Category Archives: depression

Losing Dads in Divorce

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My dad died when I was 21 years old. I was a freshman in college. And the loss nearly took me out too. While our relationship had been tumultuous, losing the opportunity to connect with him, forever, was devastating. The real story is, however, that I lost my dad when I was about six years old. My mom tells the story that she told him he could choose to continue drinking and lose his family, or he could stop drinking. I’m not 100% sure it went down that clearly, but I am sure of the fact that my father was an alcoholic.

He exited my life in a big way when he moved out of the house. Even before his divorce was final he was remarrying another alcoholic and the slide down into darkness was as swift as it was complete. I have no idea what his new wife felt about his kids, but it was clear that neither of them cared about their kids as much as they cared about partying together. I recall this period as one of estrangement. I could no longer get close to my dad. He was either drunk lamenting his divorce, or drunk celebrating his newfound love. But there was not a lot of love to go around. The love was for the bottle. I know it sounds cliché, but it’s more truth than myth.

What my dad missed from my 6’s on was everything. I was a star tennis player (as my dad was a tennis player) but he never hit with me. I was a successful football player but my dad made one game that I can remember, and he brought “her.” I was an awful baseball and basketball player, and today I can see how other kids dads were instrumental in helping them get over the fear and challenge of competitive sports. But my dad was nowhere to be found.

Sure, he was a hard worker. He was a successful doctor. And somehow he kept his schedule and his medical practice even as his vitality was going down the tubes. You’d think after his first heart attack he would start making changes in his life. You’d think. And maybe the second heart attack would really be a wake up call. But, in fact, my dad had three heart attacks before he was forced to quit drinking and smoking due to the chemotherapy that was required for his cancer treatments.

For the first time in my young life, from age 6 on, my dad got sober. It was a glorious and amazingly sad time. As his brain unpickled, he began to speak about “missing so much of your life.” He was dying, and yet he began to understand what he had lost in the 15+ years since the divorce.

I took all the time with him that I could. I spend weekends out at his condo, at the golf course, with him. I even tried to play golf with him, but he was still a tyrant and jerk about losing balls. Well, me losing balls. Him losing balls, no problem. I was satisfied riding in the cart with him and enjoying spending time with him. Even though his body was emaciated, he did his best to enjoy the last year of his life. But the poignancy of the loss was almost too much to bear.

On Sunday as I was about to drive back into town, he said, “I really want to do more of this with you.” We had spent the weekend playing cards, me watching him play golf, and essentially catching up on our lives. The next weekend he was admitted to the hospital for the last time. What glimpse I had of my real dad was short and sweet. He died about three months later, after a protracted withdrawal phase where he couldn’t speak or communicate by more than a squeeze of the hand.

I miss my father. I wish he had been around to see my kids, to know my kids, to enjoy my kids. But not if he had still been drinking. So maybe he did us all a favor, by allowing the alcoholism to cure and then kill him rather than prolong his agony and drunken stupor. I’m pretty pragmatic about drinking these days, I do it some, but more than two beers simply does nothing for me. Why blunt my experience of living.

My father was blunting his experience of loss. In his marriage he made the wrong decision. He chose to leave and lose the best family he could ever have imagined. And even as he tried to grandiosely celebrate his new wife and new adopted daughter, the real love of his original family escaped him. Until he was dying. Then we all came rallying to his bedside. All four kids spent the last few months in town, trying our best to be cheerful and supportive, but quietly crying with each other at what we had already lost and what we were losing.

Today I saw a dad and his kid on the baseball field. I wonder if I would’ve been a better baseball player if my dad had not been an alcoholic. I wonder if I could have played first string basketball if I’d had someone to shoot hoops with. As it was, I was left to playing horse in the driveway by myself. My mom tried, but she wasn’t all that sporty.

Dad’s fulfill a vital role in our lives. When that role is limited or eliminated the children suffer the consequences. Let’s put the balance back in parenting. And when divorce happens, let’s fight to make 50/50 the norm and not the exception. I don’t think it would’ve made any difference in my father’s case, he didn’t want 50/50, he wanted out, in some respect. But the out he was granted was final and absolute. And until he was dying he drank to keep himself from feeling the loss.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Responsible Separation Is Harder than it Sounds

My ex and I tried to have a low-conflict cooperative divorce. Only problem is, she got an attorney, I didn’t. As cooperative as we were, when it came time to draft the decree we left it up to her attorney to set up the fair separation of our financial and parenting duties. It wasn’t fair and balanced. It was “responsible” for sure, because we agreed not to sue each other, but I was given the SPO (standard possession order) and the child support payments, just like 80% of other men getting a divorce with children in the early 2010s.

What she was doing was going outside the marriage, and outside our therapeutic relationship with our counselor, and consulting a divorce attorney to see what she was going to get should she choose to take further action.

What my then wife did, by seeking counsel before she mentioned it to me, by consulting with an attorney to understand her options, was she loaded the deck in her favor. By the time the “idea” of divorce was broached to me, she already knew what she wanted, she knew how it would likely go down, and she was fine with the consequences of her actions. Regardless of how those actions affected my kids and me, she was prepared for her “best case scenario” and I sort of gave it to her.

Again, let’s step back and take a snapshot of the days before my then-wife let me know she’d consulted with a lawyer to understand her options.

  1. We were not happy.
  2. We were not having sex.
  3. The money coming in from my full-time job was adequate, but we’d really need to discuss both of us working to get ahead.
  4. We focused on the kids as a way to not focus on our relationship.
  5. We were both seeking support and comfort outside the marriage. (Not an affair on either side.)
  6. We were living like roommates.
  7. I was beginning to express my dissatisfaction with the status quo and asking for changes.

And while I was doing my best to be an adoring husband, the lack of intimacy was wearing on my soul and my physical joie d’vivre. We were in couple’s counseling, but it always seemed the focus was on something I’d done wrong, like not tell her about a speeding ticket I got over the summer.  We never got around to talking about the relationship, or the lack of intimacy. Always some crisis of faith, some test of my “trustworthiness” was on the line each week as we meet and attempted a joining of the hearts and minds.

There was no join to be had. The sessions were cold. She was very guarded and withdrawn. She used the word “cynical” to describe our therapy at that time. I’ve never considered it any other way, but perhaps she was using the therapy to let me down easy. Anyway, she didn’t come out and tell me, I had to grill it out of her.

