What To Do If Your Partner Uses [Podcast]

Recorded by:
Nzinga Harrison, MD
January 11, 2024

After years of relapses, Brent thought his partner was sober…until he found his meth pipe. Nzinga talks one-on-one with Brent to strategize how to be supportive while also working through his fears for his partner’s life. Another listener says, “The only infidelity I fear is heroin and fentanyl” and hopes to set healthy boundaries between her and her partner as they both go through recovery.

Episode Transcript

Speakers: Dr. Nzinga Harrison, Claire Jones, Brent

[00:44] Brent: I just want to be supportive. I want to help him get through this period of relapse and get him back on a path where he is living a healthier life. You know, I just admire him because he’s so, he’s so resilient. He’s bounced back through so much in his life and his strength is amazing. But right now, he is caught in the trauma of everything that has happened to him.

[01:14] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: This is Nzinga, and you’re listening to In Recovery, a show about all things addiction. This week we’re talking about love. Before we get into that a little bit about me. I am your host because I’m a physician, a psychiatrist, an addiction expert. This is my life’s work for the last more than a decade and a half. I believe in it so much that I’m co-founder and chief medical officer of a company called Eleanor Health, where we are doing our best to take the most compassionate care of people affected by addiction. So with that, I hope you’ll keep listening. I hope it will make an impact. Since this is a question and answer show, we need your questions or there’s nothing for us to answer. Claire, let’s jump into the show. 

[02:31] Claire Jones: This week, we’re actually doing something super different and something hopefully we’ll continue to do more. We have somebody coming on the show who you heard at the very beginning, and we’ll get to that in a second. But first, I actually want to bring up some feedback that we got, because, as you all know, we love our feedback, and we take it pretty seriously. So we got a voicemail from somebody who is listening to the ADHD episode. And let me just play a little bit of what she said.

[03:01] Caller: My daughter was diagnosed with ADHD in the third grade. She’s going to be in 10th grade next year. And we have seen a lot of providers over these years, and have never heard the term disordered or illness associated with ADHD. In fact, we have always been very careful to not label it as that, especially with our daughter, to let her know that her brain is different, but it’s not disordered. And the difference can bring so many beautiful other things that other brains don’t have. So I’m just so curious about the language. I know that you love semantics and you’re very careful with your words, so this really took me by surprise. 

[03:57] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: Yeah. Thank you so much for sending this in. What you’re pointing out here is me falling into a medical language. So ADHD stands for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. And disorder and dysfunction is kind of the way we talk about things in medicine. To your point, I literally was just having a conversation at Eleanor Health last week about how we’re training all of our care staff to be documenting in our charts in a way that if the people were taking care of were reading our notes, that our words would not be injurious. And so I agree with you. When my son Zahir got diagnosed with ADHD when he was six years old, we never even told him he had a diagnosis. I don’t know if you heard that funny story. He heard it from me on a radio show. And that was very awkward, like a mother/doctor fail. But we never even told him he had a disorder or a diagnosis or an illness, we just described it as his brain working differently, the same way that you did with your daughter. And so I appreciate this as a call to me to be more careful with my words, because even when we say attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, substance use disorder, like that’s the language diagnostically. But that’s not how we have to talk about people. And that’s not how we have to talk about the organs, in this case the brain, that people have. So I appreciate that. I’ll raise my awareness around it and I will do better. So thank you, ma’am.

[05:32] Claire Jones: Thank you so much for your feedback. We appreciate it. So this week we’re talking about love. And that means all kinds of things. So we’re going to talk about three questions we got around love and relationships. The first one you heard at the top, and it’s coming from a listener named Brent, whose partner is going through cycles of relapse. And Brent wants to know how to best support him. The second question is from a woman who’s in recovery and so is her partner. So she wants to know how they can best communicate with each other. The third is gonna be a little bit different and touches on how codependency can be a type of addiction itself. So that’s a lot. Let’s hop in. Let’s start with our caller, Brent. 

[06:25] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: So why don’t you start me out with a brief description of what you’ve gone through with your partner, and then we’ll jump into it from there? 

