Letters to different parts of myself are a way for me to practice having compassion for myself and to talk back to the “I am bad” voices in my head. Today’s letter is to the self that was moving toward a departure from a terrible first marriage. Why write to her now, when that happened a long time ago? Well, lately I’m thinking a lot about that time of my life. I am moving into a period of significant change in my life, and I think some of the anxiety and uncertainty reminds me of that time. I still carry a lot of hurt from that period of my life and feel the need to acknowledge it and to reject the negative messages from that time.
My dear friend,
I went back to your journal and read your words from the summer and fall before you left Miguel. I read and feel so sad for you. You were trying so hard to hold it all together: to be a good mom to little boys, to keep the household running, to manage on a low income, and in the midst of it all, to finish a dissertation. As if that weren’t challenging enough, you were experiencing a crushing depression. Not to mention that you had a husband who couldn’t stop criticizing you. Though you’d been depressed for a long time (maybe years), you’d been in therapy for just six months. In those six months, your marriage had deteriorated further, your depression had deepened and you’d experienced the full range of side effects from a variety of psychiatric meds. No wonder you felt things were hopeless. You couldn’t see any way out of the situation.
Feeling so hopeless, you had no resistance to the messages that Miguel kept delivering to you: You were a bad mother. You had no professional future. You’d never finish your dissertation–look how long it was taking! You were a mess, no use to anyone.
As your calm, mature, experienced self, I wish I’d been there to challenge those messages. You needed someone at your side, someone who would counter everything he said with evidence to the contrary. Because what he said just wasn’t true. You were a patient mother who did not take her unhappiness out on her little boys. I know you still berate yourself for not having enough energy, for not being happier with them. You wonder if you have damaged them in any way—you’ve heard a lot about the negative impact of a depressed mother. But don’t forget, you sang songs to them. That summer you read them James and the Giant Peach out loud, and even though they were just three and five years old, they were mesmerized. It was their first chapter book and set the stage for the many, many books you read out loud to them over the next ten years. You took them to the library and the park and to museums. You built houses and castles out of blocks. You dug in the sand with them. You comforted them when they needed it. You celebrated their little successes. You made them feel loved and valuable. If a stranger were to ask them confidentially if they had a good, loving mother, you know they would say yes.
You had no professional future, Miguel told you, and you believed it. You were certainly disadvantaged by how often he wanted to move, by the absence of other family support, by having children in graduate school, by the weak job market at the time. Miguel blamed you for not finishing your dissertation sooner, but it makes sense that it took a long time under the circumstances. He told you that you were a financial drain on him, but let’s be honest: you often supported him and usually worked at least half time. He was the one who gambled money away while you looked for the sales at the grocery store.
The worst part was that you took the combination of the circumstances and Miguel’s unflattering interpretation of them, and you adopted them as truth. If I’d been there, I would have pointed out how inaccurate, unkind and unhelpful his words were. I would have reminded you that you were smart, and there were many future employment options, even if you didn’t know what they were. I would have taught you about informational interviews and taken you to the career center. At night, when you tossed and turned, wondering how you would survive, I would have whispered to you, “You can do this. You will figure it out, just as you have figured out many things before this. You will figure out the dissertation and figure out a job. You have made your way through a lot of things without a lot of guidance and support. I’ll help you out. I’ll encourage you.”
You felt so stuck. You were desperately unhappy but still couldn’t imagine yourself leaving this relationship. Don’t the boys need their dad? How would you support them? Wouldn’t they be devastated by divorce? Would I even get custody? Miguel said he would tell the court that I was crazy and it wasn’t safe for the boys to be with me.
I would have told you that Miguel was not a healthy person to be around, not for you, and not for the boys either. I would have said, yes, divorce is painful, and the boys will cry, and Miguel will blame you. “It’s all your fault,” he said. I would have challenged that and reminded you that you tried hard, for years, to make the relationship work. You acquiesced, you forgave, you gave him another chance. In contrast, his approach to making the marriage work was by increasing the pressure on you to go along with him. He didn’t just want you to do what he demanded–he wanted you to believe that he was right.
You felt stuck because you were faced with difficult choices and had no financial resources and little emotional support. You harmed yourself as a way to deal with the intense, conflicted feelings. But despite everything, you were strong enough to leave. You left Miguel in December, still seriously depressed, and by May you had defended your dissertation and got a job. That’s a lot of strength. That strength is still there in you, and it will get you through your current healing process. It will get you through whatever changes lie ahead with your current job. You could do it on the basis of that strength alone, but think of all the support you have now that you didn’t have then: a loving husband, plenty of job experience and a strong resume, professional connections, friends, and some savings.
I know you still feel the urge to harm yourself to cope with stress or chase away intense, negative feelings. I’ll stay with you while you learn to let yourself feel those feelings, all of them. I’ll help you pace yourself. I won’t tell you that you can’t burn yourself, because I know you still see it as an effective coping mechanism. Together we’ll create alternative coping mechanisms. I look forward to the day when you won’t want to burn yourself anymore, because you simply won’t need it.
One day you’ll look back on this time and think: oh look, I got through this too.
Your older and wiser self, Q.