I’ve been spending the last several months becoming acquainted with the tangles and turns and trials of divorce, something that came wildly out of the blue when my kindred soul, my heart’s desire, my “soul mate,” as they’re called, had a seemingly spontaneous psychotic break or manic episode or cataclysmic panic attack, or some combination of all three. Or perhaps he became possessed by a dybbuk, I don’t know. It happened suddenly one night during the balmiest part of summer, as suddenly as we had originally met and fell smack on our faces in love the summer before. He became enraged at something horrible and unforgivable I had done I couldn’t figure out what and lost his temper, his impulse control, his fundamental faculties for reason, and then finally lost any recognizable semblance or trait of who I’d always known him to be, his mind, whatever. Then he threw me out of the house, 8 months after our wedding, ultimately believing me to have become a terrible evil wench or something. Now there is a small town, a restraining order, and an indefinitely lasting injunction between us, as there has been for the last six months, which has been the same amount of time since I last saw him, raving as if he were rabidinous and foaming at the mouth, degenerated from a gentle, sensitive man so rapidly and inexplicably I wasn’t sure whether it was I who was losing it.
Because my husband (a former soldier in the Iraq war, if that helps to give any kind of context to the situation) went nuts and became someone else who I didn’t know so suddenly, I feel less like we separated because of discord than I feel like I have suddenly become a widow because of some freak, tragic event. It feels more like he died an untimely death than it does he spontaneously turned into a vicious wild animal, because the hateful, raging and belligerent man who changed the locks on the doors to the house at the same time I fled from him in uncomprehending horror was not my husband. I’ve never met the man I last saw in our home, have no idea who he is or where he came from. I couldn’t channel my husband inside that man no matter how much I tried and begged and reasoned with him over the last week we were together, when he suddenly appeared in the body of my husband. I had never seen before the malevolence and hatred with which he looked at me. This man wasn’t receptive to any kind of affection whatsoever, when always, as a rule, all it ever took to calm my husband the fuck down from whatever panic or horror or agitation that had seized him was my embrace.
The last morning I saw him, in a desperate and futile attempt to reach him, to cling to anything of what might remain of the love in him, I jumped out of bed and drove across town at 7am from my parents’ house where this evil alter ego of his had exiled me in the throes of his rage. I was sprung by a wishful, delusional fantasy that he would at last come down from his strange spell of wayward, insistent, irrational anger and once again be the accessible, generous, caring man he always was until he spontaneously lost his mind. I Pulled into the driveway of our rented house, dashed up the steps and threw myself on the bed next to him, pressing myself against him and burying my head in his chest and tangling my arms and legs around his body where he lay unrested in his unceasing hysteria. But he was completely gone by then. There was no response, no reflex from him, no reciprocal embrace. He just kept lying there, awake but indifferent to me, twitching in his inexorable panic, peevish toward my slobbering, gushing affection he had always insatiably solicited from me until then, and toward my beseeching him to affirm his love for me. The dybbuk, the evil alter ego from somewhere unknown had already taken over completely, and there was no way to get the loving husband I knew and who I had given my soul to back. It really felt like he was dead then; he had switched so suddenly and so drastically into someone unrecognizable and within an instant he was gone from me forever, just his body inhabited by his evil twin remaining.
In retrospect I realize how miserably naive I was, how huge of a blind spot I had, to have ignored all the telltale signals of disruption ahead from the beginning when we first started dating, that this endearing and affectionate man I’d met was not just troubled, as I was, but was toxic. The very intensity of his affection for me should have been a tip off that his love was construed–by perhaps himself as well as me–as everything that it in fact wasn’t. Or rather, it was the swiftness, the surety with which he fell so hard for me and desperately pressed for us to be together, forever. It was his questionable quirks that I brushed off as nothing more than quirks: his bravado and badass thrill-seeking impetuosity that I couldn’t help but admire, along with his unapologetic hedonistic relish for marijuana. It was his commanding disposition so refreshingly different than mine that entranced me toward him. And at the same time, he had a deep sensitivity toward the mildest slight, an irrationally fragile self concept, and he was unexpectedly insecure and needy, and constantly imploring my presence, my attention, my pampering. And in my blind naivete, I took the latter of these things to reflect a vulnerable soft side, a receptivity under his ruggedness that only endeared me to him even more. I loved being needed.
