I was with my husband for six years before I found out that he cheated on me with a co-worker—as well as classmates and women at bars. After I divorced him, we didn’t talk for almost six months. Then we were off and on for probably two more years. At a certain point, we were both tired of not working through fights like adults, and he got down on one knee and said he didn’t deserve for me to marry him again, but that he’d do anything to prove it to me if we could spend our lives with each other and not like two people who just spent a lot of time together.
I was still living in our house with his dog and all four cats he’d brought home. (He was/is a very talented veterinarian technician.) After our divorce, I’d gone back to college and gotten a degree in Digital Media & Photography. He wouldn’t come to my grad show because he “didn’t feel comfortable around those people.” So we went to therapy, and she told us that to be together we’d have to support each other the best we could in everything. The next day, he texted me while I was at the gallery and said that he’d packed his things (except his dog—a 100-pound pit bull) and was moving out. If it hadn’t been for the fact I was attached to a safety rope 15 feet in the air removing art from the ceiling, I’d have probably fallen to the concrete. Luckily, I only hit the wall w my back. I left immediately and drove home where my neighbors said he’d been packing since I’d left that morning. I was stunned. Two days later, after no contact, I drive up to our house and he’s sitting on the porch crying. This man does not cry. But I wasn’t having it, so I walked right passed him and he followed me inside. He begged me to take him back, that he felt like I’d leave him when I got my degree. The photos in my show were of him, but he begged, and I said “I love you, you know that, but you can’t live here. I can’t come home to an abandoned house because you feel scared about something you didn’t even ask me about. I’m yours, but until you prove to me that you won’t run, then you can’t stay.” He said he could live with that as long as he knew I loved him. A year goes by and we’re fine, he says he wants to go to the art institute for a degree in audio engineering. He got enrolled, paid his first semester’s tuition and barely passed. He’s not ignorant when it comes to textbook stuff, so I encouraged him to keep trying. Another year goes by, and he had to quit the vet because they couldn’t accommodate his class schedule. But he’d saved money and was finally free to work harder at his classes. Then they raised tuition; he asked if I could help him with it. “Of course,” I said, and I did. He got another job at a vet and everything was going great for him.
I’d started showing in galleries and even got a studio of my own to have shows in. He never came to a single one. But after the shows, he’d be back to adoring me and doing special things together like camping and going on hikes and things we’d only talked about doing. But my studio was struggling—artists trying to show for free and leaving me with everything to clean up after their show. So I closed the studio as far as shows went, but I still did my own work there. He said he had to study and it wasn’t easy getting my own degree so I understood & didn’t hold it against him. I helped him pay for a little over $7,000 towards his tuition and much more, like buying take out and any date we could find time for. We were constantly together.
Then one day—at this point we’d been together for 11 years—my brother said he needed photos taken at a ranch he was trying to promote about five hours away. I said I’d be back in two days unless he wanted to come with me and make a getaway out of it. He had a project to finish so I went to do the photos. In an absolute freak accident, I fell off a bike, dislocated my jaw, shattered a vertebra in my neck and they wanted to put me in a hospital miles from where I wanted to be which was with him. I drove all five hours back and collapsed on my couch unable to move my head or open my mouth. Along the way he was texting me, “I can’t wait to see you, I hope your pretty face isn’t hurt too bad.”
So I’m lying there texting him how much pain I’m in but that I’m back and to please take me to the doctor tomorrow if he could. I even said, “If you have to turn your stuff in I can get my neighbor to take me but I really need you right now. Soup since I can’t chew and a neck rub would be divine.”
I didn’t hear back and since I couldn’t drive or turn my head, I called and asked what was going on. He said he’d call me right back. I opened my email and he’d sent me an email saying that he knew the timing was bad but he didn’t have it in him to “get too involved” in my life right then and that he thinks the guy who lives two doors down from me would be a better person for me than him. He said I’d get over it because I was “very resilient.” He then said that if I objected to this or acted out in any way that he’d ignore it because he wasn’t going to put up with any “childish” behavior. I am still stunned because childish has never been a word I’ve been described as even by my parents.
