A few times in my life I’ve had a pit in my stomach; a feeling that things were about to change in ways I couldn’t dream of, with experiences I couldn’t fathom. When Tom left Nha Trang, Vietnam last May after we celebrated our nineteenth wedding anniversary, I had this kind of feeling.
No, it wasn’t just my traveler’s belly, though that was part of it. I was indeed very sick. But I CRIED tears of heart-sickness and dread when he left. He doesn’t know this, but I had a suspicion that my (and our) life was about to change. A lot. And I was terrified.
I traipsed around Vietnam a little longer than I needed to, basically sight-seeing and killing time until my first teacher training gig in Bintan, Indonesia. Traveling solo has become comfortable to me in the prior two years, and Vietnam was feeling familiar: safe, but still fun and boundary-stretching.
When I got to Indonesia something happened inside of me. For one thing, I couldn’t believe I was there, volunteering to do what I loved, with a receptive, dynamic group of young teachers who hung on every word and theory I threw their way. But there was something about Indonesian hospitality that FLOORED me. Bintan is a sleepy little town. The locals often said, “hello” to me, which didn’t mean “what can I sell you?” This was a new thing – after being a tourist for months in the summer of 2010 and again in May and half of June, 2011, I was, by contrast, almost an honorary community member in Bintan – the only bule (Indonesian word for tourist) not staying at the DoubleTree or ClubMed. And I was doing something for the community.
Tana Toraja also blew my mind. My hostess there, Merda, showed me so many different parts of her community; explained to me so many things that I’d need to know about Indonesian culture, customs, people, etc. And her sense of humor kept me laughing for hours of long, winding car rides through the lovely hills of Sulawesi. Training ninety teachers was more of a challenge than I imagined I’d experience there, but it was – thankfully – a success.
In Bintan and Toraja I asked my new friends where to travel in Indonesia. I was going to stay until early August which gave me a month of time to see other parts of the country. I wanted to go to Bali, but I didn’t think I’d like it very much. Lombok looked appealing; Sumatra and Lake Toba were on my radar; the Kimodo dragons and Flores were in the tentative plan as well. But I didn’t have a plan for more than a week after arriving in Bali. Time and time again, when I said I only wanted to stay in Bali for a week, people said that they thought I would love it there and want to stay longer. Heh!
Bali – specifically Kuta – and the friendly people I met there; the Hindu religion; the Balinese culture; the raunchy tourist scene – it all just kind of took me away from reality. Going back to the US became less and less of a priority, and I extended my stay. I left Bali for some short trips to the Gili Islands, Nusa Lembongan, and Jogjakarta, but for the most part I hung out with a group of new very close friends – Indonesian and international – that I met right on the beach in Kuta.
The first time I left Bali was one of the saddest days of my life. I remembered feeling like this in 2005 when I left Costa Rica after a five-week trip that had first awakened my thirst for solo travel. I felt like I was leaving a HUGE part of myself behind – I had so much unfinished “business” there. I was SICK with grief.
I came home and within a week was on a plane back to Bali. I’ve written about this in my blog already.
All of this leads up to the question, “What about Tom?” It’s a good question, and it’s the relevant one here. I’m sure many of you have wondered about this and been too polite (or scared?!?) to ask.
Before I start the difficult part of this story, I have to preface by saying that the twenty years of marriage Tom and I now celebrate have been full of incredibly happy times – a half-lifetime of amazing adventures that will always be bright spots in my mental scrapbook.
We have lived in some incredible places; made scores of caring friends; traveled to many corners of the earth; and laughed and cried together at life’s absurdities and tragedies. We shared two amazing dogs
and a crazy cat.
Together, in Eldorado Canyon, we learned to rock climb. We learned how to snowboard together at Winter Park, eventually making careers out of the sport.
We made good and bad financial decisions together; we had countless fun nights “out on the town” in cities around the US and the world; and we celebrated many birthdays and anniversaries together.
But what most people don’t know is that Tom and I struggled in our relationship for a long time. In a way we were taught our whole lives, we kept that struggle, for the most part, private – our closest friends had some idea of what was going on, but for the most part friends and family were in the dark.
We tried marriage counseling in 2000 (twelve years ago!!!) in Summit County. I will tell you honestly that that “counselor” did more damage to my psyche in a few short meetings than I could have possibly imagined. She “sided” with Tom, citing my “depression” as “reason” for most of our problems. I think Tom was as surprised by this as I was; it definitely impeded our progress.
After one particularly difficult session with her our marriage counseling was over. I vowed never to do it again, and I stubbornly kept my word.
We maintained peace in our relationship, self-medicating with alcohol and basically disconnecting from one another. During this time I also received treatment for depression, anxiety, and ADD from a brilliant psychiatrist whom I would later travel nearly 100 miles from Denver to see.
Meanwhile, Tom and I basically led separate lives when I got a job at a college in Denver and he remained in Summit County. I came home on the weekends and we spent time together as “friends.” We laughed together; we could hang out and enjoy each other’s company for hours; we have almost identical outlooks on politics, values, and just about any other polarity issue a couple could debate. But the “spark” that we both needed had left our relationship years prior and we knew it. We both lived in a kind of personal sad space about this fact for a LONG time.
