Your Ghost Is Right
One year ago today I decided to start writing the Dear Sugar column again and now here I am, pondering which letter I should answer for the October Dear Sugar Letter, my twelfth in this new iteration of the column. As usual, it’ll be emailed to those of you who’ve subscribed (thank you!) on the last day of the month. This month, that day is Halloween.
I’ve never been good at Halloween. My attempts at dressing in costumes—in the years that I’ve felt compelled to dress in a costume as an adult—are lame and half-hearted. I’ve dressed in all black and drawn whiskers on my cheeks and called myself a cat more times than I can count. Several years ago I bought a poncho with a spider web stitched on it at a post-Halloween clearance sale and that, along with a swipe of dramatic makeup, has become my go-to outfit for handing out candy when kids ring my doorbell. I’m not drawn to scary things—or at least not the frightening things that Halloween is famous for. Ghosts and monsters and ghouls. Horror has never interested me.
And yet, so much of what the Dear Sugar Letter is about is connected to the themes of Halloween. The masks we wear that both conceal and reveal us. The darkness we must confront in ourselves and in the world. The ghouls that gnaw us with regret or shame. The monsters of trauma and loss that stalk us. The scary truths that chain us down until they’re finally acknowledged.
Horror doesn’t interest me but finding strength and courage and beauty in the darkest center of the most horrifying things always has.
I woke in the middle of the night thinking about this. Probably because before I fell asleep last night, as I read dozens of letters in my Dear Sugar inbox trying to figure out which one I should answer in a few days, I was struck yet again by how many of people were asking, in essence, the same haunted question: is it okay to be who I want to be, to do what I want to do, to live how I want to live?
The ghost inside us who knows the answer is yes is the scariest ghost of all.
Speaking of holidays, as the various winter celebrations draw near, I’ll be signing and personalizing books that you can buy as gifts for your loved ones, colleagues, or sweet self. Simply order them through my wonderful local independent bookstore, Broadway Books, and make sure you include the name of the person you’d like your books signed to. I do this year-round, but I like to point it out at the holidays because what’s better than a signed and personalized book? You can order yours here.
If the summer holidays are more your thing, in July, I’ll be sailing the beautiful Danube River through Hungary, Austria, and Germany with Avalon Waterways as part of their “Storyteller Series.” If you want to sail with me, you can find more information here. I expect it’ll be a blast.
I’m going to sign off with a Dear Sugar column that I wrote several years ago about a time that I took my own ghost’s advice and decided to divorce my first husband. It’s called “The Truth That Lives There” and in it I answered three letters rather than one because I had so many letters from people who were grappling with the same conundrum about whether to stay or go that it felt wrong to choose a single letter. In the years since Tiny Beautiful Things was published—in which this column appears—I’ve met countless people who’ve told me this particular Dear Sugar changed their lives. I felt bad about that for a while because I was afraid that I’d encouraged people to break up with people they loved, but then I realized I hadn’t done any such thing.
I’d only told them what they already knew: your ghost is right.
I'm a 26 year-old woman who has been married for nine months. My husband is 40. His wedding proposal was terribly romantic, like something out of a movie starring Audrey Hepburn. He is kind and funny. I do love him. And yet...
He's only the second person I've been in a serious relationship with. Throughout the wedding planning process I had second thoughts about settling down so young, but I didn't want to hurt or embarrass him by calling off the wedding. There are so many experiences I fear I'll miss out on by staying married to someone older. I want to apply for the Peace Corps, live all over the country, teach English in Japan, and yes, date other people. These are all things I was giving up when I said, "I do." But it's only hitting me now.
I feel stuck. I want to leave but I'm also terrified of hurting my husband, who has been so good to me and who I consider my best friend. Sugar, I've always played it safe: I picked the safe major, accepted the safe job, went ahead with the wedding. I'm terrified that leaving my husband will mean I finally have no excuse for why I'm not living the bold, experience-rich life I've always dreamed of.
Sugar, please help me.
Playing it Safe
I am a messed up woman. I bear the scars of much emotional abuse, some physical abuse, and one sexual assault. I have an addictive personality, flirt with anorexia, OCD, and I don't know what it's like to live without the flush of adrenaline in my body from chronic stress. I'm vain, self-absorbed, depressed, angry, self-loathing, and lonely. Routinely.
I was raised to think I was a filthy person and God would only love me if I behaved. I mostly behaved. Then I met a man who told me God would love me anyway. I converted to fundamental Christianity and married the man. I was eighteen. That was seven years ago.
He is, for most intents and purposes, a good man. He means well and he loves me but he suffers from the faults of most young men in our religion: the head of household syndrome. I'm expected to be a certain way, so I am. He doesn't realize he does this unless I tell him, and I've stopped bothering to tell him after so many years. But I am not really that person, and the longer we're married the more trapped and broken I feel about burying the real me, the messed up person I already described. He knows all my scars, but as a Christian he doesn't understand mental illness at all. He pleads with me to trust God more. He says if I just try harder, he knows I can get better. He says I have such potential.
