BY CHRISTIE PASCHAKIS, ACUMEN GUEST EDITOR
The four words you never want to hear your partner say, and yet there they were – hovering over me as I sat on my bed and pressed my cell phone closer to my ear.
He must have realized his error, his lapse in judgment with his choice of phrase, and went on to quickly assure me that no, he hadn't called to break up our relationship after only three years, but that I may be the one to end things after what he had to say.
I vividly remember the feeling of my heart rate picking up, of my chest constricting. If what he had to tell me would possibly result in my leaving him, surely this was a conversation best to be had in person.
Except that wasn’t possible. He had been lying in a bed in a hospital emergency room when he hastily called. But what he had to tell me couldn't wait until after he was discharged. He didn't want to risk someone else telling me first…
I seldom divulged details of my past relationships. The times I had were mainly to reminisce over a funny story or a happy memory. Some may call that selective secrecy, but I had always deemed it as self-preservation. I’m a firm believer that hanging onto anger, regret and resentment only inflicts harm to the person holding onto them.
Focus on the good, learn from the unpleasant, and let all that is broken lie locked up in a box, buried deep in the recesses of your past.
I believed that to speak openly about a specific, past relationship was to be vulnerable. To expose those years of my life for others to pick over, analyze or critique, while stirring up emotions within me by acknowledging it at all; feelings of shame, hurt, failure, and an overall debilitating anxiety of being viewed by others as dim, or weak.
Yes, that was most terrifying fear of all.
Yet, as with most things, coping mechanisms change over time; and that’s what happened with me.
A couple of years ago, I attended a free workshop on Kintsugi – the Japanese art form of repairing broken pottery using gold. The idea behind this, the instructor had said, was that by embracing and not discarding flaws and imperfections, you are able to create a more beautiful, solid, and unique piece of art.
The art of Kintsugi can be viewed as a metaphor for how we can create a stronger, more resilient version of ourselves by accepting what we believe to be our ‘broken pieces’ but, in order to truly embrace them, we first have to be willing to be vulnerable. After all, vulnerability is about healing or repairing your broken parts and accepting them as part of who you are, and not the sum of who you are.
Once I began openly embracing my vulnerabilities, I found that speaking about my experience came quite naturally. It no longer felt like a part of me that I had to keep hidden or locked away out of fear of judgment. And if sharing a part of my history would aid in someone else feeling seen, heard, and that their story – and they – matter, then how could that possibly be deemed as anything other than a strength?
“For the past couple of years,” he had breathed shakily into the receiver, “I've been taking OxyContin…”
At that point everything he said became like white noise. I can only assume he was explaining how he had wound up in the emergency room. I could faintly hear his voice cracking as he spoke, as though he was trying desperately not to cry, but he sounded as though he was underwater, because all I could hear was this loud, wind-like sound that continued to reverberate against my eardrum.
It took me a few moments to realize that the sound was coming from me. That my breathing had become so erratic, I was on the precipice of a panic attack.
“I'm addicted to them,” his words cut their way through the sound, “and I’ve hit rock bottom, and I’m so sorry. They're keeping me in for the night here to monitor me and they've given me something to help with the withdrawal. Please don’t hate me. I couldn’t take it if you hated me…”
Three years into our relationship, my then-partner admitted to having become dependent on opioids. Even though he had hidden his addiction rather well beneath anti-depressants — medication that was, in contrast to the opiates, legally obtained by him for a diagnosed medical condition, I felt foolish and naïve to speak about it to anyone.
Following his call from the hospital, my mind had begun constantly replaying moments from the previous two years where I had suspected that something had been off but could never quite put my finger on just what it was.
