May 9, 2020

I expected many things when I left my marriage—I didn’t expect Joy.


“I feel so happy, I can barely breathe, like my heart could come out of my chest.”

These are the words that begin my journal entry five days after my marriage imploded

“You have a glow about you. I’m seeing a different side of you.” These are the words I’m hearing from people in the aftermath of deciding to walk away. 

None of these words, however, fit our expectations of someone standing at the beginning of their divorce process. We expect sorrow, heaviness, numbness, tightness, anger, quietness, any of these.

We do not expect joy

But even I can’t deny, when I look at my face in the posts I’m sharing on social media these days and read the words coming out, glow is precisely what I see. And when I wake up in the morning, happiness is precisely what I feel. 

A friend on Instagram said that she could tell in our messages to each other, that there was an unspoken sadness in my story. She had no idea it was my marriage. 

One of my best friends sat in stunned sorrow as I finally filled in the gaps of what I’d left unspoken about marriage in our years of friendship. I always felt I needed to give a carefully curated version of my circumstances. After listening to me share, “I had no idea” was all she could say for a while, with tears in her eyes. 

“I wasn’t trying to be fake,” I told these friends. “I just couldn’t open up about the details of my story.” It was too painful and I needed people to rally around my decision to stay in my marriage. I always felt if they knew how it really was, they’d press me to leave. I couldn’t bear the thought of this, so I sparingly doled out the facts of my reality

I shared with another of my closest friends, “I guess people are seeing a side of me that has been muted all these years.” I felt I had tried my hardest to be as real and open as I could about my grief without going into details about its source. It seemed, in retrospect, I had been wearing a mask.

She replied, “I don’t think people are getting a different Amber; I think they’re getting more of Amber.” 

Her words settled into my heart. More of me. I could almost physically feel this expansion of self and it made me want to weep for all the years of less, but also, all the joy I could no longer contain. 

I hadn’t realized until this very moment in my life how much the heaviness of the last eight years had pooled in my eyes, colored my words, blunted my joy for life. When I expressed joy, it was always in tandem with sadness. My survival skills taught me this, and I will always hold a tender appreciation for the ways I dug deep into grief to excavate beauty during these years of marriage. 

It was also around day five, after telling my husband I’m done, that I found myself spontaneously dancing around the house with a goofy grin and tears in my eyes—not of sorrow, but of the deepest well of gratitude and awe. 

I’m so happy to be alive, I realized. It also felt so foreign. 

I couldn’t remember feeling this in maybe a decade. There were at least a half dozen times during the past eight years when I acutely wanted, and even sought, to end my life. I felt invisible, inconsequential, and weary to my bones of the effort it took to survive. The pain was excruciating and seemingly endless, and I didn’t see any possible way out of the circumstances that created this agony. I had no self-generated will to continue living like this. The only things that pulled me through were my two sugar gliders babies, because I knew they would suffer, and my commitment to caring for the earth. 

I determined that if I could not be happy to be alive, I could at least be purposeful. If I could not experience being deeply loved, I could love deeply. This was the more important of the two, I told myself. Happiness was overrated, fleeting, and superficial—and love apparently wasn’t in the cards for me. But a purposeful love never fails. 

Living a steadfast life generated its own joy and happiness to be certain. There was nothing contrived about the joy I experienced, even in sorrow, fishing trash out of the creek or planting trees for habitat restoration projects or showing up with my voice for a climate strike or even writing about the grief that accompanies a deep love of the earth. The joy of watching the birds at our feeders on the balcony, the ducks in the pond down the street, the squirrels at the park, that was real. My love affair with the land around me—the fields, the forests, the mountains, the creek, the wetlands—that was real. 

The only thing is, behind this beautiful sense of purpose and the love fueling it lay a story of ongoing heartbreak I couldn’t openly share.

My leaving has been a breaking of silence. A removal of the mask. A stripping down, once again, to my me-ness. 

Every now and then since I’ve moved out, grief will tap me on the shoulder and we’ll sit and cry together, sometimes rocking back and forth in the waves of memory.

But what I’m seeing clearer each day, is the extent of grieving I’ve already done these past eight years. Instead of it all hitting me now, the remaining work seems to be tying up these loose ends. It’s like my heart has had a vacancy for many years, and as soon as I switched on the light and opened the door, joy breezed in with all her belongings and made her home here. Grief sits quietly off to the side, grateful for a break from being the center of attention, and we all hang out together.

And this is how it goes, for now. 

There is no script, no expectation, no image to uphold. If there is judgment, I will let it whisper between others outside, but it is not welcome here. 

I am settling into a more spacious home.


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