If you did not read my post last month about Stage One of my journey, you should read that post first before you read further here. This part of the story starts up about a year and a half ago.
I never believed in divorce. It wasn’t part of my lexicon. I always believed that once I got married, it would be forever. Looking back, I wonder if I said this over and over to myself because I believed that being alone was the worst possible fate. Especially once my daughter was born. From the other side, I can say with confidence that being alone, even as a mostly-solo parent these days, is so much easier than trying to parent with someone who is unstable and did not always feel like a partner or even a friend.
I need to be clear that my ex-husband Neil has at least two major mental illnesses. I do not fault him for this. Not at all. I do acknowledge that these illnesses, his alcoholism, and his unwillingness to admit or seek treatment for either led to the deterioration of our marriage. The other thing that contributed to the demise of our marriage was my co-dependence.
They say it takes to two to tango. It certainly takes two to make a co-dependent relationship. I always described myself as a “Helper” and a “People Pleaser.” I am also a perfectionist. I try to excel at everything that I do. I had known that my ex-husband had drinking issues before we met. I had also known that they had become out of control before I married him. But I pushed forward anyway, ignoring all of the warning signs. I thought I could help him. I truly believed this with all of my being. And I wanted to help him. Because I loved him. I wanted him to get better.
I tried again and again to fix him. And it didn’t work. And then I got resentful. And lonely. Really, really lonely.
Photo Credit: Me
The hardest part about hiding Neil’s issues from everyone in my life was that I basically only had myself to help me work through this spectacular burden. It was so isolating. I was very afraid of disappointing people, especially my parents. They loved Neil. My mom and I have always been close. On my wedding day, she said that she had never been more proud of me. I think that my fear of disappointing or even losing my friends and family was my greatest obstacle to seeking help. From anyone.
As Neil’s anxiety and drinking escalated, two things occurred. He simultaneously pulled away from me, while I tried desperately to move closer to him. I tried to push my “cures” on him. He would often yell at me for monitoring his drinking. He would tell me that I was not his mother. If I would push the question of how much (or if) he drank at an event or during the work day, he would literally tell me I was “smelling things.” Over time, I started to believe him. Maybe I was the one with the problem? I know now that this was gas-lighting, which is a form of emotional abuse. [It is so hard for me to admit this, even now more than a year out, that I shaking and tearing up while I am typing.]
I would try to talk with him about his anxiety and depression. He would shoot back that he was fine. Everyone has anxiety, he would say. In our darkest arguments on the subject, he would bring up my postpartum depression. Because I was the one who was crazy, not him. I know now that he was firmly in the denial stage of his alcoholism. So was I.
I became convinced that it was me. His drinking problems were just in my head. After all, everyone drinks to unwind. Everyone drinks to feel better after a hard day at work. Everyone drinks to celebrate at life’s beautiful moments. Don’t they?
So I let things slide. I put blinders up. And I began to pull away from him.
The thing about alcoholism that no one really talks about is the toll it takes on intimacy, both emotional and physical. This is such a heavy topic for me. I can tell you that our intimacy faded until it was gone. Alcohol use, in particular heavy alcohol use, makes a person numb. It deadens emotions. It also deadens the ability to feel physical touch. For men, it can make the physiological part of sex almost impossible. Because I was so convinced that Neil was not an alcoholic, I came to the illogical conclusion that our intimacy issues were my fault. Maybe my post-baby body was just not attractive to him? The morning after a failed romance attempt, he would tell me repeatedly that it was not me. That I was beautiful. But his statements and actions “in the moment” took a toll. He did not see that I was struggling.
As our relationship crumbled, I started spending more time outside the house. I scheduled play-dates with other moms. I made new friends. I joined a gym. These all sound like positive things. And they were. However they were also part of our co-dependent cycle. Because I was pulling away from him, Neil felt great anxiety and instability. I didn’t see it because I was becoming a deeply-entrenched resident of denial-ville. He started drinking more and more at home while I was out of the house. While he was watching our daughter.
One day, our daughter was sent home from preschool with a fever. I had made plans to go out that night to the movies with friends. Once home, our daughter seemed fine. She devoured her dinner and no longer had a fever (sometimes I swear that the school thermometers are meant to drive parents crazy). Neil insisted that I go out and “have fun.”
When I got home that night, I knew immediately that something wasn’t right. Neil was sitting on the couch and his eyes were glassy. I asked him how much he had drank. He said two beers, three if he counted the one with dinner. I knew by his slurred speech that he was lying. When he came to bed, the smell was overpowering. I asked him again how much he had drank. And he lied again. I knew he was blacked out. I had seen this before. I fell asleep on the edge of the bed furthest from him.
The next morning, I walked to the kitchen and lined up all of the bottles. When Neil woke, I asked him a third time how much he had drank thinking that he would not lie when he was now sober and I could easily verify the truth. He lied again. Then he walked into the kitchen and started immediately backtracking. He said he had lied so that I would not get mad. He had lied to protect me. The conversation was the same as it ever was. So, I turned the conversation directly on its face and asked the hard question. What about our daughter? Had he thought about her at all? What if she had spiked another fever? What if he had needed to get her to the hospital? He continued to deflect and deny.
