This time 3 years ago, it was my wedding day. Friends were gathered. Family was present. I took my dad’s arm as he walked me “down the aisle”, which was really around a coy pond. It was pouring rain. Nothing went as planned. Yet I felt incredibly at peace. It was beautiful.
Later on toward the end of the reception, everyone was going crazy on the dance floor, and I was a wallflower who just wanted more snacks. I’ll never forget one of the most sincere moments from that day that truly met me right where I was. My friend and maid of honor, Julie, could see the introvert in me growing more and more tired and overwhelmed. She grabbed me by the hand and we snuck away to the room where I got ready. Right there, at my own reception, I hid from my own party with my best friend. She smuggled in a plate of food, a bottle of champagne, unzipped my dress just enough to allow a few more calories, and we sat on the floor together. There was a beauty in that simple moment — I was allowed to just be myself one last time before jumping into the adjustment of being someone’s wife.
There are all of these books, magazines, classes, and workshops on how to prepare for marriage. But no one prepared me for the adjustment I would need after losing mine. Promises were made on that day. Vows were spoken. And a heart doesn’t simply stop carrying the weight of these things overnight with a breakup. It was so frustrating to have strangers contacting me who seemed so shocked. How can Christians end a marriage? How does that happen? If you read all the books and went to church and did counseling, why is this happening? I can tell you how. People are human. Following a set of rules or routines doesn’t exempt you from pain. Even with the best of intentions and an incredible amount of effort, some things are not going to click into place the way we demand them to.
When you make vows and prepare to spend the rest of your life with someone, there is no road map to how long the healing journey will be before it feels normal to eat alone. Sleep alone. Make coffee for one. Not hear their voice in your head. Not share a home with that person anymore. Or the same jokes. Or memories. Or friends. Or family. Or finances. There is no timeline as to how long it will take for you to adjust enough to sit on the floor with your best friend and drink champagne without a care in the world.
A man can leave. A man can move to a new city. A man choose to just be done with a relationship. A man can get divorced. But a woman who already gave up her name must now die to a last name all over again. Everything changes — the identity is suddenly thrown into uncharted territory. It is all completely and publicly different, from websites to drivers licenses to Instagram accounts. But while there was pain in the transitioning back to my real last name, it’s a funny thing: I never really appreciated it until now. I used to not really identify with “Stroud.” I often just went by Rachael Lee. But after losing my married last name, I felt it was finally time to own one that truly belonged to me. And now I like the sound of it.
It really is all about looking in at our own identity and self growth. The best advice I got from my couples therapist did not save my marriage. But it did save me. Instead of only looking at how he hurt me and how devastating and disappointing it was, she told me to look at my own brokenness, my own hurts my own hangups and heal from those…otherwise, this is going to happen again. It might look different, it might be a different person, but if we don’t fully love ourselves and somehow learn how to become healthy and whole on our own, no one else will be able to do their part in a healthy way either.
That was part of my very tough decision in choosing to go back to the home I created with my husband…the home I was kicked out of…the home that was in horrible condition and filled with both beautiful and traumatic memories…and I wanted to reclaim it. Making this place feel like home again was one of the most deeply powerful and redemptive things I’ve ever experienced. It doesn’t feel haunted anymore. The walls aren’t filled with pain. And truth be told, I don’t see him anywhere in it. This place is sacred to me now. I needed to not give up on my life even when it felt life had given up on me. I was not going to abandon myself.
In the same way, in the midst of my pain, in the center of my healing journey, I started before I was ready and began my own photography business. When we adjust and adapt, it’s beautiful to see how grace can sneak through the cracks. Sometimes it takes us losing everything, having zero expectations about the future, and simply having our hands open that we are finally ready to receive abundance. I am blown away by the life I have been entrusted to. It is so imperfect, and it is so beautiful. After months of being essentially homeless, being completely in survival mode, and not having any clue what was going to happen, or was an incredible perspective shift to finally feel so at peace with just a roof over my head, a safe place to sleep that I didn’t have to leave, and my dog tucked in with me.
I did love him. I did choose him. I don’t regret that. I’m grateful for it all. Through experiencing my worst nightmare and my deepest, darkest pain, it brought me closer to myself, to others, and to god. The journey I have traveled has allowed me to connect with humans on a level I never imagined. And it’s real. I have authentic friendships. I can be honest with myself and others. I can love without agenda. I can say “me too” and mean it. I feel so honored to be so young and have learned so much. I can’t wait to continue growing and practicing and simply being. I am hungry. I am humbled. I want to create keep making the tough choices that allow me to cultivate better realities for myself and those around me through authenticity, openness, and are.
I am not cynical. I am not scarred. I am not damaged goods. And guess what? Wherever you are and whatever you’re walking through, the same goes for you. I still believe in fairy tales. I still believe that marriage can be done right. I still see the value in love and commitment. And what I know most is that this is only the beginning — no — it’s barely scratching the surface on the great love story of my life. Stay tuned.