DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #96: The Dark Cocoon


Dear Sugar,

Please oh please help me. I’m so mixed up and in so much pain that I’m beginning to be afraid I might kill myself, though I have two small children and basically know I can’t and would never, and I definitely know how crazy and self-dramatizing that is. The very fact that I think of killing myself when I am a mother is scaring the shit out of me.

I am somewhat unhappily married to a complicated man, who is also a wonderful man in many ways—aren’t we all both monsters and nice people? During my last pregnancy I very unwisely started an inappropriate correspondence with an ex from high school online. (Thanks, Facebook!) I knew what I was doing was wrong. I knew I was lonely and angry at my husband for all the reasons people in their 30s with little kids get angry at each other (just a little more so in our case). Somehow I thought I could get away with crossing a little line without it turning into anything. I was faithful, a good wife, a good person, a pillar of her community, a good friend, “I would never,” etc….

Well, this ex and I fell in love. I turned out that he is a cross-dresser (I didn’t know about it in high-school) and I’ve always been kind of wanting to be a lesbian, but not really into girls (I’ve tried). We both have serious abuse in our backgrounds. We both feel like together we could be complete, ourselves, intimate in ways that we’ve never even imagined being with another person. I know how cliché that is, though it feels different in this case (another cliché!) because of the fetish and power-exchange aspects of our relationship.

I’ve only been aware of the extent of the physical and psycho-sexual abuse in my childhood since starting therapy a few years ago. (I originally started therapy with my husband, pre-affair, and it sort of improved things until this….) The affair has been mainly virtual, though my love and I have seen each other once. Though it has now been going on for over a year, the “active affair” have been only for short periods of time. I can correspond with my love for about a month, before the guilt and pain and horror and fear make me stop.

As I said, I have tiny children. I’m so afraid of leaving my husband to raise them on my own or without my husband’s emotional and logistical support. I’m so sad to hurt and abandon my husband, whose life has not been easy either. He’s done shitty things to me in the past few years, but he doesn’t deserve this. I’ve gone for periods of one to three months totally out of touch with my love, but I just feel sadder and more depressed and darker and more lonely without him. He can and would move to my city and be with me. But if I left my husband I would be in uncharted waters.

I often fear that I’m losing my mind. I am in therapy, and have discussed medication with my therapist, but it’s hard to believe that my problem is medication-requiring when it seems so situational. My therapist hasn’t come down strongly one way or another. I’m currently in another it’s-finally-over phase with my love, but it doesn’t feel over at all. Also, I feel so miserable around my husband that sometimes I can barely talk. I’m drinking, I’m smoking, I’m watching TV. I’m hiding behind the children. I want to just tell my husband the truth and then let everyone deal with the situation like adults, but I have received legal advice that says that it would be foolish and crazy to give my husband information about the affair and the fetish aspects (which I feel like is crucial to any of this making sense and being true) when facing a custody battle.

My husband works long hours and I am the primary caretaker of our children (see: how we got ourselves into this mess in the first place), but he has already told me that he’ll fight me for custody to his last breath if I try to leave him. He’s a powerful guy and very tenacious. I’m trying to love him and get over these feelings and absorb and accept that this is my life and I can’t change it, but, again, the darkness….

What can I do? Can you help? The last piece of semi-relevant information here might be that though I know I sound hysterical and dramatic and possibly dangerous, this is so out of character for me. I’ve always been the person with her shit together, self-sufficient, there in other people’s times of need and so on.

I really pray you answer my letter. Thank you.

Despair Girl


Dear Despair Girl,

The only time I’ve ever felt certain that I was about to die was on the last day of the year in 1991. I was 23 years old and sitting in the passenger seat of a borrowed SUV that was being driven by my ex-husband along a cold country highway at eight o’clock in the morning. We were heading north on an hours-long drive to a New Year’s Eve gathering with a small group of our friends who’d rented a cabin in the woods. We’d left our apartment in the city just after dawn in hopes of reaching our destination in time to go cross-country skiing before the sun went down.

