This morning, I peered at my baggy, bloodshot eyes in the bathroom mirror. It had been a rough night. Thanks to wild fluctuations in my hormones, my hair was a rat's nest of sweaty tangles. I tossed two Tylenol down my gullet, hoping to relieve a crick in my neck from tossing and turning, and headache pangs from grinding my teeth.
“Today’s gonna suck,” I admitted to myself with a defeated sigh.
A few years ago, I could handle awful mornings like this, because I had secret coping tools at my disposal, learned over 23 years as an active-duty Navy wife. However, now that my husband, Francis, has retired from the military — and now that the pandemic has him working from home and two of our adult children living under our roof again — I have no choice but to suffer through rough days in the constant company of my family.
Why can’t I use those secret skills I learned as a military spouse? Because they required the one thing I no longer have — alone time.
Everyone knows that military spouses must endure frequent separations and deployments. But people don’t realize that since military spouses are alone so often, we get good at it. Our extraordinary resilience doesn’t stem from altruism, benevolence or good character. It is a mere necessity. There’s no one else there to pick up the pieces if we fall apart, so we must maintain some semblance of control.
When Francis was away, I had plenty of rough nights when I’d wake up exhausted, wondering if I’d be able to get the kids to school, pay the orthodontist bill before it’s late, unclog the toilet, power walk in the pouring rain and figure out dinner without losing my mind.
However, I soon learned that, when I was alone, there were no witnesses. All I needed to do was find a lifeline — no matter how socially unacceptable, lazy, unsanitary or depraved — to get me through the day.
Once I dropped the kids off at school, I was free to soothe my stress however I saw fit. I could open the bag of stale Cheese Curls left in the the minivan and pour them directly into my upturned mouth. I could tune the radio to a ‘90s channel, and bellow “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” off key. I could floss my teeth at one stoplight, and pluck my eyebrows at the next. When I’d drive past base gate guard, I’d quickly flip off the radio and wipe my cheese-stained mouth on my sleeve.
Leave no witnesses.
Back at home, I could spend an hour on the floor snuggling with our dog, Moby, if needed. There was no one to hear me baby-talking to him or to see him licking me on the mouth. I could sit down at my desk to pay the bills, but if my eyelids got heavy, there was no guilt in plopping my head down and taking a nap. After all, the drool stain on the orthodontist’s invoice seemed apropos. I would eventually unclog that toilet, but only after binge-watching DVRed episodes of “The Bachelor.” The secret sleeve of Oreos I’d eat for lunch might leave me feeling too sluggish to power walk, but I’d feel no guilt putting on track pants to make it look like I did.
My secret coping strategies allowed me to function. When I was alone, there was no one to balk, demand my attention or roll their eyes. No one to embarrass, shame or disgust. It was just me, and as I discovered over time, that could be quite wonderful.
And here I sit today, now a “veteran” military spouse, wishing I could eat a sleeve of Oreos and take a nap at my desk. But alas, my family is home, so there are witnesses. I recall my days as a lonely Navy wife with an ironic nostalgia. Military retirement, the pandemic, remote working and quarantine may have drastically changed my circumstances, but I still remember that strangely liberating solitude — unfettered by parental responsibilities, social mores, ethical rules and basic human decency.
The secret joy of being alone.