It was at this moment that I knew I needed to make some serious changes. Another ultimatum would not cut it. It was as if I had been standing with my nose close against a mirror. Something snapped. I started to back away slowly. Until I reached a point where I could really see myself clearly for the first time in a decade. And I did not like the person that I saw. I needed to make some tough decisions, for my daughter and for myself.
Photo Credit: Me
That morning, Neil became very confessional. This time was different. He told me EVERYTHING. And it scared me. His drinking was so much worse than I had thought it had been. As was his anxiety. He had been drinking almost every day, during the work day, even on days he needed to pick our daughter up from school.
First, I gave him another ultimatum (you know what they say about old habits). He claimed he would stop drinking for good. A few days later, we went to the beach. I swam way out into the water and then watched him on shore with our daughter. I realized then that I was in a crisis of faith. In our marriage. In myself. In him. I did not trust him. I swam back in and tried to read my book under an umbrella. After we got home, while he was in the shower, I gathered up all of the alcohol in our house and put it in the trunk of my car to take to a friend’s house. He must have heard some bottles clinking. When he got out of the shower, he confronted me in the kitchen in a rage. He walked right up to within two inches of me, looked down into my face and started shouting and spitting: “You have no right to take it.” “I wanted to be the one to pour it out.” “Why don’t you trust me?” For the first time in our relationship, I was not scared for him; I was scared of him. Our daughter was in the next room.
I set up boundaries to feel safer and more sane. I told Neil that he was no longer sleeping in our room. I started making calls. To close friends who had seen at least some of his past drinking. To my siblings. To my mom and dad. This last call was the hardest. I was so afraid that these closest members of my tribe would judge me. But they didn’t. Not even a little bit. They just extended what I had been missing for over a decade: loving support. I knew that I was no longer alone, whatever I decided to do.
I went back to my therapist. She spoke with me in earnest about co-dependence. She recommended the book Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself, by Melody Beattie. Reading it felt like coming home after a long vacation. So exhausted but so happy to be back. It was me. Every single page. And now I had some guidance. Some rules. I started attending Al-Anon. This was the greatest gift. I found people with whom a could really talk about everything. They did not judge me. They had all been there. Maybe not exactly where I was, but so, so painfully close. They gave me hope. Most of them were on the other side of where I was. It was a much more calm and peaceful place.
My relationship with Neil became extremely volatile over the following months. He was supposedly sober, but he acted just as unstable as he had at the height of his drinking. I would set him off with the smallest things. I was walking on eggshells all of the time. I realized that I could not stay with him. I deserved a safe home free from constant conflict. I deserved happiness. I deserved stability. I deserved love. And the hardest realization, our daughter deserved it as well. As her mother, it is my job to model for her what a healthy relationship looks like, one built on mutual respect. A partnership. What my marriage was not.
I made an appointment with an attorney who advised me to meet with Neil in a public place when I told him that I wanted a divorce. I met him for coffee after work that week. He was remarkably calm. He told me that he didn’t believe I would go through with it. I honestly wasn’t sure that I could.
After I told him that I wanted a divorce, ironically Neil suddenly started telling me that his sobriety and mental health was my responsibility. After so many years of telling me that his drinking was none of my business, suddenly he said it was my job to give him stability. That he could not recover without me. That, if I left him, he would certainly relapse. That I was abandoning him when he needed me the most. One day, he told me that I was his anchor. I couldn’t get the image out of my head for days. Anchors reside at the bottom of the ocean. And I did not want to be there.
I know now that I could not have cured him. That’s not how it works. Neil must want to be sober himself in order to get and stay sober. I know now that even if he is willing to get and stay sober, it may not be enough. As of today, he claims that he has been sober for just over a year. This is wonderful news, especially for our daughter. He may be able to treat his anxiety and depression, but this is also his responsibility. He has to choose to keep going and to get the mental health help that he needs. I am still working on recognizing that this may not be enough and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. Chances are that he will relapse at least once, maybe more than once. The bottom line is that, despite my love for him, my ex-husband’s sobriety and mental health problems were never mine to solve. It took me a long time to realize this.
I’m not going to mince words. The weeks after I told Neil that I was leaving were the darkest of my life. I was scared. I was shaken repeatedly. He was yelling at me almost every day, usually after our daughter was asleep or before she woke up in the morning. My daughter suddenly started waking up in the middle of the night after being a champion sleeper for years.
I took my daughter to visit family for a long weekend. Every night we were away, she slept through the night. I realized that she had been feeling the stress in our house, even if she wasn’t awake for the fighting. Stress that wasn’t there when we were away. Also while we were away, I checked the balance of our joint credit card. Neil had charged over $700 on the card while we were gone. I was floored. I didn’t know what to do. When I got home, I asked Neil about the spending. I was immediately met by rage. “It was his card too.” “I wasn’t his mother.” “He didn’t need my permission to spend our money.”
The next week I filed for divorce. It was as if the heaviest weight was lifted from my shoulders. Suddenly, I could see a different future. One on my own with my daughter. I generated my own hope. I knew that I was on the right path.
Photo Credit: Me