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Separated

May 21, 2007

From Hoarded Ordinaries, October 4, 2004

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Last week I received an updated copy of my car insurance which reflected the seemingly innocuous fact that my 1993 Subaru is now registered in my name and Chris is no longer listed as a driver of that car. And there in black and white I saw it printed for the first time: “Lorianne Schaub. Marital status: separated.”

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On the one hand, “separated” is such a mild euphemism. When I first phoned my mother to tell her of Chris and my decision to divorce, I couldn’t bring myself to say the dreaded “D” word. “We’ve decided to separate,” I explained calmly. “It’s an amiable split, but things are understandably awkward.” It was only after my mom pushed for specifics–was I referring to a trial separation, or had the die been cast–that I made the situation clear: no, it’s over; he’s moved to Vermont, and the paperwork for a divorce has been filed. Even with my mother, though, I stumbled over the “D” word. In my head “divorce” equated with “failure” whereas “separation” evoked an image of an amiable parting: here we’ve come to a juncture, you and I, and I will walk this way while you go that.

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On the other hand, though, “separation” is a jarring and even violent term. Whereas “divorce” can refer to a coldly clinical legal procedure (sign the papers, pay the fee, and you’re outta there), thinking of oneself as “separated” evokes images of body parts lying bloodlessly detached from one another: here’s an arm; over there’s a leg. “Separation” sounds almost surgical, as if the act of divorcing from one’s partner of nearly 13 years is a kind of dismemberment, a cleaving apart of flesh and bone that had improperly knit.

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This latter image of separation seems particularly apt. At times over the past two months since Chris moved to Vermont, I’ve felt emotionally dismembered, as if my head is in one place and my heart in another. On one level, I live and work and interact like any other normally functioning person; on the other, I feel like I’ve left a limb or two somewhere, but I can’t remember where. How can people talk and interact with me normally: can’t they see that I’ve been cloven in two, half of my limbs and nearly all of my heart having disappeared, severed? At times as I go about smiling and chatting as if nothing has happened, I feel like a magician’s assistant: my head is smiling, my hands are waving, and my feet are dancing… but each of these parts is neatly segmented into its own clever box, a benignly bloodless dislocation.

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Some while ago, Andi [link broken] described the experience of breaking up with a partner and then moving to Korea as feeling like an unaesthetized spinal transplant: suddenly the very thing that held you upright has been ripped from you, and there you are trying to navigate a foreign airport as if nothing ever happened. (Unfortunately, I can’t find the precise permalink to Andi’s post, so you’ll have to rely on my paraphrase.) Although I’ve never had spinal surgery nor have I ever moved to Korea, I know that during that week when Chris moved out, I felt like I’d been enviscerated, like I was walking around town with a huge gaping hollow where my stomach and guts used to be. I couldn’t eat nor did I want to, and I felt oddly detached from my own body: somehow it didn’t seem real that I could function like any other normal person with a brain that was spinning from an onslaught of “what if’s” and “if only’s.”

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The metaphor of divorce being a kind of unaesthetized envisceration works on several different levels. As I mentioned, I’ve never had spinal surgery, but I have had my appendix removed, and several years ago my father had both his colon and bladder removed not long after doctors had riven his ribcage to repair a long-abused and direly blocked heart. I know what it’s like to be bent double with abdominal pain; I know what it’s like to lie abed without the energy to stand much less walk while nurses exhort you to get up and be moving. I’ve seen my father slowly recover after doctors literally severed his insides to keep the rest of him alive: I know the mixed emotions you feel toward the bastards who stole your father bit by bit in order to defeat the damn Cancer that had been eating him, unaware. When you see a man brought to the brink of death then back again at gloved and masked hands–when you’ve felt the press of those same hands as you lay on a gurney, pain ripping your insides as you clawed at your own IVs, madly animalized by pain and fear–you don’t know whether to thank medical science or excoriate it. Those bastards cut open my father after he allowed them to cut open me, and neither one of us would be alive today without such goddamned and bloody intervention.

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The deepest irony of describing divorce as unaesthetized envisceration, though, lies in its agency, for I acknowledge that I am both helpless patient and goddamn bastard doctor. This separation is one I both asked and pressed for; when Chris has asked if there’s even a chance of reconcilation, my rational half (my inner surgeon) has said No. Even as I walked the streets of Bar Harbor, Maine several weeks ago, pencam around my neck as I snapped one reflective picture after another, visual proof to myself that I Am Standing and Will Survive, an unexpected cell phone call from him brought the pain of separation immediately back, unscabbed. Was separating difficult? Yes. Did I regret the decision? No. One of the oddest parts of self-surgery is the way you can simultaneously feel yourself lying strapped to a gurney, your guts splayed and splattered, while another part of you stands logical and detached, overseeing the procedure. Really, this must be done: truly, to save the life of the patient, the cancer and contiguous organs must be removed.

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Thus I live with an odd paradox. Although I both regret and lament the pain of separation and I’m staggered at the thought of my own relational failures and my cognizance of how this split has broken hearts other than my own, I never once have regretted the decision that led to divorce. Yes, I’ve had moments of loneliness since Chris moved out; yes, I’ve had moments of depression and even despair. But none of these lonely moments is as bad as the loneliness I felt in a mis-matched marriage; never have I felt so depressed that I wanted to curl up and die, which is something I felt too often while married. This current pain feels like healing: it hurts, but there is a reason and an end in sight. The pain that led up to separation felt inexplicable and never-ending, the kind of pain that simmers and seethes and ultimately destroys. This current pain won’t kill me; that other kind surely was.

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Unexpectedly, I’ve found moments of simple joy amidst the pain of separation: the joy of a quiet house, the simplicity of a single grocery bag full of enough food for just me and the dog. Even when the pain of separation was the greatest, I found unexpected, grounding joy in tangible objects: the caress of a broom on a well-worn floor, the warmth of newly dried laundry. The silent pictures I snapped in the aftermath of Chris’s move were my way of telling the world (and myself) I was all right, that as long as milkweeds still sprouted from sidewalk cracks and vines coiled from shattered factory windows, I too would persevere. Separation is a painful and difficult process–at times your heart and your head seem entirely detached, never to reunite. But underneath the pain lies a promise, a hope that one day I will awake to find myself no longer riven, but entire.

I snapped all of these reflective photos during my recent trip to Bar Harbor, and I’ve posted three of them to the Mirror Project. I am fully aware of the irony that the girl who avoided looking at herself in the mirror as a teenager, terrified of the Ugly Duckling she’d see reflected therein, suddenly feels the need to slap pictures of herself all over her blog. I’ve found, though, that taking and posting these pictures–a visual act of independence and acceptance–is more fun than therapy, and cheaper.

by Lorianne DiSabato

  1. May 21, 2007 at 10:00 am

    This is such a good post. I remember reading it the first time around, and it continues to resonate now. In a way, some of its immediacy has faded because I know that time has passed and some healing has arisen; in another way, the immediacy is all still right there, as though this period of time were still happening right now. The wonder of nonfiction, I suppose.

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