When I was first queried about writing, specifically for a blog like this, I was excited, nervous, surprised… would other mothers in medicine actually want to read what I have to say? Would this be an opportunity for me to reflect upon my own clinical and academic practice? Would this enable me to grow as a physician mom?
Like many things I’m sure you all can relate to, this idea fell to the back burner, simmering. I now find myself at a critical point in which the stew that is my professional and personal life are bubbling, coming to a boil and I find this the opportune moment to jump in. This comes on the heels of a gentle reminder from KC, for which I am thankful.
I am approaching the final stages of divorce. In order to proceed with finalization, I have been required to attend parenting classes. I won’t go into just how asinine I thought this was given he has no requirement to attend said classes. Nevertheless, I showed up with intent to learn as much as I could that I’ve not already discovered through trial and error in the co-parenting adventure. I was surprised that they started with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and the stages of grief. I took that with a big arms across the chest eye roll, then softened a bit as I thought more about each stage and the fact that this transition does in fact mark a loss… I’ve since considered my own transition through the stages and thought back on the years we were together.
It’s taken nearly three years. I asked him to leave almost three years ago with our eleven month old son on my hip, seething with anger and pain. Eight years of emotional roller coasters. Eight years of infidelity. Eight years of me not acknowledging my own value. In that moment, that decision, I chose myself and my child. I chose to remove myself from a relationship and marriage which was so far removed from anything I wanted to model for my progeny. I had finally come to the complete realization that my husband would not every remain faithful and tend to his responsibility and commitment to me as a life partner. I did not want my little one to watch and live in an environment where a person whom is purported to be loved is treated that way. I have come to terms with the fact that I have zero control of half of this equation (my ex), however I have full control of my own actions, behaviors and decisions.
So, if you will, walk through the stages with me.
Every single time I found out about another indiscretion of infidelity, I refused to believe it or give it any power. I denied how devastating his actions and betrayal had been. I denied that he’d made a seemingly meaningful connection with anyone in this world other than me. I denied that he’d violated my trust. I denied that I deserved to be treated with respect, dignity, love and commitment. I denied my value. I denied my intelligence. I denied my sex appeal. I denied everything and assumed it was my fault. I stuffed my emotions and hurt into a little box and told myself he’d be better. I denied my visceral sense that his behavior would never change. I denied my better sense. I denied my friends’ pleas to remove him from my life, over and over again.
This emotion is incredibly primal for me, particularly in regard to this situation. My instinctual, somatic response was long buried due to a longstanding practice of compartmentalization. The trouble with compartmentalization is that it is both protective and destructive. I put those sad, hurtful, scary, heart wrenching things in a box, I lock each box, then I dissociated from those feelings with the hope to never, ever have to feel those terrible feelings again. I felt comfortable, or at least I felt that I was well enough in control of my life to go about my day to day. Then there come times when I’ve run out of capacity in my emotional compartments and for me, that’s usually when I feel least in control of this primal behavior. On the surface, I perceive myself to be fairly calm, cool and collected. When my fully stuffed compartments start to overload, the anger floods over me, forcing my hand to process what’s in those boxes. This is also the crux of that inherent destructive nature of compartmentalization as well.
When this happens, my transition to anger is a painfully exhausting one. Each of us experiences it differently, but I can tell you how it feels for me. I develop an ache in my chest, then my heart rate quickens, blood rushes to my head, my jaw clenches, my nostrils flare, my posture becomes more erect and inevitably, my left eyebrow raises. My hair stands on end, my pupils dilate and I coil into position to strike. If it happens too quickly, it blends with the hurt and tears well up alongside my venomous words. At the same time, the sense of power that comes with anger is intoxicating. If it happens more slowly, I can calculate my response, choose my words and actions in a much more strategic way. I feel much more in control and strong. It’s a delicate balance, however, between the primal emotion and the controlled response. My ex, whether intentionally or not, can always find ways of awakening the beast within me. I’m still learning my own triggers and how best to turn each experience into something productive rather than destructive, with particular focus on self preservation. That, however, is for another conversation.
