I remember he was crying. For weeks he’d been sweaty and shaking, but the crying made it different. The crying changed the sweating and shaking into something I could no longer explain in my head as work stress, too much caffeine, or any of the other excuses I’d devised.
“I’ve been using again and I need to go to rehab.”
As the long-term partner and spouse of an addict, I’ve lived this moment multiple times. And every time, it feels like a surprise. Every time is new and sudden and knocks all the wind from me, until I’m breathless and plummeting. Every time feels like the first time, even when the motions have become routine.
My husband and I met in high school. We were each other’s first loves and we fell hard in a way that nothing and no one else could ever compare to. We broke up three or four times over the years, but even when I was single, he was all I wanted. No one else ever made sense to me — their kisses didn’t even feel like they fit my mouth. But even in our happiest moments, something wasn’t right. He got drunker than other people. He smoked more weed than other people. While I can certainly put away a few glasses of wine, drug or drink have never been a big part of my life. But we’d been together so long that his drinking and drug use — to my knowledge just marijuana and the occasional shroom — felt normal, because he had shaped my idea of normal. But as we got older and became working adults, my idea of normal shifted. His didn’t.
By the time we were 25, he was well into the throws of a full-blown addiction to alcohol. He would disappear for hours under the guise of shopping with his parents or working on a research paper for his master’s program, and I believed him. When money disappeared from our bank account and credit cards mysteriously maxed out, I’d assume that it was because we were just bad with money. He would be unmotivated and sleep all the time, then have big bursts of energy and excess that I found thrilling but scary in a way I didn’t understand. The bursts got more and more frequent, erupting into fights that only I’d remember we had. I cried all the time.
On the first Christmas after we got engaged, he told me he needed to go to get help. He called a rehab facility, they made travel arrangements, and a few days later, he was gone. I remember that part being so easy. The facility handled detox, insurance, everything. The only thing for me to handle was the pain.
There was no parsable feeling or word that could describe how I felt at that moment. I felt nothing and the nothing was overwhelming. Like my ability to feel had broken and there was only this massive nothing so great that it was creating a vacuum effect. And I still know that feeling. Because it would come back again and again.
My husband hasn’t touched alcohol since the first time he went to rehab. But that didn’t stop him from becoming addicted to cocaine four years later.
By the time I had all the information, I was dealing with it completely alone, not even able to talk to him on the phone.
By this time, we were married and had a 2-year-old daughter. He was sweaty and manic (he’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder). And I knew something was off. But when I would ask about it, I was met with confusion and accusations of not trusting him. I had no idea what was actually happening until he came back in the house after a very long cigarette break. He was having a panic attack, something I’d never seen him have before. In between sobs, he told me he’d been doing cocaine and needed to go to rehab. Before I could even process what he had told me, he was gone. He checked in the next morning.
For the addict, leaving like this is necessary. They need to go get help while they are cognizant enough to act on that clarity. But it felt cruel. I found out my husband was addicted to cocaine and had relapsed at his best friend’s bachelor party a few months prior, that our bank account had been drained of thousands of dollars in the few months he was using and that we were in dire financial troubles — all in a matter of a few hours. By the time I had all the information, I was dealing with it completely alone, not even able to talk to him on the phone. And unlike when he went to rehab for his alcoholism, this time I had to think about the fact that he’d held our daughter while high. That she had seen him this way and now he was gone and she didn’t know why.
There were a lot of things I wanted for my kids: for them to be kind, funny, to have his gentle heart. But what I wanted most was for them to never see their father during a period he was using. I wanted them to never be affected by these addictions. During his second time in rehab, I could at least tell myself that she was young, that she would hopefully never remember.
But the next time he left for rehab, she was about to turn five. Our son was just a year old. This time it was pills, benzodiazepines, and, again, I had no idea. For a few months, he was always sleeping, always immobile on the couch. I had believed it was just a bad medication reaction, that he was in a bad depressive phase. But sometimes barely able to lift his head.
Each time my husband relapses is different in it’s own horrible way, but there are some things that always remain horribly the same, too. There is no time to feel or to grieve or to react. Instead, there is paperwork and phone calls to our insurance company, plane tickets. I generally have half a day from finding out my life is broken to figuring out how to hold all the pieces together. My exterior always remains silent, immobile, but inside of my skin, I’m screaming. The world is burning and I hate him. But my skin stays still. Because there are bills to pay, a house to take care of, and two little humans who don’t understand what’s happening, who I swore I would never let see him like this.
