“Should I post it?” I ask him almost every time. One, because if I reveal anything about him I figure he has a right to say whether it goes on the internet. Two, because writing deeply personal material skews my normally very private filter. I lose perspective, by necessity.
So, why write at all? Why would a private, introverted individual put their personal life on blast for everyone from closest family to loose acquaintances or maybe even strangers?
Because, the night he told me, I had two thoughts, one immediately after the other:
We agreed, it would be a secret. No one else’s business. And so we kept it that way. And every day I dreaded someone finding out.
The irony is, all the pain had started because of secrets. Jake’s went back to when he was seven years old, at least, with a young man I still struggle to forgive, who ordered him to keep everything a secret. And then the infidelity, of course, all secret.
We learned, in the most painful way possible, that for as long as you keep your pain a secret, it can control you. It can blind you. It can keep hurting you.
In the aftermath, I looked for support, and I discovered most of it was provided anonymously. Women changed their names when they told their stories. The covers of the self-help books were dark and shadowy. One day, I started to post an introduction on a support group site, but I was worried the IP address would give me away. Someone would figure it out. I closed the site and never looked at it again.
And so, for the most part, we kept quiet. A few close friends were on a “need to know” basis. There was a crisis, or there was an awkward social connection, and we agreed, “Shit we need to tell them.” And so we did, cringing, hoping they wouldn’t judge too harshly.
No one ever did.
And then one sunny summer afternoon, the secret a few years old, I received a tearful and entirely surprising phone call. The news shocked me. And yet I was able to inhale deeply and say, “Me too. I get it.” The relief in the voice on the other end of the phone was profound. We had solidarity now, we two survivors of deeply imperfect marriages.
Six months later, over coffee with a friend, I said it again. “Me too. I get it.”
I was met with the same shock, the same surprise, the same solidarity.
And with this: “But you guys? Not you guys. You’re like the perfect couple.”
And that, right there, is when I began to consider this ridiculous idea of writing it all down.
Because there are no perfect couples, and zero perfect marriages in the history of the world. There are only flawed marriages composed of flawed people. The best you can hope for is that deep down, you and that other deeply flawed person really like each other. And in the moments when you don’t really like them, you need to love them until you start liking them again.
The morning after he told me, I sent Jake a short text: I refuse to let this define us.
(But maybe in five years I’ll create a blog devoted to talking about it? Oh, yes, I see the irony.)
It still doesn’t define us. But it shaped us.
A funny thing happened, after my first post on the subject. My expectations and goals in writing about it were two-fold. First, I wanted to take control of the story – to share on my terms and shed the burden of “what if someone finds out.” Second, I wanted to create safe space where others who had shared my experience – that is, those who had been cheated on – could find solidarity, understanding, and healing.
In the week after I first posted, I received several deeply personal, heartfelt messages.
Most of them weren’t from people who had been cheated on.
Most were from people who had cheated.
Some had told, some hadn’t. Some had stayed married, others had split up. Many had childhood trauma, though not all. Many were in what outsiders looking in considered a perfect relationship.
What I learned was that we were not so different. Over and over, I found myself saying, yet again, “Me too.”
Once or twice a week, I remember: Everybody knows now, and I have a moment of panic. Who does that? And why? What was I thinking?
It’s Jake (of course) who brings me back. “Because,” he says, “if you hadn’t, then it would still be a secret.”
And we would be another polished, sanitized version of ourselves, a fairytale couple who never struggled to stay together, never wonders if the choice was the right one, never wrestles with the idea of choosing each other daily.
That couple doesn’t even exist, unless they just got married this past weekend.
You guys: We have to start saying marriage is hard. We have to start admitting it isn’t fun all the time, but that it can still be so, so good. We have to own that a strong marriage between two dedicated people can withstand a whole lot of pain. Because that is inspiring and encouraging. That is aspirational.
That is a story that deserves to be told.
They won’t tell you this in training, but you never forget their eyes.
They don’t tell you, because knowing their eyes so well is not a touchy-feely, warm and loving, soul-connecting experience. In the moment, you are checking for dilation, responsiveness to light. You are looking for a glassy sheen, hoping you don’t find one. You are screening, assessing, holding your breath to see if this thing we call recovery has truly taken root.
When they leave, you hope that the next time they come in, their eyes will be just as clear.
But when the text comes, late at night, or when the obituary unexpectedly slips into your newsfeed, early in the morning, it’s their eyes you remember. When the prayer request is shared on a Sunday morning, marking the passing of the nephew of a sister’s coworker or some equally removed relationship, it’s unethical to walk up after the service and say, “I knew him. He was funny; he made me laugh. I am sorry.” You can’t say that, so you sit in the pew, and you remember their eyes. His were hazel, with a hint of green. Hers were naturally bright and cheerful, beautiful and deep.
You wonder who found them, how long each relapse lasted. The obituaries, even the news articles, they don’t tell you the pieces of the story you really want to know.
They tell you only one thing: That no one is safe, that this substance will take and it will steal and it will kill. That it robs our community of energetic spirits, compassionate hearts, and beautiful voices.
Another day, reading another obituary, I sighed and said, “He was so nice.” Jake glanced at the photo and said, “That guy tried to punch me.” I met the guy when he was in early recovery; Jake encountered him when he was dope sick.
It is the contrast in our memories that proves the point: Heroin changes a person, long before it kills them.
Heroin isn’t a problem just because our privileged middle-class kids might step on a contaminated needle at a playground. It’s not a problem just because it’s burning out our first responders and filling up our emergency rooms. It’s not a problem just because it’s sapping our community resources. Middle class America, heroin is not a problem just because of all the ways it bothers you.
But it is a problem because of what and whom it takes from all of us, long before breathing slows and hearts quit beating.
With every use an addict knowingly assumes the risk of death. Most of those who die, already know it might happen. So why don’t they stop?, the pundits want to know. The corners of the internet go wild with judgment every time there’s an overdose, solving problems with a few key strokes in a comfy living room. Just don’t do it, if it’s going to kill you. Just don’t stick the needle in your arm, idiot.
If “they should just stop” is your solution, you are missing the entire fucking point of this epidemic.
Before death happens, there’s a bigger risk. No, not a risk, there’s a guarantee: Because whether it kills or it doesn’t, heroin is going to cause a spiritual and emotional coma that makes death seem just fine. No big deal. Maybe a little inviting.
They don’t stop using even when they know it could kill them, because they do not care.
They do not care, because their brains are chemically hijacked, gripped by a substance that makes them not care.
Sometimes, I have the chance to know them when that grip is loosened, and I get to witness their passion for being alive. They love life as much as you do.
More importantly, they matter as much as you do.
The needle your child finds on the playground won’t tell you this. A mug shot will not tell you this, posted at the top of another article about a bust. The mug shot will show you only hollow, empty eyes, blemished skin and a malnourished frame. The mug shot will show you an addict in their hostile, apathetic, spiritual coma state, when they do things like steal and lie and cheat and try to punch my husband.
When you lurk in your living room tempted to post your easy-peasy, compassionless solutions to the epidemic, please don’t think of the people in mug shots and evaluate their moral failings. It’s not the people in the mug shots we’re trying to save anyway.
Rather, before you even begin to suggest a solution, imagine the addict in that mug shot free from the mask heroin has them wearing: Picture them with their eyes bright and their skin clear, their voices strong. Better yet, close the tab with the mug shot, and listen to the song above instead. We cannot talk solutions if we don't understand what (and whom) we are losing.