The Question That Changed Everything
FROM “MY NEEDS? WHAT NEEDS?” (PART 1 OF 3)
Nine years ago, when my husband walked into his first SA meeting (Sexaholics Anonymous; sa dot org), I knew exactly what HE needed. I knew he needed help. I knew he needed advice. I knew he needed experience, strength and hope from others in recovery. And despite my conviction that I knew what was best for him (because, after all, I knew him better and loved him more than any other person on earth), I was open to the idea that maybe, just maybe, my husband needed more support than I could provide—that love is NOT, despite popular chorus, “all we need” to overcome such a cunning, baffling and powerful disease.
HIS Needs Mattered. But MY Needs? Well, That’s Another Matter.
Yes, I knew (or thought I knew) everything my husband needed in recovery. What I didn’t know was that I HAD NEEDS, too—and that my needs had seemingly ceased to exist within the scope of my own awareness. My needs had been obscured, eclipsed and overshadowed, unceremoniously hijacked by the all-consuming nature of addiction.
Here’s a brief side-note: If you’ve ever loved someone stuck in addiction, you already know exactly what I mean. Somewhere along the way, my life had become all about getting him sober. My emotional posture swung between two extremes: (a) comforting him when he felt like crap for losing his sobriety and (b) berating him when, despite every hope and commitment, he did it again anyway. Life with a struggling addict required me to practice a precarious balancing act. Some days, I tried to be his loudest cheerleader: “Don’t give up! You can do this! Just try harder next time!” Other days, I felt compelled to offer my best “constructive” criticism: “What’s the problem? What were you thinking? Why didn’t you call me? You’re better than that!” By the time my husband began his recovery in earnest, I’d assumed an identity as “human yo-yo,” dizzy from spinning back and forth between self-appointed roles and responsibilities. In some sense, I’d been hypnotized by that undulating cycle, lulled into forgetting that my own life needed time, love and attention. Within that perpetual state of emotional hypnosis, my needs didn’t even make the agenda. I got so caught up in BEING NEEDED, I actually forgot that I HAD NEEDS of my own.
That hypnosis lasted until the night my husband came back from his first SA meeting.
A Tale of Two Meetings
I remember that evening vividly. As my husband was entering the doors of SA, I was driving (sitting, rather) on LA’s infamous 405 freeway. My insides were gridlocked as tightly as the traffic that surrounded me: my stomach was in knots, my anxiety was off the charts, and I was DYING to know if this Twelve Step thing might possibly be the real deal. Since everything else had failed to fix our “problem,” I’d nested ALL of my emotional eggs into this specific basket. I knew things couldn’t continue the way they’d been, and this felt a last-ditch effort to save our beautiful-but-struggling romance.
A few hours later, my husband and I met for a late dinner-slash-debrief. He’d been impressed by the SA meeting he attended, connecting with men who were intelligent, inspirational and sober. He came back with new ideas, new friendships and new hope for victory. He also reported an unexpected piece of news, one that launched an entirely unpredictable enterprise: Apparently there was ANOTHER KIND of Twelve Step meeting, one that might help ME cope with MY emotional wreckage in response to this addiction.
Two weeks later, I walked into my first S-Anon meeting (recovery for family members and friends of sexaholics; S-Anon dot org). It seemed like the supportive thing to do, and even though I didn’t know EXACTLY how it would help, I did arrive with some basic expectations: (a) I assumed I’d get some practical tools to help me facilitate my husband’s recovery; (b) I expected I’d learn some concrete tips and insider tricks, foolproof ways to keep my husband “on the wagon,” so to speak; and (c) I hoped I’d procure some kind of guarantee, a no-nonsense formula that promised, “Here you go, girlfriend—If YOU just do X, Y and Z, everything will fall into place. He’ll stay sober. You’ll stay safe. And the pain of this addiction will fade into memory.”
I know, I know. You probably know what I’m going to write next, but here it is anyway, in black and white: No, S-Anon DID NOT teach me how to manage my husband’s addiction—nor did it lay that responsibility upon my shoulders. Truth be told, this struck me as a “good news, bad news” proposition. The bad news: S-Anon DIDN’T exist to help me help my husband. The good news: S-Anon DID exist to HELP ME HELP ME.
In that room, on that night, I began my own journey of self-recovery. I cried my way through that entire first meeting, ninety emotional minutes that concluded with the words, “Keep coming back. It works if you work it, and you’re really, really worth it.”
The Question That Changed Everything
After that first meeting, I found myself encircled by an AMAZING group of women. As I cried, these women witnessed emotions I’d suppressed for a very long time, peering through tears that contradicted my tough-girl, bring-it-on, I-can-handle-anything routine. Embracing me with extreme measures of tenderness and sensitivity, these women rallied around to ask me one very personal, powerful and pivotal question:
They asked me simply, “WHAT DO YOU NEED?”
