Trash the dress: a celebration of divorce
These photos are from a most raw and private hour, an emotional crucible that was the only way I knew to heal myself and move forward from a marriage that was headed toward divorce from the day it began. I share them now for the first time, in order, and let them narrate for themselves.
They were taken in 2015, three years after my parents helped me move out of a house and into a one-bedroom apartment. I said goodbye to the two bedrooms where I’d once stood in the doorway and let my imagination fill in the white walls and empty wooden floors with children’s paint colors and the sound of little feet.
As I walked back into the house to pick up another box, I passed my dad coming up the stairs. “What do you want me to do with this?” he said, holding a big white box where I’d carefully preserved my wedding dress. I stared, then started to panic and stutter. My mother, taking efficient appraisal of the situation, motioned for my dad to throw it in the back of the truck.
She held me tightly as I sobbed into her shoulder. “Don’t throw it away yet,” she said. “When it’s time, you’ll know what to do with it.”
The shame of assuming the label divorced at twenty-five was, and to an extent still is, difficult to bear. It was excruciating to face the members of my family; I blamed myself for dragging them into what turned out to be nothing more than a big, empty show. Now, hardly anyone who wasn’t at the wedding knows; I haven’t even told my therapist.
Before the wedding I’d been so wrapped up—first in The Plan (by age thirty-four I wanted to have two kids, which meant trying by twenty-eight, which meant married twenty-six) and then in The Wedding—that somewhere along the way I’d forgotten to really see the person I’d conscripted to stand opposite me at the alter or to check in with my own heart.
What surprised me in the aftermath was how many people would chuckle and say, “Oh yeah, I too had a starter marriage.” Starter marriage. I’d never heard the term before, but I latched onto it like a lifeline: it was a way of contextualizing what I’d been through, flippant and forgiving.
I’ve decided to speak about this now because someone dear to me is going through a divorce. She is my age. And I wanted to tell her my story not to say I know what you’re going through, I don’t; but to say, I hold you without judgment, I have a past that I’m living with, too.
“Look at where you are now,” my friend said to me after I’d told her my story, “in spite of all that.”
And she’s right: that chapter is so far behind me that what was so defining in my twenties is now largely irrelevant. I’ve done the healing and I’ve taken the lessons to heart and so I get to be me and to make this life.
So one message I hope my story carries is: yes, when you’re in it, you’re in it—but there is an afterward, this doesn’t have to be who you always are. A butterfly can just be a butterfly; it doesn’t need to carry its empty chrysalis around everywhere to say, ‘Look, once I was a caterpillar.’
And the other message is: we have to heal ourselves in order to move forward. Burying things in darkness, living with secrets and shame, isn’t transformation. Yes it took three years for me to be ready to face my wedding dress again: but I didn’t feel free of it until I’d cut it to pieces and created this beautiful, exceptionally human, documentation. In the space opened up behind every divorce, of course there comes the possibility for a new love story.
My mother was right: when it was time, I did know what I needed to do. I hope for my friend that there will come a time when she knows what to do, too.
Special thank you to photographer Mike Olliver, the only person I would have trusted to be in this crucible with me and to raise such beautiful work out of the fire; and to my friend John who allowed me to take over his house for a day to make this project.