Step One: Open.

A new month, a new year, a new decade. Twelve months, twelve steps. First up:

Step one. We admitted we were powerless over addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable. 

When I learned about Al-Anon, I was turned off. I was sitting in a circle of mostly mothers of addicts – a non 12-step support group for families affected by addiction. In the circle, we told our stories, swapped opinions about different treatments and rehabs, asked questions. “In Al-Anon,” one woman told me, “you can’t just discuss stuff like this. There’s no cross-talk or conversation. You’re expected to work the twelve steps of AA and get a sponsor.”

I had heard about Al-Anon before, but I didn’t realize it involved any work on my part besides telling my story. The twelve steps are for people with a problem. I didn’t have the problem – I was just trying to get my husband to stop using drugs so we could get our life back. So we could get back on track to having a happy family. What did I possibly have to work on?

What does Step One mean?

If I had to sum up the first step in one word: Open. 

I closed off to the option of Al-Anon simply because I didn’t want or think I needed to do any self work. I didn’t want to admit that I may have played a role in this mess. I was already going to therapy, anyway, to learn how to cope with how his behaviors were screwing me up – wasn’t that enough? Getting my own sponsor would require going way out of my comfort zone, and the steps included things like moral inventories and making amends and I really didn’t need to do that. 

I can’t remember what it was that got me to open back up – to let go of the idea that the darkness and loneliness and fear and sadness and confusion, the feelings of being completely stuck and lost – that all of that would go away if only he could stop using. Complete desperation, I think. When I realized I had no idea what the fuck I was doing and what to do next. When I couldn’t find help anywhere else, and no one could tell me the right answer. 

I think I took that first step before I even attended an Al-Anon meeting. I didn’t know where my husband was or what he was doing, I couldn’t stop him, I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know what would come next. I was so afraid of losing everything. Sobbing, I fell to my knees on the bathroom floor and asked a Higher Power for help. A Higher Power that I had rejected for so long because the idea of a male, white-haired, white-bearded, white-skinned God looking down from above and making everything all better just because I asked was pathetic to me. I had control over my own life by making choices, acting, working hard, doing all the things I was supposed to do. Right? Maybe not. I didn’t know what else to do. So I prayed. I became the stereotype that I used to roll my eyes at when they appeared in movies or TV shows – the person who “found God” after experiencing trauma. But I don’t think I found God. I found myself – connected to the universe around me. 

I didn’t actually use the exact words “I admit I am powerless over addiction and my life is unmanageable.” My prayer was more like repeating “Please help me” and “I don’t know what to do” between sobs. But the act of prayer opened my heart and my mind a bit to the idea that you know what? Maybe there is another way beyond my own way of thinking, and maybe I can go that way, instead. Maybe that path will open to me even though I’ve been ignoring it for so long. Maybe it will help even though I feel like I don’t deserve it or don’t fully believe in it. Maybe all I have to do is take that first step.

Again and again, I take that first step. 

The world is not black and white. It’s not divided into right and wrong, good and bad, strong and weak. I’ve had to loosen my grip and let go of what I thought I knew – what most people think about recovery, marriage, and family, and open up to new ways of thinking:

There is not one right way to recover. The story that we’re told about recovery in mainstream media involves rehab, twelve steps, meetings, and then, a happy ending with x days sober and counting. My husband doesn’t go to AA, and he takes medication to help him stay clean from heroin. What works for one person may not work for another, but there is a common thread – recovery is not linear. There will be slips and falls because change is hard for everyone. In Al-Anon, we have the slogan, “Progress, not perfection.” It’s what happens after we fall that matters. Keep going. 

Trust is about more than “I trust you” and “You trust me.” It’s not about someone else doing the work so he can earn my trust. Trust takes work from everyone. Even when my husband is clean, when I know how much work he has done and how far we have come, when I let go of perfection and see the progress, I still find myself in the “what-if’s.” The suspicions, the doubt, the fear creeps in, and I search frantically for answers. The searching drives me nuts, and there is nothing he can do to change my thoughts. That’s on me. 

The serenity prayer brings me back, replacing fear with love, reminding me of what I can and cannot change.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. 

