Well, it has been a hard year to blog. I’ll say that upfront. I mean there have been literal firestorms, and pandemics and all sorts. They’ve all been external though. Then there has been the internal stuff. Late last year, my husband and I published his story of surviving gay conversion therapy (also known as Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Change Efforts). I had intended to follow that piece up with a lot of stuff on mixed-orientation marriage, but something didn’t feel right. I’m glad I listened to that gut feeling. Because only a couple of months later, he and I would separate.
Fast forward to today: The ink is barely dry on the announcement of our separation. My best friend and her girlfriend came around to get the kids and take them out for a play because this covid19 lockdown has been hard on parents! Another newly single friend dropped around with coffee because we are allowed to now thank God! She and I sat on the couch with Patrick, who now comfortably inhabits the ‘best friend’ space, and we laughed. Like, belly-laughed. This is our life now: separated, best friends, co-parents, in lockdown until the pandemic passes and then living together by choice afterwards.
I didn’t think this would be how my life went. But it is. And every day I spend a moment in gratitude that this separation didn’t go the way of animosity and loathing.
There has long been a message out there in the ether about mental illness, saying “It’s okay not to be okay,” and it is. It 100% is. But I’m also learning, here on the other side of chronic pain, trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, repetitive pregnancy loss, losing family-relationships, losing a community of friends who were supposed to be “covenant” and “forever no matter what”, having to leave a church that represented the only life I’d ever known, changing careers, deconstructing faith, reconstructing faith, having a whole town talk about my family’s dirty laundry, having my dad take to the newspaper to discredit us when it came out that we no longer go to his church, supporting my husband through a sexuality crisis and recovery from the horrendous damage of conversion therapy and a lifetime of internalised homophobia, separating from that husband because of his sexuality and reinventing our partnership – it’s okay to be okay, too.
It’s okay to be okay, too.
When I was diagnosed with PTSD nearly a decade ago, following a misdiagnosis of anxiety and depression, I wondered whether I would ever be normal again. I had been diagnosed with a mental illness that seemed to mean I had diminished coping skills. Counselling failed to dull the vivid flashbacks (thanks to an extraordinary ability to recall details in picture format). It seemed I would live a lifetime under the weight of past trauma. I felt the shame of that diagnosis, and within my social circle at the time where everyone knew everyone’s business, I had failed to find a feeling of safety. Instead, I felt exposed, ashamed and on-show every time I had an episode. I was finding it even more difficult to enjoy life. That was the unwanted gift my diagnosis gave me.
I was wearing the weight of stigma that often comes with mental illness. That made it hard to accept that for the most part, I was a strong, smart, worthy person with so much going for her. Sometimes I think we can have such a deep attachment to our trauma or to the diagnosis that explained our difficulty that it is difficult to lean into the beauty, strength and complexity of who we are.
Ironically, after my diagnosis, this made my condition worse: I would fear having a PTS episode, which would increase my ambient anxiety levels, which would mean my tolerance was lower and I was more likely to have an episode. Saturday nights became long, sleepless nights, which meant I would march into Sunday ill-prepared for the stressors I would face. Usually, this meant my body would burn through stress hormones and I’d crash on Monday’s with blinding migraines. My long-suffering (now ex) husband supported me through this beautifully. During this time, we also coped with the loss of four pregnancies before finally, our son was born. On the day I found out I was pregnant for the fifth time, Patrick knew it was time to leave the church. I would fight to stay for another few months before realising leaving was our only choice. We were about to plunge into an incredible time of upheaval. I was about to face more confrontation, stress, grief and loss than I had ever experienced before. But something unexpected happened: I stayed pregnant for the first time, and my PTSD episodes decreased to the point where the coping mechanisms I used to use daily are all but forgotten.
I went from having an episode once a week at least, to forgetting I even had the condition.
Despite all the heartache we faced, the years I spent married to Patrick were wonderful and beautiful too. We have truly walked through fire together, and we’ve laughed, lived, and created a beautiful family that remains and will remain the centre of our hearts and lives. But he is gay, and there’s just no way around that. I’m truly happy for him, and am happy that I reached a point of being whole-heartedly LGBTQIA+ affirming in my theology before our separation. That means I celebrate with him instead of feeling a whole lot of unhelpful, and in my opinion unbiblical, things.
After we made the call, I felt grief and sadness, of course. But the main thing I felt was “What on earth will people say? How will they judge us?” I felt this because I used to be the person who thought divorce was always the wrong thing. I had this naive idea that everything could be prayed away, or ignored away, and that which couldn’t be was a tragedy. Deconstructing my faith disabused me of that idea.
I don’t see divorce as a tragedy anymore. I see abuse as a tragedy, but if someone has walked away from an abusive marriage then the walking isn’t tragic! It is brave and wonderful.
I see mistreatment of a spouse as a tragedy. But I don’t see that spouse standing up for themselves and realising they are worth happiness as a tragic.
