A couple of months ago, I met a guy online. We hit it off and agreed to a first date, which turned out to be fantastic. Schedules were a little tough to sync at first, but we did manage to eek in a couple more great dates. He was cute and smart and funny. We had long, engaged conversations and fantastic chemistry. Even though he was clearly into me, I knew pretty quickly that I didn't have substantial romantic interest in him. (I never even got around to giving him a nickname.)
I was mulling how best to go about ending it when the court date came up for my divorce. I was so caught up in that week that I didn't think much about it when I didn't hear from him.
Eventually I did get a text, though, asking how court had gone, how I was, etc. I caught him up quickly, while I was in the middle of working one of my three part-time jobs, and then asked how he was. He finally admitted that he hadn't checked on me because he'd gone on a week-long bender.
Red flags flapped ominously in my breeze. He knew my history of falling for alcoholics, and I knew his history—what he'd been very adamant was an ancient history of non-alcoholic addiction that had been long-ago dealt with. I knew I was ready to end the romantic relationship, but I liked the guy and wanted to be able to be his friend through the hard time he was having. I offered to be a sounding board.
Another week went by with no word from him. I was both busy and not unhappy about having a little distance from it. Then came the voicemail, telling me he had gone on another black-out binge and was hospitalized in a detox unit. He asked me to call him. He texted me the next day, asking if I'd gotten his voicemail.
I replied that I had but that I had to distance myself from the situation and from him.
"You know my history," I texted. "I am clearly an enabler. This is more than I'm willing to deal with right now. It's unhealthy for me and unhealthy for my children, given the energy shift it will create in me. I feel like a cad for not being your friend through this, but I just can't be around this right now. I wish you well."
Alcoholics aren't always, or even usually, the people who drink all day, every day and can't hold down a job. I've never dated a man who sat on the street corner, sipping anything out of a bag. (At least not more than a couple of social times.) My history, however, is peppered with functional alcoholics—those who lead productive lives filled with work and family and friends, who seem perfectly normal to anyone outside the closest inner circle. It wasn't just that they were alcoholic abusers, they were alcohol dependent.
When an addict of any kind begins the process of recovery, there are several paths they can take. Going it alone, private counseling, community-based therapy and support groups. Each has to find their own path.
In my personal experience and through my research for Persona Non Grata, there are two main thoughts about recovery. On one side, the addict needs to give all of their time and energy to recovery, at least initially and for some indeterminate amount of time, in order to stabilize and come to terms with themselves and the immediate consequences of ceasing substance. Different substances—whether alcoholic, heroin, cocaine, food, etc.—will have different effects on biochemistry, and withdrawal can be a bitch no matter your poison. Some addicts choose to immerse themselves in the process of recovery, sometimes to the point that the unavailability they showed their loved ones is just as prevalent even though it's in the name of meetings and sessions and getting better.
There's a second line of thinking, in which the addict has been a selfish bastard for so long that they need to immediately begin rectifying that damage to the people who've paid the highest price for it thus far. It's time to step up and show those people that you really do love them; it's time to start making amends for your asshole behavior of the previous weeks and months and years, balancing them with your own needs and therapy.
Often on the other side of an addiction is an enabler, someone who excuses and justifies and cleans-up and forgives the selfish, destructive behavior in the name of loving the addict. Someone like me. I've been known to give so deeply of myself to maintain the status quo that I would find myself frazzled and exhausted, a shell of who I was supposed to be.
If recovery for the addict includes stopping being a selfish asshole, recovery for the enabler is the time when they have to learn to be a little bit selfish, to take care of themselves before they care for the addict.
It feels completely unnatural.
When you are structured around this idea that "care" means self-sacrifice, you'll do anything for the people you love. Every detail of your life becomes about how you can help this person you adore, how you can make things easier so that they can accomplish their goals, even after recovery begins in earnest. It's all too easy to find yourself still in that pattern of compensating for the addict who has floundered for years.
But isn't that what you do for the people that you love?
If they're young children, absolutely. But even adults who were badly parented or never learned the life-skill of self-care are still adults; they have to be responsible for themselves.
It is hard as hell to turn away from someone you care about, leaving them to deal with the process of recovery without you. You, who has taken care of everything for so long, who has loved them like no other and for reasons and in ways maybe no one else would ever understand... you are abandoning them in their greatest moment of need.
You're a fucking heartless bitch.
As the enabler, you have to heal from this process of addiction, as well. You have to learn to care for yourself and how to devote time and energy to those who really need it, not just those who refuse to do it for themselves.
Given my history, my telling Bender (okay, so I named him just now) that I couldn't be a part of his process not only took my support away and forced him to stand with one less crutch, it allowed me to drop that fucking crutch, too. My hands are free to hold something else. Something more important—myself.
Even though that romantic relationship wasn't hugely impactful on my life, it came at just the right time to remind me that I am important in a relationship. My needs, my care, my wants are just as important as the other side's, even and especially when that other side is addicted.
Being cognizant of this, being fully aware of how necessary it is for me to make those healthy decisions means I have to follow through. To continue the behaviors and patterns when I absolutely know better makes me no better, but also no worse, than the addicts I have loved.
Even after Bender, there is another friend who is maybe in that process of sobriety and recovery. It's likely, though I don't know for sure because I had to make the decision to cut this person out of my life. And it is hard. Every single day, I want to know how they are, to hold them and listen while they talk through what I know is coming. Some days that connection still feels as strong as it did when we met so many moons ago.
I want desperately to reach out, to ask how they're doing. I can't, and it sucks. Some days, it hurts like hell.
They're no more irredeemable than I am. We've both always known that change would have to come from within them, no matter how much support I offered or shoved or emotionally blackmailed them into taking. But taking is not accepting, and I had to stop bashing my head against that beautiful brick wall.
As much as I hope they are taking the time to really face this and heal, I hope I am able to turn and face my own role in my life, my own choices to excuse and justify and encourage—all in the name of love. This time, I have to love me, in the same active way I have tried so fucking hard to love them.
Keeping them out of my life is supposedly the best thing for me. Supposedly it's also the best thing for them, but it smacks of abandonment and dismissal in the ways that feel most brutal to me. I hope to God, every day, that there's a healthy way forward for us, together or not, in each other's lives or not. I hope to hear that they're okay, that they're doing their work and dealing with what has been so long neglected. I hope I do the same.
Above all else, I hope we both can one day see that we are loved, not because of our roles in that dysfunction—not in spite of them—but for the people we are on the other side of the addiction and the history and the hurt.