A few years ago I was asked to write an essay about addiction and marriage. This is what I wrote.
Theres a scene in the movie Shall We Dance? where Susan Sarandon’s character, a married woman, meets with a private investigator. She’d hired the investigator to follow her husband, as she was certain he’d been having an affair. Instead she learns – surprise – that he’s 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 relationship, we bear witness to each others’ courage, to the singularness, the uniqueness, the preciousness of their 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 their experience.
Journeying into darkness
This sounds good and noble when we’re talking about the hero’s 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?
When we marry, most of us express some version of the vow ‘to love one another in sickness and health.’ When that vow is tested - and tested to the utmost - it can fray the most fervent desire to bear witness.
Facing our compulsions
I wish I could say that I’ve used something as harmless as dancing to cope with life’s pain. But my coping strategies haven’t been as elegant. For most of my life, I’ve been an addict. The fact that my chosen addiction was food - something that’s relatively socially acceptable, as long as you “control” your weight – doesn’t 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: these 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 ‘homes.’ They are 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 gorge on a pound of raisins. I closed down my heart. I was wrapped around my own pain, and yet consumed with wanting more of what never satisfied.
Of course I knew better. I knew that gorging on ice cream wouldn’t solve my problems. But knowing better was not the problem.
During my decades long journey of healing my food addiction, I tried just about everything to change. But 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 I’d 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, ”I know. I see you. Let me offer true care.”
Rather than looking at my addiction as something 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 is what she would say: If I can only get my stuff together with food, with my weight, with my life I will finally feel enough. I’ll finally feel worthy of love.
Opening through love
When we feel loved, we open.
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 I’ve ever met who’s struggled with addiction shares these core wounds. And we can only heal our addictive patterns when we heal these beliefs about how we matter. We’re 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 they’ve 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’s a mercy to look at ourselves through the eyes of love. Thankfully, we don’t have to do this on our own. When we can’t 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 wasn’t fun. He couldn’t have said it any more clearly: You’re 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 I’ve 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 I’d long been avoiding. What I found was all the myriad ways I tried to avoid hurting.
It’s much easier to eat than to say Im sorry.
It’s much easier to eat than to have a difficult conversation about what isn’t working.
It’s much easier to eat than to admit that I can’t control life, that I’m not in charge, that my intelligence, or good heartedness, or even trying to do all the right things aren’t an inoculation against pain.
It’s 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. 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 open, knowing full well the risk of being hurt. In both we can look honestly at what’s going on, to see the truth of what’s 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.
Along the way we will be broken – yes. And yet, our hearts open, and open, and open – through and to each other.