We attempted to fill those sad spaces with moves; travel; hockey games and other spectator sports; and more travel. We did things together; we did things apart. We plodded through a couple of marriage “self-help” books together. We both grew, but definitely NOT together. We had some amazing times together, and we had some horrible times together. Thankfully the horrible times were few, and most of them were behind closed doors. When we pushed each other as far as we knew the other would go it got ugly.
In a way, I think I hoped Tom would leave me – that my behavior would be so incomprehensibly terrible that he would just walk out one day and our marriage would be “over.” Though I can’t say I ever really behaved in such a way that he – honorable man who he is – would ever leave in this way, I certainly tested him. And he tested me…
When I started traveling alone for longer periods of time in summer of 2010, I spread my wings in a way I hadn’t in years. It felt GREAT to push my personal boundaries through solo travel. I found reserves of energy, power, and strength I’d forgotten. On my own.
I came back to Colorado for one more winter, working at Beaver Creek with reckless abandon in order to save up for more Asian adventures the following summer. Tom and I co-existed peacefully – even got along. It was a good winter…
When I fell in love with Indonesia and its people, I realized that while I LOVE Tom with all my heart and soul and always will, I have to love MYSELF more. The thing missing from “us” hasn’t been “us” at all – it’s been “me.”
Throughout my life I’ve looked to outward sources for gratification, love, affection, and even for how I should feel about myself. Any “normal” adolescent or young adult learns that this outward gratification is not what we truly need to grow and self-actualize.
But I kind of lost myself during this time. I was definitely lost in my career; I was lost in depression and anxiety; and I drifted through my life, more as a spectator than “actor.”
When I returned to Denver last fall – first for a week, then for six weeks, Tom and I had many, many conversations about our relationship. He shared with me that a counselor he’d seen a few summers ago told him that, in her opinion, if he left me that I would kill myself. (Can you see how counselors have consistently fucked with our minds?) This was at the same time I was basically daring him to leave me. He (and I, deep inside) knew that we needed to separate then, but his fear of my self-destruction and my fear of being alone prevented us from acting on this need.
Meanwhile, we were, in a very different way, subconsciously acting on this need by emotionally detaching even more, and creating long physical separations through solo travel. Admittedly, my solo travel was more extensive, but Tom did plenty on his own – and certainly didn’t mind so much when I was gone. As we grew within ourselves through these separations, we grew more and more apart. What had been a double-track path in the same direction now became a true fork in the road, each of us choosing to travel in our own separate direction.
Finally, last fall we made the IMPOSSIBLE decision to free each other by “officially” separating.
Shortly after this huge life change I plunged into the deepest depression I’d felt in YEARS. It was a dark time for me. While, again, I needed to keep it together on the surface to finish a job I’d taken on and to get ready to “move” to Bali, I was gutted inside. I know Tom was as well, though he seemed to take it better than I did. And I was the one who had chosen to move!
Maybe I chose to move 8000 miles from Denver in an attempt to run away from my life and the realities I find painful. I have definitely had to do less “facing reality” (i.e. questions about our relationship from colleagues, friends, and family) than Tom has in the last six months. I am proud of him for so many reasons – but mostly for the integrity, strength and courage he has shown in this situation.
But what I’ve realized in my time away is that our painful realities travel right there with us. They’re like ticks – hitchhikers that suck our blood and hang on, feeding on our souls until we burn them off.
While I’ve definitely grown on my own here in Bali, my demons continue to haunt me. I’m also struggling to listen to my inner voice which is remarkably correct 99% of the time, but which I question CONSTANTLY with negative self-talk and criticism. I’m learning how to tell that voice to simmer the hell down, and killing those demons with joy. I’m finally starting to find the inner peace I’ve sought.
I have craved the catharsis of “coming clean” about a “hidden” part of this story for a long time. It’s my hope that by sharing more with those of you who have cared about me and my escapades enough to read along and wonder will find an interesting new dimension to my adventure.
Of course, there is a lot more to this story than I’ve explained here. For now this is what’s important to share.
Do I miss Tom? Of course. I miss the familiarity of having a best friend by my side every day. I miss the ease and comfort of hanging out with the only person who has ever really understood me – and loved me anyways:) I miss his humor; his calmness; his organizational skills; I even miss the things about him that used to drive me crazy.
But we know that being together right now is not the best thing for either one of us.
This story has always been about bravely exploring the word – finding my life’s true purpose and meaning while making a positive dent SOMEWHERE. But it’s really been – and will continue to be – about bravely confronting and re-connecting with my heart and soul.
To Tom: I love you and I always will. You’re my rock. Thank you for being in my life for the last 22 years; and thank you for letting me go, and for having the courage to free yourself. I look forward to growing old together as the best of friends – still sharing life’s challenges and joys as we always have. You are an incredible person who I feel lucky and blessed to know and love. xo -Heather