Gratitude Always

“If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.” ~ Meister Eckhart

Today is Thanksgiving, 2016. I’ve been writing for sixty-seven days consecutively and I can hardly believe it. I am so very grateful for the words as they flow. It seems apropos to spend a minute speaking about gratitude. I talked about Positive Psychology couple of days ago and Gratitude is a fundamental concept in the practice of positivity. Research on this construct is definitive… people who practice gratitude regularly report more joy and happiness in their lives. They are less lonely, have lower blood pressure, stronger immune systems and demonstrate more compassion and generosity. The ‘science’ of gratitude has grown by leaps in the last decade with researchers proving by results of fMRI’s that just ‘thinking’ grateful thoughts highlights areas of the brain involved in the experience of happiness.

With all of those benefits, it seems like a no-brainer to devote a part of every day to the expression of gratitude and I’m not simply suggesting remembering to say “thank you”.  Gratitude is more than expressing thanks. According to the website Gratefulness.org –

“Gratitude is essentially the recognition of the unearned increments of value in ones’ experience.”

I love this definition because it speaks to the concept that all of our experiences – the good, the bad, and the ugly – are springboards for gratitude… even those that we didn’t ask for.

I attended a day-long seminar about Gratitude a few years ago as part of a continuing education effort and it was a bit of a lazy class for me because I already ‘bought into’ and practiced the methodology that was presented. The concept wasn’t a particular challenge for me. I will admit to only half listening as the presenter challenged us to be grateful for EVERYTHING that had ever happened in our life; I looked up. What? I found myself listening more closely and thinking this guy didn’t know ‘my’ life. No way could I find appreciation for the crap that I had gone through…

He challenged me to consider my experiences and pains and to offer a silent moment of thankfulness for them. I browsed through my memory banks and thought back to divorcing Hubby… all of the toil and trauma that was associated with that relationship and then I went even further to the death of Rocky… I had no words. How does one say “I am grateful that my husband died?”

I sat in that big room full of other therapists and helping professionals with a blank stare directed toward a man who was asking something of me that felt impossible. I momentarily felt lost and scared, it seemed as though I was about to do something wrong and then – I understood.

I didn’t have to express gratitude that Rocky died or that I went through tremendous pain due to Hubby’s actions but I COULD say – without hesitation – that I was deeply, profoundly, grateful for the lessons I learned as a result of those situations.

Every. Single. Thing. that has ever happened in my life has offered me an opportunity to see myself differently, to garner insight or wisdom unavailable to the unaffected. Until you find yourself in a parlor of caskets attempting to figure out which one fits the personality of the man you had married, you will simply not truly know what it is to be a widow.  Until you are gravely betrayed by a family member you intrinsically trusted, you will not understand the inclination to build barriers of stone around your heart. Personal testimonies offer us insight that can only be achieved by feeling, doing, and being a part of a scenario.

The perspective one achieves through experience is priceless if we seek to understand and in turn, grow. We get to choose what we do with these outcomes. Choosing to be grateful for the enlightenment acquired offers far more benefits that other options.

I am eternally grateful for my life even though I haven’t ‘liked’ many of the moments in it. Truly, there are far more fabulous ones that those I might trade in and so I practice appreciation for them all.

What does it mean to “practice” gratitude? Is it as simple as a few thoughts or written words? It can be if it is consistent and habitual. I will recommend to people who are new at this to start with just one thing… Get a notebook and at the end of each day, write down one thing that you are grateful for that day. It might be only that the day is over and you still stand. In the morning – read what you wrote. At the end of the second day, write another thing you are grateful for from that day. On day three you will read the two things you have written and so on… at the end of a month, you will have a list of thirty things that you are grateful for. Everyone I know who has engaged in this effort has reported feeling better at months’ end.

In addition, I encourage the expression of appreciation. It dawned on me one day that in all the couples counseling I do, no one has ever come in telling me how appreciated they feel.  In fact, it’s been the opposite one hundred percent of the time. Couples in crisis, don’t feel appreciated. It’s also important to note that when we ‘do’ feel appreciated, we are much more tolerant of the little things that add to our dissatisfaction or frustration. Once, each and every day, turn to your partner or a family member and tell them you appreciate something about them or something they might have done for you at some point in time. The expression of appreciation to someone else helps you both.

I have a few little gratitude habits that I find myself engaging in without much thought these days and they are minuscule in contrast to where I would like to be but I’ll share nonetheless.  Whenever I find a close parking spot I say a word of thanks for the ease of parking. When I can’t find a close one, I automatically say thanks for the exercise I will be getting. I say thank you when a new client calls for the prospect of helping someone and the income it will generate. When someone cancels, I say thanks for the time to do other things. It doesn’t matter the scenario or the situation, I find something in it and express thanks.

Utilizing a Gratitude journal has never been easier. Not only can we utilize an old-fashioned notebook and pen but there is also a myriad of app options for smartphones and tablets ranging from free to just under $5. We have no excuse really…

Today, I am everlastingly grateful for not just the experiences I’ve had but also for the people who’ve been there with me both past and present some of whom are… Mom, Dad, Trish, Barb, Allysen, Patrick, Mike, Jim, Monique, Carole, Ruthie, Suzi, Cathy, Emi, Glenda, Tim, Norm, Debbie, Dee, Diane, Denise, Joyce, Anne, Rocky, Greg, Dorothy, Jack, Jane, Frank, Elizabeth, Linda, Martha, Anna, Charlotte, Jim, Chuck, Ron, Charles, Greg, Kim, Michele, Sherry, Amy, Judy, Marianne, Debbie, Diane, Lise, Renee, Kim, Bill, Debbie, Jill, Bob, and Rosemary.

Most especially … Francis, Sara, Erin, and Emily – you all… are the reason I breathe each day.

And finally, … H. I appreciate you more than I have words.

