My back hadn’t felt good since a recent trip. I’d lugged heavy luggage up and down way too many flights of stairs, and although the shoes I’d worn – with my orthotics! – were good solid shoes, they perhaps hadn’t been right for so much walking. But I figured that things would sort themselves out after a few weeks back home in my normal routine again.
I was in my apartment one Saturday morning, bending down to pick something up, when my back ‘went’. I sank to the floor, the pain so intense that I struggled to catch my breath. My legs tingled and I felt panic rising. Was this a stroke? Was I going to be paralyzed?
I was at the farthest point in the house from a phone and I couldn’t move for the pain. I waited about 10 minutes, trying to calm myself with deep breaths, then managed to shuffle on my butt down the hallway towards the kitchen and found my cell phone. With that in my hand, I hauled myself on to a chair and sat trying to work out what to do. I didn’t need an ambulance, but I wanted someone to know what was going on, so I called my daughter.
“Do you want me to come over, Mum?”
“No.” She had a one-year-old to look after. “I just need you to know I’m not feeling too great.”
And then I started crying.
“Seriously, Mum, are you okay? Do you want me to come over?”
I couldn’t answer.
And then she asked…”Are you feeling very vulnerable?”
Bingo. She’d hit the nail on the head.
Sprawled out there on the floor, in pain, unable to reach my phone, alone and frightened, that’s exactly what I’d felt. And angry too. After years and years of nursing my ex-husband through all his emergencies, the one time I could have done with someone there to help me, I was on my own.
To cut a long story short, although I got treatment for my back, I have been left with some issues, and those issues have forced me to face my vulnerabilities head on and deal with them.
My personal vulnerability, for now, is a health issue. Yours may be financial, for another person it could be safety or security, someone else’s may be loss of family, loneliness, depression. You name them, our vulnerabilities are out there.
So, from someone who has no expertise, except having experienced one particular vulnerability myself, here are my thoughts to best protect yourself.
1) If it’s an emergency, don’t mess around. Call 911/999 if it’s a life-threatening health or safety issue. If it’s still a crisis – not a life-threatening one, but you still need help – reach out to family, friends or other professional organisations that can help in that crisis moment.
2) Once the immediate crisis is over and has been dealt with, face your vulnerability straight on. Can you give it a name? What steps can you take to stop/prevent/reduce the risk of it happening again?
Given that mine was a health crisis, but not life-threatening, I rested over the weekend, then made appointments to see my doctor and physio as soon as I could. (I’m very lucky, living in a country with free health care, as I know this isn’t an option for everyone.) I got appropriate treatment, continue to do daily exercises to strengthen my back muscles, ensure I have over-the-counter pain medications in the house should I need them, always wear decent supportive shoes when I go out, have cut my luggage down to the bare minimum when I travel, check in with a friend via e-mail, and text my daughter, every morning, just to make sure we’re all okay, etc. If yours is a financial, physical, or emotional vulnerability, list the steps you can take to better protect yourself in the future. Ask a professional for advice. Talk it over with someone who has been in a similar situation.
3) We’re all getting older and the reality is that this vulnerability – or another one – could strike at any time. There are no guarantees in life, but remember this – you got through this crisis, you can do it again. You’re stronger than you think. Trust in yourself, try to find people who can support you, be prepared, keep your attitude as positive as you can… and it should all work out.
I’ve always loved the weekend. The anticipation of that last period on a Friday afternoon in high school, when our French teacher let us read old copies of Paris Match, instead of having to endure learning verbs or vocabulary or translating French to English or vice versa.
And then that drag on the stomach on a Sunday evening, listening to ‘Sing Something Simple’ on the radio, driving back from a day out on the coast, knowing school beckoned the next morning.
Or when the kids were young, and Friday afternoon meant the freedom of the weekend, just hanging out and enjoying being with them, before the Sunday evening routine of making sure homework was done, bags packed and clothes laid out for school next morning.
When it was just my husband and I, Friday evening meant going out for dinner with the weekend ahead to just hang out, sitting out on the deck with a glass of wine, shooting the breeze, going to a movie, visiting the kids, having our granddaughter for a sleepover, having the family round for Sunday brunch or a barbecue. Weekends were… perfect.
And then my world dissolved and everything went topsy-turvy. Now I dreaded Friday afternoon when everyone went home to relax. Friends who’d been available for coffee during the week were now tied up with their own husbands and families.
The weekend now emphasized just how alone I was. If I’d had a job, things might have been easier, but very often at this age we are retired, or have not worked in years. Now I couldn’t wait for Sunday evening when the world went back to ‘normal’ and I could, once again, look forward to meeting with my friends.
