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The Object of My Affliction

When I first met my boyfriend, Jay, he seemed like he had it all together. Then, suddenly, both of our lives fell apart.

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Think love can conquer addiction? Think again. Photo: ThinkStock

By Ruth Fowler

03/24/11

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I’m not dating an addict. I’m dating a guy named Jay. When the addict in him appears, as it invariably does, I take that as a cue to leave—and I’ll yell a bit, and run away back to my own sober life to lick my wounds until he gets clean again. If it’s been a particularly bad relapse, I’ll swear I’ll never go back. But that’s the thing about dating someone who’s using—when they’re detoxed, sober, clear-eyed, fresh-breathed, bushy-tailed and can see the light, it’s almost as if the dark days never occurred. It’s like I only imagined those midnight screaming matches and tearful tantrums: they’re phantasms, will o’ the wisps, the product of my imbalanced female mind. Sober Jay and I will curl up on the sofa together with a home-cooked meal, fresh lemonade, a log fire burning, a movie on TV, and we’ll laugh a lot, and even I start to doubt my own sanity. There’s no trace of the demon that threw a vase at me because I flushed his crack down the toilet, who asked me to leave the apartment we shared together (admittedly, he did own it) because he “needed space” (to use). There’s not a hint of the man I dragged out of a restaurant for trying to start a fight with a 250-pound tattooed knucklehead, or who crawled across the floor singing ABBA before passing out on the floor.

I met Jay when he was eight months sober, and his reputation preceded him. Son of an infamous Hollywood boozer, he’d inherited his dad’s glamorized addiction. I wasn’t sober—and had no intention of becoming so. I didn’t think I had a problem. But he certainly did: countless years of rehabs and sober livings, almost a decade shuttling in and out of AA. But eight months without drinking? That was impressive. I could barely get through 24 hours. Jay asked me out, and even though he was broken and fucked up, bruised and battered from the storm, I thought: eight months? Without a goddamn drink? It was inconceivable to me. He must have been cured. So I agreed to go out on a date with him.

He didn’t drink that night, and following his example, I curbed my drinking throughout the meal. I did, however, snort half a gram of coke in the car before we met. And as we went on another date, and then another, I found myself lying to him about the things I’d been up to. “Someone saw me completely fucked up at the Chateau? No, I was there for, like, a minute and had, like, one drink...”  

Over time, the inevitable happened: dating someone who was sober shone an uncomfortable, bright, probing light onto my own dark and dirty secrets. Three months after we met, without telling Jay, I stopped using. I “came out” a few weeks later, and rather than congratulations at my phenomenal achievement of avoiding alcohol and coke for 30 whole days, Jay looked...pissed. I was rediscovering the joys of hangover-less days, nights of knowing exactly where I’d been, of remembering what I’d said and to whom. At the same time he curled in on himself like a dead spider, grew gray, angry, bad-tempered, embittered, and malicious. As I got lighter, Jay got darker.

I moved into his house temporarily while I looked for an apartment. I remember that week because I could no longer avoid the changes in him. Jay was gone, and the addict had taken his place. I suppose I should have known what was going on, but brand-spanking sober, I found the world a strange and raw place, and I was relearning how to navigate it without my own boozing alter-ego to guide me. At first I thought I was being too suspicious. So what if he locked his bedroom door, made me sleep in the guest room, and slept in until midday—big deal! Give the guy a break! And like all of us addicts, he was adept at manipulating my insecurities. I was boring now that I’d joined the program, he told me. I was paranoid. I was preaching at him constantly. I was in his space. No he wasn’t using. He wasn’t—it was all in my head.

Jay’s Mr. Hyde transformation was swift and messy, and after a three-day nonstop binge, I carted him off to his sixth rehab. When he emerged a month later, he was back to being Jay. So it made sense to go back to him. After all, his misbehavior had no effect on my own sobriety. If the man I loved was suffering, how could I possibly leave him? But then, a few months later, it happened again. He didn’t answer his cell phone. His house was dark and locked up. He hid his car around the block so I’d think he wasn’t home. I played detective and I went to Al-Anon and I didn’t relapse and I loved him and I was there for him and it didn’t make a difference. I stopped playing detective and I loved him and I gave up my precious sobriety after a year and even drank with him and it still didn’t make a difference. I threw shit at him, stole his keys, hid his credit card and his phone, begged his dealer to stop selling to him, and it still didn’t make a difference.

I yelled at all the people who told me to leave him, bellowed at the friends who told me that I was the one with the problem. Even my elderly parents in England would call and politely inquire: “And how is Jay’s crack problem?” It was insane, it was painful, and it was far, far more of a rollercoaster life than I can describe. But I would not and could not leave him for good, because then I might miss out on the real Jay I knew. And even after the man I loved had turned into a hollow-eyed, ghostly, ashen figure, with red wine stains on his lips, a cold crack pipe by his bed, hints of the old Jay still lingered, like a ghost.

The thing about dating an addict is that no one can ever tell you when enough is enough. Just as I couldn’t find the magic words to “cure” Jay, no one could say the magic words to make me leave him. We argued bitterly, we didn’t speak for a month. So I entered therapy, tried dating other men, fled to England for six weeks, escaped to Portland for a month, got my sobriety back up to a year and beyond. But still I couldn’t “cure” myself of Jay. No doubt many of you will be shaking your heads at this: Trading one addiction for another! She needs help! And you’re doubtlessly right. But I had to reach bottom on my own.

At the moment, Jay is three months sober. He entered Betty Ford last November—his eighth rehab in several years, and the third since I’ve known him. Since he got out he has been regularly attending meetings. In all honesty, he’s been to more meetings than I have in the last month. But I have no idea if he’ll finally manage to stay sober this time. My heart wants to stay with him and find out, but my head, finally, is speaking louder than love. Dating Jay made me doubt my own sanity. I spent months taking his inventory and ignoring my own. Ultimately, I lost myself in my ferocious battle to save a lover whose disease was more advanced than mine—addicts love to hang out with people who are more fucked up than we are. 

In a few weeks I will say goodbye to Jay and L.A. for four months, and fly to England to research a movie I’m developing in the UK. We have no plans to stay committed to each other while I’m gone. I have no doubt that leaving him will be just as painful as leaving my other two great loves, who were as kind, good, generous and loving as he is, but equally cruel, manipulative and abusive as well. Jay, coke and booze—the three loves of my life. None of them really measured up in the end.

Even now, there’s no doubt in my mind that we deeply love each other. But dating a serial relapser is like playing Russian roulette. Crack has always been the “other woman” in our relationship. I can’t ever predict when she’ll reappear. So while it’s breaking my heart to do so, I’ve finally decided to leave him. He took the news stoically, perhaps realizing that our drama had long ago played itself out. I may never meet a man who has the best elements of the real Jay. But as I’ve learned through this tumultuous love affair, peace is sometimes more precious than passion.

British-born author, screenwriter and journalist Ruth Fowler lives in Venice, California and has written for The Village Voice, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, The New York Post and The Observer, among others. Her memoir, No Man's Land, which documented her pre-sobriety experiences as a stripper in Manhattan, was published by Viking in 2008. She also wrote Finding the Perfect A.A. Meeting.

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