What It's Like to Love an Addict: 6 Stories of Hope, Loss, and Transition
When asked by one of the women below what prompted this piece, I realized so much of our content (my personal pieces, specifically) delves into the thoughts and struggles that we, ourselves, have gone through—and, ideally, how we've come out the other end. More recently, we've written about our current struggles as well, ones that we haven't necessarily worked out entirely. But what we haven't yet gotten into is how those things have affected our loved ones. We're often polarized enough by our own problems to forget they influence the lives of those close to us—but they do.
So, I sought to hear from the family members, partners, and friends of those who suffer from addiction. That can mean anything from alcohol, drugs, and sex to gambling or an eating disorder. (Ed. note: Some professionals have suggested anorexia is an addiction just like substance abuse. "The patterns common to both include: loss of control, preoccupation with the abused substance, use of the substance to cope with stress and negative feelings, secrecy, and maintenance of the behavior despite harmful consequences," says Karin Jasper, PhD. In my case, the abused substance was food, or lack thereof.)
Here, we hear from six people on how they've experienced eating disorders as well as alcohol and drug abuse by proxy. Read their thoughtful words below.
"I am currently in a relationship (four years and going strong) with someone in recovery from drugs and alcohol. My girlfriend celebrated eight years of sobriety last January and has been sober throughout our relationship. She was open about her recovery and talked about it on our first date. I think for her, that's essential, as she does not and cannot, for her own sobriety, be around people who casually use or abuse drugs. She knows that I drink on occasion, which is something we discussed and that she is comfortable with.
"For me, the honesty and integrity she has cultivated through her active recovery have made this relationship the most emotionally intimate and eye-opening of my life. Her familiarity with treatment and 12-step programs enabled her to encourage me to seek help for the skeletons hiding in my own closet, including my own father's markedly unhealthy relationship with alcohol and the (now) obvious addictions of a former relationship partner. She encouraged me to find a therapist and check out Al-Anon, which is a 12-step group for the families and friends of alcoholics and addicts.
"Her support and encouragement opened my eyes to my own behaviors, experiences, and character flaws, and helped me to work through years of normalized but deeply unhealthy behaviors. I definitely would encourage anyone in a relationship with a recovering addict to check out Al-Anon or a similar support group; it's crucial for understanding some of what your partner may be going through while also maintaining your own sanity and providing a system of support for the unique challenges of loving someone with an addiction.
"I also feel like I should put a disclaimer here because my experience is somewhat of a glowing review. Just because someone is in recovery does not suddenly mean that they are 'fixed' or 'better.' My girlfriend needs to actively work her recovery because she will openly admit that her thinking is warped by her addiction and unhealthy behaviors. In general, though, my relationship with her has helped me to develop a greater sense of what's truly important versus the trivial."
"Watching the roller coaster ride of your child with body image concerns veer from a descent into an eating disorder to surgical image transformation to healthy acceptance is, in and of itself, a difficult journey. Speaking as such a parent, the journey is, at turns, heartbreaking, frustrating, and filled with pride.
"My beautiful daughter was a champion gymnast whose life was filled with extensive athletic practices multiple days a week and competitions every weekend. Her league ended in the eighth grade, and her sudden secession from an athlete's life corresponded with the onslaught of all the physical and emotional upheavals of adolescence. Not surprisingly, at least to me, there were drastic changes to her body image, added weight, curves where there had been none, and a near cataclysmic concern about how she appeared to others. All of which, two years later, resulted in a call from the school guidance counselor that my daughter's friends had expressed their worry that she was evincing an eating disorder and losing too much weight.
"From my perspective, my daughter seemed happier; she lost weight, she was excited about trying on clothes, talking to me more, but, I then found out, obviously hiding her emotional turmoil. Although we had touched on the subject of her weight, I hadn't had the 'big talk' about it, nor had I mentioned it repeatedly. I didn't take notes on what she was eating when perhaps because we were a fairly typical family of two working parents and two kids involved in their own activities. Should I have been more vigilant? It is hard to say; she seemed so much happier. Nonetheless, we found a therapist with experience in treating adolescents, which, best of all, opened up lines of communication between us, even as to when to listen to the therapist's suggestions or not, and when to stop the visits.