Two years in, I don’t dread the weekend any more. I’ve established new routines, but those early months were hard. Very hard. But you’ll get through them. I’m not pretending it will be easy, but you will.
Here are some ideas to help you.
Make Saturday and Sunday your days to do your grocery shopping and clean the house.
Pay your bills.
Catch up on e-mails.
Go to church.
If you live in a city, buy a book on local urban walks and go exploring.
If you have a bike, pump up the tyres and see where your wheels take you.
Go window-shopping downtown.
Visit a museum.
Wash your car.
Read a book. (Caution, I know of many women – including myself – who were unable to sustain the focus to read a book for more than a year after being abandoned. If reading used to be a passion, it might take a while for your concentration to come back.)
Veg out on the sofa and watch all the shows you’ve recorded from the TV that week.
Work in your garden (if you have one).
Have a sleepover with your grandkids.
Go to a movie with a friend. (Don’t go alone – unless you go midweek – until you feel comfortable doing so.)
Cook (or bake) lots of food and split it up into portions which you can freeze for the upcoming week.
Go for a drive in the country.
Visit a historical site.
Volunteer with your local pet society and walk a dog.
Have a movie night – at home – with another single friend, either at your house or theirs.
Go shopping at thrift stores.
Sewing and craft projects.
Join a fitness centre and take a class.
RUNAWAY HUSBANDS: The Abandoned Wife’s Guide to Recovery and Renewal by Vikki Stark.
I love this book. It was my ‘bible’ in those first few months after my husband walked out on me, assuring me I was not alone, and talking me through the healing process. Even now, two years later, I’ll pick it up, and read through a few pages. There’s always something in there that helps me see how far I’ve come, in both practical and emotional ways, but still acknowledges the hurt and loss that will probably – to some extent – always be with me.
Written by a therapist, who was blindsided when she found herself in the same situation as so many of us, she gathered together the stories and thoughts of over 400 women who had also been abandoned. Patterns emerge thoughout the book, both of pain and healing. You – and we – are not alone. Other women have walked this path before us. Their stories are painfully recognizable… and their healing and transformation inspiring.
Close to the beginning of the book, Vikki Stark gives the 10 Hallmarks of what she calls Wife Abandonment Syndrome. Working my way through the list, I ticked off nine-and-a half of them. (I was fortunate – my husband didn’t leave me destitute.) I found the list extremely helpful as it left me feeling less stupid. I wasn’t the only person who had been manipulated by a man I loved.
Here is Vikki Stark’s list. I hope it helps you the way it helped me.
1) Prior to the separation, the husband had seemed to be an attentive, emotionally engaged spouse, looked upon by his wife as honest and trustworthy.
2) The husband had never said that he was unhappy or thinking of leaving the marriage, and the wife believed herself to be in a secure relationship.
3) The husband typically blurts out the news that the marriage is over out-of-the-blue in the middle of a mundane domestic conversation.
4) Reasons given for his decision are nonsensical, exaggerated, trivial or fraudulent.
5) By the time the husband reveals his intentions to his wife, the end of the marriage is already a fait accompli and he often moves out quickly.
6) The husband’s behavior changes radically, so much so that it seems to his wife that he has become a cruel and vindictive stranger.
7) The husband shows no remorse; rather, he blames his wife and may describe himself as the victim.
8) In almost all cases, the husband had been having an affair. He typically moves in with his girlfriend.
9) The husband makes no attempt to help his wife, either financially or emotionally, as if all positive regard for her has been suddenly extinguished.
10) Systematically devaluing his wife and the marriage, the husband denies what he had previously described as positive aspects of the couple’s joint history.
Now that the “battle” is over (I have been officially divorced ten months), I have my future in my own hands: I have a life to live, a future to embrace. Right? Well, maybe not exactly quite there yet.
I had thought I was coming to grips with the rejection and grief that official court-signed document had delivered when I first read the words: Certificate of Divorce. Yet more and more I realize I have been withdrawing into myself. Was I depressed? Yes. Was I anxious about this wide-open future? Absolutely terrified, to be honest and still am. I’ve been taking a mild anti-depressant for over a year now and that helped me to stop bursting into tears at little or even no provocation, but the grief over the death of my marriage, the fact that money is a constant worry. No little pill can make any of that go away.
I was drifting further and further into the hinterland of aloneness, staying home, not answering letters, turning down coffee meets with friends, even family. I’d say I was busy, but the truth was I just couldn’t get out of my misery and into the world. I didn’t want to hear one more person tell me that I’m better off without him. I know that but why can’t I get over the stupid, senseless grief?