Penetrated Composure

Continued from In-Between Spaces

“I am more and more convinced that some people are put in our lives solely to try our patience and tamper with our tolerance levels.” ~ Richelle E. Goodrich

I’m not sure we – as a culture – consider the expression of emotion as a strength but after hearing Ellie say it I was able to ponder her words. It’s true that we want mostly want to run away from or fight back when we experience negative feelings and surely, moving them out of our awareness seems like the most logical plan to feel better. Facing them, experiencing them, processing them, and allowing them to ‘BE’ is far more difficult than putting them in a box and sticking them on a mental shelf. Admittedly, feeling some things is just too hard and there are appropriate times to shelter our psyche from the pain of *some* emotions but generally – it is better to feel them and allow them to move on – away and out of your sphere.

I will say however that hearing this and truly learning it are two very different things. I recall one afternoon in particular where I failed at this principle completely. We were meeting at the office of Hubby’s attorney; he and his attorney, me and mine. Additionally, our corporate accountant was also there although I still have no idea why except for the potential for them to collectively intimidate me. I was choosing my battles carefully and so meeting there was a deliberate concession. We sat around a large table with Hubby’s attorney at the head – she was managing the discussion. I seem to remember that we were attempting to ‘line-item’ the specifics of asset distribution and support details. What I do remember is a challenging series of questions from his lawyer – we probably could call her the Queen Beeatch – about my impending Psychology degree. She determined that it was a waste of time because it was ultimately worthless without going to Grad school and he “definitely wouldn’t be paying for that”.

We went back and forth about the value of my contribution … trying to establish my ‘worth’ in the business and marriage. They were attempting to determine my employability and how much money I could earn outside of the business that we owned together. It was a rather ridiculous conversation as I still didn’t have a degree and all my ‘earnings’ had been run through the business so there wasn’t anything concrete from which to reference. In addition, I would be required to sign a ‘non-compete’ agreement when we terminated the marriage – rendering me unable to work in that industry within a certain mile radius for years to come. All the knowledge I had acquired over twenty years would be irrelevant.

My attorney was good, arguably equal to Queen Beeatch in qualifications but in terms of attitude, she was a delicate flower sitting across from ugly, spiteful, demeaning, bitchy, arrogance. I needed more power. I thought we were prepared but having never been through it – the things I had on paper were inconsequential compared to the pompous energy and disposition Hubby’s lawyer brought to the table but I did not stand down. My heart steeled up… protecting me from disintegrating there on the spot, from melting into oblivion, which is what I wanted to do. What was accountant Steve thinking? I was pretty sure he knew the scene… he had been around in the early days of discovery and exposed to my fury when I found financial items in our books that were corroborating of my fears. I felt betrayed now by him as well… how does one do a job regardless of the integrity of one’s client? The attorney I understood… the accountant?

As anyone who has been down this road can attest, no matter how congenial your intentions, emotions can supersede the best. I drew weary, exhausted actually. Emotionally drained of any recourse that I had planned and simply wanted the afternoon to end. We took a break to allow each of us to conference for a moment with our representative and my attorney’s only question regarded education. We didn’t have anything in writing about college for the girls. I couldn’t imagine any situation that would have prevented Hubby from providing college funds if he was able so I bowed out of the need to further the agony of this day. I wanted to leave. We got the green light without much more circumstance and I left the building, I left everyone behind and walked to my car feeling alone and crushed. It wasn’t what we had been discussing per se, but the tone of the meeting … as if there was some unseen overarching power that Hubby’s ‘side’ had over mine. I don’t know how his attorney slept at night. I won’t group her into the whole of the legal profession but she certainly upheld every negative stereotype I’d ever known. I wondered how much he was paying her compared to the fees I had accumulated. Our divorce was costing tens of thousands of dollars.

I got to the parking lot where I had quickly pulled into and thought perhaps I had walked the wrong way because my car was not there. Everything else about the scene was memorable, the same, except my car, was missing. I then noticed a sign which had not entered my awareness when I pulled in, warning customers that the space was explicitly for another business and all others would be towed.

Are you fucking kidding me?

I pulled out my cell phone with shaking hands and called the number on the sign only to find out that my car had been towed to a local impound yard. Shit. Crap. Damn. Seriously?? The impulse to sit down, cross-legged, right there on the asphalt and throw a temper tantrum was exceedingly strong. ‘What would that solve?’ my mind cautioned. As a carousel of possibilities circled in my head, I found myself walking back to the law office.

Hubby was still there speaking to his attorney in a different office and had to be summoned by the secretary. I explained what had happened and he offered to take me to where the car was located, not far from where we were. I hated that I had to ask. I wish there was another logical and simple solution but we were both there and I had spent fifteen years depending on him to get me out of a tough spot… I was doing it again.

We walked out to a rear parking lot that I hadn’t been told about or offered… his truck was there and I got in. Immediately I noticed a woman’s touch. His and her sunglass holders, lip gloss in the center compartment, and a ‘frilly’ bottle of flavored water that I knew he would never drink. Oh, my heavens, when would this shit be over? I found myself, once again not being able to breathe. My heart was racing and my thoughts screaming to let me out of the truck but I was unable to speak or move for fear that my body and thoughts would connect and betray my wishes to exhibit composure.

We drove into the garage where my car had been taken and I got out as quickly as Hubby stopped. I moved toward the office so that I could pay the fines and leave but he got ahead of me to open the door and I noticed, pull out his wallet. I was obviously shaking at that point and my restraint was dwindling rapidly; my eyes were swelling with tears and I was afraid to attempt speech. I let him pay the ransom and swiftly grabbed my keys, said “thank you” and turned to go. He followed me. Please… just let me get the hell out of there.

“Are you ok?” he asked as I slid into the driver’s seat of my car and turned the key. “Really, thank you,” I whispered as a tear finally escaped its hold and ran down the side of my face, fortunately, on the side he couldn’t see.

Photo credit: flickr.com/volver-avanzar !!! via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

In-Between Spaces

Continued from Back to School

“One thing you can’t hide – is when you’re crippled inside.” ~ John Lennon

My family was still divided over Abee’s involvement in my marriage; so many little things had surfaced over the course of a year that it made it impossible to distinguish truth from fantasy. We hadn’t celebrated the holiday’s together and it seemed as though I saw Mom less and less. She was doing great though. She had finally acclimated into her community and made friends. She was getting involved in a number of activities and that alone may have diverted her attention but in part, she continued to be torn.

