Have you ever been punched in the gut? Not literally, but metaphorically?
Fittingly, the metaphorical punch in the gut I experienced felt an awful lot like what I think a literal punch in the gut would have felt – a painful, balance-throwing-off trauma that made me want to vomit.
It happened when I discovered my 29-year marriage was over. Like any marriage, it was a complicated stew of good and bad, but I never dreamed it was on its last legs.
But it was definitely, suddenly and irreversibly over. The details don’t matter. Besides, if you’ve been divorced, you have details of your own. All that matters is the punch in the gut, right?
I’ll admit, I went through a brief period of panic. The logistics of life on my own suddenly came into view, and I realized the extent to which our married life had been parceled into His and Hers duties, and I was unequipped to take over those duties that had previously been assigned to Him. (Pro tip: make sure you have a handle on your family’s finances and know what bills get paid every month. Even if your marriage isn’t torn asunder, you truly never know what’s going to happen to your partner.)
After my brief period of panic subsided, however, for reasons I can’t quite understand, I found peace. Rather, I should say, I willed peace upon myself. I made the conscious decision not to dive into the pit of blackness that was beckoning me and that I had seen consume many friends who went through divorces of their own.
And it had consumed them with good reason. Divorce, whether you want it or not, is transformative. And transformation can be traumatic. It’s perfectly reasonable and normal for someone to be consumed by it. But I just couldn’t go there.
Pretty much the only thing you control in a traumatic situation is your reaction to it. And I decided my reaction would be one of grace and respect. Of course, not all of me wanted to take the high road. Part of me wanted to take a very, very, very low road. But I knew that the cost to me – if I were to do that – would be too high.
So I created my own mantra: Only joy.
No matter what the day had in store for me, the only thing I was going to let in was joy. Not panic, not depression, not anger. Only joy.
And I got busy. Fortunately, my job provides lots of ways to do that, but I also found ways to stay busy during those hours I could have otherwise dedicated to Netflix and chardonnay. Volunteer work, exercise, starting a website. And, OK, the merest bit of chardonnay.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was actually doing the right thing for my mental health. Turns out, distraction is a better treatment for depression than rumination, according to neuroscientists. And my own doctor said that, in his experience, those who thrived after divorce are the ones who get in and out of the process – both legally and emotionally – quickly.
Fortunately, our son is out of the house, so custody wasn’t an issue. And our lawyers were able to resolve the financial end without too much fuss. Before most people even knew I was divorcing, the process was final and I had moved on.
Sadly, I see a lot of divorce around me these days. And everybody’s story is unique and uniquely heartbreaking. Once you’ve built a life with someone, it’s sad and painful to see that go away.
But life is unpredictable, sometimes unsatisfying, and filled with shades of gray.
It can also, if you let it, be filled with joy.
Tragedy and grief come in all different shapes and sizes. They can be overpowering and all-consuming, and if you need some time to be consumed for a while, by all means, give yourself that time.
But life is short, and despite our losses, the world still has much joy to give us.
So choose joy. You deserve it.
PS - A quick word about my middle name, Joy. When my parents were approached about adopting me, they weren’t looking to bring another child into their lives. They had already adopted two children and believed their family was complete. After my father met me, though, he said, “I kept thinking about all the joy you would bring to our family, so we adopted you.” And thus I was christened Kathleen Joy Wu.
I can’t promise every day with me was joyful for my parents, but I’m thankful they took that leap of faith.