A little over a year ago, my cell phone lit up with notifications from several WhatsApp groups. The messages had similar tone: the shock upon learning that former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama filed for divorce against wife Veronica Tan.
Among my circles of friends, we indeed had a soft spot for the tough and fearless then governor, who is known affectionately as Ahok, as well as for his beautiful, humbled and cultured wife. Some friends said they even shed tears of sympathy for Ahok, who was jailed in a religious blasphemy case, and of the bitter realization that another model of a seemingly happy marriage has shattered.
I did not share any of the same reaction or emotion (more so now). After all, marriage is an intricate matter and only the two people involved in it know exactly what is going on. Instead, I muttered under my breath, “Fuck, Ahok stole my thunder.”
At the time, I was one court hearing away from finalizing my own divorce. After one year of careful consideration, I had decided to file for divorce against my ex. By then, only very few close friends knew about this. I was not embarrassed or felt defeated for having my 12-year marriage ended. I just did not know how to tell them. It was just so damn hard to even utter the word. It still is. Because every time I told a soul, it felt like reliving the nightmare over and over again and it broke me even more. Besides, I’m quite a private person myself, so I never had the urge to air my laundry, dirty or otherwise, in public. I felt that it was not my responsibility nor concern to tell people about my relationship status.
The hardest part, however, was telling my parents, who only found out about it three months after the divorce was settled. I just did not want to add more burden into my elderly parents’ lives. They had lost their firstborn to an ailment, and their second one has been entangled in a financial turmoil. To have their youngest daughter divorced, I figured, would crush them.
When it was no longer possible to hide the truth from my parents, I asked my ex to sit down together with them and lay out the situation as clinical as we could. I told him that with parents, we had to be traditional. As he had asked for my hands when we got married, it was him that had to break the news. My father was surprisingly calm, saying that if it was our decision, then so be it, as long as we stick to the commitment to raise our son the best we could together. My mother, on the other hand, was flabbergasted, before crying hysterically.
Afterward, I was still tongue-tied among my close friends, who to my gratitude, are quite plenty in number. As I took time to break the news to each of them, it was interesting to see their reactions. Some were obviously curious but respect me enough not to press further (at least not to my face). A few of them sobbed. A couple made it about themselves, so scared that it was going to happen to their own marriage. A good friend, meanwhile, said that often, she does not know how to react to divorce news: “I don’t know whether to say ‘I’m sorry’ or offer congratulations.”
Well, how about asking if they are okay? Or if there is anything you could do to help, and check on them from time to time? If they have yet to feel like telling the story, don’t push them. Better yet, just pat them in the back and tell them how brave they are, as one best friend did to me, because the decision to get out of a marriage does not come lightly, at least for me, and the ramification affects all aspects of our lives.
I’ve had dealt with losses before, the most profound being the death of my eldest sister 16 years ago that left me bereft. But divorce felt more than just losing and having your heart broken into pieces. It is also a destruction of a belief system, so much so that it sunk me into anxiety and depression.
At some point, there were days that I could not function, which is not exactly an ideal situation when you have to take care of a toddler. I finally decided to seek professional help, which was not easy to find, but that is for another story. On the very first session of the therapy, I broke down and asked the psychologist why I was in such a mess when the divorce was relatively amicable and so many women have it worse than I am.
“It is very normal. Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’ve been through loss and trauma,” she said.
“How long will it take me to return to my normal self? To function normally again?” I asked.
“It’s different for everyone. But you cannot force the recovery process.”
So here I am. It has been a year since the divorce was finalized, and I am still struggling. I no longer feel as battered and bruised, but the bouts of sadness still come crashing from time to time. Sometimes the wave drowned me without warning, giving me panic attack. Thank god for my therapist, and for my cheeky toddler because without him I might be feeling suicidal.
A few friends have suggested, pushed me even, to try dating again. I don’t oppose the idea. I did try a few dating apps for a couple of months, but let’s just say it doesn’t really suit me (I will probably write a separate article about it). Maybe I need more time to completely heal and pick up the pieces so that I can function normally again, for myself and my boy.
Right now, I am actually more interested in a divorcee support group. Because there are a lot of things that only fellow divorcees can understand and empathize. Other people will rush you to move on, or to be grateful. It seems your problems make people feel awkward and uncomfortable that they need you to get it together, so they don’t have to deal with it anymore.
Therefore, Ibu Veronica Tan, if you’re up to it (and if you haven’t “moved on” like your ex-husband – as with the case of most men), please give me a call. We can get together, share stories and pour our hearts out while drinking wine. We can certainly NOT cook. Or you can play cello while I sing (out of tune) breakup songs like Landslide or Both Sides Now, whichever you fancy.
Illustration by Adhitya Pattisahusiwa