“Are you telling me you’ve been to see an attorney?” I asked during our penultimate session.

“I was just gathering information.”

Actually what she was doing was going outside the marriage, and outside our therapeutic relationship with our counselor, and consulting a divorce attorney to see what she was going to get should she choose to take further action. I was stunned in the session. I was hurt. I was furious.

“How could you not bring that up in here BEFORE going to see a lawyer?”

I was lead to believe that the kids needed their mom more than me, that a mom’s love is somehow superior, or more comforting than a dad’s love.

I pounded her via email over the next few days asking her for a decision. I had been in the cuckold box long enough. This moment of truth was either a time for us to regroup and join together again, or for us to work out the details of our divorce. While I was fighting during those first few days, I believed I was fighting for my marriage. What I didn’t know at the time, is I was fighting against the divorce more than for anything. See, I wasn’t happy either.

Responsible separation in the case of Laura A. Munson meant fighting for her marriage. Fighting against her husband’s depression and mid-life crisis, and fighting FOR the relationship. She simply didn’t buy her husband’s claims of being bored in the marriage. “Nope,” she said. “That’s not good enough.”

I wish I had been stronger. I don’t know that the outcome would’ve been any different. We would probably still be divorced. But I wished I had been able to question her about her motives for breaking up our marriage. Was it greener grass she was seeking? Was she asexual because she was no longer attracted to me? Was there someone else in her life that gave her joy?

What her move did, by going to see an attorney before discussing it in therapy, or talking to me about it, was it put the divorce into action before we had a chance to really map it out. She’d already done her due diligence. She knew what to expect from the court system in Texas. And she knew, like any mom in Texas filing for divorce knew, the mom usually get’s the kids, the child support, and the house. BINGO.

It’s unfortunate that the Bingo, or win for my ex-wife, had to be such a simple open and shut case. In several forums I was told that my ideas of 50/50 parenting were simply not realistic. I was made to question whether I could provide the love and care for my kids half the time. I was lead to believe that the kids needed their mom more than me, that a mom’s love is somehow superior, or more comforting than a dad’s love.

I lost 70% of my kids life in that split second in the therapy session when she said she’d seen an attorney. She knew she’d get the custodial parent role and approximately 70% of the custody. She knew she’d get the house, nearly paid for. And she knew she’d get a healthy monthly stipend that would allow her to keep the house without too much stress. She also knew she had to get a full-time job to divorce me. So she did.

It’s odd how the entire year leading up to the big fail in therapy, she’d been “looking for a job” that suited her sense of self. We’d been down several career changes together. I was supportive even as the bills were threatening our house, because I wanted her to be happy. The last year before we got divorced her income was actually a negative number. She was demanding I get the full-time job again, and she was apparently unable to get a job herself. Until she wanted the divorce.

Responsible separation would be 50/50 parenting, just how we did it when we were together. Responsible separation would mean not attacking the dad for being a second-class parent so the courts would rule in favor of the 70/30 standard possession order that is common in most states.

She knew what she was going to get. She placed her bets and altered the course of all of our lives to meet some new agenda she had cooked up alone. Or, if she had counsel, it wasn’t from me, or our couple’s therapist. He was as shocked as I was that she had seen an attorney.

The business of divorce took place over the next few months. I gave in on most issues. I was too depressed to fight. At that point I wanted to end the fighting and pain and get on with whatever was next in my life. I’m still sorry she chose the course she did. And I’m sorry the state of Texas still rules in mom’s favor 80% of the time, rather than in the favor of the kids by granting 50/50 custody.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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The Half-life of Divorce

Divorce is hard. Often both parents come out of the ordeal with hard feelings and resentment. You are the only one who can deal with your negative feelings. And you’re not going to be able to move on, to find another loving relationship, without dealing with them, so let’s get started.

  1. Anger directed at your ex is anger towards yourself and, if you have kids, the ones you love.
  2. Even the snarky text reply has consequences. Just don’t do it.
  3. Positive energy is often returned. Be positive, always.
  4. If you have kids think of them before every interaction with your coparent.
  5. The anger you have at your ex is equal to the internal anger you have with yourself at the failure of your relationship.
  6. Processing and letting go of anger at you ex is the most productive exercise you can do.
  7. Mental fitness comes before physical fitness, though the two are closely tied. If you are sad or mad, unless you know how to use those feelings for motivation, it is hard to get out there and exercise, especially in the heat of a Texas summer or the cold of a New England winter.
  8. Forgiving yourself comes first. Then you can forgive the other person.
  9. Neither of you is at fault. Even if the other parent initiated the divorce, it’s now water under the bridge and time to get on with the next phase of your life.
  10. No matter how bad you feel about the divorce, the loss of time with your kids, your ultimate responsibility is to heal yourself. Everything else stems from you getting, happier, healthier, and stronger.

In future posts I’m going to take on each one of these points in a separate article. But here is a brief encouragement to get you started.

Pain is an indication that something is unbalanced. Your sadness and pain at the divorce is no longer about your ex. Only you can deal with your frustration and negative feelings. So let’s get going.

  • Exercise (if it’s been a while, just start walking more aisles at the grocery store.
  • Eat good food
  • Get plenty of sleep
  • No matter how you feel, accept all invitations to be with others
  • Use entertainment sparingly
  • Don’t drink (sorry, the depressant effect of alcohol is working against you)
  • Pray or be spiritual in your own way
  • Cultivate gratitude (just count off the things you are grateful for upon waking and before you go to sleep.

You can get happy again. You can forgive your ex. And if you’re willing to work at staying positive you can find joy and love in your life again.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

Back to Positive Divorce & Co-Parenting

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reference: The 5 Love Languages  by Gary Chapman

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Back to School Time as a Divorced Dad

Let’s catchup a bit. I’ve been depressed. Yep, sorry to admit it. And more sorry that I couldn’t keep my promise of blogging through it. Wow, what a summer. And what lessons I learned.

The kids went back to school last week and I’m happier than I’ve been in months. All good. And last night’s “back to school” night for my 8th grader got me thinking about my divorce, my kids, my limited custody arrangement and where I am in my life at this moment.

