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.