I must be in a really good place or a really awful place to begin talking about my depression publicly, again. My talky therapist cautioned me. “There might be some future complications.” As in, health insurance! Or looking for a job.
In depression we want to constantly collapse. We hope for constant rescue. But the truth is we’ve got to be self-rescuing knights and princesses.
If you’ve ever had to seek services for a mental illness you’ll begin to understand what he was hinting at. 90% of the therapists I’ve seen are private pay only. What that means is your health insurance that appears to cover mental health, really covers some consulting by your family PA. Or at the maximum, a beginning therapist who’s willing to see patients for $35 – $45 per hour. And I can tell you, that’s not many.
And here I am, freaking out my family (no my fiancé however) by coming out as a sufferer. Why would I do this? Fame? Hardly. Fortune? Um, yeah, from what, an Oprah appearance? No.
I started this new blog (my 5th) to capture all of the writing I’ve done in the last 6 years about depression, creativity and depression, and divorce and how it triggered my worst depression ever. I’m coming out. Much in the same way sexual orientation used to be the stigma, I think today we’re more afraid of someone with a mental illness than we are of a gay or transgender person.
The media, and the congress majority party like to point to mental illness every time there is a mass shooting. But what they are doing is deflecting the bullets that should be going right for their main financial contributor, the NRA. Yes, mental illness is a huge problem in the US. And yes, many of the people who commit horrendous crimes are suffering from mental illness either temporary or clinical, I mean, how else could you shoot someone outside of a war zone?
Mental illness is very poorly understood. And, in fact, the doctors are only slightly more informed than those of use who suffer. See, we tend to do a lot of research, seeking out relief from this invisible and debilitating disease. And the pharma industry is working hard to replicate the success of Prozac, but even the drugs are a shot in the dark.
In my case, a cocktail of some of the old drugs, the cheaper ones now in generic form, tends to work the best. I tried some of the fancy new drugs, atypical they are called, and they flattened me out like road kill. So I go with the tried and true, and cheap, Wellbutrin-generic. (The same drug sold as a smoking cessation med.) And this drug serves like a persistent cup of coffee during the day, more than a feel-good drug. And I occasionally need to add in some Lexapro-generic when I’m starting to have obsessive thoughts. Between these two drugs I have successfully recovered over and over. It’s exhausting. But it’s better than the alternative.
Now I’ve just admitted to my illness and given you my prescription. But there’s a lot more to my strategy and care team. The drugs can help, but believe me, they are not a cure. The only cure is in my actions. I must take action to feel better. The Welbutrin tends to help me get out of bed in the morning. But it’s what I do with those 12 – 18 hours before I get back in bed, that really matters. The actions are up to me.
If your therapist agrees with you about what you can’t do, they are giving you the permission to not do stuff that you need to do for your recovery.
I believe in talk therapy as well. And I have learned over my 30+ years in therapy, that there are huge differences in the quality of care provided by the different schools of psychology and the different levels of training a therapist has. But the main thing in finding a talky doctor is to feel and empathetic bond with them. This is not transference. I don’t want my therapist to be my mom or my dad. I want them to FEEL into me, and understand and be articulate about FEELINGS. And then help me to take ACTION.
I’ve had men and women therapists and both have provided great care in my past. I have noticed a tendency that’s worth noting. Women therapists, in my experience, tend to be more empathetic and nurturing. But in the same vein, they tend to coddle me a little bit too much. They give me support where they should give me a harsh talking to. Sometimes, a therapist will collude with my depression. This is a role they must never have. None of your care team should ever agree with your diagnosis or symptoms of depression. Let me explain.
When I’m in my happy place I can laugh at and examine my depressive episodes from all angles. This is often where some of the good work around coping strategies gets done. BUT… When I’m in a depressive state it is easy, when talking with me, to want to give me encouragement and hope. Some of that can veer into collusion. Here’s what I’ve learned about that.
- I want you to accept and nurture me.
- When I’m depressed I need acceptance and warmth.
- When I’m depressed I will say very convincing things about what I can and can’t do when I’m depressed.
- You should never agree with me about what I can’t do. That is collusion.
- If your therapist agrees with you about what you can’t do, they are giving you the permission to not do stuff that you need to do for your recovery.
Dear loved ones and therapists, please do not give me permission to stay in bed all day. Please do not excuse my missed appointments, or missed dinner dates, for any reason. They are a symptom of my depression and an example of how I am NOT DOING WHAT I MUST DO.
The recovery from depression always comes from forward momentum in action. Taking action is a contradiction to the depression that is telling you to close-it-all-down, stay in bed, isolate yourself to protect others. But those are lies.
In my childhood (between 4 – 7 years old) I would often take to the hills when my father would hit a rage-filled moment in his alcoholism. We lived in a neighborhood that had huge lots. So I would climb the hill behind my house and build stick and stone forts. I would go there to be alone, to be safe. I would gather rocks and sticks nearby for weapons. But who was I defending against? My mom and dad? How was I ever going to win or even survive that battle?
