Prisoner of the Past


“Without forgiveness one remains a prisoner of one’s past” — John Paul II Really?

For a while it seemed like everyone was having a breakdown, getting divorced or breaking up with someone, despairing over American materialism, and heading off to another country to rebuild a villa from the ground up or pray with monks or learn to cook.

Four days after we sold our house, my husband left, with only a message on the answering machine, telling me that he’d had a difficult night and wasn’t coming home. I got up knowing that he wasn’t coming back ever. I gave my son breakfast and drove down to my parents’ house where I proceeded to try and call him. When I finally got through, he said simply that he wanted a divorce, and the conversation ended. It took him three days to remember that he had a son, but when he did he was already thinking about his rights.

In the years that led up to my divorce, my ex husband was an absent father. In a crowning moment of stupidity, martyrdom, and co-dependence, I had slept on the floor of our bathroom, throwing up through the night, with a baby monitor by my head, in case our son woke up. My ex husband had trouble sleeping, so he couldn’t wake up with our son. Not ever in all the time we were together did he get up in the middle of the night. He took sleeping pills, slept with a mask and earplugs. It was the perfect metaphor for how our life together went. I was the threat of insomnia. Often in the mornings, my son and I were done with breakfast and headed out the door before the heavy foot of my husband even touched the stairs.

In the early years, when my husband didn’t want to go out, or have people over, we stayed in. He crowned our house a “baby hospital” and later “too messy for guests.” The list of ailments he complained of to avoid venturing out was repetitive to the point of becoming innocuous—bad stomach, didn’t sleep well the night before, was about to lose his job. And just as slowly, other areas of his existence grew, lunch out alone, time at the gym, long runs, political meetings and events, model train work, electronic music. His life rose up, separate and more important, so I let him go and took care of our son alone.

For the days that followed his announcement that he wasn’t coming back, my son and I built cardboard structures on my parents’ kitchen floor: The White House, The Tower Bridge, The Eiffel Tower, The Taj Mahal. My son didn’t want to go to the home we had just sold, so we stayed where we were building. The emotional needs of our sons and daughters preempt any thoughts we might have about staying in bed or not fixing dinner. There was no time for tears or self-reflection or rediscovery. I had a son who came first and a list longer than my memory to complete: find a lawyer, pack the house, look for work . . .

A week after his departure, my ex began writing emails appended with the following quote: “Without forgiveness one remains a prisoner of one’s past” — John Paul II It’s been two and half years since our divorce, and I have seen this quote over 700 times, but it still makes me angry every time I read it—though I am confident that my ex has forgiven himself.

So for those of us who are not Francis Mayes (Under the Tuscan Sun) or Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) what is our road to recovery? How do we regain our “appetite for life” and perhaps even more difficult, feel forgiving when we can’t run away and recover but must negotiate our lives with the very person, who we have unwittingly given way to, until we are dust beneath his feet? Where can the anger go when new, fresh events surface in the course of the weeks and months that follow that are more clearly defined by outside sources as crazy-making and abusive.

What can we do when the changes we asked for politely in the past are now thrown violently in our face as being the way it always was? And how can we address the insistence that what our ex did last week, yesterday, a minute ago not only doesn’t matter, it doesn’t count.

How can I ignore the fact that it felt like you punched me in the gut, slowly broke my fingers, pushed me hard off the balcony? The ground cracks and bloats beneath my feet, sending me violently free-falling toward an unknown future.

I am in training to make a jailbreak from the past, but joint custody with the mercurial, non-empathetic, and narcissistic, doesn’t lend itself to great escapes of self-discovery, and the day-to-day toll of disobliging, intentionally cruel interactions makes forgiveness seem unattainable. But I am trying.