I discovered, quite by accident, that she had enlisted Hubby’s help around her home – the one she shared with Abee – to do some maintenance items. It was an impossible task for me to be unreactive as the man who had so deeply betrayed me was now doing favors for my mother… didn’t anyone in my family have boundaries?? Of course, because I loved Mom, I wanted her to ‘be taken care of’ and it was nice of him to offer but I just couldn’t reconcile it. In my mind, he was doing it for Abee too… she lived there. Was I never going to be rid of this pain? Was there always going to be this crazy reminder of how two people whom I loved deeply made a conscious decision to delude and abandon me? Was there never to be healing in my family unless I acquiesced, gave in and offered consent for this inappropriate relationship? It continued despite my pain, despite Mom’s disapproval, despite family fracturing.

I was grappling with a few conundrums… first, and probably most importantly, I came to realize I had control ‘issues’. I can hear at least a dozen laughs in the universe as I type these words and while I know that I liked to ‘be in charge’… my intent has never been to ‘control’ people – only situations where my involvement was necessary. If there were people in the peripheral… well then, they got sucked into the control vacuum. It’s important to understand, and I preach this to my clients, that control is what we utilize – as human beings – to feel emotionally and physically safe. If I can be directing my environment, then I know what to expect – I am can be more prepared for uncertainties. Without control, I am vulnerable and vulnerability means that we run the risk of experiencing pain.

I had assessed this assertion a time or two in the past when it surfaced and had been identified as problematic but this time it was in my face – I was noticing it, or rather, the lack of it and I identified the crux of the problem each time Mom told me Hubby had helped with something or if someone said they had seen Hubby and Abee together – out in the community. I’m not sure why people felt the need to disclose their observations, but it was much more common than one would imagine – they were not inconspicuous. There wasn’t anything for me to do but to learn how to ‘accept’ their transgressions. The place of acceptance was still w.a.y. down the road on my growth journey so for now… I was focusing on letting go of the things over which I had no ‘control’.

And that was my second ‘issue’. I needed to ‘let go’. Really – there were so many things that I had to ‘let go’ of that I literally, made a list. I wrote letters to people who had slighted me (but didn’t mail them) and meditated on the things that needed to go… I imagined each of them in a bubble and watched as it drifted away… I pictured each item as a leaf that dropped onto a stream and swiftly floated downstream… I cut the list into a thousand pieces. Each of those ideas worked a little and after each technique was completed, I felt a little lighter. I warn clients of the expectation some of us develop that if we commit to ‘let go’ of something that it disappears… it may not – in fact, it often does not. We need to practice letting go. Today, one of the most effective methods I use is to open my hands. The brain is powerful and if I am thinking of something and deliberately open my hands – there is a perception of letting go. For me, driving is when I usually allow my thoughts to run away and one may frequently observe me controlling the steering wheel with flat palms.

What I really needed to ‘let go’ of – was needing control. That was my prayer. It may be a cliché to say “Let go and let God” but what is the choice?? It doesn’t matter if you believe in an old man God, or Mother Nature, or an energy field in the Universe… opening your heart to the experience of vulnerability, of not knowing, is the challenge. It became important for me to chant “trust” to myself in meditation and while perfectly conscious throughout my day. I was constantly reminding myself of my most basic spiritual beliefs… that everything happens for a reason; that I was walking a specific journey; that there was ultimate balance in the universe.

I think the most difficult part of this was that almost every day there was something else to ‘let go’ of. As long as Hubby was living at the house I was aware of his movements and I tortured myself by keeping tabs on the company’s balance sheet. I still had access to the American Express cards and the checking account. I could see that when they traveled for business they were only getting one hotel room instead of two. I could see what restaurants they dined in with dates and times. Part of me convinced myself that the investigating was due diligence for the divorce – which it turned out to be – but it was entirely unhealthy. It was agonizing to watch, week after week, the manifestation of disloyalty but I couldn’t pull myself away from it.

I existed in this space between being the person I wanted to be…. strong and growing – contrasted with a person who was trapped in the anger and dismay of a failed dream. I vacillated constantly between the light and the dark. There were days when I simply couldn’t talk to anyone because I was ashamed of how negative my thoughts had become. It took all my strength to stay up…

One morning as I was driving to school I was talking to Hubby about some of the divorce details. We were at very different points of agreeableness. It was a difficult conversation and I felt as though I was getting the short end. There were days when I felt explicit loathing – as close to hate as I had ever come – even though Love was supposed to be ruling my heart. I had a meeting with one of my psych professors to discuss research I was doing for her. I sat in the parking garage and cried – again – it was almost a daily habit as we hashed out our agreement and then took a deep breath and walked across campus to her office. I was thankful for the early winter air as it quickly hid the emotional evidence of tears.

I sat down and began the dance of small talk in preparation for moving on to more specific topics. She asked me a series of questions that somehow triggered an emotive response and tears once again, sprang to my eyes despite my strong opposition. “Damnit”… “I’m sorry,” I said, “I hate it when I am this weak” … “so sorry”.  I shared that I had a hard discussion with my soon-to-be-ex-husband on the way in this morning as I tried hard to control myself and she looked at me with genuine empathy. It’s important to describe her because she was indeed my professor, but she was all of 28 or 29 years old, tiny… very petite, and gentle. She was soft spoken and quite deliberate with her words even though her smile was seemingly spontaneous. “Silly lady,” she said as she reached over to touch my hand “don’t you realize how much strength it takes to show emotion?”

The Longest Day

Continued from The Tipping Point

“Those who are heartless once cared too much” – unknown

When my tears were spent, I stood up and squared my shoulders. I was finished. Done. Through. Right there – in that moment, I knew that this marriage was gone. I was no longer willing to spend another minute allowing myself to be disrespected in the manner that had been a hallmark of this union. As the saying goes – ‘fool me once, shame on you… fool me twice, shame on me’. This was the third time and this time, my mother could fend for herself…  It was time for me to think of me – the messages I was sending to my children, my daughters – about self-respect.

I had things to do today. I was scheduled to get my hair cut and then meet some friends for drinks. I thanked my therapist for being there, for allowing me to breach a boundary in the most unforgivable way and scheduled an appointment to sort this all out.

