Editors’ note: To respect the privacy of both parties written about here, we are not using Stephanie’s last name.
By Stephanie R.
As a member of my high school’s swim team, every day each winter I would join my teammates at the swimming pool at 6 a.m. Shivering, we would wait on our blocks until it was time to dive into the cold water.
Hitting the water on that first dive was always a shock. You’re going so fast that it feels like the freezing water slams into your entire body all at once. For a moment, you forget everything. It’s so cold, your mind shuts down.
One of those winters, the school had to drain the pool and refill it. We had a few days off of swim practice while the massive amount of fresh water heated up. When the water was just warm enough for the coach to legally hold practice, we were back in the pool at 6 a.m. I’ll never forget that day’s dive. Somehow, it was even colder than all the rest — the sensation of shock and cold I usually felt was multiplied a hundredfold.
I’ve been thinking about that shock recently. It’s the only way to describe what it felt like to break up with my boyfriend 10 years later.
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April 24 2015: Our first date. P takes me on a picnic in a local park. He brings a baguette, fruit, lunch meat and a bottle of wine. It’s magical.
April 27 2015: Our second date. He takes me to an Indian restaurant. He brings me flowers in my favorite colors and a bottle of wine.
May 10, 2015: We officially begin our relationship. I am elated.
August 25, 2015: My 27th birthday. P misses a flight home because he “slept through the alarm.” I spend all morning crying. He arrives to my birthday party four hours late. Later I find out he was too drunk to get to the airport on time.
February 20, 2016: I get an amazing job offer in Cleveland that I tell P I’m taking. He says he’s not sure it’s worth staying in the relationship if we’re living 2.5 hours apart (we were both living in Pennsylvania at the time) or if he moves in with me and has to make a long commute to work. I tell him I’m not talking to him until he makes up his mind whether this is a relationship worth continuing. We reach a compromise: He decides to live with me in Cleveland on weekends and work from home on Mondays, and live in Pittsburgh Tuesday through Friday. Still, I’m left feeling hurt and confused.
“I’ve been thinking about that shock recently. It’s the only way to describe what it felt like to break up with my boyfriend 10 years later.”
March 10, 2016: We fly home together from a trip we took with my family to Iceland. I fly with P through Boston instead of Toronto with the rest of my family, due to complications from a DUI he got in the U.S. in 2014. He starts insulting my family while the flight takes off. I am baffled and outraged. I ignore him, then later have a miserable time in the five-star hotel he booked for our layover.
March 11, 2016: I am brokenhearted and thinking of breaking up with him. I was already having some doubts before the trip, but his lack of effort to get to know my family on the trip and the post-trip insults are the final straw. Mom tells me to give him another chance. I agree; it must be my fault. I can do a better job of making this relationship work.
June 1, 2016: P pays to fly us back first class from our one-year anniversary trip to Europe. It’s my first time flying in first class, and I am in awe of everything, despite his unimpressed attitude. We have a great conversation about what our wedding might be like if we got married before he orders too many rum and cokes and starts acting childish and immature. He thinks he is hilarious when he’s drunk, but no one is laughing. I spend the flight crestfallen, worrying about him and about us.
June 2, 2016: He doesn’t remember the wedding conversation we had on yesterday’s flight. I think this is when I first realize how serious of a problem he has with alcohol. He promises never to get that drunk again. I believe him.
July 5, 2016: P gets really drunk at his friend’s wedding in Texas. Back at the hotel that night, he claims I’ve been screaming at him about his drinking and making demands. He’s the only one screaming. Five minutes after our conversation ends, he falls into a drunken sleep. I’m up all night.
July 6, 2016: He tells me he’ll stop drinking for a month. I am so relieved.
August 25, 2016: My 28th birthday. He asks me to pour him a glass of wine. I want to show him I trust him to make responsible decisions about alcohol, so I do. I take a nap. When I wake up, he has drunk the entire bottle and then throws up in my sink.
August 26, 2016: P promises he’ll stop drinking for good. I believe him.
October 31, 2016: We have a Halloween party at my house. P barely interacts with our guests. I steal a few sips of his drink, which tastes like rum. I spend the rest of the party worrying he’s been lying to me for months about being sober.