In my own words: I can’t control this. I can’t control him. I can only control myself – my reactions, my attitudes, my way of thinking. Dear universe, please help me look inward to find my strength. Help me trust myself. 

Let go of my own denial. We often hear about addicts being in denial – they can’t accept their addiction for whatever reason – they don’t want to stop or they’re afraid of what will happen if they do. I’ve had to let go of denial, as well. Denial is refusing to open up to different ways of thinking. Denial of my own problems leads to blame in others, and the idea that other people have to change in order for me to be happy. If only he would stop using… This attaches my well being to someone else’s behaviors instead of my own. Step one helps me to own my feelings, my reactions, my path, my happiness, my serenity. 

Knowledge is not always power. 

“Does analyzing my situation provide any useful insights, or is it an attempt to control the uncontrollable? I have heard that knowledge is power. But sometimes my thirst can be an attempt to exercise power where I am powerless.” Courage to Change p. 285

Knowledge is certainly necessary, and can empower me to make better choices. I’ve read so much about addiction, how addiction affects the brain, different treatment methods. Educating myself has helped me understand what my husband is going through and the options available to him. We’ve analyzed our past in therapy to help understand the why’s, the triggers, how we can support each other moving forward. I’ve analyzed my own past as I create a moral inventory in step four, digging around to uncover ways of thinking that I learned from my family or past events. 

But of course, nothing is black and white. Knowledge is power… to an extent. When I find myself doubting him, wondering if he’s using or lying or hiding something, I’m taken back to the days of active addiction, when tangible truths found by searching his phone were the only truths I could hold on to, the only evidence I could throw in his face to “make” him admit his use. But they offer only temporary relief. The negative thinking still shows up even after uncovering the truth, and that’s what I have to let go in order to trust. 

By practicing step one, I can let go of the belief that having all the answers (knowing where he is, what he’s doing, if he’s clean or not) gives me some control over the situation, as if that knowledge will grant me peace and sanity. 

Powerless, not helpless. 

“Step one calls for acceptance, specifically accepting or admitting powerlessness over compulsions to use substances. This step is meant to be empowering, and for many people it is. Others find the concepts of ‘self-empowerment’ and ‘willpower’ the real driving force of change. The reality is that both are true: a person can be both powerful and powerless at the same time. Similarly, a person can accept what is and want things to change at the same time.

You have the power to help someone change, and the power to make changes yourself that will improve your situation, yet you are powerless to make another person change or do the changing for him… in any given interaction, you will not be able to control the outcome.” Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change p. 97

Admitting I’m powerless over addiction doesn’t mean I can’t help motivate change. I can’t control his behavior, but I don’t have to stand by and watch him destroy himself, either. Just as his negative behaviors can have an effect on me and change the relationship, so can my positive behaviors. When one of us changes, the relationship changes. 

I made my husband go to rehab. He admits now that he went not because he was ready, but because he thought he didn’t have a choice. I admit that I had given him an ultimatum. “Go to rehab, or this isn’t going to work,” I told him. I don’t regret this. The ultimatum didn’t have the power to make him stop – he relapsed shortly after, and then again months later. He had every intention of using again once he got out. He knew he wasn’t done. The “happily ever after” outcome that I was expecting did not happen, and in that way, I was powerless. But going to rehab still helped him move in the direction toward recovery. 

When he relapsed less than a year later, I left. Not as an ultimatum, not to make him get clean, but because it was what I wanted and needed for myself. I took some time away from the situation to be with my family out of state, and he took that time to detox on his own. I wanted him to go back to rehab – I thought it was the only way he would be able to get clean again. But only he could decide what was right for him. I let go of ownership of his recovery, I let go of any outcome, not knowing what I would come home to – a failed marriage? Or another chance? It was an act of true surrender, of opening up to an outcome that I didn’t think was possible, and trusting that it would be okay, anyway. Meanwhile, my husband detoxed at home with the help of his parents, and that was the last time he was in full-blown active addiction. He took the first step on his own, and this time, it was his choice. 

What benefits have I experienced in applying Step One?

I am open. I look inward to see what I can release, what may be holding me back, instead of trying to fix him or any situation out of my control. I have learned to accept suffering as a part of the process, a part of life. It doesn’t have to take over my life. I keep letting go and opening. I pray. 

