Two weeks in a leper colony won't make everything okay

From Thursday's GLobe andMail

And now we have penance travel.

Next, maybe someone will devise a heart-healing potion for the divorced. Or better yet, prescribe an organic recovery diet. Wait, I hear a bestseller title: Recover from Divorce in Five Easy Steps.

We live in a culture that craves tidy resolutions, so if sadness from divorce is a problem, find a remedy, one that soaks up the emotional spill like a square of super-absorbent paper towel.

ABC's reality show Ex-Wives Club, hosted by Marla Maples and other recovery babes, is one example of our quick-fix obsession.

That it doesn't work; that pain has its own healing timetable, like an emotional flu; that each person finds his or her individual way to recover - or not, in some cases - doesn't seem to matter.

In the September issue of Vogue magazine, Jessica Kerwin, a fashion reporter, writes a "road trip to recovery" story titled The Magic Touch.

Ms. Kerwin is going through a divorce. It hurt. So she decided to quit her job and go change bandages in a leper colony in India.

You're probably thinking the same thing I did - that she would be all wry and ironic, making fun of the fact that to understand what went wrong in her relationship she had to trade the world of perfect bodies for one in which limbs were withered, if not falling off.

She wanted depth, not surface. It could have been her clever response to the earnest post-divorce travel memoir Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.

But she is serious.

"Everything I feared most was right in front of me: being old, sick, abandoned, childless, poor," she writes of her job giving massages to old women in Anandwan, a leprosy treatment centre in the state of Maharashtra.

"By choice I was jobless, husbandless and homeless. But the women of that house - with their theatrical, precious, mischievous lust for life - showed me how to handle it."

Please. Do penance with the lepers, and presto, you're whole again?

Truth is, an extended wallow is partly how you begin to feel better.

I understand the desire to avoid the Miss Haversham syndrome.

The character in Charles Dickens's classic Great Expectations hardens her heart after her betrayal in love. Dressed in her wedding dress and covered in cobwebs, she shuts out the world and remains in a perpetual state of mourning.

Who wants that?

And I empathize with the desire to change environments in the hope that a new exterior landscape will rejig the interior one.

When I divorced, my first instinct was to move to England, where my parents and two of my five siblings live. I mentioned this to a male friend of mine and he, who has been twice divorced, sagely said: "You can go to a different place, but you will still be with yourself."

In other words, there's no escape from the emotional swamp.

"I have wished many times that there would be a hand that would come out of the clouds offering either a pill or a note telling me what to do," says Mary Tomlinson, a separated mother of three children who is a Jungian psychotherapist. Recovery, she says, is "a matter of time and conscious self-awareness. One can't exist without the other."

Self-awareness is often painful, Ms. Tomlinson notes. "It's a tough honesty gig," she says, adding that people should try to discover the patterns that got them into the unhealthy relationships in the first place.

"You have to think, 'Okay, this is what I do every time I meet a potential partner, and this is how it screws me up every time.' "

Everyone carries relationship patterns from childhood, she says. "You repeat them because that's what you did when you were young, to survive or cope, and they make you feel safe. The human psyche is extra conservative," she adds. "It doesn't like change."

Of course, therapy is one way to make a shift. You can only alter that which you are aware exists.

I saw a shrink every week for at least two years - before I split with my husband, and after I divorced him. She has an office up the hill from where I live, and every Wednesday I would make the trek, painfully with a herniated disc, to her couch, where I would talk about my life and my marriage at a young age and its unhealthy dynamic. I wept often.

It felt like a Sisyphean task, rolling my pain, both emotional and physical, up that hill every week, only to have to do it again the next. But I did learn what propelled me into my difficult marriage, and what kept me there for 18 years. It was interesting, actually, a bit like looking under the hood of your car to see what makes it run. I was fine-tuning myself for my second act.

The short-term salvation was work, which is true for many. Jeanne Beker, Canada's premier fashion arbiter, told me that when her husband informed her their marriage was over, her career "was the one thing that I knew wouldn't betray me."

