The Awakened Grief
September used to be my favorite month of the year. But In the next few days I mark nine years since the discovery that revealed my marriage as the biggest con my (then) husband had been pulling off. Now I find I’m weepy in the days approaching that hideous anniversary, and in the days immediately following it. It’s strange to be this way, because I was never one to fuss over anniversaries and special dates. I guess that only applied to the nice ones. The hard ones seem to follow a different custom.
So here I am again, looking into next week with heightened anxiety. I no longer berate myself for this. I had to take over-the-counter anti-nausea pills for the last two nights and use my most reliable coping tools to get to sleep. I try and plan comforting events around the date. Even my closest friends prefer to think I’m “over it”, that I’ve “moved on”. So, I don’t remind them of this date. But this year my “comfort plan” with friends just got cancelled for legitimate reasons, and I’m feeling pretty vulnerable because I know they have no clue what that means to me and how hard it will be now to put something else together. Let’s face it, who wants to know how C-PTSD really works? Everyone just wants their friend to be better now. And I AM better—so much better. But I still have C-PTSD.
When I think back nine years the biggest thing I remember is the crying that turned me inside out—an endless weeping that ambushed me through the day and owned the night completely. It’s hard to imagine there are more tears within me, but apparently there are. But even while my eyes fill up, I have no regrets for the decisions I made. I know my life is so much more abundant now in every way that truly matters. I have joy and love that I never thought I would have. I have respect and loyalty I never knew before. I recognize myself again and I like myself. I have meaningful work. I wouldn’t go back for anything! I treasure and so thoroughly enjoy the many graces in my life. So, what is it that can still hurt?
I have a pretty good idea where this all comes to a head. And I hope you will hang in there with me while I poke around here. This is not about feeling sorry for myself and trying to drag you down there with me. It’s about providing the clues you can use in your own life to get a hold of similar experiences and know you aren’t crazy, just feeling sorry for yourself, or a complete loser—all of which I have used as reasons to withhold self-compassion when I needed it most!
There is twinge of what this is that peaks out throughout the year when friends celebrate their anniversaries, and I remember what mine would have been. I worked so hard in my marriage. I worked so bloody hard. I suspect you did too, didn’t you? You were not much different from me—a dedicated worker bee, doing without in order to strengthen the whole, being creative with ideas for your life together, making your family laugh every single day, and loving them with everything you had to offer. I gave three decades of my life to our partnership and was completely invested. Now, I’m 62. This year would have been our 38th anniversary. I fully expected to be enjoying the fruits of all that effort with a plan for a simple life after work years as clergy were over--not luxury or a grand retirement, but able to pay to the bills and enjoy the landscape of creation around me every day with the company of a seasoned affection and shared history we had grown for ourselves. So, when I see others reaching that point in their lives, it makes me cry even though I truly rejoice with and for them. It is my hopes and dreams that I grieve. They are the precious pieces of my life effort that mattered nothing to him, after all. My hopes and dreams. I weep for them, still.
Yes, I have created new hopes and dreams, but they do not have the powerful engine of a long life ahead to see them realized. It’s hard to sustain their promise. If things go well, I’m in the last quarter of my life. Like most women who divorce later in life, I will have to work well into my seventies to secure an income slightly higher than the poverty line. And some days I’m just so tired. So, what I have done to try and tackle this problem?
I am learning to trust the present more than I used to. Instead of working for what is a long way off, with lots of time ahead to absorb setbacks and disasters, I make more decisions that will help me right now. My partner and I live in his house, which helps me financially but does not allow for me to unpack most of my things, or decorate the space to suit my tastes or purposes. It’s not my home. It’s his home. So, in spite of all my financial uncertainties, I recently used a small inheritance to buy a modest house in the country in another province that has maple trees, because I was pretty sure the chance to actually unpack my family bits and pieces was slipping away and I was never going to have a maple tree again. It was now or never. I chose now. I’ve learned to choose now. And I soak up every minute I’m there with sights and smells and feelings and sounds. I’m living the dream now as best I can, and as it turns out, my partner loves this dream too! So half the year it’s his place, and half the year it’s my place. Yet, behind all that is healthy in that decision are the haunting hunches of a shortened life and a future I cannot touch. It’s like I can’t participate in the future anymore, even in my head. I usually don’t think about these constraints but when triggered—they are bold and compelling.
Have you had feelings like these?
What I am writing about here is a complex-PTSD symptom called the “foreshortened future”. This symptom is what ambushes me around the anniversary of d-day and gets poked when I am reminded of the marriage anniversary of my friends (who I truly do celebrate). So, I will be swirling around in it for another week or so, and then finally pull out of the depression it brings. I am letting you see it here, in me, because I want you to recognize it if you fall into it yourself. And I want you to know that it will ease up. I don’t know what might trigger it for you—you will have to pay attention to your own life to discover that.Here is a useful article about it https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4166378/
In my own words, a foreshortened future is all about the collapse of trust between us and life, so that we cannot plan into the future, or take the “long view” on much. Sometimes we carry a sense that we will not live as long as we might have expected to live before the traumatic event. It is not a symptom that everyone may have, or if they do have it, it may not affect them as much as it affects others. But it can be very difficult for many to manage.