So I lied in a hospital bed with my jaw wired shut with a titanium disk replacement staring at the ceiling for three months trying to get him out of my mind and crying when friends who came to visit asked where he was.
I got well enough to chew hard food after four more months; got to where I could turn my head to an acceptable degree for driving and could raise my arm past my shoulder. I got a job and moved my studio down the street to a better location. I exercise everyday, pray, meditate, eat right—and not for a second in the two years since then has he answered a phone call or a text or an email. He’s 38 now and I’m 34. We live one exit down the road from each other, go to the same bars, grocery store, parks, everything. Except now he’s dating a 23-year-old vet tech.
Even after all this time, not a single night has gone by that I don’t cry myself to sleep wondering what happened in those hours between “I can’t wait to see you” to “I don’t want to see you ever again.”
I’m in therapy and I just feel pathetic. I’ve tried to go out on dates and it just makes me feel worse. Everyone is saying to go to his place (that I have to pass by twice a day) and face him but I feel like he’d only be mean and make me feel worse. Time is healing nothing and everyone is over it and I still cry everyday.
Please tell me what to do. I’ve traveled to see if I can just move somewhere else where our 11 years aren’t staring me in the face 24 hours a day and I just ended up feeling even worse.
Please help me. My therapist says he’s gone for good and to accept it and let it go, like it’s a piece of paper I can just toss out the window because it’s nothing. But we weren’t nothing.
Please please help me.
It’s going to be really hard for me to answer your letter, for a bunch of reasons. And I get a lot of letters, I’m not going to lie. I get 10, sometimes 20 letters a week. There’s a lot of guilt that goes along with not answering a huge percentage of them. Once this guy wrote to me and asked me how to deal with debilitating chronic back pain that made him want to die every single day. Every. Single. Fucking. Day. I could not for the life of me figure out a good way to respond to that guy without sounding like a complete ignorant asshole, but it still haunts me and I haven’t forgotten him. I feel so terrible for him, but every time I try to look into chronic pain treatment, everything I read is just “Wellll, sometimes, we find that acupuncture and visualization and cutting out gluten work, as long as you’re taking enough morphine.” Plus the guy said he’d tried all that stuff, and he was clearly becoming addicted to an absurd amount of pain medication. So I thought about addressing that, but that’s, phew, a tough thing to try to sift through without presuming a lot. Normally I enjoy being presumptuous, but not in this case.
Now stay with me, because we’re going to get to you, I promise. At the time when I got that letter from the chronic debilitating pain guy, I was in the middle of a two-week headache, and I didn’t understand the cause of it. Since then I haven’t had another one, and that one was diagnosed as a tension headache related to bad posture and TMJ and just being a toxic, slouchy, underpaid, overworked 43-year-old gas planet of slow-burn neuroticism. And maybe high credit card balances now manifest themselves as unidentified bright objects on the new super-detailed brain scans. Either that or they might mean something much worse, haw haw haw. Brains, they’re so nutty. The point is, I was in the middle of experiencing a tiny slice of the pain that he felt every day. I knew how it felt to worry that it might never go away. I knew how worrying that it might never go away sometimes felt like KNOWING IT WOULD NEVER GO AWAY.
And knowing it would never go away felt like causing it, the headache, the pain. It felt like being the cause of the pain. It made me feel guilty, that I could take some pain and turn in into permanent pain like that, because that’s how fucked I was, deep down inside.
So I never answered that guy. Do you see what happened there? I believed that I was a poisonous enough gas planet, at some level, that I deserved to be blamed for my own pain. This is where we start with you. You’re living this “Series of Unfortunate Events” kind of Lemony Snicket existence where all of these terrible fucking things happen to you, and they’re all sick and unfair and also probably all your fault.
