I'm trying to think back, we're talking 14 or 15 years ago.. nearly a lifetime it seems. I saw Elmer when I was a freshman or sophomore in high school, he worked with my step dad and he came around every once in awhile. Oh, boy wasn't I smitten.. One afternoon my best friend and I sat at my house waiting for him, he was supposed to come by with a memory card. He pulled up to our drive way and we watched him out the window squealing like the teenage girls we were. I calmed myself and ran to the door and took the card, after I shut the door I was so proud of myself, I didn't giggle or make a fool of myself.. and it was in that moment I decided he was going to be mine. I told my mom and my step-dad, "I will date him one day," only to find out he had a girlfriend and was much older than me. I was not to be deterred, I told them I didn't care, one day.. when I was older, he would be mine. Fast forward two years and I was living with him in his apartment.
This is where our story begins, a young girl in love. Not understanding what love was, I knew without a doubt I was deeply committed to someone at a level I had never felt before. Anyone that has ever been in love knows, it is not all rainbows and unicorns.. There are bad times. Then there are the worst times; in the deepest corners of your heart you are drowning, you are in the furthest corners of hell, grasping for breath, screaming for help inside your head. It hurts like nothing has ever hurt before, but it doesn't just hurt.. it makes you angry. It turns you into this alternate-being, one half is who you are and one half is no one you ever wanted to be. Maybe not even anyone you could imagine being. Heartbreak, anger, they make you do some crazy things. They make you hate yourself for loving them, love them more than anything, and make you question yourself constantly - it builds anxiety and stress, and fills you with dread instead of happiness.
The first time I allowed myself to believe my boyfriend was a drug addict was when I was 17 years old, he was amazing, the most thoughtful, kind, intelligent, handsome, and loving person I had ever met. Except when he wasn't. He had two sides, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I was convinced he had been through hell in his past, I knew minimally what he had gone through.. but I thought I could save him. I thought if I poured all of my love into him, he would know what I said I felt was true. I thought he would change, I knew the good sides of him were who he really was, but reaching that part of him was like trying to grasp something just beyond your fingertips. Why couldn't I hold on to this good person, why couldn't I show him this good person was worthy of all my love, why couldn't he change? Why was he kind and loving to me one minute and the next he was rude almost to the point of mean. How, at 17 years old, was I supposed to know how to navigate the ups and downs of a relationship?
I lied to myself longer than I'd like to admit about him doing drugs. I didn't know the signs. My father went to prison before I was born for selling cocaine, but that was the most I knew about drugs.. They split up families, so I tried to stay away from them. However, knowing that didn't stop me from loving an addict. I had knowledge in my head, I might have even been wiser than my years, but in some things I was as naive as a baby lamb. I knew his behavior wasn't rational, I knew he must be crazy, or... he was doing drugs. I don't remember if someone told me or if I figured it out myself, but I do remember searching his things one afternoon while he was at work and finding scorched spoons and needles in his bag. My heart turned cold and lurched - if my ribs hadn't been there, my heart would have flown away. I was ignoring all the outwardly signs of drugs, staying up all night, sleeping all day, frequent and long trips to the bathrooms, erratically cleaning everything in sight, tiny pupils, short temper.. I could ignore all that, but I couldn't ignore the needles. I can still taste the adrenaline in my mouth as my body shot it through me, making me think quickly - trying to solve the problem of what to do. I didn't know. I couldn't confront him, I didn't know how.. I had to help, but I didn't know how to do that either, and I couldn't tell anyone.. or they might try and break us up. A young girl living with her boyfriend, a young girl scared, a young girl without knowing who to talk to, a young girl not knowing where to get help, a young girl madly in love.
I honestly don't remember how long I held my secret, maybe we got kicked out of where we were staying, maybe his parents found out, maybe my step-dad told me. I don't know how it came out, but it did.. and so did the fights. The outright lies instead of the lies by omission, "I don't do drugs anymore. That was an old bag, I didn't know they were in there." An excuse for every accusation, a promise for every tear. We broke up many times, but he would always clean himself up.. for a short time. Long enough for me to get a glimpse of the person underneath the addict, enough for me to know he loved me. No matter what he did, or what he said, I never questioned that he loved me - not yet. He was broken and I was there to fix him, I couldn't give up on someone who needed help.
Almost two years later I was 18 years old, he was 25 and we were pregnant. He was happy, at least to me he was. He wanted that baby more than anything. I was terrified; I loved an addict, we couldn't keep a place to live, he couldn't keep a job, he couldn't stay sober, I was young.. so young. I didn't really think I could have kids, I don't know if I had just heard what I wanted to during our C.F. sex talks.. but I heard, "probably can't get pregnant" and for two years I didn't. Until I did. I was begged by all of my doctors not to have the baby.. but I couldn't help it, what if I really couldn't get pregnant again:
What if this was my only chance?
