An excerpt form Leveraging Your Broken Heart to Become a Force of Love & Change in the World by Allison Fallon
Nobody gets married thinking they’ll get divorced. But what do you do when it seems the only way to hold onto yourself is to let go of your marriage? This is a small excerpt from my story about making the most impossible decision a person can ever make: should I stay or should I go?
I met a woman several years ago who went to jail for murdering her boyfriend. I was volunteering for an organization at the time, working with women who had come out of addiction and prostitution. We had a task we were doing together, so our hands were busy. We both looked down as she told me what had happened.
She told me how, night after night, he had handcuffed her to the bed, beating her with one of those fire pokers. “What were they called?” she asked. Neither of us could remember the name. One night he held a gun to her head, and another night he broke a beer bottle and shoved the broken end into her wrist. She showed me the scars.
Then she told me, one time, he’d left the gun within arm’s reach and she was high and tired of being his punching bag, so she just reached for that gun and pulled the trigger. I looked up from what we were doing and looked at her.
“You think I’m a terrible person, don’t you?” she asked.
“I don’t,” I said.
I actually found her quite remarkable. In fact, I thought I probably would have done the same thing under the same circumstances. I surprised myself a little with that thought, but it was true. Because you can cage a woman for a while. Her body at least. But there is only so long her soul will let her stay there. Alcohol helps. Drugs help. Any kind of numbing helps.
But eventually the soul comes rising up like a fury, like a flood, and no matter what the circumstances are trying to stop her, her soul does not care. Souls are like that. Their job is to save us. They are unstoppable. Indestructible. Like fire.
When the Only Way to Hold Onto Yourself is to Let Go of Your Marriage
It was December now and starting to get bitterly cold in Nashville. I sat in the waiting room of my therapist’s office, wrapped in my warmest coat and tap tap tapping my foot to the beat of the elevator music. The colder it got, the worse my shoulder and right arm throbbed. It’s amazing how much time I spent ignoring this pain, how much time we spend ignoring pain because we aren’t sure what to do about it. I took my left hand and gripped tightly around my shoulder, to see if I could get the aching to subside for just a minute.
At one point, JD reached over and put his hand on my leg, his way of asking me to stop tapping my foot.
It had been a few weeks since episode three, and we weren’t living in the same house anymore.
The first thing I did when he left was strip both beds in our house of all the bedding. I did it in a fury. Faster and more passionately than I had done anything in our entire marriage. I ripped the sheets and blankets and pillows and mattress pads from the beds—everything short of the mattresses themselves—and the only reason I didn’t take those was I figured they were too heavy for me to carry. Then I grabbed all of it in three armloads and lugged it down to the dumpster in the back alley by our house.
With stoic resolve, I drove to the closest West Elm and picked out brand new sheets. I picked the ones with the highest thread count I could find, found the softest blankets they had in stock, and chose colorful pillows to match the exact comforter I wanted, which was also the most expensive. I took all of those beautiful, soft, sturdy things to the cash register and set them down on the counter.
Without hesitation, I handed the woman my credit card.
The second thing I did was spend an afternoon canceling our fourth-anniversary plans, which included first-class tickets to Cancun, Mexico. I canceled the appointment at the fertility clinic in Nashville, which I had booked months earlier. It was a giant unwinding, an unraveling—an undoing of everything.
I went to Thanksgiving at my friends’ Katie and Tim’s house. Katie’s parents were there and a few other friends. Nobody asked about JD, either because Katie had prepped them, or because the look on my face said enough. They knew everything they needed to know.
It felt like I was dreaming, like my life was happening on a movie screen, and I was watching it happen to someone else. Not to myself.
I baked banana bread to bring to the Thanksgiving meal and made a sweet potato hash from scratch. That’s what I would have done if JD had been with me. So I went through the motions. Then I sat at the table feeling as if someone had scooped me out.
I put my hands on my body the way Sarah coached us to do. I felt relieved and sad. Peaceful and furious. Resolved and undecided. Nobody ever told me you could feel two opposite things at the same time like that.
Every night I would lay awake in my bed—by myself, alone with my thoughts—only to realize the terrible way I felt about myself when I was with JD didn’t leave the house with him. In fact, the most hurtful things he had said to me while we were together weren’t half as bad as the hurtful things I was saying to myself as I lie there, alone.
