By Michelle Horton
It’s hard for me to say my husband is “recovering,” as if I might jinx this new, strange stage we’re in. As if maybe he’s not recovering enough, maybe our marriage is still destined to crumble and burn to the ground. It’s touch-and-go, you see.
It’s been three years since my husband admitted that his opiate prescription had turned into a crippling addiction. This came after years of convincing myself I was crazy, and maybe, to some degree, I was. But ending the Denial Years was only an itty-bitty baby step. We still had to make it through the I-Can-Quit-On-My-Own Years, a living hell of at-home detox attempts, with more justifications and lies. Disappearing money. Empty promises. The same old patterns, except this time there was a carrot dangling out of reach, promising that things would get better eventually.
They didn’t, of course. The He-Might-Really-Die Year came, after doctors saw his addiction and pulled his prescriptions. Then came the heroin. He was also frantically crushing and snorting whatever opiates he could find to fend off the sickness — which was really the point. He wasn’t getting high; he was trying to feel normal. And I sympathized to the point of delusion.
Then came the 9-1-1 calls when his breathing all but stopped. The overnight hospital stays, where the umpteenth doctor pulled me aside and explained how close he was to dying. The nights I’d cry in the bathroom alone, wondering how I’d explain his death to his parents, to our young son. At those times, his death seemed more probable than his recovery, and this broke me.
I shattered, and so did my silence.
At that point, I had spent years understanding the whys of his addiction — the childhood roots that he can’t possibly be faulted for, the chronic pain condition that still had to be maintained. (“He’s not a drug addict; he’s a good man suffering through an addiction,” I told myself.) I tried loving away the hate he felt toward himself, as if I could ease the self-inflicted shame and guilt he carried around. As if it were my wifely duty.
I was faithfully there for someone who repeatedly hurt me, in the name of “sickness and in health.” (This was his sickness, right?) Except I was sick, too. Thin from worry, my skin was quickly aging; my 27-year-old hair was turning grey. I had chronic stomach pains and perpetually swollen glands. When my doctor walked into the exam room one day and routinely asked, “How are you?” I erupted into tears. I clearly wasn’t okay.
I wasn’t okay.
This was just about a year ago. (I told you it was all so very new.) It’s hard to believe it’s only been a year, considering how much has changed, how much I’ve changed. I didn’t even know what the term “codependency” meant until last May when I watched the Recovery 2.0 conference (Tommy Rosen, wherever you are, thank you). From there I drove straight to Barnes & Noble and sat down under the “Addiction” bookshelf, exhausted and weak. I flipped through a book called Loving Someone in Recovery by Beverly Berg (MFT, PhD) and discovered the eye-opening truth: I’m a codependent person.
My life came into focus that day, in that aisle, with that book in my lap. It was the start of a domino effect — attending local forums on the “opiate epidemic” strangling our community, sheepishly showing up at an Al-Anon meeting, and finally finding the therapist who would hand me a box of tissues each week as I leaked out tears I didn’t realize I was holding. For the first time in what felt like years, I could exhale deeply. And it felt like freedom.
That’s when the real change started: When I stopped looking at all of the things he had to change, and focused on the things I could change. And as every self-help book will tell you (trust me; I’ve read them all), we can only change ourselves.
To love my spouse, I have to love myself
I don’t know if I’d ever have taken such good care of myself if I wasn’t forced to; if it wasn’t a matter of survival.
My codependence has been groomed from a very early age. As a child, I learned to take care of other people’s emotions and problems — that “other-care” comes before self-care, in the name of being a good person.
I know better now.
Even so, I drew my motivation from someone else: my biggest driver to snap out of my self-defeating, self-neglecting habits was the small child I had to raise. I realized that the very best thing for my son is to have a happy, healthy, stable mom, and so I set out to become that person — with or without my husband.
According to Jerry Moe, vice president and national director of children’s programs for the Betty Ford Center (who I interviewed for Renew last year), “the subtle point that gets missed is that [children of addicts] are also children of codependence.”