My life broke and I couldn’t do anything about it.
My daughter is on the autism spectrum, and struggles with interruptions to her routine. Something like this is a shift to her entire existence. Each time she cried and lashed out, and wouldn’t let me leave her side. My son was so little, but he knew something was wrong. He cried so much, biting me out of frustration and confusion. But they still needed to go to school and eat and exist in this world as humans like we all do. I remember explaining to my daughter’s teacher that something was going on at home (I think those are even the words I used) straining my face to remain as neutral as possible, trying not to cry. To watch my kids go through life’s normal motions in a world that no longer made sense to them killed me.
But at a certain point, trauma becomes a form of normal. To this day, I can’t look at my bank account without a panic attack, because that transaction list, along with a series of totally typical daily purchases — sushi lunches and Starbucks runs — once showed the cash withdrawals that left us in debt. At times in our house, there is this specific combination of smells — cigarette smoke mixed with brewed coffee, freshly mowed lawn and summer humidity — that smells enough like marijuana to make my whole body go on alert. There are trigger words and phrases and moods and memories that catch me off guard and launch me back into a rage and terror spiral. As though I have to batten down the hatches because the storm is already here. Because this happened to us. We could not and cannot control it. My life broke and I couldn’t do anything about it.
When something breaks — a vase, a statue, a picture frame — if you’re lucky, you can put it back together. When it keeps breaking, there is no repairing it. It’s gone. And that’s what we were. After this last time, I couldn’t imagine ever being OK. I couldn’t imagine forgiving, and there would never be forgetting. I stopped feeling any sort of affection toward him — I stopped feeling all together.
That’s the thing about addiction — it dominates. It dominated most of my life, and it entirely dominated his. To the point where in my anger and trauma, I forgot that he is not his addiction. Because he is truly so good. He is warm. When he listens to me talk about my day, I can see every bit of him listening to me and caring about what I say. He is endlessly kind and gentle. He can make me laugh no matter how sad or angry I am. He loves helping people, and he’s good at it — he’s worked for years in community mental health, providing care to populations with the greatest need and least access.
Through it all, I don’t want him out of my story.
And he hurts too. Every bit of this story, every horrific painful moment that I endured, he did, too. And even the ones he can’t remember, the ones soaked in drugs and alcohol, he lives every day with the knowledge they happened. He looks at our precious children and knows there are memories he never wanted them to have either. Through it all, I don’t want him out of my story. He is more than his addiction, and we are more than our pain.
We couldn’t fix what had broken. We can’t change what happened. We had to build something new.
Deciding to stay, to make us work is more than this whole-hearted epiphany. After everything we’ve been through, it’s taken a coordinated effort. We did couples counseling, and I go to therapy on my own. My counselor makes me feel heard and safe, something I didn’t realize I so desperately needed.
I went to Al-Anon, but didn’t like it or rather I did not like the group I went to at the time. There was a high school mean girl vibe, cliques that dominated the program. At the time it made me angry, but I know now that they were hurting too, and the control they grasped for was that group.
I go to my psychiatrist on a routine basis and check in to make sure my medication is helping, getting it adjusted or added to when things are better or worse. I will always need these medications, and that’s OK.
I write online about what I’m going through, about even the most personal terrifying details, because I know someone else will feel heard and know they’re not alone. Because alone is the thing that I’ve felt most throughout these three 30-day-or-so periods. Alone because the person I love most in this world becomes something other than my perception, or whatever else describes this strange loss only those who’ve experienced it can truly understand.
I hug my kids, and I make sure they know they’re loved and special and that they matter and that I will never, never let them feel the kind of aloneness I have felt. And I will fear that I am lying, because I can’t control it all. But I have to try.
I hug my husband. I hold his hand, and I make sure he knows I’m here. I’m honest. I tell the truth. And I still cry. I cried throughout our marriage counseling sessions, I cry when we fight, I cry when I see shame in his eyes, knowing how much he regrets so much of this. I want to make this work. Whatever that means. Whether we’re ultimately together, or apart (because I know another relapse is not impossible), we are changed by what we’ve been through together — even though it often felt like I was going through it alone.