loving an Alcoholic

Loving an Alcoholic: Part Three

In part one, I talked about the beginning of my relationship with an alcoholic. In part two I talked about how it gets worse.

We start off part three with her being sober for two months.

She gets into a sober living house (a house full of 5-9 women who are also trying to be sober, who support one another while being held accountable for behavior and sobriety, who go to meetings and do outreach for others who are struggling). She goes to AA and NA meetings, starts working the 12 steps with her sponsor, takes her medication.

This is what I’ve always wanted. Sustainable sobriety.

I think that person from two years ago is going to magically appear.

Do you know what happens when you remove the coping mechanism that someone has used for over a decade?

It’s not easy. It’s a struggle. Without alcohol, she was short-tempered, cranky, exhausted. There were times when she didn’t want to be around me because of the bad memories. She explained that sobriety felt like an exposed nerve and a lot of things just hurt. She had to deal with things she’d spent her whole life avoiding.

I realized that sobriety isn’t a magical wand.

I struggled with that. A lot of the time I took it personally. I’d spent so long waiting for this and feeling like it was going to fix things and if anything they were the same or worse, just in a different way. I went to AA meetings with her and eventually, we went to therapy together so that I could find a way to not be resentful and she could find a way to express herself in a way that didn’t tear me down.

After three months she decided to leave sober living (even though they recommend staying for 18 months for the best chance of continued sobriety). She moved into an apartment with someone else who was in recovery. Almost immediately she started getting overwhelmed with bills. And I found myself resentfully picking up the slack. I was mad that she’d left sober living, I was mad that she was making excuses to not go to AA/NA meetings like she was used to, and I was mad that once again I was having to help her out.

She kept getting more and more overwhelmed with life. She quit her job and that caused more stress because now she was in an apartment she couldn’t pay for. After seven months of sobriety, she and her roommate both relapsed.

It’s hard to explain the dynamic of our relationship at this point.

We were friends who both loved each other but couldn’t seem to find a way to go anywhere with it. There was so much baggage and resentment. She still relied on me financially and that built even more resentment between us. I felt like the only reason she wanted me in her life was because I paid her rent or paid her bills when she needed it. Anyone else would see it as more enabling, but in my head I felt like I had to help to lessen the stress, to lessen the chance of relapse. It was almost like she had to be rewarded for being sober.

When she relapsed, it put more of a financial responsibility on me because she was jobless again. I helped her get into another sober living house. I was still paying for things while she got back on her feet. Our relationship devolved to not getting along and barely talking. We’d go days or weeks with only a few texts about surface things. I think we both reached the point where we didn’t really like each other but there was so much history it was hard to just throw in the towel completely. And I was helpful, of course.

We got into a huge fight because she wanted me to help her with a down payment on a car and when I offered some money, it wasn’t enough. She went off on me. She needed a car to be sober, to go to a job, to go to meetings, and I was essentially sabotaging her if I didn’t help her because I wanted her to fail.

And that was it. I couldn’t do this for another second. Again. I stopped talking to her and cut her out of my life.

I decided to move on again. And I started to… again.

loving an Alcoholic

When my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer at the beginning of this year Ali and I reconnected. She told me that she wanted to be there for me and that she wanted to give our relationship another chance. She was still in sober living, still working toward sobriety. She had a job, a car, things seemed to be going well and I jumped at that opportunity. I didn’t want to go through all of that alone. I wanted someone to rely on, someone, just for once, to take care of me.

We decided to try to give our relationship a real shot. We were together for two weeks. She helped me through my mom’s death and I was so incredibly thankful for her presence. I’m the kinda person who has trouble reaching out for help. I don’t like being vulnerable, I don’t like being dependent on another person, but I let myself.

The day of my mother’s memorial service, she left early, went and had a drink, and then broke up with me through text message because I wasn’t responding to her drunken texts while I was still at the service. I can’t describe the feeling I had that day. I was in a room surrounded by my friends and family but also in the bubble of solitude. When she confessed that she was drinking I remember sitting there, looking at my phone, and then putting it in my pocket. I had this moment of disassociation. I just couldn’t deal. Not that day.

So I pushed the whole situation away, focused on what was right in front of me, and tried not to completly fall apart.

Yeah. That happened. So I walked away again.

And that was hard. I wanted to make excuses. She liked my mom, that day was hard, she got overwhelmed, she coped in the way she knew how. And while I do understand it, it doesn’t mean it was okay. It doesn’t mean it’s not allowed to hurt me. And it doesn’t mean that I have to force myself to accept it, forgive it, or be okay with it.

We’ve talked a few times since. We tried to have a friendship. I tried to move past it, but I just couldn’t. Right now she’s not in my life and that’s the way I want to keep it. As of writing this, I believe she’s been sober for a month, and I hope she’s able to stick with it this time. I feel that I’ve finally allowed myself to let go and move on and the cycle won’t repeat itself again.

And that’s the story of the last three years of my life.

