And Then I Woke Up Three Years Later

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Are you mentally playing the Top Gun Anthem in your head right now? You should be. (Image/Paramount Studios)
I spent the first year depressed and freaking out.

I spent the second year using reading and writing to get to know myself.

This past year, time seemed to move faster than ever.

And then I woke up this morning.

My wife left on April 1, 2013. We’re funny about anniversaries. We can be five years removed from an event, and we feel good and our lives are in order, but then that date pops up, triggers a bunch of memories, and we’re left sorting through a bunch of feelings and trying to figure out what they mean.

I’ve yet to find a better word than “broken” for what I felt in the immediate aftermath of my marriage failing.

Not many people in my personal life knew how bad it was at the time. But it was bad. Your vital signs indicate being alive. But nothing else does. I roll my eyes at all the motivational posters and sometimes cliché- and a little-bit-fake-feeling “You can do it!” messages we’re bombarded with on social media, but some of them are cliché because they’re true. And one of those truths is how valuable of a life experience excruciating emotional and psychological pain can be once it’s in the rearview mirror and it’s not violently stabbing your chest and skull every day.

There’s the me before experiencing that, and the me right now.

Before experiencing that, I didn’t know how to empathize or even what it really meant.

And now I do, for having been through it. Success in love and marriage, in parenting, in super-close social and business relationships appears impossible without the ability to empathize. Maybe some people can learn it without having to hurt first. I hope so.

I tend to learn things the hard way, which isn’t the optimum path to personal growth, but it’s got to be better than never learning.

I was a WRECK. A total mess of a person. My chest felt tight every day. My head hurt every day. I felt full-body anxiety often. It made me vomit a lot.

I can’t remember many instances of feeling more pathetic than the times I found myself teary-eyed, puking, struggling to calm my heartrate, knowing I probably needed some serious couch time with a shrink but couldn’t afford it, and thinking: This is why she left you. And now no girl will ever like you because you’re a total failure.

There were a million things I wanted to know, but the thing I wanted to know most is: When will this be over? Soon? Never?

How to Heal After Divorce in 3 Simple Steps

  1. Stay alive by breathing.
  2. Love yourself.
  3. Repeat.

I said it over and over again, even when it was hard to believe: Everything is going to be okay.

It didn’t feel okay after one year.

It felt kind of okay after two.

And on the three-year anniversary of the worst day of my life, everything is absolutely okay.

I wish I could pass out little manuals to everyone struggling with the end of a marriage and/or loss of their children at home, including the 2013 edition of me. But there are no instruction manuals for grieving. There’s no “right” or “best” way to suffer.

It took me a long time to understand that I wasn’t suffering the wrong way. I didn’t think at the time that divorce warranted the devastation I felt. I didn’t think it was worthy of so much hurt. I concluded weakness instead of letting it be what it was—a highly stressful, totally life-changing event which psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, and financially damages nearly everyone it touches.

Three years ago, I wanted to know what I could do to speed up the process. To fast-forward to the Okay part.

I never did find that button.

Here’s what worked for me:

1. I put my son first. He’s my baseline for all things. If it’s not good for him, I don’t do it. That helped heal the post-divorce relationship between his mother and I. It helped me build a kind, respectful, cooperative relationship with my ex-wife. I’d like to believe I’d care about her wellbeing regardless, but because she’s my son’s mother and an excellent parent and caretaker, one of the best things I can do for my child is treat his mom well. Which I try to do.

His long-term wellbeing drives my business endeavors and serves as a guidepost for me as I consider potential relationships.

2. I admitted that I don’t really know anything. Growing up, I thought being an adult meant you just knew stuff. The meaning of life. How to be disciplined and exercise self-control. How to not be afraid. Not knowing anything reduces the pressure. Not knowing anything allows you to ask better questions and stay curious. Not knowing anything helps you remain humble. Not knowing anything allows you to withhold judgment, and treat others and yourself better. Almost every adult is just making this up as they go. You’re not alone.

3. I wrote here. Putting thoughts and feelings to paper (or the keyboard) has long been touted by mental health experts as a good thing to do. Everyone’s experience will vary, but writing here created a lot of good in my life.

It forced me to look deep within for answers and explore uncomfortable topics.

I discovered other people who knew how I was feeling, and when life is hard, one of the most helpful things is the realization that someone else is walking the same path as you. It just helps when someone understands.

