Sometimes I wonder: What would my life look like had I not followed the “right thing” and instead, looked within and chosen things for myself? What if I would have paid close attention to the red flags along the way during my courtship and marriage rather than view and disregard them–as if only gazing quickly at them from a window in a speeding car. What if I would have pursued photography and art in high school as I had dreamed of? Then continued that passion in college? What if I would have realized, at 22, the possessiveness and control was real in my soon-to-be-husband and had stood strong after I tried to break up with him and moved on, alone?

What if I would have shut out my mother’s critiques of the things I expressed I liked or her judgements of my artistic father? I wouldn’t have been so scared to choose for myself. I wouldn’t have thought art was a waste of time and pursuing photography would have been something I did, like my father.

All of these “what ifs” are here because I was afraid of disappointing. My father didn’t graduate from college, and photography was his major, so of course I saw photography as a dead-end career. He and his mother painted and my mother critiqued both of them, and I certainly didn’t want to be critiqued. So, I did the “right thing” from childhood on. Got good grades. Skipped a grade. Graduated. Got a job and put myself through night school trying to earn a business management degree. All because it was the “right thing to do.” Never was I authentically happy. I was good at it, but not happy.

The problem with doing the “right thing” for so long is that as you grow older, and stronger, you reach a point where you don’t even know what it is you would choose. You’re so used to doing the things your husband likes and eating at the places he chooses and decorating the house the way he prefers that once you’re on your own you get lost in the forest of no identity.

After my divorce, I became close friends with a sweet, divorced art teacher at the school I worked for. We bonded quickly over divorce talks, photography, and had great outings together and with our girls. We were both evolving together and breathing in our newly court-ordered freedom.

I’ll never forget the day she first walked into my large, stuffy home where I had lived the last 8 years of my marriage and declared, “This place looks nothing like you–it’s so not what I imagined your house to look like!” I chuckled and said, “That’s because it’s him.”

I know that being married to a narcissist has a way of washing away your identity. Your life becomes all about them. That’s why I cut myself slack as I try to determine who I really am. I’ve come a long way. But there are dips and bumps in the road of self-discovery. I struggle with this a lot. It’s a lesson I guess I keep re-learning, because I haven’t gotten the hang of it yet.

Now, I know, had I not lived the life I had, I wouldn’t have my four amazing children. I’m so thankful for them. Being a mother is my greatest fulfillment in life and my path has taught me many, many things.

But sometimes, I can’t help but dream about the Lori that could have been.