What did I need?? What did I need??? Other than needing my husband to get sober (duh), I couldn’t think of a single answer to that question. Out loud, I’m sure I uttered some kind of polite reply. But in my mind, I disqualified the question as peripheral at best, incompatible at worst. I consciously dismissed the concept as an irrelevant distraction, unrelated to my primary, high-priority mission.
Yet even as I tried to dismiss those words, they simply wouldn’t go away. Instead they GOT STUCK in my soul and my spirit, penetrating deeply, profoundly and irrevocably. At the time, I didn’t realize the significance of that singular question. But in retrospect, its role was crystal clear. Those four words became what I now call “The Question That Changed Everything.” That question broke the spell of my long-held emotional hypnosis. It lingered. It echoed. It persisted. And it wouldn’t shut up.
And for that, I am eternally grateful.
Needy? Please God, Anything But THAT.
Prior to that first S-Anon meeting, if you’d asked me which character traits I most disdained in other women, “needy” would have topped the list. (The second spot was rivaled by words like weepy, clingy and insecure.) Needy was THE LEAST DESIRABLE label I could conjure; There simply wasn’t room for it within my modern view of progressive, independent, never-let-them-see-you-sweat Superwoman-hood.
No wonder I’d devolved into a tangled mess of conflicted emotions. Behind closed doors, I’d somehow BECOME the essence of everything I’d always rejected.
Yet ultimately, even though it felt unbearable, being needy was EXACTLY what I needed. It’s what I needed FIRST, and it’s what I needed MOST. Wrapped within the comfort of my S-Anon meeting, being needy felt safe, authentic, acceptable and (crazy, I know) even admirable. Being needy served to break through my denial, and it allowed me to begin facing the toll this addiction was taking on ME.
Awkward and Afraid
I’ll be honest: Even within this “free to be needy” environment, I was absolutely NOT GOOD AT IT. For one thing, I’d buried my needs so deeply for so long, that resurrecting them proved to be a highly volatile exercise. My neediness felt raw and vulnerable and exposed. My grasp of it felt tentative, fragile, unwieldy, experimental, obtuse, overwhelming and insecure. My tolerance for being needy ranged from low-to-nonexistent; I could handle neediness in teeny-tiny increments, interspersed with longer periods of “acting as if” to the world outside our rooms.
Bottom line, being needy scared the crap out of me. And frankly, my fears weren’t illegitimate. Addressing my needs meant coming to terms with a reality that cut to my deepest core: That eventually, if I admitted my needs out loud, I’d risk discovering that they couldn’t or wouldn’t be met within my relationship. And the idea of losing THAT—of losing him, of losing US—was more than I could bear.
My Process, My Pace
Thankfully, my S-Anon friends were exceptionally patient. Within their embrace, I practiced being needy on my own terms, in my own time and in my own way. Nobody hovered over me with a stopwatch. Nobody dictated a deadline to meet, nor graded me on my performance. Instead, they taught me to be patient, to accept myself as I am, and to practice even small acts of self-care and self-agency. They taught me to value the concept of “progress, not perfection,” and they gave me permission to figure things out one day at a time.
It didn’t happen quickly, but eventually, I DID made peace with being needy. I didn’t like it (I still don’t), but I did it anyway. Over time, I DID find courage to face those high-risk questions and answers, the ones that empowered me to make gutsy choices about myself, my marriage and our life in relation to sex addiction.
Nine years later, I still attend my S-Anon meeting every week. It’s where I go to explore and honor my own evolving needs—the ones that still emerge unexpectedly, even this far into recovery. I’m no longer living in a constant emotional crisis, but I maintain a conscious connection to my early experience of BEING NEEDY. I keep that memory close and fresh and accessible, inviting it to fuel my empathy for others who walk a similar path. I nurture it to protect myself from forgetting the cost of ignoring my needs—to remind myself how close I came, once upon a time, to losing ME entirely.
Your Turn: “What Do YOU Need?”
In my next blog post, I’ll plan to address some of the SPECIFIC needs I encountered in my early recovery—along with the ways our beautiful and powerful Twelve Step community has been there to help me meet them. But until then, let me reach out and extend to YOU that same little “question that changed everything” in my life. With extreme measures of tenderness and sensitivity, I’m rallying around YOU to ask one very personal, powerful and pivotal question:
I’m asking you simply: “WHAT DO YOU NEED?”
GAELYN RAE EMERSON
©2015–2019 | All Rights Reserved
THE QUESTION THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING was written by Gaelyn Rae Emerson in 2015. It was originally written for Sisters of Sobriety and Serenity, a social media blog for recovering women, with special thanks to its creator, Katie Maslin. Republished by Women Ever After, with minor biographical edits pending.
For more writings by Gaelyn Rae Emerson, click here or email email@example.com.