  1. Divorce – I didn’t want it, and still sometimes find myself angry that my ex decided for all of us to end the marriage. Things might have been different if she knew she was giving up 50% of their time, but she knew she’d get 70/30 as is typical for uncontested divorces in the year 2010.
  2. My kids – how can I complain? They are doing great. While I can see the things that would’ve been different in their lives had we stayed married and had I been able to continue to infuse their life with joy and optimism that is a bit lacking on the other side… but again, water under the bridge.
  3. Custody – Again back in 2010, even if I had gone to court, it would’ve taken unusual circumstances to get 50/50 custody if my ex wanted something else. It just didn’t happen in Texas without extreme justifications. I couldn’t to that to my kids or my ex.
  4. My life now – Happier that ever. I’m engaged to a very different woman. I’m learning so much about being in a committed “no matter what” relationship. I thought that’s where I was in my relationship to my kid’s mother up until the moment she let me know she’d been to see an attorney.

So you get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.

I’m sad sometimes about the amount of time I have lost of my kids childhoods. I long some days for them to be 5 and 7 again and be loving, cuddling, little beings. But they are teenagers. They need other things from me: cash, a ride somewhere, cash, a shopping spree. Ho hum. That’s the way it is, sure, but it could have gone gone differently.

What if we’d gotten 50/50? What if my kids had retained my influence in equal measure to their mom’s? It was my intention and my dream but it’s not what happened.

One thing that would be different if I had my kids 50% of the time, or 70% of the time like my ex-wife has… I would not have been able to move as deeply and solidly into this new relationship as I have. (2 years and counting.) I have M-W nights off every week. And every other Th-Sun weekend. So I’ve got a lot of time without my kids.

In the early days of my recovery I was depressed. In the next phase of my divorce I was healing and positive but still alone. In the current moment phase of my life I have been focused more on myself than my kids. (70% of the time) And thus I have lost weight, spent time putting a band back together and playing tennis, biking, and cycling with my new fiance. I would say, I’m okay with those percentages today.

I would gladly take my kids back 50/50 but it’s not something that has been offered without some heavy conditions and ultimately she has backed out of every offer. Okay. So this is my life.

  • Happy
  • Sharing my happiness and self-confidence with my kids
  • Missing them all the time – but going on with my life (perhaps a lesson they have learned, that even though they’ve had most advantages of an upper-middle-class life, things were not always going to go as planned) they lost me too.

In my parent’s divorce it was the single most devastating event in my life. When my dad left the family I was 8 and he began a rapid descent into full-blown alcoholism that ended his life when I was 20. I didn’t get much of my dad’s attention until he was dying of cancer and the meds made him unable to drink. So guess what happened. He sobered up.

He sobered up and realized he had missed his relationship with his 4 cool kids for most of their lives. My two sisters moved back to town to spend time with him, but we only got 9 months of remission and when he went he was gone in weeks. He was lost to us completely.

So I lost a good portion of my kid’s childhood. Okay. There’s nothing I can do to get that back. And there’s nothing I can do to make them not teenagers and not rebelling and acting out in some “normal” way at this time in their lives. And I can’t help but miss them every time I see their picture, or get a text or Snapchat. It’s okay. We all get along. Even the ex and I are talking about getting my son a car in the next 6 months.

And so it goes. Another year begins. My daughter is on to Volleyball, Basketball and Track/Tennis. And we’re all back to our 70/30 routine. And I’ve got nothing to complain about and plenty to be grateful for. So that’s where I am. Happy to be out of the depressing summer and happy to have my kids this long weekend.

And I’m happy and in love.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Transformational Divorce

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Everything that happened from the moment my then-wife said she’d been to see a lawyer, has delivered me up to be healed in a way that would not have been possible had we stayed together.

I wouldn’t have wished for it, but I now see, looking back, that my divorce was the best thing that ever happened to me.

My entire world (kids, wife, house, work, neighborhood, sports, money, creative life, play) exploded into tiny pieces. When the business of divorce had been done I got what 90% of divorcing dads in America get: 35% of the time with their kids, the non-custodial parent role and a big child support obligation, and no house. It’s as if I went from Pleasantville to homeless in a matter of weeks. And the homelessness is no joke. The financial and psychological drains on a father in the midst of divorce are immense. I was barely able to stay afloat. And more than once I wondered if I was going to be able to stay alive. Perhaps my large life insurance policy would be better for my kids than me. WOW.

I’ve been working on selling my “Whole Parent” story as The Positive Divorce, but maybe that’s too tame. What happened after my divorce was life altering for me, my ex-wife, and my kids. And the Phoenix from the Flames has been my creative power caught fire, my writing found a deeper voice, and my audience, here and on several other blogs began to grow. I wouldn’t have wished for it, but I now see, looking back, that my divorce was the best thing that ever happened to me.

Sure we were making the best of it, but we weren’t happy. We had very different ideas about what the other person “should” be doing. Well, I’d say she liked to “should” on me all the time. I liked to “should” on myself, but was primarily a pretty happy-go-lucky man. I liked my kids, I liked my job (except when I hated it) and I did my best to support my loving and beautiful wife through every aspect of our relationship. But something was always wrong. Something never met her expectations. I couldn’t figure it out, but I learned that I couldn’t fix it either.

Lesson #1 before the transformation: I could not make her happy. I could not fix her. I could only keep myself focused on myself. (An old AA concept: never take another person’s inventory. You can only manage your own.)

Lesson #2 before the transformation: I am responsible for my happiness and the support and caring of those around me. But no one else can make me happy. If I struggled with depression, it was only me who was going to be able to bootstrap my way back to joy.

Lesson #3 before the transformation: Kids are the center of the universe, but kids will not save your marriage or make your life worth living. Kids are a lot of work. The most amazing and rewarding work of all, but still… The stress of having kids really toppled some balance my then-wife had kept together for our entire courtship. She went from happy and self-satisfied to exhausted and angry. That wasn’t really the kids, it was a tendency in her, that only she could deal with.

If you minimize the war with your ex-partner, you can give the kids a hopeful and optimistic outlook on life, even when things don’t work out as planned.

