Running into (and away from) your ex

I got divorced in January of 2010, walked out of the courtroom, hugged my ex husband one last time, got in my car and drove away and never saw him again. Welll, that’s not 100% true, because there was one time about seven years ago that I saw him in the food store and hid in the bread aisle until I could run out, but that had more to do with the fact that I looked like a slob and was in my pajamas, rather than not wanting to see him because by that point I could have cared less.

When M. and I broke up, I was still very emotionally invested in his health and his life, but I knew any interactions with him encouraged him and that was not fair to either of us. I did not want to give him false hope that we would get back together. Neighbors would tell me they saw his truck on our street by my house, so I knew he was around, but it seemed harmless. Strangely enough, we didn’t run into each other anywhere, even though we lived only a couple miles apart. However, I was very aware of my surroundings, sort of knowing that us running into each other was inevitable and mostly dreading it.

It finally did happen last December. I was coming out of the gym and he was going in. As with most things, it was not as bad as I thought. We chatted for a little bit. In retrospect, I am grateful for this happening because he died less than two months later. It was the last time I ever saw him.

My gym was closed for a long time because of covid, and then because of flooding from a terrible storm. It just recently reopened and I finally started going back. It was weird because I felt like I kept looking at the door, thinking he was going to walk in. I feel like that happens a lot. I see someone who looks like him from behind walking or I see the same color truck as his and I have to remind myself that he is gone. I will never have to think about running into him again. How strange life is…one of the things I used to worry about is now something I wish could happen.

My boyfriend (also an M. name so I need to find an abbreviation for him….maybe Dr?) has an ex wife with whom he coparents, so she is very involved in his life. Luckily, she and I get along well, minimal problems and she is accepting of my relationship with the kids. But it is weird to me to be with someone who has baggage who is still present. Like they text about the kids and see each other multiple times a week. I can’t imagine what that is like because I have literally ZERO interaction with an ex at all.

It is like you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. I never wanted to run into M. until he passed away and now I wish I could run into him, to see him one more time. As far as my ex husband, I hope he found a new food store really far away…preferably another state! 😉

Time

Dear M,

When I think of you now, so much relates to time. Even from the beginning of our relationship, time was a factor. How many days would pass before we saw each other? How many days until you moved in with me? And then…how many days were you sober, how many days were in the coma, how many days were you in the hospital? As an English teacher, it is ingrained in me to find symbolism. The object that would most symbolize you would be a wrist watch. Very fitting considering how much you loved your Omega.

But time is different now when it comes to you. It is no longer days. After you died, it became weeks and then months and then finally…a year. I was dreading February so much. November always was my least favorite month because of losing my grandparents and getting divorced. February tried to take that title over.

With the date you died looming, my emotions were all over the place. But, strangely, on that day I felt so little. I had grieved so much for so long, it felt anticlimactic. I slept a lot, which indicated I was sad, but I planned to look through my “M box”- a tote of things I had packed up when we broke up and then stuffed new things into after you passed away. I told myself all year long I would look at it on the anniversary of your death (there needs to be a better word than “anniversary” for something sad). I finally did open the box at night and looked at photos and items that belonged to the dog and so, so many cards. It was sweet and I felt nostalgic, but I was not overcome with sadness like I thought I would be. I talked with my therapist about it afterwards and she thinks because I finally got answers about how you died, I had more closure than I thought I had.

A week or so later, my sister and I went out to dinner for your birthday. You would have been 39. I took her to “our” restaurant, which I had not been to since we broke up. It actually felt like a celebration. Again, instead of feeling sad, I was happy to remember you and all the good memories of our life together. It really felt like turning a corner. Being able to think about you and focusing on your life instead of you being sick or drunk or dead. I really celebrated your life on your birthday and it felt…right.

I will ALWAYS be sad about you being gone. It is just a part of who I am now. But, February is almost over and it wasn’t what I thought it would be. I finally felt a sense of peace, of being able to move on, of being able to balance grieving your loss and remembering happier times with you.

