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Loving an alcoholic is a special kind of self-neglect

Loving an alcoholic is a special kind of self-neglect
Two years later, I’m still learning what it means to fully inhabit my life. (Valeria Petrone / For The Times)

In the last six months, three of my worst fears had come to pass. My dad had died suddenly and unexpectedly, my alcoholic ex had pulled the plug on our relationship, and now I was standing on the southbound side of the 5 Freeway in Anaheim waiting for AAA to rescue me and my VW station wagon filled with the last of my earthly possessions. I was moving from Los Angeles, where I'd spent the last decade of my life, back to my childhood home in Encinitas.

When I'd first moved to L.A., I gave myself five years to "make it." To me, that meant a successful career and a happy personal life. By the end of Year 5, I had a good job in the entertainment industry and had recently met a man — I'll call him "R." — and moved him into my cozy apartment in Franklin Village. He hated L.A. and dreamed of leaving, whereas I loved it and saw it as my forever home. So it was a special twist of irony that, five years later, I was the one leaving.

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Moments before I found myself standing in scrubby grass littered with trash on the side of the West Coast's main artery, I had been cruising along in the fast lane, assuring myself that I could always return to Los Angeles when and if I wanted to, when a warning bell in the car went off and a sign on the dash instructed me to "Stop Driving!" Standing there with cars whizzing by, I knew for certain that I'd driven more than my 15-year-old car into the ground.

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Falling in love with an alcoholic is a special kind of self-neglect. In a misguided attempt to be supportive, I had centered my life completely around him and his drinking problem. I excused his indifference and fought for his freedom from alcohol. There was just enough progress over time to keep me driving the relationship forward. But while his life improved, my own diminished. I found myself suffering from severe anxiety, unhappiness at work and social isolation.

By the time my dad died, I was running on fumes. R. was supportive in the moment of crisis but after three weeks was up to his old tricks, disappearing on benders and getting blackout drunk. I knew I couldn't go on like this, but I was afraid to act on that knowledge. My world was so upside down; I couldn't handle any more losses. In an act of love that was simultaneously an act of abandonment, R. did what I couldn't. He reached over and turned off the ignition of the vehicle that had been our relationship, sluggish and erratic as it was, and got out.

My life had imploded. My career had tanked; the man who represented the very foundation of security in my life had died; the man who represented a future of love and security had left me; and I felt exiled from the city where I had built my adult life. Whatever mechanism in me that had had drive was in the same state as my now inoperable VW.

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I told myself I just needed a few months to recoup and that, with a little space, R. and I would figure things out and wind up back together. Reality was giving me an altogether different message that would take me months to accept: "Stop Driving!"

The breakthrough came one day after a terrible fight with my mom.

As I sat on the porch feeling sorry for myself, wondering why nobody could love me the way I wanted to be loved, an idea dawned. Other people might not love me perfectly, but I could love me perfectly. In that moment, I actually stopped driving. I stopped trying to pull myself together, figure out my life and make everything OK. I just let myself be the giant mess I was and when the voice in my head cried about how she didn't know what to do and that she felt out of place and unwanted, another voice deep within me responded, "I know. It's OK. I love you no matter what and I'm going to take care of you."

This subtle shift opened up a whole new sense of love and security for me — one that came from inside instead of outside.

The anxiety and depression lifted, my health improved, and I stopped being angry. Not much had changed on the outside. I was still living with my mom, I didn't have a car, and my job prospects were slim.

But so much was different on the inside.

When Christmas rolled around, a friend invited me to a party at her home. The moment I walked through the door, I noticed him noticing me. Eventually, we found ourselves face-to-face, chatting away the evening. I was nervous about dating and not having my life together. Carl saw through my circumstances, which he recognized as temporary, and was delighted by me.

Two years later, I'm still learning what it means to fully inhabit my life as opposed to driving it from point A to point B. My circumstances have evolved slowly, but in a way that brings me happiness.

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And Carl?

I can honestly say that I've never received so much unconditional love and acceptance and given it in return. Our wedding was in June, proof that when all seems lost, it's usually just a beginning.

The author is a San Diego-based freelance writer and editor. She can be found at tiffanynoelfroese.com.

L.A. Affairs chronicles the current dating scene in and around Los Angeles. If you have comments or a true story to tell, email us at LAAffairs@latimes.com.

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