[06:35] Brent: Sure. My partner and I have been together nearly 15 years now. And when we met, she was six months sober from a crack-cocaine addiction. He relapsed, I think, probably eight months into that, which actually kind of coincided with him starting to drink again. We worked through that. There wasn’t a whole lot of strife in our relationship through that. You know, I’ve done stupid things like drive after I’ve had, you know, too many, and I don’t want to be judgmental that way. I just wanted to support him. So we got through that. And then about six years ago, we moved into a new house and I started finding little baggies with white residue on them. And I asked him what was going on. And he had admitted that he had been doing cocaine with his friends and. I told him that I wasn’t happy and I didn’t know that our relationship could last if he was going to start using drugs again. But we’ve worked through that. I’ve tried to be, you know, supportive and helpful. And a few months ago, I found a pipe in his room while he was asleep and asked him about it and he admitted that he had been using meth. 

[08:08] Brent: So. My first response was why? And the question I was truly asking is, why are you using meth? You’ve told me you’ve tried it before and you didn’t like it. Why are you suddenly doing that? But his reply was, well, of course, it’s because I’m an addict. And I understand that and I’m not going to be angry at him. I just want to help. It makes me nervous that, you know, you hear about how, especially in the gay community, how bad the meth problem is. And he says he uses it, he takes one puff to get through a stressful day, something like that to make him feel a little happier since he is dealing with all of this PTSD that he has. I don’t know, because I never see it. He does a great job of hiding it. So, yeah, I’m afraid of what could happen. You know, I don’t know if things like having at least with other drugs is something that happens. And, you know, and could he get something that’s stronger? I just want to be supportive. I want to help him get through this period of relapse and get him back on a path where he is living a healthier life. But I understand, too, that it’s something that he has going on. And and it’s really no different than my overeating. So that’s basically what my email was. 

[09:50] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: The compassion with which you’re approaching this is just awesome. And near to the last line of your email that you sent to us that said, “I don’t see myself ending my relationship with him over this. My fear is him dying.” I think, is just how we want kind of lifetime partners, which it sounds like you guys intend to be to each other, to approach chronic medical illness. And so a lot of the times the work I’m doing is the emotional work to help people get to that place. Can you tell me more about your partner outside of drug use? Like, what’s he like? Who is he? What things are important to him? What things are important to you guys as a unit? 

[10:38] Brent: He is the most compassionate person I know. He will do anything for anybody, which is, you know, a little bit of his problem. I like his creativity. I like that passion and the drive that he has because I’m not a super creative person, I’m much more logic driven. And he’s very emotionally based. You know, I just admire him because he’s so resilient. He’s bounced back through so much in his life and his strength is amazing. But right now, he is caught in the trauma of everything that has happened to him. So right now, my biggest goal for him and our relationship is to get him back to a place where he’s feeling like he’s actually part of the relationship, like he’s a contributing member. 

[11:38] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: I felt that through and through my heart, and so I asked you that question for a couple of reasons. One, because when we have an illness like this substance use disorder that’s eating away at somebody we love, it’s really important for your emotional capacity — and you’re good at it already — to be able to separate the illness from the person you love, even when the symptoms are happening between you. And the other thing is that I hope you will have him listen to this podcast because he needs to hear you say those things about him. And to know that a lot of times when we have a couple that loves each other, the substance use disorder sits in between the two people. And so the work that I always try to do with people is to get the two members of the couple to be that cohesive unit against the substance use disorder. So the two of us over here, and the substance use disorder over there, as opposed to the substance use disorder in the middle. Him hearing you talk about him like that helps reinforce that idea that it’s the two of us. And this illness is not going to make me walk out of the door. But I can’t live with this fear of you possibly dying from this. 

[12:54] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: Because to answer your questions, yes, drugs are laced all the time. And yes, methamphetamine is often laced with fentanyl. And yes, even though methamphetamine doesn’t kill people tonight, like opioids kill people, methamphetamine is very hard on your body and takes the longitudinal health consequences that ultimately kill people. And so what I hear you saying is I want to get this illness back out of our lives so that I don’t have to worry about losing you. And so that we can be ourselves in this relationship like we have been during periods of sobriety. So I hope he’ll be able to hear this starting on this podcast. What I would say is for you, and for other people who are in relationships where your partner has a substance use disorder, during periods of remission and during periods of relapse, honesty has to be the number one thing that you can count on. And really, like the way you said it, this is not something I’m going to leave over, creates that opportunity for him to be able to be honest with you, to say what was in those baggies was methamphetamine. Or I was using at that time or I have started using again, so that you’re not discovering it. Because that chips away at the honesty in the relationship. But also at this point, this is how much pain I’m in. This is how much trauma I’m re-experiencing. This is what I’m needing to work through. These are the things that are contributing to this substance use being active right now. And I think it’s too much to ask for you guys to only do that in your individual support, or just between the two of you without a professional. So I would say definitely, definitely, yes. I’m glad that he’s getting support for his PTSD, everything else that might be going on, because you described him as a resilient survivor who has been through all of the things. And so sometimes, I mean COVID, racial protests, Pride Month, stress in your relationship, sounds like all of that eats away at our emotional capacity to keep the things we’ve been through in the past. And they start coming in the future and then they, you know, put pressure on the substance use disorder. So I’m glad he’s an individual support for that. I didn’t hear if you’re an individual support, I want you to be. 

