Stay gold, ponyboy

it__s_a_trap_by_avpfan1102-d59hr0nLately, I’ve been reminded of a conversation I had when I was in my early 20s. It’s probably a conversation I had many times over the years, from teens to mid-20s. It went something like, “We may age, but we will never get OLD. We will still be out dancing on tables, seeing shows, staying out til the sun comes up forever. Even when we are 50! Let’s never get lame.” Like every teenager, I was always absolutely convinced I knew it all. That’s a theme that permeates pop culture, both then and now – don’t grow up. Keep the fire of youth burning inside of you forever.

I suppose there’s several reasons I’ve been thinking about that lately, one being that my oldest friend just turned 35. We have been close for over 20 years, that’s a very long time. I had some really amazing times in my teens and early to mid 20s. I saw concerts I’ll never forget; I traveled to Europe for the first time; I made incredible friends and had some pretty amazing experiences. I also worked a lot of shitty jobs; worried a lot about money; drank too much, and wondered what the f*** I was going to do with my life. My boyfriend of a year told me recently about a conversation he had with his 15 year old son. His son asked him, “if you could go back to any age, which age would you choose?” I realized that for myself the answer would be that I would not go back, or if forced is go back only a year or two. It funny how many mistakes you make when you still “know it all.” Truthfully, I look back on those conversations about never getting “old” and “lame” with amusement at our naivety. Why on earth would you want to be at 30 the exact same person you were at 20? Or at 40 the exact same person you were at 30?

How many missed opportunities must you have to have to go through you life without learning, changing, and growing? How much out and out resistance to growing as a person must you have to make it through a decade unchanged?

I have the pleasure of working every day with individuals who – for the most part – have identified that what they have been doing is not working for them and who would like to learn a better way to be. No one gets out of childhood without learning some dysfunctional ways to act and really unhealthy ways of thinking. For some those are relatively small things that don’t impact their lives greatly one way or another, but I think the vast majority of us are walking around with some unhealthy ways of thinking and acting. Especially in our teens and 20s! For some people it takes an incredible amount of bravery to say, “I’m not perfect” but good lord, who is? If you think you are, you likely only have yourself fooled. The rest of the world is probably on to you. Five years ago I was not a very happy person, but I was working on bettering myself and my life. I was about to finally graduate with an undergraduate degree and I wasn’t sure what my life would look like in five years. If you had told me that it would look the way it does today, I would laugh. In a short time, I worked hard and acquired many things that back then fell solidly in the “dream” category. Today, I am lucky that those dreams are my actual life. None of that happened by chance, the vast majority of it was through intention and very hard work.

I realized last night, as I sat in the car outside Baskin Robbins in my pajamas, waiting for the person that I love to bring me my favorite ice cream, that I am content. I am in a state of peaceful happiness in my life. That doesn’t mean there isn’t stress or bad days, but it means that overall there is much more good than bad and I am infinitely thankful for that. A lot of it looks absolutely nothing like I thought that it would look 5, 10, 20 years ago, and I realized that I am perfectly ok with that. I never thought that I would end up with a man, I never thought I’d be living in Mississippi by choice, I don’t know that I really thought I’d be a therapist although it was always something I was interested in. I’ve learned that the secret to having the life that you want is to both work very hard at getting what you want and also to be flexible enough to allow what you want to look differently than what you always imagined. I would have passed on several amazing opportunities had I not been willing to bend like the willow tree.

tao1It used to be very difficult for me to really trust another person 100%. I don’t mean just lovers and partners but also friends. Trust, it seemed to me, was leaving yourself open for hurt. What I’ve learned in the last decade or so is that it is not trust that is the problem, but whom we open ourselves up to with that trust. If you pick the right people, listen to your gut, and never compromise your boundaries then trust is not a scary prospect. I don’t have to accept your bullshit to receive your love, and the same goes for you of me. As I reflect back upon the last year with Jon, at first I honestly can’t believe it’s been a year. It seems both shorter and longer, simultaneously. I suppose the best relationships always do, when you can barely remember life before them because it’s nearly impossible to image life without them. The irony for both of us has always been that it was only through learning and growing into different, better people, that we were able to finally find each other. The people we were five years ago would not have been attracted to each other and rightfully so!