You being you, you think I’m just being an asshole by saying that they’re all your fault. But no. I’m saying that you BELIEVE that you are fucked enough, deep down inside, that you somehow caused these events to occur to you. When your husband cheated on you repeatedly with whomever, when he didn’t show up for your fucking art shows, when he stayed away from all the stuff that was about YOU, all of that was tolerable because, after all, you partially caused it right? You deserved it. Then, when you had the freak accident, when you were in pain, alone, in hell and he decided THAT was when he needed to resolve to NEVER SEE YOUR FACE AGAIN, all of that must stem from you being the rotten kind of woman who gets her just desserts. Something in you made that stuff happen. Something in you sealed your fate.
You believe that you caused all of those things to occur, somehow, magically. You practically gave birth to this foul man who has no fucking heart, who wouldn’t even bother to come to your aid when you were in the depths of hell. No matter what he JUST HAPPENED TO FIGURE OUT in that exact moment, to not immediately go to you, take you to the hospital, visit you there, and talk you through the fucking break-up after 11 years together? Forget everything else. That’s really outperforming in the world of atrocious assholes.
And THAT guy doesn’t exist, without your poison. Right? That’s the key, base-level, fundamental thing that you believe right now. You CREATED that motherfucker. It’s ALL your fault. ALL OF IT.
So that’s where the inability to move on comes from. You don’t want to face him and have him be mean to you and set you back even more, because looking him in the eyes means facing the fact that you loved this sick person, and married him and accepted him and he’s still out there, this fucking destroyer of everything. You made him and he’s still out there.
There’s this gigantic thing in your life and you can’t turn the page. You think it’s your fault. You’re crying, yes, but you’re also all shut down and defensive. You’re angry and you’re blaming yourself for him, and you’re angry at yourself for crying, and you’re also trying hard to get over it. You are in conflict. You want to be tough, but you cry every day. You want to forget him, but you feel like you created him. You want to place all of the blame and damage on his side of the court, but you also feel like there he is, with his brand new 23-year-old, who is exactly like you 11 years ago. He gets to rewind and start fresh. Maybe you were the problem after all.
These are your doubts. The therapist needs to hear more about them. If your therapist doesn’t get it and you don’t feel really understood, patiently and truly, by someone who is definitely very very smart? Find another therapist. Because your particular situation is very complicated. It seems simple, but it’s not simple at all.
Remember how I had a headache and I couldn’t answer the letter about chronic pain? Well in your case, I knew I HAD to answer your letter, first of all because it’s a great cautionary tale for anyone—man or woman—who is tempted to accept wishy-washy horse-shit behavior from someone who SHOULD be all in. Your situation beautifully encapsulates just how ugly and uglier and ugliest things get when someone who’s afraid to be alone stays and leaves and returns and leaves again and is allowed to continue, on and on. Sure, as long as you’re strong and you’re doing great, that wishy-washy human is going to cling to the hem of your kickass coat. But the second you falter? Sayonara. He wasn’t sure, and then YOUR NEEDING HIM OPENLY SEALED THE DEAL!
I mean, motherFUCK WHAT IS THAT?
So this is the other reason I had to answer your letter. I’m currently feeling a tiny sliver of the kind of pain you feel, because I had an old, tattered friendship fall apart, and another, more important one feels like it’s in crisis, and I’m feeling sad about it. I’m in some kind of an open, honest state lately. I don’t know how to describe it, other than my snappy song and dance with people has dissolved into something a little less…manufactured. Instead of neatly packaging things, retreating, protecting myself with a joke, waving things off, I’m feeling my feelings, maybe more than ever.
I know, I know. That sounds really slow and weak and squishy of me. BRING BACK THE TOXIC GAS PLANET, you’re thinking. Bring back the evil lady ruler in the black zip-up leather jumpsuit, the one William Shatner can’t decide whether to engage in showy stage combat with, or kiss for a long, long time, without tongue. But listen, I can feel things right now. I feel connected to my life in a great way. I’m writing funny shit because I’m enraged and happy and also, often, a teary-eyed pile of squash.