[15:27] Brent: I am. 

[15:28] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: OK, awesome. And I didn’t hear if you guys are in couples support, I want you to be. 

[15:32] Brent: Yeah. So my individual support actually started as couples. And then because that’s where his PTSD therapy kind of spun out of that, it was let’s get him seeing somebody for this. OK. And then it just kind of translated to me doing one-on-one because she wanted to work with helping me being able to be supportive of him while he’s with his PTSD. So, yeah.

[16:01] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: I really wanted to touch on when you said he does a great job of hiding it. And so I want to take “great job” out of that because we don’t want a great job of hiding it. Because that’s introducing space between you guys, and the goal is to have zero space between you guys. And like you guys are on the path to making that happen. And he will, like, his substance use disorder, will get back into remission. Sounds like he’s been through a lot. So there may be some point in the future where stressors and triggers start putting pressure on that remission again. And so that’s part of the work I want you guys to be able to do in your couples work, which is being able to anticipate that. So when you see the stressors building, when you see the triggers coming, you have to know what those are because often you’ll be able to see them before he can see them. And so we take that great job of hiding it out of the formula and turn it into a great job of being completely and utterly transparent about it, which is so difficult. Like what I’m asking for there is so hard for him. It’s so hard for you because you’re going to feel like am I just constantly looking? And if I bring it up, is it going to hurt him because he’s actually doing well? And I feel like I’m noticing something. That’s where the couples work comes around, being able to have that radical transparency with each other instead of feeling like there’s anything even coming from this illness that needs to hide between you.

[17:40] Brent: OK. Understood. What I meant really was more that he keeps the paraphernalia hidden, that sort of thing. Him coping with the fact that, you know, he’s not sleeping, he doesn’t do such a great job of that. And now that I am watching for it, I see it. I didn’t see it before. It was just I wasn’t, you know, wasn’t paying attention. It wasn’t on my radar to look for it. But now I see it. So, yes, I understand what you’re saying. 

[18:11] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: Yeah. And for the listeners, less so for you, but for somebody else listening, I’ll take exactly what you just said about. I wasn’t watching for before or I didn’t know what I was seeing before and put that in the context of another illness. It’s the same way like when a loved one gets diagnosed with a seizure disorder. And it’s like there are actually things leading up to that seizure that we’re seeing, but we don’t know that they’re important. We don’t know that they have meaning. We don’t know that they’re forecasting for us that the seizure is coming. And then once your loved one gets diagnosed with seizure, and you learn those things, at first you’ll be hyper-vigilant for it and you’ll be just constantly looking because you’re so worried that another seizure is coming. But eventually you start to be able to just see those things and be able to compassionately communicate. “Oh, I see the early warning signs. What’s our prevention strategy that we can work on together?” And so applying that same kind of idea here, like you said, when you say, oh, I see you’re not sleeping, I see you might be a little bit more irritable, I see it seems like you’re spending more time out of the house or in the house than you usually do. Like those deviations from those patterns and being able to have that unified front, so that you can feel comfortable bringing those things up, or so that he can feel comfortable bringing those things up. But you guys are on the path. I’m so glad that you emailed us and that you were willing to come on tape with us, because I think there are a lot of people who will hear this, and you will give them the ability to go get their own support, raise this conversation with the person that they love, get in couples support, and to approach it compassionately. I really feel that shining through from you.

[20:00] Brent: I hope so. A lot of my understanding of this has evolved, especially with this podcast, and with Last Day really has helped me and made me much more compassionate towards him and his addiction. I really do appreciate it.