Lesson #4 before the transformation: therapists can be good or bad. A bad therapist can enable and encourage poor behavior. A bad therapist can coddle a depression. A bad therapist may do more damage to your relationship than no therapist. My then-wife has a personal therapist who allowed her to bury her feelings and not deal with issues until they became HUGE. My therapist allowed me to let her go even when I knew it was the hardest thing I would ever do.

Lesson #5 before the transformation: before the divorce you have no idea how you are going to survive. The time without your kids. The depression and loneliness. All the darkness of the divorce, brought me to my knees. And that’s when I learned to pick myself and my needs back up off the floor, dust them off by myself, and put a plan together to get what I wanted next.

Lesson #6 before the transformation: love seems like a long shot when you are losing the love of your life and your kids. But the transformation will burn away the sorrow at some point. The love you are letting go of will transform into power, direction, and clarity as you reach out for what you really want, now that you know.

Lesson #7 before the transformation: the kids seem to suffer, but they will be okay as well. My two children were 5 and 7 when the transformation happened. Today they are 13 and 15 and they are two of the happiest, most well-adjusted kids I know. While they know the price we all paid in away time, they seem happy and well-directed in their own lives. While I didn’t know if I could survive divorce, I was more worried about my kids.

If you minimize the war with your ex-partner, you can give the kids a hopeful and optimistic outlook on life, even when things don’t work out as planned. None of us would’ve wanted the divorce to happen. But as I talk with my kids today, we all agree that things are better now. I’m happier. I’m with a woman who makes me happier. Their mom seems to be happier. That’s the goal, happier and more centered in life, for all of us.

The transformation took about 4+ years for me. I have mapped it out.

transformational-recovery

YEAR ONE: It’s time to let your guard down and grieve. You’ve just gotten a divorce. Let that sink in. Miss your kids and allow that longing to penetrate your ego. Get angry. Find new things to do with your energy. Find new hobbies and activities.

YEAR TWO: As your life stabilizes a little you begin to refocus your priorities around the kids. Without the marriage as a focus you can pour your energy into your children. You will also need to begin your own healing process. Start a martial arts class, join a divorce recovery group, begin journaling. It’s time to work on YOUR recovery.

YEAR THREE: You begin grasping terms like co-parenting. You are now working more as a team. You may not agree with your former spouse, but you can agree on what’s best for the kids. As you begin feeling stronger and more yourself, you might begin to date again. Don’t start dating too soon, you’re liable to end up in another failed relationship.

YEAR FOUR: As your life begins coming together you can leave relationships that don’t serve your future goals. It’s easy to make your kids a priority, but you’d like to have a companion along for the journey too. You realize the job is a means to an end, not the meaning of your life. The “off parent” hours are spent doing things you love and perhaps finding another person to love.

In four short years my life went from shambles to aspirational. I learned that I was not going to settle for half-ass again. I had overlooked some early warning signs at the beginning of our relationship and marriage. I won’t make those same mistakes again. After the transformation you can reset your priorities.  You are being giving another chance to do it better, to get it right.

My divorce was the transformation I needed in my life to get back on track. I learned what made me happy. I learned I really needed to be with someone who shared the same sense of joy and wonder at the world, that I could wake up with every morning and say thanks to the universe for. I was looking for a WE that made my life bigger and better. My marriage provided a lot of growth, two wonderful kids, and the transformational experience that reoriented my life completely.

I give thanks to my ex-wife for releasing me back into the universe. I needed to grow and re-find myself and what made me happy. Then I was able to seek out a more like-minded partner and setup our long-term relationship on mutual goals and mutual adoration.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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The Little Oblivion I Will Often Seek

WHOLE-2016-ambien

I have to admit I do appreciate a minor amount of intoxication. I don’t do it often, but when I do, I revel in the relaxation, the joy, the fun of cutting loose. But that’s a little different from oblivion. When we seek oblivion we are looking to escape something, to get away from the complexities of life or living or love or loss. I understand this. Sometimes, I’m board, I want to be entertained for an hour or so and then I just want to black out into sleep. Well, not black out, black out, but you get what I’m talking about. I think, at times we all want a little oblivion.

I joked with my therapist that I was managing my life between Ambien doses. That’s funny, but it wasn’t very far from the truth.

For me, when I was suffering from depression over the holidays that oblivion came in the form of a very comforting sleep medication. Ambien. No matter how rotten I was feeling, I could count on a good night’s sleep when I took my little pink generic. And at $15 for a month’s supply, what’s to stop me, right?

Turns out while I did need help sleeping for a few nights, when my love of the sleep became something I looked forward to each day, that was a different desire right there. I was no longer having trouble sleeping, I was looking for the warm fuzzy of sleep. The big black blanket of pharma-enhanced sleep, is what I was craving as an escape from the hard times.

I joked with my therapist that I was managing my life between Ambien doses. That’s funny, but it wasn’t very far from the truth. See, if you don’t go straight to sleep, Ambien can make you a bit euphoric. And when you are depressed, a tiny sliver of euphoria can go a long way towards making you hopeful about joy in your life once again.

Each morning I would wake up a little more depressed, as I started slipping into a dark period, rather than a minor set back. And each night I would gladly affirm to my fiance that I’d taken my “sleepy meds.”

But it was no longer about sleep. On month two it was about joy. It was about a moment of feeling good and then a long dark and dreamless sleep. And they say Ambien is non-habit forming. HA. Who are they trying to kid?

I’m certain this is what many people are trying to do with daily alcohol consumption. A little buzz and a good night’s sleep. But this form of self medication is no better than my Ambien habit, and probably more destructive to their health. And Ambien does give you restful sleep. Alcohol actually interrupts your REM cycles and gives you poor quality sleep. So if you’re drinking to help yourself get sleepy you might consult your doctor and try something else.

The Ambien was having some sort of suppressive effect on my hopefulness.

But I get it. And I was getting into my little oblivion moments even as my life felt like it was spinning into the pits of blackness. I was drawing ever darkening pictures of my future in my mind. And each night I would release those wicked pains for a few minutes before I drifted to sleep. I’m guessing this is not unlike an opium habit, though I’ve never done opium.

Something, however was not healthy about what I was doing. I wasn’t clear about it until my prescription ran out one day in December and I missed a dose and missed my little high before falling asleep. The next day I had a much more hopeful outlook. I noted my desire to have an outreach conversation with my manager at work. I said to myself, that afternoon, “Wow, that was pretty hopeful.”

