A few years ago I was asked to write an essay about addiction and marriage. I’d love to share this piece with you.
Theres a scene in the movie Shall We Dance? where Susan Sarandons character meets with a private investigator. Shed hired the investigator to follow her husband, as she was certain hed been having an affair. Instead she learns surprise – that hes been taking dancing lessons.
This revelation leads to a mix of emotions a disruption to her sense of how well she knows her husband, a bit of envy towards his beautiful dance partner and their shared passion, and a desire to support him as he weathers the internal crisis that led him to seek solace in dancing.
At one point, she asks the investigator, Why do we marry? and offers her own theory in response: we marry to bear witness to each others lives.
Making each other count
Her desire to bear witness reminds me of a line from a Mary Oliver poem, where she writes about how each life is a flower, as common as a field day, and as singular. Where each body is a lion of courage, and something precious to the earth.
In any loving relationship, we bear witness to each others courage, to the singularness, the uniqueness, the preciousness of our lives. These things matter because they belong to someone we love. We make each other count.
With that love comes reverence – we care about the minutia of their day as well as the larger unfolding of their human life, the myths that shape their particular story. As the partner, the observer, the witness, we give greater meaning to these myths.
Journeying into darkness
Now, this sounds good and noble when were talking about the heros journey something that has a ring of victory to it. But what happens when this journey ventures into darkness, when we linger in the underworld? Do we bear witness at those times?
Most of us express some version of the vow to love one another in sickness and health when we marry. When that vow is tested and tested to the utmost it can fray the most fervent desire to bear witness. Is this any more poignant than with addiction? With mental illness?
Facing our compulsions
I wish I could say that Ive used something as harmless as dancing to cope with lifes pain. But my coping strategies havent been nearly as elegant. For most of my life, Ive been an addict. The fact that my chosen addiction was food something thats relatively socially acceptable, as long as you “control” your weight doesnt alter the suffering.
The shame, the self loathing, the guilt, the fear, the desperate, clinging neediness, the desire to heal and the hopelessness that keeps the addiction going are the same.
I’ve had other, more subtle compulsions, layers underneath the food: people pleasing, wanting to look good, controlling, and judging. When life gets painful, uncertain, or hard, I want to run to one of these false refuges, as Tara Brach calls them. Its my own personal version of fight or flight, how I flee into food, into control, into one obsession or another.
The pain of addiction
These patterns can cause all sorts of challenge, particularly in my relationships. While I would say that my relationship with myself has suffered the most of all, my relationship with my spouse is a close second.
When I gorged on food, I was absent from my life. I ignored my childrens plea for a bedtime snuggle; I avoided making love with my husband to inhale a pound of raisins. I closed down my heart. I got pissy and jealous and cared more about getting my fix than noticing the needs of those around me. I was wrapped around my own pain, and yet consumed with wanting more of what never satisfied.
Intellectually, of course I knew better. I knew that stuffing myself with 5,000 calories of food wont solve my problems; it will not make me happy. But intellect was not the problem.
On my two decade journey of healing my food addiction, I tried just about everything to change. If I’m honest, I was really searching for a “magic bullet” – the spiritual, psychological, or dietary tool that would finally control my addiction. It’s all I knew how to do.
But control wasn’t the problem, nor the solution. What finally brought peace was something quite radical. Instead of running from my addiction, I turned towards it and listened.
I stopped making myself, my pain or my addiction wrong. In this space of acceptance, of unconditional love, my relationship to my food addiction – and to my very self – changed.
Coming to the rest of unconditional love
I faced the many parts of me that Id stuffed inside. I gathered up all my wounds and let them rest. In so many words, I said to those hurting, tender parts of me, Sweetheart, it’s okay. Let me care for you.
Rather than looking at my addiction as something terrible, grotesque, as something I needed to cut out, I looked at it as something tender that needed love. I saw a wounded little girl, who so desperately wanted to be loved.
If you asked this wounded girl what she believed to be true, this would be her view of reality: If I can only get my stuff together with food, with my weight, in life and love I will finally finally feel enough. I’ll finally feel worthy of love.
So I held that little girl in my arms, like you would hold any crying child, and I told her, Sh, sh, its okay. I love all of you.
Opening through love
When we feel loved, we open. Through love – self love, the love of others – I opened.
Underneath my addiction, I found layers of unmet needs that I was trying to fill with food. A need to belong, to be accepted, to know my own goodness. A need to take up space, to feel okay with taking up space, a need to . need. What I most needed was to matter; to believe in my innate worthiness.
Nearly every person Ive ever met whos struggled with addiction shares these core wounds. And we can only heal our addictive patterns when we heal these beliefs about how we matter. Were not just trying to see the food, the drug, the hit differently. We work to see ourselves differently
“I see you.”
This is where loving relationship can step in. One of the greatest gifts we can give each other is to say, I see you. I see your goodness. To mirror their strength, essence, their suchness back to them particularly when theyve lost the thread on their own.
Poet Nikki Giovanni wrote about this in her poem Love In Place, when she described coming across a photo of herself at a much younger age. While she sees her beauty, her youth, and her eagerness, the memory is her lovers: What I mostly see is me through your eyes.
It is a mercy to look at ourselves through the eyes of love. Thankfully, we dont have to do this on our own. When we cant do this for ourselves, friends, lovers, and our communities can do this for us. It is a noble endeavor.
Standing in the gap
My husband stood in the gap for me. Over and over, as I tripped and fell in my wilderness, he reminded me of my essence, my goodness.
He did this, first and foremost, by staying in our marriage, even when it wasnt fun. He couldnt have said it any more clearly: Youre worthy of my love. I love you and I want you and I choose you.
With this mercy, I could find mercy for my own heart.
The hardest thing Ive ever done beyond facing the helplessness I had over food was to stop hating myself for being an addict. Once I stopped blaming myself (and blaming others), I had no choice but to face the pain Id long been avoiding. What I found was all the myriad ways I tried to avoid hurting.
Its much easier to eat than to say Im sorry.
Its much easier to eat than to have a difficult conversation about what isnt working.
Its much easier to eat than to admit that I cant control life, that Im not in charge, that my smarts and good grades and beauty and even doing all the right things arent an inoculation against pain. There are no guarantees.
Its much easier to eat than to be this alive.
And we rise
And this is why I now turn inwards, over and over and over again. To feel my vulnerability is to feel my life; to live it fully, and this means living the regrets as thoroughly as I live the joys.
Opening to my vulnerability in addiction is not that different from opening to my vulnerability in relationship. In both we can open, trust, and let go, knowing full well the risk of being hurt. In both we can look honestly at whats going on, to see the truth of whats there.
No, relationships are not easy. Opening our hearts and shedding our armor is not easy. Dropping our defenses or our desire for control is not easy – or comfortable. And yet, we can and we do and we dare.
To love this fully is to live the heros journey. Along the way we will be broken – yes. And yet, our hearts open, and open, and open – through and to each other.
Wanting more hands on help?
- How to break free from the broken self trance
- Learn about the alchemy of self acceptance
- If you’re wanting support to heal your relationship with food, with you overeating, and with your very self, I recommend my overeating program, Heal Overeating: Untangled. In this audio based program, you’ll learn how to release the shame of overeating, care for your emotions under the food, and find the deepest rest of unconditional love.