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The stages of divorce: Collect ‘em all!

THE DENIAL STAGE

When my ex-husband, Jeff, and I moved to St. Louis, he knew I was unhappy with the decor of our house, but money, of course, did not grow on trees. Except that year, it did, because he cashed in some investments and spent hours twist-tying money to a festive little potted tree. Then he gave it to me for Christmas and told me to make the house we lived in ours. He wanted me to have everything; it was almost an obsession. There wasn’t one minute of the years and years we spent together that he wasn’t striving to put the world on a string and loop it around my little finger. I learned to avoid wishing aloud, lest the poor man collapse in exhaustion from his determination to fulfill whatever request I had just absentmindedly uttered.

Case in point: he once rethrew an entire birthday party for my father because I had accidentally deleted pictures of my father and his birthday cake, then wept to the point of hiccups, like a small child, because I had so few good pictures of my dad (and also I was possibly hormonal as all hell). At any rate: Jeff duplicated the entire thing, right down to the cake and the mylar balloons. He invited everyone, and believe it or not, they came. Again. He warned me beforehand because he knows that even wonderful surprises tend to fluster me beyond repair. One of the pictures I took that day is my favorite picture of my parents; it sits above their fireplace.

Every night he was home, as he was falling asleep, he would ask if the rabbits could come sleep with us. They couldn’t, of course, but he was always trying to talk me into it. “Just for a minute,” he would plead, his eyes already closed, smiling into his pillow. He called Maisie, a fat, grumpy little rabbit who kind of hated us, his little princess; he would rabidly defend her when I implied she could stand to lose weight (though he would, when pressed, grudgingly admit that she was “curvy” or “a little portly”). Before he left town, he would put on his hat and coat and then tell Hugh the Rabbit to take care of the house while he was gone. He snuck extra treats to both of them when I wasn’t looking; I feigned exasperation, but the truth is that the sight of him trying to conspire with them always made me laugh.

He made me breakfast. He put gas in the car. He always left my train tickets under my keys. He did damn near every dish I made for seven years. He automatically bought tickets to any concert he knew I would be interested in going to, then stuck them to the fridge. He never forgot an anniversary of anything, even the more obscure ones. He supported me financially without resentment, without even really thinking about it. He told me that he knew I was a good writer, because he wasn’t a reader but he loved everything I ever wrote. He called me “J.H.,” a play off J.K. Rowling’s name.

When we were splitting up our stuff, we had enough wedding pictures for both of us, thanks to duplicate sets. At one point, while we were arranging the pictures in little piles, we both started laughing. Because isn’t this crazy? Isn’t this flat-out RIDICULOUS? And yet my relationship with this man, he of the clean dishes and the endless encouragement, had become damaged beyond repair. Can you believe that? I couldn’t either; some people still can’t.

I don’t blame them, but I know what I know—even if, for a little while there, it was impossible to believe. It’s over. And the minute those two brutal words sink in, you can move on to … well, an even worse stage! Yay!

THE BLACK HOLE SUN STAGE

Everything stood still, Hiroshima style. Batteries went dead; unanswered texts and e-mails piled up like dead leaves on the doorstep of an abandoned house. There had been a Before, and as inconceivable as it might have seemed at the time, there would be an After, too. But this was the in-between. This was the space where nothing existed but a blank and oddly numb sort of pain. Even the sorrow was static; it didn’t budge or flow, but calcified in my chest and limbs, weighing me down and keeping me still. I didn’t know anything; I didn’t want anything. I was inanimate, a sunken stone.

Everything in the refrigerator stayed where it was (but not AS it was, unfortunately for my gag reflex about three weeks later). Scooted-out chairs collected dust while silently emphasizing spaces now pointedly unoccupied. Mail kept arriving, addressed to an entity that no longer existed. This was odd; hadn’t they heard? Hadn’t the entire world heard? It had been deafening, which made the ensuing quiet all the more unnerving.

