Misery is Optional – Oh Yeah! Says Who?

#Divorce #Remarriage #EarlyMarriage #Loss #StartingOver

John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

John J. Hohn, Writer/Reviewer

I sent a birthday greeting to a fellow senior only to be told that he doesn’t observe birthdays any more. OK.  Next year I won’t say a word. But he’d better not forget mine. I want to recognize all my birthdays from here on. I turned 77 last spring, and it’s a hell of a lot younger than I thought it would be.

I insist on observing all my birthdays because, damn it, it took a lot to get this far. My high school girlfriend gave birth to our first child just six weeks after I turned 18. She was a year older than I. She had to give up college. That was OK then, because – after all – she was a girl. (See my earlier post about pregnancy in the 1950’s). We married and had five kids before we turned 26. Yes, of course, we were Catholic. Maybe that gives insight into my articles about the Church.

The Church and society have changed over the years. But if you’re older, it doesn’t help to realize that much of it was arbitrary all along, like suits, white shirts and ties at the office. No sports jackets, please. Some rules had nothing at all to do with a person’s morality. No meat on Fridays must have helped the Italian fishing industry for decades. Imagine! Going to hell over mackerel. Lobbyists running wild in the Vatican.

All Kinds of Dependencies . . .

My first wife and I broke up after 19 years. I doubt either of us knew where we wanted to go next with our lives. Marrying young can retard a person’s development. Everything I should have learned about relationships and myself were postponed because I was living life under water with my marriage. We had kids to raise. Jobs to find. Bills to pay. We were pretending that we were all grown up. I’m sure either of us realized that all kinds of unhealthy dependencies were being created between between us. Once we separated, and the dependencies became exposed, I started reeling from some gaping holes in my psyche.

John  J. Hohn, Newly Divorced - 1976

John J. Hohn, Newly Divorced – 1976

I wandered around for a year-and-a-half afterwards seriously disoriented and in search of myself. I needed to cram 20 years of maturing into 18 months. I wasn’t very good at it. I recall the afternoon I walked into a meeting with my colleagues at work and finally took over my own body and mind again, a strange sudden sensation that meant, oh my God, I’m me again (or the grammatically correct I am I, although stated thus poses a hell of a paradox as I become both the perceiver and the perceived with distortions entering from all directions). But I’m not talking about a strictly rational event. It was beyond rational. My everyday self, the me I awoke to each morning – confused, grief stricken, angry, hurt – finally slid out from all those emotional burdens and I became the guy I had known myself to be all my life. It was as if I found my long lost big comfy bedroom slippers and stepped into them. I could feel it.

The reunion with myself, although energizing, did little for my judgment. Given the earnest hours in the psychologist’s office, I started deciding how my life would take shape moving forward. It was a second-wind. A second chance. Emboldened, I slammed headlong into another person’s destiny. Throttle to the firewall, I was in the wrong lane. A collision was inevitable. Right, I remarried. Woof! What a mistake.

Into the Mountain Side . . .

That second marriage lasted almost five years, about one year longer than my life’s savings. During those years, I made a number of regrettable decisions. I gave up the best-paying, most satisfying job I had ever held. I moved from a hometown community where I had friends to a new city where I hardly knew anyone. Moving strained my relationship with my kids to the point of open antagonism. I ended up half a continent away from my own parents. When the break up came, it was nothing short of a crash into the mountain side for me.

When I left. I was broke. No place to live. When my car broke down, I walked to work. My peers were running for office at the country club, taking extended Caribbean vacations, and  skiing at Aspen. I had a college graduate’s starting salary at a local bank. Age 44. Broke. Hell yes. With no end in sight. My kids qualified for Pell Grants in college. My ex, meanwhile, drove around town with a bumper sticker that read, “Misery is Optional” And for her, why not?

My Children Taken During the Early Years of My First Marriage(L - R) James, Joseph, Gregory, Rachel and Eric. Detroit. 1966

My Children Taken During the Early Years of My First Marriage(L – R) James, Joseph, Gregory, Rachel and Eric. Detroit. 1966

She was a professional woman with the resources to move on with her life. She remained in the home until she was comfortable with leaving it. She had found an enduring new love interest while were were together and she had many friends to support and comfort her. Ar first, the  bumper sticker struck me as a petty bit of grandstanding as it implied being unhappy was a matter of choice. My experience after my first marriage attested to the contrary. Getting over the unhappiness and tumultuous disorientation of a major disappointment in life is a process, not a decision. Choice may be responsible for a calamity, but once the disaster takes place, it ain’t over baby until the fire is put out and the wounded attended to. That takes time.

