My dog taught me how to love without limits

I have been talking about writing this post for about two years. This morning, I decided it was finally time!

In early February 2012, I caught sight of a beautiful blonde on facebook. She was a little too thin, but I could not get her out of my mind. Her eyes were sad and it hurt my heart. I found myself staring off into space at work, thinking about her when I was supposed to be doing something like listening to a conference call. After a week of being unable to get her out of my mind, I decided that she needed to be in my life. I, of course, am talking about my dog.

my dog

This is the first photo I saw of her, taken in the Birmingham, Alabama animal control shelter. They picked her up wandering around the city streets, pregnant and alone. She was about a year old, they said she was a Dachshund mix. I wasn’t really even sure what kind of a dog a Dachshund was at the time, but I knew that there was something important about the fact that I literally could not stop thinking about her for a week. On my day off, I drove four hours to another state to adopt this dog, without ever having met her before. I had never lived with a dog before. I bought “Dogs for Dummies” and read blogs. I purchased a crate, food bowls, food, toys, a collar, a leash, a bed, gates to keep her out of the cats’ area. I set up my apartment, and then I drove to Birmingham. I gave the woman behind the bullet-proof glass (the animal control building isn’t in the greatest area of town) the adoption fee, and the man that I had spoken to on the phone led the dog that would be my dog out of the scary metal doors. I took her leash and bent down to pet her. I had adopted a dog. We went out to the grassy area beside the parking lot so she could pee and then we both tried to figure out how to behave. She jumped in the car and we drove four hours back home.

my dog Here she is on the ride home from the shelter

It really wasn’t the best time for me to make a big life change. I was traveling pretty extensively for work, the nonprofit I worked for at the time had a grant to address mental health on the Mississippi Gulf Coast so there was a lot of driving back and forth from Jackson to the Coast. I also knew I’d been spending a week in Seattle, Washington for a work conference. I was also in a pretty bad depression. I was at the tail-end of my relationship with the alcoholic, although I didn’t know it at the time (I should have!) and had a trip planned to Albuquerque, New Mexico to see her. At the time my mother was not a fan of dogs, so I was going to have to board Caroline at the Dog Wash, a local doggy daycare spa, whenever I was traveling. Still, I had followed my heart and I knew I would work it all out.

We had a few rocky points where I was trying to figure out if she had ever been potty trained. I read articles online that said if she ever had an accident in the house it was not her fault, it was MY fault for not watching her closely enough or leaving her alone. Dogs can’t just know to potty outside and any failings she had to meet my expectations were my responsibility not hers. I know these were worded harshly to keep new owners from yelling at or perhaps even hitting a dog who did not understand what they had done wrong. For me however, it elevated my anxiety to a point where I felt guilty every time I left her alone so that I could shower or go to work. I worried that I wasn’t doing a good enough job trying to help her know what I wanted her to know. I worried that she was alone too much when I was working even though she had began staying with my parents two days a week and going to doggy daycare one day a week. I worked myself up to a point of near-panic that I think even my therapist was surprised by. Luckily my therapist helped me realize that the dog, no matter how inconsistent a job I was doing as an awful human being who occasionally had to shower and work, the dog was better off with me than in a kill-shelter. Slowly but surely, we settled into a routine, I stopped worrying, and we became a family.

my dog

My depression didn’t ease much when the alcoholic and I finally ended the doomed, stressful, horrible, unhealthy relationship that we had hung onto for much too long. Having Caroline in an apartment meant that every morning I had to get up, get out of bed, put her harness on her, take her outside for a short walk so that she could go to the bathroom, and then do the same thing in the evening. That responsibility for caring for something outside of myself was essential to me during that time. I probably would not have left my apartment on the weekends if I hadn’t had to take her outside. I definitely would not have ever walked to the park. I couldn’t do things for myself but I could do things for her because she needed me. She was helpless without me. Her whole well-being was dependent on me and I wanted her to be happy and healthy. It was different than my codependency. I wasn’t trying to care for someone that should be caring for themselves. I wasn’t trying to get an adult to take responsibility for their life or love themselves when they couldn’t – I was legitimately taking responsibility for a being that could not without me complete the basic functions necessary to be happy and healthy. My dog was like a child, and in her need, I began to see exactly what it meant to care for someone/thing that actually needed me, as opposed to wanting to be needed by someone that should not need me at all, in ways no adult should need another adult.

