Image: Holly McGlynn for In Detail
‘Remember the body has no memory of pain,’ Diane von Furstenberg
Romantic Instagram relationships are perhaps the easiest to fall for. However cynical you might be and even if you manage to avoid every Jennifer Aniston romcom, the dream of happily-ever-after stares back at you seemingly from every screen. Especially when it comes to social media. When I got married seven years ago, I was pretty culpable when it came to projecting only the good of my relationship. That wasn’t because I was trying to manipulate what the outside world thought of me (at least consciously)—it was more that I only took and shared pictures when we were happy. But still, no-one could have ever guessed that it wasn’t all roses and I guess I was happy to perpetuate that.
I was just as shocked as anyone when my husband left me. With the shirt on his back he was gone overnight and aside from one brief meeting after when I said goodbye to our dog, I never saw him again. After eight years of sharing the same bed as someone, a shock breakup is always going to send you a bit bonkers. When you’ve been married in front of all your friends and family and implicitly in front of today’s broader social media network, it’s a whole lot worse. I was—how can I put this—stark, raving, off the chart deranged.
When you Google ‘Divorce before 30’ (obviously what any good millennial immediately does), countless news stories come up replete with stats proving the high likelihood that your youthful ‘I dos’ will end in Splitsville (‘Young Marriage Risks’’). You can find pieces that explain, ‘You Still Have a Chance’ (thanks, EliteDaily), advice blogs telling you that your divorce will be ‘one of the most best experiences of your life’ (spoiler alert: not true) and a few nicely written anecdotal accounts (the Huffington Post has a heartfelt series). But there’s no guide to surviving the batshit period, no conversation about how to keep it together and very little mention of the deep, gnawing shame that comes with a failed marriage so young.
I split with my ex two weeks before my 30th birthday and after a few days of trying to work out how I could change myself so he would want me again, everything became a haze. I was immediately adamant that I had to KEEP IT TOGETHER, so only took one day out of work. I stopped sleeping almost entirely—I didn’t get more than three or four hours sleep for another five months. A few moments are clear over that time: my miserable birthday dinner where everything tasted of cardboard, the first Christmas on my own with my family distraught to see me in such a state and the amazing but also the incredible support that my colleagues offered me over that time. I would say my first learning is give yourself a little break. Take some holiday days, stay with your parents, go somewhere you feel safe. But don’t fall into the trap of letting your life completely unhinge and turn into a hermit. Work is an incredible distraction from your pain and it will always provide you with a haven from your inner turmoil. It was most definitely the ship that sailed me through to the other side.
If your job is to write and your brain is fit to burst with thoughts and emotion, it is however, pretty tough to get the clarity you need to put a sentence together. When you haven’t slept for months, it’s nigh on impossible. I was Senior Fashion Features Editor at Grazia at the time and while we all have gripes about our job, I will never have anything but insane love for the women who scooped me up. Because we wrote every week about makeups and breakups, they had the concept of a ‘Starter Marriage’ ready-made for me, with countless (celebrity) examples of how things were going to be just fine. The relentless workload helped me manage through the days and my colleagues’ kindness in not bringing up my sloppy copy helped me wing it. I’d say the big takeaway here is that it’s really important to share the struggle with the people around you and this includes the professional environment. Of course, not all workplaces are warm and cosy and you might find yourself subject of gossip or find that your boss is unsympathetic. In the main I reckon that means you need a new job as soon as you’re back on your feet—because ultimately this isn’t something you can hide or keep in. If you do that you may just find yourself having a breakdown.
“Whenever I was travelling, or up awake at night, I would look through all our social media images in a manic, masochistic binge. The wedding ones were obviously cut deep, but the most painful were the early-day unglamorous shots—the pictures of us falling in love.”
Of course there was the social media element to contend with. I had approximately 1,000 images on my Facebook profile of my ex-husband and they tortured me for months. Whenever I was travelling, or up awake at night, I would look through them all in a manic, masochistic binge. The wedding shots obviously cut deep, but the most painful were the early-day unglamorous shots—the pictures of us falling in love. After a couple of months of mooning, I nipped it in the bud and deleted every image of him and yes, it took hours. Also when I packed up his stuff, I sent off every photograph of us, every keepsake, every love note, thus why I can only find one slightly blurry shot of me in a wedding dress, above. I donated that dress and its associated veil (I kept my gold Jimmy Choos, for obvious reasons) and wiped the flat clear of anything that would set me off. When you’re trying to keep your dignity (which really means being able to leave the house and not end up in hysterics) it’s important to be totally brutal. Some people have asked if I wish I’d kept some of those things and I resolutely say no. It’s hard enough when your memories are assaulting you mentally every hour of the day, no-one needs physical cue to add to the pain.
