First, a correction of sorts.
Wednesday's letter asked if I had heard of people quitting drinking on their own and I said yes, but I had also heard of people winning the lottery. It was the sort of knowing joke the converted make. And it was dismissive.
But a reader alerts me to a study from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism that says, "About 75 percent of persons who recover from alcohol dependence do so without seeking any kind of help, including specialty alcohol (rehab) programs and AA. Only 13 percent of people with alcohol dependence ever receive specialty alcohol treatment."
So clearly my bias toward one method of alcohol recovery led me to make a joke that not only wasn't very funny but implied a falsehood.
This doesn't change my advice to the letter writer. I still think she should get help. I think her husband shows signs of serious alcohol dependence. I think he should get help, too.
But I was wrong to imply that people rarely quit on their own. Apparently many people with problems controlling their drinking do quit on their own.
Are they alcoholics? Here is what it says in the "Big Book," the main text of AA published in 1939:
"If anyone who is showing inability to control his drinking can do the right- about-face and drink like a gentleman, our hats are off to him. Heaven knows, we have tried hard enough and long enough to drink like other people! ... We do not like to pronounce any individual as alcoholic, but you can quickly diagnose yourself. Step over to the nearest barroom and try some controlled drinking. Try to drink and stop abruptly. Try it more than once. It will not take long for you to decide, if you are honest with yourself about it."
My ex and I divorced a few years back after seven contentious years. We met when we were in our mid-20s, and our union eventually produced a beautiful daughter. But our relationship was always fraught with battles -- lots of screaming, slammed doors, not-talking for days (even weeks) on end. It ended in spectacularly awful fashion -- with her manufacturing a domestic violence claim against me in order to secure custody of our child. The D.A. eventually threw out the charge -- there was no merit to it -- but not before I spent time in jail and blew through tens of thousands of dollars on criminal and divorce attorneys.
She's never apologized for what she did. Indeed, while things have recently calmed down, for years she threatened me with the police whenever she didn't get her way regarding our child.
It's been six years now since we split. She's remarried (her third marriage, actually. I was her second), and she will soon be having her second child with her third husband.
We're both now in our late 30s.
I've had numerous relationships since we broke up -- including a four-year union which gave me yet another child. That recently ended. (I'm not happy about this breakup, either, but at least this ex and I are still friends and we are both incredibly decent about jointly raising our child.)
My problem is that my ex-wife was a physically perfect woman -- she was a fashion model -- and despite her very serious personality flaws I can't help but compare every woman I meet to my memories of this woman whom I first met in her mid-20s, when she was at the apex of her beauty. She could literally stop traffic just by crossing the street (not easy to do here in NYC given the number of beautiful women in this city).
It's almost 15 years later, and we've all gotten older, but I still can't escape these memories. I fear I took our youth -- and her beauty -- for granted. And I torture myself endlessly with "what used to be." And I continue to blame myself for not paying enough attention to her -- the source of all of her anger. Yes, she was a very needy person, but I could have been more present. I was busy trying to start a career at the time and money was always a problem. I was also far less emotionally mature than I am now (which maybe isn't saying much since I'm writing you this e-mail).
I clearly have a big problem here -- but how do I get past it and learn to have a decent relationship with a "real" woman -- as opposed to the briefly held model fantasy of my mid-20s? My ex was so clearly an angry and disturbed woman ... but I can't take her down off of this pedestal I've put her on.
Thank you for your help.
I suggest you stay away from women for a while. Stay away from women until you can clear your head and heal. When you do begin to be involved with women romantically again, stay away from fashion models. You need a woman who is not a reflection of your idealized notions of beauty but an ally and a fully separate, autonomous being. Your narcissism makes you vulnerable to the predations of people with borderline personality disorder. Your narcissism makes it hard to enlist a genuine ally.
You will be tempted by other beautiful women.
But you must find a woman who is strong enough not to seduce you.
Your ex bested you. She had superior youth, cunning and power. She had the ability to deceive, to enlist others in positions of power to her side, and she had the single-minded commitment to win at any cost. So she won.
In certain circles, there is no one more powerful than a beautiful woman. She certainly had great power over you. But that power was based in your acceptance of beauty as power. Who better to wield the power of beauty and illusion than a fashion model? The vocation is the quintessential enactment of beauty's power. So we think we can tangle with it and win?
I say the power rests in an illusion but such power is not an illusion when you are in the grips of it. It is as real as a tank. It cannot be beaten. And because it does not operate in the realm of tanks and missiles, it cannot be destroyed by an army. It operates inside you. She got inside you and she rearranged you until you suited her purposes and then when she was done she turned to accomplishing other purposes. You were left wounded, rearranged. And here you are trying to heal.
I tell you, sir, to heal you must accept that you are wounded. You transformed yourself into her servant in order to languish in the luxury of her mirage. And now you are waking from her spell. You are weakened. You need time to heal.
And you need time to grieve.
One reason we keep living in the past is that we have not let it die. Letting the past die involves some sadness. If we don't want to feel any sadness, then we can keep the past alive in our minds. But then because the past is alive in our minds we keep thinking it will reappear in the world.
But it won't. The past is gone. Your 20s are gone. Your youth is gone. If you keep thinking it will reappear, then you will keep feeling this frustration, and this frustration will keep feeding your anger.
Beneath the anger is grief. It is waiting to be felt. You can protect yourself against this grief, but keeping it at bay is a lot of work and eventually it will wear you down and turn you bitter.
You don't want to be bitter, do you? You don't want to become one of these bitter, resentful, narcissistic middle-aged men unable to age gracefully, do you?
Mourn the past but let it go.
That is how we move on in life.
Mental habits can be changed. Psychology offers tricks to use in moments when we habitually think of something. Maybe every time you think of your ex-wife, put a dog head on her. Picture her as an aging crone. A psychologist can help you come up with tricks. But the larger question is what happened and how did you end up like this and what do you do now?
You probably did take your youth and her beauty for granted. Most of us do. How could it be otherwise? We're young, we're strong, we're beautiful, and that's what we know. It was normal for you to take it for granted. You can't change the way you were then. But you can face the present.
You're going to be 40 soon. You're not immortal and you don't have super powers. You're a divorced man pushing 40 with two kids and an ex who drives you crazy.
Welcome to the world. It's a beautiful world. It's not perfect, but it's beautiful.
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