Photo above of local blackberry bushes, taken by the author
I knew I wanted to write something personal… partly because it’s a famously reflective time (happy new year), and partly because I haven’t written directly about my life in a while, which was not an accident but a months-long act of avoidance. At first the avoidance was tactical—I didn’t want strangers to know what was going on with me, even though I desperately wanted to write about it. Then it became a matter of necessity, because I stopped knowing what to say. The second part was more depressing than the first; it was easier to feel muzzled than mute. My mounting inability to put my experience to words felt like a direct reflection of my mental state. Too illegible and tender for proper translation.Haley Nahman
Haley gives me the exact words with which to open Part Two of my story (you can read Part One here). This is the hardest thing I’ve ever written publicly about. To try and put words around such an experience… it will never be enough, and yet as surely as the river seeks the sea, there is something within me that pulls me forward, knowing I must keep trying to write about my experience of what happened.
After the decision to live separately, things got practical. While we didn’t know how long we were going to be living separately for, we had to problem solve a lot of small things, fast. I cancelled my flights two weeks before we were meant to leave. We had to talk about where JCB would stay, and how we would treat the money in our joint account, and what to tell our friends, and if we still going to see each other, and, and, and… These many decisions helped to keep at bay the grief and fear that threatened to swallow me. If I was trying to set up automatic payments, I didn’t have to think about what being on a break would feel like.
Our most treasured friends picked JCB up the night before his flight out. Instead of loading our individual suitcases into the back of their car, there was just one. We carried out a desk and a computer chair and a pillow, too. My goodbye communicated everything in a hug, preferring to say meaningless phrases like “travel safe”, so there were less words to catch in my throat. Waving the vehicle goodbye that night, I think I was in shock.
While JCB was overseas, I was told by three separate people who knew what was going on that I looked and sounded “really good”. I took that to mean that I could communicate how exceptionally well I was handling things, as a “cool”, “chill” wife. I could deal with this part because I’d told myself that JCB was on a holiday I didn’t join in with – it sucks, but you’ll get over it Jemma. Luckily, FOMO didn’t rear its hideous head; I kept my days busy and stayed out of the house for as long as I could. I received a care package from my brother and sisters. I bought exactly what I wanted from the supermarket and relished it.
Looking back, it was clear I was deep in my first stage of grief – denial. Then I picked him up from the airport after he had been away for 20 days. We got dinner at an average Mexican place, and I have no clue what we talked about. All I remember is the overwhelming feeling of fear and sadness as reality hit me. I held out until JCB went to the loo, and then I cried into my half-eaten burrito.
After our mumbling dinner punctuated with tears, I dropped him off where he was staying. It was the saddest goodbye I’ve ever made, and will probably hold that title until one of my parents dies. I got around the first corner before I pulled over and started sobbing. I don’t know how long I stayed there before I could drive again. Halfway up Dyers Pass, I started crying again. 30 minutes later, I got home, sunk to my knees and screamed into my pillow. No words could comfort me. My husband was here, but he did not come home with me. I had transitioned into the second stage; I was revolting, because I was petrified.
The days apart began. Through an unspoken yet mutual agreement, our contact reduced to practical text messages. There was minimal calling – usually just about something small but time-sensitive. Face-to-face time was mostly spent in a very professional threesome with our psychologist.
Where should I send your motorbike registration?
When you next drive in, could you drop my Dynamics textbook off?
What type of pipe should I replace the broken hose under the sink with?
I had a new appreciation for those who live by themselves. I remember a former colleague, who was a single Mum, once saying to me, “I wouldn’t trade my life for anything, but every now and again, I would also love it if there was someone there to bring me a cup of tea when I am sitting on the couch.” And for the first time, I felt an inkling of what she was saying. I learned how to get rid of the mice that had come up through the kitchen cupboard and eaten their fill of rice flour, hot chocolate powder and plastic piping. How scary your first storm at night in a new house is. What it meant to shop and cook for one. The weight of being responsible for doing everything around your home. The hollow shiver that can accompany arriving back after work in winter to a dark, cold house with the blinds still open.
I had to balance the sadness and denial and loneliness and confusion with the reality of being a human, living in my specific meat-sack, who had my own personal commitments and relationships. I had to call JCB to tell him a new neice had been born. A couch was delivered that we’d ordered seven months prior. I had to be brave and honest. I had to tell people why JCB wasn’t at home when they wanted to come over. I said things out loud to people that I love that I’ve never talked about. I learned that my situation was a trigger for some people. I learned who was safe to talk to, and who was not. I learned that some friends had brilliant, wise, caring words to share when I was with them, and then they didn’t get back in touch for two months. I learned just how necessary mental health days are. I learned that some reactions and advice might not be useful, but people were trying because they cared, and that was a gift in itself.
My music tastes changed alot. I stopped blogging here, and wrote sreeds in the journal by my bed. A simple trip to the supermarket had me crying under my mask when I realised how I didn’t have to consider JCB’s culinary preferences, and oh my word, how I missed him. I sat with what divorce would feel like. I had to face my own scornful, self-righteous opinions about those who were divorced; my lack of any compassion and kindness meant I was at war with my own potential future self. I had gotten married so young – what did it mean for me to be a woman if I wasn’t a wife, or even a partner? I couldn’t handle it. Even worse was the thought of dividing our stuff, our money, our home, our memories.
I reflected on words JCB had said that had broken my heart. I realised that I was not as blameless as I had been telling myself that I was. That some of my behaviours were not acceptable. That not having sex before we got married was a hulking great bullseye to aim my regret and anger at, but it was not actually the root of our problems. That I had to rebuild trust with my husband before we could ever begin to discuss intimacy.
We didn’t make a final date to decide anything. We were just going to see what happened. According to our psychologist, limiting expectations, sitting with our feelings, and dealing with just what was in front of us at the time was a good thing. But that meant I had no idea what to expect.
We were angry and scared and frightened, and still, we tried to treat each other with as much dignity and kindness as we could muster. What we faced was an unspecified amount of time apart, without knowing what we were looking for. “Success” could be finalising our separation, or recommitting to our marriage, or completely changing our expectations with the marriage, or extending the break to continue working on ourselves. There was nothing obvious or specific about this situation.
Growing up in the church, certainty was highly valued (ironic for a “faith tradition”, but I arrived a little late to that party…). I had become Ged in the Earthsea novels as he sails to the outer reaches of the Eastern Sea and past all known lands: adrift on a raft with no map, no oars, and no way to tell the sea from the land from the sky. There was no right answer. The break could “mean” anything. Together, we had to decide which way was up, and which way was forward.
The break was the hardest time in my short, sheltered life. And at the same time, when my marriage was on the line, if felt like there was nothing left to lose. That realisation translated into a kernel of freedom I had never felt. There was no going back. We were taking nothing in our marriage for granted any more – showing up together had to be a choice, because we’d given each other permission to choose not to do that, without anger of blame or defensiveness.
All bets were off, so the tenor of honesty couldn’t be dampened.
Part Three will land on Friday.
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