I don't blame him for my discontent (entirely). We were told we were too young to marry, but despite my own misgivings, I married to prove everyone wrong. We're both incredibly stubborn. I thought if I could be the person I was supposed to be, I would make myself okay. I would be better. It was a lie I told myself.
I love him. I don't want to hurt him. But I don't know how to stop this charade, how to heal, or how to make him understand. I spent a week in a psych ward for depression a few years ago because I just needed to put the brakes on and knew that the only way to get through to him was something drastic: either I killed myself or I got help. I got help. However, the mask was back in place as soon as I was released, and my therapy was a joke. Nothing changed, and I feel myself reaching the breaking point again. I no longer have any urge to kill myself, and can recognize my own warning signs, but I do need a break. Pretending is tiring. My health has suffered over the past few months. We finally bought our first house, and most days I sit around it weeping.
I have thought of leaving so many times, but I don't want to hurt him. He has worked hard to allow me to stay home (though we have no children). If I left, he would become a pariah in our church community, where we are currently leaders. I don't want to do that to him. He does not believe in divorce, unless I cheated on him. I no longer know what I believe. I have tried talking about how I feel before, but we're on two different planets. If I confronted him about how I feel now, he would feel betrayed by me, and I would feel horrible. He in the past has refused counseling, saying our/my life is great and we don't need it, even if I do. My fear is that, as usual, if I say something, we seem better for a time, and the cycle continues. I am tired of the cycle.
Where is the line, Sugar? When you want the life you have to work but it doesn't, and you aren't sure it can, and when you want a completely different life, too, because human beings are complex and it's never that simple, which way do you go? Do I stay and rub myself out until maybe I am the person I was always expected to be? Is this just what it means to be an adult? I never had a good example of a marriage until I was already married, in my in-laws, and we do not look like them. But could we, in time? How long do you try before you admit you will never be that person? I accept the responsibility for making such a mess of my life. It seems inevitable in hindsight. But that doesn't get it cleaned up.
I am a woman in my late twenties who has dated the same guy for almost three years and lived with him for almost a year. All of my friends seem to be getting married and I feel as though I should be considering marriage too. However, the thought of marrying my boyfriend makes me feel panicky and claustrophobic. He has mentioned once the possibility of us tying the knot, and I think he sensed I was not comfortable discussing it, so he didn't mention it again.
I’ve not had many boyfriends—one steady relationship in high school, a few very short-lived relationships post-college, and now this one. My boyfriend is the sweetest person you will ever find, and we have some things in common, but I don’t feel like those few things are enough. I find myself fantasizing about dating other people. I find my respect for my boyfriend waning. I don't know if this is a temporary feeling, or if this relationship is not meant to continue for the long term. I'm bored with him and I’m afraid I will get more bored as time goes on. I'm also afraid that there really is no one better out there for me, that I should be grateful for what I have, and that anyone I would be seriously interested in would be unlikely to be interested in me in the same way (seems to be the case, judging from experience). I hate feeling like I'm doing my boyfriend a disservice by not loving him as much as he loves me.
What do I do, Sugar? Thank you for your help.
I chose to answer your letters together because placed alongside each other I think they tell a story complete enough that they answer themselves. Reading them, it occurred to me that allowing you to read what others in a similar situation are struggling with would be a sort of cure for what ails you, though of course I have something to say about them too. I struggled with these very questions mightily in my own life, when I was married to a good man whom I both loved and wanted to leave.
There was nothing wrong with my ex-husband. He wasn’t perfect, but he was pretty close. I met him a month after I turned 19 and I married him on a rash and romantic impulse a month before I turned 20. He was passionate and smart and sensitive and handsome and absolutely crazy about me. I was crazy about him too, though not absolutely. He was my best friend; my sweet lover; my guitar-strumming, political rabble-rousing, road-tripping side-kick; the co-proprietor of our vast and eclectic music and literature collection; and daddy to our two darling cats.
But there was in me an awful thing, from almost the very beginning: a small, clear voice that would not, not matter what I did, stop saying go.
Go, even though you love him.
Go, even though he’s kind and faithful and dear to you.
Go, even though he’s your best friend and you’re his.
Go, even though you can’t imagine your life without him.
Go, even though he adores you and your leaving will devastate him.
Go, even though your friends will be disappointed or surprised or pissed off or all three.
Go, even though you once said you would stay.
Go, even though you’re afraid of being alone.
Go, even though you’re sure no one will ever love you as well as he does.
Go, even though there is nowhere to go.
Go, even though you don’t know exactly why you can’t stay.
Go, because you want to.
Because wanting to leave is enough. Get a pen. Write that last sentence on your palm—all three of you. Then read it over and over again until your tears have washed it away.