I got positive feedback about the writing, and that gave me confidence.

People sometimes said that it helped them, and that gave me purpose.

And the entire exercise of writing and asking questions and answering questions gave me something to pour my time and heart into when my young son wasn’t home.

And then I woke up one day and it was three years later.

My son’s mom and I had a couple friendly and peaceful text exchanges about our son.

I came to work and didn’t cry or puke in the bathroom.

I didn’t feel anxious, because I’m neither a wreck nor a complete mess.

Two different large websites published my work today in what has become a regular occurrence since the “dishes” post.

I like and respect myself—which is something a person should not take for granted—and I’m looking forward to liking and respecting myself even more in the future.

It was the worst day of my life. And God knows, conceptually, I regret the end of my family. But three years into the metamorphosis, I have to ask the question: Can the thing that changed me for the better, allowed me to explore relationships with my eyes wide open and an uncommon awareness, and granted me the opportunity to actually do something that matters to people, fairly be labeled the worst thing that ever happened to me?

I don’t know.

I only know that tomorrow arrived and everything really is okay.

And all I had to do was breathe.

Then again.

And again.

30 thoughts on “And Then I Woke Up Three Years Later”

  1. I am most appreciative for your musings and your uncanny honesty. For someone careening around emotionally trying to let go of powerfully deep and engrossing and yet impossible relationship of five-plus years, your “diary” is a balm. Thanks.

  2. zentrifiedlawyermom

    Another good post! I’m reading your posts thinking about a lot of people I know in my life, and I’m wondering, once you realize you’re a bad husband or wife (whether you’re still married or not) what do you do to change those things about yourself? You write here about admitting that you don’t know anything about being disciplined or exercising self control, but I would be willing to bet that as much as you’ve learned about yourself, you have learned ways to permanently improve some of the big things you weren’t doing well in your marriage. If there is something you can share in this regard (a link to something you’ve already written, or write something new on it), I would love to read it! Thanks for opening up your pain to give such real insights to the rest of us.

  3. I’ve send my husband your dishes post. I assume he never read it but he starts to have respect and love again.

    I thank you and wish you all the best. Breath well 😉

  4. Thanks Matt – as someone at the very beginning of this utterly devastating process its good to know it will be ok again some day. I totally agree putting your kid first is an awesome guidepost and what I hope to do. But I am so lost on HOW to do that best because my to be ex husband is NOT”an excellent parent and caretaker” If anything he’s a shittier father than he was husband. (and we are divorcing because of his adultery so the husband perfomance was pretty low) I admit I have my own errors, omissions etc to own from our relationship and I’m seeing a counselor and trying to make sure I unpack my own baggage. But the law says I have to hand my special needs child over every other weekend to a man I wouldn’t let pet sit for my gold fish. It makes me so angry I can barely speak to him at all – no less be nice!! How do you put the child first – when the co parent is not going to? Is there anything I can do?

    1. Fromscratchmom

      I wish I had some special advice or wisdom for you. I understand totally the issue you’re facing when you claim you wouldn’t trust him to watch a goldfish. Unfortunately I’ve been there, although many years ago. The husband/father/cheater in question continued to emotionally hurt my son for years and years right up until a year or two ago when he needed me to help him reesteblish contact so he could tell him his dad/my son’s biological grandfather was dying. My son who was an adult, married with a son of his own on the way, agreed to accept a plain ticket from his dad to come see his grandfather before he died. The loser dropped all contact again after that, never provided the plane ticket he’d offered nor any follow up information. This last February I was able to find out that the grandfather never died; he’d changed his mind about not getting treatment and had lived on. My son simply wants nothing to do with his biological father anymore because of the sporadic come and go garbage. And now he wants nothing to do with my soon-to-be-ex either because despite us all trying to grow relationships with him for over 18 years he’s abandoned us and the concept of family. I’m so proud of my son who, despite two terrible examples of husband/father role, is super good to his wife and thankful for her and sees the wrongness of people who treat families, and humans in general, as disposable or as worthy of nothing beyond passing interest or even disdain.

