Addictive Relationship Recovery: A Journey of Acceptance
Growing up, my parents set up impossible expectations and were prone to unpredictable outbursts. I didn't just become used to it, I began to get a high from emotional roller coasters—and I found it in relationships with addicts.
I love addicts: I’ve probably loved them since I was born; I just didn’t know what the word “addict” meant until many years later. Loving addicts can make life very exciting; it certainly made mine bounce between the most extreme polarities, from great joy to tremendous sorrow, from some of the sweetest most connected moments of real happiness to frustration, unfulfilled longing, rage and finally utter despair.
For many years being involved with addicts gave me very fruitful emotional employment. I could take on the hardships of another’s life and make them (and myself) think that I had the perfect solution that would make them happy, successful, and liberated from the adult world of having to face their own pain. Because guess what? I couldn’t look that terrifying dragon in the eye and face my own sorrow either. But more to the point I didn’t think I had any. At least not the kind that drives one to alcohol and drug abuse… no, I came from a very well-adjusted family—we looked great on the outside.
I didn’t grow up in an alcoholic or drug addicted home. No neighbors ringing the doorbell in panic; no police banging on the door. Mine was a household of two parents, both psychotherapists, two brothers who teased me (like most brothers tease a younger sister), friends (although I’ve since learned that many of those friendships were quite problematic), a dog and cat to play with, and a pool to swim in during the hot San Fernando Valley summers.
To the outside world (and members of my extended family) our family of origin home life was in a word: idyllic—and the hell of it was that it was wonderful a lot of the time; but on the days it wasn’t it was a scary house to live in.
My parents were both highly volatile people; particularly my mother who, as a former actress, was heartbroken that her career did not produce the results she wanted and for many years even after becoming a therapist, unconsciously took out her pain and frustration on the family. She insisted on perfection in all of us, mostly me. As the daughter in that household I had to be perfect; perfect in my weight, dress, and how I presented myself and our home to company.
I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t be perfect. I could never please my mother the way she needed to be pleased. It was exhausting and ultimately demoralizing. But what was even more confusing was that was not an everyday scenario. Like the child of alcoholics, I never knew when she would turn and things would get ugly and painful. On the good days she was the most delightful of companions; full of adventure and fun, she made the world a marvelous place to live in. She was my best friend and my toughest critic and she modeled for me how to be with others in relationships. The message was clear: be in control of everything, especially other people.
My father was a loving man; intellectually brilliant as a psychologist and very warm and caring to all those dear in his life. He was very loving and adoring to me except when he would often get triggered by his own unconscious rage and fear at so many things he felt powerless over and he too could never please my mother and her desire (demand) for perfection.
In later years when he got triggered, I would become so terrified that the breath would literally leave my body and I would have to bolt from the room.
I tried forever to please my parents. They, like the romantic relationships I would later get into, became my higher power. If they loved me all things were right in the world; if they didn’t I would feel drowned in a sea of abandonment.
How this all manifested: I attracted and became attracted to men that were on some days loving and attentive and most other days rageful, rejecting, and controlling.
If they had drug and/or alcohol issues, those problems would become my burdens as well. Isn’t that what you do for someone you love?
Perhaps the most compelling and problematic issue for me was that the fear I felt in my childhood became confused in my adult relationships as a kind of very powerful sexual excitement. If that feeling wasn’t there in my relationships with men, I would become bored and uncomfortable. I would tell myself that the person I wasn’t feeling those old familiar feelings with just wasn’t the right man for me. And the cycle of fear and self-loathing went on.
One evening I received a long distance phone call from a man I was seeing (a practicing alcoholic). The conversation was so disturbing; it was filled with the old familiar crazy emotionally disconnected accusations (just like my family) and a Doctor Jekyll/Mr. Hyde behavior that shook me down to my bones. Oh—and did I mention that I was sober and playing right along? No victim here, like all of my relationships, I was indeed a willing participant.
This was not the first time I felt unsafe around this man; I just thought if I hung in there long enough I would find a way to make myself comfortable and safe… It never happened.
It’s an interesting irony that for addicts of my variety (trying to change others and the world around us), we long for a feeling of comfort and safety and yet often choose partners that do not possess those qualities... Because if they did there would be nothing to struggle for. And struggle is an emotional addict's favorite aphrodisiac.
For me—I had hit the proverbial wall one more time and finally surrendered and joined the fellowship of Al-Anon.
It took all the courage I had to walk into the 12 step rooms
One meeting at a time things at last began to improve in my life. I found myself making better and clearer decisions in many areas of my life. I took a look at my part in all of those problematic relationships, and started to cultivate a deep sense of awareness, personal responsibility for my emotional reactions and relationship choices.
But the most challenging aspect of my recovery in Al-Anon has been to practice one day at a time the true meaning of the word acceptance—acceptance of others and their life choices, and most of all acceptance of myself in all of my flawed humanity.
Acceptance does not mean I have to like another’s behavior, but it means very simply that I must accept that other human being and believe they are doing the best they know how to do just as I am.
I had to accept my parents, and the family dynamic with which I grew up. I finally had to accept they were not the Gods I so needed and believed them to be; that they too were wounded children trying desperately to make a good and loving home for my brothers and me and were horror stricken when those moments of clarity would come upon them and they knew they were falling short of how they so wanted to be as parents and role models.
A crucial part of my recovery in Al-Anon has been to attend open AA meetings and learn about the disease of alcoholism and drug addiction. From those inspiring meetings I have learned so much not only about what substance abuse does to those that suffer from it but how recovery has given them back their life. I no longer feel afraid and separate from those folks in recovery from substance abuse, because I’ve now accepted the addict in myself. One day at a time I can choose to make a different choice; a more loving choice for myself and for the betterment of my life.
There is now within in me a tender and loving forgiveness for my parents, siblings, lovers of the past, and teachers and friends with whom I have had deep conflict. As I practice the first step of admitting my powerlessness of another’s behavior, I feel a powerful sense of serenity and peace.
I’ve shed and continue to let go of all those wounded feelings, knowing that as I let others off the proverbial hook, I am ultimately freed as well.
Perhaps this journey of acceptance is really about love; love for others and love for ourselves.
And as the poet Rilke states: “For one human being to love one another; that is perhaps the most difficult of our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof; the work for which all other work is but preparation.”
May we all gently let go and love and accept one another one precious moment at a time.
Julie Louise is a pseudonym for a writer and performer in Los Angeles.