As an adult I exhibit some of the same behaviors in response to high stress and depression. I isolate. I think that I will feel better by curling up in bed and closing the blinds. But it’s a lie.
I did not get better up in my stick and stone fort. I only got better when I returned to the house and found my mom. I only got better by taking action against what I really wanted to do. I really wanted to stay up in that fort until they sent out a search party. I desperately wanted someone to come find me, pick me up, and tell me it was going to be okay. As a kid that is a perfectly acceptable request. It’s what parents should do with kids. As an adult this type of behavior and desired response from others is likely to cause you a lot of pain. It might even get you in trouble with your job, or put your relationship into jeopardy. You cannot wait for someone to come rescue you from your stick and stone fort.
I cannot call in sick, I cannot opt-out of activities I used to love just because I am depressed.
The only way out of the fort is by your own action. The only way out of your depressive moments is by making contact with others in the world. You might call your care team. You might call a friend who understands. You might have a loving spouse who can give you warmth and cuddle without the coddle. That’s what you need. You need peace, love, and understanding, and then you need action.
Only you can take the action. Your therapist and family can all make suggestions, can all think they have a handle on what’s best for you, but only you can do it. Only you have the ability stand up in your mess of a fort/life/situation and ask for help. You have to tell those around you what’s happening and what you need. And you must ask them NEVER TO COLLUDE WITH YOUR DEPRESSION.
Telling me he understands my stick and stone fort is a therapist’s job. Telling me it’s okay for me to call in sick is colluding. I cannot call in sick, I cannot opt-out of activities I used to love just because I am depressed. Sure, I don’t need to add a lot of stressful activities, but I cannot isolate. Only through massive action, action forward, action back towards engagements and people and tasks, can we find the grip on the slipper slope back to wellness. We must fight to climb back up the hill ourselves. We can have a team of people around us cheering us on, but it’s an individual sporting event.
Today, back at the top of the hill, reengaged with my family, with work, with my creative process, it is easy for me to shout about ideas and strategies for doing what I’ve just outlined. But only two months ago, I was in my own stick and stone fort hiding from everyone. The holidays are typically hard for me. But this past holiday I “took a digger.” And my lovely companion didn’t collude with me or my isolation. She constantly showed up, cooked healthy meals, asked me what I needed, and demanded we go for a walk. It is through those laborious trips up the neighborhood hills that I got my strength back. More than the meds and more than the talky doctor, it was the daily living experience that I had to heal within. And walking, staying close to someone else (even if you don’t talk much) is the key to getting better.
I may never be 100% free of this terrible disease, but I can do better each time. I can show my care team where I hide and ask them to call me out every. single. time. There are no exceptions to this rule. Anytime I was let off the hook, “Okay, you can stay home, I can see how tired you are,” was a time when I ultimately felt worse not better for the release. In depression we want to constantly collapse. We hope for constant rescue. But the truth is we’ve got to be self-rescuing knights and princesses. The truth is we can only do it for ourselves. Our friends, family, and support team can cheer us along, but it’s our legs and our lungs that have to propel us back up the hill.
… let’s continue tomorrow …
The Off Parent
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image: sadness, creative commons usage
When you look back at depression, sometimes you laugh with swagger and bravado. You pound your chest, offer support, and if/when the sadness sneaks up on you again… Boom.
I am also aware that knowing how to heal is very different from the one-foot-in-front-of-another struggle it sometimes takes to keep going.
Well, that’s is my pattern anyway, and I’m coming out of a dark period of silence that spanned the holidays from Thanksgiving to New Years. I am committing to writing about it, journaling through my own recovery, and working to keep writing even when I’m not doing so well. Letting my facade down even at the risk of appearing to have failed at my own recovery.
This blog is not about depression, but in many ways it is. These stories represent what it feels like to get divorced, to fall apart, and to find ways of healing and getting strong again. I believe that I have some stories to tell that might be helpful, or more importantly, hopeful to someone going through a dark period themselves. THE BLACK THREAD posts about depression are missing much of the experience of actually being down. That’s because I clam up. Rather than talk about or reveal my warped thoughts, I STFU. (Shut the F*** Up)
I am also aware that knowing how to heal is very different from the one-foot-in-front-of-another struggle it sometimes takes to keep going. The alternatives are death, going to jail, aloneness, homelessness. I don’t know what’s on the other side of my darkest fear, but I suppose it has something to do with being discovered to be a fraud. As if all the work I’ve done to reach this peace, is destroyed if I get depressed again. That’s not the truth.
If I write about divorce, depression, and recovery and then I again, fall into a pattern of depression, I have a fear that this means I have failed and that my work here is somehow wrong or bad. I do know, today, that this is not the truth. But I am only able to have awareness of the value of my writing when I’m on this side of the black thread. When I am deep in my self-suffering, I want to delete this entire site. I even have thoughts, unrealized, of deleting myself. Bad idea. Bad thoughts. Hard time.
