(by Libby S* – name changed to maintain anonymity)
My first experience of addiction, and the chaos that comes with it, was as a child when a close family member was battling an eating disorder…
At the time I didn’t understand what was happening, I just knew that this person was unpredictable and often angry and I learned to walk on eggshells around them, or in my worse moments deliberately provoke them, maybe to take back some sense of control. I learned that emotions were loud and scary and best avoided, I learned to control mine and suppress them when possible.
My next encounter with addition was when I fell in love for the first time
I was young and naïve, and I didn’t recognise the warning signs. After all, when you are wearing rose tinted glasses, red flags just look like flags. His family was upper middle class, had responsible jobs, were well educated and loving. This was not the picture I had in my mind of alcoholics/addicts so it was a while before I realised that he was from a family of addicts, and I was in denial for a long time before I realised that he too was an alcoholic.
Over the course of our relationship he obviously binged on alcohol and did stupid reckless things, but he also lied constantly, cheated (as I found out later) and even stole. I knew about some of this, so why did I stay with him?
Why didn’t I just leave?
The answer to that is complicated but a big part of it was that he had several excellent strategies, commonly used by addicts, to keep me on the back foot.
1. Firstly, he was incredibly charming and outgoing to everyone else
My family adored him, my friends became his friends and he would tell anyone who would listen how much he loved me.
His family and I were the only ones to see his darker side, but he charmed me too. Every time I came to the point of feeling ready to break up with him, he would always know the perfect thing to say to melt my anger. He wrote the most beautiful love letters and I kept forgiving him.
At the time I thought that this was because he really understood me, now I realise he was manipulating me, and everyone else.
2. Secondly, he would gaslight me
If you haven’t heard that expression before it comes from the 1944 Ingrid Bergman film where the villain persuades the protagonist that she is losing her mind.
Deep in my gut, I knew I couldn’t trust him, but he gradually chipped away at my sense of what was real. When I would raise concerns about his behaviour, he would tell me that I was paranoid and overreacting, that I was the one with a problem because I couldn’t trust him.
Over time, he convinced me that I was indeed paranoid and that I shouldn’t trust my own judgements about people. This made me feel more dependent on him; how could anyone else love such a neurotic shrew?
3. The third tactic was to keep me on the defensive and simultaneously distract me by picking fights about irrelevant or imaginary issues
We fought about so many trivial things, so often, that I can’t remember what any of those fights was about. I just know that we fought all the time. At the time I persuaded myself that we fought because we both cared so much, and I was trying to save the relationship.
I believed that all relationships required hard work and that it was my duty to work hard to fix us, and to fix him.
My responses to his drinking were not constructive
I enabled his addiction by keeping it a secret. I used our mutual friends to spy on him and dragged them into the mess. I made empty threats which just made him more confident he could get away with anything. I nagged and scolded.
At one point I even ‘made’ him write up and sign a contract promising that he would never again overindulge in alcohol. Of course, that promise was not worth the paper it was written on. I did everything I could think of to control his drinking, and nothing worked.
Over the years, his addictive behaviour increased, our fighting increased, and I became more embittered and resentful. After all the effort I had put into helping him, I was astounded when he started to grumble about how I was no fun, cramping his style and ruining his social life. He made it very clear that he wanted to take drugs and get drunk and he wasn’t going to stop for me. I broke up with him then, feeling that he obviously didn’t love me enough, or he would have stopped.
I was not the only one
There was a long time between that break-up and finding Al-Anon (a story for another day) but soon after I joined, I learned from stories of others in the group that my experience was really common and quite typical for a relationship with an addict. I no longer felt so alone, I’d found people who I didn’t need to explain myself to; they understood.
I couldn’t have controlled him, no matter what
I’ve learnt many valuable things since joining, perhaps one of the most important was that I couldn’t have controlled his drinking no matter what I did. He was powerless over alcohol and so was I. When I clung to control, I was clinging to a comforting illusion, but it was never more than that. I didn’t cause his addiction, I couldn’t control it, and I certainly couldn’t cure it. That was all out of my hands.
Love does not conquer all
Another valuable lesson I learn from that relationship I was only able to fully grasp years later, and it came to me as an epiphany during a meeting. Love does not conquer all. For years I believed that if my first love had just loved me enough, he would have stopped drinking and drugging. But it was never about love, he was in the grip of an incredibly powerful disease. Love cannot cure disease, as much as we would like it to. I could not have loved him into sobriety just as I cannot love away diabetes. When I finally accepted that, I felt a huge weight of responsibility lifting off my shoulders and that was a big step towards my own serenity.
I’ve come a long way since joining Al-Anon, and one of the most comforting aspects of the programme is that I don’t have to abide by anyone else’s recovery schedule or do anything I’m not ready for. There is no pressure on me to think or be a certain way, there is just comfort and support while I am working though my individual issues.
Since I’ve been part of Al-Anon, my mind keeps wondering to an allegory I heard years ago
A woman is walking along and falls down a hole in the ground. She can’t climb out, so she calls for help. A doctor comes along hearing hear calls. He writes a prescription, throws it down the hole, and keeps walking.
A while later a clergyman comes along and hears her cries for help. He says a prayer for her and keeps walking. After what feels like hours, a friend comes along. The woman cries out for help and the friend jumps into the hole with her.
The woman is outraged. “What are you thinking!” she shouts, “Now we are both stuck in this hole!” “Yes,” says the friend, “but I’ve been here before, and I know the way out.”
Someone else’s drinking can affect your life – be it a relative or friend, male or female. Al-Anon is a mutual support group. We have been helping families and friends in crisis for nearly 70 years.
For more information: www.alanon.org.za
24 hr Helpline: 0861 252 666
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