There is a quote by Robert Frost that I always have up in my classroom: “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on.” This past year, I have missed you, I have been depressed, I have been heartbroken, I have been SO angry, but my life has also gone on. I have been overjoyed, I have been happy, and I have fallen deeper in love with a wonderful man. I would like to think it is what you would have wanted for me.

Mad

I’m so fucking angry all the time. This is not a comfortable emotion for me. I have always historically been a crier. No matter what the situation, my gut reaction was to get upset and cry. Not anymore. Sometimes I think I just have no more tears to cry. And when they dried up, I became filled with rage instead.

I feel so shut off from everyone right now. Part is that is self-preservation and protection. I am escaping into myself by withdrawing from people and situations and emotions. The other part is that I find myself just wanting to lash out. At times when I would normally be sympathetic or be able to show that I care, I feel myself harden, the anger percolating dangerously close to the surface.

This started- no surprise- right after M. died. The circumstances of his death are still unknown, at least to me. People tell me that “it doesn’t matter HOW he died, the end result is the same”. I am consumed by it. I still NEED to know. I drive to work drafting emails in my head to send to his mother, sometimes demanding the truth, other times begging for it. I read so much after he died about the stages of grief, desperate to understand. Denial…check. That lasted a couple of weeks. Then came anger aaaannnnd I’m still there. Stuck. I kind of feel like I moved through the other stages, but kept anger tucked in my back pocket. It is a weird comfort, years of pent up anger finally being unleashed, but it is directed all the wrong places. It is like a firecracker- scalding hot and bright red and then it explodes and just goes everywhere.

I have always avoided anger. The absolute worst feeling is knowing or thinking someone is mad at me. And I seldom get mad at anyone, even if I have just cause. It just has never been my go-to emotion. Now, I don’t know how to stop being mad. And I get angry at the dumbest things. I feel like I have been pushing people away, especially my boyfriend. And I don’t even know how to explain to them why because I don’t understand it. It seems too simple (or like a lame excuse) to say, “I’m angry because M. died”. But I’m SO ANGRY BECAUSE M. DIED.

The worst part is I feel mean. I know I’m hurting people who care about me and who genuinely want to make sure I’m okay. And I know I’m doing it in the moment and I don’t care. That is the complete opposite of who I normally am as a person. The person I am pushing away the most is my boyfriend, who is so lovely and wonderful and probably so very, very confused. I just don’t know how to articulate how I feel (which is also very unlike me). My anxiety is so bad right now I just want to be left alone and I know if I continue to act like this, I am literally going to be left and alone.

There is always something to be thankful for

Dear M,

Happy Thanksgiving in heaven, love. I have been thinking about you SO much lately- more than usual. As you know, before you moved in with me, this time of year was always difficult. I had so many bad things happen in November- filing for divorce, my grandparents passing away, my dad having a stroke, my sister getting sick- I dreaded the month and Thanksgiving went from being one of my favorite holidays to just another day. Then, it became “our” holiday. Do you remember the first time we made a turkey? I can’t think about it without laughing. We must have watched 15 youtube videos and called my mom ten times! The best part was when I made the herb butter mix and you figured out how to get it under the skin. I was crying from laughing so hard. By the second year, we had a lot more confidence, but it was still a lot of work. After that, we were pros! And then, of course, there was the annual (and very epic) turkey leg photo. How that became a tradition, I have no idea, but those pictures are some of my favorite of you.

I know I am feeling nostalgic and not remembering everything. We definitely had some pretty bad arguments, my family always added a layer of stress, and I always worried if you were drinking before and during them being here. But I think for today, I just want to remember the good memories of all of our Thanksgivings together. It is still hard to believe that you are no longer here. After you got sick and we broke up, I made my sister start hosting Thanksgiving at her house. It was just too hard to do it without you and I was too sad. But there is a world of difference between us not being together and knowing you are with your family and I am with mine and you being gone.

