When my former partner was drinking and using, I was full of resentment. No, full isn’t quite the word. I vibrated with resentment. I could feel it from my chest all the way to my fingertips. Even though I was drinking heavily too, and occasionally using drugs, my problem wasn’t as bad as his, and the disparity enabled me to dwell in perpetual victimhood. I felt preyed upon by his unreliability.
Each day, I mentally cataloged my complaints about him, which lay along a spectrum from everyday gripes (he left the gas tank empty; he took twenty bucks from my wallet) to deep philosophical differences (he didn’t seem to value his own life or mine). I lamented that our entire relationship had been affected by his alcohol and opiate addictions. For years, I supported him financially, working full-time and part-time while raising my kids, and it felt deeply unfair. Some days, I was seized by a wave of righteous anger so potent it felt like a bright white light blotting out everything else.
My partner had found sobriety a few times before, with my “help.” Or at least that’s what I thought. The cycle had become predictable: after some crisis or other, I’d plead for him to stop using and start going to meetings and, afraid to lose the relationship, he would do it. During those short bursts of sobriety, I cheered him on, loaning him my car so he could get to meetings and see his sponsor. I celebrated each milestone. At thirty days, we toasted with Martinelli’s. At the three-month mark, we went to his favorite restaurant. I was genuinely proud of him, and I felt surges of hope that the life we’d talked about leading together could finally begin. When he relapsed after these hopeful periods, I felt terrible for him, and for myself. And I grew even angrier as life became unmanageable again.
Then, finally, he got sober and stayed that way. It wasn’t because I’d begged. It was just because he was ready. He started getting up earlier instead of staying up all night getting high and watching TV. He put a weight bench in the garage and started working out every day. He smelled like chewing gum instead of vodka, and for weeks, I couldn’t let him pass by me without kissing him. He was back! This was what I had stayed for, what I had dreamed of. For a period of a few months, I felt the usual elation, and I showered him with affection and rewarded him with elaborate meals and sex.
But around the six-month mark — a longer stretch of sobriety than he’d achieved in a long time — my old resentment returned. This time, it was different. I resented that it hadn’t been me who catalyzed the change, but a sober friend (who soon became his sponsor). I resented that his phone lit up every few minutes with messages from his new friends from the rooms. So many new names — some girls’ names. Did they know this new version of him better than me? Would one of them soon replace me? Now it wasn’t his hangovers bothering me, the sunny days he’d spend watching Netflix with the shades drawn. It was the seemingly ceaseless meetings, post-meeting breakfasts, phone calls. I felt superfluous. Hadn’t I worked so hard, waited so long for this exact thing? Why wasn’t it making me happy?
Moreover, I didn’t like that his pursuit of his own wellbeing threw my drinking — all of my choices, really — into stark relief. I’d continued drinking after he got sober. But I found I couldn’t hide behind the smug sense that I was superior to him in some way. Opening my eyes in the morning and assessing the severity of my hangover while he made coffee and put on workout clothes, I seethed with self-loathing. When he came back in from the garage, sweaty, caffeinated, and chipper, I gritted my teeth as he kissed my cheek. Even sober, it was like he was working off a debt he could never repay.
I thought about Lois Wilson, wife of Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). In her autobiography, she talks about her long-held belief that if she could just get Bill sober, everything would be okay. She would stop nagging and resenting him and they’d simply be happy. She spent much of her life’s energy on this futile project. Then, finally, Bill did get sober, but her resentments didn’t melt. One day, she angrily shouted “Damn your old meetings!” and threw a shoe at Bill as he left the room.
Lois often mentioned that moment as the catalyst for the formal establishment of Al-Anon, the adjacent Twelve Step program for family and friends of alcoholics, which she co-founded in 1951. There, she could gather with others like her, primarily wives of alcoholic husbands, and dig deeper into their shared experience.
Like Lois, I imagined my resentments would dissolve once my partner was sober, and I was surprised and uncomfortable to find them all still there, just shifted onto other things (meetings instead of hangovers; the way he did the dishes instead of the fact that he never did them at all). And like Lois, it took Al-Anon to help me start my own recovery journey. I had gone to meetings as a teenager when dealing with my sister’s addiction, but the program didn’t stick until I was truly desperate for it.
I think I genuinely believed I didn’t have a real part in our problems until his sobriety forced me to really look at myself and what I was contributing to our dynamic. At the time, I would not have characterized smugness, righteousness, and controlling behaviors as necessary to my sense of self, but in retrospect, I can see how much they gave my life a sense of purpose. I had defined myself in the distinction — sometimes in opposition — to his disease for so long that I had failed to take stock of my own. I had so fastidiously nursed my sense of being victimized by his addictions that it was hard to let go. I didn’t know who I was without these feelings of suffering, without my private rage simmering away all day on a back burner in my mind. It turned out I didn’t know how to have a good partner or be a good partner.
In Al-Anon, I moved slowly toward greater accountability. I came to see how much my sense of myself as overburdened, exhausted, and a victim, characterized all of my relationships — familial, romantic, even professional. I began to focus more on myself, especially on taking care of myself, and less on my partner’s moods or texts. Soon, it became unavoidable that I too needed to get sober, and I did.
Working both programs (being a “double winner,” as we call it when you’re in AA and Al-Anon) brought an unprecedented serenity into my life. I have discovered that everything good in life radiates outward from self-care and self-love. It’s like unlocking a new level of the video game—in focusing on myself and my own recovery, and finally letting go of the idea that I can control or manage another person, I have found profound freedom and calm.