As her third marriage unravels, Tracy McMillan prepares to move out of their home with her young son. But she has to stop fighting with herself first.
Most days I feel like I'm in this Quentin Tarantino movie, the one where a badass martial-arts chick played by Uma Thurman is thrown into a wooden coffin and buried alive by the bad guys. Even though it's a movie (and you know that if she doesn't get out of the coffin it's going to be a really short movie), when you're watching it you totally think, "Wow, she's a goner." Because her only hope of escape is to apply all of the kung fu lessons she's ever learned in her life. And even then, her prospects look really dim.
This is basically what I have to do now. Going through the death of my third marriage is just like being buried alive, and the coffin is my mind.
My brain, I am discovering, is my true enemy. There's an obsessive-thought factory up there, churning out an endless loop of negativity 24 hours a day and then some: "He left you for a 21-year-old. You're 41! You're old. You're ugly. He lied to you. He cheated on you. He left you. For a 21-year-old. No one will ever love you." You get the idea. About the only thing it doesn't say is "You're fat," and that's only because I'm pretty much starving.
The factory also produces so-called nice thoughts, fantasies, which are beautiful pictures of the way it used to be with Paul, or the way it could be if only he would come back, or the way it would have been if he'd never met that girl or maybe just gotten a job. These thoughts are just as torturous as the negative ones, if not more so, because some part of me wishes they could be true even though I already know they definitely aren't. And never will be.
Every painful feeling I'm having in this breakup—almost every tear I've shed—starts with one of these obsessive thoughts.
Which is where the kung fu comes in.
In the movie, Uma's kung fu master is a guy with gorgeous long white hair and a Fu Manchu beard named Pai Mei. Pai Mei sets up a piece of wood and tells Uma to break it in two with her bare hands. Of course she can't. She turns her knuckles bloody trying.
That's when Pai Mei tells Uma the secret to developing devastating kung fu: If she wants to break through the wood with her bare hands, she needs to stop being afraid of the wood.
"You need to make the wood afraid of you," Pai Mei says.
This is what I'm doing now. Instead of trying to get rid of the obsessive thoughts, I am using them. I am countering every single one of those agonizing fantasies and self-hating thoughts that enter my mind with four words I say to myself, sometimes silently, sometimes out loud: "I love you, Tracy."
Every. Single. Time. Which when your newlywed husband has been caught dating a girl of 21 can be a helluva lot of times per day. "I love you, Tracy. I love you, Tracy. I love you, Tracy." Sometimes the emphasis is on the "I," and sometimes it's on the "love," and other times it's on the "you." Those are three different meanings, and I need to hear all of them.
After doing this for a while (like a month), what I'm finding is that if you tell yourself you love you 400,000 times a day, you start to look and feel and act like a person who is loving herself.
What does that look like? Kinda happy. Kinda peaceful. Like someone drawing good people and things into her life. What doesn't it look like? It definitely does not look bitter, angry, victim-y or depressed.
Not that there aren't still bad days or bad moments. There are. But at least there aren't bad weeks and bad months. Hell, I know women who've had bad years, even bad decades. Some of them have given up on men altogether and now have cats instead.
I guess the point of my mantra is a lot like the point of a saying in the recovery world: "You keep what you give away." In terms of busting through solid wood with your bare knuckles, it means if you think about love, you feel love. If you think about bitterness, you feel bitter. It's not that I don't experience bitterness; I do sometimes. But I'm not practicing bitterness—saying over and over, "He sucks, I'm a victim, he sucks, f*** him, he sucks."
Even if he does suck.
It's astounding to realize that despite everything, I actually feel better than ever. I know now that the awful pain of my past breakups—especially those where "he" left me—had less to do with the loss of those men and more to do with the washed-out bridge between me and me. The fact that I would just leave myself standing there, alone and vulnerable, listening to all the garbage that was being said about me, by me, is stunning.
But things are changing. Before all this Paul business, if you didn't love me, I didn't love me. I'd do anything to keep your love—I had to!—because if you deemed me unworthy of love, I wouldn't (couldn't) love myself. Like in junior high, if you didn't like my new sweater, I didn't like it either.
In the simplest of terms possible, this breakup—the "worst" thing that has ever happened to me in all my years of relationships—has taught me how to like my sweater no matter what. All I have to do is commit to the sweater. To myself. No matter what my soon-to-be-ex husband did. Or what my thoughts are saying to me.
The implications of this are far-reaching. It means I can make a mistake, a giant mistake, and still say, "I love you, Tracy." And I can save myself when the bad guys threaten to bury me alive.
That is some devastating kung fu.
Tracy McMillan is a film and television writer, most recently on AMC's Emmy Award- and Golden Globe-winning series Mad Men and Showtime's Emmy Award-winning series The United States of Tara. Her memoir, I Love You and I'm Leaving You Anyway (HarperCollins 2011), is a comic, tragic, unflinchingly real, and ultimately victorious true story of how one woman learned to love herself no matter what.
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Printed from Oprah.com on Wednesday, May 22, 2013
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