Anger is powerful, but it’s also energy intensive and exhausting. That adrenaline rush only lasts for so long and in general, I’m a big softie. So, let’s get to part of my own challenges with him. The mind is strong, the woman is strong, the flesh is weak. I rationalized that if I reclaimed him, I somehow won. Then I’d turn the blame onto myself. I’d make lists of the things I was or was not doing that must have somehow had an impact on his behavior. If only I wasn’t studying so much, if only I spoke another language, if only I were more exotic, if only I wore more makeup more often, if only I were thinner, if only I were funnier, if only: insert any markedly self-deprecating phrase, he wouldn’t have strayed. I’d consider what I could change about myself to keep him from doing it again, maybe if I were more shapely, or if I colored my hair, or if I wore more makeup, or if I spoke another language, or if I had perfect skin, or if I had perfectly manicured fingers and toes. I was just certain that I could do something to inspire change in him, then in my depression, he’d feed into the bargaining and do bargaining of his own: “I’ll delete her number, I won’t work with her anymore, I’ll delete that email account, I’ll go to counseling, I love you, not her, I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” On and on. Of course, this spoke to the caretaker in me as well. There must be something wrong with him and I can help him! What a poorly rationalized thought which cost me the better part of a decade and emotional scars which will eventually heal, but not disappear.
I spent eight years ping ponging between denial, anger, bargaining and depression. It happened so frequently that it just became the norm and an expectation. It was just a matter of time until it would happen again, then pieces of my heart would chip away, I’d become furious, buried in anger and wanting to lash out. When he, the person in my life to whom I’d given everything I could possibly think of giving betrayed my trust and discarded me as if I was worthless, I became worthless. I devalued myself. My life lost it’s color. Everything was grey. Tears ran until there were no more tears. The ache in my chest became colder, darker, then numb. I anesthetized and dissociated myself from the situation, from our life together. I ached for connection. I ached to be desirable. I drank, a lot.
The most marked period of depression in all of this was not actually after I finally asked him to leave. It was when he told me he didn’t love me and wanted a divorce. I packed my bags. I had no idea where I was going. I searched frantically on Craigslist and found a furnished studio which fit into my budget. It was close to the subway. It was close to a grocery store. The grocery store had wine. I could get to work. I could get food, not that I had an appetite. I became a hermit, a one to two bottle of wine per night hermit. One day I woke up and realized that this was not at all in my best interests and pulled back on the alcohol, found a 10 mile race to train for (I’d never run that far in my life) and redirected my energy. Slowly, the depression lifted which softened my heart and he came back into the picture, again. In my softened state, I let him back in, of course, but that’s a story for another time.
This may sound strange to you, but the last time I let him back in, I knew it wasn’t going to work. I had decided that he was not going to change, but I was going to give it one more go. You may be thinking to yourself, “WHAT?!?! Is she crazy?” Maybe, a little bit. We all have our own pathology and demons and this was my path to take. My decision to let him back into my life and my heart was complicated, as these situations often are. As was our cycle, there was wooing and there was romance and of course there was sex. Then one day I realized I was incredibly sensitive emotionally, my breasts were swollen and sore, and GASP! I was late. I immediately ran to the drugstore, bought a pregnancy test, walked to nearest coffee shop and went into their bathroom, and melted into the bathroom stall as two pink lines showed up. Did I forget to mention that I was tapped as a chief resident for the next academic year just one week prior???
He never wanted to have children. I could just not tell him. I could cut him out of my life forever. I’d always wanted to be a doctor and I’d always wanted to be a mom. How in the world am I going to do this alone? I knew he was going to completely flip out. It would be so much easier to not include him. Alas, that wasn’t the right thing to do. So I told him. He was livid. “How could this happen?” Ummmmmm, I know you’re not a doctor, but seriously? Remember all those times I reminded you that I wasn’t on birth control anymore because I didn’t think it was necessary given I was alone in a studio apartment drinking my life away and maintaining solitary confinement? Well, we had many conversations about termination, so much so that I went to Planned Parenthood for a preliminary appointment. This was followed by a call in tears to my best friend in the entire world about how there was no way I could do this alone and that I couldn’t count on him for anything, so wouldn’t this just be easier. Thankfully, she talked me off of the ledge. She knew that I wanted to be a mother more than anything and that all of the excuses I was coming up with were silly in the grand scheme of things. I’m a strong woman and I thankfully have a wonderful circle of friends and I would figure it out. I would be ok. We (my kiddo and I, at least), would be ok.