I used to think that being independent was absolutely necessary in the sense that I should not allow anyone to do for me what I could do for myself, especially not a man. Aside from one cranky afternoon where I snapped at Jon, “I can pump my own gas!” I’ve learned that when both people give equally and both take care of each other it’s not an imbalance but a perfect balance. Every other relationship I’ve ever been in, even most of my friendships, one of us has given more and the other taken more. I think givers and takers are attracted to each other, because we fulfill so many unspoken needs in each other. Balance is difficult to find in one’s self, let alone in tandem with another. If I had decided to not grow as a person, I know without a doubt I wouldn’t have this kind of relationship with anyone. It was absolutely imperative that I grow for my own sake, or grow for growing’s sake, with no thought of whatever prize might be waiting beyond being the absolute best person I knew how to be. Now I have the ultimate gift of growing with someone else, and watching them continue to learn and grow as I do too. Jon has taught me so much over the last year, and I know I have taught him a lot as well. Not overt lessons that we set out to teach each other but simple revisions in what we knew to be true about life and love and happiness.

Here is what I know today that I did not when I was 25:

  • Time is our most precious commodity. You can make more money, you can get more things, you can even replace people in your life with new ones but you will never ever ever get your time back. For that reason, you must use it mindfully.
  • It is possible to be loved for exactly who you are, but who you are may not deserve that love. Try to deserve it.
  • No one can love you if you don’t love yourself.
  • You cannot ever truly know a person’s thoughts but it is possible to trust them so much that you don’t need to.
  • There are mistakes that you can never, ever fix. There are things there is no coming back from.
  • It is impossible to have a healthy relationship if you are not healthy first. It’s not possible to have a healthy life while in denial.
  • Nothing anyone else thinks about you is your business, so don’t worry about it. You can’t change it anyway.
  • You will repeat your patterns until you acknowledge them.
  • Nothing is ever just one person’s fault.
  • You control nothing and no one except yourself.
  • If you cannot be alone with yourself and like what you see, change it.
  • We often deserve much more than we accept – and we accept much less than we deserve and try to say that it’s ok to do so because of love. As though love was both tangible and finite.

And lastly, stagnation is worse than death. So dance on tables while you feel the need to, but don’t be afraid of getting older and wiser. If I don’t know more at 40 than I know today I will be vastly disappointed in myself.

7a5e1d3e8a51270facabdc8d9e3131c7eda0

Advertisements

Is there a right way to grieve?

Today I have been thinking about the subject of grief. It has kept coming up throughout the day, as I stumbled upon something old that I found still stung, and in a conversation with a friend. I suppose I have kind of done it to myself – in a fit of unnecessary productivity over the weekend I decided that I would go through and organize the 10,000+ emails that I have in the inbox of my yahoo mail account, an account that has been open since 2003. The last ten years have had a variety of relationships, of ups and downs, and being the emotional packrat that I am, I quickly found that I have apparently never deleted an email from a friend, family member, or lover (former or current at the time!).

Things that I had completely forgotten about were suddenly right back in my face. The good and the bad coming back to the surface with travel confirmations, receipts for flower deliveries, and in a lot of cases emails from both the beginning and the end of relationships. I have emails after my ex-husband and I separated that I know are just full of us being horrible to one another and saying awful things meant only to hurt. Those emails I didn’t delete but I also didn’t open. As I created new folders called “Old friends”, “Family”, “Old relationships”, and began moving things into folders that already existed, one name in particular kept hurting me in a way that I felt it should not. Subject lines like “To my S-” and “My love” cut my soul in a way it seemed like should be long gone, and I began to realize that maybe it wasn’t long gone so much as long buried.

I began to wonder if there is a “right” way to grieve. Grief is a misunderstood process I think. People seem to believe that closure is what’s needed to move on from the death of a loved one, a break-up, or a job loss but grief is ultimately what closes that door. Grief is allowing ourselves to feel exactly what we feel in that moment; opening ourselves up to all the pain, all the sorrow, all the doubt and fear and shame because all of those feelings are legitimate, they are normal, and most importantly they are there whether or not we choose to allow ourselves to process them. What if we don’t allow ourselves to grieve though? Will those feelings just come back, washing over us when we least expect them, like when we see an old email? In my experience, yes, and much of what I’ve read in psychology and self help subjects say that if you don’t deal with it now, you will be dealing with it later.