One thing I really appreciated was that my colleagues didn’t treat the whole situation as taboo. If you ever find yourself getting divorced young, you will realise how traditional many people are. I had male friends tell me that it was fine because I was still young and attractive enough and I should just not tell any new guys that I’d been married. A lot of people told me to keep it a secret. Other friends couldn’t understand why I didn’t run after my ex and force him to go through marriage counselling. They told me I’d given up too easily. Mutual friends quickly disappeared. Heartbreak is hard to watch at the best of times, but when it’s a young couple so full of promise, it can be awkward to know what to say, so you inevitably lose a lot of faces from your life.
As some people leave your life, you have to try as much as possible to be open to the new people walking in. My rock bottom was spent in The Bowery Hotel, February 2014 during New York fashion week. I was lonely, in terrible debt, terrified of the logistics of my divorce and had burnt my face with hair straighteners creating 5 shiny blisters on the side of my face. DURING FASHION WEEK. I still wasn’t sleeping and had a huge workload ahead of 12-hour days, 2am deadlines and 5am wake up calls. After the first show of the season, I left my mobile in the back of a yellow cab with no receipt or record of the driver. I had no cash on me and an ATM soon told me that my bank had blocked my card for ‘fraudulent behaviour’. It was minus 15 degrees and I had to walk from the Lincoln Centre to The Bowery (about an hour and a half) in 3-inch boots.
Everyone has experienced that stomach-winding feeling that the world is truly against them. This was my nadir. As I entered the hotel lobby, sitting there in her spot was a PR friend based in L.A., a girl called Beth that I had become closer to (via WhatsApp) over the preceding months. She sat me down, got me a vat of Merlot, rustled me up a burner so I could at least call and text people and dealt with every logistical issue from my transport situation to editing down my schedule to what I really needed to do. After an hour she ordered pizza and sat there and listened to me. She gave me Lucas Paw Paw for my blisters then sent me to bed. I will never be able to thank her for her kindness—I’d never had a friend look after me like that before.
It’s also worth noting that while it might have been the main man who walked out of your life, it could be a new friend, mentor or colleague who walks in to take their place. For me my girlfriend Beth is now at the centre of my life and I couldn’t imagine a day without speaking to her. Even though she lives 5,000 miles away, we’ve seen each other on average once a month this year as we prioritise our time together over everything. She may not be a new husband, but she is certainly one of the loves of my life and I only found her because of what I was going through.
Of course not everyone is going to be a shining knight—some people will be completely shit and make you feel terrible. Some old friends will be crap and selfish. Other acquaintances and industry peers may be cruel. People might talk about you behind your back and you might feel ashamed and embarrassed. These are some of the cons you have to deal with. On the plus side, it does offer is an incredible litmus test of people’s fitness to be in your life. Looking back it was like an organic cull and most of the people that ducked out were well rid. I’d also advise to be beware of the ‘bad weather’ friend. As kids we’re all brought up to believe that your real friends are the ones that are there through the hard times, but actually I found some people seem to thrive on seeing you knocked down. As soon as you start to pick yourself back up, they can’t cope and spend every interaction trying to inflict some kind of jellyfish barb. Real friends are there for the shite, but they are also your fiercest cheerleaders and as proud of your achievements as if they are their own. They want you to feel better and would do anything to help you get there. If you are going to do this and do it in a classy way, these are the people you need to surround yourself with.
By nature I do not like to burden people, so it was very tricky to be in constant over-share mode. It felt like I couldn’t stop myself blurting it all out. It was so front of mind it was basically all I could talk about to strangers or acquaintances. But when it came to calling someone at 3am during those nights of catatonic desolation, I didn’t once pick up the phone. Everyone is different. Some people can have dinner and go into work as if nothing has happened, but then late-night call their friends in streams for weeks. Either way you have to accept that no-one escapes unscathed and that you are probably going to say and do things that will make you cringe and feel embarrassed of your behaviour. Ultimately, if anyone will judge you long term on this kind of selfishness or crazy, they’re not meant to be in your life.
The biggest thing that you have to keep somewhere in your muddled mind is that you will come out the other side. My other side moment happened on my first trip to Los Angeles. It was a mere seven weeks after my break-up and I felt, as the youth would say, bleak AF. I was in town to interview two towering female names in international fashion—Diane von Furstenberg and Tory Burch, and both of them were incredibly inspiring. Halfway through my interview with Diane however, she stopped me and asked, ‘is there something going on with you?’ While I thought I’d been hiding the black hole that had taken residence within my heart, it seems the subterfuge wasn’t enough to fool DVF. I ended up giving her a precis of my situation and in turn she gave me two pieces of advice which have stuck with me ever since and I hope she wouldn’t mind me sharing them here.