I headed to my hair stylist, approximately a thirty-minute drive. I had first met him two years back after my hysterectomy when I realized that I had the same hair style for twenty years or more. I had researched stylists in the area and his name came up as one of the best. My primary interest was finding someone who could look at my face and determine – for me – the best hairstyle based on the shape of my face and my hair texture. In past attempts, a stylist would ask me what I wanted, ‘look through a book’ they would say… well – that’s like buying a pair of panties that I like from the Victoria Secret catalog and then being pissed that they don’t look like ‘that’ on my bottom!

Michael had cut my hair that very first day – trimming at least eight inches or so – and gave me a new look. It was something completely different and I loved it… I’d been going to him ever since. Funny that this particular day I was seeing my hairdresser, the proverbial therapist…

I recall being there and obviously emotional. There is no hiding this kind of emotional devastation even if I had wished to. When he asked me, what was happening, I put forth an avalanche of verbal expression, detailing each minute of the morning with explicit detail. It was a safe place, a location where no one knew me or my family, and I was free to exhibit any amount of animosity that popped up in the conversation. I was incredulous. I was beginning to get pissed, pissed at Hubby, pissed at Abee, mostly, pissed at myself. For a while, I forgot all the spiritual development that had been a part of my recent life and moved back into this rudimentary human reaction space. I wasn’t focused on forgiveness or spiritual growth, just the pain of my immediate experiences and it was raw.

Michael listened, like any good therapist – hairstylist and proposed blonde accents to spice up my look. Thankfully, that meant another two hours at the salon and I was grateful for the diversion. I didn’t care what he did, sex me up – spice me up – make me look younger… it didn’t matter. What did matter, was my plan. I needed to create a plan.

I never planned to divorce my husband. Years back, the first time I had discovered infidelity, our business was young, I had a newborn baby and our finances were just budding. Today was different. Our children were older; our business was established and we were much stronger financially. This was better than at any other time before, to think about leaving our marriage and believing that I would be ok. I had never finished a bachelor’s degree. I had taken a voluntary second place, a submissive posture with our business in terms of production – running most of my earnings through Hubby’s position because of the tax advantages. On paper, I was worthless except that I owned an equal fifty percent of our company. Otherwise, my resume demonstrated twenty years of partnership but no production quotas to support successful claims.

We were earning good money so I knew that it would all be ok, that it would work out, but there was a moment of anxiety when I realized that I had not personally produced a dime in income for more than ten years. I needed to put a plan in action but I had no idea where to start. I sat there with foil protruding out from my skull thinking carefully about what I must do next. I knew that first and foremost – I was finished with Hubby. There was an absolute in my heart, an unequivocal finality in regards to the future of our relationship. We would co-parent… that’s it. There was no denying that we had four children to raise. Even though Frank was in college, we still had three girls, the oldest of which was about to begin high school.

Oh. Our girls. What would I say to them? The breadth and width of Hubby’s betrayal is his story… not mine to tell but it clearly would have an impact on our family. I had to find a way to frame this morning’s experience in a way that could be digested by adolescent girls. I was willing to take the fall, to say that I was no longer willing to be in a marriage where I didn’t feel valued. I could say it in a way that didn’t disparage Hubby but still honored me. Why in the hell was I concerned about his favor??

“A heart can only take so much pain, and although it won’t shut down, it will begin to shut out.” ~ unknown

There were a gazillion thoughts swirling through my mind as I sat in Michael’s salon; some of which made sense, some did not; some were rational, others not so much. My defense system kicked into high gear and I formulated several automatic responses in anticipation of greeting Hubby later that night. I was going to stand my ground – we are done. Period.

My hair turned out fantastic. I was blonde from ear to ear and by any measure, the cut was sassy and the color was sexy. Michael was good at what he did and perhaps a little impartial to me, protective of the perceived injustice that existed in Hubby’s behavior.

I finished up the day at a restaurant / bar in a small neighboring town where one of my good friend’s and her friend – an acquaintance of mine – were catching up. I was exhausted, completely spent and somewhat unwilling to relive the melodrama of my day. I just needed to laugh, to think of something neutral, to escape the reality of my life so that’s what happened. We talked and laughed about kids, life, and busy schedules. It was good to be with friendly faces but I was wary of the impending confrontation that I knew was looming in front of me. I needed to go home.

When I got there, Hubby was sitting on the couch, watching television. I hadn’t spoken to him since earlier in the day when I told him I wanted a divorce. I suspect he had realized at some point that he had left his email account open, that there was a lot of evidence to suggest that he had significantly betrayed everything our matrimony vows embodied; so much evidence. He was regretful, remorseful, and repentant. I sat down on one side of a very large couch to listen. He stretched out and put his head on my lap after commenting on how much he liked my hair. He cried. I sat there quietly and still.

My heart was stone cold.

The Tipping Point

Continued from Discovering My Soul

“Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not, With the slightest push – in just the right place – it can be tipped.” ~ Malcolm Gladwell

I believe that much of life is what we make it. I had decided to think about the adversity in my life differently and in fact, my life was different. There was a ‘settling down’ of things. Every once in a while, there were ‘twinges’ of fear that activated my internal alarm system and I addressed it in counseling immediately. I wasn’t about to allow ‘gaslighting’ to re-enter my world – I wasn’t going to be a ‘fool’ again. My ability to trust was exceptionally fragile. Anytime a comment, behavior, or action didn’t fit into the schematic of my reality, I addressed it. I was learning. It was still far from perfect but there was some peace in my heart for a change.

It was the holiday season and Christmas was always a relaxed time for us. We made sure the focus was on family, food, and time together. That doesn’t mean that I was calm, cool, and collected for sure as during this time of year my definition of ‘relaxed’ changes a bit. My emotions were relaxed – my stress level of completing everything that needed to be finished, stayed elevated – which was the norm. It had become my Christmas Eve challenge to finish the matching jammies that the kids would wear to bed but it always got accomplished and by midnight, I was sipping a glass of wine next to the fire anticipating morning smiles.