"In the years that followed, my daughter thankfully began eating again, but this time engaged in unhealthy eating indulgences which eventually led to negative body image beliefs. We were back on the roller coaster. The greatest insight, for both of us, I think, was when she insisted on getting breast reduction surgery. This is what really hit me in the face; this was what made me question me as a role model to my daughter. Didn't I come across as a successful woman who is large-breasted but in no way limited me in terms of perceived attractiveness, attainment of career goals, or athletic prowess? How could my daughter feel so ugly, so held back mentally and physically by a natural attribute that we shared? I refused to pay for it—I was aghast at the mere thought.
"And yet, we both found our way. My daughter researched, talked to people, looked into insurance coverage, and made it happen. I realized that her surgery was not about me but about her control over her body image. Our relationship became easier—more trusting, more open. She wanted me at the hospital when she went for the surgery, and I was there every step of the way. We both took pride in her resourcefulness, her courage, and her new look. Finding her strength in making the surgery happen has given her the self-confidence and insight to temper her body image concerns and paved the way to her career success and personal happiness."
"I started dating Travis in the spring of 2015. We met on Tinder, and it was like stars aligned—the banter was off the charts, and I fell into it deep. The first night we hung out was one of those fairytale stay-up-all-night-talking-and-watch-the-sunrise-on-the-roof situations. He knocked back a serious amount of beers, but since it was over the course of, like, seven hours, I didn't think too much of it. (Disclaimer: I've always been a lightweight and max out after about two or three drinks regardless of how long I'm out, so I sometimes have trouble gauging what a 'problematic' amount of drinks is.)
"We continued to see each other, and it got serious pretty fast, partially because I was moving at the end of the summer. With an imminent breakup on the horizon, I let a lot of things that would have been absolute deal-breakers slide. Things like being hours late to hang out because he was so hungover, making up pointless lies, and even drunk-driving with me as a passenger. One afternoon, he picked me up and was acting goofier than usual, and he said it was because he hadn't eaten that day. We went to get smoothies, and he was back to normal. It wasn't until the next week when he cracked open a bottle of some blueberry-flavored pale ale while he was driving us to lunch that I found out he had been drinking with me in the car the week before. I totally went off on him. I was seething. I couldn't believe he could be so careless about my safety, his own, or the infinite number of other people on the road. I couldn't believe I could be so naive.
"After that meltdown, he started to clean up his act. He started drinking much less around me and definitely stopped drunk-driving with me as a passenger. As I got to know him more, I found out that his dad was an alcoholic—had numerous DUIs and had done some really fucked-up things when Travis was a kid. I tried to gently cajole Travis into going to therapy and continued to call him out when his behavior veered into shittiness, trying to reinforce how much I valued him and his health. I even gifted him Janet Woititz's Adult Children of Alcoholics (excellent read, by the way), saying I had stumbled across it at a friend's house. He was receptive but never quite took the steps to go to therapy or AA; he didn't think his drinking was as much of a problem as I did.
"After I moved, we fell into this fraught long-distance relationship. He seemed like he was getting his life together—got a new job, stopped kicking it with his most alcoholic friends, etc. The distance also allowed me time for deep reflection. Was I devoid of self-confidence for dealing with his trash behavior? Had I enabled him to continue drinking by not letting deal-breakers be deal-breakers? Would he spiral into even worse behavior without me as an emotional support? (Don't even get me started on unpaid emotional labor.) Did I have a savior complex?
"We broke up after over a year of dating long-distance and are still friends. In our last conversation, he told me that he had even gone to an AA meeting. Though he hasn't fully committed to the program, he's at least acknowledging his drinking problem. I think after dating me, he realized that his behavior (as well as his father's) was definitely not healthy. One of the hardest parts of dating a person with alcoholism is confronting how dangerous drinking habits are totally normalized and often reinforced by their family and social circles. And ultimately know that you can't force them to change. They have an extremely long and hard battle to fight, and their falterings and failings are not a reflection of your own worth."
"My father died of drug and alcohol addiction when I was 19. The most important thing is to know that you are not responsible for anyone else's life or actions. You also cannot change another person (think for a second how hard it is even just to change yourself). You can just love them and support them when/if they seek help. My Al-Anoncounselorr told me something powerful: 'There is no law in the world against self-destruction.' It made me feel far less burdened and accountable for 'fixing' my dad.
"I feel my experience with my dad definitely made me stronger. That's what struggle does. It reveals to you how strong you are and how—even when the unthinkable happens (death)—you still live. Grief is a suffering of its own, but it's not the end.