November 1, 2016: I confront him about the night before. He tells me he wasn’t drinking then and hasn’t been drinking since he promised to quit. I believe him.
November 24, 2016: We spend Thanksgiving in Chicago with P’s family and their friends. Thirty minutes after we arrive, I notice he can’t sit up straight or form coherent sentences. I’m terrified he’s having a stroke or another serious medical issue. I find out he’s just really drunk. I spend the rest of Thanksgiving sobbing to my parents on the phone in between yelling at him.
November 25, 2016: We head home from Chicago early. He promises me he won’t drink again. I tell him I want to help him, but if he lies to me again, it’s over.
December 9, 2016: My first semester teaching at my new job ends, and I drive to P’s house, excited to spend winter break with him, but somehow feeling anxious and depressed. I can’t figure out why.
“Thirty minutes after we arrive, I notice he can’t sit up straight or form coherent sentences. I’m terrified he’s having a stroke or another serious medical issue. I find out he’s just really drunk.”
December 14, 2016: I’m still feeling miserable. He is staying late at work, and despite being at his house, we spend hardly any time together. We do trivia night with his friends. He’s acting stupid drunk, and his friend even calls him on it. P denies it to both of us, but I still spend the whole night worrying. I want to drive us home, but P says it hurts him that I don’t trust him, so I let him drive. It’s a miracle we didn’t crash.
December 15, 2016: The evidence is mounting against him, and I can’t lie to myself any longer. I catch him again — he’s drunk. I call my parents, sobbing, and drive home the next day. I tell P it’s over.
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“I want to have the kind of relationship that you and P have,” a close friend of my then-boyfriend told me after he started a new relationship.
I smiled. I loved hearing this feedback.
At that time, I thought my life was just about perfect: I had just gotten a new job near my hometown in the Cleveland suburbs, just bought a house and the year before, a new car. Any day now, I was sure P would propose. The only thing that had been missing from my “perfect” life before then was a perfect relationship. But I knew I had it with P — and other people knew it too.
Turns out, people have a profound capacity for self-delusion, and in this I am no different from the rest.
We were picture perfect — picture perfect because I denied my unhappiness. I ignored his mistakes. I believed his lies. It’s hard for others to understand how I didn’t realize he was drinking and lying to me sooner in our relationship, but it makes complete sense to me. I wanted to believe that I had a loving, caring, intelligent boyfriend. I wanted to believe that P cared more about me than he did about drinking. I wanted to believe that we didn’t have any problems. So I ignored the voice inside of me whispering that something was wrong. I ignored that voice until it became a scream.
Breaking up with P caused a total, mind-numbing shock to my system. Finally, I could no longer lie to myself about my relationship — and about my life. I could no longer make excuses for him or believe his lies. But because I had lied to myself for so long, it was hard to come to grips with reality.
It’s scary to think how miserable I was yet how much I insisted I wasn’t. I let him shape my reality. I depended on his scraps of positivity and love, and ignored everything else. I forgot what true happiness was.
For a long time after the breakup, I felt my perfect life had been ruined. Sure, I still had my new job, house and car, but I didn’t have my relationship. It took me many months to realize that my life wasn’t and could never have been perfect with P in it.
I wish I could tell you the secret to helping your loved one stop drinking (or using), but unfortunately there is none. As much as you want to help them, they need to make the journey on their own. You can support them through it, but most importantly, you need to take care of yourself.
Know that it may feel like things are hopeless, but it will get better. You are not alone.
I turned to Al-Anon, a national organization with support groups all over the country designed to help those dealing with a loved one’s drinking, whether or not the alcoholic or addict is still drinking or is still in your life. The writings of Melody Beattie, especially her book “Codependent No More,” also helped me recover. Her work focuses on self-acceptance and self-compassion for everyone, but especially on those dealing with a loved one suffering from substance abuse.
I may not have the perfect relationship — a relationship that’s the envy of my friends — but I know now that my being truly happy is worth so much more.
Stephanie R. is a 28-year-old professor of psychology. She lives in the suburbs of Cleveland with her dog. She recently started a blog to discuss these and related issues, musesmusingsweb.wordpress.com.