My personal experience recovering from love addiction, broken into three parts. There's a lot to say!
I remember the feeling as early as kindergarten. It was an obsession and compulsion. I was obsessively focused on my “love” object. And compulsively moving towards this love object. Even then it was the engine that drove me. Always looking for the target, always looking for the love and attention. I had one boy I focused on for most of my grade school years; like a radar. So much of my energy and thoughts were directed at this boy: where he was at all times, who he was friends with, what his extracurricular activities were, was he paying attention to me? How he treated me on any given day was everything.
“My love addiction became what I lived and breathed. Where before I would get swept up in living life, now it was all a show. Almost everything was a cover to “get high” as it were."
I instinctively kept this obsession secret, though I expect people noticed. When this boy moved to another school, I couldn’t function without an object of my fantasy. Which means I had to find a new one, almost anyone would do. There just had to be someone. But why? That is a question I could not ask or answer at that age. I didn’t dare speak of this to anyone. I didn’t dare speak it to myself! It was all beneath my dignity as a unique and independent girl. But this thing, this obsession or love addiction (as some of us call it) was so much bigger than me.
(* Writer’s Note: I don’t like disorder labels. In my experience they seem to hurt more than they help but here I am using a label. It feels important for this love addiction experience to be set aside from what we would call a normal experience. The level of distress one feels inside of love addiction is a serious psychological, mental, and spiritual disturbance. And I’m not sure how else to denote that at this time.)
In high school the addiction got progressively worse. I’m guessing the underlying trauma was compounded by the trauma of being in high school. It was dangerous in many ways. It was an assault on my innocence. My love addiction became what I lived and breathed. Where before I would get swept up in living life, now it was all a show. Almost everything was a cover to “get high” as it were. Everywhere I went I was looking for someone to fall in love with or for someone to love me. The mall, a party, a friend’s house, school, church. If I couldn’t be near the object of my fantasy (there was always a target) then I would find a way to talk about them or fantacize. Always looking for a way in. It was always a he but I had girlfriends I was obsessed with too. It didn’t really matter who he was it just mattered that he existed. As a way to lift me out of my intolerable reality. Being with myself was intolerable. Being in my life, my body was intolerable. I needed an escape out. I needed an external focus.
I had a type: dangerous. Physically and emotionally. (Even as a child this was true with the object of my fantasy kicking and punching on a few occasions) And later on, drug addicted. A star in some right. An athletic star, a musician on a stage, the un-gettable guy. Always unavailable. Almost always known to be unfaithful. Many were drug dealers. There was always a time at the beginning that I managed to capture their heart and their attention. This was a euphoria I would chase ceaselessly. The nature of love addiction is that it’s cyclical. A pursuit by the love addict and then a retreat by the love avoidant. A pursuit, a capture, a retreat.
I was crazed with the drive of it. I couldn’t stop moving or I would have to feel. And it was not time for that. So I chased the euphoria from the attention of boys and I tried to drink alcohol (mostly to obliteration) whenever I could.
I had no consciousness about what I was doing; I just had to keep moving. I look back now and remember the humiliation. I felt that then but didn’t have words for it. I couldn’t acknowledge that kind of shame. But it’s what caused me to hide it. I spoke of my love addiction to no one. I knew that no one could be trusted and that no one had a solution for me. Not one that would change what was going on inside me. Platitudes would get me nowhere. This wasn’t a “broken heart” or something I could “get over”. I was crazed. When I would get rejected (which I always did, because I always picked boys who would reject me) I was in agony. A love addict with a shattered fantasy is in a psychiatric emergency. That is an love addict in withdrawal. But I went through all of that alone because I had such shame and because I did not trust anyone to understand. Which I think was a fair assessment of my surroundings. People still don’t know what love addiction is!
On to college and the addiction progressed. I found myself in situations where the stakes were getting raised. The drama and the conflict were much higher. I was several times involved in affairs. I was the other woman. I was mystified to find myself in these situations.
So desperate to get the guy to choose me over her. And each rejection piled on top of the next. I never got over the relationship that had come before. I had no concept of how to grieve. I just had to keep moving and ignore the agony in my stomach. I had to deny the humiliation of not being chosen, again. And often times so publicly. So public did my heartbreak seem to be. So public did the guy choose the other girl. I could see the look on other peoples’ faces. Friends and onlookers. The pity they seemed to have for me. But the persona I had created was a masculine one, an unfeeling one so I couldn’t let people see my hurt. That would be humiliation on top of humiliation. To care that this guy didn’t choose me? To be devastated? To know that my whole life revolved around the fantasy of them choosing me? And then they didn’t? I couldn’t let anyone see even though they probably did. Just keep moving.