The pain of betrayal, the sting of rejection and the despair over failure are real feelings, every bit as real as hunger pangs when starving and fear in the face of danger. They happen as a condition of a person’s circumstances and there’s no wishing them away. Emotionally healthy people don’t avoid or deny feelings. The only way out of the fire walk through it, not pretending that the flames don’t exist. Get a guide, a therapist, a friend who has survived the same passage, or a family member who can be patient and compassionate (often a rarity in itself.)

Anyone reading the bumper sticker who did not know my ex wouldn’t care one way or the other. Anyone who knew her would know that, just as she was proclaiming, she wasn’t miserable. So what’s the point? As a message, Misery is Optional, must have embodied some other intention. Possibilities include, “Others may think I should be unhappy that my husband moved out but I’m not.” Or, “Most people are unhappy when their marriages break up, but I am not.” Or a little more generously, “I was unhappy for a while after my husband moved out, but now I’m not.” If you lost something you weren’t committed to in the first place, yes, then misery could also be optional. You pick. Multiple choice. A little ambiguity is fun now and then. Bumper stickers are a limited medium.

Forget It . . .

What’s really happening, I guessed, is that my ex thought misery was an either/or state. It isn’t, of course. Everyone experiences a little misery in life. It’s part of the human condition. It seemed to me she as declaring she had decided not to be miserable. Great. Pretty heady trick. I didn’t think it could be done. I still don’t. All that she achieved, as far as I could see, was making our divorce a degree less private. I thought the bumper sticker begged questions where none normally would be invited, and at one level, it demeaned the sanctity of grief. The irony is that it was probably slapped on the car under a degree stress.  Doing so, I thought, would never have occurred to a contented person, in which case the message was ironically at odds with itself. Making too much of it am I?. I should put a sticker on my car that reads, “Forget it.”

My Children - a more recent picture L - R: Joesph A. Hohn, Rachel Hohn Gioannini, James M.Hohn, Eric J.Hohn,  and Gregory M. Hohn. Summer 2006

My Children – a more recent picture L – R: Joesph A. Hohn, Rachel Hohn Gioannini, James M.Hohn, Eric J.Hohn, and Gregory M. Hohn. Summer 2006

Given my life at the time, I was pretty miserable. Confused.  Painfully disappointed. Angry? Yeah. A little. Not so much at her or my circumstance but over the way the news spread about my alleged thoughtlessness and cruelty in leaving. I felt I was up against a highly efficient propaganda machine. Over night, friends angrily snubbed me in public.”She was hurt,” the waitress at a local sandwich shop said as she set lunch orders in front of my friend and me. Was this vengeance, I wondered, for there was not a word anywhere about how I tried to exit as thoughtfully as I could — waiting to tell her I was leaving until we were in a session with our marriage counselor and then acceding to her request for two week trial separation. I didn’t storm out of the house. I didn’t fight and run away. I wanted to avoid rancor and blaming. There was no ensuing drawn out court battle. All I wanted was to get over with it.

Nobody seemed to take into account what I had staked in the marriage. I thought that I had arrived. Our big home – five bedrooms and four-four-and-a-baths, two fireplaces, family room and living room, casual dining and formal dining room – large wooded lot. I sold my part ownership in a airplane and my lakeside cabin in Wisconsin to keep up with out life style when my income fell off sharply. I wanted to provide a secure, welcoming home for my children. I wanted level flight for myself for the rest of the way out, but being older doesn’t assure one knows how to achieve a degree of happiness.

The bumper sticker, all ambiguity aside, could have been intended simply to let others know, “I’m over him.” Good! I never wanted to make my ex unhappy. I can be responsible for what I do but not for how a person interprets my actions. I just wanted my own life back no matter what. The trying circumstances during first several months starting out all over attest to how important it was for me to move on with my life.

No. Misery is not an option. It’s a relative state. Perfect happiness is beyond everyone. I chose the road less miserable and that has made all the difference.

To be continued . . .

This is a first in a series of autobiographical postings. Please watch for future entries.

Special thanks for my friend Joe Frisina for his help with this article.

Thanks for visiting my web site. While you are here, I invite you to look through some off the other pages I have posted over the years on a variety of subjects. Please feel free to enter your comments in the area provided below. Please come back. You’re always welcome.

 

 

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