Thursday, November 8, 2012

60 & Single Five Years On: The emotional side of it

Five years ago, my world of marriage, job, family and friends fell into a black pit. I tipped over the edge and didn’t hit bottom for a long time as my husband left, my best friend died and I found myself on my own, worried, angry, and grieving. It all happened the year after I celebrated my 60th birthday.
Until then, my relationships had been reliable and nearly unchanged for a long time. I’d worked at the newspaper more than 20 years. The marriage was going on 18 years. Friends and family were a constant. I was comfortable, proud of the accomplishments in my life and confident of the future. That was then.
I write today -- five years from becoming abruptly 60 and single -- with a message of encouragement for those who are just beginning the journey out of loss and pain to renewal.
Waking up alone after years of companionship and the security of marriage is difficult. Wrestling with money issues, with work, with stress and exhaustion, with retirement planning and with the need to build a new life with new relationships can be overwhelming. During that first year, I developed squirrel brain that often had me up late at night watching absurd comedies rented from Netflix or searching out some factoid on the Internet to put in a news story. Five years ago this month I began divorce proceedings against my husband who had moved out and into a new relationship. Five years ago this month I attended the funeral of my best friend from the second grade who had died of stomach cancer. The losses seemed overwhelming, almost laughable. How could this be happening?
My husband and I had what I thought was a great life. My friend Sandra and I were only a month apart in age, knew each other’s secrets, and knew each other’s families. There was no way to replace either that marriage or her friendship.
Recovering from a traffic accident
During that first year of being 60 and on my own, I described myself to others as feeling like I’d been in a horrific traffic accident, still lying bleeding on the asphalt.  I drew heavily on the skills of a good therapist who helped me through the initial grief and (figuratively speaking) scraped me up and off the road and into a moving ambulance. My dreams were crowded, disturbing. Headless people, lots of yelling and screaming.
I leaned on friends who listened to me talk, cry and rage, then let me do it all over again. That first year of being alone, I covered my kitchen refrigerator with quotes from famous people written on sticky notes. Cards from friends, photos of my children and messages went up from myself to myself. This silent frenzy of over-lapping comment spread up and down the stainless steel.
“It’s never too late -- in fiction or in life -- to revise” – Nancy Thayer.
“As in the physical world, so in the spiritual world, pain does not last forever” – Katherine Mansfield.
 “Tapping” exercises linked to acupuncture sites on my face became a morning routine. I chanted repetitive phrases meant to free me from the sadness, from embarrassment, shame and the anger in my life. That first New Year’s Eve, I toasted the coming year outdoors with a shot of tequila and a Tiparillo while the dog and I enjoyed the warmth of burning kindling in the fire pit. Had I ever been alone on New Year’s Eve? I couldn’t remember that I had.
Sometimes that first year, it was too hard to go home to a dark empty house so a friend gave me the key to her unused but furnished rental. I’d go there after work, heat up a microwave dinner, wrap myself in a comforter and try to sleep on her living room couch with the TV on all night. I was miserable. I worked hard to breathe. I pondered sunsets and talked to God as winter turned into spring and summer. I went on walks with my dog.
I’m sharing all this as a five-year marker for those who are new to the journey from loss to recovery. This is for those women who just now are sorting out their finances, working hard to build new relationships and adjusting to 60 and single. Others in my circle have been on this journey.
- A friend was left three years ago with a financial mess of unpaid debt after her husband died of cancer. Despite running her own successful business, she spent nearly a year convinced that she would lose her house. After repeated conversations with her bank, untold amounts of paper work, she refinanced, got her business back up and running and just lately started dating.
- Another friend was left to run her husband's online business after he died from a lingering cancer. He’d never gotten around to facing his approaching death or bringing her up to speed on how to manage. It took awhile but now she has things under control and she looks 10 years younger.
Early on I really hated it when friends would tell me that it was just going to take time for my broken heart to heal. That didn’t help with the here-and-now pain I was enduring or the obsessive monkey-brain whirling that was constant white noise at the back of my mind. Why had this happened? Why did I have to suffer like this? How could I have been such a fool to not see this coming?
Abandonment is a tough one. I recommend reading up on it. I found Susan Anderson’s book, “The Journey from Abandonment to Healing.” For awhile I took an anti-depressant to soften the worst of the grief. I read books on inventing the rest of your life. I read daily quotes from "Each Day a New Beginning" by Karen Casey. I began reporting and writing about women, money and retirement planning because I found out that many of us do a lousy job of it. I hosted 60 & Single workshops.
I got up every morning and went to work as a life-saving routine that kept my mind in the moment rather than obsessively reliving what had happened. I got a good divorce attorney who walked me through dividing an estate and getting on with things.
The Yin and Yang of Year Two
That was only the first year. Everything keeps changing. Life after 60 is a yin and yang thing with something new around every corner, good and bad. More friends have died. There were set-backs with the economy, with my 401(k) investments. Some friendships have faded as friends retired and moved or became more centered on their kids and grandkids.
After a couple of years, I started up a new relationship with a delightful man who shares my love of the outdoors…skiing, rafting, and fishing. Friends who knew both of us were the matchmakers.
My mother (then 95) fell and broke her hip, made it through the surgery and into convalescent care and then into assisted living. All that while dealing with my bi-polar sister who wanted to be my mother’s guardian. After two years of wrangling and massive legal fees (mostly paid for by my mother’s estate) that issue seems to have resolved. My mother now is settled and relatively happy in assisted living playing bingo, lunching with friends and watching TV football. At about the same time, my older son, who also is bi-polar, suffered through his worst-ever manic episode that contributed to the end of his marriage. My only grandchild experienced the trauma first-hand. But again after two years of struggle that situation also seems to have settled into a new normal.
It was about that time that I decided to quit my full-time job at the newspaper and launch a new career in semi-retirement as a freelance journalist. And after two years of getting to know each other, my boyfriend and I married in front of friends and family at my house in the woods.
In May (2012), we flew to Peru and hiked the Inca Trail. I came back to run for public office, but lost the race -- an enriching (if not demanding) experience.
In the 'depth of winter'
The first year that I was alone, a good friend shared a quote with me from the 20th Century French writer and philosopher Albert Camus. His was among the first to find a home on my refrigerator door - “In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.”
I meet women every day who are finding their own invincible summer as I did.
- Julia

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