When my marriage ended a few years ago, I tried everything I could think of to get over it, to get back to myself. I started traditional talk therapy, then “cheated” on my regular therapist by seeing an intuitive one — because if your life is painfully uncertain, the promise of a little foresight is comforting.
I also tried meditation, yoga, reiki and acupuncture. I started running, though I’m not athletic, so that only lasted about a year. (I call this current phase of my life the “5K to Couch” era.) I soaked up every possible moment with my children. I fell in love again. I traveled. I wrote, and wrote and wrote.
These things helped, I felt more centered and whole. But nothing has been more healing than my friendships with women.
We don’t talk enough about how terrifying divorce can be. For years, it felt like I was skydiving in tandem with someone; we were “in it together.” Suddenly, I was in the clear blue sky, untethered, free falling alone.
My friends were a parachute. Because when you lose “your person,” it’s critical to have “your people.”
That first year, when I was sad and too thin and sleep-deprived, my people showed up. They made sure my life was more than stress and sadness; more than pulse-quickening emails and invoices from lawyers; more than parenting two children alone through grief and upheaval.
Thanks to my friends, there was roller skating in parking lots and vinyl-only dance parties at a local concert venue. There were happy hours and countless meals (“Yes, we want to see the dessert menu, thank you”), and loud, unselfconscious laughter.
There were also adventures I wouldn’t have had when I was married. Then, the only solo travel I allowed myself was for work because that felt like “justified” time away from my family. As painful and disorienting as joint custody was, it came with a little breathing room.
One August, I took a two-night train trip from Chicago to Seattle with my friend Wendy, whom I’d met because our husbands had worked together. When we boarded the train, almost 20 years into our friendship, my husband was living across town and the divorce was nearly final. Her husband had taken a temporary Peace Corps position overseas. We were both on our own, though the circumstances were different.
I woke up in the top bunk of the sleeping car and watched the plains roll by the window like a filmstrip through a projector. I had no idea what state I was in, and what did it matter? I’d escaped the weight of life back home — the pressure of divorce and custody litigation, the gravity of grieving while pressing myself to stay productive.
Looking back at photographs — selfies of me and Wendy smiling at the train station, at Seattle’s Pike Place Market, windblown on the ferry to Bainbridge Island — I see light in my eyes. I look unburdened. I look happy.
That year had been the hardest of my life. Working and parenting through a divorce required performance. I assured my children it would be OK. I told colleagues and acquaintances I was “hanging in there.” I smiled, though I doubt that smile reached my eyes. But, with my friends, I didn’t have to act. They knew what I was going through and kept showing up.
“Anyone up for a walk?” I ask Jen and Lisa on our group text, and they know it’s code for “I need to vent” or “I don’t want to be alone right now.”
“Heading out in a few,” one of them responds without fail. Regardless of the weather, she will leave her house to walk toward mine.
“Thanks, leaving now,” I text back. We spot each other, waving and smiling from a distance. When we reach each other, we embrace. Her arms tighten around me, and my body relaxes. A hug from a friend who knows you and who sees the heft of what you’re carrying? It feels like home.
We’re often socialized to focus on our romantic partnerships and to let our friendships fizzle. But I’m lucky. I’ve kept in touch with people. I still live in my hometown; if I walk a block in any direction, I’ll reach the doorstep of someone who’s known me over 20 years. They don’t just know the Maggie in survival mode, divorced Maggie, or Maggie the writer. They know and love me at my core: sensitive, funny, a worrier.
I’ve always known that close friendships aren’t a consolation prize, and they shouldn’t rank below romantic partnerships. When my husband and I split up, my friends reminded me that I predated not only the divorce but also the marriage. I existed before the relationship, and I would outlast it.
Whether I have a “person” or not, I need my “people.” They give me something I can’t give myself. If I walk in their direction, they’ll walk in mine — and we’ll raise our hands to wave.
Maggie Smith is the author of The New York Times best seller, “You Could Make This Place Beautiful” (One Signal/Atria) and several other books of poetry and prose.
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