Stung by the Stigma of Divorce

Medical Post
Helping Hand Column, January 22, 2008

In a very personal account, Dr. Mamta Gautam explains the grief and shame she faced when her marriage ended, and how she overcame it

“It’s over, I’m leaving.” My heart stopped for a second as I heard what my husband had just said. We have been together for 23 years. Did he really say that; where did that come from? Here we were, minutes from leaving the house for a family Diwali party. I’m standing in the middle of our bedroom, all dressed up, wearing a festive brightly coloured sari, anticipating a fun celebration. Ironically, my hands, wrists, and neck are covered with my gold wedding jewellery, and I am in the process of applying my bindi, the dot on my forehead that signifies that I am married. I have to sit down and grope for the bed behind me. I distantly hear the television the kids are watching downstairs while they wait. He has little else to say—just that he’s not been happy for some time and wants more fun and adventure in his life. It seems as if I am in a bad dream, as if this is happening to someone else.

I get up to go—I feel I must go as I am bringing essential ingredients for the evening’s celebrations. It does not even occur to me to cancel—too many people are counting on me. I move as an automaton, herd the kids in the car, greet people when we arrive and outwardly fix a smile on my face. Inside, I vacillate between total disbelief and pure panic. I feel suspended. I can’t wait to get home so that I can be alone and let myself think and feel my feelings. I don’t entirely succeed; the tears silently start to trickle down my cheeks on the drive home.

After the kids are safely in bed, I try to talk to him, express my shock and disbelief, seek some answers. “I have nothing more to say; I’ve decided.” I’m stunned; I spend my whole life talking to people, but am not given the chance to do so at home. He refuses to go to a counsellor: “I don’t want to be talked into staying.” A part of me is insulted he has just rejected and dismissed what I do, but I don’t have the time to listen to it—it’s insignificant compared with the fact that he has just rejected me. Hours of tears, no sleep that night.

I head off to work the next morning. There are so many reasons why I can’t take time off—too many patients counting on me; how would I explain it to the kids who have never seen me take a day off work. In fact, I was in denial, and that was my cover. As I get into the car and turn on the radio, I hear Great Big Sea sing “How do you go from saying I love you to I’ll see you around someday?” The tears start, as did a new pattern in my life.

I continued to do it all and go on as before—except when I was in the car driving to and from work. These became the only times in my day when I was alone and let myself cry. Even then, I remained responsible—allowing myself to tear up at the red lights, and mopping up when the lights turn green. I think I have conditioned myself to cry at red lights for the rest of my life!

That was three years ago. I am at a different place now. I have spent a lot of my work life having the privilege of helping colleagues live healthy lives and combat the stigma of illness. I realize I have also felt such stigma in the past few years. If I am going to encourage colleagues to speak out about their personal experiences, I need to do the same. I am not immune.

Being separated or divorced is to being widowed as having a mental illness is to a having a physical illness. There is an inherent sense of shame, of fault and personal responsibility, of having failed. At times, I wished there was a similar social structure of wakes and funerals for separations—that I could just put an ad in the paper letting people know it happened, giving people a place to come and give condolences and offer support, and get it all over with. Instead, I was left to tell people myself, often too tearful to be coherent. I approached work and social situations with trepidation, wondering who knew, who didn’t and who I would have to tell. I cried regularly at my local Loblaws store, telling yet one more person I would happen to run into there. (The manager, a good neighbour and friend, jokingly told me recently he was glad I was feeling better; he was running out of the flowers he felt moved to give me on each such teary occasion!)

A couple of years ago, I listened intently as Dr. Michael Myers, a dear friend, colleague and mentor, gave the R.O. Jones memorial lecture at the Canadian Psychiatric Association annual meeting. He spoke about “broken physicians,” the process of dealing with loss and shame, and healing. I was still mourning the loss and feeling the shame. Michael gave me hope there would be healing ahead.

Like many of my medical colleagues, I was no stranger to loss. We immigrated to Canada when I was four years old, leaving behind the rest of our extended family. My father was killed in a car accident when I was 11 years old. I recall the sense of panic and impending doom. I felt exactly the same when my husband told me he was leaving. I recognized the deep sense of loss encompassed the fear of loss of my other extended family, especially my father-in-law with whom I am very close. I shall always be grateful that both Dad and I have worked well to maintain our relationship.

The sense of shame ran deep. I was “found out”-—a fraud. I “pretended” to help my colleagues improve their relationships and live better lives; I failed at doing this myself. For months, I could not look people in the eye. I asked myself what more I could have done. I found it hard to tell people my husband and I were no longer together, bracing myself for the expected (but never received) lecture on how it was my fault, that I should have tried harder, done more.

My initial response was to do what most highly functioning people do when we are feeling stress—do more. I worked harder than ever, seeing patients, assuming the Ontario Psychiatric Association presidency, writing, doing more talks. It was far easier to be out of town presenting than to be alone in the house on a weekend when the boys were not with me.

I soon realized I was surrounded by fantastic people who cared about me—me as a person, not me as part of a couple. My family was fantastic. The beauty of having my mother and so many sisters close by is that they always ensured one of them was around to be with me—a call schedule of sorts! After I told my family, the next person I called was Michael Myers, who actually specializes in helping physician couples—how lucky am I to have a direct line to him! My other friends were all there, telling me I was a good person and would get through this. My psychiatry journal club members surrounded me with care and support. One of my dearest friends from medical school gave me a mantra I used daily: He told me to ask myself each day, “What’s good about this?” Some days, it was almost impossible to answer, yet I always found something. My family doctor saw me at the end of his day, sent off his last patient, made us both a cup of tea and let me cry as long as I needed. As one of my sons said, “How many doctors does it take to help the doctors’ doctor? At last count, I think it’s 42. Isn’t that the meaning of life, Mom?”

Slowly the healing started. As I reached out to family and friends, I learned how to let others take care of me. I started to believe the good things they told me about myself and my strengths. I took time to let myself feel, cry and let go. I spent one New Year’s holiday purposely alone, enjoying not one, but two, pyjama days! I focused on self-care routines—sleeping better, regular exercise, nutrition. I took salsa dance classes, cooking workshops and yoga.

My sons have been so wonderful. We have had some memorable holidays, discovering new continents together. They are full of humour, and many days we laugh together, a good reminder of what has not changed. Shortly after the separation, one of the twins asked me, “Mom, remember when I wanted a dog and you said no because Dad was allergic and either he or the dog would have to go. . . . Now, can I have a dog?” More recently, he came up with a new riddle. “What’s worse for a Brahmin than marrying a non-Brahmin? Divorcing one!”

Serenity has arisen from confusion. I have learned to acknowledge and let go of the shame and guilt. There is a greater sense of control, confidence, hope and dignity. I am thrilled as I anticipate a new year, a new start and enjoying the love and laughter of family and friends. Now that the fog has lifted and I can see so many good things about each day, I am excited and ready to appreciate each and every one of them.

Mamta Gautam is an Ottawa psychiatrist who specializes in treating physician patients. If you have a question you would like addressed in this column, please contact Dr. Gautam at Please include “Helping Hand” in the subject line. All inquiries will be confidential. Your questions will not be replied to, but may be selected to be answered in this column, which is intended to be educational, not therapeutic.