It was a good Day. We had gotten the kids a pinball machine that year as a collective gift and most of the day was spent downstairs in our rec room taking turns to see who could rack up the next ‘highest score’. Mom and Abee had come by earlier in the week on their way south to spend a few days with Emma and her family. I was especially grateful that I wasn’t facing having to dedicate a holiday to the rigorous attention of emotional regulation. In that way, it was particularly ‘relaxing’. Hubby and I actually had fun together as we interacted with the girls, now eight, eleven & twelve; there is something endearing about that ‘tween’ time in adolescence.

We typically spent one day over Christmas week with Hubby’s family; exchanging gifts, catching up, and enjoying cousin interactions. It was a full day as we watched all twenty-two open gifts one-person-at-a-time, in order of age – oldest to youngest. What else does one do on a day like this but eat, drink, and be merry?! It was a tradition that we all held in the highest regard. Spending an entire day with extended family was always a holiday treat.

We celebrated New Year’s Eve in a traditional way by hosting a small get together with friends. Our children had basically grown up together and it had become customary for us all to gather, let the kids hang out, and ring in the new year – quietly – with friendly faces. There were two to three times as many tweens as there were adults and so by midnight, it was noisy and late… the evening didn’t last much past the stroke of midnight. We had closed out another difficult year and ushered in 2004 with a promise of impending dreams come true.

Just a few days later, on a Wednesday morning, after everyone had left for school and work, I sat down at our home computer to check my email. Hubby and I shared a computer, the girls had their own desktop although when everyone was home – it was a free for all…. Whatever chair was empty. As I moved the mouse to ‘wake up’ the screen I noticed that Hubby’s email was open. That was unusual. He must have been on it this morning and forgotten to close it.

“It is strange how often a heart must be broken before the years can make it wise.”     ~ Sara Teasdale

I didn’t intend on doing anything but clicking on the upper right-hand corner – the little ‘x’ that promises to end your view but his inbox was right there, in front of me and full of emails from Abee. A quick glance at the topic line indicated that many of them were work related and then I saw one that said ‘apartment’ and another that said ‘meet me’ …

I wanted to vomit on the spot. I began to shake uncontrollably. My heart began to race and I couldn’t find my breath. They weren’t the only emails. There were emails from several different women – not related to business – women I knew. I instantaneously lost my sanity. I became unglued – a crazy woman. My perception of good judgment, rationale, or sound conscience disintegrated on the spot. My insides erupted in an explosion of panic and my nervous system took over reading, one by one, letters that were right there in front of me, depicting a life I knew nothing about. It was the closest thing to an out of body encounter that a living person can spontaneously experience. I noticed a vibration in the room that I soon understood was a result of the violent spasms occurring in my body. I was screaming vulgar, violent words that no one could hear.

I made my way to the car stopping just long enough to pick up the phone and call the man who had shattered my life for the last time. “We are done. I want a divorce.” And I hung up the phone. I probably added some expletives, most likely strings of them before we disconnected and still shaking, drove straight to our therapist’s office. In the demonstration of my lunacy, I entered her waiting area, walked right up to her office door, and began pounding. She was in session but I had no regard for anything except the prevailing annihilation of my morning; of my life. An emotional nuclear detonation had just obliterated my heart so completely that I was a walking, talking, shell of the woman that had awakened that day.

She came out, annoyed that I was being so disrespectful but as I shook a wad of crumpled papers in front of her with the announcement that “they’ve been lying, I’m done… I can’t do this”… she ushered me into a small kitchenette with instructions to ‘hide’ here for a minute. I had no idea who she had in her office but occasionally it’s important to protect the identity of one client from another for confidentiality’s sake; a task that can be challenging in a small town. I waited a bit, having no real concept of time passing as my head was still reeling in another dimension and then she came to get me. She only had minutes as I obviously wasn’t there for a scheduled appointment but quickly, as any good therapist would, she assessed me for suicide ideation and or violent considerations.  I hadn’t gone quite that far off the deep end thankfully and I was slowly regaining my sanity, my breath, and collecting my thoughts.

“You can’t stay in this marriage,” she said. “I know, I know…” I replied and without the protection of delirium, I slid to the floor and the dam of sorrow, of broken dreams, of failed hope – collapsed with me into agonizing heartbreak.

Silver Linings

“We must assume every event has significance and contains a message that pertains to our questions…this especially applies to what we used to call bad things…the challenge is to find the silver lining in every event, no matter how negative.”  – James Redfield

It’s challenging to write about this time in my life because literally, every day felt difficult if I moved outside the protective walls of my home where my children provided the padding with their smiles, hugs, and loving presence.

To emotionally survive, it was necessary for me to adopt a way of thinking that provided encouragement and hope. I used the basic tenets of my belief structure which are embodied by the quote I use in this post – that ‘in each negative experience, there is value’.  I found strength in the notion that my role in this experience was to search for the lesson and grow.

Our therapy took on a different structure as we began weekly individual sessions and I started to look at myself more closely. I wanted to understand my role in the craziness that was my current life. After the first affair, I could accept that I had room to grow as a wife and a partner and I worked hard to ‘shore up’ those behaviors that contributed to more harmony in our lives. I believed that we had grown as a couple and had become stronger partners, better parents, and good business partners. Our remaining challenges focused on the differences in our sexual needs and I had surrendered myself to the extent that mine were unrecognizable.

This second affair suggested that our problems were less about my ability to be a good partner and more about the individual psychological deficiencies that kept us engaging in dysfunctional behaviors; Hubby having affairs and me staying in such a relationship.

Today, I teach people that behavior is only dysfunctional to the extent that it interferes with your life and/or your relationships. If it works in your life – great. If it doesn’t – fix it.

Something about me had to change. I discovered that my self-esteem had suffered considerably throughout the course of my marriage. Indeed, it hadn’t ever been tremendously strong but the erosion over time in this relationship had diluted what little there was. In therapy, I was able to identify body ‘issues’ that were triggers for me and understand how emphasized they became with the sexual discourse that reigned in my marriage. She helped me define sexual boundaries that were healthy for me – based on my interests and pleasure. Most importantly, she helped me know how to communicate them and stay grounded there.

I judged myself very harshly. The more aware I became; the more devastated I was about the behavior I had allowed myself to tolerate. I was a smart woman, a product of the Women’s Liberation Movement, independent and reasonable. How in the world had I evolved into a woman who had allowed herself to be so blatantly disrespected?

