Informal interview with Los Angeles journalist Jason Stafford covers some FAQ bullet points re: sex and love addiction and recovery…
I WANNA KNOW WHAT LOVE IS
“Lindsay” and I are a lot alike. A lot like you, too, I suspect. Someone pointed her to this blog and she had one of those V-8 moments – you know, when you slap your forehead and say “Good Lord! It was staring me in the face the whole time!”
She writes: “I open your blog to ‘Hanging On the Telephone,’ and you are talking to me. Right to me. Me perseverating. Me squandering brain power (which I can ill afford to squander.) I may be nowhere near the fetal position, but I know when I’m checking my email too often, and for what. I think some love-addiction-type crap has been screwing up my life in some less obvious but profound ways for a really long time — like, forever.”
She continues to elevate me with flattering comments on my work (along with affection and appetizers, I can never get enough flattering comments) and then drops me to the floor with a question. A simple, straightforward question (Ethlie says, dripping with sarcasm.) Lindsay wants to know what love is.
“Does non-addicted romantic love exist?” she asks. “If yes, what is it? Beyond the platitudes, and incorporating what we know about the physiology of it, really what is it? And where does great, joyful, sexy sex fit into the picture? What is the sexual-love piece that is more than just everyone getting off? And what is the difference between cynicism and realism, about love and sex?”
I reminded her that more poetic minds than mine have been wrestling with that question from time immemorial. But I know what she means. She wants to know how we love addicts can tell the difference between addictive love and healthy love, considering we’ve been experiencing and/or craving (mostly craving) the former for our whole life.
Just as “dark” might best be described as “when there’s no light” or “weightlessness” as “lack of gravity,” I have an easier time telling you what healthy love isn’t. It’s kind of like the definition of God’s will that was given to me when I was new to sobriety. Newcomers are always asking how you know what God’s will is. “You know that little jolt of excitement you get when you’re about to do something dangerous, or naughty, or secret?,” an old-timer said to me. “That little zap it how you know it’s not God’s will.”
It’s also a good way to spot unhealthy, addictive love.
Anthropologist Helen Fisher can tell you more authoritatively than I can what love is. She wrote an entire book about the nature and chemistry of romantic love, called WHY WE LOVE: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love (Holt, 2004.) Her historical research shows that relationship insanity defies the bounds of time and space; neither unhealthy, addictive love nor serene, “companionate” love is a product of the modern world. Both are characterized by distinct physical and psychological patterns that can be measured and charted.
Yet none of this stops me from crushing on an inappropriate man when the wind is blowing in the wrong direction. Self-knowledge, as they say, avails us nothing.
But… I can take my emotional temperature when I am staring at someone across a crowded room, or across a dinner table. Does this feel more like the excitement of pulling a jackpot at the slot machine, I ask myself, or the satisfaction of watching my savings account grow?
We all know how much fun that jackpot is in the moment. We all know how impossible it is to plan a future around it.
The old line “Anything an alcoholic has ever let go of has claw marks all over it” applies double for addicts. Especially love addicts. We not only won’t let go of the actual person, we won’t even let go of the fantasy of what the relationship should be, could be, or might have been.
Love addicts spend an inordinate amount of time rescripting the past, perseverating (I just learned that word. Cool word!) on things like ”If I hadn’t slept with him on the first date, things would have worked out. I should have done X, then he would have done Y, then I would have done X, and he would have fallen in love with me.” Or, “I should have turned down that expensive dessert at dinner. I could have said X, and he would have said Y, and I would have blushed X, and he would have said ‘Where have you been all my life?’” Or “I wish I had appreciated Johnny in high school. We would have gone to X, and I would have told him Y, and he would have said X, and we’d be married today.”
Love addicts also squander a lot of brainpower trying to read minds. “Does he think I’m too needy/too independent?” “Did I scare him away when I said I liked big families/hated children?” “Does he think my ass is too fat?” The most common one, the one women ask me all the time — as if I’m somehow a better mindreader than they are — is simple: “Why doesn’t he call?”
I say “he” because a woman will call you to tell you why she’s not calling ;-)
“Why doesn’t he call?” I’ve asked it myself. Some guy will go to heroic lengths to get my phone number… and then not use it. Another will barrage me with IM’s and, as soon as I agree to a cup of coffee, disappear from the face of Facebook. Why do they do that?
If it makes you feel better, my studies have revealed two possible reasons why they do that. One is anthropological, the other neurological. I would love to include the experiential and hear from some men on the topic but, A, half the time they don’t know the answer themselves and, B, who knows any men who will call and tell you anything?