Part of my problem is, for the majority of my life I was terrified of my feelings. I have an emotional sensitivity disorder that went undiagnosed until I was in my early 30s. I don’t talk about it openly a lot because there is a lot of stigma surrounding any kind of mental illness, let alone one of those scary “personality disorders.” When I do describe the feelings to people, I ask them if they’ve ever been in the ocean. Feelings to me have been very much like the waves in an ocean: they can very suddenly loom larger than you expected, crashing around you, knocking you down, pulling you under so that you have to fight to breathe. Your brain can tell you that you need to be calm because panicking will make you more likely to drown, but when you’re under the waves, salt water in your nose, short of breath, not sure which way is out, the panic will set in. For a moment, you might think you are going to die, that there is no escape from all the water that engulfs you.

Luckily it is not possible to die from drowning in emotion, but it is the despair in those moments that cause many people to attempt or complete suicide. Because nothing besides what is in that moment is real – what you feel right then you will always feel. It will always be too much, it will always overwhelm you, it will never be ok again, only the moment is reality and until you try over and over, painstakingly reprogramming your brain to react to uncomfortable, unwanted emotions in a different way, this is absolutely what is real to you. That is really hard for people who don’t have an emotional sensitivity disorder to understand, but that ocean analogy is the closest I have ever gotten to explaining in a way that I felt was understood.

So how do you grieve something that happened 3, 5, 12 years ago; something you probably “should’ve” already gotten over? Now that I’m ready, is there a “right” way to grieve? I don’t really know the answers to some of those questions. I know that I never really dealt with the feelings around this particular situation, and I know that I have to now that I realize it’s a problem. That’s the problem with denial, once you’re out of it you can’t continue because that’s an active choice and no one wants to actively choose to be unhealthy. So now I have to try to feel and let go of feelings that I should’ve dealt with years and years ago. Sometimes it’s really exhausting being me. That sounds melodramatic, but I don’t care. 🙂 Every one of us has days when it’s hard to be us, the ideal is just that those days are few and far between. I’m not there yet, but I’m getting there.

ocean wave

Lies, and the lying liars that tell them

I know that title is ripping off Al Franken’s book, but it just sounded like the perfect title for this post.
I’m always hesitant to use words like “all” especially when talking about people. Generalizations like “everyone” don’t do us much good. There are few things that actually everyone says, thinks or does. I can’t speak for every relationship with an active addict or alcoholic, only the for my own and from my own experiences; but typing “addicts lying” into Google brings up “About 2,230,000 results (0.31 seconds).” That’s a lot of hits.

Everyone, in fact, lies – both addicts and non-addicts. It is impossible to go through life without telling at least a “little white” lie. Even a “yes, I like your new boyfriend” or a “no, that dress doesn’t make you look fat” is a lie, even if we tell them to make someone feel better or avoid conflict. When I started dating an active alcoholic, I knew that the common thought was “addicts lie” but everyone lies. It wasn’t until months after the end of the relationship that I would learn just how many lies I did not even have an inkling about. Lying, it seemed, came as easily as speaking to my now ex-girlfriend.

Denial was always a big part of our relationship, both her denial and my own. Her denial had been a part of her life for much longer than we had been dating, perhaps all of her life. When Michelle and I had met as teens, she was already drinking and into drugs. At only fourteen, she would put herself in dangerous situations in order to get alcohol and drugs from older boys and men, which was always very upsetting to me, seeing as I was her girlfriend. Before her family moved back to New Mexico, Michelle was hospitalized at least once. She would call me at all hours, drunk and high, and say all kinds of things. She claimed to have jumped out of a moving car as the cops were taking her to the hospital to be committed. She said she passed out one night and woke up on the side of the road, tangled in barbed wire. I’ll never know which of the things she said when we were kids were lies, probably she doesn’t even know anymore. Once she was in New Mexico, she injured her hand punching a wall, she assaulted a teacher, and she ended up back in the hospital. I still have many of the letters that she wrote me from back then, talking about how she knew that she had to quit drinking and smoking pot if she wanted her life to be better.