For me, writing a column every week was the holiday from my life. I couldn't manage much more than that, and with three teenagers at home who were reeling, too, from the split, it wasn't easy. I would often ask the eldest, then 18, to put his brothers to bed, and I would go to sleep at 8 p.m. in order to get up at 4 in the morning to meet my deadline.

My world seemed quieter and calmer at that hour, and in my office on the second floor of my house, looking out over the darkened street, I felt like a captain in the wheelhouse of a ship, navigating its sleeping passengers through the night.

The work was therapeutic. You observe people, things, events. You write what you think about them. It was an assertion of identity that provided purpose and gave me back myself, that part I had lost in my marriage. Work wasn't just about having to support my children.

And now, five years on? Much better, thanks.

Ms. Tomlinson talks about her "crowbar moments," her term for the self-awareness she eventually learned. "It was when I could separate myself from myself, pry that space open a little and really look at who I am." Those insights add up over time.

I think of them as my Buddhist moments, when I see my life as separate from the emotions that float through it like passing clouds. I acknowledge them, deal with them, but I don't attach to them. I know they will not last. That practice leaves me with a clear view of myself and prompts me to live in the moment, not dwelling on the past I have examined, not projecting into the unknown future.

"You have a healthy relationship with yourself," offered a friend who has survived divorce, and thrived. "That's what you need before you can have a happy relationship with someone else."

The best travel, on the route to recovery, is within.



Our commentary in the Globe and Mail

September 19, 2007

  1. You (Ottawa Mens, from Ottawa Capital of Male Gender Apartheid, Canada) wrote: Men are treated worse than lepers in family court. The reality is that in family courts if you are a male you can feel the hatred literally oozing out of the court room walls. Generally, they don’t want to hear anything about a mentally ill violent woman or F R A U D. These are taboo words to feminist judges. If a man describes those symptoms of a woman he will be accused of attempting to damage her reputation. Even when judges go to great lengths to correct obvious fraud, a mentally ill violent woman can simply “knock on another door” but asking for another order to do indirectly what cannot be done legally directly and judges deliberately obstruct justice and allow obvious fraud. Take lawyer Lesley Kendall from the law firm Cunningham Swan Carty Little & Bonham. She personally fabricated an affidavit to obtain a “restraining order” when it was the mother who was violent and not the father. Lesley Kendall then gave her own fabricated evidence in front of Justice Denis Power that she was personally threatened by the father, while arguing for her client to obtain a restraining order to “end the litigation”, that is an indirect appeal. Justice Denis Power said “I can’t understand why the police laid the charges”, if he had read the pleadings he would have seen that the criminal charges against the mother were issued by Ontario Court Judge, Justice Guy Mahaffy. Justice Denis Power was outraged that anyone could obtain such an order. Justice Denis Power said “I can’t do anything about the order of Justice W.G. Beatty but I can issue a restraining order". Justice Denis Power of Ottawa did exactly that. He issued a “permanent” restraining order banishing the father from Kingston to “end the litigation” that was ordered by several judges in a row. Justice Denis Power ordered draconian costs that ended up at $20,000 which Lesley Kendal now says must be paid prior to any access that her client now has no object to but wont allow. 613-797-3237
  1. You (Ottawa Mens, from Ottawa Capital of Male Gender Apartheid, Canada) wrote: Canada is a leper society for men. There are no equal rights for men or children to have a father equally as often as a mother. The courts are so blatantly biased that mothers get SOLE Custody around 80% of the time. Fathers around 15% and then it was generally uncontested. Joint custody is only "awarded" in 3% in of the cases and that is generally with consent of both parties. Most of this litigation would never happen if parliament legislated a mandatory presumption of equal parenting after divorce and that would solve Canada's declining birth rate or "negative population growth. Its time for our politicians to raise and debate the issue of mandatory presumption of equal parenting after separation. 613-797-3237