A little over 3 years ago, I destroyed my marriage. I had already done a lot of damage to it by being unfaithful and by being generally unreliable, but that night in November was when I walked away from it. I’ve often regretted that moment since, but with time I’ve come to appreciate that it was the best decision for my wife. She is happier, more prosperous, and more secure with the life she has built after me than she ever was with me.
The most tragic casualty in the whole process is my daughter. She is the light of my life, the sum of all my hopes. She is, in my opinion, the pinnacle of humanity. I broke her heart by leaving, and even now she really doesn’t want to have anything to do with me.
I can’t blame her. For one thing, she’s still a child, so even if her instinct was incorrect, she is blameless for it. For another, I am and will always be her fiercest defender. But finally, her instinct is probably correct; I have been pretty severely mentally ill since I was very, very young, and as no combination of medication, therapy, and hospitalizations has ever effected a meaningful improvement, I’m not likely to ever get better. In fact, with other medical conditions I have recently acquired, I doubt I’ll be around for all that much longer anyway. So while I love my daughter unreservedly – and in many ways, my ex-wife – I think it was very cruel and heartlessly irresponsible of me to enter into their lives as I did. I really should have known better; people have been telling me that I’m a human hurricane for as long as I can remember.
Which brings me to the subject of my submission: I’m thinking of leaving. It’s been fun and all, but I’m quite tired and I’d like to go. I’ve been on for a while, and while I definitely flubbed a number of scenes, I feel I’ve given it my all (what a sad amount that turned out to be) and it’s time to exit stage left.
I’ve stuck around these last few years for the sake of my daughter; but lately I’ve become increasingly convinced that she’ll be better off. Nothing else has any appeal; while I get on well with all my coworkers, I have no real friends, and I can’t seem to keep any (usually through my own reprehensible behavior). I have nothing else in my life but work and whatever electronic distraction I can cobble together for an evening. Furthermore, a careful examination of the available evidence leads inexorably to the conclusion that, while I have amassed a not-inconsiderable amount of education and information, my opinions and perspectives have no value to anyone other than myself, and my existence generally serves no beneficial purpose, as what I do at my job can be done by basically anyone.
I’m supposed to have a question, but I really don’t. I guess I just wanted to tell someone, and you’re someone I’ve admired for a long time.
Lost at Sea
Dear Lost at Sea,
On a hot summer’s day when I was about nine or ten, I helped my father clean out our garage. As we sifted through all of the mess that our family had amassed over who-knows-how-long, I came across a board with a nail sticking straight out of it towards the sky. I wondered what might happen if I stepped on the nail with my banged up Keds lace-ups. So I cautiously pressed my foot straight onto the nail. You can guess what happened.
A shock surged through my body as I felt the nail puncture the feeble tennis shoe rubber and drive straight into the ball of my foot. I remember reflexively yanking my foot up off the board, screaming out in pain, and hobbling into the house to examine the damage I had just inflicted on myself.
This childhood memory has run through my mind countless times over the years. It seems like such an obviously stupid thing to do – to intentionally step on a nail. I still wonder what in the world I was thinking because I can’t for the life of me remember what was going through my mind at the time. What I do know is that I made a decision to act knowing that the action had a good chance of hurting me. But I did it anyway.
Oh, Lost at Sea. Your letter sits heavy with me. The pain you so deeply feel is something I can identify with, at least in part. You have undoubtedly been through several acutely traumatic experiences, some of which you brought on yourself. I know how much it hurts to look back on one’s choices and examine the fallout. Devastating loss and guilt and shame have a way of rotting our souls from the inside out. I know what that feels like. But I also know that it doesn’t have to be that way.
The people in your life who have called you a human hurricane are wrong, darling. And that unfair labeling of you tells me far more about them than it could ever tell me about you. Other people’s opinions of you are none of your business. What is your business is what you believe about yourself. And that is where your work begins.
I can tell from your letter that you have a driving power within you, a power that right now is mostly centered on self-hatred. In order to change your life situation, you must be willing to do away with the distorted beliefs you have about who you are as a man and instead refocus that drive on love – of yourself first, and then others.
The truth is, you are not the first person to get a divorce and watch your ex-spouse build a happy, fulfilling life with someone else. Nor are you the first person to have a strained relationship with your child as a result of divorce. These things happen to even the most beautiful and brave people because we are all messed up and do and say awful things to the people we love. Coming to a place of self-acceptance is the key to the door that will begin your healing.
