IT HAPPENED TO ME: After My 16-Year Relationship Ended, I Realized I Had No Support System
“Well, who has turned to you in a crisis?” My therapist asked, looking up from her clipboard.
“What?” I asked dumbly, blinking hard.
“Who calls you when they're going through a life crisis?” She repeated. “Who do you help?”
I paused and thought. And I must have been silent for a long time, as she stopped writing and regarded me with raised eyebrows. Finally, feeling my brow furrow as I did, I replied:
“Nobody. Nobody has ever turned to me in a crisis. Ever.”
I hadn't realized it until that moment.
I met my ex-husband during the summer after my freshman year of college. I was 19, and he was my first real relationship. I was infatuated with him, but very insecure about us. And perhaps he gave me reason to be, or perhaps it was my personality, but as I became more emotionally dependent on him I did the unforgivable: I began to ditch my friends.
I didn't realize I was doing it, because I was rarely alone. J and I went clubbing a lot, were part of a big social scene, and seemed to always have a party to go to. I even started a mailing list (oh, the late 90s) for everyone I knew to chat on all day. But I would only socialize if it was with J, and my socializing occurred in places where it's hard to forge intimate connections.
I didn't need much social contact apart from J. He didn't cause my nervous system distress. He didn't keep me up later than I wanted to stay up, or put me in situations where my total incapacity to relax and “go with the flow” crashed into my desire to please people.
I should have begun to clue in when J went away to visit his friends one weekend and I, living a block from my university, panicked because I had nobody to hang out with. How is that by my senior year of college, I couldn't think of a single person to call up and invite over?
Then I married the guy.
10 years of marriage and 16 years into our relationship, we divorced. And that's another story. But I'd been living in Japan, and in order to handle the divorce, I returned to Texas. I'd originally moved to Houston for (more) graduate school, and the time I'd officially resided here had been split between trips to Japan for research, and intense solitary work to prepare for my dissertation project. Kind of a long way of saying I wasn't trying to make friends in the area.
Newly divorced, alone in the house we'd shared, I found myself having an utter, and total freakout. And one day it got to be too much. I'd been crying fairly consistently, out of loneliness and desperation. I felt like a ghost in public spaces, passing around couples and families wondering if they could see me. I stared with big eyes and an apologetic look.
This particular Saturday I decided to make an Ikea run at long last. I'd needed a few things for a while, and it was a miserable rainy day. As I made my way into the store, I was fine. I stood before the patio tables and ran my hand over their surfaces one at a time. Fine. And then all of a sudden, I wasn't fine. I was choking.
I had never shopped for anything like this on my own. I had never been to a place like Ikea alone. I stumbled to the nearest stack of boxes and sat down, staring at the wall. Expedit bookcase boxes, actually. I sat there, and I tried not to sob. As I reached for my phone, I froze in horror. Who would I call? The only one I could think of was J, who had made it clear that he wanted none of my confidences anymore. There was nobody I could call and say, “I can't stand up, and people seem to want these bookcase boxes. Please come get me.”
Since I was a child, I have only cried in front of J, and the guy I dated briefly after J. With everyone else I am poker-faced, impassive, and determinedly “okay.” I have never cried in front of a therapist, even during my darkest times. I just can't. My model has been to pick one person in the world, and trust them. But I vaguely thought that if I ever cried in a public place, a stranger with an endless supply of tissues would rush to comfort me, and as it turns out, nobody did. In terror of making a scene, I robot-walked through the warehouse maze and into the pouring rain, to my car where I collapsed and sobbed so hard I thought I'd throw up.
I finally managed to text two people. It took every ounce of mental energy I had left, as my entire being was screaming that they wouldn't want to be burdened (I know some of you get this), they'd think less of me, or worse –- they wouldn't reply. But they did. And they talked me home from afar, where I sucked it up and did the ultimate Independent Liz no-no; I called my parents and told them how bad it had gotten.
It took an Ikea meltdown, and that conversation with my shrink, to drive the point home. I can't just have a romantic relationship, I need other people, too. Our culture puts so much pressure on all of us to couple-up and create our own nuclear units apart from everyone else. And I obeyed, getting married in my early 20s. We never had kids, but I'd drawn my lines in the sand. Everyone else in my life existed casually, as people to have dinner parties or drinks with, but not to truly lean on. That's not a good model. Couples break up. Partners are ultimately just one person, who can mean the world to us but who can't be our whole worlds.
For the first time in my life, I am having to function as an adult on my own, and I can't say I like it. But my friendships are strengthening slowly. As it turns out, if you call on people other than your significant other in a crisis, those friendships deepen. And maybe if I'd learned to trust others sooner, I wouldn't have suffered the demise of my marriage in such a ghastly vacuum. Don't get me wrong, I'm still not great at making friends, and I still suck at reaching out to people. It feels like a lot of them are turned inwardly and consumed with their own nuclear units, and I don't want to intrude. But I'm learning to risk it.