Like some psychotic binge of Quaaludes and shots of grain alcohol to my brain, autumn always sends me into massive mood swings. Changeable girl that she is, autumn is less a catharsis and more an involuntary flashback. A revisiting of the old and new. A measurement of how far I once fell. And a reminder that change must happen to grow. Even if it’s uncomfortable and painful. Change is vital or you can smother in forever limbo.Fall is my half-life. The two places. It is a forced decision. The staying behind and moving forward. Leaving comfortable, familiar warmth of summers I love and stepping into the cold of barren winters. Fall, with brilliant sunny days and cooler nights that echo this coming transformation. I do not want to let go. But I must. That is fall. Damn schizophrenic fall. I hate and love thee.
But there is a piece of autumn that grounds me.
Fall is where I learned the most significant lesson of my life: It is more important to know who you do not want to be, than to know who you are. Everything else starts with that.
Exactly thirteen years ago, I stood in the kitchen of my then-boyfriend, The Addict, and I held my hand out to him and I begged him, one last, forever, time.
It was a day, just like today. Outside, the sky was brilliantly clear and blue, lackadaisically dotted with whimsical clouds that meandered slowly by. The air held the crispness you want to suck into your lungs and capture for its cleansing. There wasn’t color yet in the trees, but you knew it was a second away. Change was coming.
Blink. And the summer warmth is a memory and the season will pass.
Inside that kitchen, where I’d loved and talked and drank morning coffee and knocked bar stools askew in fits of passion and cleaned and sucked down cocktails and fought and cried and entertained and confronted and burnt six years of dinners, it was another thing altogether. The air was smothering, dark and oppressive and still and changeless. Seasonless. Stagnant.
My Addict Boyfriend’s kitchen with the filthy ambiguous windows that didn’t let light in.
My Addict Boyfriend’s house with the ceiling peeling down in sheets of drywall and the living room with buckets and pots and pans that captured the rain leaking in. Rain, that had fallen on my face once when we had sex, and I couldn’t tell if it was my tears or rain.
My Addict Boyfriend’s pile of bills and legal notices and court summons and junk mail, cascading down unchecked on the floor from a dirty table, etched with razor blade lines and spilled candle wax and dust.
My Addict Boyfriend who fell apart like his home and his life. He wasn’t always my addict boyfriend.
Once he was just my boyfriend and the man I loved.
For many years, I didn’t see the addiction. He’d tucked away. Until he couldn’t hide it anymore.
Then the glaring reality surfaced like a monster hidden under the bed.
Now he could barely remember to shave or eat or work or clean or be otherwise human. He was now the man who would leave me cold in bed for forays for fixes. My addict boyfriend who would forget to visit his family and would glare at me for reminding him. He had become the man who hid stashes of coke in everything from empty Chapstick containers to heaping bricks, partially cut and mounded snow-like on dinner plates in his closet behind the sweaters and amidst foil-wrapped packages, tucked between the ice cubes and frost-covered pork chops in the freezer.
Oh certainly, I was part of this fucked-up mess. I’d enjoyed an illicit “treat” now and again in our early years of dating. “Here. It’s New Year’s Eve.” Or a random, “Happy Birthday, Beautiful.” A more principled girlfriend might have turned those perks down and been righteously horrified. But I’ve never been principled until it was too late and forced to learn my lessons in life.
And sadly, I’m far from righteous.
Watching him crumble into an emaciated shadow of a homo sapiens was my lesson to resist for life.
No more random coke treats. I’d abstained from it all for years. But it was too late for him.
I never crossed the line into crack. It somehow seemed too much for my potentially addictive nature to refuse. It doesn’t make me a better person. It means I knew somehow that there needed to be a limit. At least to something.
He’d kept on with the coke, more and more, to the point that every day seemed filled with “treats” for himself.
He denied crack vigorously and constantly. But there were the burned foils and the sooty hollowed-out pens and the stink of bitter pharmaceutical mélange that clung to him and leached from his sweat.
