“I need you here,” he said, his usual deep voice replaced by a whisper when he called to tell me where he was. “I’m not doing so well, and the doc is worried.”
It was August, and he had been at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota, a yearly pilgrimage he made with friends where he drank whiskey nonstop and still rode his motorcycle. I knew that lecturing him about his drinking was useless.
“I don’t want to hear it, sweetheart,” he would say.
Eight years later, when I watched Bradley Cooper as Jackson Maine in “A Star is Born” passing out in bed, lurching drunkenly through hotel corridors and parties, and humiliating Lady Gaga’s Ally by drunkenly peeing on himself as she accepts a Grammy, I felt as if I was reliving the past.
Those of us who have loved an addict or who have ourselves battled an addiction didn’t just see a film that pulled us in from the beginning and made us care about Jack and Ally. We also knew that there was another person in that relationship — a mistress called alcohol.
“The only thing more hellish than being addicted is loving someone who is addicted,” said Laura McKowen, 41, of Boston, who writes about sobriety. “The nausea I felt through a lot of the movie was that feeling of waiting for other shoe to drop.”
I know the feeling. Like Jackson Maine, my ex was easy to fall in love with. He looked at me like I was the only person in the room. The lines in his face and around his eyes crinkled when he smiled, which was often, at first. When I told him he was like one of those soft-serve ice cream cones from Dairy Queen with the hard chocolate shell, he brought me one.
But his drinking turned him into a beast, a glass sent flying across a bar full of people crashing against a brick wall and sending everyone running for cover. That time, I took a cab home, shaking with the same fear I had when I heard my father throw glasses and bottles, punching his fist through walls in alcoholic rages.
That should have been the moment I walked away. But I stayed — because he apologized, saying things like: “I’m sorry that I scared you and got out of control. It won’t happen again. I promise.”
Once he was in the hospital, diagnosed with acute pancreatitis, I implored him to stop drinking. The doctor had told him that if he continued drinking, it would kill him. I hoped this could be a turning point. I knew what it felt like to be worried at a party or before we were leaving a bar on his motorcycle, to try to sweetly remind him that he shouldn’t drink so much. “Don’t hassle me, baby,” he would say. “You know I’m safe.”
I didn’t stand up for myself in ways that Ally does successfully in the film. When Jack ends his Memphis concert facedown in a friend’s yard, Ally comes to him. But she sets limits, saying “I won’t do this again. Next time you can clean up your own mess.”
“Early on, we see that she’s not leaving where she was and leaving her career to go look for him, and babying or coddling him,” said Patty Powers, 58, a New York-based recovery coach. “Ally tells her dad that she won’t date Jackson because ‘he’s a drunk’ and that ‘you know all about drunks,’ making it clear that Ally grew up with alcoholism. She sees the red flags.”
But they marry, and as Ally becomes more successful, Jack goes downhill — becoming jealous and cruel. “You’re embarrassing and you’re ugly,” he tells Ally as he sits on the edge of the tub, drunk.
Ally doesn’t crumble — and she doesn’t leave. Although they hurt each other, they also apologize, and you want them to succeed: for Jack to stop drinking and for Ally to keep telling him how much him being sober means to her. But the power of addiction is stronger than words or apologies.
“One of the things the film does so well is how it shows the pain that he’s in,” Powers said. “The camera captures how fragile he is, when he’s a newcomer at rehab and then how much he wants to be with her. And Ally sees that in him and tells him that it’s not his fault that he has a disease when he apologizes to her.”
She tries to balance her love for Jack with nurturing her own career and dreams as he tries to stay sober, but he is haunted by lasting trauma and succumbs to it. Ally can’t love him into being well.
“When someone is in the throes of addiction, it’s really hard to have healthy communication patterns with that person,” says Carla Stover, an associate professor at the Yale Child Study Center. “And you can have one person in the couple thinking: ‘If I just love this person enough, or if this person loves me enough, then they would just stop.’ And that is a misconception, because someone who has an addiction can love their family and want to stop, and they feel like they can’t.”
After he gave up alcohol, my ex-boyfriend turned to other substances, ones that made him meaner, more unpredictable and violent. I absorbed his fists, his anger, his cruel taunts and his love. And still, I didn’t leave. I didn’t have Ally’s well-defined boundaries.
It was his decision to leave me, which should have been the relief that my friends said it was, and which I saw only years later as a blessing. All the love in the world was not going to fix him. Like Ally, I couldn’t love him into being well.