For me, the destruction of my hopes and dreams in which I invested for nearly three decades with a life partne makes it harder for me to continue to invest in the future or carry hope that what I do now will result in anything that will matter later as a positive outcome. I also have fleeting unbidden thoughts that I will not live very long. Most of the time I do not think like this or function out of this perspective. But in certain situations, these things come into play.You may wonder how the collapse of a marriage can accomplish such a devastating effect. And it’s worth adding that the marriage does not just collapse, it is exposed as a complete lie and then becomes a profoundly unsafe environment. That full realization, however, often comes in a slow tortuous unfolding of unimaginable truths. It goes on and on. You think you are at the bottom, and then you learn the bottom has a basement, and the basement has a cellar, and the cellar …etc., until there is nothing left of anything you thought was your life. But we still aren’t done. Then you try to find help and are retraumatized by incompetent and cowardly treatment practitioners and programs whose main interest is in saving your husband, saving your marriage, and keeping you invested in those two priorities no matter what the cost to you. And even though everyone wants to talk about “trauma”, no one actually uses a trauma response model in caring for you.
We move from there to the damaging comments from religious leaders, family, co-workers and friends who tell you to get over it, forgive and forget, and suggest you are over-reacting, etc. You discover that there are many contexts in which you expected safety and will not receive it. The isolation closes in. The money has been sucked out of you with great efficiency by the treatment industry, and you still can’t think straight. The foreshortening of our future is the result of a group effort that is callous and unfairly punishing. We lose the ability to trust life because the key foundations of our lives seem unable to take the weight of the truth we are facing. We are alone with it. And we are standing in quicksand. We’re going down.
So, for my usual cautious self, buying my country dream now represents a big change for me. But I believe it is a good change. My commitment to delayed gratification needed to be challenged. My partner and I are getting older. The property requires a great deal of physical effort. We can do it now, but for how long? Real estate prices are escalating in the area and I already had been priced out of several search areas. So, rationally, this was actually a good decision. And we are enjoying it every single day we are here. Having a sense of a foreshortened future actually spurred me to act in a way that worked well for me!
I also know from the nine years that have passed since the big d-day, that as this anniversary gets tucked away into the past, I will pull out of this “funk”. I always do. And I want to share the most effective way I do this: I count on nature and signs of my history to show me the things in life that are still beautiful and positively dynamic.
Practically speaking, here in the country, the fields around me are too beautiful with soybeans going golden toward late fall harvest not to heal me of despair. The nervous hummingbird calls me to be calmly present, so it feels safe and will rest while feeding. We are in a relationship. And there are many of them. My sugar maples and silver maples champion the test of time and stand courageously in the turning toward the next season of cold, barren branches. And the two young oaks proudly pledge their young allegiance, showing great commitment over all to keep growing. After finding someone to help me save my few heritage apple trees I already have a stake in next year’s bounty and damned if I’m not going to be here to pick my own damn apples! A few potted perennials wait to find their new homes. They will greet me when I pull in the driveway next spring. And my mother’s dishes unpacked and on display along with my great grandmother’s rocker and my father’s wooden box he made in grade school remind me of my gene pool. My mother lived 33 years beyond my current age and was sharp until she closed her eyes the last time. Even my dad lived 24 years more than I have now. Doesn’t that make me look a little inaccurate in my sense of how long I might be here?
And this is how it goes. This is how we weep for a while in an awakened grief and are caught in the finality of what is gone forever and no more may be. It all seems such a great force of death that we will not be able to carry it any longer ourselves. For a while it wants to own everything, and we have nothing with which to fight it. Nothing.
The foreshortened future is not defeated by us telling ourselves to snap out of it. It is defeated by being completely IN the present so that it can share its generative wisdom. Standing in the garden, the park, or the field and being fully present is how the “soybeans” reveal about what they know about a future already on its way. But if your present doesn’t include a landscape alive with growth and features, you can still do this. Pictures, music, fabrics, the smell of coffee, family mementos, and the light that changes as the day unfolds all have something to say about the goodness of a present wisdom to affirm our lives and hang onto to us for dear life.
By going deeply into the present with every one of our senses we begin to see its edges are not clean cuts of time at all. They touch both the past and the future all the time. There’s a conversation going on, there’s traffic going back and forth, there’s connection. So, when the foreshortened future takes you down its dark road, plant yourself so deeply in the present with all of your senses and stretch out your arms. The past and the future will take your hands and put you back into your unique and priceless life. Most of us will not have the golden years we were trying to generate with men who lied about who they were, but we can have something that is more wondrous and miraculous—ourselves, living abundantly in the present.
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