Remember that film, The Truman Show? Once he figures out that his entire life has been a lie, Truman escapes his virtual prison through a stage door, disappearing into an uncertain future.
As viewers, of course, we know that happiness — or at least the chance for true love — waits for him outside the dome.
But imagine Truman, having just survived the storm of his life. He is about to put his hand on the doorknob.
“Door Knob,” detsang
How do you summon the courage to give up everything you know in order to step into the Great Unknown?
It was something I could scarcely imagine. Not only did I remain married even though I was unhappy; I retreated into a fantasy world that caused me pain as well. For 15 years, I voluntarily surrendered my autonomy and remained hidden from the world.
My ex’s status-seeking friends looked down on me because I didn’t work.
I severed ties with my old friends because I felt ashamed.
I had given up academia. I wasn’t writing a screenplay or a novel. I wasn’t doing any meaningful volunteer work. I was sunk in a depression so slow and gradual that I didn’t even feel depressed.
I woke up in the morning. I tried to write. I searched through hundreds of items on Craigslist to find the perfect chair, or light fixture, or table, we needed for the house. I went to the gym.
Meanwhile, our daughter was in daycare for six hours every day. I could not handle the job of being a full-time parent, and I felt monstrous guilt over this. Adopted from an institution where she suffered from neglect, Charlotte was a draining child, anxious and demanding. I could not even use the bathroom without causing her distress. She had a laser focus on my state of mind, knowing the exact moment my attention flagged.
Mommy, mommy. Look at me.
My ex, let’s call him Larry, travelled two or three times a month for work. Sometimes he was gone for weeks. I remember one rainy Easter in particular. A crew of workmen had demolished the back of our house and exposed the raw end to the elements. Insensibly, we remained living there while the work went on. Our only toilet was the portable outhouse in the front yard. Construction workers driving through the neighborhood idled their trucks out front while they used our bathroom, and the reek of chemicals and shit grew palpable whenever the company forgot to come and clean it out.
A few days before Easter, the temperatures suddenly dipped down into the 40s, normal for many parts of the country but unseasonably cold for central Texas. There was no shower or bath tub, and the plumber had disconnected the hot water for a few days so he could install new pipes.
Charlotte and I dyed Easter eggs.
These are supposed to be joyful times. I’m not talking about the holidays per se. I’m talking about the connection with one’s child, watching her achieve milestones.
I felt no joy, just a sense of obligation and dread of screwing up. I was worried about the next construction phase, the next vacation out of town, the next form for school that needed to be filled out.
I felt as empty as this:
“Parking Garage Yellow,” Ed Sweeney
I have a tough exterior, so no one around here — certainly none of our mutual friends — knew what I was feeling. Perhaps they thought that I had better things to do than talk to them. I did try to communicate with Larry. There was no response. I know that sounds hard to believe, but it’s true. The more emotional and distraught I was, the colder and less present he became.
Some people have good boundaries and know what they are entitled to. They don’t allow themselves to be disrespected and dismissed. Instead, they do the things they have to do to move ahead in life. They take care of themselves. I know that is the case because I am slowly becoming a person like that myself.
At the time, I was simply grateful to Larry for putting up with me — so grateful that I never thought he needed to take me seriously.
This was my marriage.
In the beginning, there were fun times. There was a sense of being better than other people, more adventurous, more authentic, more passionate and in love.
There was also anxiety and a vague sense of unease. There was a feeling that I had balled things up and shoved them in the back of a closet somewhere.
I avoided looking at those things, but they stuck around. One by one, I’m dusting them off and taking a closer look.
Cover image is cropped from an original photo, “Doorway,” by Scott Wylie.