After My Divorce, Sometimes I Don't Recognize My Life

by Kristen Mae
Alia Youssef/Getty

Sometimes, at the end of the night, I’ll switch off Netflix, get up from my couch, and find myself startled by my surroundings. The room will feel off, foreign almost, as if it belongs to someone else. It’s a lovely living room, dated but cozy, with a big cushy couch strewn with fluffy pillows, two tall bookcases stuffed with my beloved collection of books, my baby grand piano tucked into the corner. I arranged this room myself, and it is most definitely mine, but it still sometimes takes me off guard. It still occasionally, just for a moment, doesn’t feel like mine.

A mere three years ago I was sitting beside my then-husband, the two of us facing a design consultant and hemming and hawing over finishes for the dream home we were building together. A dream home I think I subconsciously hoped would “fix” the feeling I had that I wasn’t living the life I was supposed to live. If I could distract myself with cabinet finishes and granite options, maybe I could ignore the fact that I was gay. Or at least learn to live with not being able to express it.

Since then, I’ve come out and moved out on my own. The room with the many-pillowed couch and bookshelves and baby grand is mine and only mine. It’s ironic though, that since I’ve made the excruciating decision to part ways with my ex and live an authentic life, I am so often overcome with the feeling that none of this is real. How is it that my life could feel invented when I’m finally being honest? I never would have predicted I’d feel this way.

It’s not just that I came out, that I live in a different house, that I no longer have a husband, that I no longer have my kids full-time (ouch). It’s more than that. It’s all the tiny, seemingly insignificant details of life that are so different than before. It’s a million little changes I couldn’t have imagined and never read about in any article about divorce.

My bathroom counter in my new house is lower than the bathroom counter in my old house, so I have to bend over more to spit when I’m brushing my teeth. My new house has thick carpet that absorbs all the sound, whereas my old house had tile throughout — so the sounds of daily life are different, more muted. Even sleep feels and sounds different. I sprawl out on my bed, legs and arms akimbo, and I have to sleep with a white noise machine otherwise the sound of the AC kicking on and off on the other side of my bedroom wall all night long disturbs my sleep.

It’s ironic though, that since I’ve made the excruciating decision to part ways with my ex and live an authentic life, I am so often overcome with the feeling that none of this is real.

My new life smells different. The house I left smelled like drywall and fresh paint. My new house smells like my cousin’s house that was constructed around the same time period 30 years ago, like carpet, laundry detergent, and the olfactory ghost of decades’ worth of holiday dinners.

How I think about money is different. Finances take up a lot more real estate in my brain than before since I run a single-income household now. I made a plan, I earn enough, and I’m confident in my budgeting skills, but I still worry sometimes that everything I’ve worked so hard to build here will come crashing down around me. That I’ll fail. So my motivation is different. Before, my ambition was leisurely, ego-driven. If some pitches got denied, if my book sales had a slow month, I knew I would be okay. Now I’m driven by the fear of failure. I make lists and count things and panic when I think I can’t get everything done.

We used to take regular vacations. There was always an event on the horizon, something to plan for, buy for, make spreadsheets for. I still have plans, hopes and dreams, goals, but they’re not the same as before. It’s not only my present that has changed. It’s my future, too. I used to look toward my future with a guilt-inducing dread, certain of what my life would look like, certain I wasn’t being honest with myself and everyone else, certain I was powerless to change anything. These days, I am certain about many things, but what my future looks like isn’t one of them.

Even family feels different. Before, my mother-in-law would come from my ex’s home country and stay with us for months at a time. I have no idea what this will look like going forward or even how I’m supposed to think about her now. She is a beautiful human being and has been nothing but kind, but we haven’t yet established a new normal.

Sometimes when I drop my kids off at my old house where my ex still lives, I’m overcome with a strange feeling. It’s like two competing feelings at once — that this house belongs to a former version of myself, familiar and like something I once believed I desperately wanted. But at the same time it also feels wrong, like a lie I tried to tell myself, like something I only wished I wanted. I thought that house would make everything better, but it didn’t. It is beautiful and spacious and sparse and a monument to how impossible it is to change who you are just to make other people happy. And yet that is where my children still live part-time. It is beautiful, and I want them to be as happy there as they are at my house.

These days, I am certain about many things, but what my future looks like isn’t one of them.

I never could have imagined how surreal divorce would feel. It’s just like culture shock. I know I don’t want my old life back — that’s not what this is. It’s that I lived that other life for 16 years, and this new and different life really does feel like a different country sometimes. Even being honest with myself and others is a form of culture shock. It is new to have people see the real me. I am new at being out.

I am happy, this is what I need, and this is the only way to move forward authentically. But it’s still new, and sometimes I have to do a double-take.