When we got back together in 2011, it became clear pretty quickly that she would lie to hide her drinking. Going out after pretending to go to bed; saying she was out with friends not drinking when she was out with friends drinking; vowing never to drink again; promising me she would go to AA; claiming to not be using drugs… Some lies I caught her in and others she confessed out of guilt. After a while she just stopped texting me back and picking up the phone when she was drinking; I would know that she was drinking because hours would pass with no response to a text and a phone that rang and rang and finally went to voicemail. She never understood why I didn’t trust her, why I suspected her of cheating and would get upset the few times she wouldn’t text or pick up the phone but wasn’t actually drinking.
I guess I fail to see the distinction between lying about drinking, and lying about cheating.

The biggest lie of our relationship, perhaps even bigger than her near constant reassurances that she would stay sober, was what I found out in January of this year (2013) when she decided to contact me and try to be friends. That communication was based on a lie too, unsurprisingly. She said her “girlfriend” was upset by photos of us on facebook and would I remove them? I had already deleted all the photos of her that I’d had up on facebook, and I told her that. As it turned out, she didn’t have a girlfriend, she was just saying that. In the course of our conversation, she told me that when she had finally “gotten sober” after the December 2011 Christmas trip to New Orleans, the trip that had made me essentially give up on her ever getting sober, she had smoked pot every day. She was using getting high to keep her from drinking! My mind was blown, I was so shocked. I’d had no idea she was getting high, even though we talked on the phone most days. It was then I realized that we would never see things in the same way. She was not familiar with the concept of sobriety as I know it, and she never would be. She wasn’t going to work the steps, she wasn’t going to ever give up drugs because she didn’t see them as a problem, only alcohol. Michelle described herself as “the worst alcoholic you have ever met.” I think she wore that badge with a little bit of pride. She certainly used it as an excuse as to why she “couldn’t” stop drinking.

In that conversation, our last, when I told her that I did not want to be her friend and had no place in my life for her, she freaked out and told me that I didn’t understand addiction and I “shouldn’t be allowed around addicts.” Perhaps I don’t understand addiction, but I know that the millions of addicts who have gotten sober haven’t done it by lying, making excuses, continuing to drink, and getting high to keep from drinking. I do understand that my fears when I was sixteen were correct; Michelle is going to die because of her addiction in one way or another, and while I’m not longer emotionally involved with her in any way, I still don’t have to be there to see it. The problem with lies, whether they are big or small is that they send a message both to the person we are lying to and to ourselves – that the person we are lying to is not worthy of the truth. Maybe he or she can’t handle it, maybe we don’t want to hurt their feelings, maybe like in Michelle’s case we just don’t want to be hassled; there are a million reasons why we lie but there’s no such thing as a lie that doesn’t hurt. Even if the only thing that comes from it is that it alienates us from someone we care about.

lying lips via jamesaltucher

Hope never trumps reality

In August of 2011, I visited New Mexico for the first time. It was a trip to celebrate finally graduating from college, after going on and off for twelve years. I went to visit my girlfriend at the time, Michelle*, the active alcoholic that I was dating. We had been in a relationship for five months at that time, and she had relapsed four times. She called them relapses; I was never convinced that stopping drinking for a month and then drinking again was a relapse as much as it was just abstaining from alcohol for a month. It was an expensive trip, because I had to rent a car for the time I was there. Michelle didn’t have a car, her license had been suspended for DUI. New Mexico takes drunk driving very seriously, her license was suspended on her first offense and she had to see a probation officer and go to AA meetings. She lied to the probation officer about going to meetings and had been seeing an addiction counselor for most of the time she’d been actively drinking – both those things should have been red flags.

When Michelle had found me on my blog and we had reconnected, I was ready for a relationship that was going to last. I had done a lot of work on myself, in therapy and independently, working through the issues that had led to some very dysfunctional relationships in the years leading up to 2011. My baggage was checked, and I was ready to really open up and let someone in, to give a relationship my all, to trust in a way I had not before. I picked the wrong person.