What I have shared here, has gotten me through some of the hardest times. And in uncovering, and un-quieting myself to explore what’s happening within me again, is yet another step in pealing the onion of myself. The writing has become a kind of dialogue, perhaps a form of self-therapy, that when I’m quiet, I lose much of my own inner voice and confidence that comes from writing, journaling, telling my story.
Probably the hardest thing about falling into a depression is knowing the effect I am having on the people around me.
This then is the beginning of a new tale, and the oldest tale I have: sadness and the repercussions of being an empathic and deeply feeling person. My thinking is, at this point, that keeping the dialogue going, even as I’m pulling myself up and out, might be helpful for me. Might keep my recent wins and recovery on the path towards joy again. And even checking-in, without shame, as I am having a hard time, might also prove helpful to myself as well as others who struggle, like I do, with bouts of the blues.
Probably the hardest thing about falling into a depression is knowing the effect I am having on the people around me. My fiancé did not bargain for this. But she stayed beside me, she talked to me, she remained steadfast in the times when I was most certain I was unworthy of her love and caring. One more time into the abyss,
I don’t know what the future holds as I move forward with my depression writing. But I had no idea when I started this blog about divorce that it would grow to be about so much more. As I weave my own life as a parent of teen agers who has suffered bouts of depression, before, during, and after divorce, I am going to try some fearlessness in staying in contact with my writing, even when I am ashamed of my sadness.
This is one of the hardest aspects of depression, the shame. I am ashamed that I am dragging the people I love with me into my maelstrom of madness. Shame be gone! As I have grown beyond the shame of my divorce, now I will grow beyond the shame of my depression. From this side of the sadness glass I am breaking the silence on the black thread that has been woven all through my soul. This is part of me that I can no longer afford to silence. As I keep seeking relief and working strategies to alleviate my own suffering, I promise to bring you along.
It sounds scary. Let’s see how it goes…
The Off Parent
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When you go down the path of divorce, however you got there, a few realities are going to rush up and greet you rather quickly if you are a man. There are two important issues that it is critical for you to understand. Time and Money are the only negotiating points you have. Let’s jump straight into the story, shall we…
When my time with them dropped so significantly, I began to crater on the days and weeks that I had zero access to their smiling faces.
The legal system is set up to support single moms and to force dads to make their child support payments, regardless of changing situations or dad’s ability to pay. That’s not their problem. And the typical support package includes the Standard Possession Order and some percentage of your income, depending on the number of children you have. Let’s get real clear on both of these new realities in your life, as a dad.
SPO (Standard Possession Order) is the parenting schedule you will most likely be offered. The reasons behind this 70/30 parenting split were established by the state over years of divorce and custody battles and negotiations. The rationale behind it sounds like it made sense 30 years ago.
The mother as the primary care giver will be given the majority of the time with the kids. This allows the continuity of their primary relationship in this trying time. This leadership role will be called the custodial parent. The Attorney General’s office, should they ever be needed, will treat the custodial parent like a client. The non-custodial parent, on the other had, is a bit of a second class citizen. This morning when I was confirming some of the details about my current arrangement, I noticed this contact list on the AG’s website.
The custodial parent get’s their own line. As do employers and people not so certain of their paternity obligations. All others please call the general number and get put on hold and endless transfers through voice activated systems. “If you are the custodial parent, press one. If you are the non-custodial parent [the only reason you are calling us is because of a problem, and you’re probably a dead beat dad] press two.
Time and Money. Those are the two negotiations you will have to settle in order to get divorced. I was the uber-cooperative divorcé. I agreed to everything. I was told it would be in the best interest of the children for the mom to get the house, the child support, and the lion’s share of the time with the kids. I had a naive idea at the outset that we would divorce 50/50 just like we had parented. I was wrong. And the state’s attorneys have given us a lot of precedents that show this role for the dad is the best one.
Non-Custodial Parent. Standard Possession Order. Child Support. Those three little phrases are about to become very important in your life. And your understanding, navigation, and negotiation in setting them up, might save you a lot of the heartache and drama that I’ve been through.
The 70-30 split sounds a bit abstract until you are in middle of your “off” week and you are trying to imagine surviving the next 4 days until you see your kids. Here’s how the typical schedule breaks out. Dad gets the kids every other weekend. During dad’s ON week he gets two additional nights. Thursday and Friday. If your kids are already in school, that’s really after school time, and getting them up for school on Friday morning and Monday morning, if that’s your schedule. (All schedules can vary and still be basically the SPO.) On the OFF week, you may or may not get a single night sleep over. Again if your kids are in school, that’s really one cycle of feeding, homework, and back to school the next morning. Those single night stays were hard. The loss when taking them to school on the off Fridays was brutal.
I struggled to stay brave while I was with them, and suffer greatly when they were gone.
