The last man that used the words “I love you” used them to control me.
- He used them by not saying it back, ever, when I said it.
- He used them by smugly making me say it when he wanted to hear it.
- He used them by only ever saying them himself when I would work up the strength to try to end things.
- He used them to make me feel bad when I didn’t “behave” how he wanted me to.
- He used them to convince me of a false future that he had no intention of ever providing.
The words “I love you” meant absolutely nothing. They were alternately a crowbar, a hammer, a master key… in a box of tools of manipulation.
By falling for a narcissist, I learned every possible thing that love is not.
What is addiction? As a recovering addict, I feel qualified to spell that out a little.
- Addiction is chaos.
- Addiction is bursts of extreme pleasure that explode above a constant hum of pain.
- Addiction is overwhelming craving.
- Addiction is feeling insane.
- Addiction is the loss of self.
- Addiction is desperation and confusion.
- Addiction is becoming professional at being ok with shit you aren’t ok with.
- Addiction is harboring shame for everything you are and aren’t.
- Addiction is lowering your bar until it’s on the floor.
- Addiction is accepting the complete destruction of your future for instant and temporary relief of pain of the present.
- Addiction is returning over and over again to the source of your misery.
Now go ahead and swap out the word addiction for “toxic love.” You will find it’s easy to do because toxic love is more like addiction than it is like love. In fact, for many people with traumatic histories and addiction/codependency issues, I would argue it isn’t love at all. But some of us believe it is, usually because the examples of love that we were given were so warped.
I genuinely believed I loved that man. But after having time to reflect, specifically on what it felt like trying to escape it… I realize I was addicted. Not in love.
And then there was this simple but revealing truth: Love doesn’t leave you with PTSD.
As sick and emotionally abusive and cold and manipulative as that man was, I was just as responsible for it all. I was a perfect target. I was someone who was so desperate to be loved that I was willing to accept any pathetic façade of it.
I am an addict. Sure, I was a year sober when I met him, but the reasons why I used were still very much there. A year of sobriety after 16 years of drinking, while a big accomplishment, isn’t much except the time it takes to get through cravings and break some daily habits related to your using. My wounds still bled openly, and the infection was still living in them. I had only just begun the process of treating them. My addiction desperately sought another venue, and it found it in the place that so many in early recovery do — in a person.
The. Worst. Possible. One.
After spending three and a half years locked in that psychological warfare, I could literally write a book on what it’s like to be ensnared in the web of a narcissist. I could write a book on the dynamic between a codependent empath and a narcissist. I could write yet another book on how people’s recovery from addiction to substances is so many times lost as a direct result of a toxic relationship and their codependency.
Thank god, that’s not what happened. Although the closest I ever came to a relapse, sitting at a bar alone with a drink in front of me, a year and a half sober and long past cravings and desires to drink, was indeed a direct result of the feelings that toxic love stirred up in me. I am forever grateful that instead of putting that glass to my lips, I reached out to a friend. But it was way, way too close for comfort. And for so many people I worked with in addiction treatment, it didn’t end in too close, it ended in relapse.
The part I’m trying to touch on here though isn’t any of those things. It is understanding that there are certain things that need to be done if that isn’t the future you want for yourself. I understood that that relationship was unhealthy pretty quickly. That wasn’t enough. I ignored red flags, made excuses, and believed lies and empty promises, and got burned EVERY SINGLE TIME. And THAT still wasn’t enough. I learned what a narcissist was, what he was doing to me, what I was doing to myself as a result, and how it was never, ever going to change. And THAT still wasn’t enough.
What was finally enough was realizing I was back in active addiction. I hadn’t picked up a bottle, a pill, or a bag of coke, but I may as well have. And the little bit of being proud of myself that I had attributed to getting sober without ever relapsing, basically felt slimy and false, because I had relapsed on this man a hundred times. I felt exactly how I did in active addiction. Only worse, because at least in my addiction I had the option to check out. Numb the misery. Now I felt too much. All of the things I used to drink over, all of my insecurity and grief and pain and fear of rejection… he had sniffed it out, and for him it was a sport to rip it all open as often as possible. And I knew that if I didn’t get out of it, I had gotten sober for nothing. I wasn’t progressing. You can’t heal when you keep sticking a knife into your wound. And then using that knife to make new wounds. I got sober to be different. To be better. To dig out the poison that kept me sick, and here I was, adding more.