The Ambien was having some sort of suppressive effect on my hopefulness. I had seen this a few years ago. I loved my Ambien sleeps, but I noted that I loved them a bit too much. And the couple nights I didn’t fall directly asleep… Well, I really enjoyed those moments.

I watched my mood the next day after I refilled the Ambien. While I didn’t notice a downer, I also didn’t notice the lift I had felt when not on Ambien. So I took a break. And you know what. My hope came back almost like clock work. I haven’t had an Ambien since. Now, I’m not saying Ambien is bad stuff. In fact, in talking with my meds doctor about my experience, he said, “It’s a useful tool when the sleep is the real risk for you. When you are getting enough sleep, it might be best for you to stop the medication.”

Easy for him to say.

I longed for that happy moment. I felt like I was having no happy moments. My little oblivion felt like a reward or a respite from the depression. And it was not the first time I contemplated daytime-Ambien use. (BAD IDEA. Google it, it’s a thing, but it’s a bad thing.)

It seemed to me if they could make an anti-depressant that worked a little bit like Ambien… But what Ambien does is release some of your natural inhibitions. In my case this gave me the feeling that I could accomplish something. It gave me momentary breaks from my hopelessness. I believed joy was returning to my life. But the dawn would often bring back the same panic and dread.

I still sort of want an Ambien at night. But you know what, it might just be the dreams that also bring back the brain’s hopefulness in me.

They say Ambien makes people do stuff they don’t remember doing. Like eating at night, driving their car somewhere, or sleep walking. I never had that experience, but I sure had some emails I wish I hadn’t sent. Emails where I gushed on about how I was feeling better and would get my shit in order right away… In fact, why don’t we meet up for coffee in the morning.

Oh the coffee never came. But I was clearly “drunk” on something.

If drinking is a little like Ambien, I do understand the draw towards daily drinking. It’s not for me either, never has been, but daily Ambien, I could see how I might enjoy that if not for the side effects that it kills my hopeful attitude the next day and has me making promises my actually emotional state won’t let me fulfill.

I still sort of want an Ambien at night. I’d love to get that kind of sleep naturally. But you know what, it might just be the dreams that also bring back the brain’s hopefulness in me. And the waking up in the middle of the night to snuggle closer to your loved one, that keeps me a bit more centered. I’m not heading to oblivion each night, but I’m not waking up in hopeless hell either.

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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A Good Man in a Storm, Even After Divorce

WHOLE-2015-writer

The irony here is often the storm is me. I’m sorry about that, me and my depression can cause a few problems. But for the most part, about 85% of the time when things are tough and about 95% of the time when things are good, I’m an excellent companion come rain or shine. It’s the rain times that broke apart my marriage.

She no longer believed in the promise of our marriage, and she decided to take her chances, and unfortunately the chances for the rest of us, with other options. Divorce options.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. We tried. We survived. We worked through enormous hurdles and came out of the trials and tribulations with two beautiful and blessed kids. No noticable defects so far. (grin)

But the hardships were unbelievably hard. In my mind that gave us even MORE staying power through the down times. But for my then-wife, something must’ve broken at some point. She no longer believed in the promise of our marriage, and she decided to take her chances, and unfortunately the chances for the rest of us, with other options. Divorce options.

It was sort of sprung on me, even though we’d be in couples therapy on and off for several years. You can’t say we didn’t work it. We were doing the best we could. And we did pretty damn good through the hospital times with our second child. And we did okay in the times when my depression debilitated me for about a year. (I can explain this later, but not excuse it.)

So we’d been going to therapy, not to fix our relationship, specifically, but to help us learn how to communicate better. To stay in the reality of the situation rather than our own projections of what we “thought” was going on. SCT, it was called.

And that aspect of our therapist was grand. He really was helping us break down our own fears and misperceptions and get back to what was actually real, what the other person had intended to say, rather than what we heard. He let us know he was not a couples therapist. He was helping us get centered and clear with one another. And maybe that was exactly what he did.

The problem with SCT, however, is it does not really deal with emotions about the realities. It simply redirects you to what you know and what you are projecting about the future or lamenting about the past. We spend, as humans, a lot of time OUT of the present moment. And that’s a problem. So Rich, wasn’t trying to fix us or fix our marriage, he was trying to get us to tell the other person what we really wanted. What was really bothering us. And keep it 100% real.

Now, it seems to me that this would have been the perfect venue for my still-wife to tell me she was considering life without me, BEFORE going to consult with an attorney. But she didn’t do it that way. I found out in REALITY THERAPY that she’d already been to see a lawyer. Then when the emotions flooded forward from my disbelief and shock, our therapist sort of fell short of the mark. He consciously didn’t jump in the middle of it. Well, actually he did. I’ll get to that in a minute.

“You have a very hard time with honesty. And I don’t trust that things are going to get better. And I don’t have hope for the future of this marriage.”

When my then-wife said exactly what she felt was her truth, it was actually a projection about the future. So in that aspect the therapist should’ve redirected her back to this moment and what was real. He did not.

Here’s what she ultimately said, “You have a very hard time with honesty. And I don’t trust that things are going to get better. And I don’t have hope for the future of this marriage.”

Here’s what I was saying about my reality. “Things have been hard. We’ve done great at working through hardships that have been thrown at us. And at this moment in time I have MORE hope that our future is as bright as it’s ever been. Even this therapy is stripping away our worries and helping us focus on what is real.”

But it wasn’t enough to convince her to stay with me. And I was devastated right there in our our little “emotion free” therapy session. And while Rich allowed her to stay in her projected reality, he also took her side when she asked that I simply walk out of the house that night and tell the kids I was off on a business trip.

Again, bullshit, and again a failing of our therapist who should’ve been helping us communicate rather than siding with one of us. He agreed that she was under such stress that she needed some time off. Some time to recover her center.

“Why doesn’t she leave the house, then?” I asked, point blank.

Neither of them supported that idea. I’m not exactly sure why. And I fought with both of them, again. Not really the right place for an SCT therapist, but that’s what really happened. He was convinced I should leave her and the kids alone for a bit and regroup to see if there was something to salvage. I was in my own reality that THIS WAS THE EXACT TIME TO STAY REAL rather then lie to the kids and run out the door.

