A few weeks ago, a young woman was killed by her boyfriend in the backseat of her car while sitting next to her 8 month old baby. It didn't shake the Twin Cities as much as it should have, and it didn't open up conversation in the same way that so many domestic homicides do. In fact, it only reached my ears because the young woman had worked where I used to, and also attended a high school just a block away from me. When I read about her death, I immediately felt a very deep connection to her. Not because we once worked for the same company, not because her face was familiar from seeing her around the break room - I felt a connection to her because her murderer had mental health problems as well as substance abuse issues. I suddenly had so much empathy for her situation that I couldn't help but feel the same type of terror, uncertainty, helplessness, and even love that I'm sure she felt during her relationship. I imagined all of the difficult decisions and heartbreak she went through in the months before her tragic murder. She was my own age and dealing with a boyfriend going through many of the same things that I went through with my boyfriend. I felt deeply connected to her.
For some time now - since last August - I've been contemplating how to approach this topic on my blog. I knew that it was something that was important for me to talk about, I just didn't know how I wanted to broach the subject, or how to express my many emotions surrounding it. When I heard about the death of this young woman, I knew that I was ready to talk about it, and I knew that it was important to talk about it. I fear the stigma that surrounds substance abuse and mental illness, and I fear the effects that it has not only on those suffering from it, but also the people who love him. I don't fear the stigma for my own reasons, but I fear it because it isolates people, it causes hurt and anger and fear. And that's no good. So, I want to break down that stigma and have a real talk.
From December through this past January, I was in a relationship with a drug addict. He was in recovery when we met, and though I entered the relationship with caution, I trusted that he was in a more stable place, a place where he could care for another person and accept the responsibility that comes along with any relationship or friendship. I was careful in the relationship, realizing his limitations and struggles. I never fussed when he needed to cancel our plans in order to go to an AA meeting or talk with his sponsor. I'm not a high-maintenance girlfriend, so I had confidence that, as long as he stayed sober, our relationship would not disturb his recovery.
In July, it all changed. He slowly became a different person until one day, I woke up to realize that the person I was in love with was nothing like the person I had fallen in love with. He was always crabby and quick tempered. He preferred to play World of Warcraft over going out with me. We'd make plans and he'd be irritated and angry with me when it was time to go out. He cancelled most of the time and stayed holed up working on homework and playing video games. He quit going to meetings, his sponsor had moved across the country, and he didn't like his new sponsor. I kept going along with the relationship, assuming that his change in attitude was related to school - which it probably was - not realizing that he was quickly spinning out of control and likely to use again. Friends would ask me how he was, and I wouldn't have anything to say. An asshole? Yeah, he was, but that didn't seem fair. Stressed? Struggling with school? Unable to juggle more than one responsibility at a time? Always angry? Crabby & ungrateful? All of these would have been fit to describe him.
He started using again in August after stealing a prescription from a friend who had left me in charge of her house. As soon as I let him into her house, he started digging around in all the cabinets and drawers. I was suspicious. He seemed obsessed with going through her stuff. I'd walk into a room and he'd be wildly rifling through a dresser. It seemed very inappropriate, but I didn't realize that he was looking for drugs. I thought he was just being rude. I kicked him out of the house, but needless to say, it all spiraled out of control from there. I encouraged him to talk with his sponsor. I told him to tell his parents that he was using again. I didn't know what else to do. Say the wrong thing, get angry with him for having this disease, and I could only make it worse. I was cautious and tried to withdraw myself from being emotionally involved in the relationship. I tried to focus entirely on school and my two internships.