There was a peak to this process for me. Or a bottom. Same thing; different orientation. Rob was his name. He was the epitome of my love addiction template. A musician, from Hollywood, on stage, loved by all, charismatic and unavailable. You know Russell from Almost Famous? That’s him. And, if I may, I was Penny Lane. I’m not as cool as Penny Lane but just let me have this.
I could never get him to choose me for forever. Maybe for a little while, but not forever. And I just knew that if I could get chosen for forever this intolerable reality would change, it would be fixed. Sigh.
It was this particular love triangle that would break me. We had been in a cycle of love addiction and love avoidance for years. He was in and out of a committed relationship with the same woman. I kept inserting myself into their drama to try and get him to choose me. He would come toward me, then I would come toward him, then he would move away from me. I was drawn in every time. Devastated every time. Rejected every time. I would spiral out every time. Desperate; in a psychological breakdown. I used alcohol to cope with the insanity I felt inside. I would pursue other guys for their attention as a distraction.
I was in graduate school in Denver and the cracks in the foundation had really become apparent. I was in graduate school for psychology (of course). In my graduate program, no one seemed to see I was falling apart. And I was not hiding it well. My anxiety was through the roof. My professors were not safe. Academia has never been a safe space for me. It was at CeDAR treatment center that I found people (my fellow employees) who were really doing their work. Almost everyone was sober and in a 12-Step fellowship. I had finally found people who could see me and help me. Very quickly these people said to me: “You sure look like the child of an alcoholic!” and “You may want to check out Al-Anon (please, for the love of god).” This was extremely painful to be seen in this way. Up until then I felt that I was successfully keeping my bullshit under wraps. Nope. Not with these recovery people. They saw right through it. Because they had done it too. They had seen it all. And apparently there was a solution for me.
In the fall of 2007, I began attending Al-Anon*. This was the beginning of a new life. I threw myself into the program and working the Steps. I found a sponsor immediately and she was an essential part of my recovery. I would meet with Lori every week and we would review my step work. I vividly remember sitting at a coffee shop, in the Highlands neighborhood of Denver, with her one particular meeting. I was talking about my latest relationship and my love addiction. (I’m not sure I had the name for it yet. I think we would have called it codependency. It was all the same really. And the 12-Step solution worked for pretty much all of it.) I was attempting to explain the pain and insanity I felt. Lori said something like, “You know, I’m not sure you ever really breathe. Maybe you could just take a breath.” And I’m telling you, that changed my goddamn life. Because I did take a breath then and it CHANGED HOW I FELT. It gave me relief. I had never experienced relief from my love addiction. I was only ever running from it. Swapping one band-aid for another; all relief was fleeting. But I took a breath in that moment and I felt like I was okay. I had never felt okay in my love addiction. This was a revelation.
Breath is still one of my greatest tools. Any of my friends and clients could attest, “Oh yeah, she does breathe a lot, audibly. And sigh alot.” I do it for myself but it does also remind other people to breathe. It calms my nerves, lets me slow down, helps me think, and is a prayer and affirmation all in one.
So, I began the work.
Lori taught me how to set and hold boundaries. Another vivid Lori memory: Sitting on her purple couch in the living room. She was telling me it was my responsibility to set the boundary with others and then reinforce the boundary. What?! This blew my mind. I wanted a life of freedom and she was showing me the way out of my prison. She also told me, that day, when a person violates our boundary there must be consequences. That we enforce. “Mean what you say, say what you mean, but don’t say it mean.” This was how I was instructed to set boundaries. It wasn’t about control or punishment. Just cause and effect. It was also how I took care of myself.
Lori said to me, “You can do whatever you want. Just be ready to accept the consequences of your decisions.” Some people may not like a boundary, they may not agree. That wasn’t my business. I was my business.
Lori taught me how to break up with a boyfriend. It was so rare for me to willingly leave any relationship. But I was doing the step work and I was healing and changing. I was gaining so many more moments of feeling okay.
Doing the step work taught me how to go right at my fear. This was different way of functioning. It became a game of sorts. It was my new high: to win at recovery. But this game had no losers. I learned how to delay gratification for a short period, do something hard in the moment but then get a big, long-term gain. Big spiritual and emotional gains became my new high. The no-police-involved, no-hangover, no-forgetting-what happened, no-crash high.