Then it became clear that he was still involved with tomfoolery with one of the many women from his past. She got involved and there were text messages and emails. I have to say, the level of class demonstrated by all parties is fodder for another time. Ultimately, he cut ties with her, promised to go to therapy for his “sex addiction” read “narcissism.” By the time I was eight months pregnant, he’d demonstrated sufficient amounts of commitment that I finally moved back in and we planned for the arrival of our baby.
I knew it wasn’t going to work. I. Knew. It. Was. Not. Going. To. Work. I felt compelled to give it one last go for the sake of our little one. I also had an inner dialogue that was determined to figure out how to at least be a parent with this man. We made a small person. I’m stuck with him no matter what happens between us and our relationship. I have to tell my child when they’ve grown bigger and understand more of the world that I did try to make things work. I also had to give my ex the opportunity to be a father, though he never thought he wanted to do that. I wanted to be able to look into the eyes of my pride and joy when they ask why mommy and daddy aren’t together and speak frankly, honestly, that I did everything in my power to make things work… and they just didn’t. I want to say that we both love our child and have our child’s best interests in mind and want them to grow up happy and healthy.
So, when I was in the midst of my first year as an attending, spending a fair bit of time as a solo parent with our newborn given my husband’s work related travel, and my little was 9 months old and I got a phone call from my father-in-law. He was nearly hysterical as my mother-in-law had just had a CT scan with a mass and mets EVERYWHERE. I knew what this meant. My father-in-law had an inkling, but not a full understanding. He’d tried to call my husband. No answer. I tried to call my husband. No answer. Text. No answer. Another phone call. No answer. I called the hotel where he was supposed to be staying for his work related conference. “I’m sorry, ma’am, there’s no one by that name in this hotel.” Call to his boss. “I don’t think he’s checked in to the hotel yet.” After trying to reach my husband on an emergent basis for two and a half hours, he finally called back. How do you deliver bad news to the love of your life after you’ve been unable to contact them for a prolonged period of time? You don’t ask too many questions about where they were, who they were with and what they were doing… after all, their mom is dying and they don’t even know it. You take a deep breath, tell them you have some difficult news and follow that with as much promise of support as you can. I told him they’d found a mass, it was very concerning for widespread cancer and we needed to figure out how to get him home and us on a plane to see her. I called my colleagues, got shifts covered, booked our flight, headed across the country.
My husband stayed. I came back to work and essentially be a single parent. I facilitated conference calls with specialists, primary care physicians, hospice providers, and my husband, father-in-law, brother-in-law. I was the tele consult 24 hours a day, while caring for our infant, managing a nanny who left a bit to be desired, managing my board exams and finding my way as a new attending. My mother-in-law didn’t want treatment. She wanted quality of life. Her sons and her husband could not fathom this. My father-in-law understood her desire, but his heart was broken. He was watching his love slip away right in front of his eyes, in his own home. The boys on the other hand were going through their own grief process. My husband was distant. I expected this. I figured it was his process. At the same time, just hours after we celebrated her life in a remembrance ceremony after her death, the text message that came from his paramour, while not unexpected, her timing was audacious. “I think he’s lying to us both. I hope he comes clean with you.”
That was THE moment of acceptance. I knew it would come. I just needed to go through the whole process. That was the moment our marriage and relationship was over. Now, don’t get me wrong, there certainly followed moments of depression and anger and a sense of loss, but there was no bargaining and there was absolutely no turning back. That was the point of no return. I am worth more than this and my child deserves to learn that I will not accept being treated this way. My kiddo deserves at least one parent who strives to demonstrate the value of meaningful and lasting relationships built on communication, openness and trust. I refuse to accept that life anymore and am moving on with my new life and my little one.
Here's to new beginnings.