As a family therapist who spent two decades helping others in their relationships, I prided myself on being happily married to a kind and gentle man. I was certain that my marriage would stand the test of time. That was why, 15 years ago, I decided to show my husband my unshakable commitment to our marriage by getting a tattoo with his initials.
It took the large, smiling, multi-pierced tattoo artist about 5 minutes, cost me about $100, and there it was: a permanently dyed letter "M" inside a little red heart. I came home that night and unveiled my new tat of a heart over my heart, smack dab on my left breast. Michael was thrilled and loved the permanent profession of my love.
Needless to say I was shocked when, a few years later, Michael announced that he was "bored and restless" in our marriage. It had never even entered my mind that we weren't okay. Wouldn't I have seen signs of trouble? I was a family therapist, for God's sake. Friends always commented on how happy we seemed. We rarely argued, and had what I thought was the sweetest bond of anyone I knew.
He swore that he was not having an affair. All he could say was that he was confused and asking himself, "Is this all there is?" It seemed straight out of the midlife crisis books.
I can't remember exactly how long I managed to stay in the house after that. I think it was only a few weeks, but we lived like polite strangers. I kept wanting to shake him and say, "Michael, it's me! It's the woman you belly laugh with and sing silly songs with and make love with and have private jokes with and took vows with to grow old with. I kept thinking he was going to come to, that he would walk in the door and say, "Honey, I'm back. It's the guy you can count on." But he didn't.
So one rainy day, a few weeks into the new millennium, I packed some bags, picked up my dog in my trembling arms and told my husband I was moving in with my best friend. He said he was scared and that he didn't want to lose me. He said that he was so, so sorry. He didn't, however, tell me not to go.
The months that followed were a blur. I cried and I prayed. I went to work and took lots of walks with my dog. I let my friends and family love me. I found an amazing therapist, who reassured me that I would survive and insisted I focus on my own needs and wants rather than Michael's.
What I lost was some trust and some innocence. What I got was myself. I saw what I was made of and I grew up. Or rather, I was forced to grow up. It was not what I had asked for and certainly not what I had planned on when I walked down the aisle in that flowing white dress, but it's what I was given.
And two years into the separation, as I prepared to file for divorce, I knew I had to get rid of the tattoo. As much as having my breast etched with that "M" symbolized my love for Michael, having it removed symbolized a reclaiming of my heart.
Getting the tattoo put on hurt about as much as a bad period cramp. Getting it removed? Well, that's another story. I started out at a nearby spa that claimed to "specialize in tattoo removals." It was only after the first 10 or 12 expensive zaps (that felt like a rubber band shooting a burnt match onto my breast) that the young woman wielding the laser gun informed me that I was her first tattoo removal. I promptly insisted on a refund and set about to find a place that had actually done this kind of thing before.
I landed at the gang tattoo removal center in a nearby hospital. And there I sat, week after week, with my cell phone and attaché, surrounded by tough young men getting their signs of machismo removed.
In some ways, my tattoo experience felt a lot like my marriage -- cheap and easy to enter; agonizing, expensive and long to exit. Some 20 treatments later -- as tragically comic as they were painful -- the tattoo's shadow remains. The M is now pretty well faded and the heart is an undefined blotch. But I am on the other side now, and I seldom look back. I endured what I thought was unendurable, and if you are in the midst of a separation, divorce or some other agonizing life chapter that you think you cannot get through, I am here to tell you that you can. No matter how much pain you may be in, you can endure and persevere and actually come out stronger and happier on the other side. The balm of time will do its thing and a new chapter will emerge. I promise.
So is this a story to discourage people from getting tattoos? Okay, well I can go with that. I say, if you want to do something a little wild, get a stick-on tattoo, get a toe ring, sleep in, eat a pear without washing it. My main point here is to trust that you will be okay even if things do not feel okay at the moment, that you do not have to stay in a relationship that feels intolerable and that being single is not the same as being alone. Being single is not a life sentence and when you like your own company, spending a cozy evening at home can be as sweet as a Saturday night date on the town.