our feet

Caroline needed me, but it was separate from her love for me. She loves me so completely – it’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. When I walk into a room, she lights up, she gets so excited. I have the ability to make her day better, just by existing, by being me. She doesn’t care if I’m perfect or that I lost 30 pounds, she doesn’t care what my GPA is like or if I make enough money; she cares about walks and treats and cuddles. She wants to be close to me, and doesn’t want to be apart from me for any longer than necessary. I can comfort her when she is sad, but I don’t have to take responsibility for her sadness or happiness. I make her happy, but not by doing certain things or being a certain way, I just have to be me and be present. Even though I have had cats for 14 years, it’s nothing like having a dog. Caroline loves me in a way that no person or animal or being has ever loved me. In her loving me, I could not help but love her back completely, 100%. There really isn’t an option to hold part of yourself back with a creature that believes that you are the sun. A being who goes from slumping on her bed dejectedly to wagging the entire bottom half of her body because you walked in the front door. There’s no way to give only 3/4 of your heart to a love like that. I don’t know that I really knew what true, real, laid-bare love was before Caroline loved me and in turn allowed me to love her without limits.

I can’t articulate for you the internal work that made it possible for me to open up all those tiny, walled-off parts in my heart to my dog and because of that do it again later, with another human being. There isn’t an internal dialogue that I had about love and fear. It was just the very act of her loving me, the volume of her love, the completeness of it, that awakened in me the knowledge that love was different than what I thought it was for the first 31 years of my life. I know a lot of people say that they didn’t really rescue their dog, but their dog really rescued them. Even though it’s a cliche, I know that it is true for me. Dogs are incredible creatures. They go through abuse, neglect, and abandonment that most human beings will never experience, and they still open themselves up again. Dogs that are beaten, burned with fire and chemicals, mutilated, cut, yelled at, shoved out of moving cars, thrown over animal shelter fences, dumped in ditches out in the country, thrown in bags onto highways (sorry, yes these are all stories I have read on animal shelter/rescue facebook pages) dogs that are chained to trucks and dragged and somehow survive blossom when they are loved by people. They trust when they have no reason to. They love after they have been hurt beyond reason. They open up their tiny hearts once again and give themselves over fully to people that they don’t know won’t hurt them like they’ve been hurt before, but they do it anyway. Maybe they have an instinct about it that we humans don’t – but I think that in reality they have a resiliency that we don’t. Caroline didn’t know that I wouldn’t abandon her the way she was abandoned before. In fact, I think she sometimes thinks I’m putting her in the car to take her someplace and leave her. That doesn’t stop her from loving me in a huge way. I know that I would never have had the courage to open up to another human being in the way that I have opened up to my boyfriend if I hadn’t first been loved by Caroline. In loving me and allowing me to love her, Caroline taught me how to love another person. I know that I would not be the person I am today if she had not come into my life. I am immeasurably grateful to her for it. ❤

me and caroline

Why I stayed

When I was about fourteen years old, I was in an emotionally abusive relationship. It was my first “love” relationship, one that would set the stage for what I believed a love relationship should be. He controlled me as completely as he could. He implied to me that I was fat, I was 5’4 and 120 pounds. He would stand me up when we had plans, and be with other girls. We would break up, he would apologize, we would get back together, and it would all start again. It was during that time that I started purging. I didn’t binge, but when I ate something “bad” I would throw it up. I still have a very vivid memory of kneeling on the floor of the Wendy’s, my fingers down my throat, feeling out of control. Purging never made me feel in control and I hadn’t found restricting yet. My relationship with that boy ended the night I swallowed 100 pills like I was chugging a glass of water. A pregnancy test and a tube shoved down my nose as I fought the ER staff, I woke up the next morning in a hospital gown with an IV in my arm and a fresh start to my teenage life.

This is not that story, however. This is the story of what happened decades after I vowed that I would never allow myself to be abused again. This is the beginning of the story that ended in my sexual assault. I didn’t post that blog publicly, but I am going to post it now.

When I met her, I was instantly attracted. Everything about her was everything I thought that I was looking for – she was attractive, passionate about what she did, incredibly smart, and determined to change the world. I learned way too quickly she was also a heavy drinker, emotionally tortured, incredibly insecure and filled with an anger that was as directionless as it was intense. One of the first times that I visited her house, she pointed out a pile of wood in the hallway. She said it had been a bookcase, she had shattered it when she was angry, and she had purposely left it there so that I would “know what I was getting into.” I’ve asked myself hundreds of times why I didn’t leave that night and never look back. She took my staying as a tacit agreement that she could do whatever she wanted – and she did. I’ve decided that I thought she was exaggerating. I thought she had darkness inside her that she needed to get out, but I didn’t think it would ever be directed at me. I decided, as I have done way too many times in my life, that my love was all she needed to heal her. I decided that I could be the one to save her.