Let go of old ways of thinking. Open up and look inward. Surrender the outcome and trust that no matter what happens, it will all be okay. 

“You don’t have to transform anything. Simply letting go of the story line is what it takes, which is not that easy. That light touch of acknowledging what we’re thinking and letting it go is the key to connecting with this wealth that we have. With all the messy stuff, no matter how messy it is, just start where you are – not tomorrow, not later, not yesterday when you were feeling better – but now. Start now, just as you are.” – Pema Chodron, Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living p. 35

 

Open

Loosen your grip. 

Relax your eyes.
See the colors
beyond black and white. 

Be fluid.
Ride the waves.
Know they will pass. 

Make space for growth.

Surrender.

 

I believe in a thing called love.

Do you trust him? she asked.

We were at the lake house, sitting around the fire, and M had been gone for a short time. His cousin asked where he was and then, the trust question. I smiled and nodded, “Yes. Oh yeah. He’s doing good.”

That what I said aloud. In my head, a million thoughts. The answer is so much more than yes or no. It’s so much more than trust in one person. What does that even mean? Do I trust that he won’t use again? Do I trust that he’ll never hurt me again? Do I trust the person he is when he’s in recovery? Do I trust the addiction? Do I trust his love for me and my love for him? The answer, then, is not just yes. It’s no, no, yes, no, yes. If a good marriage is built on trust, then what the fuck am I doing?

I used to think that building a marriage on trust meant handing over my whole heart to my husband and knowing that it would be safe from harm, betrayal, judgment, lies. There is a part of me still hanging on to this way of thinking. The part that wants to answer her question confidently: “Yes, of course!” Proving that our marriage is normal, that I’m not weak for staying with a husband who lies, that we’re doing great, just like everyone else.

But… it’s complicated. I’m learning that trust in a marriage, in any relationship, is more about trust in myself and something greater. Trusting that my heart will be okay when I open it up to someone else because I take care of it myself – not simply handing it over and relying on another person to make it whole and happy. We are all human. Most of us don’t even know how to take care of our own hearts, so how can we promise not to hurt another’s, even if our intentions are good?

This doesn’t mean that I just take the hurt, tend to my wounds, and get ready for more. This does not give him an excuse to lie to me because it’s human nature to make mistakes, to get distracted by dark tunnels, to hurt other people without intending to. Honestly, this is where I’m stuck right now. I’ve learned to separate my husband from his addiction. I trust my husband, I don’t trust his addiction. But his addiction is a disease from which he will always suffer. It’s a part of our marriage, our family. A family disease. Sometimes the separation is not so clear.

“I cannot know what the future will bring. My best hope is every bit as likely to occur as my worst fear, so I have no reason to give more weight to my negative assumption. All I can do is make the most of this day. Today I choose to trust my recovery, the tools of the program, and my Higher Power, and to recognize how very far I have come.” // Al-Anon’s Courage to Change p. 169

I have to trust the process. The recovery. The work we are both doing. I have to trust that my Higher Power will reveal the truth to me when the time is right. Above all, I trust in love. The love in me and the love in him. I’ve seen that love in action and I see it every day. I’ve seen him work so hard to make changes in his life. And I’ve seen the progress.

I’ve made a habit of reflecting back each month, each year, in my journal. I write it out with colorful pens and doodles and lines and shapes, all the things that went right, the books I read, the crystals I carried, the places we went, the things little m said, the things I struggled with, my fears. 2019 was a two page spread, each item bordered by a different- colored box, and when I looked at it, the joy could not be ignored. Two boxes in the corner, one containing “two known slips” and the other read “at-home drug tests.” The rest of the pages were filled with so much good. It’s hard not to be grateful, to not see the progress, when it’s staring me in the face like that. The good outweighs the bad. Light washes away the dark.

So what do I trust? I trust that my husband is human. I trust that as a human, he will lie again. He will do things that hurt me. He will do things that hurt himself. Just as I do things to hurt him and myself. I trust that we are not perfect, and we will have challenges and fears and struggles. And I trust that he loves his family. I trust love – the love within me and within him and within the universe. Love will heal us, no matter what happens.