His hideous friends who partied like it was their job, and his coworkers who owed him “favors” and his new, darker circle who fed him crack in shady dealings late at night (now that the coke money was gone), were all too prevalent. “Team Addiction” had many players and the home-court advantage.
There are only two certainties when you date an addict:
First: You’ll never be first. The drug is the queen of the addict’s heart. No matter what he says. No matter the hundreds of tear-filled acts of contrition and begging apologies.
Second: Powerlessness is stifling. You’re powerless to resist trying to change him and he’s powerless to change.
You each can tread water in that murky fetid water forever. Unless the dynamics change.
I don’t know at what point I knew I had to go. I honestly don’t. I remember making a list, “Why do I stay?” It had become a shallow-as-shit list and was more about the past than the present.
“He loves me.” Damn. That wasn’t true. His lover was a snow-white lady that called to him 24/7. He was cheating on her by spending time with me.
“We have fun.” Did we now? Gone were the languid nights by the bonfires and kissing in piles of leaves we’d raked. There were no more pleasant dinners because he’d not eat. No more conversations. He’d sleep 48 hours straight post-drug-fueled blitzes and I’d leave to find girlfriends to unload my thoughts.
Are we having fun yet? Hell-to-the-no.
“We have great sex.” Did I love sex with a man who had lost his ability to be even slightly gentle or tender? Sex had gone from fun and pleasurable to a machine-like function. He — with the glazed eyes and cold fingers — instead of the man who once had so much warmth. I hated his touch now. It was a hollow echo of what we’d had.
“I love him.” Did I? Did I love the nights he went missing in action and had no explanation and I worried that he was dead somewhere? Did I love the secrets he kept away from me?
To be sure, there was the day he flew off in a fit of protective rage when I’d told him that one of his filthy-mouthed buddies had pushed me into a wall and had groped my crotch. An hour later, my boyfriend returned. And while icing his swollen hands, “That will never happen to you again. I’m so sorry. I took care of it, honey.” It was so chivalrous of him, right? And yet…I knew if we were in better circles, that wouldn’t have happened. But decent folks had long since stopped hanging out with him.
Could I love this man as he was today? Or was I in love with what he was yesterday? Truth be told, I was dining on the memory of a meal I’d once had and daily starving myself in the process.
That list was powerful. It was the driving force for change. I knew these things with my head. Still, my heart took so long to catch up. I don’t know when I passed from awareness to action.
But I did.
The action came like the seasons marching on.
That day thirteen years ago in that filthy, falling apart home with that falling down man, was the last. One last hurrah for the times gone-by with the man long gone. I had told him I’d stay and spend one more night with him, but I was leaving the very next day.
When we woke up, I packed the few things I’d left over the years. A coffee cup. A curling iron. Scattered bits of clothing. I don’t leave much evidence in relationships and it was a slim and pathetic mess to gather from a six-year relationship.
He made me coffee. There was still coffee in that house.
I vividly remember watching him. The coffee came from a scaled, cracked glass pot, while he apologized for no sugar or milk. Never mind. There had been no heat or gas for weeks either, as those utilities had long been shut-off. At least there was still black coffee and well water and electricity.
And then he stood looking at me. Silent. Those blue eyes that still had a trace of the person I’d known for twenty-five years.
A glimmer of that man was still there.
“Take my hand and I’ll get you the help you need. I swear. I’ll never leave you and I will stand by you. Take it.”
I knew the answer before I spoke. But I had to try. Not for the man in front of me, but out of memory for the man he was.
“I’ll regret this the rest of my life. I know it. But I can’t.” And he turned away and choked out, “I will always love you. You must know that. Why? Why I can’t just do this?”
“You can’t because you love something more than me and you always will. You need to let me go. Please. If you’ve ever loved me — let me go.”
As soon as I said those words, I left. There was no slamming of the door. Just a minor thunk as I shut it behind me. The end came softly, just like that. “Thunk.” Blink. And the season’s passed.
And on that morning, with the sky so brilliantly blue and the whimsical clouds dotting the stratosphere, where the air hung between two seasons, I walked out of that squalid, oppressive house and made my own change. It might have been bitter and painful, but I was numb to it. I couldn’t even cry. I’d exhausted six years of tears already.
