My wife left me when I was 40 days sober from opioids. “This is too hard,” she said. In that moment, I vowed that I would never be with anyone who said things were “too hard” again, but the truth is, she was right. It took me a long time and a lot of perspective to fathom how heavy the burden on her was. While conversations about opioid addiction are becoming more frequent and more transparent, the focus is usually on the addicted person. In reality, there are others in the picture — people who experience the disease second-hand and also need help recovering.
When I was in the thick of my addiction, I’m certain my behaviors were hurtful, yet enigmatic, to my wife. My brain was rewired and I was a mysterious version of my former self. “The loved ones of people struggling with addiction need to know that addiction is a chronic brain disease that manifests in bad behavior,” says Arwen Podesta, a New Orleans-based psychiatrist who specializes in addiction recovery. When I was going through withdrawal and the initial stages of my recovery process, I was alternately withdrawn and clingy. I was often angry. And it’s almost unbearable to admit how my outbursts towards my wife were, as I now perceive them, verbally abusive.
I wasn’t trying to be a dick. I was going through opioid withdrawal cold turkey and things were happening in my body and mind that I didn't understand and didn’t have the tools to control. The symptoms of opioid withdrawal are similar to flu symptoms: fever, body pain, and vomiting. If you’ve ever had the flu, you know that it feels like your body is in total revolt and death is nigh. Sprinkle in some of the anxiety, delusion, and hallucination that come from coming off narcotics and you have an emotionally apocalyptic cocktail.
When I was in withdrawal, it’s fair to say that I was in the greatest emotional turmoil of my life. I wanted comfort and yet I had no impulse control. I swung wildly between yelling at my wife and begging her for help and understanding. No matter how she behaved, I didn’t feel better. So I kept upping the ante.
One day when she came home from work, I said, “Let’s have a baby.” The look on her face would break any beating heart. Hope. She had always wanted a family. I had spent the day researching sperm banks. Does this sound sweet? Be careful. This is classic addiction-fueled manipulation. I didn’t even want to have a baby. I was home on the internet because I was too dope-sick to get out of bed. I was in no shape to start a family or even to have that conversation. I just wanted to do something to make my wife stay. The conversation ended in a fight in which I said cruel things that neither of us will ever forget.
I’m not trying to beat myself up here. I am trying to make a point. Recovery is a process and it is long and hard; people struggling with addiction behave in unconscionable ways. For many of us, taking ownership of the things we did in the throes of addiction becomes part of our recovery process, but it is not the first step. It may be months — or, as it has been with me, years — before someone in recovery is able to make a sincere apology.
Podesta tells me that she often feels frustrated by spouses who are looking for a quick fix for addiction. I know that someone who loves an addicted person can’t help but want out of the nightmare as soon as possible, but there is no quick fix. Addiction changes the lives of everyone involved.
Podesta and I ran down a list of the ways that addiction and recovery can affect a relationship, to help people currently or formerly in this situation understand what they are or were up against. One person may have to take on more financial and parenting responsibilities, they may have to ferry around a partner whose license has been revoked, they may have to deal with legal issues. Those are just a few of the bigger logistical matters. Folks struggling with addiction may be promiscuous, dishonest, and emotionally manipulative. Detox, as Podesta tells me, is just the beginning of a road, and the aforementioned “bad behavior” may even continue once someone has gotten sober.
“Judging, blaming, and punishing don’t help,” says Podesta. “The brain chemistry of a person struggling through addiction and withdrawal can’t handle that, and they can make the possibility of addiction worse.” What that means, in practical terms, is that if you are trying to love someone through their recovery process, you are going to have to establish “safe boundaries, reasonable expectations, and a contingency plan.” It’s work, she tells me.
Creating healthy boundaries and resisting codependency can be virtually impossible in any relationship between an addicted person and a non-addicted person. Podesta defines codependency, in this context, as doing for another what you wish they would do for themselves. It’s especially hard if you’re dealing with someone like the person I used to be. I, in those moments, truly believed it was my wife’s responsibility to make me feel better, and I was willing to push all her buttons to achieve that.
At some point, my wife realized that my addiction wasn’t her responsibility and that it was taking over our lives. Leaving me was the healthiest choice she could have made for both of us. The year that followed was the darkest of my life, but our separation forced me to take radical responsibility for myself.
There are amazing resources for folks who are trying to heal from codependency and for those who love folks struggling with addiction. ACA is for the adult children of alcoholics. CODA is for people struggling with codependency. Al-anon is a mixed bag of folks who identify as alcoholics or addicts and the people who love them. Recovery Dharma is a mindfulness group that teaches tools that help folks find healing from the ravages of addiction, whatever their relationship to it may be.
Since my divorce, I have met a lot of couples in recovery that have struggled through codependency and addiction. The difference I see between people who stay in the relationship and people who don’t can’t be reduced to a data point. It’s also not about whether people “love each other enough” or not. It all seems to boil down to whether both people in a partnership are willing to take total ownership of their own thoughts and behavior. “You can hold someone’s hand through recovery, But everyone has to do their own work," Podesta says.