Life may move on after a marriage ends, but "divorced" is a label you can't shake.
Julie hadn't introduced herself, but she had no need to. Her gold necklace announced her name to the world in very slanted, scripted letters.
We'd met only just a moment before, her on one side of the window cutout in my new doctor's waiting room and me on the other. Now she needed to know which box to check at the top my new patient form.
I was about to speak when Julie said, "Hang on a sec," and turned to pick up the ringing phone.
I thought about how to answer her question. I knew the answer that Julie would want to hear: the easy one. The problem was that I didn't feel like forming my mouth around the word. If only I had my own necklace to make my introduction to the world. Instead of "Trish," it could say "Divorced!"
My kids and I had moved in with my fiancé, Joe, who is also a divorcée, and his kids the month before. We were all still unpacking. I was getting my two munchkins ready to start their new school in their new town. Joe and I were starting and ending every day together and laughing that we still didn't have enough time to spend with each other.
At that moment my life was about beginnings, not endings. The word "divorced" felt as outdated as the wood paneling in the waiting room. Divorce is a chronic condition. It's one that Joe and I will both always have to manage, even in the midst of starting our new lives together.
But I think of it this way: If I were several years into a remission from cancer, I'd want to call myself a cancer survivor instead of a cancer patient. Labels matter. However, it turns out that once you fall under the category of "divorced," divorced you will remain, forever branded by what the world perceives as your failure.
A trip to DivorceLand is like a trip to the Hotel California: You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.
Let's back up. Five years ago, the word "divorced" fit. The D-word felt like a terminal illness that I carried with me all the time. My status as someone suffering from the condition of marriage termination was probably obvious to everyone I came into contact with.
But as I moved farther away from my former marriage, my daily life became less and less reflective of my married life.
The financial fallout of the divorce took its toll and our middle-class lifestyle disappeared. I learned to grocery shop at The Dollar Tree. I got financial assistance so I could send my small son to daycare. My mom paid off my car so I wouldn't lose it. The kids and I managed to stay in our townhouse, but just barely.
After weathering a bankruptcy and a short sale, I reinvented my career and dug us out of poverty. Me. On my own. As a single woman.
Once I made enough money to get rid of the fake Goodwill Christmas tree, I started buying real Christmas trees – but only ones that I knew I'd be able to wrestle off the top of my car and through the front door myself. That's what single parents do.
When my kids were with their dad, I went out when I wanted to and I stayed home when I wanted to. I started relationships and I ended relationships (and lest I give the false impression of too much bravado here, I also occasionally got dumped). That's what single people do.
"Single" felt empowered. "Divorced," on the other hand, reeked of victimization, mistakes and sadness. It described a life constructed on a deficit, built on the charred remains of what was. I was seeking out new territory.
Back in the doctor's office, Julie got off the phone and looked at me. Her question remained: single, married, or divorced?
"Hmm," I said. If my medical care was truly affected by the presence or lack of a significant other in my life, then none of the check boxes truly fit. Even if I had ever been allowed to reclaim the label "single," I'd shed that label the moment that I said yes to Joe's proposal. He and I consulted each other on life goals, finances, and what kind of cereal to buy. He was my emergency contact and I was his.
Single, married, or divorced left no room for any of that.
Standing there in the reflected glow of Julie's name necklace, I wanted to demand the right to no longer be defined by something that was over five years ago. I wanted to make my case to her: "Life evolves," I would tell her. "We're allowed to shrug off descriptors that no longer suit us."
Julie's smile got a little tighter, and I realized that my silence was starting to tip the scale toward awkward. "Single, married, or divorced?" she repeated.
Finally, I said, "I don't know. I'm divorced but I'm also engaged. So where does that fit in?"
"Oh," she said. "I'll just put divorced."
"OK," I said. I took a seat and laughed to myself.
Julie's job was to categorize me in the easiest way possible. She did that, just as people will always put us in the boxes that make the most sense to them. Ultimately, the only thing that matters is how we categorize ourselves.
I've always preferred life outside the box anyway.