“I’m having a heart attack,” I think. It started in the gym pool. Doing a gentle breaststroke, my heart started to beat irregularly, missing beats, then beating harder. I wasn’t too worried, it was just odd. I climbed out and sat on the side, trying to stay calm. But my heart kept pounding. I was worried. I walked to the showers, trying not to let my fear overtake me, but my heart continued to thud in my chest. Then I felt the blood leave my extremities and a weird tightening sensation in my groin. “Oh shit, shit, shit,” I thought. Something truly horrible is about to happen. I moved quickly into the changing rooms and announce to a room full of half-naked men what’s happening so that when the paramedics arrive, they’ll know I’ve had a heart attack. Then, sat with my head between my knees, talking to a huddle of concerned blokes, my heart slows and my breathing starts to return to normal. Not a heart attack, then. A panic attack.
For months I’d been trying to hold it together, denying to myself that my marriage of two years was sliding to destruction. My body knew better though and finally the stress needle went into the red and my heart overloaded. It was the reaction of a cornered animal facing something too big to tackle. A month of couples’ counselling only confirmed what Karen and I already knew: that despite buying a house and spending years doing it up, despite our recent marriage, we must separate.
Growing up my dad was an angry man who would explode with little provocation. Our mother was our only source of love and stability. I’ve come to realise that as a result, I’ve always gone out of my way to please the significant woman in my life, at some level fearing a catastrophic loss of affection if I failed to do so. This key characteristic of mine contributed to the implosion of my marriage because I always suppressed my own wants and needs in favour of my wife’s. I pretended to be what I thought she wanted. And I pretended so completely that, in the end, I had no idea I was even pretending. All I knew was that I had lost all of my initiative but didn’t know why.
The problem was compounded by the fact that Karen was headstrong, super confident and always wanted her own way. She was also doing well at work – bringing home twice the bacon I did – very hungry for success. I’m an editor at an acclaimed magazine and I earn a decent enough salary doing what I love. But for her, work was about money, pure and simple. She saw my job as a poorly paid trap, an obstacle between her and a bigger house. I knew she wanted more from me, so I convinced myself I wanted to be a lawyer, and even studied law for two years on top of my day job to move in that direction. In the meantime, Karen supplied the lion’s share of our income, giving me yet another “justification” to defer to her instead of standing up for myself. I ended up crushed by a relationship in which I was trying to please a woman whose values I did not share.
A month after my panic attack, Karen had moved in with friends whilst I looked for a new place to live. Walking home to the empty house a week after her departure, I took out my phone, fighting the tears, and call up my best man, Jon. “Mate,” I managed, then choked. “Mike, are you OK?” Jon asked. “Not, really mate, no.” I sob while Jon waits, before expressing my core, raw emotion. “I feel like I’m not a man. I don’t know what to do.” That was the sound of me hitting rock bottom: my heart had already gone and this was my mind’s turn. I felt utterly hopeless.
That was a year ago. Today, I’m a freshly divorced man looking back at that very low point, if not from high ground then at least from a very decent, middle ground. I’m a work in progress, but I’ve largely pieced my self-esteem back together. I’m still in the job I love, I’ve met an incredible girl who loves me for who I am and who also happens to be a fox. We are both feeling our way cautiously, both having hurtful pasts to process. But I feel like a full-grown man again, and a happy man at that because I’ve learned that only by being myself can I have self respect and that what any girl worth her salt wants in a man is for that man to know who he is. No more pretending.
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