My life has blown up in my face!

I got arrested. I've lost my family. I'm on shaky ground at work. How can I find my way back home?

Published April 11, 2005 7:00PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

About a year and a half ago I left my wife of 13 years, my three sons and my newly adopted daughter, after an equal number of years filled with passion and conflict. Although my wife and I made some subsequent attempt to label our separation "married but living apart," it soon became apparent that our marriage was over, and about a year ago, we decided to divorce.

At that time, I was filled with anger -- blind anger -- and I went out and found another relationship as quickly as I could. I announced to my wife that I was in love. At which point she went out and found herself a boyfriend. At which point I completely fell apart.

A lot of bad juju followed. I managed to break into my wife's e-mail account and read horribly corrosive correspondences. Learned how little I had mattered; learned how much others, her new boyfriend in particular, did. Scuttled that relationship for her by outing them (he was married; I did at least manage to avoid destroying his family by revealing what I knew to my wife). Threatened suicide, and did indeed genuinely wish to be dead. Although I knew pretty firmly throughout that I lacked the courage to actually do myself in, I nonetheless managed to convince my wife and then my therapist to have me committed involuntarily (a nightmare, let me assure you). Dragged myself through a couple of monumentally dreadful months. Discovered my wife's profile on an online dating service (the same one I had used!), broke into her e-mail again, fell apart anew; this woman I loved, still loved, had indeed found herself another new man. More acting out; more bad behavior, more desolation, more loneliness; over two weekends in November, I (for the first time) sent my wife nasty e-mails, called her names, harassed her at her boyfriend's house. For this she obtained a restraining order against me; I promptly violated it, going to her house (my old house!), standing on the doorstep, stating, "Wife, we used to be married, can we talk?" Leaving after two minutes. And then, of course, the predictable outcome: being arrested.

During all this, my performance on my job, never particularly distinguished, fell to abysmal, so much so that my large corporate employer, never particularly attuned to its employees' domestic travails, saw fit to put me on measured performance, a step away from firing. And my financial situation disintegrated, a function of overspending and foolishly having agreed to support my (nonworking) wife and children at a level beyond my legal requirement and far beyond my ability. On the advice of others, I accepted the restraining order, filing no response, thus granting my wife full legal custody of our children and providing her with documented evidence of my propensity for domestic violence.

While our marriage had problems, here's what it wasn't: It wasn't hateful. It wasn't violent. It wasn't filled with strife around money or core values or purpose. Perhaps due to my own many and varied family-of-origin issues, I struggled hugely with being acknowledged and seen in the family as my wife's husband, as my kids' father. Perhaps I picked a partner uniquely insensitive to my needs; perhaps not. Either way, perhaps, in expressing my constant fear that I'd one day be abandoned, I managed to sow the seeds of my destruction -- destruction by abandonment. Which is how I see it.

I miss my wife and family, terribly much so. I cannot imagine ever filling that hole -- the loss of comfort, the loss of belonging. Although I've managed to retain -- possibly even improve -- my relationships with my children, I'm ashamed that our marriage ended at the beginning of their young lives. I'm filled with rage -- nice irony, eh? -- at having been labeled a perpetrator of domestic violence, and at having to deal with the vagaries of the criminal justice system. (Sidebar: In my entire lifetime, I have never acted out violently, and, while I am ashamed of my bad behavior over two weekends at the end of the marriage, it seems to me entirely understandable; more puzzling entirely to me is my wife's apparent ability to simply walk away from our life together with not so much as a backward glance, other than to remind me frequently and forcefully of my huge financial obligations.) I'm deeply bitter and resentful and feel I've been manipulated and betrayed. I feel my wife is heartless and cruel, self-obsessed, delusional.

But at the end of all of this, I still love her. More than anything, I want her back. I can't imagine how I could ever overcome the now near-total lack of trust, respect, acknowledgment, but still, I so long for her comfort and touch. I don't know what my question is; I don't know what I'm asking. Though I do feel traumatized. And I do wonder if I will ever recover. Indeed, I wonder if it is possible to die of a broken heart.


Dear J,

Believe it or not, in the circles I travel in, I often hear tales such as yours. Under stress a person behaves badly, the mate retaliates, the battle escalates, a marriage falls apart, one finds oneself standing on a doorstep shouting like a lunatic, loses everything, wakes up and looks at the wreckage and is stunned, blinded, paralyzed, ashamed, unable to imagine how life could go on.

Yet again and again, amazingly so, useful and happy lives emerge from such wreckage.

Up to and including the place where you say, "I managed to sow the seeds of my destruction -- destruction by abandonment. Which is how I see it," your understanding of what you have done seems clear and unstinting. It is when you talk about how you feel, where you "cannot imagine ever filling that hole," where you say you are "deeply bitter and resentful and feel I've been manipulated and betrayed" that I begin to see the difficulty. It is a common difficulty. It is the difficulty of waking up in a radically changed universe and trying to use our old way of seeing things. Your old way of seeing things is simply inadequate to the task. You need a new radical simplicity of mind.

It takes a radical simplicity of mind to comprehend the facts without making excuses, to accept what lies before you without shuddering at its enormity. Such simplicity may feel unfamiliar, perhaps accusatory or inflammatory. But the facts are these: You disobeyed the restraining order and got arrested. It is your fault.

That may sound harsh. This radical simplicity of mind is all I know. This literalism is all I know. No one else disobeyed the restraining order but you. That is not such a hard thing to accept, is it, considering where you have ended up? Look out the window! Here we are in Fuckupville! What's the sense in trying to spin it?

Your future actions are the essential matter right now. You may need to carry your emotions around with you in a sack for a while. That's OK. There are legal matters, financial matters, crockery to be glued.

It's funny you don't mention booze. You did all this while sober? Perhaps you are naturally unrestrained. Be that as it may, the moral path one follows when one's life has come apart because of booze ought to work whether your main problem is drinking or not. You stop whining about what you did and you start cleaning house.

How to proceed is the important thing. Perhaps if you joined one of America's innumerable circles of disclosure where people spill their failures, their tragic and grotesque crimes, their sad disintegration, perhaps if you heard enough tales similar to your own and saw how others are putting their lives back together, you could see what you need to do. As to the particulars you might also need some gruff, wizened soul to direct your attention, harshly if necessary, away from your shame and fear and wounded pride and toward your specific errands of remuneration and rebuilding.

Make your journey, then, to the underworld of broken men and find someone who looks like you, who has done the same things you have done and has found his way back. They are not all alcoholics -- they are leafing through magazines in the anterooms of therapists, they are sitting in the metal folding chairs of anger management groups, they are standing smoking outside churches while waiting for the sex addiction group to resume. And they are often hiding in plain sight in our daily lives, the bank manager, the waiter, the truck driver, with lives of chaos and debauchery behind a uniform of civic propriety. Seek them out. Listen to their stories. Get to know them. Ask for their help. Do what they say.

You can live through this. You can be happy again.

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