Time with my kids was the most important aspect of my life after they were born. Everything I did, I did in consideration of my then-wife and my kids. I centered my hopes and dreams around being a great dad, and being there for them every night, every volleyball game, every time they needed advice. And when they were younger, say after 3rd and 5th grades, they really did need a lot of interaction and caring. When my time with them dropped so significantly, I began to crater on the days and weeks that I had zero access to their smiling faces. I might have done better to fight and receive a more equitable divorce. Maybe Joint-Custody and a real 50/50 schedule would’ve provided more connections between us. Maybe I’d have been able to get my son into tennis or bike riding. Maybe I wouldn’t have crashed so hard into depression.
When I was thinking about the math last night, I was surprised to understand that she had the kids more than twice as much as I did. The 70/30 split is very abstract until you are losing so many nights and weekends with your kids. I still think a 50/50 schedule would’ve been better for my kids. And today, I have some ideas that might make that possible. But today my kids are teenagers. Today they have their own independent lives. Today, my interactions with them, even when they are here, is fleeing, abstract, and often superficial. I dig being with them, and I try and make myself open for their questions. But at this stage the lead in the relationship is up to them. Asking your kid, “What happened in school today,” will never get more than a “not much.” When your kids want to chat they will seek you out. By being available, still only 8 days out of a 30 day month, those opportunities have smaller windows.
So my ex-wife gets more than twice the time with the kids. Wow. It’s a lot. But until you’re IN DIVORCE and have kids, you can’t really understand what the loss means. It took the breath out of me for over two years as I struggled to stay brave while I was with them, and suffer greatly when they were gone. The OFF parent has a lonely road ahead.
This is where the rubber meets the road in divorce. In general the dad will have the child support obligation. The idea is that he is often the primary bread-winner, or at least as a man, employable at a higher wage. And as the story goes, the kids and their mom should be able to continue with the lifestyle that they have grown used to. (No mention of what’s about to happen to dad’s lifestyle.) And while that language sounds okay, the execution of these documents are often brutal and pugilistic.
Here’s an abbreviated version of what my “deal” looks like.
29% of my take home pay will be paid to the ex-wife for the children’s care and feeding. That money is tax-free to her, since the taxes were taken out of my wages prior to the withholding. Wow, that’s a pretty good deal. Seems like it should be a deduction for me and the taxes should be taken out equally. But that’s not how it goes.
When you are considering divorce, as a man, consider the two most important issues as a parent: Time and Money.
And if you have or hope to have a high-paying job, that’s the mark you will use in the negotiations for the decree. In my case the rough number was set at 1,200. Okay. But wait, that’s not all. In most cases the dad is also responsible to pay for health insurance. Again, this might be more fair if it was split 50/50 but that’s not usually the way it’s done. Again, I think this was set up when dad had the big job, and this would prevent him from tanking that job and losing the good insurance as a way of punishing his now ex-wife. Either way, this additional obligation is tacked on to the sum of $650 – $1,100 depending on your plan, and depending on your employment status.
So, just to sum things up for you. At this very moment, since I am employed by a contractor who does not offer health insurance benefits. My monthly total in child support obligation is $2,300. Wow. That’s a chunk of change. It puts a significant squeeze on my opportunities for employment, since I have to make that before I can begin to think about rent, food, car insurance, phones, for myself. If you start every month with a $2,300 bill, that’s a real demotivational blow. It has felt insurmountable from time to time.
And when I lost my job, as a result of the tanking economy, the child support obligations or payments didn’t change. I could’ve hired an attorney and asked for a reduced child support payment, but I didn’t have the time or the money to do that. I was trying to figure out how I was going to keep my house. The house that I’d managed to buy, in spite of the large child support payment, when I landed a great new job, post divorce. Only the great job didn’t last. The startup changed their business model and eliminated my director-level position.
The killing blow, the unforgivable transgression that I’ve had to forgive, came when my ex-wife decided the proper course of action would be to turn my late support payments over to the AG’s office for “enforcement.” This one act of anger, has cost me and my family thousands of dollars and has actually gotten less money into my kids pockets. And the debt, as seen by the state, is a huge lien on my credit. This one act caused me to lose the house. And for one year, I actually had to live with my mom again. Fortunately, she and the kids and I had a humorous attitude about the whole thing.
“It’s better than living under a bridge,” my mom would joke. And she had a garage that we converted into a place for my bed. The kids each had rooms. So in my mom’s house, at least I was able to accommodate my weekends. By filing with the AG’s office, while I was trying to restructure my debt so I could keep the house, was the last act of anger and aggression that she could take. She took it. I lost everything.
From those ashes however, and even under the $2,300 monthly payment, and now a big fat lien on my credit, that prevented me from qualifying for a used car loan when my car was destroyed in a hail storm, despite all of that, I’m still surviving. I wouldn’t say thriving yet, but I’m getting by.
When you are considering divorce, as a man, consider the two most important issues as a parent.
- TIME: If you parented 50/50 and would like to continue to maintain your relationship with your children at the highest level, you should go to the court and ask for 50/50.
