knew died.
One of them died by suicide, the other one died of a heart attack.
They were 38 and 51 years old respectively. Both their partners were absolutely floored by what happened. For years afterwards they couldn’t do the day to day stuff they usually did.
It made me think that being married, in a situation like that, covered a lot of legal stuff that would be horrible to have to deal with in tragedy. So we got married.
It sounds unromantic, but I’ve never really held much truck with the transformative power of marriage. It didn’t feel like a necessary thing to do until it did.
My partner was always the centre of my universe from when I was 18 years old. Whatever other shit was happening in life my relationship seemed like something I was successful at and was a Very Good Thing. I had a best friend and a port in any storm. I loved him more than I loved myself. I thought I would die if he was gone. Which seemed good... at the time.
Six years after getting married, twenty-three years into our relationship, and after twenty years of living together he decided he wanted out.
He said this to me as we were going to bed at 10.30 one night, and he loaded the car and moved from Manchester to London by 9.30 the next morning.
There wasn’t a warning, there hadn’t been any arguments. And yeah, I thought I was going to die.
The shock and the pain were indescribable, so I won’t try. I had no idea who I was without him. We had been together since the moment I left home. We had done all of our adult growing together. We were unhealthily and completely intertwined.
I didn’t sleep or eat properly for months. I couldn’t even watch tv because I couldn’t focus.
I went into some sort of survival mode. I was filled with adrenaline all the time. I knew it would hurt me if I didn’t do something with it, so I walked for miles and paced and cleaned.
I tried to not be alone too much. I visited friends, made phone calls, wrote stuff down. I told myself that if I could get to 11.30am that would be good, and I could survive again until 12pm. I lived a half hour by half hour, marking off the milestones in my head, so I could keep surviving.
It was like I was two people, the one experiencing the pain and thinking that she was losing her mind. And the one that was my caregiver that made doctor’s appointments, and found a therapist, and asked friends to put me up for the night so that I would not be alone.
The first me was wounded and terrified and lost. The second me was fierce. When one friend acted like it was a great imposition to have me in their spare room for two nights, the fierce me decided that it was just tough shit on them, if I had to put up with so much pain and fear, they could deal with the slight inconvenience.
It was a strange time.
The terror and the disassociation from reality was every bit as bad as I might have imagined. But the fierce self-protection took me by surprise.
I had spent 23 years caring about someone else and valuing them much more than I did myself. So to find out that I could take care of my own needs like this was oddly liberating. A lot of decisions were fairly easy to make – if some of my friends were freaked out and shied away from helping I just had to ignore that – I needed help, and I wouldn’t take no for an answer.
This happened surprisingly frequently when all I was asking for was company. At the time I couldn’t let it matter to me. Or try to figure out why. I assumed that they were afraid of the pain, and scared that being around me, whose life was suddenly in tatters, might rub off on them.
I had to work with what I had even if that was friends that wouldn’t willingly do the bare minimum.
I have wondered if I would have stepped up as a friend in similar circumstances. I hope I would. Who knows though – unless you have been through something like that it isn’t always clear what its impact is. Since then I have had to let those friendships go because they were too hollow, and too brittle.
The guy in charge of administration at my university said he would only give me 3 months off my PhD because he liked the number 3. What the f*ck!? I probably didn’t do enough to call him out, but I did make sure that I got more time than that by galvanising every bit of sway I had, and because of my lovely supervisor advocating on my behalf. I saw three therapists that year. I made sure I talked and used every tool at my disposal to start to feel ok.
It didn’t really happen – the feeling ok bit, but there were good things emerging from the terrible mess.
Finding my value
The first good thing was coming to realise that I did value myself.
I valued myself enough to make sure that I was ok, and to ask for help even when that was very difficult. I valued myself enough to know that when I was in pain, I needed to do things that would soothe me.
I started learning to play tennis as a physical outlet. I was terrible at it. But it was joyful for me, and helped more than anything else.
I spoke to about twenty people a day – I have never been so sociable – but it was a lifeline to know that I could get out of my own head for a bit. I kept in touch with my doctor about my state of mind. I kept teaching at university because it gave me a routine, and it was helpful to focus on something I enjoyed. I even won a teaching award based on that year’s teaching, despite wandering around in daze half the time.
What I learned
So the first and most important thing I learned is that even when the worst thing you can imagine happens (and it really was that for me) it is not the end.
It may be horrible and painful, but you will discover things that you didn’t know before about yourself and about your world.
What I learned is that being intertwined in another person’s life so completely is quite damaging.
It is a kind of incarceration even if it feels like the safest place to be at the time.
So while I was sad and fearful, I also felt strangely free.
Previously I would have worried constantly what people thought of me. Now I realised that faced with the magnitude of losing the most important person in my life, it didn’t matter - not now, not then or ever.
I remember going to group tennis coaching for the first time, and whereas previously I would probably not have even got out of the car, I suddenly didn’t mind what anyone thought. I just knew that I wanted to and needed to do it for myself.
The second thing I discovered is that even when in incredible emotional pain and turmoil it is possible to find strength and courage. Even if you have to eke it out in half hour increments.
Part of what anchored that strength and courage was starting to see myself again. I remember sitting at my desk at university telling my lovely friend Alex that I didn’t know who I was without my husband. And she said “Oh, Jodie, I wish you could see yourself like everyone else sees you. You are so much more than that.” And while some friends turned away others held up a mirror to see that I had courage and that I had value. They helped me hold myself up and start to believe that I would get through it.
I learned that seeing myself as me, not as a part of a couple was the best kind of transformation. That some friendships had the power to help me to change, and that others would invariably fall away. That work and connecting with my students helped to keep me focused and anchored.
That there were many things about me, unconnected to my relationship, that were valuable and interesting and exciting. And I learned that I had some work to do to learn to love myself.
See the posts below if you are trying to figure out your next steps after a break-up or divorce.