How I Stayed Sober Through the End of My Marriage

By Sean Mahoney 12/06/19

I cried at Starbucks, I cried at fancy bakeries, I cried on public transportation. But I didn’t use or drink.

Image: 
broken-hearted man sitting on beach
I needed people to tell me it was okay to not feel okay Photo by Stefan Spassov on Unsplash

I climbed the stairs to one of Portland’s iconic bridges. The sun was out, the sky was pink, my outfit: perfect. “Goodbye to You,” a classic eighties kiss-off anthem, was playing through my overpriced earbuds, the care of which has become something of a part-time job. This was how I pictured the end of my Diane Keaton-style rom-com about a lonely heart hurt by an ex who finally finds herself. Except I wasn’t Diane Keaton, hell, I wasn’t even a woman, and this wasn’t a movie; more than that, my heartache was far from over. Don’t roll the credits. In fact, that was just a fleeting moment of freedom. I still felt horrifically shitty. 

See, how I spent my summer vacation was lying by the pool, getting a tan, and watching my marriage and my life totally fall apart. 

I Had To Be Present

“There’s not enough White Claw in the world,” a pool-going companion replied when I was whining about how at least the white girls at the pool could drink their problems away all summer. He was right. What I couldn’t do while my marriage collapsed was get loaded. I had over 10 years sober. No man, nothing was screwing that up. Therefore, I was going to have to be present for the entire horrible, heartbreaking, and humiliating thing. How delightful. Diane would only do this part in a montage with a Carly Simon song playing in the background. I had to do it in real time. 

The night my ex told me that he wanted to date other people was the day my book came out. It was also a day in which I had some category five diarrhea. I’ve always had incredible timing. All I could think about all day at my day job was getting my bowels under control and celebrating the fact that my book had finally been released into the world. 

He blurted it out while lying in bed. I mean, he could have at least paced back and forth or looked sweaty or had eyes filled with tears. Instead, it was the same tone and urgency that you’d say something like “I think I want Thai food tonight.” I had to leave and quickly shit my brains out for the 50th time that day and then return to the conversation which basically confirmed what I’d known for months and months: it was over. I pointed out his shitty timing, literally. As my ass and my life both exploded at the same time, I thought “This will be really funny someday.” But not that day.

My Sober Support Network 

Over the next three months, I unraveled. I cried more than I ever have in my life. I got over diarrhea only to get the worst flu of all time. But what was most painful was the heartbreak. I stopped eating and I didn’t really sleep. I had sex with random weirdos just to feel something other than dread. If this was a Diane Keaton movie, then it was the worst one ever. My phone blew up hourly with messages from sober friends like: “I’m thinking about you”, “Do you need anything?” “Can I come and hang out with you?” I took days off just to cry and hang out at the pool. I did everything and felt everything, but I didn’t freaking drink or use. 

My soul was shattered and even though I completely knew it was the right decision, I couldn’t do anything. I needed people to tell me it was okay to not feel okay. I talked weekly to a friend who was also sober and was also having a terrible summer. We told each other every time we spoke that we weren’t going to drink over this, we were going to get through it, and we didn’t have to do it alone. 

My best friend, who got sober the same time I did, was also going through a divorce. He sent me texts daily and somehow knew exactly what I was going through at every turn. My 15-year-sober sister, who also got a divorce in early sobriety, called me weekly to check on me and let me cry. I cried at Starbucks, I cried at fancy bakeries, I cried on public transportation. But I didn’t use or drink. 

I also fought. Not with my ex; that ship sailed. While my smartass brain had some preloaded choice zingers to fling at him, it would have served no purpose. We fight for stuff worth saving, someone told me. There was no fight left in either one of us. No, my fight was to feel the grief and move through all the emotions I was experiencing. And it was horrible. 

I am not one of those people who can face things head on and “feel my feelings.” It’s the opposite, actually. My avoidance of emotions made me an excellent drug addict and alcoholic. I once totaled a car in a hit and run with a poor unsuspecting chain link fence and went home and took a nap. I can avoid some shit like a boss. But this was unavoidable. The emotional pain I felt was crippling, but I fought through it with the help of my therapist, who did a great job of simultaneously supporting me and pointing out how codependent I’d been for years. Thanks for that, homie! 

Naturally, my sponsor and sober friends did a lot of the heavy lifting. Only other sober people know exactly what you need when you’re in pain and I leaned on all of them like Diane would Goldie and Bette. 

It's Not Fair

Forced to live together as our condo was put on the market, the ex and I tried to become respectful divorcing strangers and we failed routinely. As I became aware that he was actively going to gay bars and had taken on a new boyfriend, keeping my anger in check was as much of a one day at a time practice as staying sober. Sure, drinking a bottle of tequila and telling him off seemed like a great idea in my head, but it would’ve been absolutely devastating in real life. 

Thus I was again forced to lean on the support I had and move through it like an adult and not like a human substance trashcan from yesteryear. I whined to my therapist that it wasn’t fair that my ex got to party his face off and have a new boyfriend instead of dealing with all of this. He reminded me that by doing the hard work of walking through it now, I wouldn’t be avoiding it and having to face it in the future. 

Now, four months later, the divorce is not finalized and we are still stuck in our living situation. I don’t know what tomorrow will look like. I still need to take breaks in the bathroom at work to cry. And I still don’t have a Cape Cod-inspired kitchen or a romance with Jack Nicholson like Diane. What I do have is this crazy, beautiful, badass life of sobriety that has given me the gift of being able to deal with whatever comes my way. 

So cue the music, roll the credits, and get ready for the sequel. 

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Sean Paul Mahoney is the author of the new collection of essays Now That You’ve Stopped Dying and the co-host of the LGBTQ recovery podcast Queer Mental Condition.