I had spent my whole life seeking certainty and security and this break exposed the foolhardiness of that quest. Here was the raw slate of rock bottom once again.
Last year, a few days before Father’s Day, we were driving home after a week in South Carolina with my parents, the kids asleep in the back. My husband and I had basically just spent a whole week as strangers, sleeping in different bedrooms, not connecting. He had to work late every night — his reason for sleeping in a separate room. I felt our bodies repelling each other from the moment we arrived at their house. I had sensed that force around him often but something about the new setting made it more palpable.
For months I had been unable to wear my wedding bands because a rash flared up each time I kept them on for more than a few hours. Denial protected me from these not-so-subtle warning signs.
On one of the first nights of the trip my son woke up screaming with ear pain. It could have been from the pool water or from the mounting pressure of his parents’ silent stalemate. His dad very kindly ran out to get him medicine; he was always very loving about things like that. Our little boy’s seeming agony mysteriously vanished as quickly as it came on and we retreated to our separate rooms.
I made some really terrible meals that trip. I had brought my Insta-pot, which I was not yet savvy with. I made big pots of mushy things amidst a lot of steam. I worried he was quiet because the food sucked; he wasn’t super on board with my change to a plant-based diet. It was both sweet and heartbreaking how hard I was trying. As if I could make it all okay by making a good enough meal; so the family could be good enough, so I can be good enough. Food wasn’t going to fix it.
The hardest moment was on the third day of the trip. We were in the living room and it was late morning. He and I had been coming and going in opposite directions. He’d take our son to a golf lesson early, then I’d take the kids to the beach while he stayed at the house to work. That third morning I decided to speak up.
“Do you have to work so much? Usually when people go on vacation they send an auto-response email that they will be unavailable until such and such time. Do you think you could do that?”
To be fair, I don’t even know if I asked him. It’s very possible that I was indirect, and just insinuated that he was being a big old disappointment for working.
He erupted. He was clearly under stress and I had poked the bear. His explosive anger was nothing new. On that day I didn’t know the full extent of what was really going on with him, but I would find out soon enough.
I decided to make the most of the trip with the kids and my parents’ company. I made sure I got to some recovery meetings. I called my sponsor. I’m sure she and I laughed at some things. Which brings me back to the beginning of this story about the end of my 12-year marriage.
I was sitting on the passenger’s side, well into the 13-hour drive back to New Jersey, when he turned to me.
“What are you going to get me for Father’s Day?”
Cool as a cucumber, out glided: “Why would I get you a Father’s Day gift, you’re not my father.” Suffice to say I got the intended reaction, both from him and for myself. He raged and banged the steering wheel saying I was so heartless and cruel, while I was able to seal myself off inside, emotionally protected and walled off. The next day I tried to make it right with a card and apology. My comment that day in the car is not the reason for what happened next, but it has taken me a long time to truly accept that.
By the end of that week he told me he was leaving, that our relationship had been “too turbulent” and that he “needed to stop living his life trying to please other people.”
I didn’t see my husband as a man, but as a burden, an overgrown child. At times I hated him for that and other times I took advantage of it. That is not a partnership and this was no longer a union. I suspect it may never have been. A part of me understood his announced departure. The loudest parts of me did not.
For the first month I chewed on his abandonment (I mean break-up) speech in my mind and was reminded of what my first sponsor said to me when I disingenuously bemoaned my people pleasing defect. She looked me in the eye and said “Jane, there is no such thing as people pleasing, the only person you are interested in pleasing is yourself.” That resonated. I had considered myself a virtuous victim and was seeking attention for how taken for granted I felt. But I wasn’t able to use that card anymore. And yet here I was, years later, applying my sponsor’s observation to my husband’s behavior so I could justify my resentment, superiority, and self-pity. Ugh, I had become a smug sober person.
He had to rehearse his break up speech to me several times, as I tried coaxing him to go see a therapist together or be open to any more conversation about it. He was resolute, and he moved out the next day. He had been in therapy for six months and knew this is what he wanted. The last night with him in the house, I lay alone in the giant king-size bed, a terrified child. I had spent my whole life seeking certainty and security and this break exposed the foolhardiness of that quest. Here was the raw slate of rock bottom once again.
From the beginning my wrongs and disappointment haunted me: I see-sawed between guilt/shame and blame/anger. I had been sober long enough at this point to remember men and women who had walked through the death of children, unexpected illness, and other horrific circumstances, and they continued to show up and not drink. So I knew I could do that too, one day at a time.
The following weeks and months after were brutal. I rapidly dropped 20 pounds, found a lump in my breast, got into twisted relations with an older man in a 12-step meeting and did my best to care for two confused and upset children as an angry-hungry-tired-lonely-just-not-drinking mommy. I got an excellent therapist right away. I upped my meditation game by taking the TM training and sticking with it. I wrote a fourth step, did the fifth, immediately tried to make amends and get him back (yes I’m embarrassed to write that).
After about six months I started coming out of it. I learned that my willingness to talk and express and work things out with people can go to an extreme, placing me in a position to be harmed. I made my circle smaller. Slowly I’ve experienced a loosening of all the places inside me that had wrapped and toiled and contorted to survive in what I had perceived as a very unfriendly place to live, because it had been, because of how I had been living.
We got married before I got sober. We spent 15 years together, during which I discovered 12-step recovery. My husband never objected to my meetings and I was able to make recovery the center of my life from the beginning. While together, I gave birth to two healthy, loving, fearless children. I’m grateful for all that my marriage gave.
I’ve grieved the loss of what I thought we could have had. There are days when I am hurt and take his choices and continued actions personally but I do not miss his presence in my life. I’ve experienced a year full of character defect withdrawal. I notice how the spaces where the unhealthy behaviors used to be sometimes fill up with stories about how terrible I am, how unworthy I must be of love and belonging, how I’m too much, and don’t really matter. These stories are loud and call for my attention. I tell them I hear them and continue taking positive action in my life anyway.
Now, a year out from that car ride and the ensuing events, I am changed. I speak up where I once would have avoided a conversation, I am no longer interested in being all things to all people, I don’t feel the need to be busy all the time, and I’m really good at enjoying my own company. My relationship with my family of origin also dramatically changed this past year and sometimes I feel that as an unexpected additional loss. And yet, having grown up within a family with the disease of alcoholism, it’s a loss I have been suffering my entire life and not grieving.
My husband’s leaving revealed a lot of my dependencies. I had used his presence as a source of security after getting sober. His absence is no longer a source of insecurity.
On Father’s Day this year I know my God as an unconditionally loving parent. Like it says in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous “He is the father, we are his children.” I didn’t have to drink to hit bottom and find a new relationship to a Power that allows me to thrive. If I had continued living like I was, I would be missing out on the experience of my own sobriety.