I have always been lured by this blind, ingenuous–and idiotic, of course–romantic in me to continue to think of and remember our relationship the way I experienced it at the time, as blissfully idyllic throughout before it shattered against the force of an unforeseen, free-falling trauma. That we floated, intoxicated, on some elysian cloud of reverie until violently awoken. And, in the latter sense, we did. Both of us followed our vulnerabilities into into each other’s arms, seeking refuge in one another from our respective miseries. We let our alienation and our starving hunger for affection and companionship guide the course of our love and we constructed our own respective fantasies of our lives together–he by idealizing the qualities about me that he fell for, and I by ignoring all the skulls and crossbones turning up in my path, and accepting wholeheartedly and without reservation his complete absorption with me. Our sudden, explosive breakup forced me to face what I put aside the whole time until then because I wanted so badly to feel loved by and connected with someone.
Though the unhealthy facets of our relationship emerged as seemingly benign idiosyncrasies in our dynamic, over time they grew and our symbiosis became less and less balanced. I was finally truly close with someone, was so happy, so fulfilled. For the first time in my life, I felt fully alive. And yet something was amiss. I didn’t know why I would find myself feeling even smaller and more powerless if, as partners in life, the two of us were supposed to bring out each other’s strengths. I didn’t know why any ingenuity that may lie latent inside me felt stifled instead of augmented if I had the support of my other half. The answer only came after I desperately fled from the rage that my husband suddenly erupted into at the end of last summer, when nothing would pacify him and he had become dead to me, and I felt I had no other choice.
So, I finally realized, our supportive and tender love wasn’t what I thought it was. What I have found more devastating than learning this, however, is the fact that my feelings of love and connectedness to him have not changed. Why would I still love and feel so close to someone who clearly didn’t value me or want to understand me as a person the way I had thought? I’ve felt so pathetic for continuing to love him, and even more pathetic for letting myself be drawn unquestioningly into his self-interested attachment to me in the first place.
But what difference does it make if I still have feelings for him, this unfortunate asshole who wound me into his twisted form of love and then spit me back out? Maybe he and I did have a special bond, maybe there really were traces of a beautiful and healthy symbiosis amidst the smothering spell in which we held each other. Why should I regret having loved him, and why shouldn’t I accept that I do love him still in spite of his vices? Can’t I still have closure and move on even if I do still love my tormented manipulative asshole of an ex who didn’t actually care about me the way I had thought or hoped? This is what I realized recently, when my best friend, in the throes of her own break up pain, suggested we together hold a ritual to officially pass each of our respective defeated romantic relationships on into a prior realm of experience, to place ourselves unencumbered and accepting into our next phase of life, to have closure from our broken hearts and souls.
We decided to pick an object that held strong meaning to each of for our now-withered relationships to use as an offering, something that we would give up to help nudgethe passage of that stage of our lives into the past. We would each write a letter to our ex, telling him everything we wanted to and couldn’t, or didn’t think of saying until after we broke ties. Then we’d both set our selected object and our letter into flames and burn it to symbolize our closure and the personal transformation our experiences afforded us.
Going through all the junk in the room where I sleep in my parents’ house, I came across exactly what it was I wanted to give as my offering, and pulled out of my dresser drawer a very diminutive pair of sheer panties my husband had given me, one of the many impractical and insubstantial items of clothing I found myself wearing while we were together. How convenient, I thought; I would gladly relinquish those items to the breakup gods. As I wrote my last words to him, I realized I was not just finding closure, a grip on the situation, an outlet into which to dissolve my resentment and bitterness into acceptance and compassion. I was also getting a grip on myself, reclaiming myself and the parts of me that I found to be troublingly neglected while I was with him. If I had asserted more of my authentic self to him, I began to wonder (or maybe, to, would our relationship have ended sooner?