So I stood and fought. And we went to two more sessions with Rich, more for closure then progression. At this point he retreated back into SCT and the reality of the situation. The last session was more of an apology between the three of us for not being able to save the marriage. We were saying goodbye to each other and to Rich as our enabler.

Some people have different happy set-points. And I think her’s is very different than mine. A ton of things could make her unhappy. And often she found, still finds, ways to make it about me.

I’m not sure I would’ve gotten better results from a Gottisman couples therapist. I’m not sure I really needed to stay in that marriage. Sure, I can say I’m sad about all the kid years of time I lost to her rash decision and our therapist’s inability to keep himself out of our business, but in the end, today, I’d have to say it was a good thing.

You see, some people have different happy set-points. And I think her’s is different than mine. A ton of things could make her unhappy. And often she found (still finds) ways to make it about me. How I’m not taking care of her in the right way.

Again, SCT would direct her back to the reality of the situation.

  1. You are unhappy.
  2. You think he is causing you to be unhappy.
  3. But the unhappiness is in your thinking and not in his actions. He is not preventing you from changing the situation if it gets that bad.
  4. You can change your thinking at any time.
  5. The house is not too messy. The house is more messy than you would like it. It’s not his responsibility to clean house until you feel better. That’s why you hired a maid.
  6. You’re too focused on what he’s doing or not doing. Focus on yourself.

Those are some pretty good words of advice for any relationship. Oh and this one.

If you’re not having sex with each other, and the disconnect goes on for months at a time, something is out of whack. Even an SCT therapist should key in on this REALITY. But he didn’t.

I hope the best for my ex-wife and the mother of my two kids. I see now, that with her new man, she’s still about the same. She’s not all that happy. He’s probably not doing exactly what she would like either. But that’s the real lesson here. In relationships people need to look after their own realities and the ways those realities intersect with another’s reality.

In the case of my then-wife, she was unhappy about many things. I was happy about many things. It seems to me today we’re pretty much in the same situation, we’re just no longer married, and there have been some real complications put into our court. And she’s pretty convinced that I’m not supporting her correctly. The good part is I am no longer answering to her happiness, I no longer need to do her chores. That was about her. And perhaps more about her lack of desire for sex.

It was a reality I could not manage. In the end it was a reality that should’ve split us up and did. I am now free to have a relationship with a woman who enjoys life, who wakes up laughing, like I do. Sure, she’s got a list of things she’d like me to do differently, and I’m sure I have a few items for her. BUT we’re here by choice. WE love each other, daily, by choice. We don’t even have kids between us. But we love, laugh, and let go.

Love. Laugh. Let go. That’s a much better fit. So, in the end, I guess I’m grateful to both Rich and my ex-wife for releasing me for the next phase of my life.

LOVE.

LAUGH.

LET GO.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Minimizing Collateral Damage of Depression and Divorce

dep

I’m going to talk about my depression for a minute. Okay?

Why is it, that when I’m depressed I cannot see the hope in the pattern? Why do I sink so far that even my own internal dialogue is powerless to lift my spirits? It’s not like I haven’t been depressed before. It’s not like I don’t know that I eventually rise back out of my funk. But somewhere in the short-circuit of my brain, I can no longer experience joy or hope.

As a parent dealing with depression I’ve had to substantially moderate my communications with my kids and ex-wife during these periods.

It’s the hope that’s a real killer. And it’s this vicious and toxic self-talk that I moderate by getting completely quiet. Sure, it’s not a good sign when I’m no longer my boisterous self, but it’s also safer for me to not be spouting off my dooms day fantasies.

I can see that these thoughts are flawed. I can even state to myself, “Man you are really hitting some f-ed up thinking here. Let’s not pay too much attention to this storm.” But I always DO pay too much attention to it. Or I consume too much of my own energy battling the wicked thoughts that I begin to shut off from everyone around me.

As a parent dealing with depression I’ve had to substantially moderate my communications with my kids and ex-wife during these periods. Several years ago when I was going through some of the upheaval of the divorce, I had a pretty open conversation with my kids about my “cloud.” My son came to the rescue. “You mean like that commercial where the cloud follows the guy around raining on him? Like that?”

This is the only time a pharma-porn ad for an antidepressant has ever served a purpose in my life, other than reminding me that I’m depressed. My son really understood the concept and the cartoon illustrations seemed to make the disease more manageable.

And as we progressed through that difficult Summer, my son would occasionally ask, “How’s your cloud today?”

It was a great opening. I was able to reassure both of my kids that my difficulties had nothing to do with them. And that I was working with a doctor and some cloud-removal medicine of my own. It was a nice bridge for us to be able to chat about Dad’s issues. And when kids reach the age where onset depression might arise, I’m so glad we have the framework to talk about things like medication and the state of my cloud.

Even my ex-wife is supportive these days when things are “off.” She notices when my email responses take days rather than hours. It’s not her fault that she needs help and has questions that we have to answer together as parents. My depression does not abide by our needs or our schedule. And this year she texted me, “Are you having a hard time this Christmas?” Yep, as painful as it was to admit to her, it was more painful to hide the truth.

So I struggle with depression from time to time. Most of the time the onset has something to do with earning a living and the joy or panic around my employment. And today, I’m with a person who can embrace all of my flavors, and while she’s not enthusiastic about my quietudes, she is very clear that she is sticking with me, through thick and thin. She’s much better at the thin times then I am.

That’s the person I feel I really am. The UP person who’s trying to express myself in music, writing, and singing.

So moving forward, my challenge is to understand that I cycle. Is it bipolar? I don’t know, I think Bradley Cooper did us all a service by demonstrating the warped highs and lows of that variation of depression, but I’m not sure it’s that helpful a diagnosis. See, when I’m down my entire life suffers. When I’m UP, or HAPPY, or ENTHUSIASTIC, my life feels and looks as if everything it going well.

Well, what if the UPSIDE is merely my life going well. I have not spun off in a manic mode (out of control euphoria) since I did drugs in my high school days. My “highs” these days are really what I consider my full, creative, and activated self. Does this mean I’m cycling UP? Or that I’m getting hypo-manic? (Hypo, meaning just below the destructive mania.) I don’t think so. My meds doctor is not all that convinced that the label is very helpful in treating me.

