My home was flooded just weeks before my divorce was final.
The ocean spilled over the sea wall and headed down the street carrying telephone poles, patio furniture and boat parts. It was 2 a.m. and I was in my bedroom with the cat as my daughter was with her father on one of her first overnights.
I was knee deep in despair. And fear.
The ocean pooled around my stairs, foundations and car. Outside, the flood would take my blue Subaru, dog fence and air conditioner. Inside, it was thr heating system, hot water tank, washer, dryer and the entire contents of my basement submerged and ruined.
I wasn’t even in the flood zone!
Worse than the cold or the damage or the fifteen thousand dollars in costs for clean -up, not covered by insurance, was how I felt: rattled, raw and alone.
I didn’t plan to be a single home-owning mother in good times and divorce made me both during disaster. To say my symptoms of post-traumatic stress were triggered is an understatement.
All I had known about love, trust and the future got pulled out from under me. When the tide receded I felt as useless as the couple ornaments collected for over nineteen years. I’d lift the painted pair of love birds that said “soul mates” and stare in disbelief.
The family ornaments with our daughter’s name or photos made me sob with confused grief.
Could someone fail at a marriage and call herself a good mother? I wrestled with questions difficult to answer.
I wanted to smash old ornaments with a hammer or display Mr. and Mrs. Claus lawn decorations with lawyers and a judge on my lawn to display my reality. I was bitter but I didn’t want to seem bitter so I didn’t because I was something else – a mother.
Moms can’t get mean, fall apart or act crazy except in the shower, car or bed when alone and maybe on the phone or out with a close friend. We need to stay strong for our children. The pain they feel is worse than ours and they are looking for us to be there for them and for how to weather difficulty.
Loss would sneak up on me at the grocery store all the time. I’d see my ex’s favorite hot sauce and think, “I don’t need to buy that anymore.” I would feel that love itself was a liar and that I was less than I had believed myself to be.
Feeling punched in aisle five I would realize my own love failed to be unconditional. I’m like my blue hiking boots, I’d think, which were sturdy and strong going up hills and mountains but were ruined by one flood.
Just because we’re amazing climbers doesn’t mean we can swim through any storm. How had I not known?
My heart was not all-season or all-terrain as I had thought it had been. Sometimes the choices are bad and worse.
What woman leaves a marriage knowing it means her daughter will no longer sleep under the same roof as her father?
Me? Gulp. Yeah… Me.
How could I share this with others? Or what had brought me to the place where that was the preferable option.
I was shocked. Stunned.
Others were scared, sad, shocked, palpably disappointed and often opinionated about love’s frailty and my inability to predict or clean up after the unraveling.
I felt like a cruel teenager telling first-graders there is no Santa Claus. It was the truth but it didn’t feel liberating. No one wanted to know. Everyone wanted red bows and wrapping.
I was as sharp and messy as a broken snow globe oozing glitter and liquid. My marriage wasn’t timeless or shatter proof.
It was difficult to manage legal and financial decisions and grocery shopping.
And my own feelings.
It was hard to handle the truth which is that people get sick, have addictions, make mistakes or decisions that change the course of a couple. Errors, though human, can have difficult and deadly consequences and come with more risk than a heart can withstand.
Even beautiful houses flood or catch fire and sink or burn. A once sanctuary can become a place that no longer feels like home. The perfume of dreams can turn to skunk spray. Love can start strong and end bad.
Others can disappoint us and we can disappoint ourselves.
How do we stay parenting. How do we stay unafraid to live?
Divorce can be brutal. That’s what I remember most. Lonely and shocking and unsettling.
But it wasn’t all bad news. Even though divorce is an ACE, for my child, that does not mean it was without lessons I do treasure.
I needed the midlife reckoning I got.
I needed my heart, home and house to be flooded before I would start swimming for my life. Without a crisis I would have remained where I was.
Where I was came with danger. That’s the thing about the ACE of divorce. Sometimes divorce keeps our children from living with other ACEs.
And there is more than damage to survey after floods and divorces.
After the flood, I made structural changes. I hung the heating system from the ceiling, installed a gas fireplace which keeps the house warm when we lose power.
I found salt water totals a car on contact. Even if a car starts after a flood it is no longer safe or reliable. Engines, like hearts, can survive floods at first. Sometimes it the wires that corrode and get crossed which do the damage later. Corrosion doesn’t have to be visible or obvious to be deadly.
I now know to park on higher ground when storms are coming.
I learned that it’s not one bad weather condition that does the damage. One, by itself, might be a non-event but combine an astronomical high tide, full moon and a Noreaster and the likelihood of storm surge is higher. Much higher.
It’s not unlike the cumulative impact of multiple ACEs. The way forced work together, unfortunately, can make destructiveness more severe than if it exists in isolation.
Similarly, in love, it’s best not to combine addiction, betrayal and unresolved childhood issues. And sometimes we don’t have this wisdom until we’ve fallen face first on to rock bottom.
Years later, after my divorce, I could see how much time I had wasted worrying about things that didn’t matter or never happened. I saw that I got clobbered by something I didn’t see coming.
I realized: I’m terrible at worrying. I don’t worry accurately. In fact, I thought, since I’m so bad at worrying, why bother worrying at all? I’m going to abandon the practice. I had spent so long trying to be safe, normal and seem like everyone else. I cared more about how I seemed than how I actually was. I learned, through divorce, that trying and worry don’t always prevent pain – only joy and being connected to truth.
I’m grateful for that lesson and to be able to share it with my kid.
I will always be sad my daughter didn’t have two parents who shared one home and could offer her health, warmth and love at one address. But that’s not something her Dad and I were able to offer even when we were together.
Now, he is sober and I too am less anxious than I have ever been. He has come to watch our daughter open Christmas presents in her home, with me, every Christmas. We share a lunch which is our post-divorce tradition. And now, when they leave and go to his apartment I won’t sob or stare at old ornaments. I’ll walk the dog, watch the sunset or just listen to the waves. I’ll share dinner with my love. My daughter will return to a house out of the flood zone. There are risks we can’t avoid. And some we can.
There’s no way to storm-proof life but storms can show us where we were vulnerable and how to be storm ready. Storms can be what we need to smooth out our edges. The best sea glass washes up on shore after angry tides.
We don’t have to love the storm to appreciate the gems they leave behind.
There is clean-up. There is recovery. Life can turn our lives upside down. It can also turn out far better than we had feared or planned.
You Matter Mantras
- Trauma sucks. You don't.
- Write to express not to impress.
- It's not trauma informed if it's not informed by trauma survivors.
- Breathing isn't optional.