I was feeling sorry for myself again. And worse, as often happens when you spend too much time trying to survive the tactics of a narcissist, I was being pulled down into behaviors I was disgusted by. Behaviors that were NOT ME. Here we are again… when were those things part of my life? When I was drinking and using. And those things made me understand, with great certainty, that this was not an option. And that if I could summon up the strength it took to withstand not only his manipulations to reel me in yet again, I would have to withstand my own cravings. Cravings to return to the poison. Just like I had gone through before. Trauma bonding is real. And it is one of the strongest, sickest bonds there is. But just like my addiction to substances, it was going to have be MY doing. The booze and drugs were going to be there as long as I let them. And so was this. He would never end it. I was ideal supply for what he needed. It was going to have to be me.
And again, just like with getting sober, it would only be the beginning of much more work.
I began to understand that my underlying issues would still run my life, drugs and booze or not, if I didn’t face them. This requires a lot of painful self-examination, a lot of doing what you don’t want to do, and not doing what you DO want to do. Therapy, more failed relationships, more re-examining patterns, more taking uncomfortable inventory of the role I played in my life, where I wanted to blame someone or something else. More learning how to understand how my past shaped me without living in it. More exposing myself to triggers until they became not triggers anymore. More working on detaching meaning from things I had attached meaning to and therefore allowed them to control me. More spending time on my own, more pursuing my interests despite my self-doubt. I won’t lie to you and say that the doubt goes completely away, but I will say that you can make the choice to act anyway.
You see, I didn’t come this far just to come this far. I didn’t get sober to get smacked in the face with all of my own bullshit only to say, “welp, I guess this is just how I am.”
No. A thousand times, no.
I promised myself that I would never let someone like that come near my heart again. But I understood that was much less about those people, and much more about me. We attract, and stay with, what we believe we are worthy of. And in the event you find a good one and you haven’t addressed that? Guess what… you’ll chase them away. Mark my words.
You HAVE to do the work. And you also would do yourself a wealth of good by understanding that the work will never stop. There is no end point. We can all be teachable, all improving all the time. That’s the beauty of it. There are levels. And each time you reach a new one, man, that shit feels GOOD. You can then get yourself addicted to something else… the evolution of YOU, for the better. And then, and only then…
The rewards come.
Two years removed from the physical presence of the most poisonous person I have ever known, I finally found the person who doesn’t use the words “I love you” with recklessness. He doesn’t use them dishonestly; he doesn’t say them with an ulterior motive. Love is never thrown in my face, it is never withheld conditionally, and it is never used to control me. There is no chaos. There is no frantic confusion, no uneasy certainty that things are not as they seem. There is only consistency, stability, and safety.
There is great patience for the things I struggle with at times, though they make little sense to him. He allows me to be myself, my neurotic, often high strung, thoughts in overdrive self, and he just laughs and calmly makes it known that he is not here to rip open my wounds. He is not here to fix them either, that’s my job. But having someone by your side to put a hand on your back or offer words of reassurance when that process gets painful… that is where it’s at, my friends.
I CAN do it myself. I WILL be fine, whether I have someone or not. I have no doubt about that. No one fought my demons for me, I did that. But I said those things a million times before they were true, and my life and relationships reflected that. It was only when the time came that I had finally destroyed the most unhealthy of my behaviors and excavated the most rotten things inside of me, and I could say those words and MEAN them, that’s when I found everything I knew I wanted and I needed. And that isn’t even the end… then you have to contend with all of the trauma from the toxic relationship(s) before. Then you have to make sure that you don’t do the thing where you have to actually ACCEPT that you deserve it. Because you can want something all you want… but if you don’t believe you deserve it, you’re toast. You can’t keep it.
You can make excuses. You can accept less than you are capable of. It’s the easiest thing in the world to do. You can shirk the responsibility of facing your own toxic traits and your relationships can reflect that literally forever. For as long as YOU ALLOW IT.
You can trade excuses for reasons, you can trade blame shifting for ownership, you can trade denial for acknowledgment, you can trade stagnation with action, and you can trade existing for living.
You deserve it. That’s always been there. But it’s your job to make yourself believe it.