I was an enabler for most of my marriage until I learned how to say no. My wife Angie and I were chemically dependent — my drug of choice was alcohol and hers were prescription opioids, benzos, and amphetamines. We were both in over our heads, and upside down with our health, relationship, family, and life in general.
During a significant portion of our time together from 1999 to 2016, Angie was in bed sleeping while I was a functioning alcoholic who managed my career, our household, and our kids. A lot fell on my shoulders, and Angie carried very little responsibility. Angie had a lot of mishaps with her drug addiction in Portland, Oregon, where we lived from 2002 to 2012. She was responsible for numerous break-ins, endured shoplifting charges, and had car accidents all induced by chemical psychosis. She was in and out of rehab centers and mental hospitals.
While there was no real improvement in Angie, my mistreatment of my wife increased over the years. Mental abuse led to emotional abuse, and when mental and emotional abuse didn’t create the joy I desired, I turned to physical and sexual abuse – mostly when she was passed out or highly intoxicated. Our lives were pure chaos.
There were times when I tried to break the cycle. I would try to quit drinking or to begin taking care of my physical health in an attempt to get back on track, but I would fail each time. Each time I tried to make improvements, Angie would belittle, heckle, or shame me for my new habits — and after a few rounds of attacks, I was right back to my old habits. I couldn’t form a boundary, literally, to save my own life. I didn’t like saying no to her and I didn’t like the feeling of being attacked for making choices that I thought benefitted only me.
In January of 2013, we moved to St. Louis from Portland, and we fell in love with our town, our community, and our new house. Angie’s health improved and her chemical usage slowed. Our family became more active in exploring and enjoying our new home. By September of the same year, her health began to decline until she was back in bed again, repeating the same patterns as our days in Portland.
We lasted in that same pattern until the summer of 2014 when the bottom dropped out of our marriage and then my career. Angie and I split for about 5 weeks because of some things that were going on outside of our marriage. We vowed to divorce and she went home to live in Alexandria, Virginia, and I stayed in St. Louis to raise our daughters. I began to beg for her to come back to be with our family and 5 weeks later she was back. A week after she returned, I lost my job — the same job that relocated us from Portland to St. Louis just 20 months before.
We celebrated the next 5 months of severance by drinking and hitting happy hour as soon as we could each day. We would pick our girls up from the bus stop intoxicated. Our life shifted into a higher state of crazy.
In January of 2015, I began working again after I found another executive position, but I never settled in and Angie’s health declined even further. Fifteen months later, I was fired again, and it was time to fully rebuild my life.
This time I was not going to tinker with the idea of boundaries. I decided to begin getting my 300 pound body back into physical shape by exercising daily, eliminating junk food, and quitting drinking. Angie attacked my choices daily with bitter heckling, but this time I wouldn’t give in. I met every challenge and attack with respect and love and reaffirmed that I was not giving in to the choices that I was making to get my life back on track. The difference this time was that I was resolved to lose my marriage instead of my life. In the past, avoiding conflict and heckling was more important to me than making healthy choices which would enrich my life, so I did whatever it took to keep Angie from being unhappy with me — even continuing with habits which were killing me.
Angie kept attacking, and her health continued to get worse. Three months after I lost my job and began making healthier choices, I filed for divorce because I resolved to finally find happiness and peace. When I filed for divorce everything changed. Angie volunteered to seek the help she so desperately needed, the attacks stopped, and she began making healthier choices for herself, too. Our family began to heal little by little. There were relapses and other speedbumps, but we found rock bottom and began the slow, steady climb from the bottom.
The reason we remained in toxic chaos for so long was because I was an enabler. I could not say no to her. I couldn’t handle her attacks. I am a Marine veteran, and I didn’t possess the ability to stand up for what I believed in. I was part of the toughest fighting force in the world, but I wouldn’t stand up in face-to-face conflict with my wife. I later learned the reason was that I was not emotionally courageous.
Emotional courage is the willingness and ability to feel any and all emotion.
In order to face conflict, not only must we be able to feel the fear within ourselves, but the anger and hostility inside the other person, too. People everywhere label themselves “empathic,” and that simply means that you can feel the emotion of other people in your own body. I couldn’t say no because when it came to my wife and kids, I was never willing to feel my own fear or their disappointment, frustration, or anger if I responded no to their request. So I bent my own will to meet their requests, needs, or desires above my own — even if it placed my own life in danger.
People who struggle to say no are sometimes labeled “co-dependent.” I certainly wore that label. I would place others’ needs above mine every time. People who are co-dependent are susceptible to people who demonstrate narcissistic tendencies — which are people who take advantage of those who are weaker. In our relationship I was certainly the co-dependent, and Angie knew how to take advantage of that every time.
People who say no are sometimes labeled “selfish” or “self-centered.” They are labeled these things by people who struggle to say no, and by narcissists. Saying no to things that do not create or allow happiness, health, or wealth in your life is the greatest gift we can give ourselves.
After all of the chaos we endured, I learned putting myself first is always the way to create a powerful life, and a life that encourages others I love to do the same without wanting them to sacrifice themselves for my benefit.
Saying no is a powerful way to show yourself some love and appreciation.
But you must first be willing to feel whatever emotion surfaces in yourself and others in order to say no and stick to your boundary. Emotional courage creates the ability to say no. The absence of emotional courage creates pain and a life of sacrifice. A life of complete sacrifice is certainly not a life of thriving – but just surviving.
Today, our marriage is healthier than ever. Our family is peaceful, calm, and loving. The chemical dependency is over, and we encourage each other to live the life of our dreams. Sure, we have the normal occasional teenage angst which creates some tension, but the chaos is over — all because we all learned to say no— the most magical word in the world.