The Calgary Journal
The Calgary Journal

A reporter's struggle to stop trying to help others and focus on herself

thumb JClark codependency2Romantic relationships are difficult for me.

Well, they are tough for everybody. But if Shakespeare were around, soliciting for ideas on his next tragedy, he would turn to me for inspiration.

After breakups, friends and family offer me the same unsolicited advice, "It's not you; it's him."

But it's not him; it's me. I fall in love with alcoholics.

A vicious cycle

I learned in an introductory psychology class that alcoholism is a disease. And the symptoms — like depression and guilt — flare up with such persistence that it was something I almost became accustomed to.

Imagine meeting a charming, charismatic guy at a bar on Friday evening. You like all the same music and movies. You understand one another with such complexity it almost feels scripted. He compliments you. He's sincere. You swoon.

"It's heartbreaking to be the centre of someone's universe one moment and then ignored the next."
—Jessica Clark

A few months into your relationship things are still splendid. You make plans to have dinner at his house. You show up, and that wonderful man you knew sober has transformed into another person — an angry, self-loathing former shell of himself. He is red-eyed, sitting on the couch in his underwear, anger emanates from him.

You're not sure what's wrong. But you, and he, convince each other that the blame is yours to bear.

You listen while he laments his life. He spent his last $20 on a case of beer. Can he borrow some cash until the end of the month?

The morning after is filled with sober apologies and I love you. But it's only a temporary holding pattern until the next depressed, gin-soaked episode.

A timeline of lovers

There was one guy, whose occasional binge drinking left him passed out on the bathroom floor, lips pressed on the toilet. Another came to bed with the taste of rum on his mouth — he kept a bottle under the bathroom sink. And the next, who was an intellectual with a penance for Guinness, fought to prove futile points and had long stretches of disappearing without notice. One played manipulation games, he convinced me I would never do better. I was not worth more.

There were nights where I was convinced I had defected into madness. I awoke to dozens of hungover mornings, feasted on coffee and Advil, my lips stained with red wine. I went to sleep, exhausted from sobbing, my throat sore from screaming for attention.

There were endless cycles where we hated one another and loved one another, fought and made up repeatedly.

Part of me felt that my presence was making a difference. But I was simply another twisted enabler.

I loaned obscene amounts of money, indebted my credit card at liquor stores, kept quiet while they flirted with other women, bailed them out of jail, mediated fist fights, held my tongue when they took their anger out on me, assured them I loved them for all of their faults.

And in return, was assured of their love for me — assured that I was the only thing in their lives that mattered, but I would always take a backseat to their vice.

Admitting the problem

This revelation manifested last summer. My mother — seeing my self-destructive behaviour, sensing I was unhappy — took me aside for an intervention.

My father is a recovering alcoholic, so my mom knows the warning signs. She is a veteran of the co-dependent. She offered her wisdom. "You need to confront the issue. Until you deal with everything you will always, always attract alcoholics. It's all you've ever known."

Her words made me furious. This meant acknowledging I had a problem — when clearly, it was the alcoholics around me who had the issue. It's not me; it's them.

But things had begun in a slow progression, and I was conditioned to think that this hurt and disappointment was normal. And that I was not worth more. If my relationships failed then it was a matter of my inability to provide support and comfort to the addict. I blamed myself.

It was all I'd ever known.

A chance to heal

I long to hold onto the wonderful men I first fell in love with — those loving, attentive and exciting individuals with whom I spent long evenings discussing literature. I missJClarkPart of me felt that my presence was making a difference. But I was simply another twisted enabler.
Photo by: Jessica Clark
humid summer nights on patios listening to live music, walks along the river, road trips to rural destinations and dancing to jazz in living rooms.

It's heartbreaking to be the centre of someone's universe one moment and then ignored the next. But that feeling of love is something I'm trying to build from within.

The dialogue has started.

The greatest challenge is accepting that the addict's behaviour has nothing to do with me. When he goes off on a guilt-trip, or begins a game of manipulation, it's not my burden to bear. I have the strength to distance myself, and when I cannot muster that strength I have support from those closest to me.

I loved these men — I will always love these men.

Now, I'm finding ways to love myself.

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