Hanging up my call to the rehab clinic I had just asked to help save my boyfriend, my face burned with furious indignation.
The woman I spoke to had asked me to describe the hell Will was going through with his drug addiction.
‘I’m used to picking up the pieces,’ I told her. ‘In fact, I visited your clinic a few years ago with my father, who’s an alcoholic.’
We talked for just a few minutes before she gave her opinion. ‘You need help as much as your boyfriend does,’ she said bluntly. ‘You’re just as much an addict as he is.’
How dare she? I had never touched a drop of alcohol or taken drugs. Having witnessed the damage each caused, they terrified me.
Nicola Vivian (pictured) became hooked on saving her boyfriend Will and her father with their addiction to harmful substances
But it turns out not all addictions are to harmful substances. This psychotherapist told me she thought I was ‘co-dependent’. In other words, I was hooked on my supporting role in Will and Dad’s lives.
The personality traits I’d proudly ascribed to myself — a strong problem-solver with bottomless patience — suggested to her that I was just as sick as they were.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This wasn’t addiction, it was love. I was livid.
But in the days that followed, I kept thinking back to all the times I’d stoically scraped my inebriated father off restaurant floors, always editing my version of events later when he asked how bad it had been, to spare his embarrassment.
I had lost count of the nights I’d lain alone in bed, terrified, because Will hadn’t come home and I had no idea where he was.
So many times I felt myself choking on the frustrations I kept swallowing in order to be there for them both. I truly believed this was the greatest test and evidence of love.
Now, I started to consider that my actions were perhaps less noble, more dysfunctional.
I expect you’re reading this and thinking, gosh, that sounds extreme. Perhaps knowing you would never fall for a man on drugs or tolerate such behaviour in a parent makes you feel immune or superior.
But this psychological disorder can take the most unimposing of forms. Drugs and booze don’t have to feature at all.
It can happen in any relationship where, somehow, their problem becomes yours. That could be a relative, your partner, your child, or even your best friend.
Nicola (pictured with her father when she was a child) was told by her psychotherapist she was ‘co-dependent’ and therefore hooked on being the supporting role in her loved one’s lives
Nicola’s former boyfriend Will tried to stop using drugs many times but later died of an overdose
If you see yourself as the strong, responsible one in the relationship, always selflessly cleaning up the other’s messes, maybe you’re more like me than you realise.
Certainly, if you work at making yourself indispensable to someone so as not to lose them, co-dependency may be your problem, too.
For me, it started in childhood. My parents’ marriage broke down when I was three. In my mind, the reason Dad left was simple: he had stopped loving me because I hadn’t been good enough.
I set out to be the best possible version of myself to make him love me again. I was a prize student. I was always immaculately turned out and never complained.
Meanwhile, my tall, handsome, fun and charming father, who was ex-military, was prone to erratic behaviour and melancholia, especially when he drank.
On the rare occasions I did see him, he’d often put his head on my lap and cry. I never told anyone because it seemed a betrayal.
‘Make him happy,’ I told myself, then he’ll stop getting drunk. I thought my love would heal him and he would love me back.
My model for relationships started there: endless forgiveness, unflinching support and to hell with my own wants and needs.
So when Will joined my social circle — handsome, fun and charming, just like Dad — I overlooked his drug addiction. To me, he was another man to be saved.
Will was my first serious relationship. We got together in 1985, when I was 21. At that time, drugs, particularly cocaine, were everywhere, but I was too afraid of losing control to touch them.
Most of the people in our social circle came from well-to-do families, so there was plenty of cash around to pay for a hedonistic lifestyle. Thankfully, heroin was several steps too far for most of my friends — but not for Will.
When I asked him why he started using it, he told me the first time had made him feel so incredible that he had been chasing the same feeling ever since.
Will had a career as a banker and seemed somehow to be making it work. He tried to stop using drugs many times, with me nursing him through withdrawal.
I actually prided myself on avoiding recriminations every time he went back to it. Instead, I wondered how I might be more interesting to him so he didn’t need the drugs in the first place.
Nicola says being told she was co-dependent held up a mirror to her behaviour and she became desperate to get back some control
When he stayed out all night, I didn’t ask questions. When he was verbally abusive, I vowed not to upset him in future. I was bright and well-educated, but stuck with shop work that fitted around Will.
My life soon pivoted entirely around him, and I let the fact that he would put on a suit and tie each morning, disappearing for work with a breezy ‘See you later darling’, reassure me.
But being told I was co-dependent held up a mirror to my behaviour. Desperate to get back some control, I left, insisting it was the drugs or me, he couldn’t have both. A few weeks later, he called to say he had quit for good.
Will stayed clean for a year, but in the end, the pull of heroin was too strong. He died from an overdose.
I remember listening to the vicar at his funeral speak passionately of love’s healing power and feeling crushed by an extraordinary sense of defeat.
‘Give love freely,’ he told us. ‘Love, and we will heal!’ he exclaimed.
I tried that, I kept thinking. It hadn’t worked. Will was lying dead in the coffin in front of me. Dad was still drinking.
Listening to the sermon was the moment I accepted that the clinician really had got me right.
I was consumed with grief, but also knew I had to change. The self-contempt, the fear of failing, seeing myself as a hostage to life’s dramas — that all had to stop.
I tried group therapy, but found speaking about myself in front of others terrifying. Maybe if I had stuck with it, I’d have got better faster. Instead, I set out to heal myself, forcing myself to take stock of the life I had been living.
I began to realise that I had grown up so desperate for approval, I was only happy when I thought other people saw me as good.
And don’t we all have elements of this in our personalities — wanting to mould ourselves into shapes that will please others, willingly engaging in friends’ dramas in order to feel useful and liked?
Previously, I would tell myself I must not make a fuss; I was to swallow my hurt no matter how wrong things felt. Now I began to think about my own needs.
Over time, how other people saw me mattered less. I began to accept that their problems were not my responsibility. I felt better for it.
If elements of my story chime with you, perhaps you should work at doing the same. Understand that fear may be at the bottom of your co-dependence: fear of not being good enough or lovable enough, fear of being hurt or rejected.
Often insecurities like this reach back to childhood — our parents wield so much power over the ways we see ourselves.
Instead, bond with your partner, be there for your family and support your friends, but always be mindful of your own interests.
Dad died in 2002 due to health complications linked to his alcoholism. I’ll always carry some of his pain deep inside me.
Like Will, he was a good man, despite his flaws.
I’ve had relationships since Will, which have been ordinary and happy, and now I’m trying out life on my own.
I’ve learnt that the person most in need of my love is me.
As told to Rachel Halliwell. Nicola’s book, My Will: A Portrait Of Love And Addiction, is out now.