It breaks my heart to know that you will never have another Thanksgiving. That there will never be another turkey leg photo to add to the collection. We aren’t having a traditional dinner this year, my sister wanted to do just appetizers and desserts (which would have been right up your alley) and I am secretly glad. I feel like I would have seen a turkey leg and cried. It is pretty weird and funny that something like a turkey leg can make me think of you.

I have so much to be thankful for this year (M, you should see our niece- she is amazing and you would love the baby!) Rather than being sad today, I am going to try to smile and think about you and the happy moments we shared together on this day.

“Normals”

I feel a new type of insecurity in my relationship that I have never experienced before. It is not due to jealousy, rather it is because of fear. I never worried about getting my heart broken before. I knew it was a possibility, but I did not think about it much. In my last relationship, I sort of felt like I always had the upper hand because he dealt with a lot of issues, including alcoholism. That sounds REALLY terrible now that I wrote it down, but it is true, and I promised myself I would always tell the truth on my blog- the good, the bad, and the ugly. Both M. and I dealt with mental illness, but mine was much more controlled. I had my shit together and he didn’t and that gave me a false sense of security in our relationship. I knew that he loved me, but I also knew that he depended on me, too.

I recently was with two friends of mine who are a married couple. She had a lovely, happy childhood and he did not. His parents were both abusive and were very hard on him. My friends also are friendly with my current boyfriend and I was trying to explain to them how I feel about my relationship with him. I said something, more directed to my male friend, like, “he (my boyfriend) is just SO normal. He had a normal childhood and a normal life and even his divorce was really amicable and normal. I don’t mean he has never had problems or faced challenges, but his family and his life are just really functional. He must listen to the stories of my family and my previous relationships and my problems with anxiety and secretly think ‘man, she is really fucked up.’ and it makes me wonder why he wants to be with me.” My girlfriend immediately jumped in to reassure me that my boyfriend loves me and what happened to me in my childhood was not my fault. But my male friend…he got it. He said he feels the same way sometimes, which made me feel better. And listen, I know that the word “normal” is incredibly difficult to define and super subjective. In my mind, normal equates to a lack of trauma and dysfunction. Being normal might seem like an insult to some people who interpret it to be synonymous with boring and ordinary. But to me, normal has a positive connotation and means safe and secure and healthy and functional.

A good example of this just happened recently. I had to get a CT scan of my sinuses. When my ENT called to give me the results he mentioned that I have a deviated septum. When I told my boyfriend this, he asked me if I had ever had a nose injury. I know he was thinking about whether I got smacked with a basketball in high school gym class. I thought about it for a minute and was like, “no, I don’t think so….oh wait! When I was 18 my dad got arrested because he head-butted me in the face and I thought he broke my nose.” I said it so casually because honestly I don’t really think about that event much and it was over 20 years ago, but my boyfriend looked taken aback. It was sort of a funny conversation, but also incredibly sad. It almost made me feel lonely and for a second, I missed my ex-boyfriend, M., because I knew he could relate and understand to having a screwed up family and childhood.

My friend and my boyfriend- they are “normals”. I, for sure, am not. I try to have the appearance of having it all together and I am very successful in a lot of different ways, but deep down I feel broken and dysfunctional and different and less than. I know a lot of this is my own self-perception and I am working on that. My boyfriend is the most amazing man I have ever known and I pinch myself every single day that we are together. I feel so lucky to have him in my life, but the problem is that I don’t always think he is lucky to have me in his (I am certain he would beg to differ). And that is what creates insecurity for me…because if I don’t think I am good enough for him, when is he going to realize that?


Life and Death

Dear M,

I don’t know what to do, so I am writing you. I sent your father an email for Father’s Day telling him how much you looked up to him and how much it made you happy when you made him proud. Your mother wrote me back a week later basically telling me in a “nice-ish” way (for her, at least) to not contact your father again because it is too hard for him and she also told me that your official cause of death was concluded to be a “heart attack caused by hypertension brought on by alcohol abuse” and she hopes that brings me some closure. Something still felt off with that, but I knew it was very plausible, especially with your history of high blood pressure.

