Note: The essay below is my submission this year to the Great American Think Off, held every year in New York Mills, MN. This year's philosophical question up for debate is: Which motivates us more, love or fear? As I always do, I chose love.
I spent almost a decade of my life with an alcoholic man. I knew it early, but by the time it really sunk in, I was already in too deep. During that time, my life was on pause. As the partner (and later, wife) of an alcoholic, my role was clear, and it centered around him. I paid all of our bills. I bailed him out of jail, pawning our possessions to get the money. I helped him through treatment. I visited him in prison. I cleaned up his puke in the living room. I searched for empty bottles every night after work. I paid bar tabs in the middle of the night when he was belligerent and out of money. I called the cops on him, and called hospitals and jails when I didn’t know where he was. I lied to my family about how bad it was.
At the time, I did all this under the misperception that I was driven by love. Looking back now, I realize that I was stuck. I didn’t actually DO anything during that almost-decade of my life. I maintained, enabled, treaded water. I lived in a constant state of tension that can only be described as fear. I was always afraid he would start drinking, and when he did, I was afraid he would steal my money or get arrested. I was afraid to leave him, because I was afraid he would fall apart if I did. I felt like I was the one holding everything together, holding him together, and that if I didn’t stay exactly where I was, everything would collapse. Of course I cared for him, and I wanted him to get sober. I wanted it for his and my own happiness, but I can’t say that my decision to stay in the relationship despite the ongoing harm done to both of us was an act of love. It was an act of fear.
Fear paralyzes us; love moves us.
Six years in, I gave birth to my daughter. For the first several months of her life my husband didn’t drink, but I was afraid that he would. Eventually he did, and my fears magnified. I still had to go to work every day, and he was at home with our daughter. While away from home, I constantly worried about whether my husband was drinking. Was he feeding her and putting her down for naps at the right times? Was she safe? I worked close to home, and sometimes I would show up on my break just to make sure everything was okay. Sometimes I suspected he was drinking and couldn’t find the empty bottle to prove it. My daughter was always okay, but I would return to work no less afraid.
One day I came home to find my husband drunk and passed out on the bed. My one and a half year old daughter was standing in the middle of the living room in her diaper, alone. I will never forget the solemn, blank expression on her face. That was the last time my daughter was left in my husband’s custody, and I put her in daycare with money I didn’t think I had.
I wish I could say that was the day I left him for good, but that was still a few months away. What finally made me leave was falling in love with a woman I worked with. Though she didn’t end up being “the one,” my love for her helped me see new possibilities for myself. It made me realize how important it was to be happy, and that I could only control my own life.
This fact alone freed me from the fear that I was the only thing propping up my husband. Fear had kept me there, but leaving him was an act of love. Love for my daughter, who I knew needed stability and comfort to thrive. Love for myself, in my decision to reinstate myself as the steward of my own happiness. Love for my husband, even, who was not prevailing in his struggle with alcoholism, and perhaps needed the opportunity to find his own strength.
Fear is still present, and always will be. I’m afraid of failure, both in my relationships and in my expectations of myself. It doesn’t motivate me, however; it stagnates me. When I let myself become mired in fear, I cease to move. Love helps me find my way out, and keep moving forward.