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The Unspoken Shame of Loving an addict

When Hannah first met Jake, she didn’t know he was hooked on painkillers.

She did know that he liked scary movies and sushi, that he preferred cats over dogs and that, even though he liked his job well enough, he wasn’t quite sure what he actually wanted to be when he grew up. She liked the color of his eyes and the way he took her out on spontaneous dates, to secret beaches and funky hole-in-the-wall restaurants. She really liked that he was as equally humorous as he was sensitive, that he represented an innate sense of safety and comfort. 

Jake had been a former star athlete who needed to retire his dreams prematurely after suffering a series of progressive injuries. When he spoke about his past glory days, it was evident that the pain was still raw, that the wounds were still healing. 

What she didn’t know, what she couldn’t see behind his light, blue eyes and their effortless, laughing moments, was the downward spiral of his own self-medicating. 

When Jake first met Hannah, he wanted to tell her that he was hooked on painkillers.

Really, he just wanted to tell anyone at that point. It had been his burning secret for over a year, and he felt the darkness of this vicious stop-start cycle closing in. He was desperate for a sense of freedom from this double life, from the blurred and lopsided opioid haze. He wanted love and happiness and success, reasonable desires for a young twenty-something man. He wanted Hannah, because she was bubbly and kind, because she wanted to travel and explore the world, because she saw potential in him in ways that  he had never even seen in himself. 

Jake was just a good kid from a good home with a good life ahead of him. Addiction wasn’t in his life plans. The pain just felt unbearable, and the medication just felt too effective.

Months passed before Hannah found a stash of empty pill bottles. She knew he had chronic pain, but she didn’t quite know what that entailed. Trembling, she asked him what was going on. Jake, tormented by the shame and terror of losing her forever, told Hannah everything. It all tumbled out-every single lie and every single loophole, the exposure of his thinly-veiled facade of normalcy wrapped in complete dependence. 

She was scared. He was scared. 

He promised to get help. He promised to get clean. 

And so, their journey began. 

Jake sought treatment. He learned coping skills and developed a small support system. He learned alternative pain management techniques- free from narcotics, he was committed to doing his very best. Hannah stayed by his side during this arduous learning curve and learned the ins and outs of the addiction process. She realized there would be good days and not-so-good days. Though she questioned their relationship, she didn’t question her own love. She wanted him to get better. In Jake, she saw an amazing person- she believed in his determination and will, and she believed he was capable of battling and beating the monster inside of him. 

Outsiders would judge, would brand her for enabling. They would call her delusional and codependent. Close friends warned that it was too much of a burden, that she needed to let him go, that if he really cared about her, he would have been honest and straightforward from the very beginning. She was shamed for having feelings towards an addict, as if feelings could be turned on and off with the flip of a flimsy light switch. 

Jake made it one month before he relapsed. It was unintentional, as it usually is, and Hannah was devastated, as loved ones usually are. They reached a perplexing crossroads, finding themselves in a messy love triangle with each other and with Oxycontin. What does trust mean when drugs are involved? What is a relationship when addiction comes out to play? And, why is nobody talking about how painful all of this is?  

Hannah was told to break up with him. She was told that he would never get better if they were together. She was told that she was just as sick as he was for even being in the relationship.

Maybe all of these were true. And maybe of these needed to be taken into serious consideration. But maybe, we need to acknowledge that it still absolutely hurts and that it’s absolutely confusing and that it’s absolutely downright terrifying for everyone involved. Maybe we also need to tread more carefully before we attack the girlfriends and boyfriends and wives and husbands and partners. Maybe we need to all keep in mind, that while addiction may seem like the obvious black-and-white, the manifestation of love and attachment colors itself in infinite shades. 

Is Jake the good guy or the bad guy? Is he innocent or guilty? Is their love even real? Is it all of it or none of it? 

Can addiction ever be simple? 

Even if it’s “delusional” or “codependent” or “toxic,” that doesn’t make the pain less real. Pain is pain is pain, and love is love is love. 

Jake tried again. This time, with more grit and gusto, with desire for firm direction and structure, he immersed himself in a recovery program. He entered a residential program. He began working the Twelve Steps. He wanted freedom, and he knew that it was going to require serious work to change.

He stayed clean for nine months. Nine months was almost enough time for the twisted secrecy and convoluted maze of compulsion to feel like a distant memory. It was almost enough time to rebuild a solid relationship, to reunify trust and commitment, to begin planning a future together. When he relapsed, everyone pointed their fingers at Hannah and shook their heads in dismay. I told you so. He’s toxic. You need to get out and set your boundaries. You deserve better! 

Again, maybe all of this was technically true, and maybe it all made sense. But maybe Hannah just needed a few hugs and a few words of validation. Maybe she needed the support and understanding that doing the right thing is not necessarily doing the easiest thing. Maybe she just needed less advice and more compassion, less judgment and more acceptance. People were willing to do this for Jake- to accept his process and forgive his mistakes. But for her? She was branded for keeping him sick, for keeping herself sick. 

This isn’t about Hannah or Jake- it’s about relationships, and it’s about addiction, and it’s about the devastating love triangles that inevitably weave themselves into these dynamics. It’s about what exists between the lines, between the “right reactions” and the “human emotion reactions.” It’s about the invisible and unassuming partners, the ones who cry themselves to sleep. It’s about the ones who do end the relationships and the ones who do not. It’s about the confusion of falling in love with someone you maybe can’t fully trust, and the unnerving pain of knowing things may never improve. It’s about acceptance and tolerance, in all forms of it, for the lengths we take for the people we love. 

*While these are based on true experiences, all reasonable efforts have been made by this writer to protect utmost client and treatment confidentiality. Because of this, names, ages, features, and identifying details in this piece have been changed, omitted, and/or embellished.