      But the sad, broken, ugly part of this comment is that in my experience there’s nothing at all that can be done to protect the children in these cases. Our society is totally bent on pretending that this level of brokenness can be good for kids and that any parent who goes into divorce recognizing the flaws of the “co-parent” is somehow doing wrong for knowing the score and wanting to protect the child. I was even told that it’s not usually possible in most cases of physical abuse and not even in all cases of sexual abuse, much less the emotional abuse and physical neglect I was concerned with. In my own life, because of that fatally flawed paradigm I was forced into a situation where I usually had to allow more and more of the ongoing emotional abuse of a father coming and going in my child’s life whenever his whims moved him to come or to go. I don’t know if it would have been any different if I’d had a better lawyer or what.

      But I’ll be praying for your little one! God is good. And evil has been overcome. Just enforce whatever small protections you can get written in to your agreement and be an inspiring mom. You can do this!

    2. Tina, you are in a crappy situation and I’m so sorry. Some random thoughts, in no particular order:

      It seems like neither you nor your child have a choice in the visitation schedule. So the only thing you can control is yourself. Never badmouth your ex to your child. You won’t need to. Your child will figure it out on their own.

      Sometimes a shitty person needs someone to be “against”. If you are nothing but pleasant and polite, they soon loose interest in actively being a jerk towards you and move on to another more satisfying target. You will need to deal with your ex until your child turns 18, so the sooner you get to a place where you can have a working relationship, the better.

      When your child returns from a visit, find what works best for him/her. I know the transition is often difficult, so can you come up with a routine for the return? Talking over what you both did during the weekend over milk and cookies or something similar will do wonders for your relationship as you will both have had time apart/different adventures during the visitation weekends. Don’t react to anything-maintain a neutral countenance. If your child has had disappointing experiences, a simple “I’m so sorry. I wish I could do something, but the law says you have to go with your dad every other weekend” and a hug is all that’s needed. Your negative respond will be uncomfortable for your child, and he will soon stop confiding in you.

      Prepare your child for what might happen. Help them find ways to handle things. “The next time, maybe you can bring some legos so you have something to do while dad watches tv all weekend”.

      You’re at the beginning of this. Who knows-maybe being the sole weekend caretaker will crimp his style, and he might start having things come up during his weekends. After a while, when you sense things are becoming cordial, you can always let him know that if any special plans come up, just let you know and as long as you don’t have anything scheduled, you are open to letting him have the weekend off if needed.

      Best of luck to you.

  5. I remember when I woke up and was okay. Now I’m almost 8 years from them at wretched day when the world collapsed. Thanks for sharing this. I had to learn the hard way, too, but you’re right, it’s better than never. As the years go on you only get more okay.

  6. I stumbled upon your blog today, and I’m not even certain how. My husband left 4/1/13, as well, and somehow I still struggle with memories of that time, and especially today, 4/1. Just wanted to say I share your experience, pain, and heartache. It really is an awful feeling. I guess time heals most of it, though. Be well.

  7. “There’s the me before experiencing that, and the me right now.”

    That’s because what you experienced was a trauma. That’s exactly what a trauma does, it clean divides your life in two – there’s the me *before* and the me *after*.

    As I heal though, I think I am integrating the two of them back into a whole person. I’m not one or the other anymore, the best way I can describe it is now I’m “Me 3.0”.

    1. Fromscratchmom

      So true, antivan! I used to tend to describe my childhood as before or after my dad lost his mind. That’s healed over more now. But now I think of October 14, 2015 the date he walked out, forsaking everything that matters, as the date in my life with the most gravity…a date somehow etched into solid steel in my mind. But you know, it just is what it is. I will be OK eventually and that will be the date I was set free from his abuses.

    2. latenightblond

      “Me 3.0” – I like that. A more undated, stronger version. Nice.

  8. The puke whilst crying scenario sticks in your mind like warm dirty putty on a couch cushion doesn’t it?
    I’m thankful for those pains. As you say-it taught me an empathy I am painfully aware some don’t have.
    This is a great post Matt. Keep going, keep writing, keep helping. Love is always around the corner when we stop hunting for it and look in the mirror.?

  9. Again Matt, I can’t say it enough, you are touching lives! I have been asking myself lately “when will things get back to normal “? I wonder if the life I’m living now is the new normal or if this is some sort of purgatory. I am still fixing myself and I’m still trying to get her to see I’ve changed. I can look at myself and know that I am better. My kids are handling everything better than I could have ever imagined. I am grateful of that. I share your blog with all my friends and family who are or have been in relationships. Your message is so important, I wish I would have heard it years ago. Keep your head up and march on.