It doesn’t matter regardless. Our time spent together fulfilled a vital purpose in my life; I felt love and intimacy for the first time, finally–in whatever dysfunctional and maladjusted form it took on for us. With my best friend on the phone from her place on the other side of the country, I sent those unbearable nylon panties off with the note, into the realm of the forgiven.
“Go with your parents this weekend to a special place to scatter the clippings,” my friend told me as I finished reading her my letter and snipping everything into shreds. Unaccustomed to setting things on fire, I was ultimately too afraid to try burning my panties and decided that symbolically burning them by cutting them up would have to suffice. Doing this ritual with my friend, who is Hindu, made me think back to the time a couple of years ago when she introduced me to the mother goddess Kali by telling me about her own ritual which she adapted from the unorthodox Left Hand Path to get closer to the qualities embodied by the ancient mythological deity. Like all aspects of Hinduism, she is as complicated as the world itself, and saying simply that she is the goddess of empowerment–shakti–isn’t enough to describe who she is. She’s at once fierce and loving, violent as well as nurturing and benevolent. She represents destruction and transformation as one and the same: She is, perhaps, the most agentic expression of femininity. What would Kali think of me if, amidst all her important work of helping to run the world, she had time to think of me? I wondered to myself. Would she be disappointed in me for passively giving all of myself over to a relationship that was ultimately parasitic, or would she be proud of me for reclaiming myself from its clutches? I would like to imagine that she received my note and offering and in a gesture of encouragement blew a breath of shakti back to nourish me.In the name of closure, I decided to share my note with which I offered up those godforsaken panties as an open letter to my soon-to-be ex husband, for whom I feel compassion above all else, and who I hope can eventually learn to experience the true selflessness that engenders a genuinely loving relationship:
There will never be enough to write to you, or about you. Especially for someone like me, who can’t shut up for the life of me once I get going–a quality you can wholeheartedly attest to. That’s one thing you ultimately couldn’t deal with about me, and that you still can’t: You really, really hate going too deep, hitting the raw areas of existence and experience. But reaching down into what throbs is what I thrive on. I need to feel it in order to purge it. Or, not to purge, but to cleanse myself and to reconcile it into my person, my being–whatever that is. I don’t believe that one can ever truly purge oneself of a painful experience, or to heal from it either. When something strikes like lightning and runs through you and leaves streaks that reach out into your path of life, you don’t ever recover; rather, you adapt, make room for it in the blueprint of your soul among the idiosyncrasies that make each soul specially beautiful during the brief time it falls through the universe–whatever that is–before fading, like a snowflake.
So, I am actually not trying to purge myself of you and the haunt you continually hold over me. I’m not trying to heal myself from the scars you’re leaving on my spirit. I’m not trying to free myself of you. Because I don’t believe anyone is or can ever be truly free. I am just, rather, taking a special moment from my ephemeral free fall through life to situate your imprint on my soul, to make a place for you among the other scars and welts and wounds, weave you into my thorny path wherever I can fit in your splinters, so that I may walk forward. There will always be traces of you in my gait and in the scent I leave, just as you will always carry faint remnants of me. We’re not together anymore, but a part of us will always be stuck into the other one; that fact is not to be taken for more or for less than what it simply is.
This offering is to both accept what you’ve left on me and to reify the part of me that you didn’t change, or erase, or wound: I said I’d never let a man tell me how to look. Then I met you and I found myself looking like the things I never wanted to be, to try to accommodate your every desire. For the first time, I became a fake blond, put gunk in my hair, wore mini-skirts, makeup, and lacy underwear. Shaved my genitals, padded my bras, covered my freckles with concealer, all because you wanted me to. I felt like a geisha, like a doll, a puppet, some kind of costumed creature. I felt inauthentic for the first time in my life. But that dissonance I felt, I now realize, reflects the sturdier, the agentic parts hidden inside me that you didn’t smother, that didn’t acquiesce. Rather than quelling my authenticity, you made it more tangible to me when you chafed against it by trying to break it and paint me into your own image of desire, of passivity, of whatever. My personal aesthetic, my personal expression of being a woman is one part of me that remained unchanged after we separated. These frilly sheer nylon panties you gave me represent the disparaging interpretation of femininity you placed upon me that I’m letting go as I let you go.