The Old Navy where I bought my pajamas was very bright. At first, that brightness was what drew me in; hardly any stores in Manhattan were open on Thanksgiving Day that year, and in the dark and eerily quiet city, Old Navy had risen up out of the darkness like a cozy lighthouse.
But once I was inside, the brightness felt garish. The harsh retail lighting made the cheap clothes look even cheaper, and illuminated exactly what I was doing: going to an Old Navy on Thanksgiving not for a doorbuster sale, but because I had nowhere else to go.
I navigated through racks of puffer jackets and stacks of sweaters until I found what I needed: the sleepwear section. For the three months leading up to Thanksgiving, I had believed that the surreal and terrible events that had recently upended my life would all be over soon. But standing in Old Navy that night, after a season of despair and uncertainty and indefatigable hope, I was just tired. And when you’re tired, you put on your pajamas.
In late August 2015, my husband disappeared. Like, didn’t-hear-from-him-for-days, hadn’t-shown-up-for-work, I-called-the-police disappeared. After three days, he returned to our Brooklyn apartment. But the next weekend, after he’d spent a few days in the hospital and a couple more on our couch, he left home again — this time for good, though I wouldn’t know it was permanent until months later.
Not a single day that followed made any sense. Over and over again, I took stock of our entire relationship but found nothing I’d chosen to ignore, no collection of red flags I could point to and say, “Oh, yes, these were here all along, marking the path that led us to this moment.”
In fact, the one thing he and I (and everyone who knew us, including both of our families) could agree on was that all of this came out of nowhere, without warning. The fact that this could happen — that our seemingly normal life together could fracture so catastrophically, so suddenly, and in such a jagged, unfamiliar way — was shocking, and it was that shock, along with the grief, that completely gutted me.
Still, I went to work each day as though nothing were wrong. I couldn’t afford, financially or emotionally, to not be working. The days were exhausting and difficult, but doing a job I loved helped. The evenings and weekends were harder, but I was able to fill those with work too. Turns out, tragedies have a lot of logistics, especially if you are the type of person, like I am, who cares about things like avoiding massive overdraft fees on a shared bank account or, you know, having a place to live.
Not being homeless was my most pressing concern. The lease on our shared Brooklyn apartment would end on November 30, and in late September, it was apparent that my husband would not be returning to New York. I had bad credit, no savings, and two big recurring monthly payments: one to the IRS for back taxes owed, and one for student loans that was more than most people’s mortgages. I didn’t think I could afford the $2,100-a-month rent on my own.
The idea of finding a pet-friendly apartment, getting approved, cobbling together a security deposit, packing all of my stuff (and dealing with his — he left it all behind), and moving someplace new was so overwhelming, I couldn’t begin to engage with it. And it wasn’t just the apartment; untangling our shared finances was going to take considerable time and effort.
Throughout our relationship, my finances had always been a huge source of shame for me. He had always been “good with money” — he was born (and remained) upper middle class, had good credit, always made payments on time, and had just one tiny student loan. I was “bad with money” — financially illiterate, underemployed, drowning in debt.
But in this moment of marital upheaval, our roles reversed dramatically. He refused to discuss or even acknowledge any of the financial or logistical realities of the situation, forcing me to project-manage my own abandonment. So even though it made me feel physically ill (and furious), I threw myself into creating spreadsheets, tracking down billing cycle information, changing the login information for shared accounts to our respective personal emails, and calling Chase repeatedly to see if anyone could tell me how to close a joint bank account that was opened in a different state.
These administrative survival tasks kept me busy, but they didn’t make me feel better. Nothing made me feel better. I felt terrible all the time: bloody, raw, animalistic. Like I was radiating heat. It wasn’t that my heart was broken; it was more like I had been smashed in the chest with an ax, split in half like a tree. I couldn’t stop conjuring images of butcher shops, of huge sides of beef hanging on hooks.
As September turned to October, I lost my appetite and then 10 pounds; all the padding disappeared from my face and left me looking older. I saw and felt bone. Then I began to feel so tender, it was like I no longer had any skin at all.
My friends reminded me to practice self-care, a well-meaning comment that I found unintelligible. Getting a manicure or a massage wouldn’t fix this. Nothing would fix this. And even if I had wanted to indulge, I was worried about how my behavior might be perceived. I had quickly discovered that a woman whose husband is objectively Not Okay is likely to be ignored, picked apart, blamed, and have her sanity questioned — especially if she is a black woman and her husband is a white man. So whenever the topic of self-care came up, I’d say something that would get them off my back, and then I’d get back to work.