  10. A little sidebar to this absolutely dead on article (seriously, Matt, your ability to put experiences that are WAY beyond words into a cohesive article is pretty cool)… my doctor told me to be cautious about my health the first five years after separating because that’s when people are most likely to get sick with everything from colds to more serious illnesses. There’s just so much stress on the body and mind. So get in there for your annual physicals, take time to cry and then relax, get sleep when you can, stay hydrated and try to eat healthy.

  11. “Everything is going to be ok” Just the words I thought last week, so good, not been a year yet for me but time doesn’t stand still and yes Breath Love and Repeat is a great way to start the healing process.
    I love your posts…snippets into the male mind, giving hope to this female that there are in fact males out there who can understand women and genuinely want to, when the time is right to start again.

  12. Quite lovely, Matt. People so badly need hope. It’s hard to hang onto when you feel like you’re drowning in life. Keep telling people that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and sometimes life doesn’t just get better, it gets better than it ever was.

  13. I’ve tried to explain to friends… It doesn’t matter who does the official leaving, divorce is hard. It’s a grieving process – the loss of the ideal for the life you thought was ahead… It’s not even the fights or the anger or who was right or wrong… It’s just hard xx

  14. Matt, I have been reading your posts lately (yes, since they went viral) and relating and, yes, I think it has made a difference for me personally. But it didn’t really strike me until this post, as I was reliving the very same shitty week in history (my husband walked out on March 28, 2013). I so understand the “anniversaries,” the broken-ness, and even though we are still together and (I think) making progress, it still haunts me 3 years later. I can only imagine your anniversary was at least as shitty as mine, so hugs. And again, thanks for sharing.

  15. Matt,
    My husband & I have been reading your log for a few months now, and I just want to THANK YOU for being so honest and introspective. You DO help a lot of people process their feelings by sharing what you went through. We thank God for your incite & truth. Coming from our own experiences (my a 20 yr marriage ending in divorce – he 4 marriages that failed…we have been married less than 2 years to eachother), we know that God allows our paths to take hard turns to strengthen us and make us better. You are a better man for what you have gone through – but more so because you are using what you learned to help others. Again, THANK YOU!

  16. Congratulations on making it to three years intact, growing, learning, and helping others transform their lives. Great stuff! I can relate so much to your ‘repeat’ cycle until finally getting to a spot of feeling OK (most of the time).

  17. I don’t know how to say Thank you to you properly. My shrink told me about your “dishes” post and if I say so myself it is “spot on”! I have been married for almost 4 years and kept explaining to my husband how disrespectful it was to leave dishes for me.
    He is from a foreign country and he literally thought I was the only woman/wife who felt that way. Needless to say….. Your article was an eye opener for HIM!
    Now I can’t say you’ve saved my marriage just yet but….. I have seen small changes which is more than I could see before. Your “anniversary” post is also comforting. While he hasn’t read it just yet, I think he will gain insight into the depths of despair that you went thru and hopefully realize for himself that he would rather not take that road. He too…… Likes to learn things the hard way.

    So THANK YOU for pouring your heart out on paper. It helps me to know I’m not crazy and helps my husband to know that too! ??

  18. I really, really loved this post Matt. It resonates with what I have been dealing with for two solid years: the ending of my affair. The grief and after affects (as well as consequences for my shitty behavior) was exactly as you described. Gut wrenching. It has been the most profound emotional pain I have ever ever experienced and yet, it was self-inflicted. I’ve never bothered to think, “You don’t know anything” but it’s given me great pause to consider your statement in relation to me having healthy relationships. Thank you for that nugget. I will ponder on it for a while.

    Your strategy for getting through your pain was very similar to mine: get up and breathe. Then repeat. Then tell yourself you won’t feel like this forever. Your emotions will change about this over time. Every day, I ran–miles and miles by the ocean. It helped me tremendously to take care of myself. I recommend it to anyone going through something pivotal in their lives: get outside and move. It certainly has cleared my mind and provided a spring board into an affair free marriage (of which we are still working on).

    Thanks again for your candid honestly. Keep up the stellar posts!

  19. Thanks…Breathing…I’m on the breathing part. This was a good post to read. It does feel awful. Horrible. And I know that eventually things will be all right. I’ve got that concept down. I know that eventually I’ll stop feeling broken and gutted. Eventually. Writing helps and reading your stuff, even if you posted it a while ago. It helps.

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