Therapy Tuesday was a big day in my world. It was moving day for my ex-husband. It was official. He was moving out. In some ways, it has all happened so fast. In other ways, it has not. I have been treading water for years. Trying not to drown. When someone suddenly pulls you up and out of the water, it might feel like a quick action. Trying to stay alive in open water for a very long time, however, is a slow death. There is an inevitability about it.
Well, I could not live or die like that.
During the days leading up to the physical separation, a childhood memory was playing in my mind. My parents divorced when I was 6 years-old, but I don’t recall them ever living together. They were separated on and off for most of my life. During one of their separations, my father left for California, and he cleaned out their checking account before he took off. I remember my mother crying and panicking. I might have been 4 years-old. He left us with nothing. I had a pickle jar full of loose change. My mother took the money that I had been saving and used it to buy powdered milk, crackers, and peanut butter. That is what I ate for days. To this day, I hate the smell of powdered milk.
My mother did not have to do that. Had she called her parents, they would have helped her in an instant, but my mother never asked for help. It is hard to ask for help. It can be overly humbling. It almost feels humiliating possessing a flavor of shame. If one comes from a family culture that preaches self-reliance, then one might never have seen what it looks like to ask for and receive help. Self-reliance is king. It becomes part of one’s identity.
I am very self-reliant largely because I’ve had to be. When there are few people around to count on, one learns to count on oneself. Rely on oneself. At least you know that you won’t betray yourself, right? This is a very hard way to live particularly if you have children.
This memory of my father’s financial abandonment was ever-present on my mind on Tuesday. I found myself wondering if my ex-husband would do the same to us. I would quickly dismiss the question. Surely not. Guess what? He did. When I saw the bank balance on Tuesday night and the transactions that confirmed the balance, my head started spinning. He actually spent all our money in two hours.
I started weeping and saying out loud, “He did what my father did…”
What could I do? I needed to ask for help. I needed to tell someone. I needed to learn from my mother’s mistake. I texted a dear friend in my heightened state. Honestly, I did not know what to do. She told me to come to her house immediately. Yes, tell me what to do. Give me instructions. I felt helpless. I was reeling. One of my greatest fears had just come to pass. I was reliving a traumatic childhood experience. I could not let my children go through what I did as a child. I ended up having a very difficult relationship with money and even food because of that one childhood event. I developed a scarcity complex that I carried into adulthood. I knew that I had to do something, but I did not see solutions.
My friend and her husband, without my asking, gave me money to keep and money to borrow. More than enough. Yes, it was hard to accept. It was very humbling, but I thought of my daughters. They would not be made to feel afraid or told that there was no food. They would feel safe and secure. My friends pulled us up and out of the open ocean. We would not drown.
I have never been grateful for most of my childhood experiences. I had a very traumatic childhood, but, on Tuesday, I was grateful. I knew what I had to do to in terms of looking for an immediate solution because of what my mother failed to do. My husband’s actions are now only a blip on the radar for me and my daughters. They could have become traumatic had I refused to seek help. I also got to put that awful childhood memory to bed once and for all. By forcefully reliving it as an adult but making the right decision as the adult in the scenario, I overwrote the bad data in my memory. Instead of panic and fear loading that memory, I have now experienced relief and gratitude. I don’t need to use self-reliance so heavily. There are people in my life who do care, and my children can see that as well.
Divorce is hard. Dealing with the details of divorcing is really hard. I am discovering that one of your best tools in life’s widely varied circumstances is asking for help. Humans hate to do it. Just watch a toddler try to do anything. We don’t seem to become any more willing as we age, but learning to be willing to ask for help is essential to every process involving healing and growth.
To quote Martha Stewart, it’s a good thing.