[25:59] Claire Jones: I’m going to read the next question that we got, which says, “How can my partner and I stay together while in recovery and have boundaries around codependency? What do those boundaries look like? The only infidelity I worry about is with heroin and fentanyl. How can we continue to build communication that will support discussing urges, cravings, triggers or relapses? I worry that my partner has experienced so much shame around his addiction that he will hide from me. And I also don’t want him to feel like I’m policing him. It’s his life and his recovery. But sometimes I just find myself getting stuck. I don’t know how to ask certain questions or concerns around his addiction. I don’t want to fuel into more shame by asking questions and checking in. Any feedback or advice is welcome.”

[26:44] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: So thank you so much for asking this question. I know it is a big deal to share kind of like so openly about your fears and your concerns about your relationship. And I know that it’s a bit of a risk to send the questions. And so I want people to know that, like, it is safe to send your questions in. I’m going to do my best to answer them, but that I really, really do feel gratitude for you guys sending in your personal experiences. So to get to the heart of this matter, I actually am really feeling that use of the word “infidelity” in this question. So she said the only infidelity I worry about is with heroin and fentanyl. And I never use the word infidelity as it related to being in a relationship with someone with addiction, but I really think it fits because what you’re asking for is radical transparency around the symptoms of this illness that your loved one has, which is addiction. And that obviously can be so difficult because we’ve created this dark cloud of stigma in America that makes it really difficult to have that radical transparency. but that’s really what it takes. So now I’m talking to your person. And I hope you’ll play this segment for him. Really, what it takes when you have this illness of addiction or substance use disorder is being able to have a relationship where you are safe enough to have radical transparency, and that takes both people. So for the person with the addiction, that takes the risk of that radical transparency and being able to share yourself completely and utterly and fully with your partner. For the partner, and so now I’m talking to you, listener who gave us this question. It takes being able to create a sense of safety that he can come to you with his deepest, darkest fears, his struggles. And what we’re hoping is that it slides early enough in the process that he can actually come to you and say, my cravings are going up. Or I feel myself being triggered. Or I’m noticing their early warning signs of relapse, and I’m sharing that with you so that we can work on relapse prevention together. Even if it doesn’t slide that early, so that it’s relapse prevention, but it’s actually sharing with you that he has had a relapse, or that he has used, whether that rises to the medical definition of relapse or not. It’s how do you have those conversations so that you don’t feel like you’re policing him. 

[29:32] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: So you don’t find yourself getting stuck in a wonder bubble. And now the infidelity is you not being able to practice radical transparency with him around your concerns for his safety and the symptoms of his illness. So I know it seems like Dr. Harrison’s answer is always therapy, therapy, therapy. But I cannot say enough how helpful therapy is in this situation. Because think about a race car driver. Can any of us drive a sports performance race car 250 miles per hour in a circle? No! Good luck livin’ if I’m your driver, OK? And so the reason we can’t do that is because we haven’t been trained to do it by an expert, and because we haven’t practiced over and over and over and over how to do it. So this communication strategy is the exact same thing. What I want the two of you to do in couples therapy, and this might start in individual therapy, I don’t know. So because, you know, I’m all about like everybody gets their own. So it might start in individual therapy where you can get enough space from your emotions to be able to practice the language that you would use with him. It might start in his individual therapy where he can be working on feeling safe enough in the relationship that he practices how he brings this to you. It definitely happens in couples therapy, where literally the therapist is like, partner, how can you best hear this information from her? And he says, this is how I can best hear this information. For some people, that’s going to be just direct, like, I’m worried about you. For other people, it’s going to be like you need to come with me with the facts. Like, don’t just say I’m worried. Come to me with an itemized list. This is bop, bop, bop, bop, bop. That would be me, because, you know, I’m about my data. Other people will be come to me with a joke, take the edge off of it. 

