I celebrated my fourth wedding anniversary last week. I never pictured myself being married when I was younger. As a little girl, my Barbie dolls were in a punk band, not a wedding party. I cropped their wedding dresses with manicure scissors and pierced their ears and noses with straight pins. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in love. I spent pretty much every day from the time I was 12 thinking, reading, obsessing about love. I just never embraced the “normal people” definition of love that I saw all around me. I liked the idea of doomed, desperate Lady Brett Ashley-Jake Barnes love that I read about in The Sun Also Rises. I wanted dark, murderous admirers like Christian Slater in Heathers or romantic insanity like Mickey and Mallory Knox in Natural Born Killers. My young love fantasies didn’t translate to real life.
I was so consumed by drugs and alcohol by the time I hit high school, I forgot to learn how to date. When my friends were making out with cute jocks at keg parties, I was in the master bathroom raiding the medicine cabinet for good pain pills. I watched my two best girlfriends get ready for senior prom, then spent the evening learning to smoke crack with a guy who was 22 and drove a white Cadillac.
As I grew up, I viewed other peoples’ weddings with a mixture of confusion and disdain. I just didn’t get why it was so important. You spent how much on a dress that you will be wearing once? And, seriously, who cares what color the sashes on the bridesmaid dresses are and how they match the bows on the chairs—remind me again why we need sashes and bows? I couldn’t see the connection between finding the love of your life that you wanted to be with forever and planning a big, expensive party. In my experience, the best weddings were the ones you couldn’t remember the next day because they had an open bar.
Then I found recovery. Everything I thought I knew about life turned inside out. I realized that most of my emotional growth had been arrested back in my early teens when I started drinking and using on a daily basis. I discovered I was probably always a little socially retarded, which is part of what made me want to get wasted every day in the first place. Most of all, I began to understand that my addiction had caused such a deep self-loathing that I couldn’t let myself get close to anybody. I sought out unhealthy, chaotic situations (not downright murderous, but definitely abusive and dysfunctional) as a way of keeping anything real at arm’s length.
With a couple of years clean, armed with all my newfound self-awareness and feeling like I had made up years of emotional maturity in a matter of months, I thought I was ready for love. I didn’t realize that my lack of sober relationship experience meant I had no idea how to actually date in a healthy way. Turns out all my annoying peers in high school were actually practicing useful mating rituals while I was passed out on the bathroom floor. I tried to make up for lost time by dating a steady stream of the most eligible/least questionable bachelors from work, local 12-step meetings and the Internet (since those were the three places I hung out). Most of them were not sociopaths and I learned a few valuable lessons along the way, but nothing stuck.
I wasn’t really sad about not getting married in recovery, but I did wish I could find a cool boyfriend. After a particularly disappointing breakup, my sponsor encouraged me to make a list of everything I was looking for in a man. She already had me do that assignment years before, when she asked me to write down everything I wanted out of recovery. I don’t remember what was on that first list, but I know for sure that after just a few years of working a program, my expectations had been wildly exceeded. So, like a typical addict, I went big. My romantic wish list had about 50 ridiculous virtues. Things like “keeps his cool when I get really emotional,” “creative, but capable of showing up at work and bringing home a paycheck” and “truly kind, but not a pushover.” It was a tall order (literally—like, he needed to be over 6’1″ cuz I’m 5’10”) and, deep down, I didn’t really believe such a creature existed.
I treated my relationship wish list like I had my recovery wish list—I promptly forgot it and went on living my life. I got a job opportunity too good to pass up and moved to another state. I was still young and impulsive enough to think it was no biggie to be far away from my family and support group. Turns out, it was a big deal. It was like being a newcomer again, but with six years clean. I was totally depressed and miserable, missing my friends and my meetings and feeling like I made the worst decision of my life. I started backsliding in the man department in a big way. I had flings with a co-worker 10 years younger than me, a visiting Scotsman who I could barely understand and an out-of-work musician almost old enough to be my dad. The worst/best part of having a little recovery was that I knew better. In the back of my mind, I recognized that my unstable emotional state was attracting inappropriate guys.
I decided to take a break from dating and work on myself. I went back to school, got in shape and went to tons of meetings. I took a couple of of service commitments, trying to do exactly what the program tells us to do by helping others to get out of myself. My best friend got engaged and asked me to be her maid of honor. I secretly referred to myself as the maid of “horror” but did my best to be graceful and supportive while she transformed into a person who cared about bustles and up-dos for a year. I still didn’t get the big deal about weddings. I wasn’t any closer to being married in recovery than I had been back when my idea of true love was dropping acid and pulling a robbery together.
Then I met him. I was sitting in a service committee meeting on a Sunday afternoon after my friend’s whirlwind wedding weekend. I was on auto-pilot, just showing up. I had spent the morning at a hipster post-wedding brunch, sipping juice while everybody clinked mimosas and the afternoon driving as fast as I could to get home. I wasn’t really paying attention until I realized somebody was yelling. A lady who had been on the committee for years (and had a reputation for being a trouble maker) was screaming at the treasurer. Mildly interested, I started paying attention. I wasn’t concerned about the argument, but in the guy’s response. I had seen chairs thrown for less. Yet, he was sitting perfectly calm, nodding and listening, with the trace of a smile on his face.
After the meeting, I approached him in the parking lot. I told him I was impressed with how he handled the crazy lady. He said something like, “People need to be heard.” We went for coffee that night and started dating a few weeks later. It was easy to like him and he brought out the best in me. It was like all my mistakes had prepared me to have this relationship. We took things slow. We had been dating for more than a year when he proposed. I wasn’t totally surprised, but it was still a weird feeling. I was cautious; we waited almost another year before we moved in together, then took another year deciding what kind of wedding to have. It was simple, just a few people and no big white dress.
Seven years together and four years of marriage hasn’t been easy. It turns out that a guy who has every characteristic on my wish list can still leave wads of dirty socks under the bathroom sink and steal the covers at night. As romantic as I used to think criminals and dysfunction were, the reality wasn’t sexy, or sustainable. I’m sure sharing the common bond of recovery has saved us from murdering each other. We do bring out the best in each other, but we also recognize the worst and know how to accept it.
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