"I don't have regrets, because I loved and accepted my dad for who he was. I spent a lot of time with him. He knew I loved him, and I didn't judge him. That's all that people who love addicts can do."
"When I was 20 years I old, I fell in love (properly) for the first time, in England where I grew up. He was 19 and from America, so different from any other guy I had met. We came from different backgrounds but bonded instantly. He'd call me a posh girl, and I loved his slang lingo. We were always all over each other in public, and everyone branded us the crazy fun couple.
"Joe and I went to raves and parties and took our fair share of 'party favors'; that was it for me. However, he enjoyed smoking weed daily, something I wasn't really interested in. We both went to America for the summer and rented a little apartment in Brooklyn. He was always heading back to his hometown in VA for a few days. He said his friend needed him badly; he was using heroin and was in and out of jail cells. This kind of information trickled into my life over the course of our relationship, so by now someone using heroin two degrees of separation away wasn't really shocking to me.
"I noticed money missing from my clothes drawers, I mentioned it to him, but nothing really came of it. I was working cash in hand at a bar, so there were quite a few $20 bills floating around the apartment. Deep down, I probably knew something was awry, but we were buzzing around New York, so I was living my best life!
"He started talking about oxycontin, saying this girl could get it for him in VA. I tried it and realized how out of this world it made you feel. I did it a few times, then realized I didn't like being that comatose. A few crazy things happened [that summer], all a far cry from my teenage years spent in the West of Ireland, but I always liked a bad boy. I noticed little marks on his arm from time to time, asked what they were; he said it was eczema.
"Fast-forward to the end of the summer when we were both supposed to be going back to England. He said he was going to stay in America for a few months to make some money. I was close to his best friend (let's call him Mark), and my boyfriend called Mark to ask to look after me while he was in America.
"He looked after me a little too well, and we had a fling. In hindsight, I think I was trying to get out of the relationship, but Mark was madly in love with me. When Joe came back, we told him the deal; naturally, he flipped out. Mark was adamant we would be together forever. Joe was pleading with me to get back together. At this time, he told me he was injecting heroin; he was almost using this against me to try to get me back. He was really hurting, pounding on my apartment door in the middle of the night, screaming my name. I was so worried; I'd go to his apartment and I'd see cups of blood with spoons and needles in them. He said he'd keep them there as a reminder to not use again. I wasn't quite sure how that analogy would work but was devastated. I still loved him and cared for him (as I do now) but was no longer in love with him.
"He went back to America and went into a pretty bad place, which involved being in jail for selling cocaine to a police officer. I later found out he was sleeping with the girl who he got the Oxycontin from, so he could get free drugs.
"Years later, we are casually in contact via Instagram. He congratulated me on my marriage and told me he wanted to propose to his girl soon. (Sidebar: I did not marry Mark. He threatened suicide several times when we broke up. I thought perhaps I should start avoiding the bad boys after that.) I regret cheating on Joe; he made me feel awful about it, but we were both doing bad things to one another without even knowing it. Joe (now sober and doing really well!) says he basically drove me into Marks' arms, and he hates the way he treated me. I don't think either of us did anything worse than the other person. I enabled his addiction, and he abused my love for him. Aside from my infidelity, I wouldn't change anything.
"My experience was an eye-opening one while growing up into a young woman. It was probably my most devastating breakup, for him also. We both learned all the things not to do in a relationship, and the only way was up from there on. I look back on our time fondly, as one does most relationships, you forget all the bad stuff. I often wonder what would have happened if we stayed together. Was our breakup the one thing that kept him alive and me sober?"
"Both my parents are addicts. Being relatively young (and because my dad was excellent at hiding his addiction), I didn't really know about either addiction until it was far too late. Until I realized it, I just thought my parents were being weird.
"Two weeks shy of my 13th birthday, I awoke to get ready for school to find my father keeled over, passed out, fully nude, in the downstairs bathroom with a needle in his arm.
"My father was never a great dad. That is, he was awesome but was too wrapped up in work (he was an ER doctor in the Bronx) to be much of a dad. He was always a cool guy with cool interests and taste. And I always looked up to him. Boy, did I look up to him, even if I didn't get to see him much. And then I wasn't seeing him at all. Between leaving for an Arizona treatment facility and being kicked out of the house by my stepmom, he was suddenly even farther away. And for years, I stewed.
