This week, the city was filled with couples celebrating their love. And, of course, thousands mourned a love lost. But there was also a middle sect — those who pretend to celebrate while mourning internally. That was going to be me this year until I finally snapped out of my haze of boozy passion and ended a relationship that was dominated by alcoholism. While no broken heart has an easy ride, those who have lost love to addiction share the unique pain of being forced to make the active choice to leave behind the person they love. Honestly, I’d rather be dumped. Or stabbed in the eye.
Moving on from loss is the hard part, but it always helps to share our hard-earned lessons in the hope that they will incite positive change in others. For this Valentine’s edition of Heart Murmurs, I’ve interviewed four women who have lost love to the bottle. The fact that I was able to find them within my immediate circle of friends gives me great concern about our community. Helpful resources are listed at the end of this piece.
Q: Why is alcohol/alcoholism so destructive to a relationship?
AG: You can’t truly love someone unless you love yourself. I assume that alcoholics don’t love themselves and rely on a substance to satisfy their needs. Yes, I’m making an assumption here…maybe I don’t like that I didn’t fulfill that need in him, maybe I wanted to try my darnedest to help him, or maybe I just didn’t realize that I deserved better.
BP: The choice to numb your emotions instead of feel them stunts growth, both in the individual and in their relationships.
HU: The first thing I think of when you say that is that alcohol is just destructive. It completely traps people and holds them hostage to something, I don’t know what…maybe to their worst fears. If they’re trapped in a completely frozen relationship to themselves, they are not capable of being in a relationship with someone else.
RC: Stereotypical statement, I know, but alcoholics can make some very bad, usually selfish, decisions in relationships, whether with friends or significant others. The consequences affect the other person much more than themselves, and the other person is left to deal with these choices that are made when a person is wasted. It tears both people apart.
Q: What are the worst emotions associated with being in an alcohol-dominated relationship?
AG: Worry — wondering where he was, was he hurt, passed out, driving. Sadness — why did I love this person, what does it say about me? Embarrassment/anger — when I had to find someone to help me drag him out of the party to the car and then have to drag him from the car to my house.
BP: Confusion, frustration, anger, deep sadness, low self-esteem, shame, embarrassment…. Shall I continue?
HU: The pure devastation of alcoholism came across to me so much more from being a bartender, rather than the relationships, where the emotions were all very personal and two-sided. I would spend nights making conversations and connections with people who were completely intriguing, fascinating and talented, and because they were drinking they were willing to be open and vulnerable in this special way. But I knew that the next day they wouldn’t remember the conversations or stories they’d shared, or one ounce of the vulnerability that they’d been feeling that night. They would wake up with the exact same troubles and they would be brutally stuck.
RC: Severe insecurity, a constant state of unrest and anxiety, because trust becomes such an issue.
Q: Many people who love alcoholics have emotional issues of their own. Did that play a role in your relationship?
AG: I would say that I had anxiety and depression in the past. I’ve worked on these issues and have become more grounded, have surrounded myself with people who are compassionate. Really, to be so very present in the moment is something I remind myself of often. I’ve got to love myself, find joy in this short life, find happiness, contentment, peace…as well as being OK with all the hardship and struggle. I’ve got to find the balance.
BP: Absolutely. I have a history of abusing alcohol and pills, and have clinical anxiety. In my relationship, our mutual emotional problems became a tether. We were both tied to the drama of our situation and did things to sabotage ourselves, while being destructive to the other. This made it hard to break it off because I felt like a hypocrite, so that took me further into the cycle. Is this what they call co-dependence?
HU:: Oh. Yes. 150 percent. And I think this happened on two parallel tracks. One was that, having had substance abuse issues myself, I find it very hard to be attracted to people who aren’t broken in that way. It’s hard for me to have things in common with people who haven’t experienced the feeling of being self-destructive. Then the parallel is that I’m someone who’s recovered so I carry around this intense belief that people can recover. Because this personal experience I’ve had has been a defining moment in my life, I think I want to superimpose that onto people who aren’t attempting to recover at all. Pretty sick, right?
Q: Why is it so hard to end an alcoholic relationship?
BP: How can you give up on someone you love, your favorite person in the world and best friend? A desperate hope for change makes it feel impossible to leave. It’s also very complicated because relationships are a two-way street — you both make mistakes and do your own damage. It was really hard in the end because I didn’t want him to feel abandoned by me.
HU: They just involve a lot of deception. Alcoholics are deceiving themselves and as a part of that they have to deceive you into going along with their story. With that, there’s a lot of investment on both sides to give reality to the story. I felt like, “How can I do something as definitive as end this when I can’t even figure out the reality of what is happening here?”
RC: The person usually has lots of amazing qualities, and you are probably one of the few people who actually get to witness these traits at their core. You want to help them achieve their maximum potential and you try to validate staying to somehow get them to change, but alcohol clouds everything.
Q: What ended your relationship? Was there a “last straw?”
AG: I decided that I’d had enough and did not cave in when he tried to be with me once the hangover wore off. This was after numerous chances, breakups and makeups. There was a defining moment, when he showed up really late to a friend’s birthday party, wasted, with a fractured ankle. It was not only my own emotions that were hurt but the fact that he let down his friends often. I found it necessary to stand strong behind my decision to leave him permanently. That was one of the last days he drank. Shortly after, he decided that AA was the right program to help him stay sober. He invited me to a meeting a few months into his recovery. After that meeting, I went to his one-year token anniversary and two-year anniversary. Both times he handed over the tokens and told me to keep them because if it hadn’t been for me, he wouldn’t have had a reason to quit.
BP: There’s a long, dramatic story that I could tell, but ultimately I just finally got the courage to choose my own well-being over the terror of not being loved.
RC: It was just one day I decided I was done. I had lost myself and my own goals and aim in life, and stopped doing things that made me happy. I was tired of trying to morph my life into someone else’s.
Q: What is your hope for love in the future?
BP: I hope love will prevail. Yep, I’m still in denial. Xanax, please.
HU: I’m gonna cornball out here and say that the thing I spend most time thinking about now is the way that I love myself and take care of myself. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want a relationship, but in terms of things that I pine for and making things happen in my life, it’s all about my relationship to myself…which is good, I guess.
RC: At this moment I am very hopeful. After years of being in bad relationships, I have finally found someone who appreciates me and wants to make me happy, and it is a world of difference.
Q: Do you have any advice for people who are in an alcoholic relationship?
AG: Decide if you are truly happy. What is your own motivation for drinking? Express your feelings, and if they are not heard or respected, then stand your ground.
BP: Alcoholics will convince you that you’re overreacting and that there’s not really a problem. If something doesn’t feel right, then it’s not.
HU: I’m sure there are people out there who are healthy, functional human beings who are completely in love with someone who’s trying to destroy themselves or freeze time. And they have some way to separate themselves from this and they are totally satisfied with that arrangement, but I have never been able to wrap my head around that, so it seems kinda tricky to me. I don’t know, if you’re going to commit to loving someone with this disease, maybe you’ll have to drink a lot, too.
Belinda Rose is a pseudonym.