it's complicated

I Wish I’d Realized How Bad My Ex’s Drinking Was

When we broke up, I thought it would be his rock bottom. I was wrong.

Photo: Adrian Samson / Trunk Archive/Adrian Samson
Photo: Adrian Samson / Trunk Archive/Adrian Samson
Photo: Adrian Samson / Trunk Archive/Adrian Samson

I hadn’t seen my ex-boyfriend in a year and a half, but when the police went looking for him, they somehow knew to call me. Ryan, they said, had stolen money from the restaurant he was working at. Did I know where they could find him?

We had been together for seven years, and it was hard for me to comprehend that Ryan could have done something this wrong. I tracked him down a few days after the police called. When I saw him at the Mexican restaurant where we met up, I realized that what I suspected was true: His drinking had gotten far worse. His deep, wide blue eyes — the eyes that I was drawn to from the beginning — had begun to jaundice. What I didn’t yet know is that Ryan was dying.

When we’d first met, nearly a decade earlier, it was at a bar. We were on opposite sides of Joe’s Pub watching a mutual friend perform onstage. I kept catching glimpses of Ryan — all chiseled jaw and piercing blue eyes — and looking away. After a handful of vodka-sodas I found the courage to go up to him and introduce myself. He was an actor and bartender, he told me, born and raised in Missouri and now living in Harlem. His passion was in the theater and he loved to sing, but he also let me know that he’d been in an episode of Sex and the City (the one where Samantha gets Smith a billboard in Times Square). I was immediately smitten.

When we met, Ryan was 32 — five years older than me — and soon became a stabilizing force in my life. He embraced my family like they were his own, taking my brother out suit shopping, running 5Ks with my sister when I was out of town traveling for work. He loved cooking and taking care of people, which is why everyone loved him at the restaurants where he worked. I’d visit him at those places and from behind the bar he developed a signature drink for me. He called it a “Steven Baker” — a Cosmo on ice, but in a rocks glass to make it more manly.

Ryan’s career in the restaurant world meant that he was always very close to alcohol. For many of those early years we were together, I was totally oblivious to how much he was actually drinking. I know now how skilled he was at hiding it — perhaps shielding me from it. Looking back, there were certainly signs. Sometimes at parties he’d all of a sudden get really drunk and have to be taken home. Our friends and I would laugh at his silliness, but the collection of drunk accidents started to pile up: He sliced his leg open on a grate getting out of a cab; he accidentally put his hand through a window in our apartment. He even got a DUI the first Thanksgiving we had in Missouri, early in the relationship. Each event, isolated and dismissed yet not forgotten. I was so naïve and in such denial that I even asked my doctor if there was such a thing as an allergy to alcohol. Of course, it wasn’t an allergy, it was a disease: Ryan was an alcoholic.

He would deny that he had a problem, but eventually the evidence became hard to ignore. I found an empty vodka bottle behind the couch cushion. I noticed that the liquor bottles in our collection looked half-empty by midweek, and I wondered if I was losing it. But the brown liquors looked more light brown; Ryan, I thought, must have been refilling them with water. Then there were times I’d come home from work in the middle of the afternoon and find him passed out on the couch, drunk.

I’d confront him after each of these incidents but nothing changed. Going to couples therapy didn’t help, either. I loved him and our life together, but I began to realize how much different our relationship had become. I knew we had reached the end when I came home one night to that familiar scene: There Ryan was, asleep on the couch with an empty bottle of tequila tipped over under the coffee table. The breakup was sad and slow; I hoped that he’d make it better, stop drinking, but he just couldn’t. Then one day I came home to a half-empty apartment and a note from Ryan — it said “sorry.” I thought our breakup would be his rock bottom, the push he needed to get healthy. I was wrong.

In the months after we broke up, Ryan drank more. I didn’t realize how much until I saw his yellowed eyes at that restaurant where we met after the cops called. I spoke with his family and they agreed that it was time to get Ryan some help back home in Missouri. Ryan was stubborn and dismissive, as usual, but he agreed to go. Once there, we learned he was in worse shape than we could have imagined. He was in and out of the hospital for many weeks, undergoing dialysis every few days to filter the toxins out of his blood. It wasn’t enough; he had cirrhosis and needed a new liver and kidney to survive.

Fearing the end was near, I flew to St. Louis to be with him. Ryan was awake and alert enough to recognize me and smile, but he couldn’t talk anymore. He was thin, his skin entirely yellow. You can’t believe what alcohol does to the body at end-stage liver disease. There’s little that doctors can do. Alcoholics usually need to be sober for six months to qualify for a new liver. Ryan was not.

His family and I tried to make Ryan as comfortable as we could, surrounding his hospital bed with flowers from friends around the country. I knew how much he hated dark rooms, so I opened up the shades to let the sun in. When we lived together he loved to open the shades, all the way, every morning. On his tray table I put an old picture of us from that restaurant where he worked, the nurses all admiring those eyes of his. I sat there and held his hand, thanking him for loving me. When the priest came and offered a final prayer he talked about all that is known and all that will forever be a mystery. There was nothing more mysterious to me than why he drank and how he got this sick so fast.

In the year after Ryan died, I drank. I tried to numb the pain and guilt I felt for not being able to save him, for not realizing sooner how sick he was. I’d stay out late almost every weekend, binge drinking to my heart’s desire. I’d come home at 4 a.m. and pour another drink. I had hangovers that lasted for days. I made poor decisions that sent me into shame spirals and left people I love upset with me. Alcohol had already robbed me of so much; I let it take more.

Then one day, my body had enough. I was on the treadmill in the middle of an exercise class when I felt a chest pain like I’d never had before. I couldn’t catch my breath and I started to panic. I spent that day in the hospital, waiting as doctors ran tests, slowly starting to breathe normally again. That afternoon the test results came back: I was going to be okay. But, the cardiologist mentioned, the enzyme levels in my blood were off, likely from all the drinking I’d been doing.

It started as an experiment. I didn’t drink for two weeks, then a month. Usually I’m the first one to the liquor store on our family vacation. Not this year. I went the entire summer without alcohol: weekends on Fire Island, vacation in Lisbon, my birthday. Am I still as fun as I used to be drunk? I hope I’m more fun.

People ask me if I miss drinking. I don’t, really. I miss Ryan. I often wonder if I could have helped him if I’d stopped drinking sooner. Now it’s been a year since my last drink. I may never have another Cosmo on ice, but that’s okay — he’s not here to make it, anyway.

I Wish I’d Realized How Bad My Ex’s Drinking Was