What A Long, Strange Trip: Advice for the Newly Divorced

My daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor when she was 18 months old. Almost immediately, two people from my professional world reached out to me to share their own stories.

Both Susan and David were parents of teenagers who’d survived brain tumors as toddlers. I leaned hard on them for advice and comfort, referring to them as my “Brain Trust.” They taught me to find the strength within me to make it through appointment after appointment, test after test, seizure after seizure and surgery after surgery. Most importantly, they taught me the power of the phrase “me, too.”

During Emily’s first round of surgery, David sat with us in the waiting room. He looked me in the eyes and said, “You’re a member of the club, now. It’s not one you’d ever thought you’d join, but here you are. You know what it’s like to have child with a brain tumor. And one day, you’ll do for me what I’m doing for you. We pay it forward. It’s what we do.”

I never found the opportunity to do for another parent of a child with a brain tumor what David and Susan did for me. But as it turns out, I’m now a member of a different club: the newly divorced. Again, not a club I ever thought I’d join, but here I am. Turns out, we pay it forward, too.

One of my good friends is in the process of divorce. She’s still a few weeks away from filing, however, she and her husband have made the decision to end their marriage. She’s on the same roller coaster I rode in 2014.

I’m trying to be of service to her. I listen carefully. I answer her questions. I coach her through the lows and laugh with her during the highs. Like my “brain trust” did for me, I’m trying to show her that she’s stronger than she thinks she is – and that quite often the most powerful words are “me, too.”

For what it’s worth, here are the bits of advice I’ve been giving my friend. None of it is groundbreaking, but sometimes it helps to hear what worked for others.

Get to therapy. I don’t believe anyone can go through such a dramatic life change without professional help. I was lucky enough to find a counselor with whom I clicked early in the process. She calls me on my bullshit when it surfaces, helps me build strategies to change and grow, and cheers me on when I’m successful. It’s a powerful relationship, and I’m grateful she’s been by my side.

Sing. I’m going to have to insist you try this, even if you think it’s silly. It doesn’t matter if you’re a good singer. Just find an anthem and sing it. Loudly. Over and over and over. In the last few months of my marriage and early days of my separation, mine was “Landslide.” It’s this line that got me:

Well, I’ve been afraid of changing ‘cause I built my world around you. But time makes you bolder, even children get older, and I’m getting older, too.

I sang it in the shower. In my car. In my office. At a friend’s karaoke Christmas party. I wasn’t picky.

Anyway, just sing. Find a song that makes you cry when you’re bottled up (“Wasted Time,” by The Eagles). Find a song that makes you stop crying when the dam breaks (“Survivor,” by Destiny’s Child). Find songs that paint the picture of the life that you want (“The Way I Am,” by Ingrid Michelson).

And then call me. We’ll do karaoke.

Read. I’m not saying everyone needs to stock up on “self-help” books, but it sure was helpful in my case. I craved books about empowerment, recovering from heart break, coping with change and forgiving yourself for your mistakes. I’ve come to refer to my favorite three writers as “The Holy Triumvirate:” Brene Brown, Elizabeth Gilbert and Glennon Doyle Melton.

Brene wrote “Gifts of Imperfection,” “Daring Greatly” and “Rising Strong.” Elizabeth Gilbert wrote “Eat, Pray, Love,” of course. She’s also very active on Facebook, did a great podcast called “Magic Lessons,” and just released “Big Magic,” which I’m reading now. Glennon’s book is called “Carry On, Warrior.” Her blog is Momastery.com.

These three women helped me get through the last year and learn how to start being the best me. And I have to say, I’m a much more interesting person these days. Well, in my opinion, anyway. And really, I’m the only one whose opinion matters. Which leads me to my next point:

Quit giving a shit about what other people think. This is a hard one. Especially if you’ve lived your life trying to measure up to other people’s expectations.

At the core of this is learning to love yourself for the messy, broken person that you are. It means changing the tapes that play in your head from negative, self-loathing phrases like “You’re fat” and “You’re a bitch” and “You’re a screw up” to kinder, gentler phrases like “You may not perfect, but you are enough” and “Hey sister, you got this” and “Whatever, you’re still fabulous.”

Once you make peace with yourself – and learn to trust yourself again – it’s much easier to quit worrying about what other people think of you. I would love to tell you I’ve mastered this. I haven’t, yet, and I’m not sure I ever will. However, I am much more comfortable speaking my mind and being myself these days. It’s nice. Most days, I really like me. Which is good, because my next piece of advice is to …

Be by yourself. I had the same conversation with different friends recently about the tendency to jump from relationship to relationship. One woman said, “It’s like I’m a monkey, swinging from vine to vine.” The other said, “Honestly, I can’t remember a time since 7th grade when I haven’t had a boyfriend or a husband.”

I thought smugly,” I am so glad that’s not me!” Then someone kindly pointed out that I’ve been divorced for a year and in a relationship for six months.

You may be tempted to file this one in the category of “do as I say, not as I do,” but I am going to go out on a limb and argue being alone and being in a relationship are not mutually exclusive.

Standing on your own two feet is important. Choosing to be by yourself for extended periods of time is important. Making decisions based on what’s best for you and for your children (NOT for your relationship) is important. Remaining true to yourself is important.

Here is a revolutionary thought: you can – and should – do all of these things while in a relationship. The danger comes when you swing from one co-dependent relationship to another, making the same mistakes you’ve made over and over without slowing down to learn from them.

I caution anyone who’s divorcing or recently divorced to give themselves as much time as possible to heal before jumping into another relationship. If you do jump, I encourage you to continue to do the hard work of healing WHILE you enjoy that new relationship. Just don’t become so entangled again that you forget who you are, where you’ve been and where you want to go.

Forgive yourself. You’re human. You’re going to screw up. And if you’re getting divorced, it probably means you’ve made a mistake or two.

Occasionally, I have a despondent moment where I say to myself, “Holy shit. I failed at marriage. I am a failure.” Nothing good ever comes from staying in that mindset, though, so I try to shake it off quickly. Move along. Nothing to see here.

Here’s a hard fact: not everyone is going to like you – or forgive you. Despite the apologies I’ve given and amends I’ve tried to make, there are people out there who are still hurting deeply from words I’ve said, decisions I’ve made and things I’ve done. Owning that sucks. Period.

You can’t make anyone forgive you – but you can forgive myself and learn from your mistakes. Tell yourself you’re sorry. Explain the lesson you learned. Accept your own apology. And then move. on.

Be patient. It’s dark right now, I know. You’re ready to be done. You’re want to stop hurting. You’re ready to become whoever this new person is people keep telling you you’ll discover.

You can’t rush this. Grief heals in its own time – not yours. Hold on tight. Hold your breath. The light is coming. I promise.

I thought I would be emotional when the anniversary of my separation rolled around. Instead, it was if an internal switch flipped and pulses of strength, relief, gratitude and confidence began to surge through me. My healing process isn’t over, but I’m so much better than I was last year, last month, last week or even yesterday.

Every day is new. Every day is a step toward a better you. Keep walking. You’re almost there.