Spend any time in a recovery support group and one of the first things you’ll hear is that addiction is a family disease. The addict is sick, certainly, but the “disease of addiction” affects the entire family. Everybody is sick. No one is immune.
When you’re the non-addict in the family, especially if your loved one is in recovery’s infancy, the revelation that you are also sick feels like an unfair — and, depending on the delivery, downright offensive — accusation. How can I be sick when I’m not the one with the “problem,” the one who is (or has been) actively destroying everything around me?
And yet, it was an undeniable, simple truth. I was sick, too.
No, I didn’t drink or abuse drugs. Heck, I even avoid caffeine. In many ways, my sickness was more insidious, though, because it was so easily masked by the role of a long-suffering caretaker. You see, the hard truth is that addicts (especially those pesky “high-functioning addicts”) don’t get years into their addiction(s) without help. They’ve often masterfully developed an intricate support system of enablers — yes, I still hate that word — who assist, cover, supply, support, and excuse. Maybe it’s done out of love, at least in the beginning, or later out of protection or even embarrassment, but the involvement of this support system is necessary for the addiction to flourish.
I was more than involved. I was enmeshed.
I was both a victim of the destruction and a partner in it. As a result, the addiction had come to define not just my wife, but it defined me and also our marriage. In that defining, it isolated us from the world. At first, I allowed myself to believe in the twisted romance of it all — it’s us against the world, baby — until I began to realize that the romanticized “partnership” was nothing but a tedious game of smoke and mirrors.
When my wife first started to get help, I was relieved… and then petrified. She had what seemed like a team of recovery support — counselors, groups, meetings, sponsors — all tasked with this new mission of getting and keeping her sober. But I was still isolated. I was left completely gutted by the experience, too ashamed (proud?) to get help for myself, and too overwhelmed to know where to begin.
The months that would follow — those first few months of my wife’s sobriety — were the darkest of my life. Even now, years later, I struggle with putting it all into words and I still tear up when I try. Looking back, I know that it was a deep depression, although that seems like an unfathomable realization when you’re in the midst of it. Much of it remains a blur. I know there were times when I would find myself driving home late at night, daydreaming about speeding off the side of the road into the river. I sobbed in the shower. Every shower, until it couldn’t have been possible for there to be more tears. When chasing (the always elusive) sleep, I sometimes prayed that I’d drift off and simply not wake up. It was a profound, soul-crushing pain that I hope to never experience again.
And here’s an uncomfortable truth for you. During that time early in my wife’s sobriety, there were moments when I wished she would start using again. It would have been easier, I rationalized, than the pain of deconstruction. I’d lost everything that defined me, so I thought, and I just couldn’t risk losing even more. On top of it all, I was worried that I wouldn’t love the new sober version of her… and more worried that she wouldn’t love me. I hadn’t been warned that often times in recovery, it gets worse before it can begin to get better… and, at least for us, it got exponentially worse.
There wasn’t an exact moment when I began to see light again. Unfortunately, I have no step-by-step guide to share for digging your way out of the mire. I know that some small things — the unconditional love of our dogs, silly as that sounds, one or two friends who said just the right thing at the right time or maybe knew when to say nothing at all, and my father and brother taking me golfing on Sundays as if it were the most natural thing for us to do — made a difference more than any of the aforementioned will ever know. Those moments sustained me in a time when I felt like I was teetering on the edge of personal destruction. Those moments pulled me back.
There has been a lot of difficult, soul-searching work since that time. The task of rebuilding, or recovery, continues. It’s a process, I’ve learned, and you have to learn to walk the balance between participation in the work and a certain surrender to the unknown. What I can tell you, though, is that yes, “recovery is possible” for someone struggling with addiction — my wife is proof of that — but I also know that recovery is possible for those who found themselves drowning in addiction’s wake.