- MONEY: When you negotiate child support you can do two things very differently than I did. Ask for joint-custody. You can then be assured you will have equal rights if things ever get to the AG’s office. And make sure the amount you agree to in the decree, the amount that will determine your child support payments, is either conservative, or real. In my case the amount was set on historical data and on the hope of a promising job interview, that didn’t pan out.
Finally, if you’re going to agree to a cooperative divorce, make sure you add in a clause about NEVER INVOLVING THE ATTORNEY GENERAL’S OFFICE. EVER. My ex and I were in an argument about the timing of my child support payments and how I was planning on catching up, when I lost my job. She waited a few months. At this time she began to get very belligerent. She refused to meet with me in person about parenting or school issues. Her response to my email requests were simple “when can I expect my money.” That shut down all opportunities for co-parenting that summer.
The Off Parent
back to Single Parenting
This early negotiation breakdown is chronicled short summary.
The big AG breakdown in chronological order and how my life fell through the cracks.
I’ve written about this before. I’d like to recap and bring some structure and organization to the story of my house struggles and my depression surrounding the crushing effects of the divorce on my personal and financial stability.
In divorce the man often is the parent who is asked to leave the house, and leave the rest of the family as undisturbed as possible. I get it. We are trying to lessen the impact of the divorce on the kids. But… What about the dad? As they continued on in some sort of “daddy’s on a business trip” mode, I was immediately homeless and alone. Um, it is quite different.
And one of the first challenges, if money is an issue, is establishing a new home, a place where you can begin being a dad again. How long it takes to reestablish this residence depends a lot on your mental state of mind and your employment situation. In my case both were significantly damaged. I moved into my sister’s spare bedroom. And this might have been a saving grace. I was not ready to be alone alone. When I was “off” I had my sister and her two kids to keep me company. My story became, “And I didn’t need to be alone. I was so lucky.”
But I tried to keep my joy and wits about me as well.
My divorce was finalized in August of 2010 and my next full-time job came along in December of that year. I appeared to land on my feet at a fairly high-profile and well-paying gig. Immediately I started looking for a place to live. I knew with the way credit works that I needed to establish myself as a home owner as quickly as possible. And in February I found a smallish house in a neighborhood a lot less expensive that our family home, but within my kid’s school district. And in March we launched the “gnome house” chapter of our lives. My kids were in 4th and 6th grade at this time, and my house was actually closer to my son’s middle school than their mom’s home. It was a short-lived victory.
In July of that first year, my employer changed their entire business model and eliminated my position after six months. Now, I could give into my mom and sister’s evaluation that I jumped to early, but I knew that my options for buying were going to be much harder without the big job. I was glad I had a home, but I collapsed into a summer of hardship as I struggled to find work again. At the same time, my kids and I had a great summer. We swam in the nearby lake, we played basketball and soccer in the twilight of the summer evenings, when the Texas heat gave way. We had an adventure together. And for all intents and purposes we were happy in our little house. On the days (most of them) when they were not with me I thrashed and struggled with my life and the impending loss of my newly established home.
When school started up again, things began to fall apart for me.
And the strains of money began to show up in discussions with my ex-wife.
We struggled on, I continued to profess my intention of getting caught back up with the child support that was set during the divorce at my “big corporate job” rate. She started feeling the pressure of the cash call as well, and there is no blame here. She was a very responsible money manager. In her mind she was doing what she felt was necessary. I was doing what I thought was necessary as well. I remember an email exchange between us where she said, “You seem to think that your mortgage and expenses are more important that your responsibility to your children. I don’t understand that.”
Um… My response was this, “I think we knew this was going to be hard. And I think dad deserves a place to live and a food and electricity to provide a place for himself and his kids, when he has them. I will get caught up on the child support, and I assure you I am not spending any discretionary money. I have no discretionary money. I am working to find a job so I can keep my house and resume full payments to you.”
At this point I was just irregular. When things got really bad is when I actually missed a full payment. Her emails became more hostile. And our “conversations” devolved into sometime resembling this exchange. ME: “I think we should talk about the kids summer plans.” HER: “When will you have the next payment?” ME: “Um… I don’t know. I have some prospects, but nothing has come through.” HER: Silence. And that’s how the communications between us, that had been positive and kid-focused, got off track. And things went down hill fast after she started refusing to discuss anything with me that didn’t involve a payment date and plan from me.
And then things were forever changed. She filed her cause with the Attorney General’s office. And we were suddenly in a legal battle again and I went from struggling and working and not making enough money to a “deadbeat dad.” But that wasn’t enough. I was also now nearing default on my mortgage. I again pleaded with her to give me some options. She began her new response, “I signed an agreement with the AG’s office not to negotiate about money with you.” END OF DISCUSSION.
As the last year began to close it became clear that she was blocking my attempts to file restructuring bankruptcy to try and keep the Gnome House. I looked to my mom for some financial support, but she really hadn’t like the house from the beginning. Fuck. I was out of options and in newly threatening weekly letters from the AG’s office. It was time to sell. And without a full-time big corporate job I didn’t have the income to even look for a place to “move to.” And so at 51 years old I was heading back under the roof of my mom. The shame was palpable, but what were my options?