There was no traffic. In fact, only occasionally did another car pass by, going the opposite direction. The road was set slightly above the rest of the terrain, the ditches dropping off steeply before flattening out and giving way to the woods beyond, all of it covered by a few feet of snow. Winter in the Upper Midwest. We were moving along at something like 58 miles an hour until suddenly the SUV was careening sideways toward the ditch on the other side of the road, having hit, apparently a patch of black ice.

“Get control of the car,” I said to my ex-husband calmly and quietly as we swerved perilously from one side of the road to the other, each correction an over-correction that sent us lurching horribly on. “Get control of the car,” I repeated in the same tone, as if I could will it to happen.

But he could not get control of the car. There was no relationship between what he was doing with the steering wheel and brakes and what the vehicle we were in was doing with us. We seemed to pick up speed instead of slow as we swooped sickeningly from one side of the highway to the other until finally, in one excruciatingly long glide, we left the road and became airborne.

I’ll never forget the feeling of that—flying in the car—and also how long that moment was, though I’m sure it was over in a flash. In this strange span of time, I understood that I was probably going to die in something like five seconds and my feelings about that moved from so deeply sad to so deeply accepting so quickly that it’s astonishing to remember it now. No! Please! Okay! is what I thought with breathless clarity. The other thing that happened in that glimmer of time between leaving the road and landing wherever we’d land was that neither my ex-husband nor I braced ourselves. Instead, we simultaneously reached to clutch each other with both of our hands and, together, in the same instant, shouted I LOVE YOU!

And then, instantly, we went down. Nose first. There was a tremendous slow motion thud followed by a ferocious blur as we tumbled end over end over end over end until at last we came to a stop among the trees.

It was so silent then. I don’t know if there’s ever been a moment so silent in my life since. Me. My ex-husband. The road somewhere like a mute film of a far off dream. We looked at each other. It took me a while to understand that we were upside down, hanging by the seat belts that had saved us. We were covered in tiny blunt shards of glass and drenched with a red liquid that I later comprehended was wine—bottles we’d brought along for the evening’s festivities that had shattered in the tumult. But we were alive.

I was shaken by the accident, but not for the reasons it would seem I’d be shaken—not the frightful careening or the terrifying flight or the violent tumbling. I was shaken by the beauty of that moment when my ex-husband let go of the steering wheel and we both did and said the exact same thing without thinking about it or agreeing upon it or hesitating. In the end, we clutched each other and shouted our love. I didn’t want to die, but if I was going to, I was glad to be doing it with him. It’s one of the purest revelations of my life.

This, even though I was already aching to leave him. Even though a little more than two years later I did. Even though it’s been more than a decade since I’ve even spoken to him.

You may wonder what any of this has to do with you, Despair Girl, and I’ve wondered the same thing. But in the eleven weeks since you wrote to me it’s the story that keeps surfacing when I ponder your conundrum. Maybe it’s because I can feel you almost viscerally sliding down the empty road, knowing you’re going to crash but not knowing what it is you’ll crash into. Maybe because the question you’re up against is who you’re going to grab when you go airborne. Maybe it’s because at the time of this car accident I was basically where you are, in the gnarly thick of transformation, and I didn’t know where I was going to land or how.

I used to see a butterfly in my mind’s eye every time I heard the word transformation, but life has schooled me. Transformation isn’t a butterfly. It’s the thing before you get to be a pretty bug flying away. It’s huddling in the dark cocoon and then pushing your way out. It’s sitting there in your pajamas, pregnant with your second child, flirting on Facebook with someone you dated in high school. It’s imagining you might leave your husband for a man you’ve seen only once during the most stressful time in your adult life and thinking it will work out. It’s the messy work you have ahead of you, Despair, of making sense of your fortunes and misfortunes, desires and doubts, hangups and sorrows, actions and accidents, mistakes and successes, so you can go on and become the person you must next become. The one who doesn’t wallow in her own despair.

It doesn’t surprise me everything seems like its unraveling for you right now. These recent years during which you’ve become a mother have been radically transformative, for both you and your marriage. Having children is the greatest joy for most parents, but it’s also a major mindfuck. All the terms change. Some are rewritten for you, others you rewrite yourself—personally, practically, professionally, romantically, sexually, financially, logistically and otherwise.