Doing what one wants to do because one wants to do it is hard for a lot of people, but I think it’s particularly hard for women. We are, after all, the gender onto which a giant Here To Serve button has been eternally pinned. We’re expected to nurture and give by the very virtue of our femaleness, to consider other people’s feelings and needs before our own. I’m not opposed to those traits. The people I most admire are in fact nurturing and generous and considerate. Certainly, an ethical and evolved life entails a whole lot of doing things one doesn’t particularly want to do and not doing things one very much does, regardless of gender.
But an ethical and evolved life also entails telling the truth about oneself and living out that truth.
Leaving a relationship because you want to doesn’t exempt you from your obligation to be a decent human being. You can leave and still be a compassionate friend to your partner. Leaving because you want to doesn’t mean you pack your bags the moment there’s strife or struggle or uncertainty. It means that if you yearn to be free of a particular relationship and you feel that yearning lodged within you more firmly than any of the other competing and contrary yearnings are lodged, your desire to leave is not only valid, but probably the right thing to do. Even if someone you love is hurt by that.
It took me ages to understand this. I still can’t entirely explain why I needed to leave my ex. I was tortured by this very question for years because I felt like such an ass for breaking his heart and I was so shattered I’d broken my own. I was too young to commit myself to one person. We weren’t as compatible as we initially seemed. I was driven by my writing and he begrudged my success in equal measure to his celebration of it. I wasn’t ready for long-term monogamy. He grew up upper middle class and I grew up poor and I couldn’t keep myself from resenting him for that. My mother died and my stepfather stopped being a father to me and I was an orphan by the age of 22 and reeling in grief.
All of these reasons are true enough in their specificity, but they all boil down to the same thing: I had to leave. Because I wanted to. Just like all of you do, even if you aren’t ready to do it yet. I know by your letters you each have their own lists, but all those words on all of those lists boil down to one that says go. I imagine you’ll understand that at some point. That when it comes down to it, you must trust your truest truth, even though there are other truths running alongside it—such as your love for the partners you want to leave.
I’m not talking about just up and walking out on your partners the moment the thought occurs to you. I’m talking about making a considered choice about your life. I desperately wanted to not want to leave my ex-husband. I agonized in precisely the ways you are agonizing and I shared a fair piece of that struggle with my ex. I tried to be good. I tried to be bad. I was sad and scared and sick and self-sacrificing and ultimately self-destructive. I finally cheated on my former husband because I didn’t have the guts to tell him I wanted out. I loved him too much to make a clean break, so I botched the job and made it dirty instead. The year or so I spent splitting up with him after I confessed my sexual dalliances was wall-to-wall pain. It wasn’t me against him. It was the two of us wrestling together neck-deep in the muckiest mud pit. Divorcing him is the most excruciating decision I’ve ever made.
But it was the wisest one too. And I wasn’t the only one whose life is better for it. He deserved the love of a woman who didn’t have the word go whispering like a deranged ghost in her ear. To leave him was a kindness of a sort, though it delivered a fatal blow.
It wasn’t until I’d been married to Mr. Sugar a few years that I truly understood my first marriage. In loving him, I’ve come to see more clearly how and why I loved my first husband. My two marriages aren’t so different from each other, though there’s some sort of magic sparkle glue in the second that was missing in the first. Mr. Sugar and my ex have never met, but I’m certain if they did they’d get along swimmingly. They’re both good men with kind hearts and gentle souls. They both share my passions for books, the outdoors, and lefty politics; they’re both working artists, in different fields. I argue with Mr. Sugar about the same amount as I did with my former husband, at a comparable velocity, about similar things. In both marriages there have been struggles and sorrows that few know about. Mr. Sugar and I have been neck-deep together in the muckiest mud pit too. The only difference is that every time I’ve been down there with him I wasn’t fighting for my freedom and neither was he. In our nearly sixteen years together, I’ve never once thought the word go. I’ve only wrestled harder so I’d emerge dirty, but stronger, with him.
I didn’t want to stay with my ex-husband, not at my core, even though whole swaths of me did. And if there’s one thing I believe more than I believe anything else, it’s that you can’t fake the core. The truth that lives there will eventually win out. It’s a god we must obey, a force that brings us all inevitably to our knees. And because of it, I can only ask the three of you the same question: will you do it later or will you do it now?
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I've had to make this decision a few times in my life. Even though it was always hard, and I always worried I'd regret it, coming out the other side I always realized it was the right decision. I'd rather be happy alone that unhappy and partnered.
Oh yes indeed, the ghost inside is right! I was left after 16 years and I'm so grateful to him for splitting us up because I never would have. I was lonely and unhappy and living behind such a thick mask that it took me about 5 years to rub it all off. That was 10 years ago. Now I'm in such a different marriage. I feel together and happy. And he does too. Naked, happy ghosts. :)