Ten years ago, my marriage began to crumble after I discovered my husband’s closeted addiction to cocaine and finally acknowledged my closeted attraction to a beautiful German woman in my exercise class. In an effort to spare our two young children the inevitable pain of a broken family, my husband and I spent a year attempting to move from acrimony to reconciliation. Yet, the decade of lies we’d already told ourselves and each other made that impossible.
We decided to divorce, and I pondered the possibility of a new life with the woman I might love. She, on the other hand, decided to move to Utah to rekindle a life with her ex-girlfriend.
I was suddenly alone, not knowing who or where or what I was.
And so began my free-fall—crashing through layers of Shame Anger Sadness Sexual Identity Issues Aloneness Guilt Grief Guilt Guilt. My children deserved a mother who was strong and whole and clear, but there were days when making breakfasts, packing lunches, and getting dinner on the table was all I could do—and I knew that wasn’t enough. I needed to find some answers.
After bustling my 10- and 13-year-olds out to the yellow school bus, I bolted the front door and became an archaeologist searching through the rubble. I’d rummage in Mark’s still-full closet, my heart pounding, often finding clues: a 5th of Jack Daniels in a jacket breast pocket, a crumpled cash withdrawal receipt under his tennis shoe innersole, a thick roll of money shoved deep into his cargo shorts pockets. Each discovery deepened the realization that I’d married a complete stranger.
Then there was me, whoever that was—a 43-year-old mother of two, collapsed on the floor of my soon-to-be-ex-husband’s closet surrounded by the fallout of my frenzied searches and seizures: disemboweled shoes and inside-out-pants, piles of suit jackets, and drawers pulled off their tracks.
Every day after school when the children burst through the front door eager for stability, snacks, and homework help, my mind was overflowing with crazy-making thoughts and questions: Did the kids ever see him snort cocaine? But he said he’d never done drugs. He’d told me he didn’t drink either…. Was the whiskey really his?
My feverish hunts through drawers and bankbooks yielded more unknowns. And more tension. Trying to figure him out was in no way helping me figure myself out and my nerves were fraying like an old rope. One evening I became enraged at my son for eating his spaghetti with his fingers instead of his fork. I only stopped yelling when his scared eyes brimmed with tears and his big sister put her hand on his shoulder to protect him from my temper. I realized my behavior was definitely not ok.
Perhaps what I sought was not hidden in Mark’s desk drawer, glove compartment, or pants pocket. Perhaps it wasn’t buried in my longing for the woman whose melodic voice weakened my knees. Perhaps the truth was not outside of me at all; maybe it was waiting for me in the mirror.
The next day after the school bus left, I settled at my computer, opened a blank document, and hunted for ways to describe the hows and whys of my life becoming unrecognizable. I started at the beginning—the moment this woman entered the room, caught my eye, and turned everything upside down. I found comfort in tapping the keys and seeing black letters appear, standing tall on the clean white page. Words were clear and true and confident. They held the weight and complexity of my story. Those words wove themselves into sentences then paragraphs then scenes—all exploring and validating the hard-to-imagine events of my recent life.
I wrote about conversations I’d had with Mark admitting my attraction to this woman, and I re-lived my shock at his suggestion that I explore those feelings by going away with her for a weekend. I recorded my fears regarding his erratic sleeping schedule, drastic weight changes, and late night trips to the “gas station.” I re-visited my part in volatile arguments and confessed to looking the other way when I knew, or should have known, he was lying to me.
Throughout those fragile beginnings, negative voices in my mind hissed, “You shouldn’t be writing this, it’s private. Think of your children! What if someone reads it?! Stop writing!”
Yet, a tiny whisper insisted, “Keep writing.”
I started writing in the morning and continued as the sun moved across the sky. When the shadows of the oak tree outside my window lengthened, I knew the children would be home soon so I printed out my day’s work and read the scenes one more time. As I held the papers in my hand, the surreal became real. My pages were proof. I tucked these new-born truths under a blanket in my wooden trunk, knowing they’d be waiting for me the following day.
I’d leave my writing room standing up a bit straighter with a newly mined reserve of patience and self-awareness. After big coming-home-from-school-hugs, I’d make my children soft peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Chocolate Malt Ovaltine. They’d settle at the homework table and I’d start dinner grateful—ever so grateful—for the writing that had become my lifeline.
I enrolled in classes both at a university and online. The classes had names like Courage and Craft, and Writing the Healing Story. Although I felt selfish for spending this physical and mental time away, I was very much aware of my need for Courage, Writing, and Healing.
