On Holding One’s Breath for Thirty Years

Ken Honeywell

Ken Honeywell

By Ken Honeywell

Creative Director at Well Done Marketing and editor of Punchnels.com

When I was thirteen years old, the house we lived in caught fire in the middle of the night. Nobody died. But my brother and sister spent some days in the hospital recovering from smoke inhalation. My mom was there longer, and even when they released her, her burned hands were balled in bandages. My dad was in intensive care for months with burns over most of his back and legs. The doctor told him his fingers had been cooked.

I escaped with a tiny cut on my foot from broken glass on the porch. And a bad case of survivor guilt. The fire was not my fault. But I was the oldest son, and I walked out because I couldn’t breathe and left everyone else inside.

Thirty years later, I still couldn’t breathe.

“The fire was not my fault. But I was the oldest son, and I walked out because I couldn’t breathe and left everyone else inside.”

I was in an unhappy marriage. My wife and I didn’t like each other much. We spent a lot of time avoiding each other. We needed to end it.

But I was paralyzed. It was as if my marriage was my burning house, and I couldn’t abandon it. I had made a promise, for better or worse, which didn’t leave much of an out for “don’t want to anymore.”

So told myself that my happiness wasn’t important—that happiness was not the destination but the journey, and I was always just a better attitude away from bliss.  Nobody deserved happiness, anyway.

Then I met a woman. She was smart and warm and beautiful. She didn’t just turn on the lights when she entered a room. She repainted the place. I was smitten. But I was married.

“Happiness was not the destination but the journey, and I was always just a better attitude away from bliss.”

I never cheated on my wife. I never kissed another woman, never played footsie under the conference table, didn’t flirt, never took off my wedding ring.

And although I am blissfully married to that other woman today, I didn’t leave my marriage for her. I left it for a thirteen-year-old kid still trapped in the ruins of a smoldering house in New Jersey. Who once had to save himself and felt bad about it for thirty years. Who wouldn’t let anything smother him, as long as he never abandoned anyone ever again. That kid.

When I was forty-four, I took a risk to save myself. I walked out of a suffocating marriage. Finally, I could breathe, and I felt as dizzy and as hopeful as a teenager.

6 thoughts on “On Holding One’s Breath for Thirty Years

  1. Ken: I heard you read this on WFYI yesterday and was struck by the honest and powerful message you delivered. I’m passing it on to someone who deserves to breathe again and bask in well-deserved happiness. Thanks.

  2. Ken – I’m a childhood friend of your mother. I don’t think she ever told me she had been in the hospital – only the kids and Larry. The reality of your memories of it made me realize how bad it was!

    I also remember you had a very unhappy situation for years. When I met Becky at the funeral of your grandma. I think, it was obvious what a wonderful person she is. I’m so glad you were able to quit holding your breath!!!!!

    Norma Austin

  3. I’m a childhood friend of your mom. The reality of your memories of the fire gave me a better view of how terrible it was! Also I met Becky at one of your grandparent’s funeral and it was obvious how wonderful a person she is! I’m so glad you were able to quit holding your breath!!!

  4. I’m not sure how I feel about this. I can respect the attempt at honesty and closure on one hand. But on the other hand it seems a bit of a stretch to manifest the idea of feeling powerless as a child (in a genuinely powerless moment) into a theme of empowering yourself to escape an unhappy relationship. That’s not to say any individual is obligated to stay bound to their current situation, but causation and correlation seem suspiciously present here. Furthermore, the defense of any physical betrayal only reveals the clear emotional one that I’m inferring occurred. I’m probably seeing this too much from my own perspectives and experiences…And I might have had an easier time internalizing this if it were more blunt about seeking an alternate path to happiness rather than seemingly attempting to romanticize a clearly questionable set of actions.

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