THE GROUNDHOG STAGE

But, as it turned out, people had no idea. When I finally crawled out of my hole and looked around a bit, I discovered that the sun was still doing its thing, along with everyone else. They would smile at me, ask how I was, ask how Jeff was. Did we have any travel plans coming up?

This was unfathomable. I felt sodden with what had happened, like I’d been physically dunked in it, like I squished when I walked. I still wore makeup and sported shiny hair, of course, but so do dead people; it’s just protocol. But as I put one foot in front of the other on the sidewalk, buses passed by me and stirred the air, just like always.

It appeared the buses were still running, then. Huh.

THE CRAZY PENDULUM STAGE

Negotiations and random tasks had worn me down to my last nerve, which, in its unprotected state, seemed to resonate wildly with whatever was going on at the time. A stranger just smiled at me for no reason? HUMANITY IS SO BREATHTAKINGLY AND TOUCHINGLY BEAUTIFUL! It started to rain? THE UNIVERSE SEIZES ITS EVERY OPPORTUNITY TO SHIT ON ME JUST FOR THE PLEASURE OF WATCHING ME SUFFER!

I had discovered the outside world still existed, but I had no idea where I belonged in it. And since everything in my zinging and abrasive Technicolor hyper-existence was marked extremely urgent, I felt a great deal of pressure to figure this out immediately—even if I had yet to regain the rationality required to do so. At one point, and I am not even kidding you, I thought I might get a motorcycle and become a forest ranger. Even though I am famously risk-averse (not to mention uncoordinated) and I loathe the outdoors.

This stage is likely to drive your poor friends crazy. One day, you’re explaining to them quite earnestly why you have nothing to look forward to and your life is over. The next day, you’re exuberant about your new chosen career of astronaut. “The FINAL frontier,” you will say to them, jabbing your finger toward the sky. (If you have very good friends, they won’t remind you that you passed the maximum age for military aviators three years ago and that you failed basic algebra. Twice.) The day after that: black despair. The day after that: a sudden and very enthusiastic obsession with the art of marionette puppetmastering, or God only knows what. Et cetera, et cetera.

This might go on for an embarrassingly long time. But it won’t be forever, so don’t bother wasting several hours a day wondering if you’re just going to be crazy like this from now on. I know I spent way too much time musing dejectedly that I had once been so SANE and trying to come up with scientific explanations for how mundane divorce tasks like the splitting of a cell phone plan could somehow be linked to actual brain damage.

THE HEALING STAGE

For me, this overlapped with the crazy pendulum stage, but it may not for everyone. In between fits of complete crazy-pendulum insanity (the darkest of which, for some reason, seemed to happen at the supermarket, which seems weird, but others have described similar incidents occurring at Target), I was rebuilding. Some of this was conscious—there is a REASON my apartment is decorated to the nines—and some of it was unconscious.

I read a lot of poetry. I read about science. I read about human achievements and human disasters. I read articles on crazy inexplicable particle behavior (quantum entanglement ftw!), on the development of human flight, on Chernobyl, on World War II. I related, I identified, I processed. I read about Jews crucified because they were blamed for the plague. I read about the turn of the earth and the replication of DNA. I read about despair and discovery in equal amounts. I completed a giant volume of world history and a giant volume of scientific history; I forgot most of it, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was that sense of an expanding world, that instinctive seeking out of anything and everything I had not known as my old self.

There was something healing about awe. I turned pages in order to invoke that therapeutic awe in myself, the way someone will run miles to achieve a runner’s high. There was so much out there; the world was so massive in its ideas and nooks and customs and memories. After thinking so intensely and involuntarily of myself, of ME ME ME, it felt so good to stretch, to reach … and to realize that there is so much more to everything than who I am or how I have failed. And to realize that so many possibilities still remain.

As I picked up speed and regained the energy I had been devoting to my own personal tragedy, it started to feel as if my neurons were at a goddamn RAVE or something. Had I been hesitant to walk out into this crazy, amazing, messed-up world before? Had I been afraid to get my hands dirty, to touch and be touched?