How could anyone ever love you?
You are such a joke.
You are nothing without him.
In those dark, echoey, middle-of-the-night hours, I would lay there in my new beautiful sheets and think about how hard I had tried to do this right and how I had still messed it up.
How was it possible for someone to try so hard and to get it so wrong?
I would cry with no tears those days. My body would go through the motions, my chest doing the heaving thing—up and down, up and down—but no tears would come. It was almost like I’d forgotten how to cry along the way. There was something surging under the surface, but I didn’t know how to get to it.
When I sent an email to our therapist asking if she could meet with us, I was as vague as possible. I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, I told her, but needed help deciding.
I still didn’t know what I wanted to do?
That’s how I wrote it at the time. It’s crazy to look back and think about how much time I spent pretending I didn’t know what to do when the truth was I just wasn’t sure I had the strength to do it.
Back in the waiting room, I was not tapping my foot anymore and my shoulder was still throbbing and there was the sound of a doorknob turning. Angela appeared.
“You two ready?”
We did not answer, but we both got up from our seats and followed her in.
You’ll know when it’s time to let go of your marriage.
“What would you like to do, Ally?”
Angela was asking. JD had been telling her all about what had happened, what I had found, and what had unfolded since. She’d asked JD what he wanted to do, and he said he wanted to fight for our marriage no matter what. He told Angela he was willing to do anything he needed to do to make it work. He had the most sincere look on his face as he said it.
But can I be really honest? I didn’t believe him. Maybe he was telling the truth. But I didn’t believe him. There was this terrible heat rising in my chest. I turned to JD.
“Do you remember the drive back from Atlanta?”
This wasn’t like me, by the way, to bring something up like this to JD. Episode two. I knew he would know exactly what I was talking about.
It was six weeks after episode one, the still-fuzzy incident that had taken place at the conference in San Antonio. We took a trip to Atlanta for the weekend, for a friend’s wedding. In fact, we decided to make a mini-vacation out of it. We rented a nice hotel room, and I packed lingerie and hid a pregnancy test in my purse because my period was now late and I was certain I was pregnant. As we drove, I smiled. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been this happy.
The wedding was beautiful. It was fall in the south, and the weather was warm, and I danced with my shoes off. It was the smallest taste of freedom, the smallest taste of me that I had been missing for so long.
The next morning, I snuck into the bathroom and took the pregnancy test I’d brought. But when I heard the urine hit the water below, I looked down. The water was turning red.
My breath quickened. This couldn’t be happening. I felt myself start to shake, slowly at first and then a little more, until I was crying—quietly so that I wouldn’t wake JD. Shaking and crying in the bathroom by myself. Short of breath, I lowered myself to the floor and put my forehead against the cold tile. For twenty minutes I laid there, barely getting sips of air, trying to figure out what I should do next.
It wasn’t the baby. Even then, in my grief, I knew it wasn’t the baby. My house wasn’t safe for a baby. My house wasn’t even safe for me. And I think it was that realization that sent me to the bathroom floor that morning. The realization that no matter how hard I tried to muscle this dream into place, I wasn’t going to be able to do it.
Maybe I would never be happy. Maybe I would never get what I wanted.
When I finally lifted myself to the shower, I turned the water extra hot. I let it run all over me. I let steam fill the whole bathroom.
We drove the first 30 minutes back to Nashville in silence. JD could tell something was wrong. But when he asked me about it, I told him I was fine. I kept staring out the window. I didn’t want to tell him. I didn’t think there was any possible way he could understand. I hardly understood myself.
Besides, I already knew what he was going to say. He would say that it was fine and I was blowing things out of proportion, as always, and that there was no reason for me to be upset.
But he pressed. He wanted to know. And the more he asked, the more I felt like maybe I should give him a chance. Maybe I was right that everything was different now. Maybe episode one had really changed him. Tentatively, tenderly, I told him about thinking there was a baby and taking the test and being sad and not knowing what to do with myself.
Sure enough, his response was what I expected. Now was not a good time for us to have a baby anyway, he assured me. We needed to plan for longer. We should probably go back to using protection.
