What Movies Never Told You about Life with an Addict
Since I was 18 years old, I’ve been in love with exactly one person. That one person happens to be a recovering addict.
There is plenty of support and information for people like me, people who are in relationships with addicts. But so much of it is geared toward those whose partners are actively using and have not yet admitted addiction, or who are being abused by these addicts. The semi-lack of stories for me was always hard. Where do you even begin? So, I decided to begin with me, and whatever minor wisdom I’ve picked up along the way.
They’re stuck at the age they were when they started using. So are you.
From the ages of 18 through 25, I was dating a 17 year old. Not literally. Age-wise, he was perfectly legal. But he was always 17. Because 17 was when he stopped being able to cope without drink and drug and therefore every fight or breakdown was had with an angsty teen. Two angsty teens actually, because I was 18 when this became my normal. When I was 21, I dated someone else for a while. He was a really nice, good guy. And I hope he’s forgotten me completely, because I was completely insane, tainted from all this “normal.” He thought he was seeing a semi-average college girl; what he was really seeing was a raving high school student with hormones set to kill. And I didn’t even know it, because that’s what normal was. That’s what relationships were. That said…
It’s not all screaming and drama.
There were very few actual fights when he was drinking, reserved for special occasions like a freshly drained bank account, maxed out credit card or the night I finally packed up and left, when he punched a hole through the wall of our rented duplex. Those are the moments that stand out, but they’re actually quite rare. Mostly, it’s a profound, deep, crushing numbness. The sadness is a massive, impossible weight on your whole body and you equally love this person and hate him, repelling at the slightest touch. You feel so much that you can’t feel anymore and the numbness, the vacuumed void just aches. But you don’t talk about it. Not always. Mostly, it’s internal, the terribly lonely feeling of feeling everything while feeling nothing.
You might develop PTSD.
For five years, I lived my life in pure terror that my boyfriend/fiancé would go to prison or die. One of the two was going to happen, and I was pretty sure it was the second. When he got help and got clean, I thought everything would be alright. And it was for the most part, mostly for him. I was not anywhere near alright. I had panic attacks almost every day for a year. I have this anxious nervous habit when I would have panic attacks where I scratch my leg over and over again. During the first year post-rehab, I drew blood several times, not even noticing what I was doing, just blindly scratching. I smelled things that weren’t there, I imagined horrific scenarios and they became real. The choking fear, the all-consuming anxiety, it was everything. There was nothing but it and me, not even my partner. And that’s because…
They might get sober. That won’t make you better.
The thing about addiction is that it has contagious comorbidities no one warns you about. I never developed a problem with drinking or drugs—the opposite in fact. Being around him made me never want to feel anything but “normal” ever again and I’ve only actually gotten drunk once by accident since (and I’m still mad at myself about it). No, the disease I caught was different, one of panicky desperate control. And trying to control an addict is like trying to pick up all the sand on a beach with your hands and a mesh sack. Codependence is tricky. It makes you feel as though you only have one problem—this person—and when that person is better, you will be too. But then they get better and you don’t. You’re not fixed. Suddenly you’re the one with the problem, which is shocking after years of believing yourself to be the strong rock. That illusion shatters and you realize you’ve been two crumbly people all this time, and you both have pieces to pick up.
There’s no black and white. Just walking away might not be the answer.
It’s hard to talk about your life when your partner is “in the disease” and actively using. Part of it is because you’re just so emotionally exhausted, talking about it is the last thing you want to do. My best friends in the world didn’t know how bad things were until he went to rehab. I didn’t tell my parents how bad it was until I had to tell them on Christmas morning that he’d driven drunk to their house and was now passed out downstairs on their couch. But the other reason is fear. It’s terrifying to think that people might judge this person in your life. That they might tell you to leave. And you’ve judged this person yourself, and you’ve thought about leaving. But to have other people say it, it’s impossible.
It’s not your fault.
There’s a saying in AlAnon—“I didn’t cause it. I can’t control it. I can’t cure it.” And that was really hard to finally grasp. I was scared for a long time to be honest about how I was feeling because I thought if I made him sad, if I made him feel bad about himself, he’d start drinking again. Of course all that did was turn me into a seething resentment monster. The fact is, it’s not my fault. It’s never been my fault. And I’ve never and will never have any ability to control it. Because, ultimately…
It’s not about you. At all.
For all the ways movies get it wrong, there’s one thing they get very right: relegating the “suffering spouse” to the sidelines.
I’ve written before about the movie Smashed, how it so perfectly depicted the life of a recovering addict. And as I stated then, the way it most reflected my life is by not including me at all. I’ve existed much of these past 11 years as a peripheral character in my own life, never the center, never the one who matters. And that is a terrible, guilty thing to feel. So you spiral into shame, still resenting the fact that you don’t matter.
And this was my own doing. I tricked myself into thinking that I was the strong one, that I was the solid foundation that could help this other person. And, sometimes quickly and sometimes so slowly, I descended into this feral creature, one crushing under the weight of someone else’s life, someone else’s pain, someone else’s disease about which I could do nothing but feel and not feel.
But, I promise…
It gets better. You get better.
I started writing this three days ago, in a pit. Now, I’m finishing it with sky in sight. Sleep helps. Therapy helps. Talking really helps—to my partner, to my parents, to my boss, who I had to explain why I couldn’t stop crying.
There will still be days where everything is heavy and achy. But then there are days like today. Where there’s sun and tea and happy toddlers and a person you love so much, who has struggled and may continue to struggle, but who for now is on the way back to OK. And everything feels like it will be OK, too.