Reading an except from People magazine’s interview with Elin Nordegren, Tiger Woods’s ex-wife, I was reminded of a dynamic that people often talk about in therapy after they have been surprised by some horrible revelation. Here is the portion from People:
“I’ve been through hell,” the Swedish-born Nordegren said. “It’s hard to think you have this life, and then all of a sudden—was it a lie? You’re struggling because it wasn’t real. But I survived. It was hard, but it didn’t kill me.”
Reread the phrase, “It’s hard to think you have this life, and then all of a sudden—was it a lie? You’re struggling because it wasn’t real.” This is a very thoughtful expression of a common experience when you learn a new, unwelcome truth. You depend on your life and you live it every day, whether you are married to a famous golfer, alone, or any other configuration. You shower, do your laundry, you may go to work or take care of kids (often both), you talk on the phone to your partner, parent or friend and you are not thinking that maybe my husband, friend, or mom has another secret life. Like I said, you depend on your life and you believe it. And then some important aspect of your life turns out to be a lie. When you suddenly find out that your partner is cheating; when you discover that your dad has embezzled money; or when you first learn that your mother has a serious problem with drugs – you are shocked! You cannot take in the information all at once. You wonder if you have misunderstood the situation; at least, you hope that you have made a mistake. You feel like the world has become unreal (and it has). The world that you were living in 10 minutes earlier has disappeared and you are now in a new and unwelcome reality. You want your old life back but it is gone.
Elin Nordegren’s comment is astute – just like Elin, you wonder if your life has been a lie. The reality that you depended on has been proven false. The really creepy part is that you now have to also think about the past – it isn’t simply the present that has been shattered. You are forced to go backward and rethink old conversations and past events. Were they real? You look for hints and clues and might have tipped you off. While you are reshuffling your life in the present, you are also reshuffling the past. You examine and reexamine old words and behaviors, reinterpret events in light of this new knowledge, and you begin to feel pretty crazy. Give it time; this is normal. It gets better; it really does. You get stronger and smarter and more confident.
Shocking news doesn’t just disrupt your life in the present. It upsets today and tomorrow but also causes a review of your past – what was real and what was a lie.