I said goodbye to my husband of almost exactly one year for his 15 month tour in Afghanistan and drove myself back to the military house we called ours. I got three steps in and collapsed onto the grocery-store-tile flooring and Samson, my somewhat antisocial dog, took pity on me, sat through the big emotions and confusing sobs. I was scared Gabe wouldn’t come back from the war, scared I wouldn’t be okay while he was gone, scared most that our new marriage would be irreparably changed. I sobbed into my dog’s patient back until I was too tired to cry and then I went to bed alone, afraid, and overwhelmed.
The next day was New Year’s Eve so I went to a party at the house of a couple whom we’d been hanging out with before Gabe left. The wife had been in the military herself before marrying a soldier and she was unimpressed with my visible heartbreak. “Oh stop,” she stood over me in her garage where I’d sat down exhausted with new and heavy emotions I’d carried for a day, “you’ll be fine, it’s not that big a deal. Anyway, this will be good for you; you’re too dependent on him.” In that moment I realized that I was failing at the Army Wife thing. I felt shocked and sad and scared, but in that moment I also felt ridiculous which gave way to resolve.
More than anything I wanted to do this thing right.
But I didn’t know how to do it right. So I looked around. As far as I could tell, Good Army Wives are not disrupted by deployment; they continue their lives as normal. So instead of moving back home to be with my family, I chose to stay in what was essentially a foreign land – no close friends and way too many Waffle Houses. I joined a bible study in an attempt at socializing and went to work every day where I drank Oreo protein smoothies and wrote letters to my husband. Normal. Find normal.
Good Army Wives do not complain. I can’t say I stuck with that wholesale (there were some pretty incriminating blog posts I’ve since deleted), but I bit my tongue plenty when in the company of other military families and I reminded myself of the pride and patriotism I was engendering among the people I wanted to impress – my family, my peers back home, my posterity even. How admirable I might be, a woman on the home front, stoic gaze over unknown lands as she waits for her love wrapped in red, white, and blue. Paint that, Norman Rockwell (just don’t paint me curled up on the couch at that bible study like a roly-poly trying to disappear).
Good Army Wives fill in the gaps for the things their husbands are no longer here to do. They make ends meet even when a huge piece of the line is missing. Overnight I became solely responsible for the bills, the yard maintenance, the house repairs. I also had to feed myself – just me – with a running lethargy and lack of motivation. I ate a lot of hot dogs off the George Foreman grill. I had taken the early shift at a Gold’s Gym so I could come home before dark and spend evenings with Gabe (when his training let him spend evenings at home). Now I had Samson, Dr. Pepper, and countless rewatches of Spanglish. Hold his spot. Run our life for two. It’s only temporary.
I did my best, but it didn’t take long for Good Army Wife-ing to make me crazy. Turns out you can’t just bury shock and sad and scared. I had panic attacks and severe headaches and developed a chemical addiction to ibuprofen. I tend to like time to myself, but I had never been so alone with my thoughts and they terrified me. I spiraled low into some dark places where I thought the actual world was caving in around me. I didn’t like myself and began to wonder how anyone possibly could. I began to wonder if God was done with me, too. I had no person to hold my hand and the God whose hand I’d always reached for seemed apathetic at best.
Luckily it also didn’t take long for a hand to find me. At the bible study I made a couple friends out of acquaintances. They showed me that Good Army Wives do whatever the hell they need to do to be okay. One friend’s husband had deployed many times and she told me how it was still hard when he left and how she used to go home to her family before she had roots here. My other friend – who became a real lifeline – was about to endure her first deployment (with a baby no less!) and had decided before anyone told her not to that she wouldn’t be alone for it. I saw a new model of what it meant to do this thing right. These women aren’t weak. Maybe I can go home, too.
So after 7 months of Good Army Wife-ing I admitted to myself that it was too much and I went home. My brother flew out and helped me pack up my Army Wife life, clear the sham of a housing inspection (that drawer was not broken, Sergeant) and drive across the country from North Carolina to California.
