My mother was married to an alcoholic for 11 years.
I remember hearing him laughing in the backyard. Laughing so loudly that, as a child, it would wake me. I would crawl out of bed and peer out my window to see him twirling my mother, who looked nervous and uncomfortable as he spun her around and around. Other nights, he would wake me with his screaming. Glasses would break and I could hear her crying, and I was frozen, too scared to sneak a peek of what was going on as I had when there was laughter. And sometimes, he just wouldn’t come home at all. Following the nights when there was silence, we would leave the next morning for school and often find my stepfather asleep in the bushes in front of our house. Or, maybe we might not know where he was for a week or more.
I knew she was miserable. And though I had no understanding of the addiction that caused my stepfather’s erratic behavior, I felt a lot of pity for my mother, until she finally left him. I was sad to move from our beautiful house in a private community to a dingy condo away from my friends, but I admired her fearlessness and was as happy as she was to have the insidious illness of my stepfather’s addiction eradicated from our lives.
I vowed never to let a man treat me the way that he had treated her. It wasn’t until years later that I realized very similar behavior had snuck its way into my life, right under my nose. And not only did I allow it to happen, I often enabled it.
I fell in love and moved to New York with a man whom I was sure would be my husband. I had never been so happy. I felt as though I had finally found the safe life with him and his family that I had missed out on with my own. They were an idyllic nuclear unit; and he made me laugh, made me feel beautiful, and liked all of my quirks.
When I got very sick, so sick that I almost died, he cared for me in the hospital day and night until I was released. He admired my tenacity, and I never got sick of his company. I never really noticed an issue with his drinking. I had just turned 21, and he drank a lot, often to excess, but was never cruel and it was always socially.
When we moved to New York and he found a stressful job, things began to change. Binge drinking went from once or twice a month to three or four times per week. He became a different person on those nights. Violent, cruel, and a shadow of the man I had fallen in love with three years before. The morning after, I would always warn him that would be the last time he treated me that way. That should he want to stay with me, he needed to give up drinking and go to therapy.
His apologies were profuse, and seemingly genuine. He would tell me he loved me, and even though I still believe that, it meant nothing in terms of his desire to control his addiction.
I think that a lot of people who find themselves in relationships with addicts have a hard time leaving the person not because of who they are, but because of the ideals that they have to give up. I saw my future with this man, and had a whole life planned out in my head that was as real to me as our memories. The thought of building a future that looked different from that terrified me.
In my desperation, I found myself working to either mitigate or minimize his issues. I would send him lists of therapists and offer to attend AA meetings with him. I gave up drinking myself, called and told his mother (who lived an ocean way) what was going on, and simply begged and cried for it to stop. When that didn’t work, I found myself trying to escape my life as much as he was. I would go out with girlfriends every night, and drink in excess myself.
I was so attached to our imaginary future that I had completely lost my present. And then one night, I came home to him passed out in a taxi surrounded by police cars. As they rushed him into an ambulance to the hospital, I jumped in with him. In his stupor he woke to scream at me in front of the cops. “This is all your fault!” His words reverberated in my skull, and the response I gave him surprised me even more, “Oh my god, I am living my mother’s life.”
I broke up with him in the lobby of the Emergency Room, which I doubt he remembers. When he came home to beg for forgiveness the next day, my realization that I was in the kind of relationship I had promised I would never allow gave me the courage to stand my ground.
Ultimately, my attachment to our identity as a couple followed me for over a year as I continued to both communicate and sleep with him to soothe (and simultaneously prolong) my broken heart. I self-medicated my grief in ways that were both unhealthy and counterproductive. I slept with the wrong people, partied too much, took bad advice, and gained about 15 pounds.
Though our break up was less traumatic than the actual relationship had been, I allowed the entire experience to break me in a way that truly made me doubt my resilience and self-worth. Looking back on the experience, I am not sure I could have done everything differently, because love will make you lose your will and your senses.
I am grateful for the experience of having loved someone as much as I loved him. It makes me a better partner, and a better person. I wish I hadn’t wasted so much time trying to mend my broken heart in the wrong ways, but I think that is a natural progression for many people getting out of long relationships.
I will always care about and love my ex, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with having an inability to let go of those feelings for an addict who was important to you. What is more important, however, is to choose to live for yourself; to make decisions for your own personal happiness, security, and future. That is what the journey of a four year relationship with an addict taught me. I knew that I could never truly be happy if I didn’t leave.
It took much longer than our relationship for me to see a light at the end of the tunnel, but if you are in a similar situation, I advise you to put yourself first and make sure that if anything, you are the one getting the help that you need. Otherwise, you will never be able to help them.
If you or someone you know needs support in their relationship with an addict, this is a unique support network for friends and family members.