A Year After My Divorce, I’m Wondering Who I Was

After the split, I found myself looking back on my life — and looking forward to who I’m becoming

Photo: Alessandro Conti/EyeEm/Getty Images

“What were your top three achievements of the last year?” “List everything you accomplished in this decade!” I saw the tweets and didn’t know how to respond. The year and the decade took what had been the most important thing in my life with them.

A little more than a year ago, my marriage ended. My marriage of 13 years — dating for seven, engaged for two, married for four — just ended. I didn’t want it to. I’m not sure if he did either. But he told me, while we were sitting on a red couch shaped like lips in a hipster café in Paris, that he wasn’t happy, and that he wanted to try spending time apart. Apart? I said. Like a trial separation? Yes, he said. Of course I want to try counseling, he said. Of course, I said. The waitress came over and told us, while I tried to cry discreetly into my turtleneck, that there was a secret bar upstairs that you could get to by going behind a mirror at the end of the hallway. Tired by my efforts to cry discreetly, we went upstairs, and I washed my face in the bathroom, which, as it turned out, also secretly led to a separate room for smoking. I don’t know. It sounded good on Yelp. It was as good a place to end a marriage as any.

A little less than a year ago, we sat on a cheap couch in a therapist’s office and tried to describe what was happening. As it turned out, it was either very difficult to describe, or very easy. We’re just too different, he said. In what ways? I asked. Well, I like to get up right away in the morning, and you’re a night owl, he said. It was true, so I stayed silent. Things haven’t been good for a long time, he said. This was true, or not true, depending on how you looked at it, so I stayed silent. Thirteen years is a long time to be very different from the person you wake up next to. In another light, it is no time at all.

More than 14 years ago, I met and fell in love with my future husband on our first day of college together. Actually, as he liked to remind me, it was even before the first day. It was the first day of our freshman orientation trip. I fell a little in love with him as I watched his tanned body arcing in a butterfly, showing off during the swim test. I fell a little more in love with him when he asked me to waltz on the last night of our trip. A little more when we met up after the trip for dinner, and he showed up in a jaunty red polo and jaunty red shoes, ready for an adventure. A little more during the first snowfall together, a little more when I felt his hands on me for the first time, a little more when he snuck away from a lunch to buy me earrings, a little more when he proposed to me for the first time, on Limantour Beach in Point Reyes.

More than seven years ago, we get engaged. I am afraid. I’m not sure I’m cut out for marriage because we’ve met so young and because feminism and because aren’t we just going to make all the same mistakes our parents made? No, he says. Marriage is something we make for ourselves. He is right.

We get married, two years later, on a small hillside, with friends and close family. We write our own vows. Rather, I write my vows, and, panicked, he asks if he can just vow the same things. I say yes. I know how anxiety goes. When I hear the music I’ve picked for the walk down the aisle, and my dad takes my arm, my heart beats so hard it flutters my dress. I am so proud that I walk forward in spite of the fear. The wedding is good. One of the bridesmaids faints during our vows. She will spend the next several years apologizing for this, as though she has any control over a medical condition. Everyone else gets so drunk they tell us later they can’t remember the wedding, but it must’ve been fun, so she has nothing to apologize for. Everyone tells me this is the best day of my life. And it is, except for all the other best days, like college graduation, or getting into graduate school, which he has always been by my side for.

More than a year ago, we have a terrible fight. My father has been diagnosed with cancer (fortunately treatable), and I have flown more than 12,000 miles, from London to San Francisco and back, to be home for five days to help him during his first appointments. When I get back, I am tired and have a migraine that won’t quit. We are supposed to go to dinner and a show. We go to dinner, but I can barely eat. He takes this as a reproach. It is true, so I stay silent. We go out for a drink before the show. My head is pounding too hard for me to think, so I get more sullen and snappy. I say I’m going home, and he tells me I am not fun anymore. I come unhinged. It is possible that I actually have froth coming out of my mouth in the smallest nook of the King’s Arms pub. Two other people come in and sit nearby, defying death. I tell him not to come home. He sits on the couch while I leave, crying. I call my girlfriends as I walk home and tell them that things are very wrong, that he wants to stay in this country and not move back at the end of my postdoc, that he has receded further and further from me after moving overseas and my father’s illness, and how can he do this when I need him now? They are mostly silent. They are not sure what to say. He asks to come back later, and I say yes. He talks to me while I am sitting in a bath, shaking. He cries. He says he is not happy. I am not sure what to say. I am not happy either.

More than a year ago, he is saying goodbye to me. He tells me it is not goodbye, but we both know it is. I vomit from fear and sadness, and then nearly shit myself despite being right next to the toilet. This is how my anxiety operationalizes. I shower, and shower, and shower. I vomit more, and shower again. I brush my teeth. We have sex. We both know this is the last time. I go back to the bathroom and cry and shower again, sitting on the floor of the tiny stall of the Airbnb in Paris. This is the part that they don’t show in Marriage Story.

