Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Christmas 1990

... was the worst of my life.

My wife had left me less than five months earlier (for someone else, or so I was told later). I was living in Georgetown, in an "English basement" apartment -- the kind with the low ceiling -- on Dumbarton Street. The house above was on the market, at a time when things weren't moving that fast, so there was no hot water. I didn't have a phone put in either, and it was in the days before cellphones were common. When I wasn't at work, I was more or less in seclusion.

It was just as well. I was severely depressed and nearly suicidal. My parents were begging me to accept a free plane ticket home for the holiday, worried that I might indulge my darker thoughts. My confessor just got finished chewing me out for not trusting enough in the Diving will (which also happened to Job in the Old Testament, but I digress). As a Catholic, one's mission in life is based upon one's vocation, one of three little boxes into which people assume you're stuffed, to the exclusion of any other explanation. My little box seemed to cave in, and nothing made any sense.

I spent Christmas Eve wandering the streets of Georgetown, until I came upon Christ Church, a little Episcopal parish just up the block. I sat through most of the service. Everyone was invited to Communion, even if you weren't "in communion," as it were. I did not avail myself of that. But they also invited us all to the Christmas feast afterwords. I did avail myself of that.

Eventually things got better, and after nearly twenty years, I'm definitely much better off than when I was in that joke of a marriage.

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I did learn a few things from those dark days, enough to make a list of ten rules for those abandoned by their spouses:

First (and this is going to come as a shock to regular readers here, but is not meant to offend), if you need help, the last place to go is your parish priest, or damn near any other priest. Most humans have an instinct for self-preservation, and priests are no less human than the rest of us. The sight of fellow-humans close to the edge brings the risk of going down with them. If you're truly blessed -- in my case, I am happy to say, I was -- you will find a good priest for spiritual guidance, but given the current state of the priesthood, the odds don't favor it. Another class of losers to avoid would be most diocesan "separated and divorced ministry" programs, which are generally little more than lonely hearts clubs, facilitated by unqualified bleeding-hearts, for whom the diocese doesn't really feel responsible when things go wrong.* You will realize in short order, that you might be on your own for a spell.

Second, because you're on your own, develop a hermetic lifestyle unto yourself. Go to your job and don't talk to anyone if you don't have to. Don't give a soul, especially your boss, the satisfaction that this is getting to you. Let them be amazed by you for once in their lives. Go to bed right after dinner, because the evening is the most depressing part of the day. Tivo your favorite TV shows if you must. Get up early and go to daily Mass and sit in the back pew. Go to confession once a month, and if the priest is a jerk after you've shown "firm purpose of amendment" and all the rest, tell him to mind his own damn business and give you absolution already. If he can't handle that, just get the hell out of there and find someone else, secure in the knowledge that a more severe judgement awaits him. Deus non aligatur sacramentii, and although we are bound by His justice, the mercy of God is not bound by the mercy of man, never mind the horse's ass you just left behind.

Third, avoid any romantic entanglements, at least until you reconcile your situation, especially if there are children involved. The only choices drawn to you are even crazier than you are, and you could spend years living them down (and in case you're wondering, I came pretty close). And that's before factoring the cost to your soul.

Fourth, suicide is never an answer unless you succeed, and that's the problem. Most attempts do not, but they make what's left of your life even worse. And even if you do succeed, it is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Oh, and it's a mortal sin, too. If it is of any help ...

Fifth, remember those who need you. Somebody probably does. In my case, it was my son, Paul. There were times when that was just enough to keep me on track. To this day, he is one of the few things that kept me alive.

Sixth, remember that you are uprooted, like a leaf caught up in the wind. People will pass through your life solely for this purpose, and when things settle down, they will be gone. One in particular will be of inestimable value. Mine was a lady I knew in Georgetown who owned properties in the neighborhood, and who gave me the role of making them appear lived in. When I left Georgetown, I didn't see her for many years until she was diagnosed with cancer.

Seventh, watch your money. This vigilance is critical at a time in your life, when any sort of long-term planning appears futile. I had a credit card with a limit of ten thousand dollars. I maxed it out in three years, and had to go into a debt management program, where it took twice that long to pay it off. It doesn't always happen with reckless spending sprees. Sometimes it's living slightly beyond your means for a sustained period of time. That's the scenario that most people don't see coming until it's too late.

Eighth, establish a daily routine. Regular habits are the key to a regular disposition. At one point, I was planning my weekends down to the hour, and my evenings down to the quarter hour. You get a lot more done, and if you're not careful, you might actually forget what's bothering you.

Ninth, expect your recovery to take a while. My experience shows that it takes about one to three years to really get past the end of a marriage, longer if there are children involved. Life doesn't slow down for that long, but there are stages which one endures. The best book to describe them is Crazy Time: Surviving Divorce and Building a New Life, by Abigail Trafford. Most other books of this variety are written for women ("Leaving Him Behind" "He's History, You're Not," "From Ex-Wife to Exceptional Life," "Ask Me About My Divorce: Women Open Up," "Not Your Mother's Divorce," "A Woman's Guide to Healing the Heartbreak," "I Used To Miss Him, But My Aim Is Improving," I could go on ...). Maybe they think men are just supposed to go out and get drunk or hang out at the race track for several weeks. Our list of fallen possibilities might also include 101 Things to Do the First Year of Your Divorce, but then again I haven't read it.

Tenth (and most important), no matter how bad it gets, THIS TOO SHALL PASS! I cannot emphasize this point nearly enough. Divorce is not the end of your life, but the end of a dream. There are even saints who have lived through either divorce or an unfaithful spouse -- Saints Fabiola and Rita of Cascia, to name two. So heroic virtue isn't out of the question. Neither is just getting a life.

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By now, some pious twit out there is going to make a big deal out of how un-Catholic I am, for ridiculing the constant teaching of the Church, and for doubting the providence of God. Were they to read more closely (which they won't), they would know that I have done neither. But anyone who thinks I have can ask themselves where they were when guys like me needed them.

Then they can kiss my @$$.

* If you're associated with the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, and you're reading this, that goes for you too. I should have sued you boneheads for malpractice when I had the chance.


Anonymous said...

Early in my conversion I found out that the sacrament of Holy Orders does not remove the stain of being an asshole.

Anonymous said...

I agree that it is VERY hard to find a good priest in times of trouble. Amazingly, my husband and I are still together after unsuccessfully looking for help from no less than a dozen priests who played "hot potato" with us.

I empathize and agree with this post. I am happy for you that you have found a great spiritual director-- I guess some do!


Unknown said...
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Jon Mottern said...

Wow, though I've never been left by a wife, or even ever had a wife, I can empathize and relate to the feelings described. I appreciate the unorthodox approach and you present this God stuff in a way I am able to take it in.