“One day I’ll get my shit together! Like, when I meet the right person. The person I want to have kids with. The person that’s worth staying in for,” I slurred to my friend David. We were at a tiny dive bar downtown San Francisco and I had been drinking like I was going to the electric chair. I was a certifiable mess at the time, always sucking back white wine in attempts to quell the debilitating social anxiety that made me feel like I was forever teetering over the edge of Mt. Everest.
It was a counterproductive coping mechanism; I ended up as tanked as a sorority sister in throes of her first St. Patrick’s Day bender in Times Square, making a hideous fool out of myself, only to wake up the next morning shuddering from the tremors of shame, seventeen thousand times more socially anxious than I’d been the day before.
“Zara you really should get your shit together before you meet someone. You don’t want a person to be the reason you get your shit together. It doesn’t work like that,” Dutiful David, my gorgeously even-keeled friend responded back to me, raising his plush eyebrows in concern.
I slugged back the remains of my “house wine” and flashed my super-charged bleached teeth at him, bestowing him with the signature winning smile that had served as a lifeline to me — albeit one that was wearing thinner and thinner with age and was on the cusp of breaking (didn’t stop me from clinging to it for dear life, though!). “You know I would kill for those eyebrows,” I purred, pulling a ciggie out of my tattered handbag.
David looked at me, annoyed. David never looked annoyed. Either my teeth weren’t as gleamy as usual or Dr. David was on to something.
So I decided to mull over his words for a while. Longer than I should’ve, as I was so blotto it took me eons to process even the simplest of concepts. I SHOULD. GET. MY. SHIIIIIIIT TOGETHER. BEFORE, BEFORE, BEFOOOREEEE I GET IN A RELA.TION.SHIP? I slowly repeated to myself until it made sense. Suddenly I knew David was right. He was so right that I had to drink even more to convince myself he was wrong!
The truth was, I was lying to David. I didn’t know I was lying, but I was lying. Lying to him. Lying to myself. Lying to the ether. See — I wasn’t actually planning on getting my shit together when I met the “right person” (as if the “right” person would’ve wanted to date a 20-something trainwreck like me). I was simply expecting a hot, smart, and successful girlfriend to swoop into the dark scene I was stuck in and rewrite the script for me. Make me the hero of the movie, not the loser no one even remembers.
I wasn’t even planning on really doing any *work* on myself, I assumed some girlfriend figure would eventually appear before my bleary eyes (as she often does in boy form in Hollywood), roll up the sleeves of her classic lesbian button down and do the labor for me, duh. In my most raw, naked fantasies, I simply happened upon a gorgeous dyke who loved me with such an overwhelming and unconditional intensity, it instantly fixed all my problems. Like magic! And we lived happily ever fucking after! Right?
It was more along the lines of: We lived happily six-months-until-the-honeymoon-period-wore-off-and-now-I’m-back-to-my-old-ways-only-worse ever fucking after! After a half dozen failed romances all of which left me reeling with the same set of issues (only with heartbreak thrown into the mix too), eventually, I figured out that while a relationship might save you from small things like, trying to figure out who to bring as your “plus one” to your cousin’s wedding, the big things, the things that are actually holding you back in your life and stopping you from reaching your true potential, a relationship cannot save.
I only drink so much because I’m single and all single people p-a-r-t-y. I only take sleeping pills to nod out at night because I’m afraid to sleep alone! I mean have you heard about all the robberies in the neighborhood? Gasp! I only online shop excessively and compulsively because I’m not getting laid on a regular basis and we’re all entitled to one quick-fix feel good, right? I only binge eat at 4 AM because I’m lonely! Bagels stave off loneliness just so you know.
These are the lies that those of us with the “addict” gene like to tell ourselves. Addicts don’t like to ever blame themselves for their problems, that’s the whole reason why we’re so into numbing out. We detest reality. So we live in a glittery, inebriated fantasy that one day some random babe is going to fall in love with us and rescue us and then, we’ll toss our bad habits aside. Easily. Like dumping yesterday’s dirty laundry into the washing machine, pressing “ON,” waiting forty-five minutes and suddenly everything smells clean and pretty and the filthy holes in our souls are now rendered washed and mended.
However, usually, when we are caught in the rinse cycle of addiction we don’t attract the people we hoped to attract when we were little innocent beings. Princess Charming isn’t so into Cinderella when Cinderella decides to stay up past midnight. She doesn’t turn into a pumpkin, she turns into a sloppy lush. She’s slurring and stumbling and taking a suspicious amount of trips to the bathroom. A sane Princess Charming, who respects herself, isn’t going to be too hot on building a life with Ms. Hot Mess Express.
But sometimes, the perfect person stumbles into your life when you’re in a wildly-imperfect place. When my fiancée Meghan came into my life, I intrinsically knew she was the right person. I wasn’t a roaring drunk when I first met Meghan (at least not every night), for my addictions had metamorphosed themselves into a prettier, less conspicuous (but far harder to kick) window dressing. While they were once a loud, orange Lindsay Lohan, they were now a seemingly normal Blake Lively. But even the Blake Livelys’ of the world can harbor some pretty vile secrets, trust me.
At this stage in the game, I was wise enough to hide my addiction to clonazepam out of the fear of losing her. She had her shit together, no way was she going to put up with my bullshit. In fact, I convinced myself I didn’t have any issues with self-medicating anymore! The promise of what this gorgeous relationship could be, hung so heavily over me that it snuffed out my desire to self-medicate. I picked up that orange bottle of pills and stuffed them into an old purse in the back of my closet. I didn’t need that ugly-ass purse and I didn’t need those silly-ass pills because I was in LOVE, damn it.
