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[ Personal Narratives ]

Finding Maria

My ex-husband says I wanted my life to be a Hallmark card. He says I set myself up for disappointment by having unrealistic, Norman Rockwellian expectations about how my life should be. I insisted on going around the table expressing our gratitude lists before Thanksgiving dinners (before every meal was even better). The family would be respectably dressed and seated together holding hands during the Lord’s Prayer at mass every Sunday. However, I was the only one in my immediate family for whom this was important.

Maybe that was true. I grew up in a very dysfunctional family. My father was a raging alcoholic who was once arrested for beating up my mother in a drunken rage. I remember jumping on my father’s back at age six to attempt to get him off of her. My mother kidnapped my younger brother and me, fearful that my father would have her deported. They separated then, but the divorce was final after eight years of a bad marriage.

My father got custody of my brother and me. On weekends and summers, we lived with my mother and my instant step-family, including a stepfather, three older stepsisters and two stepbrothers. One of my stepsisters could rival Cinderella’s, given her resentment of my mother’s guilty attempts to spoil me and her mother’s attempts to run away from all parental responsibility.

I didn’t know anyone else whose father was hauled off in a police car in our sleepy suburban neighborhood. I didn’t know anyone else who’d been raped (an incident in high school that I never told anyone about until 20 years later and which I found out at age 40 was watched by a prominent Republican insider). I didn’t even know anyone else back then whose parents were divorced, which was cause for excommunication in 1960s Catholicism. Everyone else’s lives looked picture perfect to me. I wanted that.

I married the first man I dated who seemed like he could fit the role I’d created in my fantasy of the wise, calm father who my children would seek out for advice and who would never lose his temper. He was smart, had a good sense of humor and a strong sense of honor. He was my anchor. I would be the 1990 version of June Cleaver. Everything I made would be gourmet and from scratch. My specialty was English scones. I read the Emily Post etiquette tome back to back. I headed every committee possible and behaved as close to a Stepford wife as I could.

I couldn’t put my finger on when the delusion of all this pretense hit me, but it felt wrong. I am not a Country Club wife. I am a dynamic extrovert who is energized by new experiences and new people. I am a student of the world who strives to learn something new every day.

At some point, my children didn’t seem to need me as much anymore. In fact, they yearned for space. I had difficulty letting go. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life from then, forward. I had derailed my law career and wasn’t sure I wanted to practice law anyway. My husband was uncomfortable when I started exploring other religions for I started to drink a couple glasses of white wine each night. It morphed into two bottles a day. “Is this all there is?” I thought to myself.

In retrospect, I understand why I did the things I did. Bruised by my parents’ actions, I’d promised to myself that I would never get divorced. So I forced my ex to ask for one by acting out more and more. I stayed out late, I started doing drugs, I lied. I lied. I lied.

I’d also been running from who I really am because I didn’t like what I knew. I didn’t like the dark places, the secrets, the abusive people from my childhood that I was continuing to protect. I kept up a frenetic pace so I wouldn’t have time to be introspective. And I could prove that I wasn’t the loathsome person I thought I was if I could pose as Martha Stewart.

But like a beach ball held under water for too long, I finally had to let go and the demons popped through to the surface. I reluctantly dealt with them through therapy and rehabs, sometimes breaking things with a baseball bat to allow my unexpressed rage out.

I didn’t admit to the sexual abuse of my childhood until in rehab a couple of years ago, where I found out that approximately a quarter of all American women will have been sexually abused in their lifetimes. I met other women who’d similarly suffered in silence, but who were ready to bear witness to my pain.

I’m much stronger now, single, and haven’t had a drink or drug in four years. I wear life like a loose garment. My life’s roadmap has become the 12 Steps. I surround myself with people who help me be the best version of myself that I can be. I seek experiences, not things. I enjoy life’s symphony, without allowing any one instrument to get too loud in my life. I strive to be present. I’m no longer running.