Firstly she told me that, ‘the body has no memory for pain’, something which seems impossible to believe when you’re in the depths of despair, but is actually so accurate. Even now as I’m writing about that time, it’s as if it happened to some other person. I can’t completely connect to that pain—my body bears no physical scar. You have to hold on to the fact that the pain will pass and you will come back to yourself. Secondly she said to me me, ‘It’s time to change the lenses in your glasses. You think he left you but the truth is, he set you free.’ She then told me to go off, meet a guy in L.A. and have fun, which I promptly did that night in Chateau Marmont. He was a Texan entrepreneur and it was short-lived. Which was a surprise to no-one. While it certainly didn’t cure me, that was probably the moment that thaw began to set in and I managed to punch out the first brick of the wall to my future. Everyone will have this moment—and while it might not be quite the same as mine (I promise I didn’t make it up) and it might be something you only realise in retrospect, hold on to the knowledge that yours too will come.
On a more basic level, exercise was something I found helped me immeasurably to keep my shit together. I wasn’t much of a gym-goer, but the same year of my split I’d started doing Reformer Pilates at Frame in Queen’s Park. Going there, making the time for myself and doing something positive for my body was something that became a massive anchor in my life—and to this day bears a heavy imprint. In the following years I haven’t moved beyond walking distance of the studio and it is still the place I go to steady my thoughts.
Now this is the only bit of underlined advice that I’ll offer: get your legal and financial shit in order. When I say this I’m making it sound easy, which it really isn’t. Looking back I wish I could have shook myself silly, because I was so intimidated by all the financial and legal aspects of divorce that I retreated ostrich-like and ended up leaving the ball in my ex-husband’s court. In the U.K. it’s pretty simple. You either decide to stay married for two years after your split then file for irreconcilable differences. Or one of you files against the other for the other party’s unreasonable behaviour. While now is not the place to go into detail, let’s just say I totally shot myself in the foot by not being proactive and allowed my fear paralyse me.
If you are young and inexperienced with the legal or financial systems (seven years in fashion had not exactly prepared me for anything remotely like this), it is incredibly tough to know where to start. I didn’t have a lawyer or know anyone who had a divorce lawyer (I was the only person I knew who had gone through a divorce). Personal recommendation is always the best and I had fantastic, empathetic but professional advice from Leathers Prior, a Norfolk-based firm which was better value than London-based solicitors and so incredibly supportive throughout the whole process. I did also go an see another solicitor in London who charged me £250+VAT for a consultation (something which the Law Society disapproves), but immediately felt like she was too aggressive and pushing me too hard to act. Ultimately she was right, but I just wasn’t ready. The moral is that it does take some time to get this side of the ball rolling, but the quicker you do, the quicker you release yourself from horrific anxiety and the sooner you protect yourself. Just do it and don’t end up in my position.
As an epilogue, while it sounds corny, things have never been better in my life. Diane was right: my ex actually did set me free. The truth is that I would have kept flogging the dead horse of our marriage ‘til kingdom came, believing I’d made my own bed. But really I had made a mistake in my choice and I was crushingly miserable. After about a few months of tailspin, a real feeling of lightness came over me and even through my interim dating experience, which was both horrific and hilarious, I didn’t feel the urge to call my ex or check out his social media once. I was actually done, just as he was—I just hadn’t realised it yet.
Through the process I whittled my friendship group down to the troopers, added a new incredible posse of international babes including my BFF Bethie and got really fit. With my new-found balls—which developed through the divorce process— I managed to muster the moxie to quit my day job and launch my own business. As a direct result of that I earnt enough to buy myself a flat in London and have created a career that fulfills me. Nothing it perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot better. These are all things which were possible because I was a) young and b) managed to mostly keep myself together.
Then I met someone new. While our road has not been straight and I was pretty unstable for for a full year of our relationship, he is the net I can rely on to catch me from even the dodgiest landing (as he’s seen me at my worst, it’s only up from here). But while wild horses couldn’t keep me away, I’m not sharing pictures of him on social media or making endless status updates of our adoration. Not only because I know what it feels like to read that stuff when you’re heartbroken and I wouldn’t want to be the cause of that for someone else, but also because I don’t need to. I know we’re cool but I’m also ok that it might not be forever. While that might sound jaded, it really isn’t the case. I’m still a hopeless romantic, but the prism which I view couple-hood has changed completely. You don’t know how you might change, you can try and do everything to make it work, but you might fail. And there is no shame in that—it’s just exactly how it’s meant to be.
Dedicated to Beth Nicole Newman and Team Grazia 2014-15