I tried to hold it back. I really did. But there’s only so long you can hold back a river of grief and pain and the lies that are holding things together. I could not control it any longer.
I started sobbing.
He reached his hand across the car, but the thought of him touching me then felt terrible. Perfectly awful. I could not let him. So I pulled away. This infuriated him, which made me cry even harder. Through the shaking and sobbing, I looked at him and said the thing they tell you is always the wrong thing to say in any relationship, unless of course you really mean it. I was so tired of hiding.
“I can’t do this anymore, JD,” I said. When I said it, I also slipped the wedding ring off of my finger and dropped it in the cup holder beside me. Clink.
That’s when it happened—episode two.
He took the bottle of red Gatorade in his hand and, with one surprising motion, flung the contents in my direction. Gatorade went in my face and all over the window of the car, the seat, the center console, the dashboard, on my shirt, in my bra, on my jeans. In my hair. It even stained my underwear, which I would find, hours later, when I went to the bathroom. I dripped with Gatorade and mascara and shook in the front seat of the car.
I wanted out. Out of the car. Out of this life. But how does someone get herself out of the life she has gotten herself into? How do you find your way out when you don’t know how you even found your way in?
Angela cleared her throat again, bringing me back into the present moment.
“Ally, what would you like to do?”
I held my right hand to my stomach and my left hand to my heart. I wanted to answer. I did. But when Angela asked that question, one last memory played in my mind. One last time when I had lost my breath.
It was early December, a few weeks before our wedding. We were getting married on New Year’s Eve and the plan was to get married at 8 p.m., celebrate until midnight, do the countdown with everyone, and then be off on our honeymoon.
One day in early December, JD pulled me aside. “Three hours is a long time for a reception. What if we leave at 11:00 p.m, and celebrate the new year on our own?” He gave me that look—the look a man gives his soon-to-be-wife about their wedding night.
So I agreed.
We announced the switch to my family, but they were confused. Hadn’t I said I was excited about celebrating the new year with everyone? Besides, the invites had already been sent out and people were expecting to stay until midnight. My sister wondered out loud what people would do if we ended the wedding at 11:00 p.m. on New Year’s Eve.
“The party can go on without us,” JD told her.
“Have you ever known a wedding party to go on without the bride and groom?”
That concern made sense to me, but the fact that I thought so frustrated JD, who insisted I told him I wanted to leave the reception at 11 p.m. Had I said that? I couldn’t remember. When you get all wrapped up in trying to make everyone else happy, you forget what you did or didn’t say. What did I want? And why was it everyone else seemed to know what I wanted when I didn’t even know myself?
Then one day, weeks before the wedding, we were all in the living room. My family was in a semi-circle on one side of me. JD was on the other. Everybody was arguing—almost like I wasn’t even there—about what we should do about the leaving time. I felt like I was in a fog, in a dream watching all of them. Listening to all of them.
All of a sudden, everyone stopped. All attention turned to me. The audience waited. The tension was thick, wrapped so tightly around me I could hardly breathe.
“What do you want to do, Ally?”
What did I want to do? What did I want to do? I didn’t know. I felt empty, actually. Blank. Wide-eyed, I stood there. What did I want to do? What was the right thing to do?
I couldn’t decide. So JD put his foot down. Discussion over. We were leaving at 11 p.m.
The memory faded, and I felt JD’s hand come across the couch and touch my leg.
“What do you want to do, Ally?”
I shook my head. I pushed JD’s hand away. I felt like such a jerk for doing that since he had that soft look on his face again. But for the first time in a long time, I didn’t care. I looked at JD, and back at Angela. I was ready. It was time.
“I want a divorce,” I said.
I wondered how long it had been since I’d heard myself tell the truth.
Allison Fallon is a speaker, coach and author of 10 books including her memoir Packing Light: Thoughts on Living Life with Less Baggage. Over the past 10 years, she has not only written prolifically, but has coached hundreds of authors to complete their creative projects through her in-person writing workshops, online courses and one-on-one support. She’s been featured on Huffington Post, RELEVANT magazine and Donald Miller’s Storyline blog. Allison lives in Nashville, Tennessee.