But the more I had continued to think about it, the more I realized just how obvious it was that he had developed an addiction to something, and it wasn’t to his prescribed anti-depressants. The flu-like symptoms that would routinely plague him, the lethargy, the poor sleep patterns, the extreme fatigue and the way he would nod off to sleep sporadically throughout the day, the constant mood swings, the way he would always scratch at his arms to relieve an itch, and those had been just the physical signs. The way he slowly removed himself from his circle of friends and had become disinterested in activities he once cared about. I berated myself for being so oblivious to those signs. They had, after all, been staring me in the face.
But in the initial days of his addiction to OxyContin coming to the forefront, he also wasn’t exempt from my anger; anger that was more than just him having kept this a secret from me. He had lied, for years, by claiming that it was his anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication that were the cause of his side effects. Side effects that he would snidely dismiss as being part of my overactive imagination when I had questioned him about them.
Alongside the berating and the anger, there was the overall feeling of unease. If he could so easily lie, and hide his addiction to opiates from me for two years, what else could he possibly be lying about or keeping from me? This distrust began to build at that point, and it never went away.
When I went to see him the day after he was discharged from the hospital, I hadn’t made up my mind on what my decision would be. Was being the partner to someone who suffered from an addiction something that I could handle? I, of course, felt compelled by love and loyalty to stay and support him, believing that one did not walk away from someone they cared about the moment things became tricky. Even though I wasn’t an expert on the subject, I had been aware that addictions to substances are brain disorders which also have multiple underlying psychological, biological, and environmental complexities. And yet, the knowledge that I would be out of my depth continued to weigh heavily on my mind.
I can't remember the details of the conversation or how long we sat on his couch talking, but seeing him during the initial stages of withdrawal – the sweating, the clammy skin and the body shakes – had been deeply unsettling. How could I be so cruel to even think about leaving him when he was in such obvious pain and distress?
For his part, he kept insisting that I should walk away; that he wouldn't blame me if I did. But the look on his face seemed to plead for me to stay. I may still have had an assortment of emotions running through me, but I had made my decision. I knew it would be a long and rough road, and that there would undoubtedly be a learning curve ahead, but I chose to believe that as long as he had my unconditional love and support he, and we, would get through this. I didn’t have to be an expert on addiction to support him. I just had to care.
When reminiscing back on that day, a couple of years into his recovery, he had told me that despite what he had said, he hadn’t wanted me to walk away. He told me he only had my best interests at heart.
And he had been so convincing that I believed him.
The truth is, I feel that our relationship had always been just another drug to him, even in its infancy and prior to the addiction to opiates. I had been emotionally invested in him, he knew it, and over time I had unknowingly become another propellant to his addiction. I would cover for him to his friends, continuing to make excuses as to why he wasn’t returning their calls or emails, without question. I would be the one traveling to his place, often being the one spending my hard-earned money on food and take-out, and for things for us, while he would spend the money he had in savings on things for himself.
But the threat of my leaving or walking away seemed to come up quite a bit over the course of our relationship and rarely, if ever, by me. It always seemed to arise when there was a conflict between us during the varying stages of his recovery, and particularly towards the end when I finally made a conscious effort to stop being the proverbial doormat in our relationship.
I had come to realize that the conversation we had on his couch, the day after he told me he had an addiction to OxyContin, was the day eggshells had been scattered along the floor of our relationship and, despite some pushback, I never truly stopped walking on them until months after we split, almost four years later.
The journey through his treatment was, as expected, a rough road. Very few people in either of our families knew the truth and even fewer friends. I continued to protect him and his secret from those around me and had no one to really speak to, who knew us both, and who I could potentially lean on when I needed someone. As a result, I started to isolate myself from my own friends, and he slowly became my sole focus and priority.
We would argue more, and I would find myself always being the one to relent. There was always that nagging voice in my head – which often sounded like his – reminding me that my adding stress while he was in such a fragile state would push him back into a relapse. I became overwhelmed with constant feelings of guilt, exhaustion, helplessness, and as a result, I continued to withdraw from my own friends and family. My life became focused on my career and him.
