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Dear Patricia: My drinking cost me the nicest man I've known, and I've never forgiven myself

TEN years ago, my partner, with whom I'd been together for two years, left me. He left me because of my inability or unwillingness to stop drinking. I was an alcoholic. He constantly pleaded with me to cut down or go easy on it and I didn't. Eventually, he left. He was the nicest man I have ever known and we were to be married, and I ruined it.

Eventually, I pulled myself together and stopped drinking. I got a new job and got on with things. But I always regretted I hadn't managed to do it while he and I were together. And I remained single for more than eight years because of it. He moved abroad and about five years ago moved in with a lovely woman who had two children. I know from mutual friends that they are very happy.

About six months ago, I started seeing another man and although it is not an easy relationship, we work at it. And we do love each other. He's the complete opposite of my ex -- possessive and argumentative, and we fall out a lot. However, like I said, we work at it and it's early days yet.

Recently, however, my ex and his partner turned up at an event. Seeing him again felt like being stabbed in the heart. When they walked away hand in hand, I wanted to scream: "It should have been me." I cry a lot over it and it seems like I'm crying as much now as I did 10 years ago, only then I cried into a glass.

I gave up drinking by myself, no AA, no tablets, nothing. I read a lot of books about alcoholism and have forgiven myself for a lot of what I did. Am I ever going to forgive myself for this though? Or will I end up a bitter, self-pitying old woman who hates herself for ruining her own life -- just because she had to open another bottle?

I'm not a teenager. I'm in my early 40s. So I know it's not like the movies where you end up back together again and it's happy ever after. I know we will never be together. I know he's happy and for that I am glad, since I know I made him very unhappy.

It has been 10 years now. So do you think I will ever get over this? Or will I carry it forever? I ruined the best thing that ever happened to me. So maybe I deserve to carry it forever, and that's my punishment?

Patricia replies:

WE all have to learn from past mistakes. But then we have to move on. Certainly there is a time for grieving whatever we lost. In fact, we need to do that. But staying stuck with history is just another manifestation of addictive behaviour. Which highlights the most important thing I'd like to say to you: you have been extraordinarily brave in facing down your drinking problem alone. I'm just not sure that such bravery was entirely wise. We don't become drunks by accident. Addiction is the public face of private despair. Somehow along the way, you were psychologically hurt. That hurt doesn't end when the alcohol is set aside. I think you need, and deserve, help in handling that hurt.

It's one of those conundrums of life. You are not responsible for the psychological damage, which happened when you were young and vulnerable. You are, as an adult, responsible for fixing it. And you've taken that responsibility on so determinedly. I just believe you're also entitled to support, both from professionals and a peer group. Sure, some people just stop drinking. And that's fine. A lot, though, are left with a serious amount of emotional homework to do. There's enough pain in all that, without adding to it by stubbornly sticking to going it alone.

As you can see, you are still beating yourself up. Why on earth would you spend your life being punished by your past?

Yes, we carry our regrets to the grave. We do so with compassion, with a quiet acceptance that we messed up, with an acute insight into our human frailty, but also with the firm knowledge that we've paid the price and now must draw a line under the whole sorry saga. Let me say this differently: beating yourself up is another way of doing damage to yourself. It's another way of indulging in self-destructive behaviour. It is another side of addiction. No, you're not crying into a glass anymore. But you're still crying.

I'm no fan of the "me" generation, or all that "because you're worth it" nonsense. I do, however, believe we have a duty to love and care for ourselves. Too much self-love is lethal. Too little self-love is a crime against humanity. Well, it's a dereliction of duty anyway. Taking responsibility is not just about admitting our misdeeds. It's about carrying out the task of true personal survival. Just as we need to take care of our bodies with proper diet, sufficient exercise and the necessary rest and relaxation, we also have to protect our minds and hearts and spirit with an intelligent approach to psychological well-being.

Let's take a concrete example. You can't say you lost the best thing that ever happened to you when your ex-boyfriend walked away. Think about it. He was a man who chose to stick around an addict for two years, vainly begging her to stop the booze. He was a man who clearly had no insight into the nature of addiction. And it is fair to argue that he was someone who was attracted to psychological vulnerability. Maybe he was even ideal material for co-dependency. Do you understand? I'm sure he's a great guy. I'm also sure that he was the very person you didn't need. You were then, and are now, a very wonderful person. But when we're fighting our demons, "niceness" is not what we need.

You did not ruin the best thing that ever happened to you. That is a sad and misguided view of your life. I'd like to see you matching your bravery with the wisdom of getting some well-deserved support. Think about it.

Sunday Indo Living