My therapist introduced the term Gaslighting.  It is an effort of one person to ‘overwrite’ or reformat the thoughts of another person with their own. It originated with the 1938 play Gas Light where a woman developed a belief that she was crazy when her husband manipulated information about reality. It has been used psychologically since to describe the manipulation of someone’s sense of reality. Gaslighting is common in cases of infidelity, the continuous denial of the cheater can eventually undermine the affected partner’s sense of reality – leading one to question what, often most, of what they believe to be real.

Learning about Gaslighting was a turning point for me. I was incredibly grateful that I wasn’t crazy!! I allowed myself to reflect on a proliferation of memories and see them more clearly. I slowly relearned how to trust my senses and how to validate myself. The flip side of this was understanding just how deeply my trust in Hubby had been dismantled. I found it difficult to believe anything he said to me, which didn’t help in the process of restoring some semblance of a relationship. I started to see myself differently.

I continued to read every self-help book that called to me. I was hungry to learn about myself and to understand why I chose this relationship – this difficult – seemingly impossible liaison with a man who was also, in his own way – broken. I wanted to comprehend what it was that brought us together and discern what potential there was for us. I grew to believe that we were together ‘for a reason’ – that we had chosen one another for the lesson that existed in our union. What was it??

The Conversations with God series by Neale Donald Walsch continued to provide inspiration for me and I found my spiritual instinct more pronounced, more substantial. I found that as I stepped away from what I perceived as a ‘religious’ view of God – some man on a throne – and thought of God in a universal sentience, the creating energy of all things, existing everywhere at all times, the purest vibration of love – I was experiencing God in a very new, consistent, and comfortable way. I found peace in the idea that I was constantly shrouded with a universal energy that consisted purely of love. I would imagine myself in a God bubble, healing my heart by its grace.

In this spirit, I could get up each morning and look at my husband. I was able to go to work and engage with my sister. I could imagine a time when my extended family might again go on picnics and gather again for Thanksgiving. Our healing was slow, the growth sometimes painful. It was exceptionally challenging for me to begin to trust Hubby. First, I had to trust that he and Abee had terminated their personal entanglements. We rearranged the work schedules, which presented a myriad of complexities and frankly, wasn’t as successful but I was unwilling to have them interacting so closely together any longer. I became a private detective; keenly observing every little detail and deciding about its authenticity in context to my reality. I developed an ability to honor my instincts. I noticed every little detail and was constantly on guard. My therapist taught me how NOT to file stuff away in disbelief but to present information and check for its accuracy. I learned the danger of assumptions and developed a process by which I could fact check and dispel accusations.

Hubby was learning too. Not long after this all blew up; he took some time off and intently addressed his emotional composition. He immersed himself in personal growth also, delivering him to a point where he committed himself to me and to our family in many of the ways I had been yearning for, for years. Maybe this was it – maybe we had been brought together so that we – both – could grow. Perhaps we were catalysts for one another. I knew that the loving energy of God worked in mysterious ways and we were learning how to love despite the tremendous pain. I believed that was part of what Jesus taught us to do… love and grow through pain. We were doing just that.

The transformation for both of us was far from complete but we had risen from the ashes of this debacle deeply scarred but hopeful for our future. I was far from trusting. In fact, the absence of trust contributed negatively in our rebuilding efforts and for every five or six steps forward we moved, there was two or three back. However, I believed in our advancing momentum.

Body Language

“Emotion always has its roots in the unconscious and manifests itself in the body.” – Irene Claremont de Castillejo

Continued from Brewing Storm

I learned how to distance myself from the marital discord in my life. I disconnected from its negative energy and allowed it to flow past me without acknowledging its presence. The seasons moved through the calendar without my awareness yet I remained active in the outside world. I ‘felt’ the changes. I noticed it but discarded the information as if it had no meaning. Once in a while, an incident would slip into my consciousness and I would say something to Hubby – “what’s going on?” I would ask. “What do you mean?” he would reply. I tried to explain the ‘off’ feeling that was so strong – something was tugging at my heart silently.

There was a growing battle inside of my heart. I knew something had changed and yet every time I asked a question, I hit a blank wall. “Nothing has changed.”, “What are you talking about?”, “Stop trying to stir something up.”, “Get out of your head.”… It didn’t really matter what the question was, the answer was the same. I felt lost and numb most of the time. I wasn’t living authentically and my body knew it.

One evening I was working late on the computer in our home office and I thought I saw something in the window to my left. It was dark and only light from my computer screen lit the room. I turned my head quickly to look through the window and a wave of nausea hit me like a baseball to the stomach. I bent over in my chair and caught my breath while I tried to keep the bile from projecting across my desk. As long as I held still, the nausea was at bay but each time I moved my head, the room swam and disappeared from focus. I got scared. I could feel my heart beating in my chest and I knew that I didn’t want to be alone. I made it upstairs to wake Hubby but only after stumbling through the hall like a pinball across plastic bumpers. I wasn’t hurting myself but I couldn’t walk a straight line. I sat on the edge of the bed after waking him trying to describe the sensation I had of being suspended in a vat of thick oil. I knew I needed to be upright but I couldn’t seem to keep my orientation there. We opted on the side of caution after thirty or so minutes and went to the emergency room.

We had to wake our neighbor so that someone would be in the house with the kids and she, being the best’est kind of friend – was there right away. By sometime in the middle of the night, I was diagnosed with Labyrinthitis – a virus or bacterial infection that affects the vestibular nerve in the inner ear. I was told not to drive for up to three weeks. Wait, What? Does this man know my life? Is he kidding? Ha!…  He didn’t know that my right hand was away at college and my other right hand had to work all day – especially if I couldn’t! The vertigo didn’t go away. Any time I moved my head, actually – my eyes – my whole body would sway in a direction that my head didn’t want to go. It was often as if one part of me was pulling the other part of me around in circles. Just being in the passenger seat was difficult if I tried to look ahead on the road or out of the windshield at all. I mostly kept my eyes locked on the dashboard and concentrated on the dust there.