Anthropologically, men are conditioned to hunt and conquer. Much of this still lingers in mating behavior. Getting the phone number is itself a victory; they don’t need to follow up on it with an actual call or, riskier still, an actual date. Quit while you’re ahead, Oh Great Warrior. Getting the consent for an encounter is as satisfying as the encounter itself.
There’s hard evidence that the latter is physiologically true, as well. Recent brain studies on gamblers showed that, particularly among compulsive gamblers, almost getting a slot machine jackpot lit up the dopamine receptors every bit as much as actually getting a jackpot. (Dopamine is part of the brain’s reward system; addicts never have enough of it.) So if the gentleman caller you’re concerned with has some addict tendencies — and, knowing you, he probably does — just knowing that he can call you is as satisfying as making the call.
More study needed, and I really would like to hear from some men on the topic. But right now, I’m playing with the concept of wanting a cigarette after fantasizing about sex….
Imagine for a moment that you went to a movie. The movie was about an alcoholic who wanted a bottle of whiskey.
That’s it. That’s the whole plot.
He gets close to his scotch, becomes thirsty, mishaps keep him from it, and he hurts other humans, damages them in his obsessive need to get to his scotch. He encounters huge obstacles. But through wit, charm, and deceit, he at last secures it, and drinks it down.
Is that a happy ending?
That’s the beginning of a blog post on “Addiction and Relationships” at www.RiparianChurch.com by a fellow called Otter. Yet, notes the Otter, isn’t that the plot of every romantic comedy every filmed? And more than a few supernatural dramas, we might add. Unlike any other form of intoxication, the giddy high of romance is never condemned, only celebrated. Obtaining the object of obsession is the goal, and when that goal is reached —- “kissed and kissed often, by someone who knows how” (to use the G-rated Gone With the Wind wording) – bluebirds sing and the end credits roll.
Now imagine those soft-focus sunsets accompanying a scene of the ingénue shooting heroin. The euphoric neurological response is identical, after all. But no. Leonardo diCaprio finding ecstasy with Kate Winslett in Titanic, we like. Leonardo diCaprio finding ecstasy with smack in The Basketball Diaries, not so much. Never mind it’s the romance that actually proved fatal.
Popular culture glorifies only one addiction, the addiction to love. There are no feel-good movies about anorexia. Drugstore cowboys and cocaine kings do not get any happy endings. Even the shopaholics in Sex and the City knew their spending habits were dangerous, no matter how deep their denial about their romantic lives.
I realize that I am powerless to be hold back the tide of songs and movies celebrating addictive love, so I’ve decided to do the next best thing: I’m going to even the playing field. Better yet, we’re going to even the playing field. We’re going to come up with some titles praising the less-lauded addictions out there. I’ll start.
“I Can’t Live, If Living is Without Booze”: a full-throated power ballad about an alcoholic and his Jack Daniels.
Speed: a documentary about the daring backyard chemists who mix up methamphetamine in the washtub.
“I Wanna Hold Your Hair”: a classic tune about a bulimic and the loyal friend who keeps her ponytail out of the toilet.
Codependence Day: a big-budget special effects movie about siblings with mushy boundaries.
“The Gambler”: this time, the country ditty ends with the old guy winning the railroad in a card game.
We close with a musical medley to nicotine junkies everywhere: “Every Breath I Hack”/”When Smoke Gets in Your Lungs”/”You Light Up My Pipe”
Now it’s your turn. Go!
THEY’RE ALREADY AT IT:
Britt suggests: Along Came Xanax….My Best Friend’s Needle….The Wedding Drinker….When Heroin Met Sally….
The well-meaning health professionals over at NPR are shocked — shocked, I tell you! — at the latest terrifying “trend” among young people they are calling The Choking Game. The grown-ups have just discovered that kids too young to buy booze are getting a buzz off temporary oxygen deprivation. I don’t know what Amish farm these folks live on; my friends and I were hyperventilating and asphyxiating ourselves for kicks back in the Sixties.
According to a study in the journal Pediatrics, around 6 percent middle-schoolers in Portland, Ore., have tried this choking game, a quarter of them five times or more. The docs are worried that kids will damage their brain cells, or fatally asphyxiate by accident. One Centers for Disease Control study estimates that 82 young people died from choking (or what the S&M community calls “breath play”) between 1995 and 2007. Of course, the study relied on media reports that couldn’t be verified independently.
What’s the point of scaring parents nationwide with yet another Your Child Can Die From This Everyday Activity! news story? It’s not like NPR is trying to sell papers. Supposedly, they want to help parents and teachers spot kids at risk and head them off at the pass. We’re now supposed to look for red marks on kids’ necks, and scarves tied around their bedposts (or what the S&M community calls “bo-ring!”)