So in March of this year, 2014, I sold my home and moved in to my mom’s house. OUCH. My mom and I laughed through the situation with a phrase, “Well, it beats living under a bridge.” Yes, it does. But it didn’t have to go this way.
Some where in the divorce she had lost all compassion for me. When my house was being threatened by foreclosure she pressed the entire issue, her issue, to the AG’s office, thus obstructing any potential remedy I might seek. And in the loss, my kids and my mom and I have gotten very close. And it’s funny, they have better rooms and better meals than they ever had at my house. In my haste to reestablish a homestead and a place for me to be dad, I had chosen a house that has some fundamental issues. (No dishwasher, a septic system, and only one kid bedroom.)
At this moment I’m in a converted single-car garage in the middle of a rich neighborhood. It’s not bad. I’m not thrashing. But it’s hard. I have no privacy, no place to even think of establishing a relationship. And what’s the first warning sign anyway? Someone with money troubles, or god-forbid, no home.
In the divorce I am certain we were both doing the best we could. In the blindingly sad negotiations I agreed to giving up my request for 50/50 parenting, and I accepted the financial responsibility that would lock me into the big corporate track for the duration of the agreement. (Until my last child reached 18.) But what I didn’t know is that in all this “good will” negotiations that my soon-to-be-ex-wife would press the entire thing onto the state’s attorneys.
She did it with little more than a reference to “looking after the children’s interests.” Um, sure, maybe, if I was doing something that demonstrated I was trying to skip out on my child support payments. That’s when you go to the AG’s office! Not as a normal course of business. And when my home was threatened is the moment, I think, that you get real about the situation, you show some compassion for your co-parent, and you pause.
In divorce, you are still in a financial coupling. When I lost my job we all suffered. But that’s not the moment to file against your former partner. I do think she’s still mad at me, the same anger that infected our marriage. I’m not sure how that happens, or how someone dissipates it on their own. It takes work. And in a recent kid-focused therapy session her rage surfaced again, and I was again seeing the woman who I gladly release. I don’t need to be in any kind of relationship with someone who harbors such vitriol. And so we drop down into a logistics-and-money relationship. Sad. But maybe that’s more accurate. That’s kind of how the marriage had become as well.
We carry on. We do better. We keep going.
The Off Parent – still in transition
image: the gnome house, march 2011, the author, cc
I’m kinda sick of the divorce experts and family law (meaning un-family law) solicitors who are hovering around the business of divorce. The only problem is, it is a business. And divorce is a business decision. And without some good counsel you might get screwed. Still, calling yourself a divorce expert sounds really stupid to me. I want to ask them, “Oh, so how many divorces have you been through, and which one turned you magically into an expert?”
I’ve been divorced twice. And what I can tell you is, I’m no expert, I’m no advice columnist, I’m no self-help blogger. If you’re heading towards or in the middle of a divorce I recommend you get some help on your side. And providing your are not in a high-conflict divorce situation, you might include your future-ex in the discussions about finding counsel. That’s not exactly how the sequence went down in either of my divorces, but that ultimately became the intention and result. We wanted to collaborate on our divorce not drag each other through the legal halls shedding thousands of dollars along the way.
So we decide to divorce, or one person decides, and then we divorce. Our kids world’s are split into two parallel universes.
Here’s the big ah-ha for me about divorce: If one partner wants a divorce there’s not much hope for a reconciliation. In the case of my second marriage, when the partner has consulted a divorce attorney before raising the issue with you, you’re pretty well on your way to being handed a divorce whether you want it or not. I didn’t. It didn’t matter. We’re divorced. I’m getting over it.
The second ah-ha about divorce was: how you got into the divorce process is probably how it’s going to go. In my case, if my then-wife had gone to see an attorney, even while we were actively in couple’s therapy, there is some sort of major emotional disconnect that is not going to be resolved in the divorce. But knowing this is where she was coming from, that even with a counselor involved she was not able to get her needs met, I was able to let her go more easily. I knew that nothing I had done had caused her to seek divorce. In fact, I was doing everything I could to keep the marriage together. I was working harder. I was improving my chore-tackling attitude. I was trying to be more empathetic to her complaints. But the complaints were getting longer, and it seemed like our therapy sessions stayed focused on these surface “You didn’t do” issues rather than the kind of tectonic hurts that drove her to seek divorce advice before letting me know she was leaning away from our marriage. I was shocked and hurt when she admitted the fact in therapy, but I immediately had a better understanding of this person who was asking for her exit pass.
If you’ve got kids you’ve got to make them the focus of the hopefully-peaceful divorce. In our case the kids did come first, though I might have negotiated things differently had I been less empathetic. Heading into the new kind of therapy sessions, the one where you are writing the rules of your divorce, I was disoriented and depressed. We even stopped the negotiations for a week as I made my case to my wife about why I didn’t want the divorce. We then moved along towards a parenting plan with her help. At least I got the moment of pause and reflection. But I could see in my wife’s face and hear in her responses, that she was done. Done done. Not just done.