For five months, I had dealt with the drinking, the relapses if you call them that, and had never stopped believing that a genuine desire to stop drinking was all it was going to take to keep Michelle sober. I thought that she should be going to AA meetings, but she had lots of excuses for why should could not go – most notably that she didn’t have transportation. It had been a roller coaster of emotions and fights, but the trip had ultimately been a very good one. Although the relationship wasn’t what I needed, or thought it had the potential to be, I was enthusiastic in my belief that Michelle had the ability to meet all my needs and the relationship would somehow magically morph into exactly what I was looking for if only she stayed sober for longer than a month. When the plane took off from Albuquerque, I looked down on the mountains and I knew in my heart that it would not be the last time that I saw those mountains. I was going to move to Albuquerque to be with Michelle one day. What a good story it was! First loves, reunited after fifteen years, perhaps they were always meant to be! When the plane landed in Dallas, Texas and I awaited my connection flight home, I was still in good spirits.

I had a layover that was several hours long. I called her to let her know I had landed in Texas, and I was surprised that her phone went directly to voicemail, but I wasn’t concerned. She had ADHD and was forgetful, so it was possible that she had just let her phone die again. I’ve always been ashamed at how long it took to occur to me that she was drinking. In hindsight, I shouldn’t be ashamed. I trusted in her 100%, it didn’t matter that she didn’t deserve that trust. After a couple hours of doing what I always do in airport terminals: walking the terminal from end to end, exploring the shops, sitting in a restaurant and eating, even talking to a friend on the phone, it dawned on me that something was wrong. Suddenly when I called, her phone was ringing but going to voicemail. It clearly was not dead, but what was going on? Finally, after multiple calls, she picked up the phone. When we had both left the airport, we had been in different places. I had so much joy, and hope for the future. She had gotten a ride from a friend, went back to their house and started drinking. All of my hope came crashing down around me in that moment.

I probably should’ve broken up with her right then. She wasn’t sorry. She didn’t even get why I was so upset. The word “relapse” was enabling to her, she was surrounded by people who told her that every time she drank it was ok, because she was an alcoholic. She couldn’t control it, and she shouldn’t be expected to. What the enablers expected would get her sober I don’t know. Perhaps a “power greater than herself” but she was and is an atheist, she believed in nothing beyond herself except science. She didn’t believe that a power greater than herself could restore her to sanity, because there was no spiritual presence in the world. I’ve often wondered how atheists who are addicts work the steps, when step two goes against their worldview. I know that some of them manage to make AA work for them, but at this point Michelle hadn’t gone. She said that she had gone in the past and it wasn’t for her. Clearly, sobriety on her own wasn’t for her either. That day, in Terminal D of DFW, I experienced shame in a way that I had never experienced it before. I stepped away from the other people waiting at the gate in the almost deserted terminal, standing outside the closed Bennigan’s as I tried not to scream into my phone about my disappointment, how I had trusted her and she had ruined it, and how could she just leave the airport and go drink anyway?

The saddest thing is, that when I finally boarded my flight back to Mississippi, I was coming back to the most positive situation that I had ever been it, career-wise. I had finished up my internship and the non-profit I had been working with found me so invaluable that they had created a paid position for me. Granted, it was part-time, but it was something. Little did I know that a staff position at that same organization would open for me just two months in the future. I had graduated from college, finally. I had just visited Roswell, New Mexico, a place I had dreamed of visiting since I was a child, and had hiked down into Carlsbad Caverns and been awestruck by the beauty of the caves. I should have been celebrating everything in my life at that moment, but it was all overshadowed by a bottle of beer and a shot of whiskey, and everything that followed it. It wasn’t even my drinking, it was someone else’s.

I said “I wish” a couple times in my last post and I am realizing that these posts are going to be full of “I wish”es. I wish that I had boarded that plane in Dallas and never looked back. I wish that I had seen that my whole life was in front of me. I had worked hard for what I had achieved, and I was going to continue working hard. I have all sorts of reasons why I spent the next three months not giving up on my relationship with a woman who clearly loved alcohol more than she loved me – if she had the ability to love me at all. Or why I would invite her to spend the holidays with my family and allow my parents to spend hundreds of dollars on gifts for her. Or why I would still refuse to let go of the relationship after a blow-out fight in the Marriot hotel of New Orleans over Christmas, a fight that had led to a break-up and an angry alcoholic going out to walk around on her own in the city of booze. Why did I try to mend things, even then? In hindsight, I realized it was December when I gave up, yet I kept on until April of 2012, lending her $2,000 to buy a car that I would never get back and even going to visit her again. Perhaps I thought that letting go meant failure. I had failed at my relationship, I had failed at being the reason that she finally got sober. Maybe I thought that I could show her the life she could have, without alcohol, and that I – and all the perks my parents could bring (paying for school in Mississippi! buying a house!) would be enough. In the end, I’m very glad that she never moved here. She could’ve easily used me just for the perks and money, and for some reason I would’ve let her. Even now, my parents pay for her cell phone. A year after we broke up.