At some point during this time, I know there were times I had stopped liking him even though I hadn’t stopped loving him. His mood swings and gaslighting and bouts of self-pity became all-consuming and suffocating. The constant rut we were in became unlivable.
It was at that stage when things finally took a turn. He suddenly became more motivated in his treatment and recovery. It couldn’t have come at a better time, as I knew that my compassion had been exhausted, and was dangerously swaying on its last legs.
I know he remained clean from opioids, following this turnaround, for the remainder of our relationship over the next two and a half years. And while we had some semblance of normality and some happy times going forward from that time, in retrospect I will say that this was still one of the hardest periods for me as his partner. Despite the progress and despite the sobriety, I never stopped walking on those eggshells – always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Always waiting for the possibility of being ‘the cause’ of a pending relapse.
I never seemed to stop feeling like an enabler, even in his sobriety. I continued to feel helpless, angry, frustrated, fed up, elated, or relieved. In fact, every emotion I experienced had been closely tied to my ex and where he happened to be on the journey of his addiction and subsequent recovery.
I didn’t realize it at the time of course; I had been far too wrapped up in my empathy and compassion for him – in feeling for him – with supporting him in his quest to overcome his addiction to opioids.
It wasn’t until we decided to call it quits on our relationship, a few years into his sobriety, that I was able to look back on the toxicity that plagued the relationship, without the rose-tinted glasses, and accept the harsh truth: that in the process of supporting him in his recovery from an addiction, I had become plagued with one myself. His sobriety journey became my drug of choice. Every victory on his path, no matter how minor, felt like my very own drug high and, as a result, I had unceremoniously discarded my own ambitions – along with my wants and desires – to the backburner of my life for the majority of our seven-year relationship, in order to continue feeling those short bursts of elation and euphoria.
The reality of that had plagued me for years afterwards. I grieved for the time I deemed to have ‘wasted’ in that relationship. To all the trips and outings with my friends that I declined partaking in; the opportunities to make certain passions of mine a reality including becoming a vocal advocate to various societal issues that I deeply cared about. And with that grief ultimately came the regrets and the what ifs. I regretted choosing to stay in a relationship where the love I selflessly gave to him had never truly been appreciated or reciprocated. How did I allow myself to lose pieces of who I was all for the sake of – what I believed to be – love?
What if I had walked away when the fog had settled following his recovery? When his true self began breaking through the mask he had worn as a shield for years? When I stopped liking him, even if I hadn’t stopped loving him?
Would I perhaps have met someone else? Someone who was capable of loving me in the way I had loved him? Or was I fooling myself into ever believing I deserved anything more than what I had? Was I ever even capable of being loved unconditionally?
The truth is I don’t know if I would, or will, be able to ever answer those questions. What I do know, is that living in the regrets and the ‘what ifs’ would only have kept me trapped in the perpetual cycle of my own ‘addiction’ and continue to tie my future to him and his recovery.
And that simply was not an option for me.
In the initial years that followed our breakup, I chose to sweep up all the fragmented pieces of myself that were left behind in the dying embers of our relationship and box them away – out of sight, out of mind – but, upon discovering and embracing the art of Kintsugi, I decided, instead, to repair those broken pieces and create something sturdier.
By embracing my vulnerabilities and speaking candidly about my experience, I know I am now a stronger, more resilient version of myself than ever before.
Choosing to stay in that relationship served to make me a more compassionate and empathetic person than I had been, both to those who suffer from substance abuse disorders, and those who love them. That is an outcome I could never regret.
In the same way, it is important to openly talk about addiction in order to help lift the stigmas that surround it and often stand in the way of their reaching out for support, it is important for those who love someone who suffers from an addiction to openly talk about their experience.
No, they are not easy topics to talk about. But talk about, and encourage talking about them, regardless.
Talking and listening is how we give permission to feel; a way to encourage connection. It is a way for those who are struggling to feel seen, heard, and valued.
Talking and listening may very well be the gold that helps piece someone’s broken shards back together.
Be the gold.