We will regain control of our lives.
“Do they know my name,” he asked, “the people in your group?” It was summer in Texas. I unpeeled my thighs from the driver’s seat and crossed the street toward my daughter’s school. “They know your first name,” I said, wondering if it was true, if it was just his first name they knew. In the early days of recovery for sex and love addiction, as I was learning the ropes of what to say and what not to say, of what twelve-step anonymity really looked like while spilling your secrets to a room full of strangers, I may have said more. Too much. First and last names. I changed the subject back to talking about us, about him and me, about our bodies and what they would do if they could.
We will begin to feel dignity and respect for ourselves.
I sent him a picture of my daughter and her friend eating ice cream on a park bench. I took my daughter and her friend to the mall, and to the movies, sat in the dark and didn’t see a single image on the screen while they giggled and tossed popcorn at each other. “I’m about to hit withdrawal,” I wrote him. “Withdrawal from what?” “From you.”
“This is the best day ever!” my daughter said later, as I paid for another sweet or toy, as I gave her whatever she needed to allow me to text, talk, and think about the man for a few more minutes.
The Loneliness will subside, and we will begin to enjoy being alone.
At night when I can’t sleep, I imagine I’m being swallowed by darkness; I’m being consumed. This thought terrifies me. I stare at the ceiling and try to trick my heart into a normal rhythm by taking deep slow breaths, then holding my breath for eight seconds at a time. As my husband sleeps, I count one, two, three… Then later, when my heart won’t quit, I count backwards from one hundred, then five hundred, then a thousand. I pray. Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. I put the accent on the “e” in hallowed, dragging out the vowel under my breath. I break out in sweat—at my hairline, under my pajamas. I kick off the sheets, careful not to wake my husband. I think being alone at night must be what hell is like.
We will no longer be plagued by an unceasing sense of longing.
When I was six, my grandfather died of cancer. I didn’t know he was sick, so one day he was hoisting me on his shoulders, doling out Ritz crackers and pouring paper cups full of warm Coca-Cola, and the next, it seemed, he was gone. After his death, I started singing on the school bus as it bounced along the tree-lined streets of our suburb. I sang to the radio the driver played to keep her company. I sang “The Rainbow Connection” from The Muppet Movie, which was popular at the time. I sang loudly enough for the other children to notice and snicker. I sang harder as they laughed. Or maybe I didn’t. Maybe it was just in my mind. But I liked the way it felt to miss someone, to want someone very badly to return to me, someone irretrievably gone. My singing was part séance. I checked my reflection in the grimy bus window, adjusted my expression, and continued.
In the company of family and friends, we will be with them in body and mind.
After the ice cream cones are gone, my daughter says, “Play kickball with us.” I know she is expecting me to say no. She puts her hands on her small hips. My nose is pressed to the screen of my phone. “Play kickball with us,” she repeats. I put down my phone and jog over to the ball, remembering I have a body. I enjoy the way it feels to move. I pretend to be a mother playing kickball—I jog and stop, kick and leap. I wonder what the man would think if he saw me like this. I leap higher. Kick harder.
We will pursue interests and activities that we desire for ourselves.
I can’t do yoga, something I used to enjoy, because I’m distracted by others in their leggings and tank tops. I’m distracted by the work of their long, flat muscles and by the roll of flesh at my waistband. I think of what combination of diet and exercise would eliminate the roll of flesh and if I have enough time to accomplish this elimination before I see the man again, if I see the man again. As I walk my dog, I tally the other parts of me that will need to be eliminated—my seriousness, my wardrobe of boxy black t-shirts, my opinions. I pass renovated cottages in my neighborhood, and the rows and rows of new homes built to look like renovated cottages. Each home is an iteration of a life decision someone made, a direction taken. If I had not chosen the below-market-value, two-story townhouse, for example, maybe I would have the renovated cottage. If I hadn’t chosen to go to graduate school, maybe I’d have more children. If I had more children, I wouldn’t have time to become obsessed with a man who is not my husband. If I had not chosen X, I might have Y. But I will never have Y. The man will have Y and I will read about it on the internet. A mutual friend who doesn’t know about our relationship—the messages, the photos, the phone calls—texts to tell me she heard the man will have Y, and maybe Z, and aren’t we happy for him?
Love will be a committed, thoughtful decision rather than a feeling by which we are overwhelmed.
I’d been married fourteen years by then. Fourteen years of not looking with lust upon another as I’d promised my husband on the November night we were married. Rain pounded the candle-lit glass conservatory and we stood under a wall of flowers. Forsaking all others. Well, thirteen and a half years of that.
We will Love and Accept ourselves.
