Ode: At 27, reclaiming my life after divorce
Wisps of smoke from smoldering South Dakota sage washed over my body and individually enveloped more than a dozen recovering alcoholics and drug addicts sitting around me. For the next hour in the Talking Circle, I listened to their triumphs and tribulations, occasionally jotting down a few notes since I was there on assignment. The leader of the group came up to me afterwards and said he wished I would have shared something.
Journalists observe. We don’t participate. But after hearing everyone else release their stories and experiences – no matter how dark or painful – I put down my notebook and asked someone for the first time, “Is it a problem if my husband knocks back six a night?”
I mean, he was going to work. He was making good money. He wasn’t abusing me – not physically, anyway. Was it really that bad? I figured, who would know better than a bunch of people who used to find solace at the bottom of a bottle.
“If you have to ask, it’s a problem,” they said. My new Native American friends gave me a little peach-colored pamphlet, listing all the AA and Al-Anon meetings in the area. I stared at the times and locations. I could pick from 87 meetings a week.
That’s when it hit me. I’m a talented, tenacious award-winning journalist who has worked hard to get where I am – and this is my life. I don’t think so. I deserve better than this.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised when a Facebook ad from a law firm popped up in my newsfeed: “A free consultation with us is the first step to being totally happy.” Mark Zuckerberg’s algorithms knew my marriage was over before I did.
I should have known.Sometimes I would be sitting downstairs in the dark, listening to the beer cans cracking open each night – the sickening sound echoing throughout our suburban two-story home that I had so lovingly renovated. The only reason he’d come downstairs was to grab two more Keystones from the 30-pack in the fridge. So there I sat, curled up in a little ball on my custom-made sofa, softly sobbing into a pillow, overcome by loneliness and despair.
In four years, how did we go from him professing his love, saying, “All I want is to be with you,” to him not caring if we were in the same room or house or state. To him no longer supporting my ambitions and big-city dreams but instead telling me, “You’re just unhappy and no matter where you go you’ll be unhappy.” To him showing a complete lack of remorse for all the times that he chose his mistress – a seductive little drink called alcohol – over me.
At the same time, I was fighting burnout in a job I desperately wanted to love but didn’t. When I’d come home, feeling defeated, he’d say, “It’s time to put your big-girl pants on,” asserting that I was being childishly naive to believe that a meaningful career exists. Or he’d say, “Just quit,” indicating ignorance of how deeply entwined being a journalist is with my identity and sense of purpose.
I was in a full-blown quarter-life crisis, and it was right on time.
The irony wasn’t lost on me that I spent my days listening to others and telling their stories, validating their experiences, while I felt invisible at home. I kept trying to move my life in a more positive direction. But as I did, it became clear that, not only could he not support me on the bad days, he didn’t know how to respond to the good ones either.
Starting this storytelling series, which has been an endless source of goodness and grace, is forever tied to the moment I knew my marriage was over.
A couple of my co-workers and my husband helped me set up for the very first event. This came with the promise of pizza since underpaid journalists are more likely to show up if there’s free food. At the restaurant, one pitcher of beer turned into two, and I knew how nights like this ended. I, the designated fun-wrecker, wanted to go home. He, of course, did not. When my co-workers went on to another bar, he asked me to drop him off there.
In the three-block drive, I thought about activating the child lock and turning that car around. But he wasn’t a child. I had a 29-year-old man in the passenger’s seat. Yet, I felt compelled to warn him of the consequences like he was a little boy about to put his hand on the hot stove. I told him, “When you drink like this, I think about leaving you.”
My threat was met with sullen silence, the kind that eroded our relationship beyond repair.
He came home at god-knows-what-hour, which wasn’t unusual. But then, a few days later, I looked at our bank account to find $200 withdrawn at one bar and $300 at the casino. I went upstairs to the living room that I avoided because I couldn’t stand seeing the stack of beer cans on the end table. He was in there, reclining in his black leather loveseat, playing video games and – what else but – drinking.
“Is there something you want to tell me?” I asked and received a blank stare. “Like how you spent $500 at the bar last weekend?” He said nothing so I continued. “How could you do that? For that kind of money, you could have gotten that new flat-screen TV you’re always whining about.”
He pouted, “You wouldn’t have let me get it anyway.”
“I just can’t believe it,” I said. “I skimp and scrounge on everything so we have money and you just go and blow it all in one night?”
He shot back, “Why don’t you just leave me then you’ll have to skimp and scrounge all the time?”
There it was. That punch to the gut I thought I was incapable of feeling. I left the room, collected myself and went down to the kitchen to make dinner like it was any other night. Cheeseburgers with a side of roasted potatoes.
Even though I was miserable and knew my marriage was over, financially, I didn’t think I could leave. We didn’t have a luxurious lifestyle, but it was a comfortable one. So when I couldn’t find courage, I found an excuse and consoled myself, “Well, at least he’s not beating me.”
A few weeks later, when I said all of this out loud for the first time to my new Native American friends, I descended into a shame spiral. But you know what? Healing begins when vulnerability is met with compassion, and that’s what they offered me.
That’s what we offer here, on stage, if you’re willing to plumb the depths of despair and stand in your truth. Because the most important story is the one you tell yourself.
I changed my story. When given the choice between misery and Al-Anon meetings or a life of passion and possibilities, I chose myself. Like a poetic prophecy, I sat before a judge to get divorced on Monday – one year and two days after Ode’s first storytelling event in which the theme was “Breaking Points and New Beginnings.”
It’s amazing – the things we get to come back from, the second chances we’re given if only we can move beyond fear.
I’m grateful to be broken apart so I could put myself back together – intentionally vulnerable yet strong, independent and free to be me; grounded in the goodness and grace of this community; clearer about what I want; and unrelenting in my pursuit to be a more loving, understanding, open, authentic, confident, connected, better version of myself.
This is my life.
I am not invisible. I deserve to be seen and heard – and so do each and every one of you.
Ally Karsyn is the arts producer and weekday afternoon announcer at Siouxland Public Media. She is also the founder, producer and host of Ode.
Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. It is produced by Siouxland Public Media.