I had been dating my boyfriend, Jon, for four months when he asked if I would drive from Atlanta to South Florida with him, to attend an anniversary party for his grandparents. This was big – meeting his grandmother would be like meeting the Queen of England. Jon’s Grandma Dorothy was the matriarch of his family, and often ruled it with an unforgiving iron fist.
But she was no match for a girl in love. Without hesitation, I said yes! After all, my entire family lived in South Florida, and I was just waiting for the perfect time to introduce them to Jon.
Let the Romance Begin
The anniversary party was Saturday night, and everything went beautifully. Jon’s grandparents were gracious and delighted that their grandson was dating a “nice Jewish girl.” We danced, we laughed, we bonded over family stories. To my surprise, my boyfriend showed up at my parents’ home the next morning at the crack of dawn – literally, 6 a.m. With an air of mystery, he told me to grab my flip flops – we were going to the beach.
A romantic stroll on the beach at sunrise with my pony-tailed, one-earringed, guitar-riffing musician boyfriend who normally slept until noon? Are you thinking what I’m thinking?
We walked for about a mile along the sandy shore when suddenly Jon stopped, turned to face me, and dropped to his knees (landing dead-weight on the top of my left foot. Normally I would have cried out in pain, but when I realized what was happening, I was not about to let a few crushed tendons ruin the moment). He pulled out a homemade snowglobe of glitter, and floating inside was a golden ring. He handed it up to me and asked me to marry him.
And of course I said — or rather, screamed, “Yes!” (The reality of the crushed foot to be part of our story as the years went by, but not today.)
Let No Man Put Asunder
We raced home to tell my parents, who apparently had already been filled in. It was 9 o’clock in the morning, and I was starving. Jon and I left to grab breakfast at Denny’s, and by the time we got back to my parents’ house, my mother had booked the room, the caterer and the florist.
The train was leaving the station, ladies and gentleman, and I was strapped to it.
After all, my mother had been waiting more than a decade for her last child to get married.
Just as our future was looking so bright, our troubles started to surface. Within weeks, my boyfriend – excuse me, fiancé — began having panic attacks. He felt as if his throat was closing up on him and he couldn’t breathe. Direct correlation to having just gotten engaged? I didn’t know, but as his symptoms worsened and he dropped more than 10 pounds in two weeks, we called for help.
Can You Love Someone Enough To Save Him?
We went to see a therapist, and I discovered that the man I loved had a substance abuse problem. Well, actually, I didn’t learn that in our first session; I just learned that something was terribly wrong and making him scared to death. It took a year of neurotic behavior, obsessive doctor visits, psychotherapy, extreme weight loss, multiple occasions of drug use discovery and severe anxiety attacks until we both learned that his addiction was slowly killing our relationship — which by now had become a marriage.
Yes, I went full-steam-ahead with our wedding plans during the same year that Jon and I were learning more about each other (and ourselves, for that matter) than most couples learn in five years.
Why did I marry Jon just as I was learning he had a substance abuse problem? Well, for one thing, I had never met an addict before, and Jon’s use seemed very low-key and surmountable. It was nothing like the made-for-TV-movies. But here is the real reason: I was absolutely certain I could love him enough to save him.
I did not walk down the aisle thinking this was a mistake. I did not walk down the aisle thinking this could be heartbreaking. I walked down the aisle thinking, “Jon is the love of my life.” I truly did not have any pre-inklings of separation, divorce or trauma. I was a happy, hopeful, bride-in-denial
The Co-Dependent Dance
For the next 13 years Jon and I built a marriage on a rocky foundation. We loved each other – we even liked each other most of the time – but we were cast in the co-dependent version of So You Think You Can Dance? That dance goes something like this: Jon would stop doing drugs. He would make promises and we would make progress. Then I would notice that something was off. I would ask if he was doing drugs and he would tell me no. Then I would feel bad for thinking he was doing drugs. But the feeling wouldn’t go away so I would ask again, a week later. Jon would deny it and I would feel bad again. And then, eventually, I would discover the drug use. Each time my husband lied, I would feel like Charlie Brown when Lucy promises not to take the football away. And each time we would get extra help from our therapist and we would work to rebuild our relationship. I would love him all over again.
And every so often, I thought to myself, “Maybe I don’t want to do this anymore.” But we had a son by now – a miracle in and of itself – and I could not imagine breaking up his family.
A Changed Perspective Changed Everything
One day, 13 years and 5,000 therapy sessions into our marriage, I suddenly I saw the possibility of divorce from a totally different perspective. This time I didn’t think about divorce as, “how can I do this to my son?” but rather, “how can I not do this FOR my son?”
That slight movement, the understanding that letting go of this marriage could actually be better for my son – for all of us – changed everything. I believe it is what finally gave me the courage to try a separation. I believe our separation is what motivated Jon to get help on his own and me to stop trying to save (control) him. And I believe the growth that both Jon and I did – alone – is what allowed us to ultimately come together and build this strange but authentic friendship. It wasn’t always an easy path, and I hit a lot of road bumps along the way.
Stay tuned for what happened after we said, “I don’t”…