I would prefer to believe that my alcoholism caused my second divorce. I had been more than a year sober when I started having the affair that ended my second marriage. Anyone who has been sober for a while will tell you not to make major changes in your relationships in the first few years of sobriety, and that’s good advice. But the same person will also tell you that a lot of relationships end when one or both people quit drinking. The nasty truth is, I would never have married my second wife if I hadn’t been drunk all the time, and after a year of sobriety (she kept on drinking at first, and then got sober several years later), we both realized that we hadn’t enjoyed each other’s company in a long time.
I remember one afternoon around this time, at a Starbuck’s in New York, my second wife and I were having a fight over the phone—she was back in Kansas City—and when I got off the phone an attractive woman with a heavy Swedish or Danish accent leaned over and asked me: “Are you alright? Would you like to talk about it?” I told her, “I’m great, thank you.” I was sad and angry but I was also enormously relieved. I walked up a side street in New York, I was on the Lower East Side, and shouted as loud as I could: “I’m free! I’m free!”
I was not free. That was eight years ago, and just a few weeks ago I was arguing with my ex-wife over the phone—this time, about our thirteen-year-old and a problem she’s having with school—and I don’t know how many times I have counted out the years until my daughters graduate from high school and start college, with the thought that, at last, their mother and I will have a little more distance and liberty. She must feel the same way.
I have since remarried, and my wife Amie pointed out the other day: “It’s funny, externally nothing changes when the girls have a problem. But a small thing goes wrong and everything gets out of whack.” And this leads me back to my alcoholism and second divorce (if you’re counting and feeling confused, I’ve been divorced twice and married three times), and the question of freedom. Not so very much changed in my life when I got sober: I had the same wife, the same children, the same job, the same schedule, the same work habits. Yes, I no longer spent the late afternoon and early evening hours secretly drinking; instead, at that time, I was in AA meetings or cooking or taking long walks with my youngest child in her baby sling. But even my secret drinking hours were mostly spent doing much the same things I’d done before. What did change was my attitude towards the hours of my day. Which gets me to thinking about what does it mean to talk about being free, or of the feeling of increasing liberty.
Now before I make it sound triumphant, which it was not—like many other alcoholics, during my first two years of sobriety I was depressed, often immobile with depression—I want to say that the weird thing was that my suffering turned out be not exactly a bad thing. Of course no one really wants to suffer, and given the choice between suffering and not suffering, I like any other feeling person would rather be pain-free. I also want to avoid causing suffering to others.
Schopenhauer writes: “Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim…. Each separate misfortune, as it comes, seems, no doubt, to be something exceptional; but misfortune in general is the rule.”
So, if we’re all bound to suffer, should I simply give up? For Schopenhauer, I can do at least two things. The first is like what an alcoholic does: I can acknowledge the fact of my suffering. Because suffering multiplies when I’m in denial about suffering. I resent my suffering, and I lose the ability to discriminate between the causes of my suffering, which plunges me deeper into the abyss.
But why shouldn’t I be able to avoid the consciousness of my suffering throughout my life and just be blissful in my ignorance? For Schopenhauer (as for any addict—and Schopenhauer thinks we’re all addicts, hooked on desire itself), ignoring the situation aggravates the problem. With this view, life is like walking along an extremely brambly path. If I know what I’m doing, and I’m very, very careful, I am still going to be stuck with plenty of thorns. But if I pretend it’s not a brambly path and hope that bravado and stubbornness will carry me through, I am going to tear myself to shreds. I won’t eliminate suffering through recognizing it for what it is, but I can avoid unnecessary suffering. “Every beast is trained by blows,” as Heraclitus says: I can at least learn from my mistakes. If I know my desires will be frustrated, I might desire a little less.
A lot of my suffering is the pain of frustration or disappointment: I expect life to reward my efforts in ways that it won’t; I expect pleasure, at last, and then find pain once again; I expect tomorrow to be better than yesterday, and am confused and discouraged when it isn’t. These are unnecessary pains caused by uninformed, unnecessary beliefs about life. Like his fan Albert Camus, Schopenhauer thinks that part of Sisyphus’s pain of rolling his boulder up the mountain is caused by the belief that, this time, the boulder will actually stay at the summit. If he knows it’s going to roll back down again, that extra suffering created by expectation vanishes.
To be perfectly blunt: I drank to stop suffering. But if I’m no longer trying to fight suffering…well, that changes my perspective.
So the suffering of my divorce or of my failures as a father? I can try to be a better husband, but marriage is going to be hard. I can try to be the best dad I know how to be, but my kids are going to have problems. Of course I try to do better in whatever little ways I can find for practical improvement—and maybe I am slowly learning a few tricks. But I should also let myself accept that if life doesn’t kick me one way, it will find another.
As an addict this is a lot like letting go of the idea that I have control of my own life. As a person who has wrestled with depression, this is accepting that I will have another significant episode of depression in my life. The idea of “letting go”—Sisyphus letting go of his rock—is not a trivial liberation. If I am not in control of my suffering anymore, I can stop blaming myself for my suffering. If I no longer think that every time I suffer I am doing something wrong, then I am released from the idea that there is a right way, and with that, I can live more freely.
Clancy Martin is a contributing editor to The Small Bow. He has been in recovery a long time. He has a book on suicide forthcoming from Ecco in 2021.