So I get LOW. Those are the times I need the most help. When I’m UP I’m usually plugging along quite nicely. That’s the person I feel I really am. The UP person who’s trying to express myself in music, writing, and singing. It’s the ME that I believe my current fiance fell in love with. And thank goodness it was good enough to hook her heart to me before I took my first nose dive during our relationship.

And that’s the part that I have to work to repair. I do not need to jettison everything in my life when I start having a LOW period. And if I can hold on to the tiny hopes: 1. that my mate will stand beside me through the storm; 2. that the storm will pass; 3. that joy will return to my life.

But the message I need to keep repeating, even in the good times, is THE JOY WILL RETURN. If I can leverage that into some measure of hopefulness, then I am well along my path of recovery.

As we move forward as a family, I am certain I will have difficult times again. But now I’m going to counsel myself, and encourage my family to reflect back to me, with this truth: the LOW passes. If I can work to reduce collateral damage while I’m suffering from this brain flu, I will do everyone, including myself, a favor.

To that’s it. The hope is in the future moderation and mitigation of the LOW. To deny that it will happen again, or get overly cocky and optimistic about my happy times, is to open myself to the blindspot that is my depression.

But the message I need to keep repeating, even in the good times, is THE JOY WILL RETURN. If I can leverage that into some measure of hopefulness, then I am well along my path of recovery. I don’t have to aim for joy when I am activated and functioning properly. I do need to remember before, during, and after my LOW that I recover. I return fully and joyfully to my life. Forever and ever, amen.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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Thinking About Doing It: Depression and Creativity

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Yesterday I got a crash course in doing verses thinking about doing. Over the holidays I acquired a road bike and yesterday I took it out for a spin. In the first five minutes I was exhausted. Yes, I live in a hilly neighborhood, and yes I have not climbed a hill on a bike in quite some time, but I was a bit disappointed. And then I laughed. Wanting, thinking about, and looking at the bike was not the same as getting on the bike and riding. The idea of getting fit and being able to keep up with my fiance on the bike are nice ideas, but none of them happen in the “thinking about doing” realm.

When I actually had to explain to a friend, or therapist what was going on in my mind, I was often at a loss for words.

Over the last few months I have been quiet, trying to re-calibrate my brain. It was an enforced “time out,” that set me back on my plans and dreams a bit. And today I’m in the process of rebuilding the momentum I had before I slipped into a self-inflicted holiday depression. There was way too much thinking going on. Thinking that was not productive or positive in any way. And I listened and was partially paralyzed by the onslaught of chemicals that have been wired up to respond to such thoughts with much anxious energy and restlessness.

Really the answer to some of my issues would have been JUST DO IT, if I could have gotten there. But I simply didn’t have it. It’s not that I suddenly got lazy or started sleeping in. But some part of my mental-physical complex structure got out of balance and I stressed myself into paralysis. And when the adrenaline and cortisol start flowing, there’s a pattern that emerges. I hibernate. I hide. I run from problems that would be much easier to “just do,” but I can’t.

Again, thinking about doing something, is not the same as doing it. When I actually had to explain to a friend, or therapist what was going on in my mind, I was often at a loss for words. What I was staying out loud suddenly sounded so silly. The ideas that were ruminating around in my mind with vicious ferocity seemed so bizarre when I tried to articulate what I was thinking. And when I tried to explain why I wasn’t doing something I knew I should do, I only had one phrase, “I don’t know.”

I’m coming out of my illness and beginning to feel my hopefulness again. But I’m not able to climb a quarter-mile hill right out of the gate, my first five minutes on a bike. It takes some time to build up to that. My friend who sold me his used bike said, “Start out in the flats, build up to it.”

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Some of my depression is simply absurd. Some of my coping mechanisms are dysfunctional. And still I do them.

Some of you may know I’m writing a TV series from the “divorce” writings and struggles of a single dad. And today I’m planning, strategizing, and imagining the third (and finally perfect) version of my script. But I’m not writing it. I seem to think there is more planning to get done before I jump back it. But I’m pretty sure, I’m just scared.

Putting my butt in the chair and opening the script editor is the only way to make progress. Yes, I have a collaborative partner who has been hard to get a hold of, but there are plenty of scenes I can write without his next input. But I’d rather imagine it.

Sort of like my depression. I could imagine all these things happening. But when I actually had to talk about, to put it out there, it suddenly seemed absurd. Some of my depression is simply absurd. Some of my coping mechanisms are dysfunctional. And still I do them. I hide, withdraw, isolate, even when I know this is the opposite of what I need.

I want to be fit and healthy. But I’d rather read about it, that do it. It’s easier to join a gym then it is to actually show up. Sure the roads around my house are hilly, but that’s why I walk them. A lot.

To give myself a short pat on the back, I did continue to go out the front door and climb the hills around my house even when I didn’t “feel” like it. And even the “flat” walks have a substantial number of hills in them. Thinking about it now, I can recall times when walking up the hill I wanted to ride up yesterday that I felt how tired I was.

I am getting on the bike again. I am blogging again. I am writing the script this afternoon when I get home from work. It’s a matter of taking steps. Steps that can only be taken by stepping out the front door and actually engaging in the physical or creative process.

I love to dream about my TV series. It’s harder to simply keep writing it.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: the black cat of my depression knows I’m just not doing it, cc 2016, john mcelhenney, creative commons usage

Celebrating 2 Years of Being The Positive Divorce Dad

WHOLE-songwriter

You never leave the family, you just leave the house.

Two years ago I started this journey, finding the Positive in my divorce. My life was changed by the act of trying to reframe everything in a non-adversarial mode. Even when she would be mean, I would never respond in-kind. Ever. Having this blog, this Positive folder to put stories into made me more aware and more conscious of creating love and connection between myself and my kids. And in not riling up their mom, giving all of us an easier life, post-divorce.

As I have continued to weave my Positive Divorce story in the public eye, I have learned many things.

The angst of divorce is our own. The trauma of divorce is held within all of us. If I can behave in ways that support my kids in every interaction, I can remember to be kind, be slow to react, and be thoughtful of our continuous future as a family unit.

