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The Divorce Tourniquet: First Aid for the Freshly Wounded

I’ve written about divorce — oh, have I! — and a heartbreakingly common message I get in my inbox is something along the lines of, “You don’t know me, but my life is falling apart right now. Thanks for writing about your experiences and making me feel like someday I’m going to be okay.” And every time, I root for those people.

I’ve long moved on from my divorce, and my memories of what it felt like to be so full of sorrow, to be brimming to the point that I stole a quick cry every time I bent down to tie my shoe or turned my back to stir my tea at the kitchen counter, are fading.

Before those memories disappear entirely, I want to root for those people one more time, out loud. Brand-new divorcees of the world, I’ve got seven things to say to you:

BE PROUD OF YOURSELF

You’re battling a bogeyman that some people would do anything to get away from, that a lot of miserable people decry with histrionic fervor. Right now, somewhere, a man or woman is tolerating treatment that erodes his or her humanity just to avoid the experience currently hitting you in the face with a sledgehammer.

These people, the ones who still need their lives to be a story that makes sense, say it loudly, so that the monster under the bed will hear: Divorce isn’t an option. Well, you’re making it an option. You’re making it an option like a fucking badass. Maybe you found yourself dumped into an arena against your will, facing that monster gladiator-style while the deadbolt slides into place behind you and you clutch whatever weapon you can find in terror. Or maybe you dragged that fucker out by his ankle and have tackled him out of sheer rage about everything that has happened in the last months or years, everything that made you feel broken, alone, or so bored you could scream. Either way, you are fighting, for yourself and often for your children, and that is hard.

You’re making your world from scratch, and that requires tirelessness and bravery. Be proud of yourself.

DON’T GET NOSTALGIC

I’ve said it before: Two happy people do not wake up one morning, get into a playful fight over the last bagel, and wind up in court. Something got you here, and I’m willing to bet it wasn’t “No, I love YOU more! No, YOU hang up!” Divorce isn’t a masked man who pops up out of the shrubbery and demands that you hand over your happy relationship. Divorce is your relationship, or at least what your relationship has become in this moment. Nothing has been done to either of you that doesn’t happen to couples all over the world. If you want to work it out, work it out — but with honesty and an extremely discriminating eye for eliminating the issues.

And before you moon over those wedding photos, remember that it’s easy to look happy when someone else has done your hair, your new mother-in-law has just given you a really nice rice cooker, and a photographer is waiting in the wings to Photoshop out the zit on your nose. It was easy to look happy when you were still in the youthful business of condensing your better moments into something everyone could see.

Your life right now is no accident, and you can’t afford to lie to yourself about that. Don’t get nostalgic.

REMEMBER THAT THIS IS YOUR FIRST TIME

Maybe you miss your spouse. Maybe you miss your house or your children. There are a lot of very logical reasons for your distress, for the feeling that you don’t know what to think about or where to put your hands, but remember that unfamiliarity causes a great deal of distress on its own, regardless of context. You’ve never been in pain like this; you have no idea how long it’s going to last; your life experiences thus far have not yielded a map out of this dark maze. Remember your first breakup, how you thought you’d never heal, how you thought you’d ruined everything? Yeah, like that — except this time society agrees with you, because unlike other breakups, this is a breakup we’ve been taught to pretend will never happen, a breakup we aren’t allowed to accept as a standard part of learning and growing.

People have asked me if I’m afraid to get married again out of fear of having to go through divorce all over again someday, but I can’t imagine any divorce being as bad as the one I endured, because at least half of my misery came from the utterly false notion that I had permanently damaged myself and my life, that I was a ruined human being. If I ever get divorced again, I will have an enormous advantage over the last time: Experience will have taught me that I will be just fine.

You are nowhere that you’ve ever been. Remember that this is your first time.

DON’T MAKE ANY BIG, CRAZY DECISIONS

I know you’re going to anyway, but … I just … later you’ll … oh, well. Your hair will grow back, I guess. Just be aware that your opinions will oscillate wildly for the next year, or two. You’ll be so sure of something only to later realize that you were speaking out of pain, or fear, or anger. It’s okay to have those feelings, but try let them marinate for a while before deciding they’re worthy of action. Don’t make any big, crazy decisions.

IT’S OKAY TO BE SOMEONE ELSE NOW

Every day is going to make its mark on you no matter what, unless you’re okay with living a life devoid of personal growth. Every experience changes you — that’s just part of the process of becoming one of those badass senior citizens who fart anytime they want and are willing poke rude people in the sternum on the bus. You’re only stressed about the change now because you think that the new you is the unhappy version, but that’s not forever; grieving always sucks even when it’s time to move on and do just that.

But eventually, you will feel better, and you won’t mind your new perspective so much. In fact, if you’re like many people I know, you’ll struggle a lot less with fear than you have in the past, because you’ve seen firsthand how tough you can be, and you finally trust yourself to handle whatever comes your way.

You will never be the same, but that was never the deal. Every heaven or hell on earth you have ever set foot into has resulted in someone else walking out the other side. It’s okay to be someone else now.

LIFE IS NOT THE SUMMARY OF YOUR CIRCUMSTANCES

Life is not the summary of your circumstances. You can be more. Reach outward, just a little, even if it just means making a point of looking around you. You can be the observer of things that have nothing to do with you. You can be someone else’s good day. I know you don’t have a lot of energy, but even a small gesture, a glance upward, can make you feel better. I developed this practice of reaching outward during my divorce, and I’ve kept it, and it enhances my happiness still. Because I’ve looked around, I know a lot of little things, like the fact that the train I ride to work every day, in my new life, was manufactured when I was five years old.

I like to think of it being made while I went about my business in kindergarten, having no idea that commuter trains existed. I like to think of it shuttling people back and forth long before I got here, its doors opening and closing and people pouring in and out while I grew up and got married and got turned around and suffered the devastating loss of my marriage two thousand miles away. I find it deeply reassuring that reality is defined by so much more than what I feel like today, that it is not my sole responsibility to stand here and make this train real, that it doesn’t have to matter so much how I feel.

Look up. Learn something. Life is not the summary of your circumstances.

YOU REALLY ARE GOING TO BE FINE

You really are going to be fine. Look at the divorced people around you. Are they living in some urine-scented alley somewhere, drinking whiskey for breakfast and spending the rest of the day sitting on the sidewalk with their backs against the wall, staring into the middle distance with bloodshot eyes while they hold up a sign that says WILL WORK FOR LESSONS ON HOW TO CHANGE THE FILTER IN THE FURNACE BECAUSE MY HUSBAND ALWAYS DID IT SO I DIDN’T KNOW HOW AND NOW I’M HOMELESS? If you don’t know any divorced people, consider me your token divorced person; feel free to refer to me that way at parties. I am fine.

I am better than fine, actually. I am healed, and happy, and excited about the future. And I have faith that someday, not so far away as you think, you will be, too.

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