After making my first round of amends I had a clean slate. Now I could start with a baseline and feel when I had violated my own integrity. I could hear my own voice. And let me tell you, if you haven’t made a round of amends that start at 2ndgrade up until present time, then you wouldn’t understand that a person will do A LOT to not have to make amends again. It motivated me to behave. I found relief came in admitting I was wrong. The 12 Step process gave me the words and the training. Lori told me: “We are not groveling. You don’t even have to say: ‘I’m sorry’.” In fact, I remember her discouraging me from using that word because us codependents would notoriously over-use those words. I liked that, it helped me preserve some sense of dignity.
My romantic relationships were greatly improving. But here’s the sad/funny thing: They were still bad. But better! It’s hard to convey that bad was still way better and I’m proud of what I did and where I was at the time.
Three years into my recovery I’m dating and living with one of my coworkers because of course I am. Big improvements: He is committed to me and he does not cheat. He’s also in recovery and working on his shit. He’s very dedicated to his own recovery apart from me. But he has major trauma issues that haven’t been addressed so he seems to resent women/me. And I have so much unresolved trauma so I basically resent men/him. We’ve each found someone we can live with and resent. But neither of us were conscious of this at the time.
I just remember how much work it was. And I would say this out loud a lot: “It’s really a lot of work. We’re working really hard at it.” And at the time I think I was proud of this? I was taking a lot of pride in how hard I worked at my recovery. In my adult life, I hadn’t cared about anything that was actually good for me. It was a good feeling. I was doing exactly what I could do at the time. Cause here’s the thing you may not realize: The conscious fear of the love addict is abandonment. But the subconscious fear is intimacy. Which means we beg to be loved. We beg you not to leave. But as we heal we realize that subconscious fear of being seen and rejected. In hind sight, I totally did that. I was again involved with someone emotionally unavailable. And this kept me from being fully seen. But it was better!
I eventually broke up with him. This was a miracle for me to be able to do. My recovery work of the previous few years made it possible. My intuition was being restored so I could hear my body. I could hear my heart. And it started to talk to me and I listened! Shocking! Seriously! Because it was not easy to leave and it was not pretty. And I had to leave the home we shared and sleep in guest rooms of friends. God bless them. The most painful of that time? My pride. And that’s not nothing. I was so ashamed that I was a practicing therapist and an active member of Al-Anon and had just come out of an emotionally abusive relationship. It hurt deeply that I had done that to myself. But here again, when you know better you do better.
Somehow, while fleeing this situation I had created, I bought a house in a recession. I don’t know how. Where did I get this idea? Who did I think I was? I don’t know. But something deeper and greater than me was guiding my life now. And I was listening. That’s a whole other book I could write on the ways a Divine Power was working in my life.
I spent the next two and half years alone.
Two And A Half Years.
I had never, never, never, never, NEVER been away from my love addiction. But through the grace of the Divine I was ready and willing to set aside my ideas about when, where and how I would have a partner. I was settling deep into myself. And I was starting my trauma work. That’s the thing about getting to the actual problem, it has a way of shutting up the addiction. I started doing my trauma work: the family stuff, the father stuff, the mother stuff, the woman in a patriarchal society work, the sexual trauma. It focused me in a way I had not previously experienced. It was, as Glennon Doyle says, the right kind of hard. Everything before had been the wrong kind of hard. Moving me farther and farther away from myself. Bringing temporary relief but creating more problems. This recovery work was the right kind of hard and it was bringing me relief. Praise Jesus it was giving me relief.
No love addict in her right mind would willingly take an abstinence from love relationships. Never. But this recovery work was giving me a life that rivaled the high I would get from love addiction. I think maybe there’s no other way. My life became about spirituality and the pursuit of a magical life. This pursuit is still what gets me out of bed today.
For you love addicts out there you may want to know: “But did you get your happy ending?? Did you find love?? Is it possible for us?” I’ll share my experience on that in Part 2 and how I found a partner, because I did. But know this now: We do recover.
*I do not speak for Al-Anon. I am not their representative. 12-Step groups have no public representative. This is just a part of my story I didn’t want to conceal. Check out this website if you’re interested in Al-Anon: www.al-anon.org
**Do you identify with this story and are looking for answers? Here are a couple books that can be helpful: Facing Love Addiction: Giving Yourself the Power to Change the Way You Love by Pia Mellody and Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment by Amir Levine & Rachel S.F. Heller