I begin taking pictures of license plates with my initials in them. I see these license plates almost daily. I’d never seen my initials in a license plate before, and then they were everywhere. I know this is just the way the Texas Department of Public Safety is running license plates this year—starting with the letter “C”—but I think it might be a message from God, or from the man—but it doesn’t matter which because they are one and the same to me now. We say this in meetings a lot: love addiction is a spiritual disease. And anyway, I don’t understand the message. Is God saying I will heal? That one day there will be a single moment without this pain? Or is the message I’m a whore and a sinner? I should forget the man. Pray for forgiveness. Repent. Or is the message wherever he is on earth, the man is thinking about me? Maybe still longing for me. I begin taking pictures of myself and the pages of books attractively lit by sunlight, or a candle. I take pictures of bad internet poems and some good poems, too, by Pablo Neruda and Anne Carson. I photograph what I think he will like, such as the widening space between my thighs, the slope of my hipbone. There are whole categories of food I now righteously refuse—grains, wheat, dairy, beans. I claim I have a series of allergies that can only be managed by diet. My body is vanishing, the roll at the waistband now immaterial. I’m proud of my new body. I take picture after picture and post the best ones to Instagram. I hope he will see them and regret every decision he’s ever made that did not bring him closer me.
We will relate to others from a state of wholeness.
I hear something read in a meeting from a book considered accepted program literature, though some of the old-timers, those with more than a few years of sobriety, guffaw because it’s not official program literature. “Withdrawal is the beginning of an understanding of oneself as one-self—” the person reads, “an autonomous human being with wants and desires apart from the drug.” Several people exhale, nod heads, click their tongues. When the drug is out of the system, we know, we are left to face ourselves. When the buzz fades, and pain dulls and we’ve become recalibrated—when sober is no longer murderously boring, but normal—what then? If I removed the parts of myself I’ve added for love—the sort of music I like, the way I drink coffee, even my religion—all the things I became for men—there would be nothing left. The man who is not my husband likes trees and though I’ve been fascinated by trees before I was by him, I let him think this tree-interest connects us. I let myself think it. My city is full of trees—Crape myrtle, Live Oak, Black Gum, American Sycamore. I look at them and ache. This does not feel like wholeness.
We will extend ourselves to nurture our own spiritual growth and that of others.
I am a professional religious person; I’ve been a music minster for more than ten years. I have a sponsor in the program now, and am working the steps, but of course no one at my church knows about this. At church, it’s easy to say nothing, but on meeting nights, I tell my husband I’m going for dinner with friends. Or to group therapy, or the grocery store though I always return empty handed. While I’m working on step ten, I’m hired to speak to a group of young people on a summer retreat. They are about to embark on careers in ministry, and I’m supposed to use my decade of experience to relay something encouraging to them. I choose “spiritual doubt” as my topic—the dark night of the soul every thinking person who is also religious eventually comes to: how can this preposterous story be true? And if it’s not true, or only partly true, what then? This feels like the only thing I can talk about with honesty. The young ministers, in their running shorts and ponytails and sunburns, look so hopeful. I tell them the truest thing about Christianity is something has to die in order for something else to be born. Our fantasies—of who we think we are, who we think God is—don’t survive. Life is too hard. We build God in our own image, or in someone else’s, and people change. The young ministers blink at me. No one leaves.
We will make peace with our past and make amends to those we have harmed.
My therapist wants me to ask my sponsor if she thinks it would be a good idea to tell my husband about the man. First, I say, “No. No way.” Then the therapist nods and restates her question. If I want my marriage to survive, and I do, I have to tell him. I have to give up the fantasy. In bed, when my husband reaches for my hips, drags the heel of his hand over my thigh, I tell myself wanting him isn’t enough to keep us together. But I do want him, and inside the want everything else is obliterated.
We will be thankful for what has been given us, what has been taken away, and what has been left behind.
In my secret mind I saw him; I spoke to him every day. I wrote letters. I imagined how we might see each other in person, and what might happen if we did. Then I began to see other things, the things that composed my actual life.
I saw a fingerprint on a silver chalice, full to the brim with communion wine. This is my blood, poured out for you. I saw a wafer swallowed whole, never chewed. This is my body, broken for you.
I saw my daughter, crying at the playground, her knee bruised, sweat on her forehead and temples. I saw ice cream in the corners of her mouth.
Eventually minutes, hours, days, and months passed, and during some of them I did not think of the man and when I did, I felt no pain; I felt nothing. Sometimes I would listen to songs or read poems to see if I could conjure the longing again, like you’d tongue the socket where a tooth was pulled, but I’d soon become distracted by a news story on the radio, a gust of wind blowing a branch across my driveway. I unraveled the braid I made of God and this man. I teased the strands apart and walked away from them both. I rebuilt God. I rebuilt my marriage. I left one church and joined another. Each week at the new church we pray the confession together in unison, and sometimes some of the words are like life rafts, at other times, like reading the back of a cereal box. My body found itself again, but sometimes I still try to trick myself into disappearing. I’m working on this. I don’t go to meetings anymore, not regularly. I miss them, but I’m okay. I’m stronger. I know what my old friends in the program would think if they read this—it’s just when you walk away, thinking you don’t need it, that you relapse. But, so far so good. It’s been four years.
This summer my daughter is almost thirteen. She plays on a soccer team, enjoys volleyball in the yard or at the beach. She is tall and strong and afraid of nothing. We throw the ball together. We spike our serves and dive into the sand to return them. No one is watching, and no one is taking pictures. We leap and kick and laugh just for each other, for ourselves.
Rumpus original art by Sumayya Ansari.
Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, interviews, and book reviews we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.