Was it really that bad? And so what if it wasn’t?

Every so often, my therapist hits me with a zinger — one of those questions where I just stare at her blankly while things sort of slow down and speed up all at the same time, while my mind both races and goes blank simultaneously…and after a while, I just shrug dumbfoundedly and say — I have no idea. I’ll have to think about that. And then, days later, I’m still digesting and hoping that writing something down will get me to a place where I feel like I’m starting to make sense of it all. Seems unlikely, but here it goes.

One of the most valuable insights I’ve gained about myself over the past nine months or so is the extent to which my ability to trust my own perceptions is basically…non-existent. I’m not entirely sure how I manage to project confidence or competence (although I do know that I do best in situations with really clear rules / expectations — situations that don’t involve much ambiguity for me to have to wonder if “I’m doing okay” or whatnot), because immediately below the surface of just about everything I do is a deep, deep sense of self-consciousness. And that doesn’t really begin to describe it — it’s more like an ongoing, persistent, endless second guessing of not just every decision I make or action I take, but a second guessing of every thought and even every feeling. There are probably a lot of different reasons that this is the case, but it’s definitely the case.

So I do a lot of mental churning, and also a lot of asking of others — especially, these days, my therapist — “Does that make sense?” or, more to the point “Am I crazy?” Lately, the issue that I’m struggling with the most is the fact that while my ex is “gone” he’s not really *GONE* — he still lives in the same town, and, when his self-employed traveling consultant schedule permits, he spends time with the kids. And while the vast majority of professionals and resources would suggest “no contact” with him going forward, the no-contact option is…well…not an option. So we cross paths more often than I wish we did, and we exchange more text messages than I wish we needed to, and — UGGH. Every interaction sends me swirling back into patterns of self-doubt and insecurity and I don’t even know what else.

The most recent mental spiral started with a somewhat out-of-the-blue text message from my ex inquiring about my grandfather’s health. I briefly thought that he was actually interested in how my grandfather was doing, but it turned out that he was just trying to figure out something about his travel schedule — whether any changes in my grandfather’s health would have any impact on a longstanding annual trip to spend time with him, and whether the kids would be in town that particular week. [FN1: The inquiry was particularly disorienting because I was sure that I’d already confirmed that the kids and I would be traveling during the usual week regardless of my grandfather’s health — we’d either be congregating all together in the usual beach spot, or we’d bring the party to him if he’d become too sick to travel. And while I doubted my own sanity about the previous conversation the whole time we were texting because I couldn’t find the previous conversation while frantically scrolling through my text history — a recent review of my email history shows that, yes, in fact, I’d already answered precisely the question he was asking. Sigh.]

In any case, I was explaining to my therapist that during the relatively short text conversation, I burst into tears and suddenly started second guessing everything about everything related to my perceptions of my ex, and of our separation, and of my insistence that his time with the children be supervised, and…well, like I said, everything. I cannot explain how one tear emoji from him sent me into a total tailspin, but it did. And so sitting in her office, I was sort of back at square one, and I admitted that I just wasn’t sure about anything — and maybe I’m the one who is overreacting, and maybe I’ve completely misrepresented everything that’s happened, and maybe I should be more understanding of his mental illness, and maybe my legal strategy was too aggressive, and maybe our relationship really wasn’t that bad, and maybe, and maybe, and maybe…

And my therapist stopped me, and she asked — well, what if it all really wasn’t that bad? Does it matter if it wasn’t? And that’s when I totally stopped, and was just as perplexed then as I am now.

So…I think it really was that bad. We spent almost twenty years together, so I’m sure that I’m conflating some of the details — especially during the period of time that I was isolated in the middle of the situation and wasn’t taking screen shots and sending them to my sister and my cousin and my girlfriends for them to confirm that, yes, in fact, the things that he’s saying and doing are outrageous and/or cruel and/or manipulative and/or [whatever]. And my therapist, too, made sure to confirm for me that, yes, it was that bad, and no, I’m not crazy (at least not for having miserable feelings about my relationship and experiences with my ex…), and yes, there were/are completely justifiable reasons for insisting on supervised visitation until an objective professional can weigh in on the best interests of the children. And she circled back to some of our earliest sessions, and sent me back to some of the first resources that I used regarding gaslighting and emotional abuse and recovery, and, to some degree, mental equilibrium was restored.

