February 17th, 2011 was a Thursday… three days after Valentine’s Day and four days after the one year anniversary of the death of a baby I loved. I was 23 years old and living in a mostly empty apartment, after drunkenly throwing out, quite literally, everything I owned, save for my clothes, my bed, an 80s dining chair, and my TV and television armoire, on Christmas Eve. I had no real furniture, no dishes, and no kitchen appliances that didn’t come with my apartment, because he’d touched those things. Life was bleak, as I drove to the county seat, where I sat alone in a judge’s office, tearing up because my life wasn’t supposed to be this way.
At 23, in the South, I was bombarded with social media posts of engagement rings and wedding portraits and announcements of new jobs and new homes. I was even beginning to see a regular flow of ultrasound pictures and self-righteous mommy wars posts… and here I was, listening to a surprisingly compassionate judge explain my state’s laws for remarriage after divorce and thinking about all of the plans I’d had for my life, five years earlier, and how this so very much was not one of them. I was utterly humiliated and completely defeated.
I’d filed the paperwork for my divorce almost three months earlier, but had waited to finalize them until my taxes and FASFA were submitted. I was hyperaware that I’d screwed my life up plenty and, as a graduate student who has always excelled at delayed gratification, wasn’t about to put my educational financing in jeopardy, even if it meant remaining legally married to a psychopath for a little while longer. I hadn’t seen my ex since the day I both bribed him with a cellphone and threatened to call in his warrants, just to get him to sign my car over to me and sign the divorce papers. I was aware that he’d been breaking into my apartment, during the 60 hours I worked each week on top of school, to steal anything of value… but didn’t have the energy to care much or do anything about it, other than drive around with my valuables in the trunk. I’d spent close to my last dime having a paralegal draft the paperwork, to make sure it was done correctly, and was focusing every ounce of energy on keeping my head above water and scraping together the funds to finish the process. That was easier said than done, as I handed over what little cash I had in exchange for as many certified copies of the divorce papers as I could afford.
I left the courthouse and went straight to the Social Security Office, where I officially reclaimed my maiden name on my card and followed it up with a trip to the tag agency, where I did the same with my driver’s license, before stopping by the bank. With no time or money to eat, I barely made it to Walgreen’s to get a new passport photo and requested a name change on that, too. If I recall, it took the last of my budgeted divorce money and cost me $110. Every other 23-year-old I knew had Spring Break travel savings and here I was draining my divorce fund. I went home, defeated and heartbroken, and changed into pajama bottoms and an old high school team t-shirt… yes, I remember what I was wearing that day… and instead of having a good cry, I went to work. I’d already taken off from substitute teaching to run those weekday only errands. I couldn’t afford to lose a day’s worth of minimum wage earnings from my job cleaning rec equipment at the Community Center with my hard-earned bachelor’s degree in family and consumer science education. I couldn’t have chosen a more ironic specialization if I’d tried.
That was exactly ten years ago and it simultaneously feels like someone else’s life and also not that long ago. I remember parts of it so vividly and others are a haze. Within a few months, I moved into my single girl apartment, where I felt safe for the first time in far too long. I didn’t recover overnight, though. I slept with a .357 revolver in a pink gun sock, for several years, in fact. I’m actually not sure if I put it away until I met Jake, the first man to share my bed, and realized how very, very dark that looked. I had nightmares. I developed the occasional stutter, which all research tells me is trauma induced.
In the beginning, I felt like I was taking three steps forward and two steps back, emotionally and financially, but that still equated to progress. I got my first half-time circulation job with the library system, but found myself inexplicably entangled in a lie of omission to my coworkers, deliberately letting them believe I was a spoiled white girl who’d never known a day of hardship in her life. I lost a bunch of weight and started dressing cute and dating, but had no idea how to go about it and never did quite learn how to spot when someone was flirting with me or return the exchange. I slowly built up my credit score, while also taking out the maximum in student loans just to get by and consolidate the debt left over from my divorce.
Ultimately, I graduated from the MLIS program at 25 and was promoted to half time librarian. I had a thriving social life and plenty of hobbies, though I was still working two jobs and rarely got any sleep. I spent the school year saving every dime I could to survive the summers without substitute jobs, the first time I’d find myself with any real free time. I think those summers might have been the best thing for me, as I read by the pool in my $20 drugstore lounge chair, took the dog on long walks, and had dinners of snack foods while yarn bombing the living room during a Vampire Diaries binge.
In time, I made my peace with God and went back to Church. I continued to date, while I tried to figure out if I really wanted marriage and family or if I’d just been told so all my life. I still remember the day I realized, with 100% certainty, that I wanted to get married again and have children. I was subbing an elementary music class during the last week of school. I never subbed young children, unless I really needed the money, but I was looking at three months without jobs, so I took what I could get. That day, there was an assembly, seemingly just for entertainment, where Ronald McDonald did slapstick comedy as the kids roared with laughter while their parents watched from the sidelines. I realized that, although the comedy was childish and stupid, the parents were enjoying their kids’ delight so much, that they were laughing, too. I looked around the gym I’d spent my own elementary school years loathing (never the athletic type) and wondered if I was going to miss this, having children and watching them enjoy moronic assemblies, my husband by my side. I decided to get serious about dating and met Jake approximately one year later. Six months after that, I got my first full time position in the library system and a year later, I had an engagement ring.
Jake and I have been married for almost four years now, together nearly six. We own our own home, in a different town unique to us both, have little debt, and promising careers where we plan to stay, exactly ten minutes from our front door. We have great friends and close family relationships. I still have the occasional nightmare about that time in my life, when I didn’t know what the future held or even what I wanted it to hold. Getting divorced at 23 was easily one of the scariest things I’ve ever done and I was not emotionally or financially equipped for it… but I did it anyway. I shudder to think where I’d be if I hadn’t had the nerve and now, ten years later, I know that I would have been 33 regardless. This way, I’m 33 and have an amazing life. So, for anyone reading this, trying to drudge up the courage to change your life, be it by filing for divorce or going back to school or starting a new career or relocating, just know that time is going to pass either way. It’s up to you where it takes you and a lot can happen in ten years.