Here is a hypothetical for you: Imagine you are married to the nicest man in the world. You have been married to the world’s nicest man for a long time, fifteen years almost, nearly your entire adult life. Everyone you know, your family and your friends, knows how nice he is, and you do too. He is the kind of guy who will always help someone move, who plays kindly with his dogs and lets you pick the restaurant for dinner and where you go on vacation. He is the kind of guy who climbs the stairs from the basement with his toddler tucked under his arm like a football, the same kid he carried in a backpack as an infant so the three of you could still go hiking after you became parents.
He is the kind of guy who takes care of business. If there is something wrong with the house he will fix it, and it doesn’t matter how difficult it is; he will figure it out. He once carried a couch into your apartment by himself, balancing the thing on his back, his head invisible under the cushions. Sure, he was 22 years old and had been doing pull-ups all summer, but still. He rarely gets sick, and when he does, he keeps going anyway. Other than a minor reptile phobia, he doesn’t seem to fear anything. Once when you were backpacking, he casually ran the food bag up the bear wire, apparently unconcerned that a large black bear was ransacking a carelessly strung bag a mere fifty feet away. It had to be done. So he did it. When he wants to do something, he does it. He enters a demanding graduate program an hour away from home two weeks before your first child is born. He studies at night with the baby in a sling around his neck, and owns up to dozing at stoplights.
Over the years he becomes the sort of man you think can do anything. You don’t notice when the fearlessness you envy blurs into recklessness, because you seamlessly step up to reel him in. You are his net, the floor beneath which he doesn’t sink, the safety on his pistol. You’re his shutoff valve, because you have a closer relationship with risk and fear. But you aren’t really aware that you do that, nor are you aware that there is a cost to serving as someone else’s backstop. What you do know is that you are married to the nicest man in the world, who can do anything, and often does.
He is steadfast; until one day, he is not. On that day he tells you that he is finished, that the jig is up, the free ride is over, that he is done with you, because you are too heavy and too depressed and too risk-averse, and you don’t drive enough on long trips. Your life shatters in one white-hot second, and your best friend is now calling the bill due and letting you know that it is time to pay, that he is tired of how poorly you measure up. He is going public with what was previously an unspoken collusion – that he is the good one and you are the difficult one. And all that must be true, because he is the nicest man in the world.
Are you happy now? You have ruined everything. Your little boy now comes from a broken home just like you did, and you are achingly and terribly alone. Worse, you are certain that your friends will all know exactly who is to blame, and none of them will be surprised that he has finally had enough. You are in terrible, terrible pain, and it is all your fault.
You have been erased, summarily ejected from your own life. You feel like an infant who has been left to die in a snowstorm, and you deserve it.
That is your hypothetical. What do you do with that?
If you are lucky, like I was, you will spend twelve beautiful, terrible months slowly unraveling the truth. That truth — about who you are, about your life, about your deeply human husband, your marriage, and your own past – will radically reconnect you to yourself. You are still alive, and living a lucky paradox: the worst thing ever to happen to you will also be the best. You will watch as the wires that have bound you for so long bust open, one by one. It will leave you with a series of scars, but they’ll operate as a kind of psychic GPS unit. You will never again lose your self.
It’s a fair trade.