Out in the world.

Things I learned:

You can’t save someone from themselves. No matter how much you want to. No matter how much you care. No amount of love is going to make someone change who doesn’t want to change. You can’t love someone sober. You can’t love someone well. I’m still a firm believer in love though, it helps, but if it’s the only power source in a situation it won’t be enough.

You are not required to be anyone’s lifesaver. For a long time, I thought that if I didn’t stay in the situation she would die. It sounds dramatic, but when you’re constantly worried about overdoses, when you know someone has abandonment issues, it feels like you’re the barrier, flimsy as you are, between life and death. I kept holding onto this idea that I was the only one stopping her from drowning (despite the fact that I often felt like she was pulling me under too).

I felt that if I let go, something terrible would happen and it would be my fault.

In reality, we were surrounded by floaties, life jackets, inflatable rafts, and lifeguards. There were resources at every turn. There were therapists and medications and AA groups, sponsors, friends, rehabs, programs… it was never all on me, I chose to see it that way. I chose to try to be the superhero when I didn’t need to be.

You can’t just make comfortable boundaries. It’s easy to make boundaries when people respect them. Making boundaries that someone constantly pushes against is the real struggle. Making boundaries and then tearing them down because they are uncomfortable is not what self-care looks like. Self-care is hard. I know this, I’ve always known that and we have to do the hard stuff, even when it hurts.

When someone pushes against your boundaries, you don’t move your boundaries back – you reinforce them.

Someone’s trauma is not an excuse to abuse you. Their story is not a valid excuse for how they treat you. It’s true that the cycle of abuse creates abusive behaviors. I’ve been there myself and worked to overcome it, but that will never make it okay. Everyone has the choice to get better. We have the choice to realize when we are being abusive and toxic and to do the work to stop that cycle. When you have a big heart it’s so easy to recognize the source of someone’s pain and excuse it. Especially if you’ve been in, or seen that situation first hand. Loving an alcoholic is hard, loving someone who is abusive is hard, everyone has a story, but we don’t have to stay inside of it.

It still doesn’t make it okay.

Be with someone who makes you a better version of yourself. This entire experience made me go through periods where I didn’t like myself. The constant stress and anxiety unraveled so much work that I had done within myself and I let it happen. I stopped fighting for myself and my better-self and put all of my energy into fighting for someone else. Never betray yourself in that way.

But holy crap did I realize how strong I really can be, how much I can take, and the strength of certain aspects of my character.

You have to see people for who they are. I spent the entire time holding onto that person I’d met in the first two months of the relationship and in the few glimpses I’d seen in the months following. That was the thing that I refused to let go of. I don’t think that person ever really existed. I don’t think that Ali is a bad person, but she was never the person for me, and I didn’t want to let go of that.

I ignored all of the other aspects of who she was to cling to one positive aspect.

Walking away from a toxic situation is not giving up on someone. It doesn’t make you a bad person. Man, did I struggle with this one. Mental illness is a tricky thing. Addiction is a tricky thing. Where do you draw the line between someone who is capable of helping themselves and someone who isn’t? Where is the point where you blame someone for their actions vs where you acknowledge their brain is seriously misfiring?

“My love is unconditional but your presence in my life is not.” That’s where you need to be. You have to let go of trying to make sense of the why. If someone’s behavior is hurting you or your mental health you have to stop analyzing it to death. You have to ask yourself: Is this person toxic to me? And then you have to listen to that answer, giving that more weight than anything else.

People are so strong and resilient.

While Ali struggled and still struggles to stay sober, I have met so many amazing people in recovery. I’ve seen how much raw strength it takes just to start on the path to sobriety. I’ve been to AA meetings and heard so many heartbreaking stories, and people have lived through them and managed to thrive. I’ve heard people talk who have been sober for 20+ years and still show up to help and guide others. The resiliency of people in recovery amazes me. It is a community that can absolutely change lives.

To any person who struggles to maintain sobriety. Don’t give up. It’s worth it. You’re worth it. Life gets better.

There was a time in my life when I didn’t think that I would ever be able to look at this situation from a point of healing.

I felt like it was always going to be this point of trauma that made me panic when thinking of it, that gave me that rush of fear-adrenaline and heavy breathing. I’ve talked about it in therapy, I’ve journaled about it a lot, I’ve tried to come at the whole situation from a place of forgiveness, mainly toward myself.

We all get stuck in life situations that at the moment feel nearly impossible to get out of.

We all beat ourselves up for staying when we should leave and putting up with things we shouldn’t.

I am not the first person to be in this situation and I won’t be the last.

This was a huge chapter in my life and it provided a lot of growth and life lessons. When you say you’re into personal growth, the Universe provides. We learn the lessons we need to learn when we need to learn them.

This experience of loving an alcoholic showed me my capacity to love and forgive and accept someone. Including myself. I found new layers and levels of my own self-love through this experience. I didn’t think there would ever be a happy ending. I was wrong.

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, please reach out.