If I had been hesitant before, now I couldn’t wait.

THE SUPERHERO STAGE

The superhero stage is my favorite divorce stage so far. (Perhaps more accurately, Kerri calls it the superherOINE stage.) I’m honestly not sure I have ever felt this powerful in my life. I think I could whip my index fingers out of imaginary holsters slung across my hips and shoot you dead with them. (Not that I would do that! You seem nice!) I am genuinely surprised at the lack of booming KAPOW! noise every time I flex my thumb in this scenario.

I belong to myself. I can do whatever I want. I can go wherever I want. I don’t have to take shit from anyone. “Compromise” is not a necessary component of my vocabulary. It sounds selfish, but it isn’t, necessarily; I’ve actually been doing more volunteering than ever before, because I can—because every hour of every day is mine to spend as I like.

I became convinced that I could do good for myself by doing good for others. My resume lacks diversity, so I called a children’s organization and told them I wanted to do their marketing and write their grants, as long as they were willing to teach me. As an unexpected perk, I now have access to a fantastic workspace. I have been frustrated by my inability to build things and fix things on my own; I signed up for Habitat for Humanity with the idea that I might learn a thing or two, only to discover that they had partnered with the community college to offer free classes on everything from reading blueprints to installing flooring.

I can tell you exactly when my superhero phase started. I was reading my bajillionth book on my Kindle when I suddenly thought, I wish I had my typewriter. For months I hadn’t been able to string a sentence together; I had stared at my manuscript, confounded at the idea that I had managed to produce ANY of this, much less that I would ever feel moved to revise it. For months I had felt inert, dependent on the words of others to pull me along. Suddenly, I wanted those keys under my hands again. Hell, I wanted to BLOG again, something I hadn’t thought about in so long that I had forgotten how to use WordPress. I wanted to tell you about all of this, share all of it with you, breathlessly, at a rate you can barely keep up with, like Amelie dragging a blind man by the hand.

Not that you’re blind, of course, but you were unaware of what was going on with me. Which is pretty much the same thing, seeing as I am the center of the universe.

You would not believe how quickly these posts pour out; I have never written faster, and I was not a slow writer to begin with. I am inspired. I am the patron saint of divorce redemption. I am a phoenix. I am made of magic. I will change your life. I will change my life. I could strangle Chuck Norris with my bare hands. I won’t, because he has done nothing to deserve it, but I am just saying. Flowers pop up in my fucking FOOTPRINTS right now, all right?

I’m sure it won’t last. I’m sure there will be setbacks; that’s okay. But I intend to enjoy it while it lasts.

I had lunch with Jeff recently and talked a blue streak at the poor man, my soup untouched while I explained that I loved my job and I was going to build HOUSES and help the CHILDREN and have an amazing RESUME. Our past get-togethers have gone well enough, but he could tell there was something different about me this time; he kept having to pull on one of my arms in order to keep me from floating up into the sky, for instance.

“Are you happier now?” he asked. He wasn’t being maudlin; he just honestly wanted to know.

That question gave me pause like none other. My God, AM I happier now? The idea had enormous implications for both of us. But when I stopped to think about it, I knew it wasn’t true.

“No,” I finally said, after setting a Guinness World Record for bread-chewing. “I’m not happier than I was back then. I’m just finally ME again, and I’m so excited about it that I’m kicking some extra ass.”

And that’s why I wrote this post: because I have gotten so many heartbreaking e-mails since I wrote that list of divorce advice. I really didn’t expect that, considering that I’ve been blogging for about four minutes, but people like Loralee and Moosh and Avitable have been kind enough to spread the word. The response has been … humbling, and sad, because so many people separated yesterday, or the day before, or last week, and holy crap life is so wrenchingly hard sometimes.

I wrote this post because I want to tell all of those people that they will come back, and it will be amazing, and I am so excited for them. When they get there, I hope they let me know, because it will make my day. I’m thinking of all of you, future superheroes. Hang in there.

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