Last weekend, my sister and I were at a store and ran into your uncle. As you know, he is just an open (very talkative) book and he told us that you died from an overdose of pills. When I managed to ask if it was on purpose, he said, “oh yeah, there was a note and everything….” I swear, it was the closest I ever came to passing out. I could not get out of that store fast enough. My sister was so upset, too.

What. The. Actual. Fuck?

My head has been spinning ever since. Without question, the most difficult aspect of your death is not knowing the details. Since day one, all I have wondered is when you died, how you died, how long you were alone, did you know what was happening, did you suffer? Those questions have plagued me. Not knowing how you died has made it very hard to move on or to properly grieve you. There is just no closure, especially without a service or obituary or anything to memorialize you.

But this? This is a whole new thing. You dying of a heart attack (or any other medical reason from years of alcohol abuse) is VERY different than you choosing to take your own life. And that means it is possible your mother has been lying to me for five months. I know you are rolling your eyes and thinking about how much she sucks, but can she really be THAT awful? I need to know the truth.

And a note? A NOTE??????? I feel like if I am in that note, I have a right to know that. I know that we were not together, but I took care of you for the almost decade we were together and then some. Even after I ended our romantic relationship, I was still the one who was taking you to the doctor and helping you when your family was in another state. I know, without a glimmer of doubt, that I was the closest person to you EVER in your life and yet I am the one who is being kept in the dark about your death.

Everyone keeps telling me that HOW you died does not change anything…that you are still gone. I understand that, I truly do. But, things have changed in my mind and I cannot just accept not knowing the truth. I just don’t know how to get it.

(Too) Close for Comfort

Living through a pandemic was obviously challenging in many different ways, but there were also some things that having to quarantine for a year and a half made easier…for one, my agoraphobia. It was definitely a nice break from having to constantly worry about going places because there was, quite literally, nowhere to go. Reflecting back on it now, I can definitely see how this caused some major setbacks for me. My “comfort area” has drastically narrowed and I have not had to push myself to leave it for a long time. Before COVID, I was okay with driving about two hours from home in most directions, but now I am probably hovering around an hour. I know that now that things are opening back up, I have to start pushing myself to go places, but it is just so hard. It. Is. So. Hard.

This past weekend, my boyfriend and I were discussing going to his mother’s beach house about an hour and a half away. Naturally all of the logistics pushed their way into my head- “it is the first weekend of the summer”, “everyone and their mother is going to be there”, “it will be SO crowded”, “the traffic is going to be a nightmare”. This is the doozy for me every time, the nail in the coffin…the traffic that I will have no control over. And then all the what-ifs start piling on….”what if I get sick?”, “what if I have to go to the bathroom?”, “what if there is an accident and the road is closed?”, “what if I have to go to the hospital?” (mind you, in my 42 years of life, I have gone to the hospital exactly one time for bronchitis).

Years ago, my therapist asked me what the worst part of thinking about flying was for me. Easy…”I can’t get off the plane if I want or need to”. She replied, “WHY would you NEED to get off the plane?” I still have never really had a good answer to that question.

The problem with anxiety and agoraphobia is that I can sit here and have a perfectly logical conversation about it. I am intelligent and well-educated. I have read articles, editorials, self-help books, etc. about these disorders. I can even be my own devil’s advocate (well, really, why WOULD you need to get off?). But, the problem is that once you start feeling those feelings, all logic goes out the window. I can’t control the wave of panic or the sensation that I can’t breathe or my body feeling on fire or any of the other multiple physical reactions that come along with these thoughts. I know it is all about lack of control. I know that. But when it is happening, it is really hard to remember that I don’t need to be in control.