Twin two – Emma and her two darling little ones came to my rescue as they had when I had my hysterectomy and stayed with me for a week so that I had help with driving. Not only couldn’t I get to work and back but the girls were incredibly active in scouts, swim team, and friendships that kept me on the road as much as a traditional ‘soccer mom’. There was always someone who needed to be there by 6 while another one had to be picked up here at 5:45 and their locations were ten miles apart… or something like that. It was manageable IF one could just get in a car and travel the roads for an hour and a half a day. It was one of the many reasons that I was trying to get away from the office more – It seemed the older the girls got, the more they needed me at home. With another sister in town, it was that much more fun, at least for us girls. Hubby was way outnumbered. One of the events that I had to miss was a concert that Hubby and I had tickets for. He was a huge fan of one of the old Rock bands that were making their rounds in smaller local venues so he was unwilling to miss it when they came to town. In fact, it wasn’t unusual for him to buy tickets for each of the events if they were within a drivable distance. This night, mom stayed with me so that Emma and Abee could go too.

The twins arrived dressed in jeans and button down shirts, humming Rock & Roll favorites they had been listening to all afternoon. I will never forget the images as Hubby entered the room to greet them and he was also wearing jeans and a tucked in black button down shirt that appeared to match Abee’s black shirt perfectly. It was surreal and awkward and weird and I had a feeling it wasn’t a mistake or a coincidence. As I recall, there wasn’t time for conversation and truly, I was at a loss for words. The three of them left the house chatting excitedly and as I watched them climb into Hubby’s truck, something in my body shivered as if a universal vibration had just split or severed or breached.

Although my dizziness got better, my body was still experiencing indications that something was wrong. My heart would race uncontrollably for no apparent reason. I would frequently find it difficult to take a deep breath. I would get light-headed and feel the need to sit down. After all of the medical issues that mom and SD Frank had over the years, I basically hated going to doctors. It seemed as if there was always bad news and I didn’t realize it then, but I had become an ‘avoider’. My life was busy and I had no time for bad news or a slew of tests. I toughed it out each time that I would experience these body functions that I didn’t understand and dismissed them like most of the other things that I simply didn’t want to think about.

The holidays were approaching and I had things to do.

Rebuild & Repair

“Only in the shattering can the rebuilding occur.” -Barbara Marciniak

Hubby moved back in and we began rehabilitating our broken home. Recovering from infidelity is difficult for any couple. Rebuilding trust happens slowly – painfully slow at first. For the injured party, it is not uncommon for questions to linger, for visions of the indiscreet couple to overtake intimate moments, and for fear of more indiscretions to overwhelm typical days. The only true relief comes with time. I was no different in that regard. As much as I tried, I couldn’t erase the vision of Hubby and Dee in his office, or in her bedroom. I learned to shake my head quickly when these images flooded my frontal lobe; to think of something else. It was more difficult to settle my heart rate and respiration when he was a little late or didn’t answer his cell phone. I was automatically and instantly thrust into neurotic angst wondering where he was and who he might be with. I didn’t reason with myself or process the fear, it built into a frenzy and exploded upon him in the form of emotional vomit the minute he walked in.

Our therapist worked with him to be patient with me as I began to heal and I worked on acquiring better skills that allowed me to emote differently and to cope more effectively with the volatility of my feelings. I learned to journal. I would write my thoughts and their corresponding feelings whether they were rational or not. I had a lot going on in my mind every day and I had to figure out how to validate myself.  I started smoking again. Hubby never had quit through all my pregnancies and we were spending a lot of time outside on the deck talking. Many of those conversations were difficult and having a cigarette in my hand somehow helped. It gave me something to focus on and strangely, connected us again. When we were first married, both of us smoking, we would sit outside and talk well into the evenings. Our talking time had been significantly curbed after I got pregnant and stopped smoking. I wouldn’t sit outside with him mostly due to my aversion to cigarette odor but also because I was also annoyed that he was still a smoker. Now, it was just easier to join him. I was mad at myself for picking up such an undesirable habit again but it served a number of purposes – at least in my mind.

There was a typical honeymoon period where we were all ‘in love’ and ‘romantic’ again. There was a resurgence in our commitment to one another and in our desire to be together. Money was still really tight, especially now that we were spending a car payment amount of money on counseling. It was difficult for us to ‘go places’ or ‘do things’ due to budget restraints but we would just take a walk or plan a picnic lunch from time to time, which helped us stay focused on one another. I tried to make sure that there was good balance between the time I spent on home, family, work, and Hubby. I was successful some days, others… not so much. There are only so many hours in a day and I couldn’t figure out most days how to make it all happen. I still feared that if I wasn’t fixing this element in myself that he would just keep looking elsewhere. I lived with an underlayment of that fear Every. Single. Day.

In therapy, I was learning about self-care. She had helped me to see that I was in a co-dependent relationship characterized by three distinct elements:

  •             Attempting to please another person in an effort to garner love or affection
  •             Making excuses for another person’s bad behavior
  •             Constant support of my partner at the cost of my own happiness

She motivated me to start thinking of myself in a healthier way, to develop interests beyond my husband and family. She taught me to think about my needs and to discern what was important to me. One does not simply ‘change’ thirty years of habit overnight (although I didn’t realize that) and so I experienced a great deal of frustration in my pursuit of perfecting the changes I wanted to facilitate. I felt as though I was entering a period of self-discovery and indeed, it was a beginning.

Our pastor had been grossly supportive, offering additional counsel as needed and always had a smile, an approving hug, ready for us on Sunday mornings when we entered the building. On more than one occasion I was moved to tears as the sermon or the readings would touch on a scar or still sore mental spot if it pertained to forgiveness or family or on being a ‘good’ person. I was occasionally conflicted about the ‘trauma’ we had experienced as a family and the way that it had been ‘glossed over’ simply because no one knew. Hubby – understandably – wasn’t keen on people knowing he had cheated on his wife and I didn’t want people to think badly of him going forward. I had largely, suffered in silence. At least as far as our community was concerned but I did have family.