Why did I stay when it started to get worse, when I became afraid of her? Because my work, my future work, was tied up in her and our relationship. We had no boundaries between the work that we did and our personal relationship(s) and rejecting her seemed to mean giving up the work that I was doing which was very important to me at the time. Also, no one from the outside had any idea what was going on inside that house. She was really great at pretending to be this amazing person and very few people got to see the person she was when she didn’t have an audience. For some relationships, the highs are so high that they cancel out the lows in our minds. Sure, I locked myself in her bathroom once and contemplated going out the window, but I let the night we danced to brown eyed girl, over and over, restarting the song every time it ended cancel that out.

As afraid as I was of her, she never hit me. There was one night where she basically imprisoned me in her house and wouldn’t let me leave. I tried to get out the front door and she smashed my fingers in it as she closed it. I yanked it open, oblivious to the pain, and she picked up a glass from the coffee table and held it up like she was going to smash it into my face. That moment will be forever branded on my mind. That was the moment that I felt most helpless. That was the moment that I knew that I somehow was back in an abusive relationship after vowing never to allow myself to be treated that way again. That moment lasted hours it seemed, I can still close my eyes and feel the doorjam under my hand; I can still see her face contorted into rage so completely that she didn’t even look like the person that I loved. I will never know why in the split second that glass started to come down toward my face that she decided to throw it over my shoulder onto the front porch. Maybe there was a part of her that didn’t want to be that person either. That was the night I texted my best friend and asked her to call me and pretend that her infant son who had been ill was back in the hospital. For some reason I knew that I’d be able to leave, and she let me. I drove two blocks to a gas station parking lot and broke down. I called my friend and I sobbed “I’m out. I got out.”

But I didn’t get out. In the end it was essentially she who ended it. She decided to make out with one of my best friends, in my home, on my birthday, while I was passed out in the other room. The ultimate fuck-you. After that, there was no way it could continue, even I wouldn’t have let it but it didn’t matter because she had replaced me. I wish that I could say that I stood up to her, but that didn’t happen until much much later. Standing up to her was the one of the scariest things that I have ever done, and the night I confronted her after she assaulted me, I saw her for what she really is – small, scared, sad, and broken. She’s not so good at pretending that she can fool herself the way she fools most everyone else. She will never be good enough or smart enough or live up to her potential and she takes that out on the people who care about her instead of doing whatever work she needs to do to not hate herself. The hatred for herself bleeds over into hatred for anyone that can love her when she can’t love herself. Ultimately that is very very sad. In the end, I think that Why I stayed was that at that time, I still didn’t believe that I could have the good without the bad. I was punishing myself for all the mistakes that I had made, and I didn’t think that I could have love without pain & abuse. I thought that it was a trade-off, at least for me.

I’m incredibly grateful that I no longer believe that. It’s taken a lot of work but I have separated love from fear and pain and sadness. I know that I deserve a love that quenches my thirst for passion without putting me in danger. I know the difference between anger and passion now too. Most importantly, I learned to love myself. I really believe that I deserve a love that nurtures me, not one that destroys me. Love is not pain.

If you don’t love me, I’ll kill myself

The title of this post is a music reference, for those of you who for whatever reason don’t remember the 90s or aren’t into obscure tunes; it sounded so much more interesting than my working title “Emotional Blackmail.”

The first time I heard the term “emotional blackmail” I was a child. My mother told me she would not allow herself to be “emotionally blackmailed” by me. I can’t remember what I said or did that prompted it, nor do I know where she heard the term, probably from a book about parenting a difficult child. Out of the Fog, a website for people who have a loved one with a personality disorder, describes emotional blackmail as: “A system of threats and punishments used in an attempt to control someone’s behaviors.” As I’m sure you can imagine, growing up with an undiagnosed emotional sensitivity disorder (or personality disorder if you prefer, I find the clinical term too stigmatizing and prefer to use the phrase that Dr. Linehan mentioned when I saw her speak at the 2012 NAMI National Convention) was difficult both for me as well as my family members.*

I know I said and did many things that were manipulative as a teenager, I think that’s pretty common. Some teens are difficult and it’s hard to know where the line is between “teenager” and “has a diagnosable disorder”, it can be very blurry. What happens though when manipulative maladaptive behaviors aren’t something we grow out of? Some people – perhaps many people – grow into dysfunctional adults who use techniques like emotional blackmail and gaslighting to get their way, people who have no diagnosable disorder at all. It can be hard to know what to take seriously and what to dismiss, and it can be even more difficult to know exactly where the boundaries should be with someone who engages in these types of behaviors whether they are a friend, family member, partner, ex-partner, boss, etc.

