I can't get closure with my alcoholic ex

The ugly divorce is finally over, but it just doesn't feel like it's over.

Published February 8, 2006 11:15AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

A few years ago at the age of 49, I decided to leave my alcoholic husband. I'm a rarity. Studies show that of 10 women married to alcoholics, only one will leave, while out of 10 men married to alcoholics, only one will stay. I've always supported myself, so while it was wrenching for me to leave my familiar prison, I was reasonably sure I could rebuild my life and start over as an unmarried woman. There are no children involved, by the way.

I will spare you the details of how wretchedly intolerable the situation was and how justified I was in leaving him, but they involved the usual alcoholic atrocities and then some: lying, gambling, refusing to take responsibility, financial disaster, verbal abuse, betrayal of trust, denial, physical and emotional estrangement, shifting of blame. I felt I had to leave him to save my own life, and since he blamed me for everything bad about his life, I thought he wouldn't object. He didn't; he helped me find my own house and move. Of course I'd already tried everything wives of alcoholics try: pleading, bribing, screaming, co-drinking, codependency, threats, attempted intervention and, eventually, thanks to my Al-Anon group, detachment.

After I left and filed for divorce, telling my low-key attorney that I expected an uncomplicated, mutually agreed-upon if not amicable split, he hired the "best" divorce firm in this city and proceeded to make our divorce unnecessarily horrific, brutal, expensive and protracted. He didn't fight to keep me; he sought to punish me financially and emotionally for divorcing him. (Leaving was allowed; divorcing him was not to be borne.) After two years, the magistrate handling our case finally told him to stop filing motions against me. That was two months ago.

I just recently found a good job that will allow me to pay back the debts I incurred in the divorce. I'm living in my own house. I have a new boyfriend who treats me well and does not drink heavily or gamble. My health is much improved and my future no longer looks dreary. I'm right where I always envisioned myself when I used to daydream about how pleasant life could be if I were not married to a depressed alcoholic with a gambling addiction. I've rebuilt my life's foundations and I'm starting to build a new social network. I haven't had a threatening, vitriolic, accusing letter, e-mail or voice mail from the ex in two months. Life is good.

Until the other night, when I heard a sad song about heartbreak and abandonment (Alison Krauss' "Ghost in This House") and it got to me. I felt so sad for him, and I thought about how it must have hurt him when I left. At the time I didn't see how I could have done anything different to get away from a relationship that was killing me slowly, but now I wonder. I did not handle the leaving and divorce with kindness and dignity, as I would like to have done. I did not rise above the situation and treat him like a person with an illness. I was too hurt, too scared and too desperate.

This is the curse of divorcing an alcoholic: You don't get closure. No one can fault you for leaving for one of the "big A" reasons (addiction, abuse, abandonment, adultery), but you don't get, I don't know, maybe "resolution" is the word I'm looking for. Finality. Peace. Serenity. The opportunity to be friends, or at least on civil terms with your ex. Maybe it's lingering codependency that keeps whispering to me that there was something I could have done, not to save my marriage but to end it without so much ugliness and pain.

I loved him once. I'd like to forgive him. But I don't know where he went; the person I loved is gone and only the addiction inhabits his body. He hates me and blames me for everything, including his drinking, even though he will not admit that he has a problem. If I told him I forgave him, he'd say I have nothing to forgive, and he does not forgive me. We had 10 years together; some of them were wonderful, and now they just seem like a waste of time.

I went through hell in the final years and months of my marriage. It was a relief to end it, and I feel reborn. I thought I was past the worst of it and all my tears were shed. Now that he's not harassing me any longer, I'm out of self-preservation mode and I have time for reflection and regret. There is this huge disconnect between my life then and my life now; I've cut myself off completely from the people we both knew and even the industry we both used to work in. In effect, I gave them to him. They were the price I was willing to pay to escape. I don't regret leaving him, only that I acted badly toward him and others while I was struggling with the bitter end of my marriage.

Can you tell me how to move on, reach resolution and forgive myself?

Phoenix (the mythical bird, not the city)

Dear Phoenix,

I am reading this letter and I am going yep, yep, yep, that's classic!

I know I answer a lot of letters about alcoholism, but it is one thing I know inside and out, so when I can't figure out what else to do this is what I do, I go and write about alcoholism.

As an alcoholic, I can tell you that's what we do! We do it because you don't think we will do it. You don't think we're capable of it. You don't think we'd dare. You think we'll forget and move on. You think we're like other people but we're not. You think we've got some shame but we don't. We don't stop when others stop. We don't slow down when others slow down. We just speed up! We will do anything and that's our awesome power.

We will not be deterred by shame or pity or self-consciousness. Whatever happens, we can take it because we've got our medicine. We'll do anything as long as we've got our medicine. We'll take it as far as it can go. We've got the medicine to keep us going. We've got the stuff that kills the conscience so we don't have to stop halfway on account of our little conscience. Conscience? Nah. Watch this. We'll take it where you can't even imagine anybody would want to go. Why? Because we can! Because we're drunk! Because we don't give a fuck. You just watch.

And just when you think it's over? Ha! That's when we're just getting started: Have another drinky-poo, we're not even tired, we've been drinking all night and we're still going, and wait till you see what's coming next!

Not only can I channel that voice but I even, in a twisted diabolical alcoholic way, appreciate what he is up to -- the awful terrible spite of it, the wounded, caged-animal desperation of it, the stealthy, secretive, maniacal mad-scientist glee of its sadism and depravity. And beneath it all the whole time I know there is that poor little abused soul, which he can trot out every now and then to win your sympathy and pity. And he will do that if he can; he will put on his little "Howdy Doody Show."

Detach. Detach. Don't get too close or he'll pick your pocket. Forgive yourself for being human. Align yourself with other women who have been there. If he has friends who have sobered up and can commiserate, commiserate with them. You have to heal it. He's not going to help. He's going to make it harder if he can. Don't let him. Heal it up. Use everything you've got.

This guy is not on your side. This guy, as long as he's drinking, you just have to protect yourself from him.

So do not pity this man. Pity, if you wish, those he owes money to. But do not pity this man and do not try to help him. Take care of yourself instead.

It might not feel like it's over, but it's over for you. It's not over for him but it's over for you.

Detach. Detach. Wait. A change is gonna come.

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