He went to rehab in October after stealing my sister's prescription. I had sat him down in Bruegger's Bagels on campus in between my classes and said, "You need to apologize to my sister. I'm not doing this anymore. Go to rehab, or I'm not going through this with you any further." On top of the stealing and the extremely unpleasant behavior, he has been disappearing. Sometimes for days. He didn't have any friends in the Cities - the only one that I knew of, he barely had any contact with - so I was without anyone to contact when he went missing. I didn't know his parents. When they had visited just before he relapsed, they had kept promising to take us out for dinner & get to know me better, but they never did. I think they just wanted to see their kid, I don't think they had much interest in me. I didn't know what to do when he'd go missing. I knew that he was probably doing drugs in his room in the run down house he lived in with strangers, but I worried about his safety. He had never even had a conversation with anyone he lived with, much less did they know he was sick and might need their help in an emergency. I had lost 10 pounds in September from the stress of school, interning, and worrying about the boy I was fiercely in love with. I hated him too, though. I would look at him and just hate him. I wanted to scream at him. I wanted him to go away, get out of my life. I wanted him to have never existed I hated him so much. But I loved him, too. I cried every night, hurting over how much he was hurting but didn't know because of the drugs. I cried because the boy I loved no longer existed and I had my doubts that he'd ever be back. And if he did, would I be able to look at him in the same way I used to?
During this time, I withdrew from my friends and felt very alone. Everyone was critical of my boyfriend. They'd tell me he was trash, he wasn't worth my time, he didn't care about me. They'd say absolutely horrible things about him, not realizing that it hurt me. But I cannot blame my friends. Their hate for my boyfriend stemmed from their love for me and their wishes for me to have someone treat me kindly. It stemmed from a lack of understanding for what he was going through. It's so easy to look at an addiction as a choice. It's not so easy to realize that it's a disease. It isn't self-inflicted. This disease stemmed from pain my boyfriend felt about his past, the way he'd been treated, the way he treated people, and the solace he found in a drugged existence. It wasn't his choice. I could see that everyday was a struggle for him. He wasn't a happy kid. Sometimes I'd see this extreme joy and passion within him, and it was one of the most beautiful things in the world. But most of the time, he was down. And when he was down, it was difficult to get him back to the surface. I'd spend hours talking him out of whatever unhappy hole he'd sunken into. I reassured him of my love for him, of the love and support his family gives him. I'd compliment his brain, telling him how ridiculously smart he was - that he could change the world if he wanted. I told him how proud I was of him, how much effort he put into recovery and being a better person. I encouraged him to focus on what mattered to his future. I put so much of myself and my energy into helping him back up when he was down. It wasn't a fun thing. It was emotionally draining. By the time he was back to his normal self - not joyful, but happy enough to function - I was drained and left concerned about if this is what our future looked like.
Our relationship never improved after July. He left rehab in October and spent a weekend holed up doing drugs. He went back, and stayed for the month. He came back and was the same sullen, cranky boy who had gone in. He relapsed in December. I was graduating and he came to my graduation ceremony. I wasn't even sure if I wanted him there, but I invited him anyways. He could barely stay awake. He wasn't talking. He spent the entire ceremony playing a game on his phone. He complained of his stomach hurting. He was cranky. He ruined my day. My graduation from college was the biggest day of my life - something I had been working towards since I was a 3 year old headed off to preschool. And here it was, my big achievement, and he had to be rotten through the whole thing. I cried at him when we got home. Why did he always have to be sick? Why couldn't he take care of himself? Why couldn't he just be happy for me? Why couldn't he care about me for once? He got up and walked out on me. He went back to rehab five days before Christmas. He was supposed to pick me up for a movie at 5pm but he never showed up. I sat for 5 hours, calling him every half an hour. His phone was off. I was panicked. It was like it always was when he'd disappear suddenly, caught in a loop of doing drugs and not caring about anything but the drugs. I emailed his mother, worried. He went back to rehab, she emailed back. That was it. Nothing else from her. Just, he checked back into rehab. I spent our anniversary, Christmas, and New Year's alone. He called me two weeks later, acting like nothing was wrong. Acting like he hadn't just taken off on me without a word. Acting like my hurt was insignificant, it was okay for me to sit and worry about him for hours. He didn't apologize. He never apologized for anything, so I wasn't expecting an apology. It's a disease, I reminded myself. Besides, I was always happiest when he was in rehab. I could focus entirely on myself, knowing that he was safe. For all of January, I worked out every day. I ate constantly. I put in overtime at work. I caught up with all my friends, including ones I hadn't seen in years. I was finally happy, after months of carrying around this heavy weight and constant dread & fear.