But you know what? In the fight between love and addiction, addiction will always win. Did you read Cat Marnell’s memoir “How To Murder Your Life?” If you haven’t, you really should. A young ambitious Cat Marnell wants so badly to be a successful Editor-in-Chief at a fashion magazine and is convinced that her love for her career, the pure ambition that’s defined her since childhood, will rescue her from pill addiction. “My ambition and my addiction had been duking it out like two boxers in a ring for years. My ambition was bloodied, bruised, and finally, now, defeated,” Marnell writes of the day she finally gives in, quits her dream job, and opts to lay in bed drowning in a sea of pills instead. “Why would she do that?” A friend of mine (a normal person) who was also reading the book, pondered to me over a coffee. I didn’t answer him. But I understood why.
Because love — whether it’s love for a dream job or a dream person, is not a cure-all.
It feels magical because it’s full of intense rushes and torturously awesome feelings of longing and sexy pangs of desire, but it’s not actually magic. It can’t, in one delicate sweep, push aside the mess you’ve spent a lifetime creating. Love can inspire you to clean up the mess. But it can’t actually clean up the mess. Only you can get down on your hands and knees and truly clean up this colossal mess you’ve made, babe. Only you know that the old purse in the very back of your dusty closet is teeming with the enemy; pills. And only you can decide whether to throw em’ out or whether to take them.
For a while, I thought my love for Meghan had rescued me from the bad habits that had ruled my life, my libido, my sleep and my self-esteem for almost a decade. As a romantic person, I want to believe that a lover can cure you of any disease you might be afflicted with. If I can’t find the cure/I’ll fix you with my love Lady Gaga sings in my head on repeat, incessantly. No matter what you know/I’ll fix you with my love.
I now know that it doesn’t work that way. Art may imitate life but art doesn’t imitate real love. It’s why art doesn’t express the reality of love after the oxytocin has worn off and you’re left as two real people with two-thousand real problems. Even a love as powerful as my love for Meghan (she knocked the wind out of me!) didn’t stop me from eventually creeping into the darkest depths of my closet, pulling out the ole’ purse of toxicity, popping those pretty blue pills into my chapped mouth and drinking to the point of terrifying blackouts. It didn’t stop me from doing it the first time. Or the second time. Or the third time. Or the tenth time. An addiction wants what it wants and it wants the vice it’s been a slave to. It’s got a mean case of Stockholm syndrome. The addiction was here first and she’s a possessive bitch. She’d been pulling my leash for so long I didn’t know where to go without her, anyway.
What started as a few “relapses” quickly turned into the same old tragic scene. You know how they say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and over again and expecting different results? I suppose I got sick of being insane. I suppose I was sick of living a life that looked clean, but still had mothballs swept under the rug. Even if you can’t see mothballs, you’re aware of them. They’ll irritate your eyes and tickle the back of your throat and make you feel generally unwell. I wanted real cleanliness. I want real cleanliness. And though I love my girlfriend so fiercely I endured a brutally long silent meditation with her in lieu of a sparkly holiday party last Christmas, this time I wanted cleanliness for me. And that was the difference. I didn’t want to lose her, but I didn’t want to lose myself, more.
So what did I do? I Made The Great Change. I tossed the pills down the trash shoot of our 16th-floor apartment. I would’ve flushed them down the toilet, but I know better (sounds romantic, but they can end up killing innocent little fishies in rivers and lakes). And while she was sweet and supportive, the ball was in my court. I had to learn to play the game for once and for all.
It was I who had to physically sit in the discomfort of unmedicated anxiety and withdrawal. It was I who had to ride out the cravings and the unfiltered pain of real life. It was I that had to examine my worth and decide what kind of person I wanted to be and what kind of future I deserved to have.
It’s I who has to continue to do the laborious hard work because addiction is like that toxic ex-girlfriend who is always lurking around the corner, sticking her acrylic nail into the underbelly of your life. The one who seems to have some sort of internal radar built into her and comes knocking on your door looking irresistibly sexy when you’re feeling vulnerable and worthless and tries to lure you back into her sequined-scaled arms with her wicked prowess. And only I can make the choice. I can slam the door in her face, tell her to fuck off, take some deep breathes, act like a fucking woman and ride out the discomfort of my feelings. Only I can play the tape of what would *actually* happen if I were to let that horror from my shady past, Lady Benzo in my apartment for “just one drink.”
It’s only I who can destroy myself and it’s only I who can piece myself back together.
If I had to do it all over again I would have listened to David that drunken San Francisco night so long ago. I would’ve got my “shit together” before someone “worth staying in for” came bolstering into my life, unexpectedly. I would’ve actually been the girl I pretended to be, when I first met Meghan. But you know what? Stories aren’t perfect and mine is no exception. And by getting dirty (’cause you have to be willing to get dirty if you’re going to do the real work) and cleaning up the mess I made, I learned an incredibly valuable life lesson: Even when you’re in the throes of love, even when you’re in the most beautiful relationship of all relationships, you can still grow and evolve independently of your partner. Being in love doesn’t stop you from being able to navigate your issues, solo. Being in love doesn’t strip you of the epic power of individuality and the epic power of self.
I rescued myself while I was in love. It wasn’t easy. But it’s made my relationship stronger. I now have the confidence of knowing that even though I’m about to walk down the aisle another person, my relationship with myself is still the most powerful relationship I have. That even if I go through something horrendous and shameful and dire again, I, without dragging my partner into the mud with me, am strong enough to dig myself out, without her helping hand.
That even though I’m sharing my story with someone else, I can still write my own part.