How I began to heal in the first year after my divorce

I started dating my ex-husband the year I turned 21. We got a divorce the year I turned 31. A decade is a long time to spend by someone’s side. My ex and I were best friends. We shared a home, traveled, and became adults together. He was there for me through my college graduation, my time as a high school theater teacher, and even moved with me to New York City so that I could pursue my dream of becoming an actor. We had a million inside jokes and laughed all the time.

We were happy for a long time…until we weren’t.

It’s been a little over a year since we separated — and although it’s been difficult, I’m grateful for all that I’ve learned.

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There is no set path.

When my husband and I first separated, I became a Google queen. I searched for articles about divorce, grief, and being newly single again. I wanted to handle my divorce in the healthiest way possible. I was looking for a step-by-step guide to show me how to cope, but all I could find were articles for single moms and older divorcees.

Hello?! What about the 30-year-old childless New Yorker with two cats who is single for the first time since college? What is it like for this fabulous lady?!

It took time to uncover what this experience would be like for me, and I had to go down some wrong paths to find the right one. For example, I thought it was a fantastic idea to go out partying on New Year’s Eve, days after my husband and I split, only to find myself sobbing on the G train as the clock struck midnight. Through missteps like this, I learned what was and wasn’t constructive for me. Trial and error helped me find my way, and inspired me to share my journey with other young-ish divorcees.

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Healing takes time.

“Healing from Divorce” was my objective of 2016. I went to therapy. I did yoga (so much yoga). I made a vision board and journaled. I tried meditation, used lavender oil, and drank a shit-ton of chamomile tea. I even made a “New Beginnings” playlist on Spotify and listened to it on repeat.

Despite everything I tried, I found that this whole healing process was taking longer than I would have liked! One day, I’d feel like my old happy-self again — and the next, I’d feel heartbroken. It was a bumpy road, and I had to learn to embrace the bumps. I discovered that pushing away the negative emotions didn’t help — it actually made things worse. So when I had a rough day, I learned to deal with it. When I felt down, I would sit in the park across from my apartment, listen to music, and cry my eyes out.

Once I was able to let the waves of sadness wash over me, only then could they wash back out again. For a while, I would feel better, and then another wave of grief would hit. Most importantly, I learned how to be patient with myself. Grieving the end of a marriage is no quick fix.

Dating is empowering…and so is solitude.

I dated! I met my ex when I was only 20, so I never had the chance to date as an adult. I was intrigued! I looked at the venture like another goal: “Learn to Date in New York City.”

Dating apps were foreign and exciting to me! I first joined Happn, then Bumble, then Tinder. I was nervous about the entire process. I expected lots of terrible first dates, but even the thought of going on bad dates interested me. And I ended up meeting a sea of kind, funny, and interesting men! As I created unique connections with different people, I was given a new understanding of myself. I learned how I interact, react, and recover in romantic relationships. I gained a sense of self-confidence and vibrancy that I hadn’t had in years! Dating was healing…until it wasn’t.

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It wasn’t all roses. I experienced the anguish of texting (ugh), and the confusion from being ghosted by a seemingly-great guy after hanging out all summer. I endured a string of chemistry-lacking first dates and, as it turns out, bad dates aren’t so intriguing after all. Finally, I spent several months seeing a man who I strongly connected with emotionally and physically, but deep down, I knew it wasn’t right for me long-term. Despite my best efforts to resist falling for him, I did —  only to have my heart broken all over again.

It can be really exciting and empowering to date, but you know what? It’s also important and healing to be alone. After all the ups and downs that accompanied my casual relationships, I decided it was time to focus on myself and my future. I started to work on my finances and career. I enjoyed that my weekend plans and Netflix selections were entirely up to me. Now I don’t have to share my queen size bed with anyone (other than my cats)! I found that the best way to figure out what I truly wanted out of my new life was to be on my own.

It’s okay to be a friend in need.

As an extrovert, I thrive on being with people and talking…a lot. I felt immensely better when I could vent, cry, and laugh about my situation with friends. This experience showed me that I’m lucky to have many compassionate and understanding friends who were eager to listen and provide support. My friends took such good care of me during this year. From impromptu coffee dates, to yoga classes, to a surprise Galentine’s Day party, they constantly lifted my spirits.

But sometimes, I felt guilty for relying so much on others to help me process my divorce. I didn’t want to be a “needy” friend. This guilt wasn’t because of anything my friends said or did — it resulted from my own insecurity. When I brought this up in therapy, my therapist asked if I would be there for a friend if the roles were reversed. Without hesitation, I responded “Of course!” My therapist reminded me that these are the times when we most need our friends, and that it was okay to let myself lean on them. When I let my feelings of guilt subside, I accepted the love and support of my friends as an important part of my healing journey.

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I can embrace a new future.

Towards the end of the year, my cat, Lion-o, had to be hospitalized for a life-threatening condition. After wrestling for hours to get my frightened cat into his carrier, I found myself alone at 2 a.m. at the Emergency Vet Hospital. While sitting in the waiting room and wondering if my cat would be okay, all of the sudden, everything that had been building up inside of me all year hit me. I am on my own. For the past decade, I had a supportive partner by my side in situations like this…and now, I don’t.

Thankfully, my cat ended up being fine, but this ordeal was a stark reminder that my life is different now. I no longer have a husband/partner to count on — but getting through this taught me that I am stronger than I thought.

In healing from divorce, I learned to let go of my former plans and embrace a new future for myself. I don’t know what’s yet to come — but I know that whatever it is, I can handle it.

I never imagined I’d be 31 and divorced with two cats. But I am. And I kinda love it.

Gemma Smith is a former high school theater teacher turned actor turned animal rescue advocate. She recently produced a web series, “NYC Pet Tails,” to encourage pet adoption! Gemma is re-discovering life post-divorce and writing about all her new experiences! She lives in lovely Astoria, Queens with her two rescue kitties. Follow her on Instagram and visit her website.

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