Things started two years ago with this post.

dad's gang

A Return to Wholeness After Divorce

There’s no way sugar coat it. Divorce is the single biggest event that has happened in the lives of my family, ever. As amicable as you want to make it (and we tried) things get rough, sad, hurtful, complicated, and confusing. And while we as adults can only fathom that chaos from our own perspectives, the churn in our kid’s lives will shape them forever. I know my parents divorce, and the subsequent loss of my father’s love and influence, had devastating effects on my life. I’m a survivor. I’m here to talk, write, and grow even more from the experience. But it sucked.

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And along the journey to now, I have discovered many things about myself, about my kids, and about this process of divorce and recovery from divorce. The goal, when you separate is to maintain a civil relationship and do what’s best for the kids. It’s a lot easier to say that than it is to actually do it. Your ex will do stuff that baffles your mind. You will want different things. You will do the best you can. And it will be a challenge sometimes, but I learned that when I was able to hold up the positive white flag of surrender, I was able to set the tone for my experience of the divorce.

I also wrote the manifesto for what I was doing. It has been updated several times, but the core mission remains the same.

Becoming The Whole Parent, author, John McElhenney

About Becoming a Whole Parent Again, After Divorce

My unwavering and immutable mission:

1. 100% positive
2. Kids first
3. Honest feelings

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In the second month I met Arianna Huffington at a tech conference. When she gave out her email and asked for ideas I was typing the message and including my post from earlier that morning.  All Available Light: Positive Parenting Energy Is Never Lost. I think that post really turned a corner for me. I was hitting stride and developing a different voice that would grow stronger the more I wrote. Arianna emailed me back within hours and I became a HuffPo blogger. See my archive: John McElhenney on the Huffington Post.

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It was at this point, a good three years into my divorce journey that I hit on my home run post. (Still getting the most reads of any page on my blog.)

What A Single Dad Wants In the *Next* Relationship

Rules for dating a single dad. (I’ve got two kids and a full-time job, but I’d still like to find time to be with someone.)

  1. Let’s not rush into things.
  2. I’m Looking for 100% Pure Connection
  3. I’m Into Moms

There’s more, but you can read it in the post.

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And next was the 2nd post divorce relationship and first experience with navigating another person’s resistance and dysfunction. All the while, learning to let it go, take it easy, and keep my focus on the present moment and not wondering and worrying about where we were going.

Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 7.55.42 AMLearning About Sex and Dating As We Go Along

Dating is not marriage. In fact, dating (which I admittedly don’t know much about) can be shut down by getting too serious or too future-plans oriented. As my schedule and future is quite flexible, I was surprised how quickly my “relationship” concepts changed yesterday when confronted with a challenging dilemma. On one hand I had met and “dated” an amazing woman. One the other she was telling me how our closeness and chemistry was freaking her out.

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And then I was able to open up a bit about post-divorce depression, which is common for us empaths.

WHOLE-thekissHow Long Will it Hurt? Divorce Recovery, the Road Back to Happiness

Today, over four years after my divorce was finalized, I was still struck by a pang of sadness as I was dropping my kids bags off at my ex-wife’s house, the old house, our old house. I wondered, “How long will it take before I feel nothing?” But I immediately knew the answer. I will always feel a loss when dropping my kids bags off at my old house. The rest, what I do with those feelings, is up to me.

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Everything seemed to fall into place after I wrote this important post.

WHOLE-prayerPrayer for Single Parents, and My Ex

“I wish you happiness in your new life, I always want to see you shine, you are the other half, the partner in this parenting journey we accepted together. Your joy is joy for our kids. Your peace is their peace, and mine. As we walk separate paths we are blameless and grateful for the gifts we’ve been given. And to you, my dear ex, I give the deepest respect and love. Thank you for where we’ve been, where we are, and where we are going, still a family, still parents, still blessed.”

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And from that point on, this blog became as much about relationship building and dating as it was about divorce and difficulties. Rounding the 5th year after divorce, things began to change for me.

I was invited to do a few interviews:

I began to identify my core relationship needs and decided drop online dating as distraction. I put the intention out there for what I wanted, and started working on myself and my joy rather than pursuing a relationship.

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I wrote The Deep Space Divorce Saga which began with

My Little Rocket Ship of Hope and Love WHOLE-rocketship

I am hilariously ashamed, and… Laughing at my situation, because if I didn’t laugh at it, I’m sure I’d be freaking out, depressed, or drinking. Something to escape my current grounded state. Ready to laugh? Me too.

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And it was right at this time, January of 2015, that an amazing woman showed up in my life and changed everything.

May I Fall In Love With You?

Do you long for the intoxication of love again, like me? I can feel it in my bones, growing stronger daily, as I grow stronger and more confident. And the more clear I get about 100% or nothing, the easier it is to make decisions about my time and efforts. Dating and a relationship will be a core part of my life again. Today, not so much.

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The new non-dating attitude and honest reinvention of myself had called in the perfect woman. I could not have known it at the outset, in January, when I wrote the post above, but within several months there was an entirely different thread being woven on this blog.

whole-bw-coupleAn Amazing Thing Has Happened

She arrived in my life in January of this year.

In February of this year my life fell apart, due to my own emotional tides and I slipped into a depression. I did not see it coming. I was on top of the world, and boom, I was freaking the hell out. And then the most amazing thing happened. She stayed close and connected.

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And the rest, as they say…

Thank you for staying on this journey with me. The outpouring of love and support has been vital at times. My positive attitude continues to get stronger and project itself into other’s lives, through this writing. I am learning. I am growing. And I hope, I am becoming a better father, ex-husband, and lover. Let’s see where we go from here.

I think my latest post shows a continuing search for meaning in all of this love stuff. And I’m very excited to be back on that path again. This time for good.

WHOLE-runner

The Care and Feeding of Your Lover

Pray for your lover’s health and happiness, then let go and let them pursue it however it best suits them in the moment.

 

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Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

Note on the intention behind this post and this blog: Yes, divorce is hard. Trying to whitewash every single detail of a co-parenting relationship in some fantasy land haze would be of benefit to none of us. I am committed to owning my part in the divorce, always. And I am hopefully clear on my self-awareness when it comes to my own struggles with money, depression, communication breakdowns, and disagreements with my ex-wife. What I hope, is that this post doesn’t come across as a humblebrag, but as a celebration of the progress I’ve made in navigating the last two years of being a single parent and co-parent. I always appreciate comments and feedback.

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