So we quickly moved to the logistics of the divorce. I came with a plan to go for 50/50 custody. My wife had other plans. And unfortunately in my state, Texas, the laws were very much on the mother’s side in 80% of all divorces. I understand from my lawyer (who I hired last year to protect me from my ex’s unreasonable child support demands) that in 2014 things are looking up for the dad who wants 50/50 custody. It appears the judges are more likely to hear both sides of the story and make a ruling that is based on desire and fairness rather than legal precedent.
And somewhere along the way, perhaps when things looked a bit more locked up than she was used to, our “impartial counselor” suggested to me, “That’s what she’ll get if you go to court.”
Unfortunately I got divorced in 2010. The legal precedent was with the mom all the way. And our divorce counselor quickly moved our discussions to how things would look with me being the non-custodial dad, and how the “time was not really all that different.” What I did not know, and I did not have an attorney tell me, so listen up: if I had gotten 50/50 parenting, as I wanted, I would not be forced to pay child support. We would do our own thing, we would pay our own way, and we would part as 50/50 responsible co-parents, just as we had parented. But that’s not what happened.
I did my research. I brought books and selected copies from those books to our sessions. I drew up some creative 50/50 schedules. And I was politely humored, but somewhere, in the cabal of women, they both knew I would give in to reason. Or the powerfully sounding, “In the best interest of the children.”
Wait a minute.
I understood that the kids needed both a mom and a dad. And I also understood that at the moment my soon-to-be-ex was making more money than I was. And I was paying this counselor to represent my side of the case as well.
And somewhere along the way, perhaps when things looked a bit more locked up than she was used to, our “impartial counselor” suggested to me, “That’s what she’ll get if you go to court.”
Today I can look back and see I was railroaded. Perhaps in the name of efficiency and lowering the conflict I was given the verdict. Settle for non-custodial, or go to court and pay to be given non-custodial. This sucked. But again, I was depressed, I was living in my sister’s house, away from the kids, and I was desperate to get on with whatever life we would have after the business of the divorce was settled. So, I succumed. I agreed to the SPO and the non-custodial role that was offered to me. And the negotiations went pretty quickly from there. To be honest, I just wanted out of the meetings with my still-wife. I was still in love with her. I was holding back all efforts to plead with her. And her steely eyes showed me she had other plans. She was more prepared for the divorce negotiations because she had been thinking about it and maybe even planning her actions, long before I was aware there was a divorceable-rift in our marriage.
“This often happens to the dads,” our counselor told us. “They are not aware there is a broken marriage until the divorce is in progress. And they are often slower to accept the breakup.”
Um… Yeah. I was fighting from within the strength of my marriage one minute and then being told she’d already consulted an attorney, those are two different universes in my life. And I was struggling to let go of the first one and begin to accept the second one. The universe where she would go on to be with other men, where I wouldn’t see my kids every night, where I was going to be alone again.
Divorce is the most painful and life transforming thing that I’ve ever been through. Perhaps as each of your kids comes into the world your life is transformed, and you grow into a parent. But as a divorcing parent, you are looking at losing a good portion of your kid’s lives. No way around it. The pictures my ex-wife takes of the kids are always painful. The vacations they now take without me, with mom’s boyfriend, are always a bit tender. I don’t really want to see them. I’m glad they had fun. I’m very happy when they return. But it’s like a two different lives they lead.
If the other person is unwilling to give up 50% of their parenting time, perhaps they need to reconsider the decision to divorce.
So we decide to divorce, or one person decides, and then we divorce. Our kids world’s are split into two parallel universes. One that they experience with dad and one that they experience with mom. Suddenly they have two homes. Maybe a new person in their parent’s lives that they have to adjust to. And the stories they tell around the dinner table are no longer shared in both universes. There’s mom’s universe and dad’s universe.
As parents, divorced parents, we have to do our best to fill in the gaps alone. As our kids are away, doing other great things, we have to keep our chins up and our spirits positive as we look towards building our own lives, now separate from them and their mom. It’s okay, I’m not whining. We all make it. But there were are few things I didn’t know going into the early part of the divorce process. And this most significant thing, that our “divorce expert” failed to tell me was also the part that has caused me the most pain and drama.
The Two Laws of Divorce:
- Kids first
- If you parent 50/50 you should divorce 50/50
Without exception, especially if that is what one of you wants, you should push for 50/50 parenting. If the other person is unwilling to give up 50% of their parenting time, perhaps they need to reconsider the decision to divorce. That would not have made a difference in my then-wife’s decision to divorce me, but it would have had a significant impact on my ability to thrive financially post-divorce. I was asking for the half parenting for purely emotional reasons. I cannot say what my then-wife had in mind, but she’d gotten some legal advice by this time, and I had not. Perhaps that was my own fault.