But the second part of the question — does it matter? Or, I think — WHY does it matter if it was really that bad, or if I am totally crazy and I just felt like it was bad, or if it was just a little bit bad, or whatever. What difference does it make? And here I am, several days and several written paragraphs of avoiding the question later, and I still don’t know. There’s a part of me that thinks, well, if it wasn’t that bad then it could have been “fixed” and I should or could have done that fixing.

But I think the truer answer for me is somehow related to what this Atlantic writer (and undoubtedly many others) have identified as “fetishizing” suffering. I didn’t grow up in an evangelical home and I don’t currently identify with the evangelical tradition, but I was deeply, deeply influenced by it during my undergraduate college years and throughout at least the early years of my marriage. [FN2: I am certain that the disillusionment/confusion I experienced in my relationship with my ex is heavily intertwined with my disillusionment/confusion with the evangelical movement generally. And I’m sure my experience, in many ways, pales in comparison to the journey my ex had growing up in an evangelical missionary family. This is one place where I cannot let go of the empathy I have for him. More posts. More days.] 

I think, to the extent that I’ve clung to various evangelical perspectives over the years, it’s because of the way that it brought order to my universe. (I like rules. I’ve think I’ve mentioned that.) Evangelicalism was “good for me” in the way the Air Force Academy was “good for me” — harsh, demanding, exhausting, heavily steeped in tradition, resistant to change, hierarchical, and somewhat nonsensical if you think too hard about it…but black and white. And, therefore, comfortable. So even as I defied all sorts of traditional evangelical stereotypes (for instance, as a female full-time member of the active duty military — as opposed, to say, a devoted stay-at-home wife and mother — and a super-devoted member of #teamscience), and even as I was endlessly bewildered by the disconnect between my ex’s public persona and his private one — especially as it related to what he believed about God and love and marriage and me and our children and all sorts of other things — I was convinced that, I dunno, “God’s Will” or something. I was abiding by some internal mishmash of used and abused bible verses relating to “God works all things for the good of those who love him” and “my thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways, declares the Lord” and — undoubtedly “we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character, and character, hope.” Others, too, no doubt. [FN3: These days, I’m equally guilty of extracting and mentally committing to the biblical instruction to do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Old habits die hard.]

So…that doesn’t exactly get to the bottom of why it matters so much to me that it really was that bad. But it’s the closest I feel like I’ve gotten since I was so shaken by the question when my therapist asked me. I get the sense that she’d like to get me to a place where I can internalize the idea that it’s okay (good? right?) to be divorced even if it wasn’t that bad. And I *think* (but I’m not sure) that I want to get to that place, too. Given how much I do value marriage, and loyalty, and commitment, it’s hard (Really Hard. Insanely Hard.) for me to wrap my mind around the idea that there’s anything “good” or “right” about the way that life as I knew it (wanted it?) has been eviscerated. I meant my vows when I said them. I wanted a partner. I was ready for better or worse. I think my kids (and I) would be better off if they had two healthy, functional parents. But here we are, and #radicalacceptance, and…something(s).

I think, then, at the moment, I can only justify all of the current turmoil to myself (to God? to the various people in my circle that do still adhere strongly to the evangelical tradition?) if it was that bad. If it really was abuse. If it really was rape. And not just if I think or feel or believe that those things were the case, but if an entire chorus of external validation reminds me over and over and over that it wasn’t normal, or necessary, or the sort of suffering that produces perseverance and character and hope. It was just wrong.

So does it matter? For me, right now? Yes. Yes it does. Am I right? I have no idea.


One thought on “Was it really that bad? And so what if it wasn’t?

  1. Is this like the Dumbledore quote: “Of course it’s happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?”

    I’ve also had those moments with my therapist — even on a less traumatic scale, still takes me days to recover. Hugs ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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