Last week we discussed a frequently asked question in addiction recovery groups:
It was an interesting discussion and one that caused me to think a lot about my own recovery and what I’m doing (or need to do) in order to be “in recovery” as opposed to thinking “I’m recovered.”
For me, being willing to listen to how my wife feels due to my terrible choices does a couple things for me:
1. It helps me practice not getting defensive – an addict behavior.
2. It helps me see her perspective & attempt to empathize with her, a character trait that I’ve realized is nonexistent as an addict.
As I went through her article to pick some of the things that stuck out most, I realized really quickly that it’s ALL relevant.
So, instead of completely dissecting it, I just broke it into pieces and then added my thoughts.
How can you use this?
For me, reading through the words of the wife of an addict can really help me see things I don’t see as an addict.
For me, if I want to fight back on her perspective, this is a great indicator that I am in addict behavior mode and need to surrender something to my sponsor and others.
How does it help you?
The wife’s perspective is italicized.
The Word Addiction is a Scary Word
Addiction can be a scary word. It conjures up images of people passed out on the floor or hanging their head in the corner of a jail cell.
The term “Addict” feels like a label and sounds like a life sentence.
And it is a life sentence.
But it doesn’t have to be a bad one. In fact, accepting that your loved one is an addict can be the cheat sheet that both of you need to finally understand one another and free yourself from the behaviors that are bringing so much pain, misery, and chaos into your lives.
I tried for 12 years of my married life to understand my husband and his behavior without seriously considering that I was dealing with addiction.
An Addicts Thoughts
Why is it that people and organizations don’t want to call this problem what it is – an addiction? Why do we resort to phrases like “bad habit” or “small problem” or “a little sin that needs fixed or repented of?”
Why is the term avoided or minimized or justified?
Do people that deal with alcoholism or drug addiction try this tactic?
I really like the concept that accepting this for what it is can be a “cheat sheet” to help both the addict and those affected by the addiction work through the behaviors that lead to the painful actions.
Does a Wife Need Recovery from Her Husbands Addiction?
Even when he suggested he might be addicted to pornography I didn’t get it. Although I supported him in going to 12 Step meetings, it never even occurred to me to find recovery for myself or educate myself on the problem.
I thought he was over-reacting, was being too hard on himself, was naive, or that he didn’t understand normal sexual feelings or reactions. And I certainly didn’t consider that his day-to-day attitudes and moods had anything to do with his pornography problem. I guess you could say I didn’t really believe that sexual addiction really existed unless it was some creeper guy who got sent to prison for the really twisted, abusive stuff you see on the news.
An Addicts Thoughts
This is a touchy topic – especially for an addict to bring up to his wife. “Honey, I know I’m the addict here, I’m the one that’s caused all this chaos in our lives, but now I think YOU need to go to meetings and work your own recovery…”
When I work with new sponsees who’s wives or significant others aren’t working their own recovery, I give them an assignment to have their wife call the wife of someone who IS working recovery from betrayal trauma.
Let the wives talk together and leave it at that.
Life Before the Addict Label
So for 12 years I grew more and more frustrated as I tried to continue living a “perfect life,” understanding my husband and his behaviors through the lens of my own experience and my best intentions.
This is what I got from that:
- I grew increasingly resentful at his self-centered and hypocritical behavior
- I was baffled at his complete lack of accountability in many areas of his life
- I was confused at why he was so angry almost all of the time
- I felt responsible to fix his mood swings and did everything I possibly could to avoid setting him off
- I felt exhausted and overwhelmed from the burden of carrying the weight of our family and our relationship single-handedly
- I gave hours and hours of well-thought-out lectures highlighting to him the incongruency of his behaviors with his professed ideals
- I justified many of his behaviors as “normal” and would tell myself “nobody’s perfect” and try to improve my own attitude
- My husband’s addiction continued to progress, between years or months of white-knuckle sobriety, during which I would conveniently forget that the problem had ever even existed
- I started to hate him
When my husband’s acting out behaviors progressed beyond what I could tell myself was “normal,” and I hit a rock bottom of despair that I never imagined was possible, I really had no choice but to seek my own recovery. It was find recovery, or die. Really. It was pretty much that bad.
And then my husband and I started learning about addiction.
And suddenly the past 12 years of my life began to make sense.
For my husband, calling himself an addict wasn’t about giving himself a label or shaming him into making a change.
It was about finally understanding what had been happening his whole life and why he always ended up in the same place.
An Addicts Thoughts
Does this sound familiar?
– Wife’s increased resentment at my self-centered and hypocritical behavior
– Lack of accountability in many areas of my life
– I was angry most of the time
– Wife feels responsible to fix my mood swings and does whatever she can not to set me off
– Wife feels exhausted and overwhelmed due to carry the burdens of the family and our relationship all by herself
– Wife gives hours and hours of well-thought-out lectures to try to help me see more clearly
– Wife tries to justify my behaviors as “normal”and then tries to improve her own attitudes
– My addiction continues to progress through all this and wife tries to forget any of it happened
– Wife starts to hate me…
This is my story.
This was my life.
And this could be my life pretty quickly again if I’m not working my recovery.
What’s even cooler?
As my wife started working her own recovery from the trauma I’d caused, a whole new language started between us. We could talk about negative emotions that lead to triggers. We could talk about the 12 Steps and how they applied to raising our children. I could share my vulnerabilities and she knew where I was coming from.
Calling myself an addict hasn’t been shaming at all – instead, it’s been liberating. Finally, for the first time in my entire life, I’m able to be 100% honest with those I love most.
What a relief!
Understanding My Husbands Addictive Behavior
Trying to understand his behavior without understanding addiction was like medieval doctors trying to bleed people to cure them of epilepsy. Although they may have had the best of intentions, the treatment they prescribed did more harm than good, and had absolutely nothing to do with the actual problem.