My own marriage to Mr. Sugar during those first few postpartum years was not so different from yours. We were more bonded than ever because we needed each other like never before, but there was loneliness and anger too. After our second child was born we slept in separate beds for months so I could dedicate my nights to tending to our newborn while he tended to our toddler. One time I got so mad at Mr. Sugar about the fact that every time he goes to the grocery store he only manages to remember half the stuff we need, I stabbed him in the thigh with my toothbrush. One time I brought our kids to their preschool and I came home and told Mr. Sugar that I had the impulse to ask one of the preschool dads I’d chatted with at drop-off to go with me to a hotel, where we would spend the morning fucking each other’s brains out. Not because I had any real desire for this other fellow. Not that I wanted to cheat on my beloved and hot Mr. Sugar. But because I wanted to spend the morning with someone who wanted to fuck my brains out who was not also someone whom I’d stabbed with a toothbrush in the course of a conflict about groceries.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you began your online emotional affair while you were pregnant with your second baby and mothering your first. Nor is it surprising that you reached back in time and sought solace and excitement with a man who knew you long ago, who desired you before you were a mother and clobbered by all that being the primary caregiver of two small children entails. You say that you’re aware that your outsized feelings for your ex and your justifications about the affair you’re having with him are cliché, but your self-awareness does not let you off the hook. Instead, it tells me you already suspect what you don’t want to know: that this ex, as particular as he seems, could be anyone. That what you have with him is so steeped in fantasy it might be made entirely of smoke. That your affair with him is not about you and him, but rather you holding up a mirror to yourself, your every desire for a different life reflected back to you.

And that the whole shebang is stoked by lust. Which is famously unreliable as a life plan.

I feel sort of like an asshole saying this to you because I know your feelings for your ex are terribly real. I sympathize with your heartache. But I would be remiss not to tell you in the most direct terms possible that pretty much nothing you said about your husband makes me think you can’t work it out with him if you want to and everything you said about your ex sounds sketchy to me. Not because he’s sketchy—I trust he’s a perfectly lovely human being—but because you, Despair Girl, hit a patch of black ice and right now you’re careening around, unsure where or when you’ll stop. Do any internal alarm bells go off when you hear yourself say that a man you’ve known almost exclusively online in the course of a year-long off-and-on illicit affair makes you feel “complete”? Anything go beep, beep, BEEP! when you review the portion of your letter in which you mention in passing that you and your husband had “sort of improved things until” you began your affair?

I think the answer is yes. I think that’s why you wrote to me. I think your lusty virtual fantasy love is your delicious escape from a marriage strained by too much drudgery and resentment. And yet, where has this delicious escape brought you? To the place where you’re in so much pain you ponder crazy things like killing yourself, that’s where.

You have to go somewhere else, sweet pea. You have to move beyond despair. You have to find the next version of yourself, the more evolved iteration of the woman you used to be.

You don’t do that by choosing between accepting your misery with one man you love or giving way to the fantastical idea of another. You do that by coming to terms with who it is you’ve become and doing the emotional work it requires to let that woman fly. That’s where I was on that day in 1991 when I truly thought I was going to die: a woman about to lacerate the shit out herself while pushing away her own cocoon. When that SUV left the road, it wasn’t just any day. It was the last day of the year in which my mother had died and everything that year had changed.

I was on the brink of being forced to change too. I left a man I loved so much I was content to die beside him. I did it because my purer revelation—more pure than my love for him—was that I couldn’t be the person I’d become while committed to him. In another time, in my marriage with Mr. Sugar, I’ve had transformations that led me in the other direction—toward a richer, more profound commitment, and a happier one too.

I can’t say which it’s going to be for you—whether you should reinvest in the intimacy you have or squander it for the promise of a new love. But I know you have to work harder to find the answer that’s within you. The truth will come to you once you stop careening. Don’t brace yourself. Clutch onto whatever you love the most when the tires leave the road.