I had a tremendous amount of support in my life and I used their counsel frequently. My friends Michele, E., my mom, and surprisingly, my twin sisters. Technically, they are half-sisters as we have different fathers but we never used that terminology and I didn’t love them any less. I had been a part of their entire lives; from changing their diapers to working on high school term papers for them. They were turning twenty that year and transforming into really great young ladies. College hadn’t proven to be their vibe and so they demonstrated how hard working they were by holding down jobs in a variety of genres. Cellular phones were just becoming big business and they had an opportunity to participate via sales. They were spectacular! No one I was aware of knew more than they did about cell phones. It was fun to see them blossom into women. When they got to spend time with us, they brought fun and light into our home; we were always laughing. After years of having them visit as kids and then babysitters, it was great to experience them as adults. Our families were central forces in our life. Hubby’s family was closer in proximity and we saw them more often, but I was particularly close to my own. Even though it was a contemporary conglomeration of step-parents and half-siblings who lived far away from me, they all were the grounding strength of what drove and guided me.

We had a party that fall. We were putting ourselves back on track and it was the right time to celebrate not only Baby Em’s baptism but our renewed marital spirit. We invited everyone in both families and a number of distant friends. It was a time of leaf raking, wood stacking, and pumpkin eating. Everyone helped and it was easy. Love was abundant. I was proud of us. We were weathering the storm. We still went to therapy weekly but it had transformed from pain management to skill development in a short time frame. I believed that therapy had saved our marriage.

Looking at Layers

“I’m like an onion. You can peel away my layers, but the further you go, the more it’ll make you cry.”  ― Laura Carstairs-Waters

I really connected to this therapist and it turns out that a ‘connection’ with your counselor is vital to your healing. I tell my own clients this all the time; if there is no rapport, find a new one! Of course, one of the first things she wanted to know about is how my child hood was. I recounted the many moves, my parents’ divorce, my sibling connections, how I was a primary caregiver, etc., and praised the job my mom and dad did overall. I talked about how great it was to grow up in a small town and to see my parents happier with the partners they chose the second time around. I talked for almost the whole hour and her eyes got bigger and bigger as the clock ticked. I really do laugh about this today but then – I was dead serious. I thought I had a great childhood!! I was completely oblivious as to how my childhood shaped my thoughts, feelings, or perspective about the world. I just hadn’t ever given it a second thought. I was who I was and I had an image of who I needed to be. I strived to be that person regardless of the obstacles of distorted cognition’s that developed in childhood.  [We therapists are not looking back to BLAME anyone but to understand who the person on the couch really is – so many clues!] Nonetheless, she was wide eyed and I was smug. When I said, “it was great”, she said “well, OK then.” Little did I realize she was probably thinking about how much work there was to do!

I began to learn about myself bit by bit as she ‘peeled back’ the proverbial onion. I realized that I was a caregiver. Something that was blatantly obvious to many others was just being awakened in my consciousness. I knew that I always jumped in and took care of people but I never thought about why. I also learned that I took care of these people without regard to what I needed. In fact, I wasn’t aware of how to discern what my needs looked like and really wouldn’t for several more years. I realized that I did very little for myself and resentment of it lived in my subconscious, leaking out in the form of passive aggressive behavior more often that I would have liked to admit. I learned that I thought people would not like me if I said “no” to them. I had lots of thoughts really that were fairly misconstrued, some of which were based on ideas in my mind that were just plain false and others that I had due to some assumption that I had made over time. More on the specifics of these – later.

Most importantly, I learned how many of these things impacted my ability to be a good partner to my husband. I love to argue a point. I cherished my time on the debate team in school and probably should have become an attorney. I enjoy defending a position, especially if I feel like I am educated on the topic. In fact, my father and brothers are very much like me in that regard and I grew up in an environment where debating was the way that we communicated with one another on various levels. Well, Hubby did not. In actuality, Hubby felt like each time I entered into debate mode I was simply trying to be right, to run him down, to be better than or ‘one up’ him. That’s not what was happening in my mind – ever – but with counseling, I was able to see how my ‘debating’ behavior could have been interrupted in that manner. I never really cared to be right – only engage in the argument. Although, I will admit that I rarely entered into a full on debate unless I was certain of the information and the odds that I was ‘wrong’ were quite low.

I learned that having children was all consuming for me. I loved those kids to the moon and back – more really. They started my day with love and even though I was usually really ready for them to go to bed by eight, I tucked them each in with hugs and kisses, full of gratitude for their sweetness and genuine naiveté. Francis was growing into such a great young man, so self-sufficient and helpful. I was incredibly protective of him, often to the demise of Hubby’s discipline because I thought there was too much responsibility placed on him. Hubby was tough. He never had time to ‘grow into’ fatherhood – it just happened with my six-year-old. I believe that his interest was in developing character and integrity but our values on how to foster those qualities varied significantly and I often disagreed with his approach. As such, I became a defender and interfered perhaps too much (although I may do it again under the same conditions). The dedication with which I embarked on mothering used the majority of my ‘giving’ energy and generally left little for Hubby. On many occasions I recall asking him to be ‘an adult’ about this – that the children were only young for a while. In retrospect, I needed to assimilate ‘balance’ into this area of my life as well so that Hubby time was also a part of my day.

I learned also that I am a fast processor. I am quick on my feet to render information, decipher it, and respond on point. This, generally was in contrast to Hubby who had to think and consider what he heard before he could constitute a response that felt appropriate to him. Essentially, this made me ‘hot headed’ even though I didn’t have a temper per se, I sought a response quickly and would ‘chase’ down an answer. There was more than one occasion where I literally followed behind him demanding resolution with tone and frustration. It also was not perceived in the way that I intended but I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

I took my responsibility for change seriously. I knew that I had to learn how to give in ways that I hadn’t before. I was all geared up to be better, to be the wife that would be hard to walk away from, to be ‘all in’. It was possible that I had been ‘holding back’, unwilling to be completely and totally vulnerable in case something happened. I needed to be more open and emotionally available. I know I didn’t ’cause’ him to behavior poorly or cause him to be disrespectful but I was one half of this partnership and I wanted to own my part.

We learned about ourselves and about one another in so much as we were open to hearing. One can only absorb so much at a time. We both knew that we had to individually change some behaviors if our relationship was going to progress. I saw what I needed to do and I clearly communicated what elements I needed from him; fidelity, honesty, and respect. I think he tried, but it wasn’t meant to be.