I’m a recovering addict and transitioning careers. My wife has reached out to family and friends asking for help with various things, but consistently breaking my anonymity in the process. I’ve asked her to avoid revealing my addiction and that I’m a recovering addict. She says sorry, but also says she’s justified because of what my past addiction has cost her. Is she right? Should I just be grateful?
Eleanor says: Congratulations on your recovery, it’s one of the hardest things a person can do.
It’s difficult for me to answer this question without more clarity about what exactly your wife is reaching out for help with. If she’s reaching out to try to get help for you, then I agree this isn’t necessarily helpful, especially if it risks affecting your career. But if she’s trying to get help for her, so she can share her own experience of addiction, that’s more complex.
There are at least two stories inside any addiction; one for the person who interacts with the addictive thing, and one for the people who interact with them. Your wife’s experience is separate from yours but just as important to recover from: in the breaking of those bitter, regretful dawns, it sounds as if she was there too.
And while your addiction will have taught you all too vividly what it’s like to see your fingerprints on actions you despise, the people around an addiction get forced into their own unwelcome knowledge too. It teaches you how to smell a lie; to feel apprehension in the early hours; it shows you what’s it like to watch the curtains come down in the eyes of someone you love.
It’s not in either of your interests that your wife keeps that story secret. The whole family unit needs to recover.
For your sake, it is desperately important that your relationship doesn’t get stuck in resentment, recrimination, or dynamics from when you were using – and it will, if she can’t talk this through with anyone else. You do not want to be the only place her conflicted feelings can go.
Addicts’ loved ones often have important things of their own to learn – like that trying your hardest to help your person by straightening out the day is actually called ‘enabling’; how to grow your own fulfilling life separate from the person living with addiction; or that there are other people who’ve lived through this, who can empathise with the peculiar remorse of having to blame the sober Hyde for the choices of the long-gone Jekyll.
As a couple, then, you need to balance two very legitimate needs: your need to rebuild without the fear that you’ll be known for your worst, and her need to process her experience.
If you don’t already each have therapists, I think that could really help – her repeated disclosures might be proof that she feels she has more to say. A therapist could provide an environment where she can do that without it coming back to haunt you.
On that note, I know it’s easier said than done, but try not to be too fearful that this has damaged your reputation. You may be surprised how many people already know and love an addict. When it’s your dirty laundry hanging bleach-bright for everyone to see, it’s easy to think you’ll be judged into damnation, but try to remember what it’s like when you see someone else’s.
If you’re like most of us, you put their past in context with what you know of them now – do you trust them? Are they kind? If these friends and family know you at all, they might be less fazed by this than you fear.
Johann Hari writes that the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, it’s a life of meaningful connections. Both you and your wife need to be able to find those connections – neither denying nor staying mired in this shared history.
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