I was married when I was 23. It did not seem so young at the time. I had finished college and was working towards a PhD in The History of Religion. I had taken a year off before graduate school and been on my own in an unfamiliar city where I lived out a bit of my fantasy of owning a restaurant by working as the head chef at a local Italian place. I was not naïve about relationships.  I had been in and out of a dozen of them. I felt ready. When I look at someone who is 23 now, I wonder what I was thinking.

Thirty years later and a year and a half out of my marriage, I am just beginning to feel the open wounds at the places where my husband and I were joined together, begin to heal over. In the first months after we separated, I would start to do something and find that the limb that I needed to complete the task simply wasn’t there. Over 30 years I had neglected parts of myself and let others atrophy. I had attached myself and enmeshed myself with parts of my partner and had lost track of myself as a separate individual. I do not have any questions about how this happened. If I am completely honest with myself it was exactly what I had always wanted. In my early 20’s I saw a relationship as a merging of two people. I imagined marriage as a partnership, and a joining together of two people in life to work towards a common goal. I did not see the aspect of marriage that involves two individuals coming together, being connected, but also being separate.

I saw every relationship in this way starting in the third grade. I always needed one close friend that I could share absolutely everything with. It was as if I felt like I was not enough on my own and needed the qualities this other person had to feel complete and whole. When I close my eyes I see an image of myself standing closely to someone else, almost leaning on them as if they are propping me up. It appears as a series in my mind. In each subsequent year of my life, I see myself standing just a little bit more upright and leaning a little less. When my husband and I separated I did not fall over but I have had to spend the last year and a half learning to balance and stand completely on my own. It has not been easy. I have felt pretty wobbly. I have had to get to know and embrace the frightened parts of myself that always appeared capable but were invisibly always looking outside of myself for support. More images come to mind:  an unprepared actor being pushed unwillingly onstage in front of an audience, a child peaking out from behind her mother’s skirts, a young girl looking into a room through a crack in a slightly open door. I felt shy, unworthy and unprepared before. It is exhilarating and surprising to be able to stand on my own after leaning on others for so long. Not that I don’t still lean on and love my friends. I do. I have simply finally begun to see and appreciate them as separate individuals, and have learned to experience myself as separate but not isolated.

This week I began a new session of the art classes that I teach to children. It is not a therapy group. There are so many kids engaged in so many activities that I do not turn my attention on them in any sort of therapeutic way. I do however see them, am curious about them, and engage with them. This week  the child who kept helping and assisting all of the other children in the room grabbed my attention. I recognized myself in her. I wanted to redirect her attention, and tell her to take this opportunity to focus on her self. I know that no one ever told me that I had to take care of everyone else around me, or that I was not enough on my own. It was a roll I took on by myself. Being self-sacrificing, supportive of others, and self-contained are considered good qualities to encourage in young girls.  No one would think of saying not to worry about and care so much about others. In my case it feels like I focused so much attention outward that I did not develop enough internal strength to stand on my own. It is a curios experience to be doing it now in my 50’s. Developing ones “core” strength is all the rage now. It is an interesting metaphor.  One of my teacher’s believes that it is essential to find the balance between muscle strength that supports fluidity, and muscle mass that causes the body to become rigid and inflexible. That is the inner balance I am seeking now. I wont to develop long smooth flexible inner muscles that are fluid and resilient and will help me to stand tall.

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