At the end of my sophomore year of high school, my mom drove me from my house to school for what I thought would be just another day of classes when all of a sudden she announced that she wanted to divorce my dad. I still remember everything: In an attempt to impress a senior crush, I was wearing newly purchased jean shorts and my sister’s striped shirt, which had been borrowed without asking. I tried to focus, but I only survived first period before my mom had to come and pick me up. We drove to various houses that weren’t ours so she could talk to her friends. During one stop, I sat in the driveway, hoping the spring air would bring some answers, but it didn’t. That first moment of knowing, truly knowing, that my family was disintegrating felt like being pushed off a rock and belly flopping into an ice-cold river.

The news came as a complete shock. Sure, my parents fought. But I didn’t think they yelled any more than other couples. Maybe, because I was the youngest, my family tried to hide the warning signs, or maybe I simply ignored them. Whatever the case, I didn’t see it coming. My heart heavy, I called my best friend, who lived in another state. I couldn’t even articulate my loss. I didn’t really believe in God, or myself. I just had my books and my family. That was my stability, and it was enough for me.

That day still rings clear, but the two years following it are a blur. My mom and I stayed in the house I grew up in, while my dad moved into a tinier home 15 minutes away. Those 24 months were a jumbled mess of constant fighting and court decisions. Anything and everything they could argue about, they did: money, visitation, assets, my few acts of rebellion (such as spending the night at my boyfriend’s house without permission). They both had more anger and pain than they knew how to handle, and they used it as ammunition to hurt the other whenever the opportunity presented itself. At times, I thought the screaming and the tears would never cease. I watched my parents act like two teenagers, approaching me with their he said/she said situations and taking not-so subtle digs at each other whenever I was with only one of them. I wanted to be the one fighting with my ex-boyfriend and yelling whenever I was angry, but I couldn’t. There was no room for my recriminations.

At first, I was beyond frustrated with my parents for robbing me of those last years of official childhood. All the holiday magic that disappeared from our life, all the fights they put me in the middle of, hoping I would choose one side over the other. It was all filling my heart with resentment. I believe that if I had gone through it alone, I would have ended up bitter and hateful.

Fortunately, I had the love and support of two very important people: my siblings. Being the youngest, I had always looked up to my older brother and sister. They were cooler, smarter, funnier, more fashionable and more athletic than me. People liked them, and I wanted to be like them. But I was still a pest of a sister who embraced her inner brat a little too much. I stole their possessions for other people’s birthday presents, and never tired of the classic “I know you are but what I am?” comeback. They didn’t exactly invite me to their bedrooms simply to hang.

But when my parents divorced, they surrounded me with love. They were protective and strong in a way I had never seen before. My sister was off in college, but she still called me often and let me cry as I needed to. My brother, who had returned to our hometown after college, always offered me a place to stay when it felt like my home was being swallowed up by anger. Without them, I don’t think I would have ended up feeling the way I do about my parents’ divorce.

And what I feel is thankful. And not because I escaped a house where insults were hurled like dishes (which were also hurled). I am thankful because of what I learned about life, my family, and myself. For instance, the awfulness of their split taught me the value of self-reliance. There were many days when the only way I could escape the fighting was to turn off my phone and sit outside in the local park surrounded by soccer fields and hiking trails. Children shrieked merrily as I stared out at the creek. Sometimes I would skip rocks; other times I would swing until I felt nauseous. Those moments introduced startling simplicity into the world of complication that my life had become. And it was during those times that I rediscovered the importance of nature. I conditioned myself to slow down and take a deep breath of Georgia’s mountain air.

And when I couldn’t formally escape, I focused on the little moments of my day. I would curl in bed, the tears mingling on my sheets, and think of happy memories from my day. Sometimes, I could only find one, but it kept me waking up in the morning. I developed a skill for picking out the flower in the storm, something I still try to practice each day. I learned how to find my own peace, which is a gift I’ll always be grateful for.

My family was thrown into a blender when my parents signed the papers at the start of my junior year. There were days when I thought we wouldn’t make it through, and that it would be easier to go our separate ways once I was old enough to support myself. I felt we would be better off being one of those families that didn’t keep in close contact. I can’t count how many times I just wanted to run away and move in with a friend.

But I’m glad that I didn’t. Slowly, I gained a new respect and love for my parents. My mom showed me what genuine strength and resilience looked like. She did what she had to do when she divorced my dad, and I see now that it was the best decision for her. As I matured and learned more about her reasons, I better understood her choice, and I realized how brave it is to stand up for yourself and change your whole life. She showed me what it means to love yourself and why it’s so very important.

And my dad proved to me that not everyone runs away when confronted with hardship and pain, and why I shouldn’t either. I am sure in some ways it would have been easier for him to walk away from our family, to move cities and start over. But he stayed around to fight his inner demons, which I won’t detail here, and continued to build a relationship with my siblings and me, which I deeply appreciate. He proved that we mortals are never too old to improve ourselves, and one day that will probably mean even more to me than it does now.

And because of my siblings, I learned there is no stronger bond than the ones between brothers and sisters. We had to protect and love each other when our parents weren’t able to. There was a lot of in-fighting, and I still want to throttle them sometimes, but I will never stop loving them fiercely.

Finally, I discovered my own strength. The divorce was nasty and cruel, and I’m still bruised by its viciousness. But three years later, I am no longer weakened by it. I grew up, I survived, and I did not change who I fundamentally was. I found something unbreakable inside myself, and I started to believe in myself in a way I didn’t know how to before.

Divorce is never easy, and it’s different for everyone. The best advice I ever received about it was from an old friend. She said, “You will feel emotions you never even knew you could feel.” And I did. There are still feelings I don’t even know how to put into words. Divorce hurts people, but it is possible to walk away with more than just scars. Without that experience, I wouldn’t be the same person that I am today, and that person is pretty damn special to me.

[Illustration by Melanie Ford Wilson via here]