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.

More on red flags

Yesterday, I blogged about red flags and why we ignore them. I had seen an article over on the Huffington Post that I wanted to read and perhaps link to if it was relevant. As often happens, I lost track of it, so I searched on their website to try to find it. 207,000 hits on HuffPo searching “red flags divorce”. Wow! A lot has been written on red flags, apparently. I guess ignoring them or not seeing them is truly universal behavior.

Although it was not the article I had been searching for, I read Susie & Otto Colllins’ “Red Flags In A Relationship: 10 Behaviors To Watch Out For” which touches on some much more dangerous red flags than the ones I mentioned in my post. “Calling you fat”, “yelling when drunk”, and “putting you down.” These are obviously red flags that you are in a relationship that is potentially emotionally abusive and could become physically abusive as well.

There’s also a user-submitted comment slideshow of “red flags I should not have ignored” that vary quite a bit, everything from “He told me to STFU and get out of a cab in NYC, he didn’t follow me, we were tourists.” to “when I felt lonely when I was with him.” But here’s an interesting one in that slideshow, “her taking too long to do her makeup.” It doesn’t clarify if that was a red flag that she was having an affair, but let’s assume that she’s not having an affair – would that be a red flag to you? Would perhaps a disregard to your time and need for punctuality be a problem? It’s funny how some of these things can be really personal but red flags nonetheless.

Sandy Weiner’s article “Dating After Divorce? How to Spot Red Flags points to some less obvious but still problematic thoughts and behaviors that can be big red flags. (This article is applicable for anyone, not just those who have been through a divorce.) Here’s a great one that you might not pick up on in the moment: “He says too much too soon. Dave’s first personal email to me was over 2,000 words long (yes, I checked). He shared his life story… from birth. I’m not kidding. TMI… he argued that it was important for me to know his history in order to “get” him. I disagree — telling too much too soon is a great way to freak someone out. It usually signals insecurity. Less is more. Healthy relationships build slowly and steadily.” What do you think? I’m torn on this one, obviously with the other things she mentions about Dave there was a problem there, but what if this stood alone without the other red flags?

It’s interesting how what anyone could see as a problem, such as abandoning someone in a strange city alone at night could be a deal breaker or a big red flag but what if things just aren’t right? Different senses of humor for example, is that a red flag that could indicate a compatibility problem? What about people with fear of commitment, could they see things as red flags as an excuse to abandon a relationship becoming more serious? Absolutely. The question really is, how do we know in the moment what is a red flag? Can we know for certain without waiting for the clarity of hindsight?

In my opinion, it is knowing not only the universal red flags, and as I stated in my previous post having the strength to walk away when the big red flags start waving, but also knowing what is a deal breaker for you personally. Think about it if you haven’t. Write it down if that helps. Start with things that your ex did that made you upset/angry/annoyed/hurt you, along with the red flags you identified after the relationship’s demise. Get to know what you’re willing to compromise on and what you can’t. Let me be clear here, I am not saying learn how to tolerate intolerable behavior such as the cab incident – if someone is emotionally or psychologically abusive that should be a big sign for “run away fast and now” not a simple red flag. I’m talking about the things that are your personal pet peeves or issues. For example, a red flag for me is a political incompatibility. I am a flaming liberal loud-mouth and notoriously so. My ex-husband and I got into heated arguments over abortion that I took personally. I absolutely cannot date someone who is not pro-choice; I’m simply not capable of getting over that particular incompatibility. For others, political views mean very little and they have zero problem being in a serious relationship with someone whose views are radically different.

There’s also a respect component to red flags. A lot of my exes have been “neat freaks”, to an extreme degree. One ex wouldn’t let me vacuum the carpet because I did not perfectly match up the lines that were made in the carpet the way she did (they had to be parallel, you see.) That was a red flag, because I do like things clean and orderly but I’m not a “neat freak” – I can kick off my shoes in the middle of the floor and leave them there for two days and be fine with it. By not allowing me to clean because I didn’t do it “right” it was setting a tone for the rest of our relationship. I respected her enough to attempt to keep our home in the manner in which she needed but she was not able to appreciate that effort unless it was done perfectly to her very specific guidelines. The adverse is also true, had I been unwilling to be more neat and orderly than my norm, simply because chaos made her uncomfortable, that would have/should have been a red flag to her. A normal amount of change and compromise is natural in a relationship. Someone who is unwilling to make a simple change or is inflexible is someone that it is going to be difficult to have a relationship with.

I didn’t expect to give red flags so much thought when I first blogged about them! Obviously there’s a lot more to them than it seems on the surface. Red flags and how we deal with them may very well be the first sign that we are in the wrong (or right!) relationship.

red flag

Relationship red flags: why we ignore them and how to stop

At the end of a relationship, we often reflect and try to understand what went wrong in the hopes of not making the same mistakes again. I have heard people say time and time again, “I ignored the red flags.” In hindsight, actions, statements, and situations can take on meaning that we did not pick up on at the time. However, once we have become more experienced in relationships, we begin to ignore potential problems, the red flags, because the possible payoff of a relationship that lasts can be too great to pass up. Then, when the relationship is over we ask ourselves “why didn’t I pay more attention to that?” That part at least is simple. The vast majority of us want love, companionship, affection, regular sex, all of which we hope to find in a lasting relationship. It can be as simple as wanting to ease loneliness that may have lasted for far too long. We long for acceptance, to be “known” by another person. Relationships fill a great many needs in us.