"I was mad at Mom for being too present, mad at teachers for being too restrictive, mad at peers for being dumb, mad at myself for being weird. But mostly, I was mad at Dad. For taking away years from our relationship (and my relationships with my half-siblings and stepmom), for lying to the whole family, for allowing something like heroin to take over his life even if he had done it relatively stealthily. For letting me think he was this awesome guy when he was just another deadbeat dad.
"Mom and I got closer than ever throughout the next four to five years. She taught me a lot. Everything, really. Cooking, cleaning, knitting, singing, editing, writing, art, clothing. We did everything together. There were the obvious high school dramas, but we were a pretty awesome, tiny family. We were a team.
"And then, suddenly, I realized Mom was an addict too. Nothing so dramatic as heroin addiction. But slowly, especially during college, I saw that Mom was drinking too much, that her actions were becoming more erratic, that her relationships with friends and family were strained. My pillar, my rock, was coming undone, and I didn't know how to deal with it. Part of this was related to her own health problems (she's been plagued by a number of autoimmune disease, including a particularly vicious strain of rheumatoid arthritis), her love of a glass of wine (or two or three or four), and not wanting the first to get in the way of the second. My almost always terrible reactions to this were always justified, never dignified, and rarely useful. I was already sad, so why did Mom have to compound things? Didn't she know what happened to Dad? Can't she just be better? Can't she be the good parent?
"It got so bad that I refused to call Mom on the phone, knowing (rightfully or otherwise) that she'd be unhinged, unpleasant. Suddenly I was the asshole. And that's when I bit the bullet and started calling her almost daily. I think it meant a lot to her, just knowing that I wasn't comfortable talking with her a few months back and now was making a much bigger effort to be a part of her life. Other people were reaching out and trying to tell her how much they cared and how she should stop. And that's not a solution for everyone. I'm surprised that it worked. I'm sure she'll falter, but recently she's been a different person. An awesome person. The mom that I once knew.
"Now, we're all in a place of relative stability. Dad lives pretty comfortably with his disabilities (his heroin overdose rendered him largely blind and with serious nerve damage in his hands). Mom has acknowledged and begun addressing her alcoholism and seems genuinely happier, healthier, safer than she did 18 months ago. My relationship with each of them is better than it has been in years. I actually feel like I have parents now, not just adults I have to interface with from time to time.
"I wish I hadn't been a kid when this all happened. I wish I had the smarts and skills to see things for what they were then. I wish I hadn't let years of my life go by without connecting with and sustaining relationships with the other people affected by my parents' addictions (my half-siblings, my stepmom, my cousins, my uncles). I wish I knew how to curtail my own addictive and destructive tendencies. I wish I could have my childhood back so that my adulthood wouldn't have to be so desperate and sad. I wish I taken some time between high school and college to actually reflect upon myself and what I was looking for in my life rather than blindly jumping into more schooling. That said, I like myself, I like my life, I like the choices I've made (most of them). I'm glad I am who I am. I wouldn't know the things or the people I know.
"I struggled for years with happiness and depression and addiction and self-worth. And much of my life I allowed myself to succumb to them. Largely because I didn't think I was worth it. And I didn't think I was worth other people's time or love. But now, I can say that I love myself. And I love my parents. Very much.
"Dealing with addiction is incredibly difficult. When it's your family members and loved ones, even more so. Try to find people to talk to. Guidance counselors, friends, other family, a teacher. Know your limits, stick to them, and be willing to find moments to break them (as long as you're comfortable). People are the best comforter. Not the internet. But actual people. My friends, my relationships, my heroes got me out of my spiraling depression. Realizing I needed to vent made me learn more about the things I like, made me pick up a guitar, made me pick up a frying pan, made me read books. And it also made it clear what friends I wanted around. Putting things down on paper (literally and otherwise) is incredibly cathartic and has been an amazing way for me to grapple with my life, my emotions, my family, my choices.
"I used to say 'I regret X, Y, and Z.' But I try not to think in those terms these days. Though there are things I wish I could take back, I'm not sure I regret them. I just now have better guidelines for what I no longer am willing or capable of doing. I still make bad decisions. Most days. But I'm hoping that I can come up with better solutions the next time I might be in a position to make that same decision."
If you are struggling with addiction and are in need of support, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357. If you are feeling symptoms of depression, talk to your doctor to learn more about treatment options.