Here’s why this project is doomed to failure from the outset. The 6% of pre-teens who are getting high off spinning in circles, holding their breath, or having a friend compress their chest real fast are the same 6% who would otherwise be getting high off inhaling gasoline fumes or White-Out. That CDC survey stated flat out that “those participating in the game also engaged in other high-risk activities, such as drug and alcohol use.”
That’s because this 6% are addicts-in-training, if not addicts already. They’re born that way. How do I know? Normal kids do not lose consciousness for shits and giggles. At least, not more than once. Trust me; if mom and dad are checking your bedroom for scarves on the bedpost when you’re 12, they’ll be checking your sock drawer for weed when you’re 16.
I wager that they will also — and this is where I eventually come around to the topic of love addiction — scratch their heads in wonder at how you got yourself into such a horrible relationship when you’re 21. Because if it’s so dark and miserable and lonely in your skull that unconsciousness seems like a good alternative when you’re 12, imagine how desperate the need to get out of yourself is when you’re 18. Or 30.
The vast majority of people, when you tell them “that’s really bad for you” or “she’s really bad for you” will stop doing that or seeing her. It may not be easy; it may require one of those pop-psych books about how to break bad habits or make better choices. And then there are the 6%. The ones who don’t have a choice. The ones like me. The ones for whom taking that drink or hearing that voice is as vital as breathing.
Or, if your drug of choice is the choking game, not breathing.
Publicly exposing yourself the way I have — the unvarnished truth way, that is, as opposed to the Chat Roulette way — also exposes a gal to certain risks. When my blog posts get picked up by AOL, for instance, six or seven hundred strangers leave angry comments accusing me of being an immoral, selfish slut. And calling me “selfish” really wounds me.
I just remind myself that these are the same women who cheered for the adulteress Carrie Bradshaw to get back together with the adulterous Big, and that they’re probably not mad at me in the first place. They’re mad at the husband who betrayed them/ mother who abandoned them/ father who broke their heart. I try not to take it personally.
Most of all, I remind myself that they’re not who I’m cracking my chest open for in the first place. I’m doing it for people like Miss J of… let’s just say a popular Midwestern state, from whom I received the kind of letter that makes the ALL-CAPS SCREEDS on HuffPo worthwhile.
J. says: I felt compelled to write to tell you I just finished reading LOVE ADDICT from cover to cover for the third time. It was — I guess you could say a relief to learn that there is a name and explanation for what has been my so-called “lovelife.”
I am single again at 50. I have had four marriages plus countless engagements and exes in my past. Although I’m not an athlete or rock star, my number of sex partners are closer to the four-digit number than the three digit. I would never say I was a real beauty — I was just good looking (and sexy) enough to catch almost any eye I wanted, and catch I did. I was a master at flirting and the high I got from it would match the best high from any drug around. My friends compared me to Blanche on The Golden Girls and, more recently, Samantha on Sex and the City. I never apologized for it.
That was me. I could tell you about the “love of my life” — he had a wife and three children. Or the gorgeous lifeguard on St. Thomas, almost 30 years younger than me. At least I sent that one away! I have slowed down, a little, but it’s still there. That never-ending quest for the feeling of infatuation, whether short-lived or not…. there was no name for it - until now.
I am going to Alaska this summer. Am I going to stare at Mt. McKinley? Not so much. I’m more excited at the prospects of saucy Alaskan men to flirt with, you betcha. I know that might sound desperate, but I shouldn’t be desperate. I have a job, many friends, a close family, and a beautiful daughter… even a grandson that my heart bursts with love for. Yet the addiction for that feeling of infatuation, or as you say “limerence,” still consumes me.
Thank you again for a very enlightening, funny, and well written book. Best to you - J.
Okay, maybe it isn’t as wholesome as the math teacher who does it for the excitement a kid feels when he finally understands long division. Or as graceful as the ballet teacher who stumbles under the weight of two-dozen long-stemmed thank-you roses. But when someone puts down my book and announces “My name is J. and, damn it, I’m a Love Addict…” well, my eyes just well up with tears.
What can I tell you? I’m an immoral, sentimental slut.
7:30pm at the Aero Theater
followed by a 1-hour panel discussion with:
Anonymous sex addicts from ’S’ 12-Step Programs.
Brandon (a superb Michael Fassbender) is a quietly affable Wall Street type living in Manhattan who carries the private burden of a consuming sex addiction. When his younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan, never better) arrives at his apartment unannounced and in need of a place to stay, Brandon finds his world of controlled secrecy thrown into crisis. Director Steve McQueen’s beautifully elegiac portrait of a man battling his demons was nominated for numerous critics awards, and was an official selection of the Venice, Toronto and New York film festivals in 2011.
1 CEU Credit Available (LMFT/LCSW only)