How Divorce Taught Me to Fail

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On July 23, 2011 I said “I do.” It was a gorgeous, Brides Magazine-worthy, wedding.  Virtually every single person that I loved in life was there – both sides of my massive family, friends from around the country (and the globe!), third cousins, once removed, my father’s colleagues. Everyone. Ten months later, I was sitting, alone, on the floor of my newly-moved-into two-story row home in Philadelphia, devouring an extra-large box of white pizza (paired with a bottle of Chardonnay, of course), having a day-long Downton Abbey binge-fest, crying my eyes out into the fur of my poor, visibly annoyed tabby cat, and coming to terms with the fact that I was… separated. I was separated, and, in all likelihood, I was going to get a divorce.  I would be living in our intended starter home by myself.  The home I had recently left my life (and friends) in Manhattan for.  I didn’t have a full time job yet.  We hadn’t even been married one year.  I hadn’t made it to my first anniversary.  My first anniversary.  If I were a celebrity, I would be featured in a Huffington Post article on “Shortest Celebrity Marriages of All Time.” I hadn’t done much better than Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries. For the first time in my life, I had really failed.  Royally. Massively. Epically failed.

This was NOT in “The Plan.” For this decidedly Type-A, overachieving, generally optimistic, usually life-loving 26-year-old lady, this was most definitely NOT in “The Plan.” I felt so utterly ashamed of myself.  And I was beyond embarrassed. How would I tell everyone? How COULD I tell everyone?  How could I tell those who I loved most in the world what had happened – what was happening?  How could I tell the people who had danced at my wedding 10 months beforehand that my marriage was over?  In many cases, I didn’t.  I couldn’t find the words.  Not until much later.

The whys and hows of my decision to leave my ex-husband are immaterial.  I have absolutely no ill feelings towards him.  I really hope that he is happy, or, at the very least, on the road towards happiness.  No one can know the relationship that exists between two people. Why love lasts.  Why, sometimes, it doesn’t.

In the months and weeks leading up to my separation, I tried so very hard to keep my chin up.  To put on a brave face. To pretend that everything was okay. To be “strong.”  Fierce even.  Like Beyoncé. I was trying to channel Beyoncé.

Surprise #1: You do not have to be Beyoncé all the time.  Heck, even Beyoncé can’t be Beyoncé all the time.  I was expending so much extra energy every day to keep up a façade of “fineness” that I was preventing myself from fully accepting what was happening.  I was afraid that by falling into the pit of despair, I would lose all control of my life – and, for a perfectionist, there is no greater fear than that!  Guess what?  It is SO okay to fall into the pit of despair for a little while.  To eat that entire extra-large white pizza. To drink that bottle of wine by yourself (okay, maybe two).  To have all-day Netflix binge-fests.  To cry incessantly into your tabby cat.  To not pick up the phone.  To not answer texts from your friends. To do your very best Bridget Jones in questionable holiday pajamas belting  “All By Myself” at the top of her lungs impression.  (Yes, I definitely did this. And they were Grinch pajamas, thank you very much!  And it *may * have been June, not December.  Holiday pajamas, as it turns out, are always there for you when you need them.)

I have been a dancer since I was 3 years old, and a gym rat since I was 18, so I have had it drilled into my brain that you first need to break down your muscles in order to build up their strength.  I have come to believe that the same applies to the human spirit.  In order to build up our strength, to make progress, to create positive change, to become the awesome people we were meant to be, we need to allow ourselves to be broken down.  We need to give ourselves permission to fall into the pit.  And we need to be kind to ourselves while we are there.  When I finally gave myself permission to drop the façade that everything was okay – that I was okay – sure, it was completely terrifying, but it was also a massive relief.  And it was my first real step toward healing.

Surprise #2: The bottom of the pit is a dark, scary, intensely lonely place.  But it is also the most powerful place in the world.  Because stripped of everything else, of what you thought you knew, of who you thought you were, and of where you thought your life was headed, all that is left is simply, you.   Wonderful, imperfect, slightly eclectic, goofy, kick-ass, you.  You are forced to get back to the basics.  To reconnect with the most vital parts of yourself.  What do I love to do?  Who did I aspire to be when I was a kid? What do I need to work on? What fires me up?  What bums me out? What brings me joy?  What, simply, puts a smile on my face?

Getting back to the basics is certainly not an easy process.  Confronting yourself head-on never is.  It is also an intensely humbling process, which, I will admit, was something that I really needed at the time (fellow overachievers, I know you can relate!). Going through this process with yourself, however, is one of the most important things that you will ever do.  And, strangely enough, I find it is almost impossible to go through it fully unless you are at the bottom of the pit.

Please note, that you will need help doing this.  I certainly did.  And it is a hard thing for me to admit that I need help!  You will need your family, your best friends, your faith leader, your therapist, your personal trainer, your friendly neighborhood Starbucks barista, and yes, the cute deliveryman from the pizza place down the street.  But, once you begin to reach the other side of this process, once you finally begin to see a way out of the pit, you will suddenly realize that you feel more like yourself than you have in ages.  And this is where the magic happens. This is where you start building up muscle again.  Where you begin to create a life that is more full, and joy-filled, and true to your unique spirit than any life you had lived previously.

