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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?

When I would call my sponsor, grand sponsor, or any woman in AA and tell her that I couldn’t stop crying because my boyfriend left to hang out with his friends and I was afraid he would leave me for freaking out about it but I couldn’t stop and I felt like my mind was slowly eating away at my soul and I wanted to fucking disappear, I was usually told to simply pray about my feelings. Nobody in AA is qualified to give psychological advice; sponsors are there to tell us what they’ve done to stay sober and nothing more, which is why none of the women I confided in knew what to say. They gave suggestions of the most general variety, and when I followed them to no avail, I felt like I was failing at AA. In meetings, people refer to themselves as “crazy” or “insane” without the steps; I assumed I was just another one of these people and I couldn’t understand why the program wasn’t making life livable anymore. I don’t remember when Chris began encouraging me to find a therapist but I know he was one of the only people to do so. In the rooms, they call it “seeking outside help” but because mental disorders and other addictions are considered outside issues, I don’t think it’s always obvious to alcoholics that they’re suffering from depression, anxiety and myriad other addictions and issues. I am, without a doubt, one of these people but because I came into the rooms at such a young and impressionable age and was taught as a child not to trust my own feelings by my addict parents, I soaked up the idea that the 12 steps are the ultimate solution. When it came time to find a therapist, the idea filled me with exhaustion. But I did it, with the help of the boyfriend that I never believed I deserved.

Therapy changed everything. My counselor was incredibly perceptive and kind. She taught me within a few sessions that the debilitating anxiety I was feeling was the residual effect of the loss of an emotionally present mother. I had never experienced so deeply the fear of being abandoned prior to my relationship with Chris because, in my addiction, I diligently kept people at arms’ length, never giving anyone except the bottle the power to hurt me. In sobriety, finally letting someone all the way in activated an impulse to assume the worst about absolutely everything in order to somehow predict or prevent any future losses. In addition to sorting out the emotional web that had little to do with my alcoholism, my therapist determined that I needed some neurochemical balance and I began taking a mood stabilizer. In a matter of months, it was as if I had taken off a pair of thick sunglasses that had been darkening everything I could see. The excruciating, endless hours of lying in bed, smearing mascara all over my boyfriend’s pillow were, for the most part, over. For the first time I could remember, I was able to take things at face value. Chris could tell me I had a stain on my shirt and I wouldn’t even begin to think he was subliminally informing me that he was no longer attracted to me. As time went on, I found an entirely new level of freedom.

I’ve been forced to go head to head with the most gruesome parts of myself and come out the other side a stronger woman, rather than taking a left turn at the sight of pain and pouring some rum down my throat. 

If I were still drinking, I seriously doubt I would’ve ever allowed anyone to get close enough to allow my deep-rooted abandonment issues to surface as they did, and sometimes still do, in my relationship with Chris. If I had somehow met him out there in my drunken Adderall haze, I would have attempted to get him to cheat on the girlfriend that came before me, painting a picture of myself as a slutty party girl and probably ruining any chance at something real. Truth be told, Chris and I have gotten lucky. At an age when most people spend their weekends having anonymous drunken sex, and in a community where sex and people are often treated like just another drug, we’ve found something much more meaningful. I’ve been forced to go head to head with the most gruesome parts of myself and come out the other side a stronger woman, rather than taking a left turn at the sight of pain and pouring some rum down my throat. Some AA’s say that nothing reveals our character defects like becoming romantically involved with another alcoholic, as if it’s a negative thing, but I’d rather believe that nothing teaches us more about ourselves than giving another human being the power to break us.

Taylor Ellsworth writes from Portland, Oregon. She also wrote about getting fired by a sponsee and managing her eating disorder, among many other topics, for The Fix. Follow her on Twitter here.

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