Four months ago, I dropped my boyfriend James* off at rehab—the same rehab I took my first boyfriend to 10 years before. While James filled out paperwork and spoke with counselors, I worried that his insurance would only cover the five-day detox that never worked for him. I worried that he would die.
It was terrifying, yet familiar. I’m 27. Since the age of 17, I’ve had three long-term relationships—and all three were with men who were addicted to heroin.
Even though drugs seem to be everywhere in Delaware County, PA where I live, this can’t be a coincidence. After the first guy—Timothy, a wrestler I started dating in high school—I told myself I’d never date a heroin-user again. (I don’t even smoke weed, and I’ve never touched opioids.) But it kept happening.
I know everyone else thinks it’s weird.
People tend to assume I fall in love with the thrill of addiction. But I fell in love with their personalities—with people who happened to have addiction issues. None of my boyfriends were actively using when we first met. One experimented on the party scene and got into opioids; another got into heroin after being prescribed Percocet; another was in recovery when we got together, but relapsed. All of them were fiercely passionate about their love for me.
I liked their intensity and their edges. They were hard-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside types. Bad boys who ran with tough crowds, who cursed and were unpredictable. They were outgoing at parties—fun guys. As an overly cautious person myself, I was drawn to the way they sought out adventure. They were curious about the things that scared me. They protected me, and I felt safe with them.
When I say they were soft on the inside, I mean they knew pain. James lost his dad to suicide. He is one of seven, and all of his siblings have addiction issues. Ryan had to deal with his mom’s alcoholism his whole life. They would say they were good at pushing their pain away, but they all had these insecurities that made them so sensitive—a quality that is rare to find in a guy.
With them, I felt understood, and loved as a whole person, all my flaws included. They were uncomfortable people who knew how to comfort others. Because I loved them and they treated me so well, I went out of my way to try to make them comfortable, too.
My friends and family didn’t like that. They said that I—a bubbly former cheerleader who demands to be taken to the emergency room if I even have a bad hangover—was too good for them.
“He won’t change,” everyone told me, which only made me angrier: I don’t know that, and he doesn’t know that, so who are you to say that?
I cried in the shower because I couldn’t find a person who would listen. Even online, everything I read was negative: He’s an addict? Dump him!
What no one seemed capable of understanding was that I was in love and fighting for my partner’s health—just as they would if their significant other were ill. I wasn’t better than my boyfriends, though I did have an easier time growing up.
Those people who talk down to me also don’t understand that what they have is not necessarily better, just because their boyfriends’ screw-ups are less stigmatized. When I think about my friends’ relationships, I’m not jealous. I can’t imagine putting up with half the shit that my friends in “normal” relationships do.
I never worried that my boyfriends would cheat on me, or fall in love with someone else. They were beyond committed to me, devoted almost to the point of obsession. They sent cards with long letters, gifts on every holiday (whether they were stolen or purchased, I don’t know). They knew what it was like to have your back against a wall, and so they always had mine.
This kind of ride-or-die commitment was compelling. Sometimes, that was a bad thing. When you’re dating a guy like this, what you love about them can also be what drives you crazy. That passion can turn into a threat to jump out the window, with them counting down: “Five, four, three—are you going to get back together with me?—two, one.”
That wasn’t love; it was manipulation. You have to learn the draw the line.
And of course there were other lows—like the time Ryan was out of Suboxone and withdrawing the whole drive back from the Jersey Shore, puking out my car window. I was freaking out over him being so sick, trying to take him to the hospital (of course), but he wouldn’t go.
Instead, I drove him to a corner in Philly, where he got out of the car while I parked, panicking—and I mean, freaking the fuck out—while dudes offered me drugs. And then I looked in my rear-view mirror, and Ryan was gone, and I bawled my eyes out as I imagined every awful thing that could have happened to him. Two seconds later, he’s back with a big smile on his face and a pink lemonade.
I’ve been on drug corners, threatened to kill drug-dealers, and followed, high-speed-chase-style, to make sure my boyfriends were going to 12-step meetings (they weren’t). I’ve called their families and their parole officers, spent hours researching treatment online. I looked through phone records—not just to see who they called, but the cellphone towers they pinged. My detective skills are legend.
And it’s weird, but having spent so much time researching addiction and making schedules of AA meetings, I sometimes I talk like a person in recovery. I catch myself using phrases like “the pink cloud.” I know the recovery mantras and the rehab red tape. The red tape drives me crazy.
How could it be so hard to get help for someone? How many times do I have to see RIP on Facebook, or read another obituary about a 24-year-old who “died suddenly,” before we fix this? I had so much trouble getting Ryan into rehab that I joked about pulling a John Q until they would take him.
It’s heartbreaking to watch your boyfriend suffer like that. I’ve seen men cry because they could not figure out how to stop the one thing that was destroying their lives. They hated themselves so much for their failures. I wanted to help them feel like they could be ok, that we could be happy together without drugs. I’d light candles and put on meditation music, stay up with them all night when they were withdrawing.
But love wasn’t enough. They couldn’t do it for their moms, they couldn’t do it for themselves, and they couldn’t do it for me.
And even during those spells when they were sober, things weren’t magically better. James has now been off opioids for a month, and he’s always asking me when we can get back together, like I owe it to him now that he’s off drugs. But things got to the point that I was always accusing him of being high, investigating everything, and that was no good for either of us. Addiction had become so engrained in our relationship that sobriety didn’t fix our problems.
None of this means I’m bitter. I made a decision to end a relationship that had become unhealthy, even though it started out amazing. I still care about all of my boyfriends, and I try to keep in touch. Right now, all of them are off dope. I have faith in their potential, that they will stay strong and make themselves and other people happy, like they did for me.
I don’t know whether my pattern of romantic involvement will continue, but I have no regrets about the time I’ve spent wrapped up in it. Loving these men taught me how to love harder, how to fight for what you love and believe in, and how to never give up on someone because the situation isn’t ideal.
My heart grew bigger because of them.
*All names have been changed.
Bree Marie is the pseudonym of a woman who lives in Delaware County, Pennsylvania.