I feel like I’m on new ground, and I feel very vulnerable. And you know what? This makes some people back away slowly, because: YUCK. Feelings. It’s not like I’m calling everyone and crying into the phone. I just have feelings rising off me like steam off asphalt, I think. And some people will only tolerate you if there’s a guarantee that you’ll never, ever openly question anything or say, “Hey, that hurt my feelings.” And now the ambient temperature and pressure have shifted and it’s clear that I might say something weird.
I have lots of old friendships that have ALWAYS been pretty healthy and open and intimate and stable. Those friendships haven’t changed a bit. Those friends, I can talk to and they can talk to me and they already accept that I am who I am.
So that’s reassuring. But you know what my brain does when I can see that someone doesn’t really want ME as a friend, not enough to show up and fucking say what’s up? It says YOU ARE POISONOUS. YOU ARE THE CAUSE. YOU MADE THIS HAPPEN. YOU ARE THE PROBLEM.
So your letter is a challenge for me, because something in the mix with you goes to the heart of where I am. It would be easy enough to just shut this whole process down, too. I’ve done that a million times before. I could close up and tough it out and sally the fuck forth and shrug and say, “WHATEVER MAN” and maybe answer the letter from the girl who wants to fuck her boyfriend’s brother but knows she really shouldn’t. (OK, NEXT WEEK MAYBE.) But I’m not going to do that. I’m making an active choice to stay open. It’s harder to stay open, but it’s also helping me be a better human being.
Here’s what I want to say to you, Crushed: It’s heartbreaking, how little people really show up for each other. It’s heartbreaking, how skin-deep most people want their relationships to be. It’s incredible, how little some people have to give sometimes.
But this isn’t really about blame. Even this heartless ass who’s formed so much of your life isn’t the real point here. I don’t really think you should go talk to him. Write down your feelings. I’m sure you already have. But what will he do if you show up and make a scene? Who wants that? Because even without the wishy washy on and off bullshit, he was going to leave you one day. That was predestined and it has nothing to do with you. He’s terminally desperate and lost, a narcissist who never cared who you were, not really, or he would’ve gone to your shows and enjoyed it when people were excited about YOU. Instead, he was incapable of behaving like a regular human being. Good fucking riddance.
But paradoxically, I want you to think about how much you imagine that you created him, that his poison is your poison, that his shitty story is your story. Because in order to let him go, strangely, you have to look at how much you blame yourself. I blame myself when someone backs away from me. Some piece of me is sure that, in the end, it will just be me, telling everyone FUCK OFF YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND ANYTHING.
When you feel that way? You have to try very hard to stay vulnerable and let people in. Even though you feel so unprotected, so defensive, so angry. “Fuck you, I’m crying every night,” you’re thinking. But you’re also pissed and prideful and you won’t let go of your story. Whenever anyone tells you a specific, very detailed timeline – he did this, so I did this, then he did this – that almost always means that they want you to know JUST HOW MANY TIMES they were innocent and the other person was guilty and bad, and that means that they suspect that THEY CAUSED EVERY FUCKING THING on that timeline.
I know because I do it, too, whenever, deep down, I suspect that something is about me and my rottenness. I can’t tell the story often enough. “See? See what happened? Can you believe it? Is that nuts? How did I get here? I’m good, right? I’m kind and nice, right? So why am I here?”
YOU KNOW WHAT? SHIT HAPPENS TO PEOPLE WHO ARE GOOD.
It’s not your fault. You are not some toxic cloud that he gets to step out of. It’s hard to feel that way from a hospital bed, when you can barely turn your head one way or the other. It’s hard to feel that way when you look back and ask yourself why you accepted so little, and yet HE’S THE ONE who paints you as some festering crazy volcano, he’s the one who’s the child, telling you not to be childish.
And even your parents wouldn’t describe you as childish? You need to be childish now. That’s why you keep crying. Your soul wants you to finally be a child.
