This is the story of how I decided to leave my first marriage. It is also a story of self-reckoning in which I teeter and stumble to a realization that despite the myth I’ve long treated as truth, I can, and must, trust myself. The narrative concludes happily, more or less. But I cannot supply you with the ending — resolving, at last, to leave — without explaining to you why I chose to marry in the first place.
By the time I was dating the man who would become my ex-husband, I had conceded to a specific account of myself, a text of many authors wherein my voice was present but dampened. I was emotional — jarringly, colossally, ungovernably emotional. And, as I had learned, mine was the sort of disposition that provoked, if not jest, then certainly unease. In my sophomore year of high school, one classmate referred to me as “Crazy Rachel,” presumably because my exuberance and steep sensitivity struck my fellow disaffected youth as quintessentially unchill. In the midst of a tear-soaked, nighttime conversation over AIM, another friend referred to me as their “favorite mess.” (By the by, both of these friends were straight, white, and male.) I learned the definition of “histrionic” at an early age — in elementary school, probably — because it was a term my family had more than once applied to me.
I don’t mean this essay to be an airing of grievances. (Although, “Crazy Rachel”? Really?) Americans have always floundered in their responses to acute expressions of emotion. And expressive women, especially those who, like me, have a history of mental illness, fit conveniently into long-established narratives of hysteria in which femaleness is both the diagnosis and the symptom. It’s a cultural response, naturalized through years of reiteration: agitation, even disgust in the face of a woman’s unbridled reaction, be it a weepy outburst or a raucous orgasm.
College offered liberation from commonplace adolescent vexations, but not from myself. The intensity with which I felt every disappointment, every slight, even every joy seemed shamefully excessive. What’s more, I began to question whether it was prudent to follow my own inclinations. Surely my attempts at logic were muddled by sentiment. I was a Marianne Dashwood, ill-equipped to navigate my own circumstances without an Elinor at my back. (Certainly this is not the lesson Jane Austen wants us to take from Sense and Sensibility, but at the time, I was embarrassed by the ache of recognition, and Marianne shared the blame I imposed upon myself.)
When I began dating my future ex-husband, during my junior year of college, I did love him. I also applauded myself for gaining the affections of someone who seemed to be everything I wasn’t: steady, practical, and motivated by logic. Through some primal provocation, a Darwinian spark, I had ensured my survival by pairing myself with a person who, to my mind, was better suited to the world than I seemed to be. What a smart decision it was to love this man.