This summer, I married myself. A man I met that day who was intrigued by my plan walked me down the aisle. I said my vows. There were tears of love and joy.
That same weekend, my ex-husband whom I had been with for 25 years married a tall blonde fitness instructor with a fabulous figure. Everything I am not. While my adult children traveled from other cities to attend their father’s wedding, I gathered my best friends to be with me while I recited vows to myself halfway across the country.
Two friends traveled from the west coast, and two of us came from the east. We met on a mountain in Colorado. I had sent them email invitations cordially inviting them to my wedding…to myself. There was some initial confusion, but they were game.
I wanted to surround myself with those who helped me be the best version of myself that I could be. These women do that. We have been friends for 33 years. We met in law school in idyllic Charlottesville, and accompanied each other through weddings, births, deaths, job changes and life’s crises of most varieties. Our families vacationed together from time to time until some of us became empty nesters. Now one of us is divorced and one is heading down that path. We fit the national average on that score.
I knew the weekend would be an emotionally challenging one for me. Although I no longer want to be married to my ex-husband, I grieve the loss of our marriage and irretrievable fracturing of our family unit. My parents had divorced in the 1960s, which then was cause for excommunication from the Catholic Church. I had no friends with divorced parents at that time. There were some classmates from my parochial school who were not allowed by their parents to come to my house because my parents had been kicked out of the Church.
The divorce of my parents still stung into adulthood at various milestones in my life. It was awkward at graduations and weddings. I do not think my father and stepfather have ever spoken a word to one another, despite decades passing during which they were forced to be in close proximity to one another. I believe my father went to his deathbed still in love with my mom. A broken alcoholic, he would sometimes say to me in a drunken haze, “Why did you leave me, Angeline?” I would reply, “I’m not Angeline! I’m your daughter!” and run upstairs to my room locking the door behind me.
It was the end of an era for me when my ex-husband announced his engagement. I mourned the loss of the Norman Rockwellian family life fantasy I had constructed in my mind. My ex-husband often had accused me of trying to live a Hallmark card life. I had tried to do so. I thought I could provide my children the childhood I had longed for, free of domestic abuse, secrets and alcoholic rampages, and full of travel, tony private schools and material accoutrements. It turns out they did not even enjoy the country club life. And I did not realize that the seemingly perfect families I observed around me were an illusion. Every family has problems. While the magnitude of familial disharmony and ability to mask dysfunction and pain may differ, no family is immune because we are all human. We are all perfectly imperfect.
I tried so hard to overcome the perceived shortcomings of my childhood that I lost sight of my true compass and what was really important to me. I joined clubs and organized endless events, parties, outings and projects. I became a human doing more than a human being. At one point, I entered a severe depression under the weight of the facade I was struggling to keep in place. My deep self-loathing refused to be stuffed down until I sought help by working on the issues I long ignored as if they had never happened. Unaddressed trauma weighed on my consciousness like rocks I would hurl far away, only to have them roll back and unexpectedly slam into me. The painful secrets of abuse and having been raped kept me mired in low-simmering shame that sometimes found a way of boiling over and spilling sideways into my life when not vigilantly kept at bay. I could not pretend anymore. My alcoholism flared out of control.
I did much work on myself after the divorce. I sought a spiritual cure. And lots of therapy. I opened the Pandora’s box of my life’s secrets and dealt with them head on. I went to five rehabs, one of which specializes in trauma. I lived for 45 days in a house of 11 other women who had been sexually assaulted or abused. As an impactful exercise, the therapists once put us in a maze, blindfolded. There was only one way out. I tenaciously fought to get out, chasing down all avenues. All dead ends. The only way out was to ask for help–something I rarely did up to that point. I was the last to get out.
At the trauma rehab, I bared my soul in a way I had never done previously. I allowed other women to bear witness to my pain and shame. We all did, and it was immensely healing. One woman was asked to carry a large stone around with her until she became willing to drop the “rock” that was continuing to damage her life. I came to believe that I am, in fact, enough. And that holding onto resentments is akin to drinking poison and hoping the person you resent dies from it.
I finally learned that no one is responsible for my happiness but me. I lamented over the years I had spent silently begging via achievements and doing things for others. I realized that much of my motivation for my actions was the hope that my efforts would yield outside affirmations of my self-worth.
Now I believe all that happened was necessary to bring me to where I am, emotionally, today. Every person and situation can be a source of learning for me, whether pleasant or not. Rather than fight it, I am learning how to discern the message. I see that certain things I dislike about others are frequently reflections of what I abhor about myself. I do what I can to mend my character defects and live a life in accord with my values, not the values of those around me.
I woke up feeling melancholy the day of my ex-husband’s wedding. I privately shed some tears. As my friends awoke that morning and joined me around the fire pit for some cowboy coffee, I let their good cheer and unflagging support buoy me. We enjoyed the day, reveling in the natural beauty around us and the comfortable companionship the years had bestowed upon us. We took a long hike and, as we sat on a smooth rock jutting out above a lush valley, I was struck by the thought that these women help me turn my gaze forward, not back, time and time again.
That night, after dinner, we gathered in a little stone pavilion near our cabin. There was a warm fire blazing and a new moon visible above. A kind man we met from a nearby cabin was delighted to serve as my surrogate father to walk me down the small stone path aisle. My “bridesmaids” had given me something old (a beautiful vintage necklace in my favorite soft pink color), something new (a handmade crown of flowers with a bit of tulle serving as a veil), something borrowed (a small handmade purse I had gifted to one of them years ago, and something blue (lovely earrings). The “bouquets” I supplied them with were small canvases with a photograph of me with each of them in the center, surrounded by carefully calligraphed sentiments of what I admired and respected about each one of them. I read the words on each canvas during the wedding ceremony. We all cried, even the people we did not know, but who happened to be in the pavilion when we arrived. A young woman on the property who heard what I was doing embraced me afterwards with tears in her eyes and said I had helped her with my self-marriage ritual in ways I could not imagine.
I spoke of my promises to myself: I would love myself. I would cultivate self-compassion, a practice of which I had been unfamiliar for years. I would be responsible for my own happiness. I would remember the difference between being alone and being lonely. I would have confidence in my ability to tolerate pain and move on. I would make the most of whatever time I had left in this world. I would respect myself enough to be intentional about how I spent my time, the most precious commodity that not one of us can get back. I am enough and do not need anyone else to make me feel whole.
The wedding reception followed. In the hot tub. Under stars that began to glimmer.
–Maria Leonard Olsen is the author of 50 After 50: Reframing the Next Chapter of Your Life (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018). For more information, see www.MariaLeonardOlsen.com.