Once you are able to accept all of yourself – not just the mistakes you’ve made but also the parts of you that are holy and lovely, too – you will be able to take all of it, all of who you are, and courageously transform into the person you’re meant to be.
You mention that you have been severely mentally ill for as long as you can remember. I don’t know if you’re actively in therapy right now, Lost, but I plead with you to invest in your recovery by finding a licensed mental health professional who will offer you insight and support. Through my own mental health struggles, my therapist has at times been my only guiding light. If it wasn’t for her, I might not even be here today.
There is no reason for you to walk this road alone. You deserve to have someone look you in the eyeballs and hear your story and sit with you in your sorrow. We all do. Give yourself the gift of community. Be willing to move out of isolation into connectedness. This can be literally life-giving if you let it.
When I was twenty-one years old, I stepped onto another nail on purpose, metaphorically speaking. I married a man who had proven himself to be untrustworthy and irresponsible. We were both young and had no idea what it meant to make promises, let alone keep them. I think I knew that marrying him would bring pain into my life, but I did it anyway.
Right before my father walked me down the aisle at my first wedding, he looked me in the eyes and said, “You know, you don’t have to do this. We can turn around and leave right now.” In his voice was a sort of desperation I’m not sure I’d ever heard before. I said, “I know, Daddy.” And then the church doors opened up and I took a step forward and he walked me down the petal-speckled aisle to the man who is now my ex-husband.
During that time in my life, thoughts of self-hatred and self-doubt played in my mind over and over again. I couldn’t yet see the marvelous gifts that I had to offer this world. All I could see was the sum of my mistakes and failures and nothing more. So I married a man I didn’t trust because I didn’t believe anyone better would ever love me. I didn’t believe that I was worth more than that. And I didn’t have the strength to tell anyone because I wasn’t yet ready to change my life.
But you are.
I can tell you are ready, Lost at Sea, because of the scorchingly sorrowful letter you wrote to me. The hundreds of people reading this right now know that, too. And you know it as well. I know you are ready because you mustered the courage to speak your pain to me; you gave voice to your sorrow. That is a brave step, my dear, and one that I hope you will celebrate years down your road of recovery.
Your ex-wife might be happier now that you two are no longer married. That is not necessarily a reflection of you or a judgment on who you are as a person. In time, I trust you will be able to establish a healthy co-parenting relationship with your ex-wife because I believe you do truly love her and want her to be happy. That’s more than millions of ex-spouses can say about their former better-halves.
While your daughter might be full of resentment or anger or indifference towards you right now, that does not have to be the way your story together ends.
I am around hundreds of middle-schoolers every day. And around hundreds of elementary students on a weekly basis. To put it mildly, I know kids. I’m not sure how old your daughter is, but I do know children are resilient and they crave a relationship with their parents even when their behavior screams they don’t care at all.
Regarding your beautiful girl, my advice is to not give up on your relationship with her. As you continue on the path of your own self-healing, you will be better equipped to love her and maintain a healthy relationship in which you both can thrive. You can’t skip the step of your own healing, though, because as I mentioned in my response to a reader last week, you’ve got to take care of yourself before you can take care of anyone else.
It took more than seven years for me to lift my foot up off the metaphorical nail that was my first marriage. At first, it hurt like hell. And I limped around for a while. But when I focused my attention and my strong will on my own healing, it empowered me to love the people in my life – my sons, my family members, my close friends – in a way I’d truly never experienced before.
And that can be your story, too, Lost at Sea.
The thing most beautiful to me about life is that we have the ability to stand in front of our future and decide what we will become. You have the power to heal what is broken. But you must be willing to do for yourself what no one else can do – make peace with your past mistakes, embrace your whole person for the bright-and-shining-and-flawed man you are, and choose to get off the nail and start healing from within.
Do these things and you will find exactly what’s meant for you.
**Every struggle is different. Recovery from crisis is possible, and if you are wrestling with some of the same themes as Lost at Sea, know that there is hope for you. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 and according to their website provides confidential support for people in distress and prevention and crisis resources for you and your loved ones. Visit their website here for more information, and know that while it feels you are alone, there are millions in the world who stand with you in your fight.
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