More than a year ago, my parents pick me up from the airport. I am drunk. I have not slept in 72 hours. I am so dehydrated that my clothes hang from me, even though I have gained 10 pounds over the preceding six months. I can see in their faces that they are afraid. They, who are staring into the face of cancer, are afraid of what they see in me. I take drugs, and I sleep. I spend time with friends and loved ones. Richard reads me The Tao of Pooh on the phone; he gives Eeyore an accent like Michael Caine, which I love. Amber invites me over for wine and a marathon of The Good Place. Beth drives me around the whole Bay Area, plastering me with dogs and books and endless love. I talk to so many people on the phone. I develop a patter for how I talk about it. It’s an emotional roller coaster, I begin by saying. It’s so hard. We will do counseling, yes. Yes, I’ve heard that sometimes marriages are helped by some time apart. People tell me quite often that we’ll be back together and stronger than ever.

Time begins anew for me when I return to Oxford in January. It is Year Zero in my calendar. I begin to wonder who I am, which means I have to think about who I was. I struggle with this, because I have spent my whole life defining myself around what I thought people expected of me.

In the Year Zero, I learn that apparently I make my bed each morning. I learn that, as suspected, I sleep better alone. I learn, unsuspected, that I like spending time alone, that in fact, very little makes me happier than waking up on my own schedule on the weekend and having a slow breakfast while reading a book.

In the Year Zero, I get a flatmate. He’s a nice German man, a fellow postdoc, who only has one question for me, one condition without which he cannot agree to rent a room. What’s the question? I ask. Do you like to cook dinner with your flatmates? Sure, I reply. I am dumbfounded. He explains, I live with several flatmates currently, but they are very unfriendly; no one ever cooks dinner together, and I don’t want to live somewhere else unfriendly. It is very important to me that we do this. Sure, absolutely, I say. It sounds nice. We talk about other things — watching TV, inviting people over, and so on — and we end up flatmates for six months. It is an unexpected pleasure, living with someone to whom I have no other obligations. He is very kind, even though he lives with someone who cries unexpectedly. He buys me a pie and flowers for my birthday, and I cry terribly because my husband never did this.

In the Year Zero, I rediscover my friends. I have neglected them. It is easy to neglect them, living 6,000 miles away, but they are very generous people, and so they welcome me with lots of video chatting and no recriminations. Each morning I have breakfast by myself and watch their videos. I hear about their plants and dogs and colds and wedding plans. It is a gift. We see and hear more of each other than we have since high school.

In the Year Zero, I discover that I didn’t know myself at all. I turn out to be untroubled by going to dinner and the movies by myself. I learn to travel alone, and love it; I surprise my Danish colleagues by taking the bus to get around Aarhus when I am invited to a talk there, even though none of the signs are in English. (A related aside: I learn that Americans can apparently recognize the words for “all-you-can-eat buffet” in any language.) I travel to seven states and 11 countries, sometimes with friends, sometimes on my own. I watch the U.S. women’s team win the World Cup in a stadium in Lyon. I learn how much I love my colleagues, especially the women, and how much better they are making the world and my profession. Women invite me to give talks and submit papers and hold hands and watch movies and travel on trains; they buy me books and dinner and ask me to hold their babies and send me their divorce attorney’s information. Arran calls to check on me while she is in labor and on her way to the hospital. Have you ever had a friend like that? It is jaw-dropping. I am not a friend like that. But I realize that I want to be, that it is possible to be.

In the Year Zero, I learn that I am much stronger than I ever imagined. I learn to rock myself when I cry at night. I learn how to let things go, even the most important things. I cry an unimaginable amount for someone who rarely cried short of a death. One day I am carrying home groceries and I begin crying for no reason at all, and one of my supervisors sees me. He waves hi nervously and offers to carry my groceries, which I decline in embarrassment, but then later he sends me a really kind email anyway. People take me to tea and to drinks and make me empanadas and Skype to talk about their favorite new book with no provocation. I learn to tell people very hard things about myself without flinching. As a result, I hear their hard things, too. I hear about abortions and grandparents dying and divorce and the unbelievable agony of losing children and cancer and suicide and wondering if they’ll ever be enough to get through these things. And they get through these things. My God, you should meet the people around you. You have no idea how much they’re grieving, and they’re still so, so kind.

In the Year One, I resolve to be like my friends. I resolve to wave hello to my past self, whoever she was, when I see her. She was a good woman, with “good values,” as my parents described me in an email to him. (Oh my God, you should read that email.) I don’t recognize all of her anymore, and doubtless she would not recognize all of me. But we both recognize how rich we are in love, and I will strive to pay that love forward. If you’re reading this, if you’ve made it this far, know that I love you, too.

Photo courtesy of the author

Ph.D. and Assistant Professor of Political Science at UC Davis. http://rachelbernhard.com

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