What if this was once in a lifetime?
What if I have to do this alone?
How will I raise a baby?
What if this is the only child I could ever have?
What if I hate the father of my child?
How can I look at my child and see the face of someone I hate?
How can I miss this only chance?
"You can't have this baby, Whitney. You, the baby, or both of you will die," my doctor told me. I was alone at yet another doctors appointment. With the same doctor who had told me to abort the baby every time I saw her. She just wanted me to live, the pregnancy was too high risk. I had nothing against abortions in the right circumstances, and maybe mine was.. I didn't know. I was just a child, alone at another OBGYN appointment. "The father has to work," I would tell them. The truth was, sometimes I didn't know where the father was, sometimes he was supposed to be there, but I couldn't get ahold of him. I was making these decisions by myself, I loved an addict.. That meant on his time, he would be where he wanted to be. I didn't care, I loved him anyway. He loved me, he loved me and he loved our unborn child. I was in the hospital when I had another ultrasound, I had had many, and I still didn't know what I was going to do... A child is forever, a responsibility; financially, emotionally, physically.
The nurse accidentally said boy, I had told them I didn't want to know the sex.. with the sex picked out I could think about names, it made it real for me. It wasn't a fetus anymore, he was my boy. I called and said we were going to have a boy. The next time I saw him, he looked me in the eyes and said, "I will take care of you. I will take care of him. I promise, no more drugs.. I will take care of you forever." My decision was made, I would have a family. I would have what everyone wanted. I believed him because he believed himself, he wasn't lying to me. He didn't want to break his promises, but he did. Over and over again. It's not easy making decisions, deciding that it all has to stop. Having no money because it disappears, having to tell your boyfriends boss he's not going to work because he's "sick" again - when really he wouldn't get out of bed; turning on lights, yelling, pulling off blankets, jumping on the bed, screaming.. nothing would wake him up. He stayed up too late with the neighbors again the night before. Now he's missing work again today. We can't pay our rent again this month. It's not easy making the decision to leave. You don't know what to do, but you know you don't want your child growing up this way. Anything has to be better than this.
It turned out to hurt as much being away from him as it did to be with him. He would get himself sober for awhile and I would see that person I knew so many years before. I would see a great dad and friend, I would miss him and want to be a family. The family I knew we should be. This went on for a number of years, me loving him from afar, trying to keep him away from my son and myself because he kept hurting us. Something in me knew he loved us, I kept asking myself how he could love the drugs more than us. Than me, sure.. I was just some girl, but how could he love them more than his son? I was beginning to lose faith in a love I thought was so strong, I had made mistakes..I had messed up. Some part of me knew he would eventually be sober, but I just couldn't keep enabling him while he wasn't.
I could see the judgement on people's faces when I told them we broke up again. I could hear the skepticism in their voice after I said I was never going back this time. I made myself a liar and a fool, over and over again. People hated him for doing drugs, they hated me for giving him another chance. Everyone around me gave up on him long before I did, I didn't care what anyone said.. the other guy was still in there somewhere. Even if we weren't meant to be together - we were still meant to be a family.
I finally got to a point where too much, was too much. I wasn't hurting myself anymore, I was hurting my son too. It was up to me to protect my son, and I had to protect him from the fights that occurred when his dad and I were together. I had to make a decision to make my son hate me. A decision that broke my sons heart and his fathers heart as well. I hated hurting them, but I had to realize there are sometimes no good decisions. Sometimes there are two decisions that suck, but you have to make a choice. I chose to protect my son and hopefully save his fathers life.