Two weeks passed. I stayed low and hidden from the world. The weather had gone to oblique grey horizons and a damp chill had set in, which suited my hermit soul. The biggest issue was that I had no idea who I was anymore. I wasn’t “his girlfriend” or more precisely, “his manager-of-his-life-while-he-slept-off-a-night-after-being-messed-up.”
I wasn’t shopping for him or cooking so he’d eat or running his errands or reminding him of things to do or policing his behavior or worrying about him or doing his laundry or listening to his lies or hearing his grandiose drug-riddled future plans or picking up the slack for him when he’d dropped the ball with his family. I wasn’t obsessing on him. I wasn’t rescuing him.
I was empty and bleak, lingering between the past and the present. A self-imposed seasonless cold limbo.
I honestly had no clue how to be myself or who the hell I was.
Weeks later, a job came up that took me on a cross country trek to Albany, New York. Weather that was grey and shitty had cleared. I left mid-October, on another beautiful, fall day that I was gifted with for the road trip.
As for music? Only Linkin Park didn’t drip with six years of memories. On the fourteen-hour drive, I beat the steering wheel with my fists to those angry melodies and finally, tears involuntarily streamed down my face. At one point, an anguished cry that embodied a half-scream rose from somewhere rich with emotions I didn’t know I possessed.
I wasn’t crying because I missed him or wished for a better ending. I cried because I’d lost myself in that long bitter season dating an addict.
Lying From You. Yeah. That pretty much encapsulated my emotions.
Lying to myself for how long? “The very worst part of you- is me.”
I want to be pushed aside
So let me go
Let me take back my life
I’d rather be all alone
Anywhere on my own
Cause I can see
The very worst part of you
And somewhere between the state lines and the rolling hills now resplendent in fall colors and white New England chapels scattered along the roadsides, and the constant replay of Chester Bennington, I stepped mentally into the future and the next season of my life.
I never looked back or relapsed into loving him or wanting to be “his” or missing him.
My addiction to him ended that day. Cold turkey Because I changed. I wasn’t falling into the dating-the-addict- abyss anymore. I rose up from that great blackness.
I still had no damn clue who I was, but I knew who I didn’t want to be. I absolutely knew that.
I was done taking less than someone’s best. I was over being a woman who lost principles and lowered standards. I wasn’t going to run about blindly in a cul-de-sac of crazy behavior anymore. I was over lacking career goals and not pursuing my interests and shelving my dreams because I’d depleted myself for someone else. I was sick from lying to hide his bad behavior. I would not pretend anymore — -not with other people and not with myself. I was not going to be a mother whose children couldn’t respect me if they knew the truths of my life.
I wasn’t an addict’s girlfriend anymore and I didn’t want to be addicted to saving one.
I suddenly, and with immense clarity, understood everything I did not want to be.
And even though I hated the thought of being alone in the world, I could accept that there might be a few cold winters lurking in my future and I’d get through them. I felt free. And I claimed that, like a fucking empowered woman. Because I was.
Today, so many years later, fall is still that half-beast to me. Neither here nor there. A time of revisiting and leaving things that harm me, even it if was comfortable or persistent.
I’ve changed, and I’m diametrically different than the person who stayed through intolerable conditions or the woman who let the door shut and walked away numb into the unknown.
In these many seasons, I am still discovering myself, like some aging hippy on a journey.
I’ve also learned that there are people worth sacrificial giving because they give back and feed your spirit and heart. Those are the ones to invest life in.
I can receive these beautiful things now because of the changes I made — changes that began with a list and a thunk and a long drive and a song, on a certain crisp and lovely autumn. Changes that began because I was finally honest with myself.
Still, I’ve got a long-ass way to go to develop more of what I’d like.
But I always know who I don’t want to be. And I make great strides to measure my life accordingly to ensure I’m never that person again.
And I’m keenly aware that lingering in bad behavior or futile actions or negative spots isn’t good for the soul.
Change will do you good. Fall is here.