My partner Amber is a recovering alcoholic. They have been since before we began dating, so I’ve never witnessed them with a drink in their hand. But they’ve told me their stories of morning drinking, of drinking during playdates and soccer games, of hiding empty bottles so their ex-partner wouldn’t catch on to how serious the problem had gotten. They’ve told me (and written extensively about) how drinking was a balm, a numbing agent, that helped them avoid examining too closely the things they’d rather put off: a burgeoning acknowledgment of their nonbinary identity. Unresolved childhood trauma. A growing disconnect with their ex-partner, who is a wonderful person, and the guilt that accompanied that.
Amber has said it wasn’t until they got sober that they were forced to face those issues head-on. And since they stopped drinking, their journey has been an intense upward trajectory of growth, of honesty with themself and their loved ones. I did not witness the drinking, but the later part—the growth—I have been able to witness a lot of that, and it is beautiful.
Ever since my partner described to me their process in choosing sobriety, I have been both proud and afraid. Proud, because it is an immense privilege and joy for me to witness the exceptional growth in this human whom I admire so much. It’s impossible not to be impressed by Amber’s determination and strength of character. No one gave them an ultimatum to quit drinking. They didn’t hit “rock bottom,” or at least not like what you see in movies where there’s a car crash or a forgotten child or waking up in an alley somewhere with no memory of the night before. Amber simply recognized, on their own, that they no longer had control over their drinking. I admire this so much.
And yet, like I said, I am also afraid. I am afraid that Amber will relapse—but not for the reasons you might think. I’m not afraid that my awe of Amber would decrease if they were to relapse; I’m afraid of the shame Amber might feel in “disappointing” me. They’ve told me this is one of their biggest fears about relapsing—my disappointment. The potential that I might “think less” of them.
Recently, Dax Shepard, actor, writer, and host of the popular podcast “Armchair Expert,” revealed that he had relapsed after 16 years of sobriety. He and his podcast partner and “soulmate,” as he calls her, Monica Padman, aired a special episode of the podcast to let listeners know what had been going on. During the 40-minute episode, Dax, with lots of deep breaths and a shaky voice, revealed to hundreds of thousands of “Armcherries” how, after an injury sustained in an ATV accident, he slipped into abusing the Vicodin his doctor had prescribed to him, and lost control.
The fear and shame in his voice broke my heart. Dax has made it clear that his 16 years are a source of pride for him. With so many years of sobriety under his belt, his self-esteem had become wrapped up in his identity as a recovering addict. He worried aloud that his relapse had effectively washed away those hard-earned 16 years. He even wondered, if that were the case, why he shouldn’t go on a full bender and give in to the craving for alcohol and cocaine, his original drugs of choice. If he was going to be forced to start from day 1 anyway, what difference did it make?
Monica assured him that one slip up does not wash away the work of 16 years. Dax said his wife Kristen also showed up with nothing but pure, unwavering support and love. She recently appeared on the Ellen show and publicly declared her support for him. “I will continue to stand by him,” she said, “because he’s very, very worth it.”
It was clear from listening to Dax speak that the support of his loved ones, especially his wife Kristen, meant everything to him. What would be the point of doing the hard work to come back from a relapse if your loved ones withdraw their pride from you? How much harder would that work be for an addict who is being tsk-tsked as they try to claw their way back out of the darkness?
Last year, during a conversation with Amber, I mentioned a friend whose wife had kicked him out of the house after coming home with their two elementary-aged children and finding him passed out on the kitchen floor. I said something about “tough love” and how necessary my friend’s decision had been. Amber panicked in a way I didn’t see coming. If Amber relapsed, would I reject them in the same way?
I can’t comment on my friend’s situation. They had multiple other variables to consider particular to their family, he and his wife are still married, and my friend has now been sober for nearly a decade. They found a way through.
But for Amber, and I think for Dax too, the fear of rejection after a relapse is a real and intense trigger. For some people, the potential of losing the ones you love the most isn’t a motivation to stay sober. “Tough love” may work for some, but it isn’t the answer for everyone. Amber has put in an incredible amount of hard work to remain sober for over three years. It is not my job, nor would it be the most loving thing I could do, to scare them into ongoing sobriety by threatening a withdrawal of my attention and love in the event of a relapse.
The truth is, I would have admired and loved Amber even when they were still hiding empty pints in the bottom of the trash bin. Addiction isn’t who they are. It is an illness they fell into gradually, and though I am deeply grateful that Amber no longer drinks, I am positive that alcoholism does not define them. The traits that define Amber are generosity, kindness, tenacity, a razor sharp intuition, and lightning-fast wit.
If Amber ever relapses, I will not feel let down or disappointed. They would beat themself up more than anyone else ever could—I heard this in Dax’s voice too. From me, I want Amber to feel nothing but love, compassion, and support. I want them to know that we can and will overcome any relapse together because, as Kristen said of Dax, they are very, very worth it.