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Coming Full Circle: One Dad’s Divorce Recovery

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Divorce strips away everything you’ve known about life to date. In many ways, for men, the experience is quite different. In my state, Texas, about 80% of women get primary custody and the house. It’s a cliché because it’s true. And while that might not always be the best arrangement, I can understand how simplifying the normal trajectory of divorce helps both the courts and the legal system that is supported by the “divorce business.”

What happens to the dad, when he is asked to leave the house and step away from his current life is unlike the experience for the rest of the family. And to be clear, someone has got to leave the house. And one of the stabilizing forces for the kids becomes the “house.” The goal is not to throw the kids into the massive turmoil of the “adult” decisions and the process of divorce. So, someone has got to go.

Still, the disorientation is devastating. And depending on your preparedness and anticipation of the divorce, your new experience can be both magical and dark. In my case, I was dropped into a spare bedroom at my sister’s house. It’s possible that this crash landing into something soft and familiar was what saved my life. (Suicide is a very real threat to fathers in divorce. The absolute loss of everything, can unsettle even previously strong fathers.)

Your family of origin could be your lifeline after divorce. I fell into step with the cadence of my sister and her two kids. She’s been divorced for several years, so she was quite sympathetic to my experience. Of course, she had kept the house and majority of the kid-time in their divorce as well, so her actual perspective on my situation wasn’t 100% similar. Either way, I came to rely on my sister and her kids. And when my kids were with us in the “temporary house” they had built-in friends as well, and this took a lot of the pressure off me during those first few months.

I could make it through the time with my kids, and keep up the brave face of their dad. But when they left, I crumbled quickly back into my isolation. Family dinners became a gut check every day. A wonderful gut check, but a “how are you today” moment, every single day.

What I didn’t need, as someone who has dealt with depression was a lot of time alone. When I’m depressed I withdraw. In the darkest moments, even my kids didn’t provide the “reality check” to bring me out of my stupor. I kept most of my sadness to myself and rose to the occasion when it was my weekend. But I was barely maintaining. I was so lucky to have a sister who got it, who supported me, and who provided a roof, bed, and food for a few months while I reconstituted my life.

Today, about 4.5 years since I walked out of my house, I am spending the week back at my sister’s house. She’s out-of-town and I’m caring for the dog and cat who still occupy my old crash pad. It’s a wonderful place to reflect back on where I’ve come, where I’ve changed, and where things are back in a similar place.

At this moment, it’s hard to admit, but, I’m homeless again. I’m staying here because I need a place to live. The story of how I got here, in 4.5 years is for another post. (Or another blog, perhaps.) But what is up for examination is what’s changed and what’s stayed the same. Occasionally it’s a good idea to take a semi-formal inventory of your progress along the path of rebuilding your life. From this perspective, we can make adjustments and set goals for what we want to create.

What’s good about now, where I am, and where I’m headed.

  • I love my life
  • My kids are quite happy and successful in their education and personal growth
  • My creative output is high, and I’m on the threshold of publishing my first Whole Parent book
  • I’m on a renewed commitment to health and fitness
  • And even alone, I’m as centered and “whole” as I’ve ever been
  • My relationship with my ex-wife is more business-like than I would’ve preferred, but that’s certainly efficient
  • Our kids reflect the love of both parents, as we haven’t ever bad-mouthed each other, they understand that we still love each other and them, but we’re just not married anymore
  • Work prospects are also growing, and my path out of my “temporary housing” has not arrived, but it is in the works

What things I still need to focus on changing or healing

  • I’m pretty positive, but there are still some underlying “injustice” feelings that I need to process and get over
  • I’m sad about the divorce from time to time, and I am still releasing any focus on my ex-wife and her success
  • My new fitness commitment is just starting (October) and I’m still in the process of understanding all of the facets of my relationship to my diet and my health
  • My income needs to step up about 200% to get me out of my transition
  • I’m still hesitating slightly on the full-embrace of the role this divorce/relationship/parenting blogging could have on my life, and my future career transition (but I’m getting closer to this one)
  • My own relationship status has been mostly single. Happily single is still single. I’d like to find a relationship that begins to form the next chapter of my life, beyond single.

I keep repeating how happy I am. I’m sure it’s a mantra of sorts. A sort of self-soothing, a self-regulating process I am working to keep myself upright and healthy even as most of my material possessions and privacy are gone. Fine, I walk away from all the things and return to the self. I return to myself and my internal makeover that began 4.5 years ago. This writing is a huge part of the process for me. I’m in therapy, sure, but this connection with myself gives me almost daily sessions. And my talky therapy becomes more of an affirmation and firming-up of my convictions.

  • My kids are well.
  • I’m 99.2% positive. (Still shooting for 100%.)
  • My honest sharing here has picked up momentum and a following thanks to The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project.

And I am happy for the healing in my family that has come from flipping all the negatives of divorce on their ass and finding the way back to love. Everything in my life is about love. And the love and support of my kids come before all of my own needs and goals. They are not a goal, they are my life. And while I’m not putting *my* life on hold, I am putting their care and feeding as my ultimate priority. That’s my big AH-HA moment. They are my WIN.

And as I progress along my path of recovery from divorce, I continue to do some of the best writing of my life. That’s what’s cracked open for me. As a writer and English major, I’m grateful that this transition has given me a strong voice. And the better I understand myself the stronger my life and my writing voice can become.


John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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image: temporary housing bliss, john mcelhenney, oct 2014 cc

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