About one month ago, I caught a shining sliver of light at the end of the dark tunnel.
I sit on the Board of a local writing group and one morning I found myself obligated to attend a Saturday meeting. I guilt-talked myself into going to do my duty as Secretary but in reward, I would leave right afterwards before the monthly workshop began. And worst of all, it was to be some sort of “touchy feely” workshop in which we were all going to–God forbid–discuss and record our writing goals and dreams. Write them down and put them in a homemade “Dream Box.”
I had once wanted to be a writer, but all I’d written for the past four years were lists, emails to lawyers and endless, fruitless job applications. My writing goals and dreams? Vanished into the mist of the past, just like my marriage.
Oh, I was really on a sorry-for-myself roll. I dragged myself around the house to shower, got dressed, drove to the meeting and sat down.
But…just before the meeting began, one of my writing friends commented that I looked tired. “Yes,” I answered, “I am tired today.” (Setting up my exit for after the meeting, you see.) And oh sure, there came the ever-present tears. I WAS so very very tired–all the time tired. This gentle person standing in front of me said something, I’m not really sure exactly what: a simple comment (not pity) about depression, about how the miracle was that one day, unexpected, the heavy cloud will be gone. She understood, didn’t try to “jolly” me out of it, but in a few words let me know that I was not alone, that we are all together in this soup of life.
Suddenly I didn’t feel so lonely. Some of the weight in my heart did miraculously lift.
I stayed after the meeting and I made the flipping dream box complete with someday writing goals that I dredged out of myself. I talked for a long time with a writing friend I have known for more than 20 years. Divorce, loneliness, none of these topics were mentioned directly, but my friends were there, offering their presence to me like a warm soft blanket. Not a cure, but such a comfort to be around people who care…about me, of all people! I think I needed to know that I wasn’t completely rejected, not hopeless, not unloved.
That day my friends picked me up, dusted me off and sent me back out into my new world without seeming to do anything. I want to remember this: how simple words can mean so much, how it isn’t a weakness to reach out but rather just part of being human. And maybe most important of all, not to be afraid to accept love.
My mum was sixty-three when my dad died. She lived on an isolated island, my siblings and I between 3-24 hours travel distance away. Ever the mother, she didn’t want us to worry about her, so, despite her great grief, she did three things to keep herself healthy.
1) She tried to eat well even though she had no appetite.
2) Come rain or come shine, she went for a walk every day along the beach, sometimes barely able to see as her tears mixed with the rain soaking her face.
3) Instead of burying herself at home, she forced herself to accept invitations from friends to go for a coffee or a walk or visit her kids and grandkids. Mum hadn’t worked since she was 22, but she loved cooking, so a few years later, she ended up taking occasional jobs as a cook and housekeeper in well-to-do homes in London and the Home Counties. (But that’s another story!)
I sometimes think my own grieving process might have been easier if I’d had a job to occupy my brain and all those empty hours. One of the special challenges of a later-in-life divorce is that you may be retired and no longer have a structure to your day, so you will need to find one.
When my ex walked out on me, all I wanted to do was curl up in bed and cry. And for some people, that is the way they will heal. But I was scared that if I took to my bed, I might never come out.
Like my mum, I didn’t want my kids to worry about me, so I decided to try and follow her example.
1) I forced myself to eat well even though I had no appetite. (I lost 27 pounds in a year. They don’t call it the Divorce Diet for nothing!) I bought myself an electric wok so I could stir-fry meat and veggies every night. It took ten minutes (including chopping), it was nutritious and left me with little cleaning up to do.
2) I set my alarm for seven every morning and forced myself to get up even if I’d only managed to fall asleep two or three hours earlier. Before I had time for second thoughts, I pulled on my clothes, peed, brushed my teeth, made my bed, and went out for a walk along the river path. Like my mum, there were times I could barely see for tears, and once I came back from my walk, I didn’t want to disturb that freshly made bed. Later, I bought myself a Fitbit and challenged myself to walking 10,000 steps a day. At first it was hard…but in time it became second nature.
3) My friends were great and rallied around me. Like my mum, I accepted any and all invitations and made 2016 my year of saying ‘yes’. If someone invited me somewhere or to do something – and it wasn’t dangerous and I could afford it – I said ‘yes’, and through doing that, my world started to open up in ways I couldn’t imagine.
This routine got me through that first awful year. At the end of it, my emotional health was still pretty raw and patchy, but I was physically healthier (I have the blood work results to prove it!) and fitter than I had been in over a decade.