There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning.” – Louis L ’Amour
Eighteen years ago the world I’d always trusted came crashing down on me. I had been engaged for about five days when I discovered that the man I loved had a substance abuse problem. The next year included therapy, extreme weight loss, multiple occasions of drug use discovery, and severe panic attacks until we both realized that his addiction was slowly killing our relationship – which by now had become a marriage.
Why did I marry my fiancé just as I was learning he had a substance abuse problem? We honestly believed we loved each other as much as a marriage would ever need. Plus, I had never met an addict before — he wasn’t like any addicts you see on TV. He went to work. He helped around the house. He was brilliant and funny. He was also tortured. And I was absolutely certain that I could love him enough to save him.
We went to doctors, chiropractors and a psychiatrist renowned for treating anxiety-induced addiction. We took yoga and behavior-modification; we held hands and cried and went to couples therapy. Pretty soon I realized I had a problem — I wasn’t able to separate myself from my husband. Whatever he was feeling, I was feeling, too. Within months I had dropped 10 pounds, too, and I was having panic attacks – like the one in the hardware store, where I sat huddled on an aisle floor while they paged my husband over the PA. This was not like me – responsible, confident, Type-A. I began going to therapy myself.
It was the worst first year of marriage I could imagine. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.
For 12 years we did the co-dependent dance. My husband would stop doing drugs. He would make promises and we would make progress. Then I would notice that something was off. I would ask if he was doing drugs and he would tell me no. Then I would feel bad for thinking he was doing drugs. Eventually, I would discover the drug use, and I’d feel like Charlie Brown when Lucy promises not to take the football away. But we never stopped trying to rebuild our relationship.
Over the next several years I learned what “enabling” meant. I realized I had a need to save people and the capacity to forgive my husband and myself over and over again when trust was betrayed. Until one day, I thought maybe I didn’t want to do this anymore. But we had a son by now – a miracle – and I could not imagine breaking up his family.
Things got worse before they got bitter. I fanned a flame of resentment that acted like a wall around my heart. I didn’t want to keep loving my husband because I didn’t want to get hurt again. I thought I’d stay in that state of limbo forever.
Then one day, I discovered once again that my husband was using, and suddenly I saw the possibility of divorce from a totally different perspective. This time I didn’t think, “how can I do this to my son?” but rather, “how can I NOT do this FOR my son?”
For the first time I felt empowered enough to make a healthy change. My husband and I separated in November. It was the end of everything. And that’s when it all really began.
Within two months, on his own accord, my husband checked himself into rehab. He worked hard and went to meetings and moved to a halfway house. My son and I visited, attended meetings, supported his dad, and learned to live without him. It was the saddest time of our lives; yet I felt better than I had in years.
After a year of trying to hold onto our marriage, my husband and I decided to divorce. We took a deep breath, smiled shakily at each other, and committed to creating a divorce based on a strong, supportive friendship.
And we have. It hasn’t always been easy, but when things got tense, one of us would inevitably remember that just about nothing was worth not being friends.
I told my ex that I was sorry; that all I had wanted to do was save him. He turned to me and said, “Maybe you did.”
My son’s dad is healthy now. He’s a thoughtful co-parent, a father who is more than just “present” — he’s involved. He has stood by my side through the tough adolescent times and I have to tell you, we are closer friends than we were when we were married.
Our family looks different now. There’s my ex, one of my best friends. There’s our son, remarkably well-adjusted and mostly unaware of how non-traditional this divorce is. And there’s my boyfriend, the proof of how far I’ve come in choosing partners. He is fully capable, does not need saving, and lets me rest the world on his shoulders once in a while. On any given night you might see all of us hanging out, having dinner or celebrating something one of us accomplished. My friends and family are amazed; my dad thinks we’re crazy, and some of my acquaintances are probably appalled. But I think it’s a testament to the fact that just when you think everything is finished … that is just the beginning.