Addicted to Love? Three Ways to Tell

I told them I'd fallen in love with a man who was married, someone I'd known for many years. I'd promised myself I would never get involved with a married guy, but once we'd slept together, I had trouble stopping. I told the group, "I keep thinking: Being with this person makes me happy. How could something that makes me feel so good... be bad?
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Part 13 of a serial, "Sex Love Enlightenment." Previously: I tell Billy not to contact me again. I feel relieved, elated, but then comes the crash. Click here for past installments.

When I moved to Venice, CA, in the 70s, the first thing I did was plant a garden: tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and, in a corner by the 7 foot fence, I threw some marijuana seeds. I wasn't a big smoker but liked a toke now and then. The vegetables did not do well in the sandy beach soil, but the pot grew like Jack's beanstalk.

I was writing my first book, Loose Change, and late one night, when the neighborhood was silent, I sat at my desk, struggling to make the story come alive. I was startled by a sudden banging and thumping of footsteps around the side of the house. I ran to the front door and yelled, "Who's there?!"

"Police." Two policemen with guns drawn were shining a high-powered flashlight at my eyes. They asked if I'd reported a burglary. I hadn't. They said a call had come from 85 Windward.

"This is 58, you're in the wrong place," I said, wanting them to leave quickly. I glanced to the left. The police swung their flashlight to the left and there, in a pool of chalky light, stood the pot plants, five feet tall.

They handcuffed me and drove me to the Women's House of Detention, where I was strip-searched and locked in a cell with prostitutes. In California at that time, possession of pot was a misdemeanor but cultivation was a felony. At 4 a.m., they let me use a payphone to call my father, who called a bail bondsman and at 6 a.m., utterly shaken, I was released.

I had to go to court but, because it was a first offense, I was given "diversion" - placed in a rehab program instead of being tried. I had to attend group therapy twice a week for 2 months at the Venice Drug Coalition.

There were 9 people in my group and I was the only one not there to kick a serious habit. May, an obese black woman wearing a flowered dress and slippers, spoke in a groggy voice. She was addicted to speed, took 20 Dexedrine a day, had been hospitalized and given shock treatment and still, despite the Dexedrine, she slept all day.

The man next to May had stolen a TV from his grandmother so he could "get down," then fallen asleep with a cigarette in his mouth and burned down half the house, killing his cousin.

The leader of the group turned to me. "What's with you, baby? You gotta contribute here, not just listen."

What could I say? I grew some plants? I'm having writer's block? I wake up with fear and trembling because I'm stuck on chapter 2?

The leader asked me to bring a chapter and read it aloud next time, but when I did, half the group nodded off.

As weeks passed, though, I became more involved with these people and their stories and they with me. I began to talk about my relationships with men, and nobody went to sleep. In fact, they vied to give me advice.

I told them I'd fallen in love with a man who was married, someone I'd known for many years. I'd promised myself I would never get involved with a married guy, but once we'd slept together, I had trouble stopping. I told the group, "I keep thinking: Being with this person makes me happy. How could something that makes me feel so good... be bad?"

The man who'd burned down his house and killed his cousin stared at me. "That's what I used to say... about heroin."

* * *

At the time, I thought it was a funny story and repeated it to friends. "Is that what happens? If I keep sleeping with this guy, I'll end up strung out in the gutter?" But 30 years later, the analogy seems dead-on.

In the 70s, there was no concept of an addiction to love and sex. If you'd told me I was an addict, I would have laughed, because I was sure I did not have an addictive personality. I never smoked cigarettes or got hooked on alcohol or pills. Chocolate, maybe, but didn't everyone love chocolate?

The identification and treatment of love addiction did not begin until the 80's, spurred by the publication of "Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous" by the Augustine Fellowship staff. Sex and love addiction are different syndromes but related. For men, it's usually a compulsion to cheat and sleep with lots of women. (Think Bill Clinton, Rudy Giuliani and Gov. Sanford) For women, it tends to be an obsession with one man. (Why are we not surprised?) What's true for both men and women is that we can't stop ourselves, even when we know our behavior could destroy a marriage or our sanity or the chance to lead a country. And this goes back to the earliest civilizations. Antony lost Rome because he couldn't keep away from Cleopatra.

The most helpful book I've found on the love syndrome is by Howard Halpern, "How to Break Your Addiction to a Person." Halpern calls the problem "attachment hunger," and lists three symptoms:

1. The compulsive quality -- you're driven to merge with a specific person, even when you know it's not healthy.
2. You feel panic at the thought of losing the person. Keeping or losing the relationship feels like a matter of life and death.
3. When the relationship ends, you have withdrawal symptoms, which include depression and intense physical pain, especially in the chest and stomach. "A person who has just ended an addictive relationship may suffer greater agony," Halpern writes, than heroin addicts when they go cold turkey.

Another sign is that you only feel fully alive when you're with a partner, and you're incomplete without one. Your identity, your worth, your very survival depend on keeping that partner.

Halpern and others who've worked in the field say the roots of addiction are in infancy: not receiving the love and acceptance you needed. As a result, you never develop the ability to love yourself. You're constantly seeking to merge with another to feel whole and safe. And because the problem began before you had words, it operates at the most primitive level, unconsciously.

Not getting the love you needed as a baby seems to be the source of most problems, and when I hear that, it's just words. But as I read Halpern's book and others, I would feel physical pain, my chest constricting, because the descriptions of attachment hunger hit home. Hard.

I've had wonderful and nurturing relationships, I've been married and raised a family, but since I've been single again, I find the hunger and pain are coming up in extremis - stronger than they did when I was younger.

The pain is increasing, I suspect, because the attachment hunger needs to be released. I can't live with it anymore. The books I read were great at defining the problem, but their prescriptions for ending it didn't help. I resolved to do what I'd done when I was suffering from heel pain that wouldn't go away: Everything. Therapy, body work, 12-step meetings, reading, journaling, prayer, meditation retreats. I was determined to do -- or not do -- whatever it took to reach the state where I could savor life to the fullest, whether I have a partner or not.

But before I arrived at this determination, I had to play out my fiery attraction to Billy. I had to hit bottom.


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