Back home, I certainly still felt afraid, still anxious, still missed my husband. I still had to deal with deployment, but I also went to school and got an A in a math class for the first time. I fell in love with Philosophy. I deepened friendships with amazing people I had left mid-sentence when I’d gotten married and moved. I spent quality time with my brother and argued with my parents over the divorce that had been happening thousands of miles from my problem. I battled some demons of shame and fear which I can’t say I overcame, but I can say was a hell of a lot easier when I wasn’t totally alone with my thoughts all the time.
And after about 6 months I was able to move back to North Carolina (to a non-military apartment, thanks) and create a home for my husband to return to. I spent the last couple months of his deployment on my own and savored it. I ate an entire cake by myself for my birthday – it was heaven.
I did the Army Wife thing pretty okay on accident. And maybe it was good for me in some way, but only when I stopped trying to fit myself into other peoples’ right way. I needed to remove the pressure to do it right to have any chance of doing it well.
Right now we’re all experiencing a shocking new reality. There are several fires burning at once and we don’t know when “normal” will return or what might change forever. Even for those of us who already homeschool or work from home, there is something in the air. We can’t see our people in real life. The news is scary. Amazon orders are taking longer. In a million big and trivial ways, our lives have shifted.
For some of us, it will more easily fold into our stride – maybe we were hermits before anyway, maybe we have all our money in bullion and only trade on the black market, maybe we never had enough toilet paper to begin with. But for most of us, we are to some degree shocked, sad, and at least a little scared.
Listen, right now our anxiety – the built-in thing we all have that has kept our species going for thousands of years – is having her moment. We are all operating a tad fight-or-flight-y these days. It’s not wrong to be scared, it’s human.
I highly doubt there are many people saying to other people, “Oh stop,” but maybe many of us are saying it to ourselves, standing over our anxiety with derision, telling it to find the good here. Maybe we’re trying to cope with our new reality by figuring out the right way to endure this thing so we are looking for cues from people on Instagram or we’re doubling down on our own pet identities: I’m tough or I’m positive or I’m rational or easygoing or helpful or authentic or fine.
We want to continue our lives as normal even though we don’t know what normal is supposed to be. We don’t want to complain because we know it’s harder for others than some and we want to be seen as handling this at least as well as the next guy. We are trying to fill in these new gaps of our lives, make up for the big pieces missing now – social support, income, childcare, etc.
Maybe you see how other people are getting through – the art being created, the adventures with kids, the community projects, the humor and levity some are able to muster, the deep and profound some are sharing – and it just makes you feel shitty about your own ability to do this right.
Hey, it’s an expression of the divine to be productive. It’s also an expression of the divine to create and craft little hearts to stick in windows. It’s an expression of the God to research and understand and share information. An expression of God to name losses, to grieve. It’s a holy expression to find the good and to share it on Instagram or elsewhere.
But it’s the highest expression of the divine to just be.
I’ve heard this line more than once in recent weeks: Who do I want to be during this time? Let me say that I love that. Because I think it’s getting at a Truth – the one I’m trying to put words to now, in fact – but here is this funny thing we do: we do. So even this prompting to consider our being rather than our doing gets messed with and formed like a gross little sculpture into another idol. Am I being this right becomes our new concern and we get frustrated that we aren’t as tough/positive/rational/easygoing/helpful/authentic/fine as we’d like to be. We’re standing over ourselves in the garage.
Maybe instead we can choose to be Samson the antisocial dog who isn’t altogether comfortable with the big emotions and the deep confusion, but loves enough to sit there.
It was a mistake for me to look for cues in the ways other people got through deployment. And it’s a mistake to look to others for a standard now. There are myriad ways to get through hard things – endless options, absolutely infinite. But what I needed to know then and still need to know now is that I am an expression of the divine, too. Just me as I am, just being.
That whether I lay curled up in a ball for 15 months or write the next great American novel, my value doesn’t change. I need to know that Someone (Someone who shows up in my dog and in other women just living their lives without needing permission) wants me here. Shocked, sad, and scared even. I need to remember that along with the anxiety just doing her job, I also have God-in-me.
I may not have a knowing of “the right way” writ large, but I have a knowing of how to be in this moment. And when I stumble onto being – by intention or by accident – it feels like relief and rest; it feels like going home. And from there I might be able to look back and see that even if I didn’t do this right, I did it well.