You were so hurt and in need, and he told you to fuck off, even though he KNEW that you were in terrible pain. Let’s be still in this moment, together, and feel how sad that is, without self-protection, without fear, without cynicism and anger. Let’s not feel self-conscious. Let’s just choose not to feel embarrassed and cheesy for a fucking second. Let’s sit still and just feel how unbearably sad it still is—that you got hurt and then you were all alone and it was so embarrassing, so fucking shameful to be all alone with your jaw wired shut, that you were smashed down like a fucking bug. It was too much. And from then on, it was like you created the whole picture. It was like you woke up one day, and you couldn’t tell the story from your soul.
But I am there with you. I’m right there with you, and so is everyone else who’s reading this and understands what the fuck it means to stay open even though it hurts and it’s embarrassing. At this moment, we are on your side. And the spirits of the dead are with you, too, and the leaves on the trees and the clouds and the cool breeze is with you. Listen to me: Your story is not your soul. You cry every fucking day because you want to live. Your tears mean you’re surviving. You want to feel things. You are not giving up on yourself. Giving up would be shutting down, turning everything off, moving on, and sleepwalking into a sad future. This is what sleepwalking looks like: a brand new 23-year-old and an inability to take half a fucking minute to say goodbye to your exwife. God bless and god forgive that sleepwalking man. He’s not worthy of a big-hearted creative soul. You always knew that. And that’s the last time we’re going to refer to him here, because he’s too small. We have bigger and brighter and better horizons. We have the leaves on the trees and the clouds and the cool breeze to consider here.
Let’s pry this shitty story away from your soul, like a sludgy mess of blood and grime and tears and loss. Let’s kick it to pieces. Now all that’s left is your soul, ok? Your soul is bright and sweet and sad. Listen to me. You are going to feel so grateful. Because someone out there is big like you, honest and sensitive and full of life, and good at giving, and good at feeling expansive and good at living. I’m not trying to sell you on a fairy tale. But when you’ve been through something this terrible? Magic happens. Sometimes, someone like you, IF YOU CAN STAY OPEN, ends up attracting the whole world to her doorstep. Because she stayed vulnerable. Because she refused to sleepwalk into a dim, sad future. Because she wanted to take responsibility, even though she wasn’t responsible. Because she was bewildered and alone for a long time, and it changed her.
Your life will be beautiful. You have already come a long way. I want you to be open to people—men and women—who are can be still with you, and listen. You need more REAL friends. You need more listeners. I want you to make sure you don’t hide away with the next dude. You said you were with the sleepwalker “constantly.” Don’t do that next time. You said artists tried to show their work for free and left you to clean up afterwards. Don’t give too much and resent it afterwards. Get a used copy of “Codependent No More.” Read the whole thing. You want to take care of people. Don’t fucking do it, unless it’s an actual child. You like half-interested, wishy-washy types who seem tough. Fuck them. Find someone sweet who really sees you and needs you. To find that person, you have to be sweet and child-like yourself. You have to love yourself, damaged and sad, exactly how you are right now. If someone says go to the hospital, don’t think about being closer to your guy instead. Go to the fucking hospital. You put yourself last. From now on, you are first.
Stand up, walk outside, and feel the air, watch the trees move in the wind. This moment is yours. You matter. You are a bright light and everything you’ve ever wanted will come to you, if you stay open. Build a community and embrace it. Show up for other people. Tell them your sad story and let them learn from your mistakes. Embarrass yourself as much as possible. Be honest with everyone. You already changed a few people by telling your story here, trust me. There is no shame to your story anymore.
The world is waiting for you to step out and finally see ALL THAT YOU OWN. You own the sky and the leaves in the trees. We are all waiting for you to stand up and feel how much love is here for you. Someday soon, you’ll have more love than you know what to do with. Keep crying. All the love in the world will be yours. Your new life is beginning.
Do you want things, or not want things? Write to Polly and get that settled today.
Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl’s existential advice columnist. She’s also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses.
Photo by CambridgeCanine.com