I recently broke things off with an addict. She may not have been an addict of conventional substances, which is why I didn’t see the pattern for what it was until near the end, but in retrospect, she is — and has been — a classic addict for a long time. And by pattern, I really mean two patterns — her pattern of addiction and my pattern of keeping addicts close. I’ve had four significant relationships with addicts in my life. (Technically three, since the first one died of his addiction a couple months into dating. But if he hadn’t died, who knows how long our relationship would have lasted.)
I don’t know if it’s that I love dating addicts or addicts love dating me, but what I do know is that it’s very hard for me to let them go. In a previous relationship, our dynamic dragged on for a full year after the official relationship had ended because I couldn’t shut the door. I felt responsible. I felt like I needed to nurture and care. I was terrified of abandoning (It wasn’t “what if he needed me?” because he did need me, almost daily). I couldn’t cut the cord. I couldn’t close the door.
When this most recent relationship ended, one of my friends warned me not to repeat that cycle. But how could I repeat that cycle? These were two very different people! But months later, I realized that the cycle had nothing to do with them but with me. I was the one repeating the same behavior. Once again, I couldn’t close the door for fear of being judged guilty of abandonment. I couldn’t let go because she needed me. I couldn’t let go because then I couldn’t save her.
And then I realized that saving her was above my pay grade, that the cycle was mine to break. She wasn’t recognizing her addiction, much less showing any interest in stopping it — so why was it still my problem? In fact, she had her arsenal of justifications for why her addiction was good for her and necessary and okay.
And so it was no longer my problem. Now the work was going to come in seeing and admitting that my problem was now me.
That’s where my recent trips to Al-Anon have come in. Because, as one woman said at this week’s meeting — “I was too busy managing other people to manage myself.”
Yup, that’s me. Caring for myself has always felt indulgent and over-rated and selfish. Why bother doing that when I have people to save? When I have people whose friends or parents aren’t doing their duty, when it’s on me to step up? Isn’t it far important to take care of people who really need it than myself, who is really doing okay?
[Sound of a screeching halt.]
That behavior has got to stop. Not only because it’s a vicious cycle, but because when I’m not taking care of myself, I fall apart — as evidenced from my physical collapse once I did finally close the door on this particular addict at the end of December. Once that happened, I got one cold after another, and I’ve spent most of January sick and in bed. Do you think, just maybe, that that’s my body telling me to STOP IT and TAKE CARE OF MYSELF in great big neon lights?
I recently worked up the nerve to block her phone number — and you wouldn’t believe the issues and anxieties that came with that simple move. We had agreed not to talk anymore (Well, not really agreed, I just said that was what I needed right now, she made a jab about me being not strong enough to see her, which prompted me to take a few deep breaths and remind myself that detachment is a gift I give myself, unlike in previous situations where I would have met her challenge and said, fine, I’ll see you — because of course I CAN — it’s just that I SHOULDN’T), but that was not as absolute an arrangement as I would have liked. We kept texting. I kept getting worked up.
So I blocked her number. Even now, there’s still a little voice in my head that says “what if she needs you?” And even now, I remind myself — I am not her mother. I am not even her best friend. Her need for me is no longer relevant. Her need for me is no longer my responsibility.
The amazing thing about Al-Anon is that you go to these meetings and other people say things about their own experiences, and it’s as if they pulled the words right out of your head. “I was resentful that I had to do the work,” one woman said, complaining that she was going to meetings while her alcoholic boyfriend still refused to go to his — but then she added her own personal epiphany: “Only it’s not a ‘have to’ but a ‘get to.'”
And that’s when I saw the magic. My addict may be in denial about her addiction. I may be resenting the hell out of what she put me through, as well as resenting the fact that I’m seeing it for what it is when she can’t, that I’m now the one going to meetings to work through the trauma of having spent a year of my life on her and her problems She may have her justifications six ways from Sunday, but this isn’t about her anymore. This is about me.
And I finally have the self-awareness to see my own patterns, and I have been given the tools to start working on breaking them. Now I can focus on what’s best for me right now — while trying to remove the selfish stigma that that goal still carries for me.