I started dating my boyfriend a few months before quarantining began. It has been a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because we had so much time alone together to be a couple, to learn about each other, to enjoy each other’s company. Also, we work together and he is my boss, so although it is something that was disclosed to HR, it caused a lot of gossip. It was nice to be able to take a step back from that. Now that things are “normal”, he and I are old news and no one really cares

It has been a curse because he wasn’t exposed to this side of me. Obviously, I told him I have these problems from the beginning. I would never hide that from anyone. But it has been very easy for him to say that it is no big deal, he can handle it, it wouldn’t change anything about how he feels, etc. I believe him that he believes himself when he says these things, but I also know that dealing with this can get old quickly. It is easy to say it is not a big deal until the time he wants me to go somewhere and I can’t do it.

And therein lies the other problem. My boyfriend is the most amazing, patient, understanding, caring man I have ever been with. I am so lucky to be with him. Even through the death of my ex-boyfriend and my grieving process, he has been unwavering in his support. Okay, that is not the problem. The problem is that I feel like I don’t deserve him. It isn’t like I have super low self-esteem, it is more like I feel like I am not worthy of him. He is so normal and I feel like I am so…flawed. He had a pretty normal upbringing and I had an extremely dysfunctional family and an abusive alcoholic father. In some ways, being with my ex was easier because he was more messed up than I was. That sounds mean in light of his recent passing, but it is true. I took care of him, I had my shit together, and even though I had these issues, his issues with addiction and depression dominated our relationship. Now, I feel insecure that when my new boyfriend sees the REAL me, he is going to end things or not love me anymore. I have never really felt like this before (not liking it). I have shared a little bit of this with him and he is so reassuring and sweet and always asks me, “why do you think that?”

I don’t know…why do I need to get off the plane?

Gone, but never forgotten

Dear M,

One of the things I have had a lot of difficulty with since you passed away is the fact you did not have an obituary. At the time, I think your parents were so overcome by grief and the logistics of dealing with your apartment that they just were not even able to think about that. I know you said you did not want a service, which I reiterated to your mother, but I never imagined that you would not have an obituary. I kept waiting and checking online to see if one was posted. It feels so unfair. You had so many accomplishments, so many people who cared about you and it feels like your family just wanted to keep your death so private…almost like they were ashamed of you. I have never been ashamed of you, my love. Meg passed away a couple of weeks ago. She suffered much the same way you did and her family wrote and printed an obituary. She deserved that. You deserved that.

Many people, including my sister and my therapist, have recommended that I write one for you. Not to publish or for anyone else to read, but just for myself…and for you. I have put it off because I thought it would be too hard, too sad, but in a weird way it wasn’t. I kind of enjoyed writing it because I am proud of how much you accomplished and it reminded me of so many of your wonderful qualities. Just because someone struggled with addiction and mental illness does not take away from all of their positive traits and doesn’t diminish their achievements. Those things ultimately did not define you. But these things did:

MCH (1983-2021)

            Son of C. and C. Brother to A. and her husband, D. “Funcle” to G. and J. Godfather to M.E.J. M. is survived by many cousins, friends, coworkers, and the A. family.

            Growing up in BT, M. attended MLHS and the U.D., receiving a B.A. in Sociology. He later attended W.U., receiving an MBA. After successfully becoming a PMP, M. landed his dream job with MLB., where he was able to travel to Europe several times.

            An avid Yankees fan, M. attended games regularly. He loved bowling (and once scored a 298!), scuba diving with his father, and listening to music.  M. could often be found sitting on his deck, smoking a cigar, and streaming a baseball game, while simultaneously blasting songs by The Rolling Stones or Biggie Smalls.  M. was famous for his extensive shoe, sneaker, and watch collections and loved showing them off with pictures on Instagram (#sofreshandsoclean).

            M. is predeceased by his grandparents and his beloved black Labrador retriever, J.  No doubt she was waiting to greet him, and they are now reunited, playing ball for hours, taking long hikes, going for rides in his truck, and swimming in a beautiful lake. M. loved dogs “more than most people” and volunteered with the SPCA. In lieu of flowers, please make donations in his name to that organization.

