I was the support person and wife to an addict for 11 years. We had many good times, and many not so good times. You see… addictions are like a cancer. Often undetectable for long periods of time, they don’t seem to be hurting anyone. Inevitably, symptoms will appear and, left unchecked and untreated, what once would have been a growth that was “operable” will extend its malignant tendrils far and wide--resulting in certain death.
I didn’t know of this “cancer” before we got married. My then husband did confide in me a few months after we were married of his addiction that began in his early teens. As he shared his struggle, he was full of mortification, shame, and remorse. He was filled with fearful anticipation to see how I reacted to his account. The information he shared was a complete shock to me. At the time I’d thought there were no symptoms of such a trial as he concealed so well the festering storm that raged inside him. With misery-filled eyes looking at me, he waited for my judgement and anger… I’ve rarely seen such vulnerability. I could see it was tearing him apart… my heart was filled with compassion and I comforted him. I thought he was brave for telling me, and I wanted to help him. We would conquer this together.
Over the next few years we tried many things: individual therapy, couples therapy, group therapy, support groups, seeking guidance from religious leaders, and even a hypnotherapist. We did not, however, confide in our family or close friends of these challenges. We struggled alone with occasional support or guidance from professionals or church leaders.
In some ways I yearned for the support of our family and friends, and in others I was relieved that no one else knew. I was very protective of “our” secret. I was full of fearful trepidation. What would happen if they knew? Maybe they wouldn’t accept us, maybe they would even shun us. The pain that came from the idea was unbearable… It had to remain a secret. I told no one. He didn’t want anyone to know. We could take care of it ourselves. I had made my choice: I would live with this burden in my marriage with the hope that someday we would be free of it, and I would conceal my heartache from everyone I knew.
In my experience, the best way to disguise misery, pain, and fear is to dress yourself prettily with a smile and a cheerful disposition. How could anyone so outfitted ever be seen as miserable? They wouldn’t, or so I told myself. I felt the secret I had committed to keep was safe.
Years passed. At times there seemed to be hope in sight for a better future, but then the fleeting hope would pass. Keeping the secret of my spouse's addiction became the defining act of my life. I would do anything to protect it. If ever an occasion came up that threatened to expose any aspect of the secret I kept I would deliver excuses, white-lies, and sometimes even out-right lies. I hated it. I knew our family and friends would either think us flaky or maybe not notice anything amiss. I’d rather they think we weren’t reliable than know the truth--it was by far the lesser of the two evils. I don’t know how long it had been happening, but one day it dawned on me I was regularly making choices between the lesser of two evils… I gave a hard look at my life and the person I had become: liar, coward, push-over, flake, procrastinator, co-dependent, unreliable. All ugly labels. All true. It didn’t matter how skillfully I applied makeup, styled my hair, or picked just the right clothes… I felt heavy and hideous, inside and out.
Over time the “cancer” had taken its toll. I made my choices on how to deal with it. While my motivations came from a loving and caring place, my actions took me down a path that felt like a disease where the symptoms were shame, guilt, fear, anxiety, and depression. There was a lot of collateral damage along the way, including my own loss of self-respect. Overall, I got really good at surviving… until one day I couldn’t do it anymore.
I left my friend, spouse, and companion of 11 years. I turned my back on the commitment I had made to stay forever, to help him through thick and thin. I had failed him, myself... I failed us. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was horrible, heart-wrenching, my tears could’ve filled buckets… It was the best thing I ever did for us… Later, he acknowledged my leaving was the wake up call he needed, and he sincerely thanked me for it. I then began the arduous task of reclaiming myself, the woman I had been before I’d lost my self-respect… it felt like that woman was no more. Feeling lost but determined, I was tired of just living to survive. I would find a way to thrive.
Little by little I came to terms with my choices and where they lead me. I reached out to family and friends and reconnected with the people who love me. They accepted me with open arms, but I knew I needed to accept myself. It was scary, but as I moved forward into a realm of self-acceptance I was confronted over and over by my memories of past choices and mistakes. I looked at them, tried to analyze with a clinical eye and extract what useful lessons I could, and then set them aside. I didn’t want to think about them anymore. I had moved on.
A few close friends who had each helped me through the difficult time after my divorce spoke to me on different occasions about the progress they had seen in me. But they could tell I was still unforgiving towards myself about my past. This troubled me. I was honestly trying to move forward. I’d been accountable to myself about my past actions. I’d resolved to make new choices going forward. What more was there?
One day while scanning my Facebook feed I came across the story of a woman who’d suffered a great loss and the toll it took on her. I felt a connection from my own experiences of sadness and grief. I contacted her and thanked her for sharing her vulnerable story. I was invited to join the project she was working on.
I didn’t really know what to expect other than I would share my story and have a photo taken. It was simple, yet terrifying… but I had committed in my new life to not back away from things because of fear. I showed up, shared my story, and was handed a piece of yellow lined paper and invited to write a letter to myself… I froze.
I have demonstrated great compassion and love towards others, even those who have hurt and betrayed me; but I had yet to extend that great compassion I am capable of… toward myself. The truthfulness of those thoughts burned within me and I began the thaw. I began to write what would become the most influential letter I’ve ever written in my life...
I had not allowed myself the compassion and forgiveness I had willingly given others. As I wrote, my mind provided me with an array of memories, each of them seemingly waiting their turn in line to be presented for my perusal. I “saw” myself from a year ago, two years ago, five years ago and so on. I saw a woman who tried her best, a woman who was kind and thoughtful, loyal and loving, I wanted to hug her and tell her I knew she had done the best she could and I thought she was amazing for her perseverance and faith in her trials. She was brave… she was beautiful.
I loved my husband. I wanted to protect and shield him from the judgment and rejection he feared. My intentions were loyal, but ill judged. The cloak of secrecy I kept wrapped tightly around us allowed the “cancer” to grow and spread unchecked throughout every aspect of our relationship until it was terminal. If I could go back I would tell that brave, beautiful woman to focus less on protecting the secret, and deal with the addiction in an honest open way.
The progress and healing I have seen in my ex-husband in the time we’ve been apart came as a result of a great deal of effort and change on his part. I give him credit for fighting that battle I always knew he could win. As he begins a new chapter in his life, he does so having become a stronger and better man.
I made choices, I made mistakes, I am a work in progress, imperfectly perfect. The woman I was before my journey was not lost. She is a part of me, and everything we both experienced is part of what makes me… me. Beautiful.