I saw my marriage as something that I could hold together. I believed if I could do enough things and work hard enough, I could create a happy marriage single handedly. When I decided to end it, a huge part of my identity was taken from me. In some ways this was extremely liberating. I had some days that felt almost manic with the joy of my new freedom. But I also felt something dark and looming that I could not even describe, much less name. At first, whenever I felt near to that darkness, I would run. Between work, exercise, friends, housekeeping, shopping, surfing, traveling, and church service, I kept myself EXTREMELY busy. When I wasn’t busy doing one of the many things, I would numb against the icy, prodding fingers of that darkness with TV or food or talking to a friend. Most of these things would be described as “coping skills” in the psychology realm. They were things that were relatively health, when compared with things many people turn to, like substance abuse, eating disorders or risky sexual behavior. I got a lot of extrinsic rewards from these things. I’m highly valued at work. I held a leadership position at church. I got my apartment and wardrobe looking like I had wanted it to for a long time. I made lots of connections with friends. I made some gains toward becoming a proficient surfer. My friends and family saw these things and told me how good I was doing. They saw it as evidence that I was moving on in a healthy way. So I continued this way because it usually kept me away from the darkness and I had lots of accomplishments I could point to proving that I was on the path to healing. I was busy running around telling and showing everyone how FINE I was.
During this time I developed a relationship with a married colleague. It started as a crush on both sides and I told myself this was ok because I wanted to protect myself from a real rebound relationship. It was never anything physical but it probably crossed some emotional boundaries, at least for my part. It made me really question what kind of person I was. I had never considered that I might be someone who would commit adultery or lead someone else into it, yet there were months when I absolutely would have done that if the opportunity had presented itself. I was tormented by this and ultimately it is what drove me to start to learn about managing my brain. I had to figure out how to reconcile the complexity of myself. That I could, from the same place, be capable of such a destructive and selfish act and capable of such goodness and love that I was living out in other areas of my life. It was at this point that I named the darkness “the abyss” and began to be conscious of it. I knew when it was close. There were times when I felt I was leaning over the edge into it. But I still didn’t understand exactly what it was.
I started learning that I could manage some of my suffering by managing my thoughts. This was an easy practice for me to adopt because it was an iteration of how I had handled my marriage for 12.5 years. I just needed to shift away from unhelpful thoughts and substitute more helpful ones. I put my focus on loving and compassionate thoughts. I became more aware of the way my mind worked and how I could control it. This served me for a while but ultimately became a treadmill I couldn’t keep up with. I was trying to manage my thoughts to keep myself away from the abyss, to keep out of pain.
Finally a few months ago, I reached a breaking point. I realized I could not outrun the abyss. After more than a year of trying, I decided to let it catch me. I stopped doing my official church service. I backed off of exercise, housekeeping and shopping. I started to write. Each morning I would wake up early before my son got up and attempt to empty the contents of my brain onto my computer screen. Then I would sift through them, determine what I wanted to keep and attempt to leave the rest behind. Through this process, I learned that the abyss is really a belief that I am not enough. I could only realize that once I stopped running from it. I had to turn and face my pain, to walk through it. This took energy and time, but most of all a willingness. Glennon Doyle described pain as a “traveling professor,” and the most successful approach is to invite it to stay until it has taught me what I need to learn. That’s what I’m doing now.
The fear of pain (any negative emotion) is like thunder. I hear it and all of my instincts tell me I need to run or hide. But pain is not something to be feared. It comes and it goes and strangely, it heals. So every time I hear the rumble in the distance, I settle in, feel the rain on my face and the wind in my hair, even the crackle of electricity in the air. I tell myself, “This is living. You were born to do this. You are enough,” and I walk into the abyss.