Before understanding addiction, my husband’s understanding of his behavior was that he kept doing things he “shouldn’t” do, and if he just followed a few checkmark boxes, talked to the right ecclesiastical leaders, and never talked about it again, he should be all cleaned up.
But the problem is that sticking band-aids on the problem never did anything to actually clean out the wound, and he always ended up back to the doctor with a deeper wound the next time. Always being prescribed the same treatment. Always ending up back in the office with a deeper cut. Maybe it would take days to get back there. Maybe months. Sometimes years. But always back. Will-power, “Shouldn’t’s” and Sweeping under the rug were just bleeding him out.
An Addicts Thoughts
Sounds insane, doesn’t it?
Continuing to try the same remedies over and over again and expect a different result…
This also reminds me of when a non-addict tries to give advice or direction on how to “overcome” this “bad habit.” Although the friend or family member or church leader may have the best intentions, they are doing just what the medieval doctors did – trying to cure me of my disease by bleeding me out.
Calling my problem a bad habit or telling me I shouldn’t call this little problem what it is – an addiction – is doing me more harm than good.
My addictive cycle was this:
– Never going to do that again >
– Fairly clean for a while >
– Still lusting like a gentlemen (ie. checking women out, thoughts coming out of nowhere, browsing through TV channels, surfing the internet/social media) >
– Stresses from work or family or whatever >
– Staying up later to “get things done” >
– Feeling overwhelmed with all the stress >
– “Medicating” by browsing more and more online >
– Pushing the limits and justifying that I wasn’t looking at “porn” (completely nude images) >
– Addictive behaviors kicked in – quick to anger, passing blame, defensiveness, manipulating, minimizing, justifying, rationalizing >
– The limits were pushed more and more until I crossed a line >
– Acting out occurred >
– This may go on for a while or may just be a one time occurrence >
– Went to an ecclesiastical leader to “repent” >
– Told him what I felt was necessary, never going over the entire past >
– Felt better (sort of) >
– May (or may not) tell my wife what had happened in a minimized way >
– The cycle would start again… >
Why does this matter?
Because it’s probably pretty similar to your cycle as well. I’ve heard a lot of 1st Step and 4th Step inventories; I’ve read in the White Book and other recovery literature. Scarily, most of our stories sound way too close to the same…
What’s the answer then?
Living with the Addict Label
Now that we understand my husband is and always will be an addict, we enjoy the light of truth and understanding that gives us:
A Shared Vocabulary
We understand surrender, isolation, shame, vulnerability, submission, boundaries,and the drama triangle. Now we have words to talk about things that were always happening right under our noses but we were completely unconscious of.
I can say, “Honey, I feel unsafe with the way you reacted to our son today” and my husband will know exactly what I am trying to say and won’t look at me like I’m crazy or react defensively like I just accused him of dropping the atomic bomb on Japan.
We have words to express our experience. We can finally communicate. These are all terms and concepts that were brought into our awareness by educating ourselves on addiction.
An Addicts Thoughts
We talked about this earlier, but let me reiterate: when we are both working our own recovery, our chance of emotional connection increases dramatically.
Because we’re finally speaking the same language – the language of recovery and healing!
I can’t force this on my wife: after all, it’s MY FAULT that we’re in this mess.
But as I work my recovery, really work it, she will hopefully be able to start seeing small changes in how I handle situations which, in the past, would set me off on an addictive behavior and addictive action tangent.
Today, the language of recovery is what my wife and I talk about most, and it’s so rewarding and healing.
An Early Warning System Against Addiction
Understanding addiction has meant understanding my husband’s addict cycle. This looks different for each person, and is often filled with all sorts of “normal behavior.”
Once my husband understood he was an addict, he was able to identify an “addict cycle,” with routines and rituals that inevitably lead down the same well-worn route to acting out. Now actions or patterns of behavior that we both would have justified as “normal” in the past can give us an early warning sign that something is off, and I can trust my gut and approach my husband:
“Honey, I’ve noticed that you have been on ESPN.com a lot over the past few days. I know that browsing sports online has been a way for you to check out and has fed into your addictive cycle in the past. Is everything alright with you?”
Often, my awareness is the first warning sign for my husband that something is off for him, and sparks him to work his own recovery with emotions that need to be examined and surrendered.
Before understanding addiction, these “normal” parts of my husband’s addict cycle would never have been identified and would have carefully led him down the same path he had always taken. Indeed, this is the path that has been burned into his neural pathways, and the paths that he will be susceptible to his whole life.
This is why my husband and I will gladly accept our life sentence, knowing that understanding the path that addiction has burned into his brain will always be there, and certain boundaries must always be in place to avoid going back there again.
An Addicts Thoughts
Amen to this. I don’t expect my wife to be micro-managing me or to fix me from my problems. It’s not her job to be monitoring my phone usage or looking over my shoulder all the time.
But if she can see that things seem to be off, that I’m getting angry at the kids quickly, that I’m blaming others for my own issues, these are all red-flags to her and she can ask me what’s off.
If I get angry at her, justify, or fight back – HUGE RED FLAG!
If I am able to listen to her perspective, self-assess and then reach out to a sponsor to talk things through and surrender what I may be feeling, this is a good sign.
The addiction has burned a pathway in my brain that will always be there. I can create boundaries that will re-direct my thoughts and actions down better more healthy routes of recovery.
This is part one of a two part breakdown of a wife’s perspective on the Addict Label.
I realize today that there isn’t a “right answer” for how this can be handled or labeled or worded.
All of this information is only one couple’s perspective and may or may not apply to your situation.
I am, however, grateful for those who have gone before who laid out a path that I can follow if I choose.
“Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path.” (The Big Book, p. 58)
I look forward to your perspective.