I don’t see dissolving a marriage because of sexuality as a tragedy. I see living a lifetime of repression as a tragedy.
I do see growing apart as sad. I do think marriage is to be fought for. I do see “til death do us part” as a beautiful ideal that I hope to experience. That I will experience (lets put that down as #goals here). But I am no longer naive enough to think that misery is noble and kids are better off with married parents even if those parents are miserable, depressed and at eachother’s throats.
Once I realised that this is what I really thought, I came to another realisation: its okay to be okay, even if you are divorced or divorcing, even if you have a mental illness (no matter if it is well-managed or not), even if life didn’t go the way you planned it would go, even if you’ve caught more curveballs than its really fair for life to offer up. You don’t have to feel miserable just because that’s what society expects of you. It is okay to separate and feel genuine love and happiness for your ex-partner, and geniuine optimism about what comes next for us as individuals.
Because I’m a woman and I can totally multitask, it is also okay to have moments of sadness, too. The existance of one doesn’t have to deny the existance of the other.
It’s like my friend Bridget told me: “Don’t let anyone shit in your peace bubble. You get to have the life you want.”
So here we are in the middle of a pandemic, locked down in our homes, feeling a little bit caged and realising the human spirit really isn’t made for captivity. This has been a time of upheaval globally, and mental illness has compounded this difficulty for many of us. I like to say that Patrick and I split “before it was cool” because you bet your butt there will be a spike in divorces post Covid19.
But I want to say this: if joy visits you, let it. If you wake up one day and you don’t feel depressed or anxious or caged or let down or beaten up by life, let yourself feel okay. Sometimes it’s hard to let ourselves be happy when we have been conditioned to another reality. Being happy, experiencing joy, doesn’t deny life’s hardships. It doesn’t mean you no longer have a mental illness, or that your life is suddenly easy. It certainly doesn’t mean you have to stay happy either. It just means that here, in this moment, you are okay. That is something you can lean into with a smile.
Why say all of this? I’ve been looking around at Christian messaging (and I still identify as Christian FYI), and I’ve noticed there is often a lot of emphasis on suffering. “When we suffer God is glorified.” “His strength is made perfect in our weakness.” “God disciplines those he loves.” “Let God heal you from your hurts and your wounds.” Also, pretty much everything about the Lutheran and Billy Grahamesque versions of Christianity. It all seems to tune us into our deficits and low points so that “God can be magnified”. That has been my experience, at least.
Here is my progressive Christian hot-take: we don’t have to hate ourselves, or focus on the bad things in us or around us. God doesn’t have to use every experience of our lives as a glory-grabbing moment, nor do I think miserable people bring all that much glory. You know? Happiness is okay too. Acceptance of ourselves in all our imperfect perfection is wonderful.
Over the last decade, I’ve spent a lot of time doing the hard yards when it comes to my wellbeing. I’m no longer the traumatised girl with the new PTSD diagnosis. Every now and then, once in a blue moon, I experience the taste of metal in my mouth and realise my pulse is racing and my cognition is a little scrambled. But now I know the sky isn’t falling; I’m just having a PTSD episode. I now know that PTSD isn’t shameful. Its a normal reaction to a set of really abnormal circumstances. Having spent a lot of time learning from experts and doing the work, I have built up some pretty amazing skills when it comes to resilience and wellness. I’m proud of that. And I’m going to say something pretty wild here – I’m not giving God the glory for it. He knows I did the work!
I’ve also learned something precious: I can’t control my life. I can live it. I can throw myself into it, make the best of it, and take responsibility for my own decisions and actions, but control is a myth because life is filled with other people and their choices and inner realities.
A couple of years ago, I got the first niggle that “til death do us part” might not happen for Patrick and I. So I did what I had learned to do – enjoyed every moment that I could, knowing I couldn’t change the inevitable but I could enjoy what we had. Those two years have been an absolute gift. We have loved to the best of our ability until we both knew it was time to love platonically instead. Now that time has come, our ability to accept the things we cannot change has meant we navigate our way forward as friends with a truly special bond. He cheers me on as a single woman in her prime. I cheer him on as the most fabulous Dad my kids could ask for, and I can’t wait to see how life unfolds for us in this unconventionally, wholly affirming post-separation family.
Sometimes resilience means fighting for what you know you must fight for. Sometimes it means knowing when something can’t be changed and accepting the outcome so that you can find your way forward.
I get that this is hard for some people to understand. I also get that this blog post is a little more rambly and a little less cerebral than my normal posts, but I just wanted to say: for my friends who caught a curveball and whose lives turned out differently to what they planned, for my friends who are struggling with lockdown, for my friends who have a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental illness – its okay to be okay.
If you feel good, that is a good thing. It doesn’t decrease your hardship. It magnifies your strength.
Be well, fam