By Ashley Iosbaker
“Here’s to strong women:
may we know them, may we be them, may we raise them.”
I always wanted to be a strong woman. You know what that looks like to you, and I bet for every one of us there is a different image that we think of when asked what that means to us. For me, it’s the good-postured, empathetic version of myself who knows how to lead a room and not take anyone’s disrespect, but also wears bright red lipstick and knows how to have a good time without sweating the small stuff because life is too short.
Growing up, I had my mom, her friends, and even just people around me at work, or school, or in pop culture that were, to me, similar to my idea of that type of woman. I would always observe them from my vantage point and wonder how they got the confidence, assertiveness, and ability to stand securely on their feet while being so sure of themselves and the worlds they commanded.
I, in contrast, had always been the complete opposite: on the more quiet side, shy, passive, and very unsure of myself.
Unfortunately, a lot of this had to do with a childhood trauma I went through: when I was younger (maybe around 7 or so), both of my parents had full-time jobs, and so I stayed with my grandparents during the day. Naturally, my grandparents became like a second set of parents to me, and I would spend my days helping my grandma around the house while listening to music from the 50’s, or tinkering in a hard hat with my grandpa in the garage, not a care in the world. Unknown to me at the time, though, they were having issues in their marriage, to the point where my grandpa wouldn’t come home from work some days. I don’t remember, but I was told that I would spend hours staring out the screen door of the house, repeatedly asking when he would return so we could play. They ultimately ended up getting a divorce, but since no one wanted to tell me for fear of hurting or upsetting me, I was left to create my own reasons, which ended up causing me to believe that my grandfather just up and left me without bothering to say goodbye, and that it was my fault, or had something directly to do with me. Due to my age and lack of understanding of this particular situation, this event caused me to internalize a lot of negative and confusing thoughts about myself, and completely changed my personality. I went from outgoing, talkative, and always smiling, to shy, uneasy, and nervous, and had also developed a fear of any kind of relationship, as I believed that anyone I let in my life would leave unannounced and painfully.
These qualities stayed with me through my teenage years, making for an even more awkward and unpleasant high school experience, and while I tried to make an effort to break out of my mental prison, I hadn’t quite figured out how to do so yet.
One evening when I was 20 years old, filled with the anguish of feeling trapped in myself and longing for a more normal life, I knelt on the floor of my room and sobbed, wondering if this was just the way my life would be.
Surprisingly, the next day I met someone at work who was very compatible with my personality, and despite my fears, we became very close. He also somehow noticed all of my quirks and defenses that kept others away, and had no issue with verbalizing them to me in an effort to help me become less rigid and withdrawn.
His actions helped my growth a lot, but I was completely unaware of how much he would help me overall. It turns out that he had addiction issues, and was the first person I had met that openly shared that with me. I wasn’t very knowledgeable about anything related to that, besides what I had seen in movies and on TV, and so researched as much as I could so as to be a good support for him. I wanted to be a part of his recovery, and a person to help “fix” him. Little did I know though that I would actually be starting the process of “fixing” myself.
Through the years of his active using, recovery, and sobriety, we had our ups and downs, and at each crest of the waves I thought we would finally make it and things would be better. Through one streak of normalcy we got engaged, and through one patch of using I sat on the floor of our room crying into a suitcase as I packed mine and my daughter’s things so we could leave. At every turn I never knew what would come next, and I always thought that when he reached a point of sobriety that he had finally done the work he needed to do to make sure things were better and would stay that way.
I was so codependent from my childhood that I carried that into my relationship with him, and that very thing kept me sick, and was a perfect match for his addiction, even in recovery. For even though he is at heart a truly good person with everything I could want in a partner, while in the throes of substance abuse he could be a person I didn’t even recognize at times.
After years of trying to detox him myself, or having boundaries that weren’t firm enough, and having a life I wasn’t proud of, I realized that trying to fix everything and everyone was a feat I could never overcome. And besides, how could I even begin to think I could influence all of that if I couldn’t even handle my own life? How could I expect so much from someone else when I wasn’t even doing the work that I needed to do on myself?
Finally, after one particular year that consisted of repeated detoxes and rehab stays, and way too many embarrassing moments in front of family, I had hit my bottom and reached out to every resource available to me to try and build myself up and take control of my life. I was tired of being a victim, of having no fight in me, of being scared of the future, and I knew I needed to do more for my family (most importantly my daughter), and myself.
I started going to program meetings and finding people who were just like me, continued therapy alone, read books on personal development, started working out again and practicing self-care, fixing and strengthening my personal relationships, and taking control of the only thing I could: me.
I also recently started a blog so that I could share my story, because I know that there are a lot of people who are in my same position but might not have the resources or support that I have.
I realized that I want to help by being a friend and supporter of others like me because I’ve been there and I know how hard it is. I know what it feels like when everyone feels sorry for you, or when they don’t understand why you continue to be with that person. I feel like in society it’s hard enough to get a conversation started about addiction itself and resources are hard to find for the addicts, but even more so for us. If you really think about it, we are forgotten, or just labeled as weak or stupid for allowing our lives to continue on in this way. They don’t understand that we know the person inside beyond the addiction, and how much we hope that they will make it through. And, like I had also believed for a long time, there’s the belief that nothing is wrong with us and we don’t need to change. After all, we aren’t the ones who are addicted, right? But in reality, just like the addicts in our lives, we are all good people who just have some self-work to do.
My hope is by sharing my story I can help others like me, and do my part to end the stigma surrounding addiction and being with an addict. The society we live in has made this topic taboo, and has created a self-fulfilling cycle of negativity by reinforcing the beliefs that we and addicts have about ourselves: that we are undeserving of great things, or that we are destined to have lives that fall short on what we know we could be. Inside every one of us is a voice that wants to be heard, and an individual that longs for understanding and acceptance by both themselves, their loved ones, and society as a whole.
My desire through this mission also is to be an empowering and strong figure for my daughter. I want her to grow up with someone she can look up to and gain inspiration from as I did with my mother and her friends, and with the tools and self-assurance in her heart to know that she can take on the world and anything she sets her mind to. I want her to see that life will sometimes throw curve balls, but with the right mindset and determination, great things are always within reach.
So, through it all, I found my voice and my path, and came out of it as the strong woman I had always hoped to be. And while I know I’m far from the end result, I have the guarantee that I will eventually reach my full potential, and I hope to help others do the same.
I am just a 27 year old continuing the journey of finding myself and my place in the world. I write about my experiences of my partner’s addiction, in the hopes that I can help both others like me and the world as a whole find hope, acceptance, and a friend to encourage them to better their own lives. Partner to James, mother to Stella.