♥️

Renovations

Dear M,

I am making some renovations to my house. I finally had the front steps and walkway redone. I think about how you used to drive by the house after we broke up and I can’t help but think about how seeing these changes would have affected you. Would you have liked them or would you feel despondent, like I was moving on without you?

More so than the front of the house, I have been preparing the back deck in order to repaint it. I remember years ago when you painted it for the first time. I can’t even remember if it was before or after you moved in…I think it was after? Some of my fondest memories of you were just cool summer nights where we sat out on the deck together, listening to a baseball game, grilling, etc. I know that I was still teaching summer school at the time, because I would get home and change and help you with the deck. The freaking spindles took 1 million hours to painstakingly paint. It was not the most enjoyable job, but it looked great afterwards.

Over the past couple of years, the paint has been peeling and chipping off and I decided it was time to do some touch-ups (which naturally turned into a huge project where I am now repainting much of the deck). I feel guilty and sad. I don’t like having to re-do something you did because it makes me feel like I am replacing something that you worked hard on and took pride in. Since we broke up and you moved out and now especially since you passed away, each new thing I do without you feels like I am moving further away from you, but unfortunately that is inevitable as time moves on. I hope you know that me scraping away your old paint is not an attempt to erase you or your memory.

I asked my students to select and write about a quote about life that was meaningful to them. I shared with them the Robert Frost quote that has been in my classroom for years and years: “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” I have always liked this quote and I used to interpret it to mean that even when life is difficult and you feel hopeless, you have to persevere.  After losing you, I interpret it differently.  Now when I read it, I think about death and how when someone’s life ends, the world doesn’t stop.  You may want it to because you are grieving for the person you lost, but the world around you keeps spinning, other people keep living their lives, and you just have to accept that even though there is sadness and loss, you cannot just sink down into it…you have to keep going.

It is hard at times to try to “move on”. I hate that phrase- I do not think I will ever, nor do I really want to ever, move on. Moving on sounds like another way of saying “get over it” and that is impossible. I will never move on or get over your death, rather I think it will just become a part of me. A new sidewalk and a fresh coat of paint do not change the structure of the house, just the cosmetic appearance. The tiny cracks in the foundation are still there, deep underneath what the eye can see. That is just what happens to an old home…things are replaced and repaired…it is a never-ending cycle. And that is like life- every loss and traumatic experience adds a little crack to your heart, but that doesn’t mean the whole of the person is damaged. There is a Carley Simon song that has a lyric that really resonates with me…

“So don’t mind if I fall apart, there’s more room in a broken heart.”

The Sign

Dear M,

Ever since you passed away, I have been OBSESSED with getting a sign from you. Just something to let me know you didn’t suffer at the end and that you are okay. It got to the point where that was all I was thinking about and I was trying to interpret random things I saw to give them meaning.

A coworker of mine has the reputation of being a medium. I went to talk to her about it. I don’t know if I really believe in that (I’m sure you remember my last visit to a medium lol), but I was willing to try anything to feel better.

What she said actually made sense. She said that when young people die suddenly, they are sometimes confused about what happened and it takes time for them to accept it. She said that it would be too difficult for you to be able to send me a sign until you were at peace. She also said that I am too upset to be able to really receive a message or a sign from you because my emotions would block them. So, I guess we have to wait until we are both ready.

My sister had a dream about you a couple of weeks ago. She said that in it, you two were standing next to each other in your apartment and watched your last moments and then saw you pass away. She said you were really confused about what was happening and then finally came to a defeated acceptance. She said you kept shrugging your shoulders and repeating “I guess it was all too much.” When she told me about the dream, both of us were able to visualize you doing that.

Then a guy that you went to middle school with wrote on your Facebook page that he had a dream about you where the two of you talked about your death and cried about it together.

Will I ever dream of you?

I feel like I am going through the stages of grief, but I don’t know that I will ever accept your death. I don’t know that I will ever be able to move past how you died. So if it is true that you have to accept being gone, too, I don’t know if you will ever be able to send me a sign. But I really need one so badly, my love.