Both times that he went into rehab, I told him that I didn't think I wanted to be his girlfriend anymore. It was all too much. Both times he asked me to stay by his side. He made promises. I believed the promises, remembering how completely wonderful our relationship once was. When he got out of rehab in January, I told myself that it was a fresh slate. We'd do things differently. And he got out, and he seemed like the boy he used to be. He was sweet and excited and happy. He was following the instructions that the rehab center had recommended: a meeting every day, find a new job, get a new sponsor, live in a sober house. I was hoping that things would be better. Things were good for two weeks. He would look at me the way that he used to. We planned a trip to visit his parents. He made reservations for Valentine's Day & talked about how he wanted to do something really special for me. But we still had a problem with him forgetting about plans. He'd cancel at the last minute, or show up two hours late without an explanation. It caused me anxiety. It reminded me too much of his behavior when he was using. I worried that he would disappear for days again and I'd be left distracted with intense worry. One evening, he cancelled on me at the last minute. I couldn't take it anymore. I called him that night to talk it out, to try to find a solution. But, he had turned his phone off & gone to bed without a single word to me all evening. I was so hurt. I cried. I left him a voice mail saying that I couldn't do this anymore, it took so much out of me and he didn't give anything back. I went to bed in tears that night, so completely hurt by how little he cared about my feelings and the anxiety that his behavior caused me.
I tried calling him a couple of days later after not hearing from him. No answer. I called again. And again. I called him for a week. Nothing. I emailed his mom asking if he was okay. I was so worried that something was wrong. He was sick. He was hurt. His mother didn't respond. I emailed her again, expressing my worry over his safety. No response. I eventually heard from him a week later. "I thought it would be best this way," was his only explanation for not taking my calls and blocking my number. I cried. I wanted to talk with him. He refused to, saying that it would be too upsetting. When I began crying, he became enraged. He told me he didn't love me - he hadn't for some time - and that we were terrible together. He said that we were never going to go anywhere because the relationship didn't work and never had. I was so hurt. The entire year that we were together had been a complete lie. All the promises he had made me were lies. The last time that I saw him, we were getting pie and talking about how excited we were for Valentine's Day. I said, "I cannot believe it'll be our second Valentine's Day together!" "I hope we have many, many more," he said. I couldn't believe we had made it through everything and were still together. "I hope we'll be together for much longer," he said. But it was all a lie. He didn't love me anymore, and hadn't for some time. He hung up on me while I was crying and blocked my number. He never handled anything well. He doesn't have any friends because he is unable to care about anyone but himself. He wasn't raised with compassion or empathy. He was never taught values or convictions. It didn't surprise me that this was how he chose to end things. It hurt me deeply, but it didn't surprise me. He isn't a strong spirited person, and he doesn't know how to treat people with love.
In the end, I am extremely happy to be out of that relationship. That isn't what I want my future to be like. I don't want to be completely in love with a person who doesn't care about me or how his behavior affects me. When he'd see how much his using hurt me, he'd say, "You care about me too much. If I was you, I would have left a long time ago." He would have left because he doesn't have the capacity to love, truly love, other people. And it's sad. Now that I am here, at this point in my life, my friends have stopped saying bad things about him. I let them into the full picture because I was finally ready for people to see it. I've quit isolating myself, being scared to let people into that ugly part of my life. It feels good to have my friends back - to have myself back. I was flying in that freedom until I read about the young woman being killed by her boyfriend, who also suffered from mental health & substance abuse issues. It was a harsh reminder of what I had gone through and all the emotions, the isolation, that went along with that.