[31:43] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: In your couples therapy, you need to hear how he can best hear this information, and then you need to practice delivering that information in that way. On the other side of it, he needs to ask you, “when I feel myself at risk, or if I have used, how can you best hear that information from me?” And then he needs to practice over and over and over in therapy with a third person, because what happens is when you first try, you suck at it. So you crash into the wall. But that doesn’t have to be a fiery, mortal crash because we’re going to be going at slower speeds. Like, we’re not going to ask you to get in the car the first time and drive 250 miles an hour. You’re going to drive at a slower speed so that when you crash, you can say, oh, that was a bit of a crash. This is how it felt to me. The therapist can help you navigate that until you guys get so comfortable with him telling you if he’s at risk or if he has used, or with you telling him that you’re worried you see something that makes him at risk or you have to ask him, have you used, that you guys have practiced that communication so many times that when you’re driving at full speed in life and in your relationship, you can avoid crashing because you’ve practiced it so many times. 

[33:09] Claire Jones: That is a great metaphor. Can we just give a couple of examples of different ways to ask the same question? And maybe the question is, have you been using? 

[33:35] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: Yeah. That’s the hardest one to ask. That starts with making sure that you also have a full understanding of what your partner’s goals are as it relates to use. So what I will often see is that the partner is expecting complete abstinence, whereas the person has not necessarily made their goal complete abstinence. And so the first thing is making sure the two of you are completely and utterly on the same page. So we talked about this earlier in the episode, which is like, the two of you are a unit and the illness is the outsider, as opposed to the illness being between the two of you. And so when the two of you are a unit, you have a common goal against the illness, whether that goal is controlled use or whether that goal is complete abstinence, you hold a common goal. If you’re not sharing the common goal — because what we have to do first is make sure the two of you are a unit and the illness is the outsider. So once we have our shared common goal, then some of the ways to ask that question — and like I said, the real answer to this comes from your partner. Your partner has to tell you how to ask this question. But it might be, “I noticed you’re going out with your friends more. And I know you drink more when you’re going out with your friends, so I’m wondering, is there anything for me to be worried about?”

[34:57] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: That’s a roundabout route. If you’re partner’s, like, just come with me straight up, then you can say, “I know we agree our common goal is controlled use for your cigarette smoking, which equals less than half a pack a day. And I’m pretty sure yesterday you smoked a whole pack, because I saw you buy it yesterday morning and I saw it this morning and it’s empty. So are we in trouble?” That’s direct. Somewhere in the middle is like, “I’m worried because I see you smoking more. Do we need to revisit our goals or is there anything going on that we need to put our finger on?” So that was kind of left side, right side, and the middle. 

[35:43] Claire Jones: What’s a humor one? What’s a joke one?

[35:44] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: Oh, a humor one. Let me do a humor about crack, because that’s very serious. So then sometimes humor can take the edge off. And you can be like, “um, you know, Whitney say crack is whack. And I feel like you might be bein’ whack right now. Is there something you need to tell me?” You might have that relationship.

[36:09] Claire Jones: Yeah. Not the same thing whatsoever, but anytime my boyfriend will use like a patronizing tone. I just go, “ehh, try again.” He has to say it again. Which works sometimes. Not all the time.

[36:25] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: That’s great. Also not at all the same thing, but on the same continuum in that our partners can see things in ourselves before we can see them ourselves. And so, like, I get real mean when I’m hungry. Apparently this is what I have been told. You know, some people call a hangry. And my kids say that I get high-rate, like the next level, from hunger. But so the funny way that Joel approaches me with that, like if I’m being particularly prickly, then he’ll say, “um, do you need a Snickers bar?” And I know that is like a funny way of him being like, you need to get yourself together because you’re being super mean right now. So it’s on the same continuum of basically we have figured out a way that he can say to me, you’re being mean in a way that I can take it. And we have a lot of humor in our relationship, so it doesn’t surprise me that we figured that out in a funny way. 

[40:16] Claire Jones: So Diane mentioned boundaries around codependency in her question, and it seems like nearly every single question we get about relationships includes something about codependency. So before we jump into our next question, can you actually define codependency? 

[40:32] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: Oh, yes, I can. We’re going to define codependents as staying in a relationship — so what I want to do is conceptualize this in the same definition of addiction that we have, which is continuing the same pattern despite negative consequences. And so we’re going to define codependents as the need to be in a relationship, period. Even if the relationships are continually bringing negative consequences. So it’s not the need and the desire to be in a relationship because that relationship is healthy and nurturing and feeding you. It’s the relationship, period. I have to be in a relationship no matter whether the consequences are negative or not. And so even though I know this relationship is causing me harm, it’s so scary or uncomfortable not to be in a relationship that I would take that harm over no relationship. 