Deep inside of me I knew he loved his son, I knew he hated himself,I knew he wanted to be someone else. I hoped by separating myself and my son from him, it would also help him to realize the choices he was making were wrong. Some part of me knew that he loved our son as much as I did, some part of me knew he still loved me. This thing was beyond his control, it didn't matter how many times he wanted to make the right decision, he seemed to make the wrong one. I always kept him in the back of my mind, secretly hoping he would be able to help himself. There were times where we fought together against his disease and there were times we fought each other because of it. I did countless hours of research on addiction to try and understand how his mind was working. He's been sober from opiates for 4-5 years now, he always recited the statistics at me like he couldn't be that one. "Opiate users have a 99% of relapse." There were times where I felt like it was hopeless, I felt like I was fighting a battle that was already lost. When I felt hopeless he found some way to reach down inside of himself and get himself clean, enough to give both of us a little hope. I knew I could not make myself miserable because of anyone else. I had my son and myself to take care of, so eventually I loved from afar. I hoped from afar, and he got clean without us. After opiates we rekindled our love and made our family whole. We were happy for awhile and then alcohol and xanax became a problem. His doctor, knowing he was an addict prescribed him high amounts of xanax.. I could see that slide back to where we used to be. He was different now, on different drugs, but it was the same old addict I knew. I got angry, I was so mad that we were dealing with something new. I felt lost, I thought it would never end. We didn't speak to him for nearly a year, his friends convinced me to reach out to him. They told me how much he loved his son, how well he was doing, how mean I was being. I was trying to protect my son from the heartache of being let down over and over by this man. I was his mom, I had to protect him. So I asked my son. My son was eight years old and I had been doing this for over a decade. My son knew all about drugs and alcohol, he knew what addiction was and why it was not healthy for someone with alcoholism to take care of an eight year old. He knew the risks of his father doing well, and maybe, just maybe.. he would get to see him again for a little while, and then his dad would be out of his life again.
My son wanted to see his father. My beautiful, strong, wise son said to me, "even if I only get to see him for one day, it's one more than I have seen him now. It will hurt if I can't see him again, but I will be ok. I want to see him." I had laid the facts at his feet, maybe some will judge me giving that decision to a child so young, but regret is not something I tend to feel in my life. I didn't want my son to resent me, I wanted my son to be aware of the risks, and understand the rewards.. how was he to grow, if he wasn't allowed to make decisions? It was then that I decided I could't give up. This was not just his addiction, it was mine. We were bound for life through our son, so I decided I would do what needed to be done for my son to have his father. It wasn't easy, we dealt with alcoholism like I have only seen on tv. A strong, healthy, handsome 35 year old man deteriorated his body to the point of seizures and pancreatitis. He was so skinny, and a sickly pale yellow, he could barely talk or walk from the alcohol coursing through his veins, and he couldn't stop or he would die. From all the drugs he had done, alcohol - the only legal one - was the hardest on his health. Stopping cold turkey could kill him, and in fact he has been in the hospital several times over the past two years with liver failure, pancreatitis, seizures, and a whole mess of other health problems.
We kept in touch, he would see my son pretty regularly, but I knew when he wasn't doing well. I would hear from him less and less, maybe get some irrational message in the middle of the night, or hear nothing at all for weeks. Every time I got the call he was in the hospital I would quietly go off and be alone somewhere. To silently cry, then curse his name, then cry some more. He was my best friend, the only one in this world who loved my son the same way I did, as much as I did. In April of this year I knew he wasn't doing well. I wanted to take him to lunch to get out of the house, but I couldn't get ahold of him. I called his father to see if he could let me in. His father told me he wasn't doing well, that he was drinking a lot and sleeping all the time. I went to his house and woke him up, I yelled at him and cried. "If you want to die, kill yourself quickly and get it over with, don't do it like this! We can't all watch this, we've been watching it too long." I gave him a hug and told him I loved him, told him he could beat this, told him we needed him. I didn't believe he wanted to die, but I didn't believe he wanted to live either. I needed to rattle him, wake him up, make him aware of what he was doing, not only to himself.. but to his whole family. I needed him to know that we needed him, but we couldn't do it for him. I told him to pack a bag I was taking him to the hospital. Almost five months later, he is sober - the longest he's been without a drink. He's been sober from opiates for years, and I think he's finally learning to live instead of feeling guilty for his past. All of us regret something in our past, but every day we wake up - we have the ability to change who we are. We have the rest of our lives in front of us to be who we want to be and the sooner we start living as that person, the longer we get to.
When you love an addict your life feels out of your control. You feel pain in ways you haven't before, you feel useless, you feel helpless, lost and confused. Sometimes you hate the person, but often you just want them to get better. I don't think anything helpful comes from hating your child's other parent - I can't say I've always been this way, but I realize now.. we are a family. My son needs his father as much as he needs me. If there is anything I can do to help, I believe love saves more lives than hate. I want to remind him of all the good qualities he has, I want to remind him - I picked him to father my child for a reason, I want to show him that I don't forget those I love, I love them unconditionally, through the good and the bad. If there is any part of me that can help, I will go to the ends of the earth to do so. We are not together, but we are best friends, we are finally co-parenting our son in a way that works for all of us. Maybe our love story didn't have the happy ending with everything working out perfectly like they do in the stories, but he is sober. A 13 year process has finally come to a place where I'm confident he will stay sober. He is going to school to become an electrician, he has a vehicle, he has a great job, and he just bought his first home. Five months ago he had a few changes of clothes and a bottle of liquor. Change is possible, sobriety is attainable, if someone you love needs help, help them. You may be the last one who can.