And that's really what I want to talk about: the isolation. My relationship would have been so much easier to handle if my friends and my family were there with me, trying to understand it with me, and comfort me from the hurt it brought me. But instead, I was met with a wall of hatred - not for me, but for him. My friends would talk about him voraciously, as if he wasn't even human, as if he wasn't suffering from a disease. They talked down to me for staying by his side, as if I didn't hurt. As if I didn't have to take extra bathroom breaks at work just so I could cry in the bathroom stall. As if I didn't completely hate the boy I was with. But also as if I didn't love him. Because I did, and when someone is sick and broken, that's when you love them more. My aunt is currently beating brain cancer and has an entire Facebook group set up so that friends can leave her messages of love and support. Because that's what you do when someone is sick. I didn't want to be put down for trying to support my boyfriend when he was sick. But that's what so many of my friends were doing, making me feel embarrassed and ashamed for supporting him and believing in him. In the bottom of my heart, I didn't feel like my boyfriend would ever be okay. I didn't have confidence in him ever being sober long term, but that wasn't reason enough for me to give up on him when he was in crisis. That's not enough reason to give up on someone and just toss them out. And I wish my friends could have understood that. You wouldn't throw someone out because they have cancer, so why throw someone out when they have a disease of a different sort?
Maybe I am naive. Maybe I just see too much beauty in the world. Or maybe I just see the power of love. For me, love is the absolutely most important thing in the world and it's a huge blessing to be loved and to have the capacity to love others. I know that my friends were just trying to love me, too. I know that they were angry that I was being mistreated, because they love me. But please, I urge you to look at addiction from a different angle. I urge you to not throw anyone out. I urge you to respect the love that your friends have for other people. And when your friends are hurt or in crisis, I urge you to show them support by showering them with love. I wish that my boyfriend had understood that. I wish that he could have sensed my hurt, and I wish that, when he did, he didn't react with anger or more hurt. And I wish that when my friends were angry with my boyfriend, they didn't react with anger. I wish that everyone just had love for each other, even when it seems easier to be angry. I do not regret a single ounce of the love I showered on my boyfriend, but I do regret the few moments of anger that sprouted up when love was just too difficult of a choice to make, when my hurt was consuming me too much. Loving someone who is sick, especially sick with addiction, is absolutely one of the most terrifying, helpless feelings in the world. So much of the recovery process relies on the spiritual strength of the person struggling, making it horrifying to look at from the outside - when all you really can do is look in from outside. All I could do was support him and be there for him as much as I emotionally could be. And all I needed was for my friends to understand this, and try to feel empathy. Because substance abuse has so much stigma surrounding it, it isn't something we feel empathy for. It isn't something that we feel connected to when he hear about another teen dying of a heroin overdose - something that is becoming increasingly common as heroin becomes cheaper & more accessible. Substance abuse is something we disconnect from, isolating the abuser as something other than a good, capable human being. And that isn't really right, and it isn't really productive. There is so much hurt that revolves around substance abuse, and I really believe that the best way to deal with it is with love. So, please, love your friends and your family. Especially when they're hurting, and especially when you're first reaction is to feel anger or hatred. Don't succumb to those negative feelings and just love.
Please consider making a donation in memory of the young woman who was killed, whose family now has to raise a child without the love of his mother.
After Edit: I want to clarify a few things that have come to my attention in feedback to this post. I am in no way condoning a violent or abusive relationship. I am not saying that love will "fix" people with substance abuse issues. Safety always comes first, and loving & respecting yourself always comes before loving another person. My main point is that if someone you know loves & believes in someone with a substance abuse issues, try to show them love rather than anger about their decision.
I have also changed the photos because conversation was turning too much into the photos I was showing, and not about the words. This is the first time I've been able to talk about the relationship - my boyfriend never allowed me to voice my opinion about it - and it's important to me that my words are heard. To me, sharing these photos was a happy illustration. They are the last happy photos I have of him, some of them being taken the day before he relapsed. Being grainy, overexposed, and blurry, I found nothing wrong with them. However, people seemed to. I have changed the photos. To me, they are a happy representation of what I was fighting for. To others, I was using them with petty motives, which was not my intention at all. I do not wish to debate the photos any further, so I have changed them. Please pay attention to my words. They are the first time they are being heard and it took a lot of courage for me to be able to produce them and publish them. Please respect that.
Thanks again for reading. Most responses have been lovely & I love you all xx