Anyone who tells you that love addiction is just like drug addiction has it wrong. Love addiction isn’t like drug addiction at all. It’s exactly the same thing. Falling in love triggers a cascade of chemicals in the brain identical to the waterfall of chemicals launched by a line of cocaine, a snoot full of champagne, or a winning roll of the dice. Research scientists now have the brain scans to prove it.
And if you’re like me, who never met a feel-good brain chemical she didn’t want more of, that can be tricky. Because the flip side of this flowing fountain of yumminess is that, when the chemical cascade recedes, it feels exactly like withdrawal from heroin or nicotine or sugar. When you are curled up in the fetal position, aching for the phone to ring, just to hear that voice… one… more… time…. You aren’t metaphorically jonesing for him. You are literally jonesing for him.
I like this description by a woman caught in the throes of love addiction:
“The compulsion to call was completely beyond my control. I couldn’t stop myself. I would hold off for short intervals, but always there would come the tide of an overpowering necessity. I was engulfed in it; I felt such a sense of panic that I really believed I would die if I didn’t pick up that phone.”
“A tide of overpowering necessity.” The phrase is striking, lyrical, and accurate. It’s also me cheating. I took that paragraph from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous; it’s actually about the writer’s relationship with booze. I just replaced the word “drink” with “call” and “phone.” Works, though, doesn’t it? If you’ve ever felt a sense of all-consuming urgency to dial that number, drive by that house, read that journal or check that Facebook page, you know what it’s like to be inundated by an oceanic wave, struggling desperately to reach the surface and just please, God, finally breathe again.
Compulsion: a key distinction between addiction and willful misbehavior.
Another way to tell if you have love addiction, as opposed to puppy love (and, seriously, how graceful is it to still have puppy love at thirty-eight?) is that you suffer the twin phenomena of craving and withdrawal. Craving is the need to replay the voice mail just to hear the sound of his voice, and the exhale that comes when you do. Craving is the agitation you feel waiting for him to show up at the door, so anxious that even if he’s on time it feels like he’s late. Craving is what makes you drive by, hang up, check again, ask around, look at pictures of the two of you . . . and then snap at your kid.
Withdrawal isn’t depression, although it’s often misdiagnosed as such. Withdrawal in love addiction is just like withdrawal from any other mind-altering substance: miserable, painful, intense, and astonishingly physical. Who would have thought that two days without an email would lead to sleeplessness, nausea, and headaches? He cancels a movie date, I get a rash. Go figure.
Okay, then. Craving, obsession, withdrawal. Love is an addiction. But what about this “sex addiction” I read about in the sports section? Where does that fit in?
There is a tendency to label love addicts as emotionally fragile (female) victims of love avoidant (male) sex addicts, those lying manipulative assclowns. This victim/perpetrator paradigm is neat and easy and misses the entire pathology of the addiction. Love addicts are lying, manipulative assclowns, too. How else are we going to get the love we need? Goodness knows we can’t let you see who we really are, because then you’d leave! I’m amazed that so many of you put up with me.
In my opinion/experience, love addiction actually breaks down into three subspecies. There’s your basic Sexaholic: if it moves, jump on it. Hearts and flowers not only not required, but actively discouraged. Moving pictures will do as well or better than live partners; they have no arousal demands and don’t eat dessert. Then there’s the Relationship Junkie, the punch-line of the joke: “What do you tell a woman with two black eyes?” “Nothing; you already told her twice.” This is the person who will do anything to stay in a relationship, no matter how toxic. Anything is better than the pain of being alone.
Then there’s me, and my mom, and maybe you. We’re addicted to romance, to fantasy, to the champagne euphoria of infatuation. Addicted to the thrilling thought that this time… this person… this is It. This is the One. We love falling in love and all the delicious anticipation that comes along with it. This kind of love addict may have more sex than is considered polite, but it’s not the sex that’s addictive. It’s the promise it holds. Sex is instant connection, a shortcut to intimacy. Sex is the price of admission to love. Sure, it feels good on its own.
As actor Justinian Carroll put it when he told his story for my book, LOVE ADDICT: SEX, ROMANCE AND OTHER DANGEROUS DRUGS: “Sex is a 10K arc light. Remarkable. But love… love is the sun.” Well, love may be the sun, but I’m a redhead. Sometimes, I just have to find myself a nice safe piece of shade.
In the coming month, I’ll share some of what I’ve learned about that blessed, serene shade and how I got there. Feel free to ask questions. I’ve been in recovery from substance abuse for 25 years and love addiction for 13, and I know that there’s no way to keep it without giving it away.