However, if you find (as I so often have) that time and time again relationships that have ended seem clearly doomed from the start in hindsight, you may be meeting needs that you are not actually aware of.

I have an ex who I had briefly met a couple times prior to our first true interaction. She came home one afternoon to find me crying on her front steps. I had been dating her roommate and that relationship had ended with drama that blindsided me; I had retreated out to the front steps so that the people involved in the demise of that relationship did not see me cry. It was January, and I did not have a coat on. I will never know what was going through her head at the moment she approached me, took off her coat, placed it around my shoulders and sat next to me on the steps. I was virtually a stranger to her, but she wanted to comfort me. By choosing to date me, not long after that day on the steps, she was ignoring a great many red flags – that I had been involved with the woman she shared a house with; that I was getting out of a relationship that had ended in a way that clearly traumatized me; that my prior relationship had ended only minutes before our first interaction beyond a friendly “hello”; any one of these is a big enough red flag to not pursue an emotional entanglement at that time – but this ex has a need that she has only recently acknowledged. She has “white knight syndrome” she loves “rescuing” a damsel in distress. She’s attracted to women in crisis, who need help in some way. Unfortunately, women in crisis who need help in some way are not usually going to be people that you can forge a lasting partnership with, at least not at that moment in their lives.

However, this need more than any other need prompted her attraction to a woman, which made relationships difficult and short. What we say we want, and what we actually want can be totally different and it may not even be clear to us, if we have not taken the opportunity to truly examine why we may not be getting what we want out of relationships.

When I started dating the alcoholic, I would’ve told you that what I was looking for was a stable, long-term relationship with a person who lived fairly close to me (less than one hour by car), who had a job and a pretty good idea of who they were, what they wanted out of life and how they were getting there. Instead, I started dating an active alcoholic who did not have a checking account, who had no car or license because it was was suspended for DUI, who was lying to her probation officer about attending AA meetings and thought getting away with this was indicative of her charm and intellectual superiority to others. She was a lapsed college student who bounced from apartment to apartment barely holding down a job as a server and lived over 1,000 miles away from me, 16 hours by car – pretty much the antithesis of everything I said that I wanted. There were needs that the relationship met for me that I was not aware of, one being that I too am often attracted to people in crisis, wanting to somehow heal them with my love.

How we stop ignoring red flags is a little bit more complicated than simply beginning to uncover needs that we are unaware of. That is an important piece of it, but part of it also comes from accepting life alone. It becomes very difficult to end a relationship that is unhealthy for us if we are not ok with being alone. Even people who are strong and independent, who do not feel they need a relationship to “complete” them succumb to loneliness. Often, dating someone that we know it cannot last with who might make us unhappy is preferable to the loneliness that comes from being single. It is perfectly natural to not want to be lonely, we are made to need other human beings. Being in a bad relationship, even for perfectly valid reasons like not wanting to be lonely, being afraid of being alone while completely normal (check out this Huffpo article “Divorce study shows couples are unhappy but too scared to split) is not healthy and will keep you from meeting someone who you could actually have a happy relationship with. You deserve more, we all do.

So how do you know what a red flag is? Some are universal, but most are as personal as why we are attracted to someone in the first place. Some universal red flags are:

  • Long history of relationship-hopping/serial monogamy. I.e. going from one serious relationship to the next with little to no time in between. (This is every lesbian you’ve ever met, still doesn’t make it healthy!)
  • When he/she talks about exes it is never positive; often blames break-up on them, says all problems were the other person’s.
  • Long history of job-hopping and he/she is over the age of 25. Yes, we live in a difficult economy with underemployment, but if this person quits a lot of jobs, usually because of an unfair boss that hates them or is out to get them, that is not a good sign.
  • Lives with parent(s). This may or may not be one these days, since so many people are losing jobs and having to move in with family or roommates but pay attention to the reasons why they’re back at home. Is it the economy or is it them?
  • Makes it abundantly clear he/she hates “drama”. You know who hates drama and wants nothing to do with it? People with a lot of drama in their lives. People who aren’t constantly surrounded by chaos, turmoil and emotional disturbance don’t have to tell you they dislike it. My Ok Cupid profile doesn’t let people know I’m not a heroin addict, I don’t need to let them know that because it’s assumed I’m not. Beware those who make sure you know they hate and will not tolerate drama, because they are always involved in drama.

I could go on and on. One of mine is the answer to the question “Do you think that you are fundamentally bad or evil?” Sounds like a weird question to ask a person doesn’t it? I learned the hard way that when someone answers that question with “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” or “yes” that bodes very very badly for the relationship. I learned to ask it after a volatile relationship where the person once told me they felt that way, and in all the three instances that someone has been unsure as to whether they are fundamentally bad or evil it has been a very unhealthy relationship for me. The bottom line is this, we might not always see the read flags, but when we do it’s up to us to take a step back and assess. Does that mean end the relationship? After red flag one, maybe not; after red flag 18, maybe so. Red flags eventually become issues, no matter how much we desperately want to, and try to, ignore them.

What are some of the red flags you have ignored in relationships? Comment below to share, if you’d like to discuss.

red flag

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.