Surprise #3: Your capacity for loving others will never be as great as when you begin your climb out of the pit.  And, as Macklemore would say, it is *bleeping* awesome.  You find yourself open to people, conversations, and yes, even dates that you might have – scratch that – that you definitely would NOT have been open to before your tumble into the sad place.  You will be much less quick to judge others – and much less quick to judge yourself.  You will cherish your most precious relationships – with family, with friends, with your tabby cat – more than you ever have.  And hand in hand with this increased capacity to love comes an increased capacity for living well. This overwhelming desire to swing open your front door, and go out into the world, and just gulp it all up.

Make use of this energy! Take that class in fencing you’ve always wanted to take.  Volunteer at the animal shelter around the corner that you stop at every time they place a new, adorable fluffy thing in the window.  Join that Skee ball league you’ve been considering joining for months but that you keep finding excuses not to join.   Go ahead - go on some dates!   Not because you are on the hunt for your next relationship, but because you enjoy interacting with people.  There is no better time to dive into something, to take a risk, to push past your boundaries than now.  You are a hungry, hungry life hippo, and your mission is to gobble up as many of those delicious life marbles as you possibly can! (Can you tell I was a child in the late 80s / early 90s yet?)

Once I began my own rebuilding process and finally started my own climb out of the pit, some super great things started to happen.  I landed the (full time!) dream job in arts management that I had been pursuing for four years.  I joined a wonderful city club and began making a network of friends in my new hometown (plus, there was Junior Member Happy Hour once a month – yes, please!).  I challenged myself to classes at the gym that I had never tried before and that reenergized a workout routine that I had let go by the wayside. I had way too much fun volunteering at the animal shelter around the corner (never underestimate the power of fluffy things!).  I went on some unforgettable vacations with my friends.

This is not to say that I didn’t also, sometimes, fall back into the pit.  Anyone who has any experience with the pit will tell you that it can sneak up on you when you least expect it, sending you running for your tabby cat and instinctively switching on Downton Abbey.  Please know that this is perfectly normal.  Your climb out of the pit will involve many peaks and troughs, and it will take time for the troughs to disappear completely (or, at least, fade into the background).  Be patient with yourself.  A big plus to the climb out of the pit is that once you have done it, you know that you can do it again.  And you know how to do it again.

Surprise #4: Learning how to fail is the most important lesson that I ever learned.  Which makes me chuckle to myself, because it is the one lesson that I never saw coming.  Or, if I am being completely honest, it is the one lesson that Ididn’t think I needed.

Right smack in the middle of my separation and divorce, I heard American actor, director, writer, and producer Garry Marshall speak at my younger brother’s college graduation.  He had a simple message for the graduates that year: “Fail better.”  Garry Marshall, if by some chance of fate you are reading this blog post, “Thank you.”  Thank you so very much for saying EXACTLY what I needed to hear EXACTLY when I needed to hear it. (And, while I’m at it, thank you for The Princess Diaries.)  I was incredibly naïve to think that my life would somehow be beyond failure.  That I would be beyond failure.  Yes, failure is an unavoidable part of life.  But, I would argue, it is also an essential part of life. It is in the midst of failure that the good stuff happens, that brilliant ideas are born, that the real work of growth and positive change occurs.  I truly believe that we cannot succeed in this life unless we first learn how to fail.  And what does learning how to fail mean?  To me, it means learning how to climb out of the pit.  It means letting yourself be broken down time and time again so that you can emerge stronger, more compassionate, more curious, and more hungry for all that life has to offer than before.  It means learning all that you can from your failures and even embracing them.  It means taking risks, being bold, and facing your fears head-on.  It means never, ever, ever giving up.

I am so very grateful for my divorce.  I tend to get sideways glances when I say this to people, but it’s true.  I wouldn’t wish divorce upon anyone, and please keep in mind that this blog post is based on the limited experience of one human being.  But my divorce taught me how to fail.  It taught me how to climb out of the pit.  (Heck, it taught me that it was okay to fall into the pit in the first place!) And it made me a more open, giving, and courageous version of myself.  If I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.

On September 13, 2014 – just a few weeks ago – I said “I do.” It was a simple, 30-person wedding. Just my parents, his parents, my new stepdaughters, our siblings, my grandparents, and our closest friends were there.  Most unfortunately, Rosie, the tabby cat, was not up for the car ride to Vermont.

I hesitate to bookend this piece with weddings.  Yes, I found love again, and though it has not been without its challenges, it has been absolutely glorious.  But the fact that I found love again and got remarried is not the point.  The point is that I have embraced my previous failure in marriage enough to risk giving it another shot. The point is that I built up my muscle, that I climbed out of the pit, and that I became a better version of myself, for myself.   And if I should fail, I will face it head-on.  And I will get right back up on the ladder.

And to everyone (and every cuddly animal!) that made my climb out of the pit possible, thank you.  This piece is for you.

Rosie. the tabby cat, in her usual pose
Rosie. the tabby cat, in her usual pose
Erica in her natural habitat
Erica in her natural habitat

Erica Busillo Adams is an experienced fundraising professional and current staff member at Save The Bay - Narragansett Bay.  She is extremely passionate about the non-profit sector, and is a proud member of the PVD Lady Project, Providence HYP, and the Rhode Island Yacht Club. When she's not blogging, you can find Erica sampling one of RI's many great restaurants, visiting a museum, or hopping a plane to her next travel destination. Erica studied Dance, Communications, and Comparative Religion at Northwestern U, and resides in Providence, RI with her husband, two stepdaughters, 90-pound chocolate lab, and, of course, Rosie the tabby cat.

Featured photo by Brister Photo