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Crazy in Love

When I fell for someone, I realized just how broken I was. Welcome to the sober relationship.

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By Taylor Ellsworth

09/16/12

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Two-and-a-half years ago, I piled into an SUV with my friends and headed to a young people’s AA conference in Eugene, Oregon, armed with plenty of Sugar free Rockstar and Larabars to get me through the sleepless weekend. I came back with a soon-to-be boyfriend; the guy who’d end up stealing my heart and adopting a cat with me. Ironically, many, if not most young people in recovery use these conferences as a venue for scoping random fuck buddies and one-night-stands. Sobriety doesn’t make us saints, I suppose. If anything, I believe sober teens and twenty-somethings are more prone to acting out sexually, smoking cigarettes, and participating in other generally unhealthy practices than our “normie” counterparts. This isn’t scientific research by any means, just an observation I’ve made after spending several years in the 12-step communities, surrounded mostly by restless young people. 

Chris and I found ourselves in a delirium-induced conversation one night in our hotel room (a double we shared with six other people, naturally) at the conference. We had been friends for some time and I considered it a small miracle that it had taken so long to have a confessional conversation because my feelings for Chris had been festering for months. Had I still been drinking, there’s no question that I would’ve drunkenly thrown myself at him the same day I realized I found him attractive, girlfriend be damned, and probably lost any chance at actually dating him. My filter had always disappeared upon imbibing, preventing me from ever courting a guy with grace. Developing feelings for an entirely unavailable person was not unusual behavior by any means. I’d ruined friendships after breaking the unspoken rule that wise old Ronnie of Jersey Shore fame refers to as “guy code”: under no circumstances should any self-respecting friend have relations of the sexual or even flirtatious variety with someone said person’s friend has been with, wants to be with, or is currently with—even if Facebook says “It’s complicated.” Like The Situation, drinking never stopped me from breaking that rule.

Without alcohol to stir up trouble and stoke insecurities, Chris and I fell in love quickly and painlessly. It was what happened afterwards that was the challenge.

When I did actually catch myself developing feelings for anyone, I never gave it a fair chance. We would go on a lovely date but the next day, I would snort coke at a party and ignore his calls. I would disclose to him one of my secrets—most of which are now, ironically, searchable by anyone with an Internet connection—then tell him I needed space. The gaping hole inside my chest craved the fulfillment that a loving, committed relationship offered but the terror that always accompanied the prospect of pain won out every time. Each time I made myself untouchable I was left alone, my heart bubble-wrapped and unscathed, pouring alcohol into the nameless void inside me.

Some alcoholics insist that dating is simply awkward and difficult when first dates don’t take place on barstools. As far as I’m concerned, removing alcohol from the dating puzzle makes other components of relationships much easier and removes certain obstacles entirely. Sobriety allows the early days of the relationship to go much more smoothly—at least if both parties are not fresh off the bottle or dry drunks. Without alcohol to stir up trouble and stoke insecurities, Chris and I fell in love quickly and painlessly. It was what happened afterwards that was the challenge.

Anyone who has dated within the recovery circle has experienced the do-I-or-don’t-I predicament that arises when someone’s program has fallen by the wayside, boundaries become blurred, and the idea of begging your significant other to go to a meeting or call his sponsor becomes wildly appealing. When I subjected Chris to this dilemma during my second year of sobriety, as I began to suffer crippling, unexpected bouts of anxiety and depression, the shame nearly ate me alive. When I woke up paralyzed in bed or sobbed uncontrollably for the better part of a day, Chris would stroke my hair and tell me it would be okay, that I wasn’t crazy, that he loved me no matter what. His compassion and understanding defied my deeply rooted, almost subconscious beliefs that I am utterly broken and unlovable but I also knew in the back of my mind that our relationship was abnormal. Nobody expects 19-year-old boys to take care of anything, let alone another person. Suddenly, before we’d been together for even a year, Chris was confronted with my worst defects—ones that hadn’t even revealed themselves when I was coked out of my mind or blacked out and filter-less—and was forced to choose between normalcy or his girlfriend. Every day, he bore witness to my tears when an Iron and Wine song came up on shuffle, or when I couldn’t finish my Post-Colonial Lit homework or maybe just if the sink was full of dirty dishes. The tears flowed so freely that I was taking pregnancy tests every other week, wondering if an ill-fated child was the cause of my perpetual emotional instability.

My “episodes,” as we began to call them, were so all-consuming for both of us that I lived in constant fear that Chris would leave me for a normal 20-year old girl—one who didn’t chain-smoke cigarettes and then beg him to hold her while she cried over the way they made her smell. The fear produced a sort of over-vigilance that led, in turn, to even more episodes. Any offhand comment—he told me my lipstick was smeared or he couldn’t have an impromptu dinner with me because he had plans—was subject to over-analysis and subsequent emotional collapse because I could twist absolutely anything he said to confirm my conviction that Chris would inevitably tire of my relentless drama and leave me for good. I was caught in a seemingly unbreakable cycle of fear, anxiety, and desperation, leaving him to bear the brunt of it all.

As I spiraled downward into depression and turned to him for comfort, Chris encouraged me to call my sponsor. Attempting to keep your partner sober and sane is a dauntingly codependent task and he continually encouraged me to look elsewhere for answers. The program itself had trained me to look within the rooms for the solution, so I called my sponsor in hysterics every day, went to meetings, worked with sponsees, and prayed constantly. When nothing changed, I attempted to pray better, to call my sponsor better, to write more thorough 10th steps. Nothing worked—if anything, the unmet expectations that taking suggestions would fix me led to an even more crushing sense of depression. The fear that I was irrevocably broken somewhere deep inside seemed to be coming true. If I was too fucked up for AA, where could I go? Was I just too lazy? Was I overthinking it? Did I just need to pray a little bit harder for God’s will to be revealed before things would fall into place?

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