The lesson for me has been this – there is no such thing as failure. Especially not in relationships. Life isn’t that black and white. A success can be a failure, and a failure can be a success. It’s true, I succeeded in prolonging my relationship, had a few more months to continue the charade of being in a happy place, but that was a failure because I was miserable. Maybe the perfect job is less than perfect, maybe the less than perfect job is exactly what you need. There is good on paper, and then there is the way it really is. If you believe everything happens for a reason, as I do, then Michelle came into my life to teach me things that I had not learned up until this point. Maybe I just wish I was better at learning. I know that I will never go back to that place – I will never compromise my happiness for the false security of a “in a relationship” tag on facebook. I will never think that good on paper is the same as good. Yet I had to spend thousands of dollars, and millions of heartbreaks to learn that. If life is the journey, not the destination, then I am continuing to LIVE, all in caps, but a pray that I have learned my lesson this time.

*not her real name

The codependent and the addict

The title of this post sounds almost like a fairy tale, doesn’t it? Once upon a time, there was a codependent who was looking for a relationship. She met an addict, fell in love, and they lived happily every after. Actually, only the “happily ever after” part is a fairy tale, people who are codependent fall in love with addicts every day and I am no different. It’s taken me a year to become ready to write this post.

In the last week of March 2011, I was feeling lost.
I had just come back from a Spring Break trip to visit a friend in Austin, Texas. It was my last Spring Break as a college student and I could feel graduation looming over me, like a villain manically waiting for me to fail. I had an internship lined up but had not yet begun it. I was overwhelmed the night that I drove down Lakeland Drive in the pouring rain and lightning storm, tears ran down my face as I tried to figure out what the f*** I was doing about anything in my life. I had driven right past my house, just kept driving, wishing that I had someplace to run to, as though graduation from college wasn’t in itself a new beginning. Finally, the clouds cleared from my head although they had not yet cleared from the sky – I decided that if I no longer felt like myself, I should start thinking like I had back when I felt like me. “What would seventeen year old Stacey do?” I asked myself, as I drove slowly toward home.

The timing of that question was eerie. When I arrived home and checked my email, I had a message on this very blog. A message from my first love, from when I was fifteen years old. She had posted her cell phone number and asked me to call her. What would seventeen year old Stacey do, indeed.

What transpired from that first message she posted on my blog until our break-up in April 2012 was a relationship that will most certainly go down in the history of my life as one of the biggest mistakes I have ever made. Bad choice after bad choice after bad choice led to a year of misery, fear, guilt, and lots of anger on both sides. There is a lot to say about that horrible year, and I’m sure I will say more as I finally begin to work through some of the deeper emotions and motivations surrounding it, but here’s what I want to say right now: there is no good reason for you to be dating an addict. Not you, not me, none of us.

I wish someone had slapped me in the face and said that to me, but it wouldn’t have done any good. I wish I could remember where I heard or read someone say that the addict is cheating on you with their drug of choice. That is certainly how I felt throughout my relationship with Michelle (not her real name). There was a big love there, but it wasn’t between Michelle and me, it was between Michelle and booze. I felt like the other woman, the one who sits by the phone waiting while the married person is home with the real family and can’t sneak away. She spent time with booze, without it ever having to ask for attention; when she wasn’t drinking she thought about drinking; drinking or (briefly) sober, alcohol was the center of her life, her thoughts, her devotion. Sure, it was a love/hate relationship but it was a lot stronger than whatever it was she felt for me.