Moe points out that research shows that the top factor in diminishing the impact of having an addicted parent is the role of the parent who isn’t chemically dependent. If that person is healthy, taking care of him or herself, then the kids have a much better shot at escaping the cycle of addiction and codependence.
And so I started therapy, committing to a hefty out-of-pocket fee in the name of sanity.
I started meditating and practicing mindfulness, downloading Buddhist teaching podcasts and carving out space for stillness.
I learned to forgive myself, to have compassion for myself — much in the way that I had compassion for my husband’s childhood wounds. We’re all a little broken, including myself. And so I turned those outward expressions of well-meaning love inward, to the one person who deserved my attention: me.
Yet the most profound change was the most obvious: Taking care of my body. I got my vitamin levels checked and started taking supplements, I make sure to drink enough water and eat the right nutrients, and for the first time in years, I started exercising.
Not only does exercising release endorphins and quiet my mind, but it’s something that I do with my husband. We do yoga together three times a week, and we both started a new Crossfit program — releasing our aggression and angst, breathing together in shavasana, sending each other love and healing from our respective yoga mats.
Now I cry when I need to cry. I lead with my vulnerability, even writing about my struggles in magazines and blogs. I make time for friendship. I have a gratitude journal that I write in when I’m feeling stuck, and it truly seems to help.
I also called Beverly Berg, the author of the book that ignited so much personal change — a book I continue to reference to this day. And she confirmed what I already learned.
“Self-care has to be privileged over the relationship,” Berg told me over the phone. Not at the expense of the relationship, but over the relationship. Self-care first.”
I know this to be true from my own life. The shift to a self-care perspective was made out of sheer necessity — I was drowning, suffocating, dragging everyone down with me — but it changed the trajectory of not only my recovery, but my husband’s.
Self-care has the power to change our entire mind state, which helped me to make smarter and healthier choices. When I finally got in touch with how I felt — just me, no one else — I could recognize when I’m being triggered, or when my boundaries are being crossed. Keeping myself healthy was the single best thing I’ve done for not only myself, but for my marriage.
That doesn’t mean I’m cured from my codependent tendencies; not in the least.
“I have a hard time not absorbing my husband’s anxiety,” I admitted to Berg during our interview. “I try and keep some space between us, I try to be mindful of my reactions, but sometimes I feel triggered, and all of the anger and resentment floods to the surface. Sometimes I slip, and when I do, it’s so hard to get unstuck from those feelings.”
I asked her if it was possible to manage those reactions to my husband without having to go to Al-Anon, or follow a program, or have outside recovery resources. Can it get better with more practice?
“No, it’s going to get worse,” Berg said. “We’re open systems; we’re interdependent. So if he’s swimming in water with bacteria and you’re swimming with him, you’re both going to get sicker. Unless someone helps you get out of the pool, or throws you some kind of life raft for you to float next to, but not swim with, you’re going to get sick with that person.”
She explained that the newly recovering person usually loops into the anxiety, and suddenly you become two “dysregulated” people at once. The way to course-correct out of those dysregulated states is to have a solid recovery program — for both people in the relationship.
“While you may be able to get out of [the emotional relapse] at some point — it goes away or dissipates, and you come back to a more grounded state — why does someone have to spend hours doing it all by themselves?” Berg said with startling common sense. “It’s too labor intensive to try and do it on your own.”
She equated Al-Anon meetings with medicine. “The power of the group is stronger than the individual reaction.”
Then suddenly it all made sense. For all of the reasons we’re resistant to doing uncomfortable things, I’d been avoiding my own recovery tools. I assumed that once I had a handle on my codependency awareness, once I started to feel a little more grounded, I could handle it on my own. All of the meetings and therapy happened when I was in a state of desperation. Now that things were relatively stable, I totally dropped the ball — and with it came my susceptibility to slip into emotional relapses.
So what kind of program does Berg recommend?
“There’s no cookie-cutter answer for everyone; it’s very unique to the fingerprint of the individual,” she said. “What’s your temperament? What’s your genetic load? What’s your family history? We have these variables that will add up to the amount of help an individual is going to need.”