One of the most extreme forms of emotional blackmail I have ever encountered is what I call “If you don’t love me, I’ll kill myself.” It happened after the alcoholic and I had broken up. As can happen with relationships, especially dysfunctional ones, a break-up had not stopped us from fighting with one another. I was trying to set and maintain clear boundaries, but that can be difficult for me as I did not grow up with boundaries and didn’t realize I even needed them until I was in my 20s. This particular day I was traveling for work (my job covers the whole state) and I happened to be driving back from the Gulf coast. My ex called me and we started to fight about one thing or another, I don’t even remember what at this point. She was baiting me with some secret mean thing that she had started to tell me but then said “no never mind” knowing it would drive me crazy. During the call, the man that I was working with to secure a mortgage called on the other line. I told her that I had to take the call, my mortgage broker was calling and it must be important. I switched over without giving her time to protest. During the twenty or so minute call with the mortgage broker, the alcoholic called me four times in quick succession. I did not answer, because it made no sense to. I had told her the call was important, in fact this was the middle of my workday and I was traveling for work!

When the call with the mortgage broker was concluded, I picked up the 5th call. I told her that it was inappropriate to call me multiple times like that, especially when she knew I was on an important call. I told her that there was really no point in us continuing to fight, because we had broken up, and then I terminated the call. Not the most mature thing to do but under the circumstances it seemed like the best way to not have to spend another half hour fighting with her on the phone. At some point in the hour and a half between that call and my arrival back home, she sent me a text message saying it didn’t matter anyway. She had taken a “bunch of pills” and was feeling “sleepy” now. Threats of suicide, whether the person is serious about attempting or not, can be a form of emotional blackmail. However, as a mental health professional who is trained in applied suicide intervention (ASIST) and mental health first aid I knew that one thing you should never do is not take someone seriously when they talk about suicide. There is no “boy who cried wolf” when it comes to suicide threats, because the 9th time may be the time they succeed or decide to actually go through with it. Whatever the reason someone decides to either threaten or attempt suicide, action has to be taken. It is possible however, to help the person while maintaining your boundaries.

In this case, I did try to call her, which I am sure was the intended response. I had refused to talk to her before, and now she had manipulated me into calling her. She did not pick up, and I realized that I had a choice. I could frantically continue calling her, violating my previous statement that I did not want to continue talking to her on the phone and validating the power that her threat had over me, or I could take action to make sure that help was given to her whether or not she needed or wanted it. In case you’re not familiar with my story, this ex lived over 1,000 miles away from me in New Mexico. As it happened, I had her mother’s (whom she was mostly estranged from) phone number in my cell phone. I texted her mother and told her that her daughter had told me that she had taken pills in order to kill herself, that I did not know whether or not it was true but that someone needed to get her help. Thankfully, her mother intervened, going to her house with one of her friends and knocking on the door. Apparently she did not answer at first but eventually they did get into contact with her. Her mother texted me to let me know that she was ok.

I do not know whether or not she did what she said she did, and really it doesn’t matter. Every life is important, every person deserves to live. Later, the alcoholic did accuse me of “bothering” her by sending her mother to her home, and claimed that she had been in serious condition, implying she would have died if intervention had not happened. I also do not know whether that is true or an exaggeration/outright lie (she was prone to lying.) I simply told her that because of my licensure with the state, I am a mandated reporter of suicidal or homicidal intentions expressed to me. Had I not been able to get in touch with her mother, I would’ve tried a friend and finally the local police. Truthfully, she has been slowly killing herself with her drug and alcohol abuse all these years, but that isn’t my responsibility. By telling me that she was in the process of attempting suicide, she made her possible impending death my responsibility.

Obviously her intention was not to be bothered by her mother. Whether or not she intended to die that day, the response she wanted from me was attention, perhaps guilt, quite possibly the guilt of feeling like she had ended her life because of me. Often emotional blackmail suicide threats have an attitude of “I’ll show them. They’ll be sorry when I’m gone.” The entire process was very emotionally draining for me, and in a lot of ways she did get what she wanted by upsetting me, forcing me to deal with her, and then acting as though I had somehow wronged her by asking her mother to intervene. Emotional abuse takes a toll on us whether we set boundaries with the person or not. In the end, I had to finally tell her that she had no place in my life. I did not want to be her friend because we were never friends in the first place. Anyone in the throes of addiction is much too self involved to be a friend to anyone else anyway. I wrote this post partially because I find blogging about these things to be freeing, the ability to let out what I am holding inside. This was one of the most extreme situations I’ve ever been in, and it was incredibly difficult to experience.

My final thought is this – don’t give in to emotional blackmail, it does no one any good. Think outside the box if someone’s life is at stake, but you don’t have to allow them to get whatever they are seeking from you. Also, take all suicide threats seriously. You can take measures to save someone’s life even if they don’t want it, and you can do it in a way that doesn’t compromise your boundaries. Read through the different types of emotional abuse on Out of the Fog too. Just because someone has a mental illness, a disorder, an addiction, etc it does not give them the right to treat you in a way that is abusive.

clouds

* If you want to know more about BPD and my experience having an emotional sensitivity disorder, visit my “What is BPD?” post.

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.