Do not go into divorce naively. Get informed. I came to my divorce counselling meetings with books, information, scholarly articles, and I still lost the negotiations. Today I would not make the same mistake. And if I am telling you this story so you don’t make this same mistake, then good for both of us.
If you want 50/50 parenting, and are ready in your heart and mind to step up to the large task of co-parenting, then you should go for it. And for the health and well-being of your kids (if you are a mom or a dad) I hope you get it.
The Off Parent
image: in the dog house, alan ellis,creative commons usage
My posts/poems about desire are really about hoping and striving towards “what’s next.”
I had a friend ping me on Facebook yesterday after reading one of my poems. She said, “They make me so sad for you.” I was surprised. But I can understand how things might come off that way, especially if you are entering The Off Parent from one of the more emotional posts. But I want to be clear, this is a process, and this blog is large enough to contain the anger, the depression, the joy, the thrill of new relationships, and the frustration at dealing with a woman who no longer thinks I’m hot shit. (That’s okay, it’s mutual.) Overall, the picture I am hoping to paint… WAIT. That’s not the idea. I’m not trying to put a bow around the process of divorce. Let’s try again.
I would not want Divorce for ANYONE. That said, my divorce, has become one of the defining and re-defining moments of my life. I would not say I wanted the divorce, or that it was MY idea… BUT… I was starting to stand up for a situation that had become unbearable for me.
The points of leverage changed dramatically when she let me know, in therapy, that she HAD consulted an attorney.
The difference between my ex-wife’s perspective and mine was minor. Critical, but minor. In the large scheme of things, I was also demanding a change.
MY PERSPECTIVE: this demand was the only way I had to effect change from within my marriage. I was arguing and demanding answers to some dark questions from the perspective that I WANTED THE MARRIAGE TO CONTINUE.
HER PERSPECTIVE: (somewhat paraphrased, but we went over it a number of times in therapy, so I’m not putting words into her mouth) she was unhappy with the marriage and saw no signs of things changing or getting better, thus it was better for her to move to something different.
The points of leverage changed dramatically when she let me know, in therapy, that she HAD consulted an attorney. I was crushed and panicked, but unsurprised. The anger she had been demonstrating in action and words over the previous 12 months had all but wrecked my positive outlook. And this admission, only revealed by my direct ask, “Have you already been to see a lawyer?” When she said yes, I just about hit the eject button right there. I did the sober thing, and expressed my dismay in a rational manner and left the session feeling absolutely lost about what to do next.
In the process of the next few days, primarily via email, I ranted and demanded she make a decision. She demurred and deflected for a couple of days. But in the end I was asked to leave the house and give her some space, so relief from the stress and tension she and the kids were experiencing. Um, what?
In the end, I refused. It was March. My line, “The process of divorce takes time. There is no hurry. And I’m not going to throw my kid’s lives into this hell before the school year is up. We’ve been living as roommates for a year, we can do it for another two months. We can split sleeping on the couch.”
Somewhere in the back of my mind, in my rapidly crashing heart, I was certain she would see the error of her ways and come back. I knew, however, in my rational mind, that this was not going to happen.
Today, three years later, I am happy. Alone. But happy. And I won’t pass judgement on her and the boyfriend who has given her strength and steadiness.
A few sessions before the hammer fell the therapist had asked a pivotal question, “How do you feel about the marriage and this process at this point.”
I went first. “Hopeful.”
Her word, and I knew more than I wanted to admit actually how hopeless I was feeling, was “Cynical.”
I think that was the beginning of my revelation into the darkness that now separated the two of us. It was different for each of us. But the pain, sadness, and anger was just a potent for each of us. I like to think I was on the optimist-side of the whole deal, but I was pretty disheartened.
All that said… as water under the bridge…
Today, three years later, I am happy. Alone. But happy. And I won’t pass judgement on her and the boyfriend who has given her strength and steadiness. My daughter likes him. That’s enough for me.
As I cursed, raged, pleaded, and cried at my wife trying to get her to come back to the marriage, I was also certain that I could not do it alone. Two people have to be IN for a marriage to work. So she exited before me. Probably, maybe, that whole year of blinding anger, was really her way of trying to help ME exit. But I’m projecting now.
When the agreement was made to divorce I also demanded the right to stay in the house until the kids were out of school. A shitty-hard decision, but I did not want to reenact the gross and bitter divorce struggle of my parents. And it was my argument, even against the therapist, that remaining in the house while the kids finished their 1st and 4th grade years at elementary school was much better than me leaving the house immediately.
Take heart. It gets better.
And today, I would assure you that my kids are thriving. And while the ex-y and I don’t communicate much, we have kids who love both of us and are seeing how we can still care about each other while moving in new directions with our lives.
So as I write poems about being “a poet rather than a player” I mean to be happy about it. This journey has taken some amazingly wonderful turns. And the next one is coming right up.
The Off Parent
image: broken dreams, brandon satterwhite, creative commons usage