Addicts have no place in their life for you. There is only room for themselves and their addiction, you are a bystander. No matter how much it affects you, the active alcoholic will never see it. This is where your codependency kicks in, because at the point where your needs aren’t being met someone who’s not codependent would stop accepting the behavior. Someone who is codependent sees the behavior as further proof that the relationship is exactly where they need to be, because that’s how much the addict needs saving! No one is going to help her if it’s not for me; no one else sees the potential in her, how smart she is, how capable she is of doing so much more with her life! I can help her get there, because I love her that much. I will be the hero of both our lives and get everything I’ve always wanted. My partner will leave the wife and come be with me, the “other woman.”

Why is it that what anyone else sees as healthy, good boundaries, and self-care, the codependent sees as “giving up” on the addict? We are really disrespecting ourselves when we think that to be a good person we have to completely ignore our own needs for those of the other.

I don’t know if it’s true of all addicts, but Michelle was like a black hole of NEED, sucking everything around her into this hole that could never be filled. When I look back on it, I feel her desperation in a way that I never could’ve in the moment. It wasn’t just attention from me or alcohol that she overdid trying to fill up the hole inside herself, it was everything. She did everything to excess – she ate to excess, it was like she could never get full; her drinking binges could last for a day or more; she couldn’t tolerate anything in my life that kept me from giving her every bit of my attention. She needed it all and all of it still wasn’t enough. I was just beginning the internship required for my graduation from college, an internship that I hoped might lead to a job. I would wake up at 6am and text her “Good morning” and the phone would immediately begin to ring. She’d been up all night again, drinking. She’d be incoherent, whether she was happy or sad; she would repeat the same things over and over again and become agitated if I pointed it out, insisting that she had not said whatever it was before. Even though I was the sober, newly awake one, she wouldn’t or couldn’t believe she was repeating herself. There were many mornings that the conversation began when I awoke and did not end until I was outside the office where I was interning, parking my car. She would become angry or cry when I told her that I had to get off the phone. Nothing, it seemed, should have been more important in my life than listening to whatever her rambling, drunken mind had to say at 8:30am after a night of heavy drinking.

She didn’t remember a lot of what happened those mornings after she’d finally passed out and slept it off. She never believed me when I told her that she’d kept calling me over and over again while I tried to go to work (check your phone!) or that she’d been repeating herself. She would either not believe me or say that she did remember and she hadn’t been repeating herself. I don’t know why it matters now. I suppose it matters because that was at the very beginning of our relationship, April and May of 2011. That was supposed to be my red flag, my sign that this was unhealthy, to get out as quickly as I could. There is nothing selfish about self-care. I was in no way obligated to continue being in an exclusive relationship with an alcoholic who lived over a thousand miles away, but I felt like I was. I felt like ending it, “giving up” on her was somehow a reflection on me. I had a lot of guilt about how our relationship as kids had ended, something that she reminded me of time and time again – how I’d abandoned her when we were kids. I realize now that she used my guilt to manipulate me, to make me feel that I somehow owed her for cutting off all contact when we were teenagers; because then as now, my needs didn’t matter to her. It didn’t matter that a fifteen year old, sixteen year old kid isn’t equipped to deal with being in love with an active addict and worrying about getting a call that she is dead. Thirty year old me wasn’t equipped to deal with it either, but she helped me convince myself that wasn’t a good enough reason to end a relationship that was clearly doomed from the beginning.

The relationship with her was important, I realize now, because it sent me to Al-Anon. In Al-Anon I learned more than I had learned in 12 years of therapy; or maybe I learned how to better interpret all the things I’d learned in therapy. I sat in a room where my feelings came out of other people’s mouths, where things I dare not even speak aloud were being spoken. My pain, my fear, my shame, these people shared it, they knew what I felt because they had been through it themselves. Al-Anon changed my life, I heard “Let go or get dragged” for the first time in the dimly lit room on the fifth floor of a downtown church. Not “let go and let God” like I’d heard before, but “let go or get dragged.” I had breakthroughs there about things I didn’t even know I felt. I wish there had been a way to get me to Al-Anon that hadn’t involved me dating an active alcoholic. I have a lot more to say about all of this, but for today, this is it.

If you have a family member who is an addict or alcoholic and you need support, find an Al Anon meeting near you. It will help. And keep going back, it works if you work it.