[41:38] Claire Jones: OK. So let’s get to our next question from a 41 year old woman who feels that she might be addicted to relationships and codependency. So her first question is, does that exist? And since realizing that she’s taking a break from dating for a couple of years and she’s been in therapy. So her second question is, how does she return to the world of dating and relationships while minimizing the risk of relapsing? She wants to be safe about the way that she gets back into dating because she wants to date again.

[42:08] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: Yeah. So thank you so much for sending in this question. To answer your question, is this a thing? Yes. And I’m really glad you put your eyeballs on this thing for yourself, because we want relationships to be a source of joy and support where we can be our complete and utter selves and be accepted and be unconditionally loved. And a lot of times in relationships that are fraught with codependence, they start to feel hurtful and painful and become a source not of joy or unconditional love and support. And we often think that’s coming from the other person. But then when you have relationship, relationship, relationship, and you look at the common denominator and you say this may be something’s coming from me, that is like the first step. So I say in AA and NA, it’s the first step for a reason, recognizing I have a problem. And the beauty in that is that it then gives you the power to get on the path to addressing whatever that is. And so is it a thing? Yes. Is it a diagnosis? No. So you hear me talk about the DSM-5. There’s no formal diagnosis of codependence, or codependency as like a personality diagnosis or other mental health diagnosis. But like many other things that we’re talking about on this show, using the definition of addiction as continuing to do it, even though it brings pain and negative consequences, then, you know already I don’t have to answer for you, but I will. Yes, we can consider codependence as falling into the definition of addiction that we’re using on this show.

[44:01] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: And so what’s tricky about it is the same way when we talk about other addictions where we can’t have complete abstinence. So like food, we can’t have complete absence from food. Work. We can’t have complete abstinence from work. Relationships. We can’t have complete abstinence from. In this case, romantic relationships, which is what you’ve done for the last couple of years, said I’m just going to go completely abstinent while I look at the root cause, while I work on my coping skills, where I learn more about this, where I figure out how I can be different in relationships. But we are pack animals, and so that is not a sustainable strategy to be completely abstinent from loving, romantic relationships forever. Because there’s no complete abstinence, I love the way you formulated this question, which is, how do I safely get back into relationships? And so another way to language that when we talk about addiction, we talk about periods of active addiction or relapse, and we talk about periods of remission. So you’ve been in a period of remission, forced by complete abstinence. And what you’re asking is how do I stay in remission from codependency, but reintroduce healthy, loving, nurturing, fulfilling, unconditionally loving, romantic relationships into my life? And so I want to look at this in a few steps and I’m going to language all of these as things you want to make sure you’re doing. Because remember, I said the beauty of the first step is that it puts the power in your hands. And that’s not to say you, all by your little lonesome, because I just said we’re pack animals, so you and your support system. I want to empower you to think about it this way. And I want to empower you to engage your support system on helping you recognize when you’re having some difficulty so that you can address it early. Because we can’t go for perfection. We are human beings, so we can’t go for perfection. What we can go for is doing our absolute best. 

[46:14] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: So number one is stop thinking about a relationship as the key to happiness. I know it is cliche, but I always say, cliches are cliches because they’re true. Happiness has to start from within. And so the first thing I would say to you is that until you have your routine in place where you are able to experience joy and feeling fulfilled in your life while you’re not in a relationship, it’s too soon to get into a relationship. So at that point where you’re like, you know what, I have been holding it down by myself. I have my hobbies in place. I have my non-romantic, meaningful connections in place. I have my self-care in place. Life is pretty good with me, myself and I. And you know what would make life even better? A we ourselves and us, right? Not that life can only be good we ourselves and us. It’s like I’m all right. I’m doing this thing. 

[47:15] Claire Jones: I feel like — and I don’t want to minimize this listener’s experience at all — but I feel like that advice is applicable to anyone who is looking for love.

[47:24] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: Yeah, exactly. And where your life has meaning, like, you are living a meaningful life, even though you’re not in a relationship, and you’re like, you know what can make this pie sweeter? Is a sweetie, that’s when you’re ready to go get a sweetie. I know, you know I think I’m clever. Number two, emotional intimacy goes beyond romantic relationships. So the same — like I said in number one, like, I’m doing this thing. My life feels good. My life feels meaningful. My life feels like it has purpose. I also want you to feel like you have relationships with other people that are non-romantic relationships but that are emotionally intimate. So what that is doing is helping you learn how to share fully of yourself, and trust the experience of sharing yourself fully with another person, but also being able to have that person share fully with you ,and have that be a two-way street without it being romantic. Because the healthiest romantic relationships also have two-way emotional intimacy that is not romantic. And so we want to lay that foundation because otherwise the romance starts to feel like the reason for the relationship, and the romance is only one slice of the pie.