After I found the courage necessary to make a budget spreadsheet, a bit of good news emerged: I’d be able to afford the apartment on my own after all. It would be tight for a few months, but it would be possible. As the one who was “bad with money” — who had listened to my husband criticize me for being too dependent on him, and who had, at times, quite literally felt worthless because I was worth less — I was genuinely shocked to see how far I’d come with regard to my finances.
By early November, I had finally run out of logistical things to do, but I didn’t have the mental energy to read or write or pick up one of the creative hobbies I’d been leaning on to semi-soothe me. Instead, I found myself spending an entire weekend in bed, binge-watching the first season of Jane the Virgin. I have never watched much TV, and I’d definitely never watched 23 hour-long episodes in a single weekend. But it felt so good to be in my bed for two days, totally lost in someone else’s surreal world instead of my own.
Because I wasn’t ever much for lounging, I didn’t own proper loungewear. During the two days I spent watching Jane the Virgin, I wore gigantic white basketball pants with a blue stripe down each side that I’d acquired from a male friend years before. The pants were incredibly comfortable but always made me feel like a dirtbag because of how they dragged on the floor when I walked. But it was fine. Everything was fine.
A few nights later, I had moved on to binge-watching The Mindy Project. When Dr. Mindy Lahiri is in her apartment, she’s often costumed in very cute and colorful pajamas — like, old-school, matching-top-and-bottom pajamas. It occurred to me that maybe I should buy myself cute pajamas, because if the previous weekend was any indication, it looked like I might be in bed for a while. Instead of making the purchase, I decided to just keep white-knuckling my former life.
Around the same time, I made the decision to spend Thanksgiving alone. This was absolutely the right choice, but I vastly underestimated how much it would hurt. I hadn’t realized just how empty NYC would be that week, or how deeply alone I’d feel as fewer and fewer people filled the subways or came into the office each day. Even though I don’t really like Thanksgiving, I was surprised to discover how many good memories I had of spending the holiday with my husband, and I was wildly unprepared for how painful they’d be.
By Thursday afternoon, I was struggling. So I decided to go shopping. It wasn’t exactly retail therapy; I just I knew that I was too sad for my own good, and I needed to be less alone for a little while.
Standing before Old Navy’s massive wall of flannel pajama pants in dozens of colors and designs, I thought back to Mindy and Jane and decided it was time. Thanks to the 50 percent off sale, the fastidiousness of the previous three months gave way to indulgence: I allowed myself to buy two pairs, for a grand total of $16. One pair was cream with navy blue illustrations of woodland creatures; the other was a winter white and blue plaid. There was nothing fancy about these pajama pants, but both felt grown-up (and decidedly un-Old-Navy-like).
Buying those pajama pants was the moment I finally understood self-care. It wasn’t a sheet mask or a manicure or a bubble bath; it was admitting to myself, Things are bad, and they are going to be bad for a while. It was dressing not for the life I wanted, but for the life I had.
My Old Navy pajama pants couldn’t save me, or my marriage, which would officially end two years later. But they helped. Because when you feel raw from head to toe — when you move through the world feeling like you’ve been butchered and burned and pierced and gutted, when you’ve lost so much of your life that there is literally less of you, when the protective cushioning that once surrounded your vital organs has disappeared — covering your body in something clean and soft and fresh and white feels very, very good.
In this moment of trauma, I learned to dress myself by looking to how we dress all wounds. (One website advises: A little bleeding is OK; it helps flush dirt and other contaminants out of the wound.) Wearing my winter white pajamas and wrapped in my crisp and cozy all-white bedding, I was both the nurse and the patient. A little bleeding is OK.
After weeks of feeling powerless, suiting up to face my unhappy ending gave me a tiny sense of control. And it made me feel brave. Over time, I would add more pajamas, including several top-and-bottom sets, to my collection. It’s how I practice “hallelujah anyhow,” a core tenet of the black church that Van Jones describes as “the search for a kind of joy — not happiness — and the preservation of dignity and the connection to something sacred no matter how terrible the external circumstances.” It would be a while before I felt true happiness again, but even on my worst days, putting on clean, cozy clothes always made me feel a little bit less bad, a little bit more human.
During those initial three months of my abandonment, I had kept myself busy out of fear — fear of being hunted down by creditors and losing my apartment, yes, but also fear of losing myself in my grief. I didn’t want to admit it at the time, but I was afraid that if I let myself lie down, even for a second, I wouldn’t be able to get back up. Buying a new outfit designed for the sole purpose of lying down required me to take the faith I’d had in others — in my husband, in marriage, in logic and reason, in the universe — and refashion it into faith in myself.
Rachel Wilkerson Miller is the author of Dot Journaling: A Practical Guide and a former senior editor at BuzzFeed. She is currently working on her second book, The Art of Showing Up: A Guide to Taking Care of Yourself and Other People (The Experiment, Spring 2020).