I was a senior in high school with hopes of going to college and eventually grad school. I had a job, a high GPA, and a loving group of friends. My dreams were inching closer to becoming reality as I started interviewing for colleges and collecting applications. I had high hopes, a good mindset, and a new boyfriend.
I met him the summer before school started. He was mysterious and passionate, a musician and a writer. He had dropped out of high school but shrugged it off as a protest against institutionalized education. He had stories of dropping acid and meeting bands and soon I was infatuated with him. Sometimes he kept his distance, eying me as if we were strangers. Other times he was intensely affectionate, begging me to stay with him forever. It was a strange dichotomy but it drew me closer. When he ignored me, I grew fonder. After dating him for a few months, I found out his history as an addict and a convicted felon. He struggled with addiction to heroin, cocaine, and prescription painkillers. It had led him to steal and hurt people. I stayed with him and learned these lessons the hard way.
1. You’re not their therapist.
Raw addiction can be like an open wound—painful and frustrating. It helps the addict to talk about their past, but it can bring up memories of unpleasant emotions. When tapped into, a normal conversation can turn into a one-way venting session that often left me in tears. It’s not your responsibility to cope with someone else’s feelings, even if it’s difficult to watch them struggle. Don’t become their verbal punching bag.
2. You come first.
No matter how deep into a relationship or friendship you get, you have to put your health and needs before anyone else’s. Everyone has heard the saying: “You can’t love anyone before you love yourself.” It’s true. If you allow another person to be more important, you can forget to take care of yourself until it’s too late. I found myself in the hospital with severe malnutrition after living months of the heroin lifestyle without even taking the drug. It’s easy to get drawn in especially if your S/O is manipulative.
3. You can’t save them.
This was one of the hardest lessons to learn. I wanted so badly to help the artistic, brilliant person that was living inside his drug-addicted body. I helped him go in to rehab, found him a place to live, and eventually unknowingly funded his drug habits. I read books about addiction and tried every angle I came across, but it wasn’t my place to rescue him from his own demons. Hopefully, an addict will find it within themselves to seek help and begin recovery. Whether or not this happens has nothing to do with you.
4. Love can’t fix it.
You may find, as I did, that your love is unrequited. Upon (finally) breaking up, Noah told me that he hadn’t loved me. I was crushed. I thought that the “love” we had for each other could keep him from relapsing. It was hard to hear that love, among other things, was a lie. Had it been love, it still couldn’t have mended his longstanding addiction.
5. Addiction is a disease.
There are resources such as Nar-Anon for friends and families of addicts. Along with thousands of books (I recommend this one), they will teach you foremost that addiction can be traced to chemicals in the brain and is far deeper and more physical than many people think. It can be treated and there are professionals who can help addicts seek the help they need. Don’t put it all on yourself.