[48:50] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: Number three, I already said in number one, but I’m just putting it here as a standalone for emphasis: spend time with yourself. This can be hard for certain types of personalities. This can be easier for other types of personalities. So depending on whether you are an easy-being-with-myself person, then what I’m saying is make sure you can spend time for yourself and have that be enjoyable and fulfilling and meaningful and adding purpose. It affects all personality types. And so whether it’s easy for you to be by yourself, or whether it’s easier for you to be with people, you have to be able to be by yourself, and you have to be able to be with people, and not have your whole meaning coming from either one of those. 

[49:43] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: Four: make sure you hold on to yourself as an individual when you get in a relationship. So in a relationship there should be a me, a you and an us. And depending on the relationship, the hierarchy of me, you and us may change. But there should always be three separate entities: w me, a you and an us. But make sure you feel comfortable emotionally and psychologically with yourself as an individual. It is holding on to that beauty, and those things that make you uniquely you and beautiful, and also the scars and the difficult parts. But being able to not lose that when you come into a relationship, because you will change in your relationship and you will grow into another person. That’s part of becoming us. But also part of becoming us, is that you and that person still have your own individual senses of self. What do you enjoy? What hobbies do you do? What self-care routines do you need for yourself? Make sure even when you’re in a relationship, you still have time that you spend by yourself individually. What are you doing to meaningfully contribute to the world that is your meaningful contribution? Holding on to all of those things because you’re also bringing all of that value into the us. And so if you lose track of those things, us is made of two parts. If you lose your part, then that’s an undue burden on the other person. Or if that other person loses their part, that’s an undue burden on you. That’s how codependency starts to develop. Number five is actually the same thing as number four, which is to give yourself grace. Give yourself grace.

[51:31] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: There is no human being that can navigate this complexity of this world perfectly and without mistakes. So even as you get into this relationship, first of all, upfront, be talking with your new partner about it. Like, “I’m letting you know, in the past, I have lost myself in relationships. And so what I’m working on is being able to simultaneously give myself fully to the us while retaining the me. I’m working on that simultaneously, and that is not easy. And so when I start to lose myself, this is what it looks like. I need you to help me be on the look for this. Have you had the same difficulty? What does it look like when you’ve started to lose yourself?” Because it’s going to happen, because you get caught up and emotions are strong, so it’s going to happen. You just have to recognize the early warning signs. Same thing I say about all of the types of addictions we’re thinking about. “I’m in remission, these are what I know are my early warning signs, or when I see those early warning signs or when you tell me you see those early warning signs, this is my prevention routine. But I’m not judging myself for that. I’m giving myself grace. I’m approaching myself with compassion. I’m approaching you with compassion and grace. You’re approaching me with compassion and grace as part of me. You and us in this relationship. And this is how I get my feet back on the path.”

[53:02] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: Does that conclude this episode?

[53:03] Claire Jones: I think that concludes this episode. 

[53:13] Dr. Nzinga Harrison: In Recovery is a Lemonada Media original. The show is produced by Claire Jones and edited by Ivan Kuraev. Music is by Dan Molad. Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs are our executive producers. Rate and review us and say nice things. And follow us @LemonadaMedia across all social platforms, or find me on Twitter @naharrisonmd. If you’ve learned from us, share the show with your others. Let’s help destigmatize addiction together. 

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Nzinga Harrison, MD

Dr. Harrison serves as the Chief Medical Officer for Eleanor Health with more than 15 years experience practicing medicine. She is a double-board certified physician with specialties in general adult psychiatry and addiction medicine. Dr. Harrison has spent her career as a physician treating individuals from marginalized communities with substance use and other psychiatric disorders. As a physician executive, she has served as Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer roles committed to creating and improving systems-based delivery of psychiatric and substance abuse care. She is a vocal advocate for stigma reduction, and is passionate about the necessity for whole-person care as individuals and communities seek to recover from and prevent substance use disorders.

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