It doesn’t have to be Al-Anon meetings, although that’s what she uses herself as a recovering person. But it has to be something.
“Everything doesn’t work for everyone, but everything works for someone.”
‘Give shit, don’t eat it.’
My biggest weakness is making my husband’s life too comfortable, and Berg called me out on it during our interview.
“What typically happens is the ‘co’ wants to get along and wants the relief of feeling like things are a little better, so they start indulging the old behavior again. And the pattern starts to repeat,” said Berg. “The ‘co’ thinks the addict is slipping and getting lazy, but it’s because the ‘co’ is [allowing it] on some level. They’re not going, ‘Hey, you’re doing it again,’ because they don’t want to seem like a nag, and they don’t want to stress or pressure the addict.”
She nailed it. It’s alluring to slip back into that place of complacency and delusion. That place when we’re overlooking red flags in the name of “keeping the peace.”
“A lot of times the codependent spouse is scared they’ll make the person relapse. Well? Let him relapse,” she told me bluntly. “If he does, he was eventually going to anyway. Sometimes relapse is a better teacher than anything else.”
Her advice? Call your partner out. Make him or her uncomfortable; that’s your job. Calmly explain that you’re disrupting this pattern right this minute because you don’t want to be back at square one again. Say, “This isn’t okay with me,” and stand your ground.
“I tell recovering codependents, ‘Give shit, don’t eat it. You’ve eaten enough.’”
I’ll be honest with you, all of that talk about giving shit and standing firm — it sounds right and true, but it also feels overwhelming. Is this what the rest of my life will be like? Vigilantly watching? Waiting for a relapse? Maybe I’m not strong enough for this. Maybe I need out.
There are just so many obstacles in the newly recovering marriage. What if a parters’ recoveries aren’t happening at the same time, or if one partner is open to therapy and the other isn’t, or if spouses are constantly tripping each other up with old patterns and dysregulated states? It’s especially hard when trust and communication and intimacy issues have eroded the relationship.
And so I asked Berg the million-dollar question: “When is staying in the marriage the cowardly thing to do, and when is staying in the marriage the courageous thing to do?”
“It’s not over until it’s over,” she said. She’s seen people on the brink of disaster eventually make it through with therapy, and she’s also seen marriages that are dead. “You don’t have to be on the same page, but you have to be willing to take care of each other. So if you have a partner who isn’t willing to be sympathetic to your suffering, or doesn’t want to take you out of your suffering, or you don’t want to take them out of theirs, then you’re really in need of therapy. You have to go talk to someone because you may not have the tools if takes to get out of that state.”
As a therapist who works with recovering couples, she does a lot of body work with her clients to help couples learn how to soothe and regulate through each other. She might have one spouse sit on the other’s lap, or literally lay on top of one another. Couples have to learn how to comfort one another, and it can often require professional help.
“You have to find what works in your relationship to create connection, and it’s different for everyone,” she stressed. “But if you see a trend, a trajectory, where every week gets 1% better, then that can inspire you to hang tight. A little bit can go a long way — just responsiveness, or a change of attitude, or offering you more empathy for the crap you’ve had to put up with.”
And so I ask myself three questions:
Is it getting 1% better?
What am I learning from this?
How is this contributing to my overall growth as a human, or expanding me as a spiritual person?
“You came to this person for a reason,” Berg reminded me. And she’s right, I did.
Choosing to stay
On good days, I have a deeper compassion for the human spirit and the human struggle. I’ve seen myself grow in areas I didn’t know I needed to — in self-love and self-awareness. I now know my boundaries. I now know how to ask for help. I have a newfound strength of character.
On bad days, I can still be gripped with anxiety, anger, fear of what might happen — a fear that’s temporary, but powerful. On bad days, I doubt everything; I want to leave.
But each day, I make the choice to stay, to love, to hang on and be firm and give shit. One day, and then the next, and then the next.
Because this love is worth it.
This story originally appeared in the summer issue of Renew, which you can read in its entirety here.