Growing up, I was shown that love is synonymous with giving yourself away to others, for if I didn’t put other people first, I’d somehow be unworthy of them. Through monogamy and then polyamory, I didn’t know the most important lesson in healthy relationships was that I had to actively, radically, and intentionally, love myself first on my way to understanding what nurturing and soul-filling relationships with others could be.

Polyamory, like any relationship, requires conflict resolution and communication. We blossom when we assume positive intent on behalf of the person with whom we’re in a relationship. We grow when we seek to understand and listen. We flourish when we feel welcome to express our needs and have them met with compassion, when we have our boundaries heard and respected, and when our spiritual growth is advocated for.

I waded into the world of polyamory in the form of two relationships and several casual partners while my alcohol use disorder accelerated and my self-love was at the lowest it had ever been. My day-to-day consisted of vacillating between two extreme states of being: hyper and hypo arousal with a foundation of negative self-esteem. I thought that if I poured enough booze, food, and other people’s love into me that I would somehow feel okay. (I wasn’t.)

Polyamory, like any relationship, requires conflict resolution and communication.

Being hyper-aroused meant I was often in a state of mental and physical overstimulation and complete overwhelm just from day-to-day life. I worked for a global tech company, lived in a big city, had multiple relationships and love interests to tend to, and a sense of unease in my gut over the fact I still hadn’t fully come out as queer and polyamorous to most people.

My panic and anxiety disorders only made this white-hot, tense feeling clamp down on the back of my neck harder. Day in and day out, drinking was my release valve — a chance to forget the grip in my chest of self-loathing and numb the fear of being seen, risking rejection for loving differently than the norm.

I was able to take the pressure off by disappearing into a bottle of wine or whiskey at queer house parties or in a Chicago dive bar, attempting to bring my hyperarousal down to a balance. I felt fleeting, temporary relief. I could facilitate what I thought was freedom: I could kiss my queer partners in public when I was drinking. I could tell my coworkers I had two boyfriends when I was drinking. I could be brave when I was drinking.

After drinking, I’d dip down into a hungover shame spiral of lethargy, where I would stay until I was triggered by a snarky email from a colleague or someone accidentally stepping on me in the subway. Then I’d ride the hyperarousal train back up to needing a drink (or eight) to calm the F down again.

It was exhausting. Attempting relationship conflict resolution in the midst of alcohol misuse meant the majority of my grievances or fears were shared while inebriated or in a low, fearsome headspace. And because they would be drinking alongside me and we didn’t have language for concepts like “attachment theory” or “trauma” or “boundaries.” Arguments with my partners were painful. For multiple days afterward, we’d pick up the pieces, still stunned by the fight.

When I quit drinking I decided to build a life I wouldn’t want to escape from.

I didn’t know how to articulate my needs when I felt insecure or jealous. Starting polyamory from a deficit made me feel like I wasn’t good at it. It made my partners question if it was something I really wanted for myself and quietly, it made me wonder if I deserved to be in any kind of relationship with anyone else at all.

When I quit drinking I decided to build a life I wouldn’t want to escape from. I had to heal myself from the inside, out. I started going to therapy. I attended a weekly self-esteem therapy group. I took my physical health seriously as a way to gain endorphins and feel strong and badass. I ate whole foods and cooked; journaled and fostered authentic and deep friendships with people I wasn’t sleeping with. I made art and learned how to listen for and follow my intuition. 

As I started to make my relationship with myself a priority and feel my body return to a state of calm and stasis, I was better able to articulate and communicate my needs to my partners. I was no longer pouring into others from an empty vessel: I filled myself with myself.

I understand my triggers better now and have begun to address the root trauma of where they came from. I try not to project them onto my partners (or their partners) anymore. At the very least, I’m able to articulate them and soothe myself faster when I’m tripped up. I value time alone with myself as precious and sacred — I love the relationship I’m in with myself and view my committed partnerships with other people in my life as secondary to that of the one I have with myself. In fact, I recently shared with my live-in partner of seven years (who I’m also married to), that I need my own apartment. 

I understand my triggers better now and have begun to address the root trauma of where they came from.

I continue to liberate and learn new things about myself. I never would have been able to advocate for my needs of living in my own place (alone time, the option to choose who I see and when to not share domestic responsibilities) and move through this season of change with the level-headedness, compassion, and grace that’s been required, had I not put the bottle down and focused on returning to love of myself. I am firm yet compassionate. 

My growth hasn’t been in a vacuum. My long term partners watched my transformation and deepening of contentment over my years of sobriety. They’ve borrowed some of my self-care tools: therapy, physical fitness, and cooking, finding a meditation practice, expressing their needs and boundaries in healthy ways. 

My growth spurred their growth, and in turn, we’ve all benefited from healthier brains and improved self-esteem, which made our polyamory and ability to interact with, relate to, do conflict resolution, and love each other far better than when we were drunk fighting. Most of our fights are no longer catastrophic events that leave us wounded in separate corners, crawling back to each other.

There have been many tears, many difficult conversations, so much grieving, many moments staring, open-mouthed with hands-on-hips, shaking our heads, and saying “this is so fucking hard”. But as Adrienne Maree Brown says, “We learn to love by loving”. By learning to love myself radically I was better able to actively love my partners and continue to teach them how I need to be loved.