In class, my stories were well received. My words piqued my classmates’ attention and I was astounded. Teachers encouraged me to write every day, take notes, and listen. When I did, I heard the wind blowing through our backyard wind chimes, the sound of my son’s musical whistle, my daughter’s jaunty footsteps coming down the stairs. Writing was teaching me to pay attention and soon I noticed something else—the sound of my own voice.
The voice that emerged didn’t waste time judging me. It planted itself in the present and addressed my past with candor, humor, and (so my classmates said) something called compassionate objectivity. No whining allowed.
During those precious first years I learned to write personal essays with beginnings, middles and ends, particularly enjoying the process of crafting form from chaos. Life was mirroring art and the children flourished. My son discovered his passion for English and music production, and my daughter became fascinated with robotics and science. Our small family had fallen into a steady rhythm, and our new rescue dog wrapped his sweet love around our hearts.
I enrolled in writing classes every quarter. In class when I read my work out loud, I almost couldn’t believe how resonant my writer-voice was. A teacher urged me to send an essay out, so I did some research, took a chance, and submitted one essay to Whole Life Times magazine. It was purchased and printed on the back page in a column entitled Last Words, next to a picture of me. Of me. The writer. I submitted another short piece to The Sun and it was accepted into the Reader’s Write column. My confidence swelled.
As my son’s height surpassed my own, my daughter got her driver’s license, and as they both began testing their wings in high school, I attempted to test my own. Instead of taking and re-taking beginning classes, I registered for classes with the word “Advanced” in the title.
In one class, our teacher was discussing her upcoming book on writing entitled, “Kicking in the Wall.” I was inspired to kick in a wall of my own and submit a personal essay to an anthology seeking stories about married women falling in love with women.
I wrote the essay under a pseudonym, “Leigh Stuart,” because reading aloud in class was one thing; exposing my secret love affair to the world was quite another. My story was accepted for publication and two years later the anthology became a finalist for a prestigious award. I was proud to be associated with 26 other strong, brave, honest writers.
Except for one thing: I didn’t feel strong or brave or honest. My essay was written by “Leigh.” Barbara was nowhere to be seen. At readings all over the country, I was introduced as this pseudo-me reading passages about becoming spellbound by this other woman, and how I led a torturous double life as a soccer mom by day and a woman who would make any excuse to go out with “the girls” at night.
“Leigh” signed her name in the books. “Leigh” answered questions about her experiences. “Leigh” was complimented on her candor. To the outside world, “Leigh” was the author of my words. But as “Leigh” didn’t really exist, did I?
Although I’d believed I was protecting my children (and myself) from the haters by using a pseudonym, I’d unqualifiedly silenced the voice I’d worked so hard to awaken. How could I be a role model to my children if, even though I wrote the stories of my life, I was too afraid to put my name on them?
“You’re a sham. You can’t even do success right. Stop writing.” The negativity returned with a vengeance.
But I couldn’t stop writing. It had become my anchor.
Once again, though, I realized that my children deserved more; they deserved resolve, honesty, integrity and a mother who could be proud of who she was, both on paper and in life.
My children were then 17 and 19 and I decided to talk to them about my writing. They proved to be insightful and wise in their own individual ways. My daughter, with her usual sensitivity and compassion, said she wished I’d used my real name in the anthology, and suggested I always do so in the future.
“Be proud of who you are, Mom. I’m proud of every part of you, especially your writing,” she said.
My son, on the other hand, was relieved I’d used the pseudonym regarding such personal issues and asked me to continue doing so on the subject until he was, at least, out of high school. I heard him. I understood what he needed. In fact what he needed wasn’t too different from what I had needed: time.
Three years have passed since that conversation. My daughter has graduated from college as an Electrical Engineer and my son is in his sophomore year, focusing on English and music. Their futures seem bright.
A number of essays have been published under my real name about vacations, teen parties, and family dinners. However, the first draft of the memoir about my husband’s and my secret lives is safely tucked in the trunk at the end of my bed. Barbara hasn’t mustered the courage to face its second draft.
But today I spoke with my son and asked him how he’d feel if I dove back into my memoir, finished it, and sent it out for possible publication. Without hesitation he said, “That’d be cool.” I reminded him that years ago he’d asked me to use a pseudonym on this subject.
He smiled that broad confident smile and said in his very direct, spare way, “That was then, Mom. This is now. I don’t mind. You should do it.”
Then, after a long pause, in a most unexpected act of candor, he said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about writing my own book. About my own life, you know? My teachers say I’m a good writer. I’ve got some interesting stories to tell, just like you.”