The Mighty Logo

Alcoholism and the Agony of the Long Goodbye

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

I met my ex-husband Gary and the father of my 17-year-old son, in 1989. My ex-husband was an incurable alcoholic. And though I knew he drank when we met, the extent of his addiction to alcohol was not clear to me until a short time later. When I did realize it, I attempted to end the relationship.

He promised me as he wept that I was the most important thing in the world to him and he would stop drinking.

He didn’t stop.

Several months passed and again I decided to end the relationship and again he swore he would stop drinking. He didn’t stop.

This happened more times than I care to admit here, but finally there came a time when I simply could take it no longer and told him I was leaving him and why. He swore, as he had done so many times before, that he would stop drinking and furthermore, to show he was serious, he would go into treatment to do it, which he did for 30 days.

He managed to stay sober for four months.

During one of our many arguments regarding his alcoholism, he swore if I gave him a son, he would never touch another drop, that he would never have a reason to because he would have everything he ever wanted: a woman who loved him and the son he had always dreamed of. I gave him the son I thought he so deeply wanted. He didn’t stop.

And later, I was told if I married him, which I refused to do and in fact, had put off three different times by “losing” the marriage license, he swore on his son’s life that he would be a completely different person as well as a sober one.

He wasn’t.

We divorced eight months after our son was born. As the years passed and Gary’s drinking grew worse, so did his mental health and he began to fade from his son’s life. Visits were few and far between and always colored by Gary’s alcoholism. At first my son tried to keep in contact, but after years of trying to remain close to his father and having no success, he simply gave up as his father drank on and on.

It was with a great deal of sadness that I learned from his ex-fiancee several years ago that my ex-husband was dying from throat and lung cancer.

It wasn’t a surprise as he smoked three packs of cigarettes a day as well as drinking every day to excess, but it was news that tightened my chest and brought tears to my eyes.

I had known that since his mother had died in 2003, that Gary’s anchor in this life was gone, and I had worried that his drinking would become uncontrollable. It did.

For the last several years, my son and I had literally watched as Gary has slowly, surely and with great deliberation, succeeded in drinking himself to death. After being warned over and over again to stop smoking and drinking alcohol, he was diagnosed with throat and lung cancer, which later spread to his bones.

At the end of his life, he was homeless and dying from cancer.

This morning as I wept for my son, Jeff, and for Gary, who always seemed at war with this world, I realized what agony long goodbyes are and that this had been a very long, very sad goodbye from a boy to his father and from a father to his son.

Jeff never did have the opportunity to say goodbye to his father as Gary refused to see Jeff or I at the end.

No, Gary was never, ever the father that Jeff needed or wanted. Now that Jeff was a man, he was able, through great struggle, to accept that, even though he carries a deep pain and grief over his father that will always be with him.

It wasn’t so easy for me. I had deep grief over the fact that Gary had chosen alcohol over his son as well as the pain his drinking had caused Jeff. I realized that I had to accept the situation and let go of the grief as well as the hopes and dreams I previously had that Gary would somehow wake up, realize what he had been doing all these many years and become the father my son had always wanted and needed. That was never going to happen and deep in my heart, I had always known.

I needed to say goodbye for the last time, even if Gary didn’t hear it.

And so, goodbye Gary, goodbye my friend, for even through all the pain and bitterness, we were friends. I loved you with all of my heart, but I couldn’t save you. You were the only man I ever really loved, despite your addictions and mental health struggles.

Thank you for the gift of my son. Thank you for the times you made me laugh. Thank you for just being you. I don’t think you ever heard that before.

I’m sorry for the pain you have endured all of your life.

I’m sorry that the only way you chose to deal with it was with alcohol. Most of all, I’m so very sorry you missed your son growing up; for Jeff and for you. He turned out to be a hell of a man and you would have been so proud.

I know you tried. It was just so much bigger than you.

And to my son? I don’t have to say much because my son and I have an unspoken understanding about his father. But I have said, “I’m so very very sorry, my son. Life is not perfect and neither are people. Your father had an illness called alcoholism and it affected his choices and so he has not always made the right ones… but he always loved you.”

Image via contributor

Originally published: July 12, 2021
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home