An Unexpected Addiction

It’s the eve of 2004, some time before midnight on December 31. At fourteen, I’ve had alcohol before, but this is my first time unabashedly drunk, stealing Coors Light from the laundry room refrigerator at my friend’s house. I’m sitting on her bedroom floor where dirty clothes are strewn about. “I’m going to be an alcoholic,” I say. “Just like my dad. I’m going to be an alcoholic.” I repeat that line too many times to remember, resigned to the future I fear I’m doomed to.

A few years after my drunken rambling, I read that actor Spencer Tracy, an alcoholic, was able to stop drinking for long periods of time, months or even years—easily. Looking back now, my take on that narrative appears naive and likely misinterpreted. Tracy was a chronic alcoholic who was prone to binges, often drinking himself unconscious. But in my youth, I hooked on to the hope that it was possible to only be an alcoholic sometimes. Despite growing up with an alcoholic parent, I was wildly unaware what it meant to be one.

At thirty-one, I don’t drink much these days. Next to never, in fact. Show me a bottle of vodka and I’ll cover my mouth in an attempt to keep the vomit from spewing. I might take a shot of whiskey, a beer, or a glass of wine, but anything else my body—or my brain—will instantly repel. I wouldn’t describe myself as ever having been an alcoholic—it never affected work or school—but I’ve certainly had periods of my life with too much heavy drinking: daily drinking, drinking before noon, spiking my soup with liquor, etc.; anything to get drunk. But at twenty-seven, I decided I had enough, and I stopped—easily. It would be six months until I had another drink. And now, it’s been nine months since I’ve had a taste. Alcohol is something I simply no longer care for. And I have zero desire to be drunk.

And cigarettes? Both my dad and I smoked those too. When he was hospitalized at the end of his life, he fought to get up and go outside for a smoke. He’d been smoking for fifty years. I smoked only when I felt like it. Sometimes daily, other times months without. But when they killed him, I tossed my pack of yellow American Spirits and haven’t touched one since. I’d say it was easy, but nothing about losing my dad was easy.

I admit I have been a frequent, mostly daily, user of (legal) marijuana for the majority of my adult life, but I’m currently going without. Sometimes I choose to; I need to. And I do so easily. But I’m not here to talk about alcohol, tobacco, or marijuana. I’m here to talk about addiction.

I had laughed once, when reading a list of what each zodiac sign is addicted to. For Cancer, it wasn’t a what, but a who. Cancers, it said, are addicted to another person. As a Cancer, I found it terribly—and unfortunately—accurate. I eventually stopped finding it funny.

What is it about love that consumes us? I still can’t gather, after six years, what has one person so completely under my skin. All I know is it was instant, like she’d been born there; her soul and mine, birthed together an eternity ago. And even on the days I wish I could hate her, forget her, wish I’d never laid eyes on her; I can’t erase her smile from the forefront of my mind. Because those things I wish I could do, deep down where she’ll always remain, I know I never could. I’d never want to. [April 3, 2020]

It’s now December 2018, and fifteen years after sitting on my friend’s dirty laundry, I’m sitting in Jenny’s driveway. My knees are tight against my chest in my maroon winter jacket. My faithful blue beanie is on my head. The air is cold, but the stars are out. I watch them and then I watch her. Her dress is short and her eyes are wide. She’s yelling at me. She wants to know why. Why did I betray her. But I couldn’t say. I wanted to know why too.

All we knew was that I was addicted to her. In love with her, yes. But plain and simple, fully and completely—addicted.

I may have escaped the wrath of alcoholism, could toss my cigarettes without a second thought, can choose when I do or do not want to consume marijuana—but I haven’t been able to fully escape the addictive nature that permeates through my blood. And when Jenny came into my life in my mid-twenties, she became the drink I could never put down.

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, “Addiction is a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences.”

Addiction is most commonly associated with drugs or alcohol, and rightfully so. Amongst addictions, substance abuse is the most destructive and hard to escape. But as the American Society of Addiction Medicine points out, engaging in compulsive behaviors falls into the same category. Gambling, for example, has been widely accepted as an addiction. And as we learn more about the brain, and dive deeper into technology and its available distractions, we’re learning almost anything can create some sort of addiction. Gaming. Social media. Cell phones. And even love.

Steve Rose, an addiction counselor with a PhD in sociology, states that “Something becomes an addiction if it begins to have significant harmful impacts on other areas of your life. In addition, the individual experiences craving, loss of control over the substance or behavior, and is unable to stop despite these harms.” He goes on to note that “Recreation is about pleasure, whereas addiction is about coping.” And while there is absolutely no comparison between an addiction to heroin and an addiction to constantly grabbing your cell phone, therein lies the key. Addiction is about coping.

But love, how could something so pure and natural become an addiction? Well, the same way anything else could. Complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences.

Helen Fisher, who holds a PhD in biological anthropology, conducted a series of brain studies which found that romantic love stimulates the same region of the brain as drugs and other behavioral addictions. Known as the brain’s “reward system,” it’s associated with focus, craving, rush—leading to tolerance, withdrawal, risk, relapse—all in all: obsession. And when the focus of that obsession relates to romantic love, codependency—an unhealthy reliance and attachment to another person—domineers.

It took too many years, and too much heartbreak, for me to realize I’d been dealing with codependency. I wasn’t enabling a romantic partner who was an addict—the situation most often associated with codependency. But I was in a one-sided, unhealthy love affair where I placed all my potential happiness in her hands. It wasn’t that I didn’t make space for my own feelings; it was that I felt—what I thought—was entirely too much. And I smothered her with those feelings. I had little to no sense of identity outside of her, and as time went on, I had even less respect for boundaries.

It took a lot of soul searching to discover that I was seeking validation from Jenny. Validation that love was real. Validation that I mattered. Validation that I existed. None of which she could give me. Only I could do that. But I felt I was going crazy, and I wanted her to tell me that I wasn’t.

In a study of codependency in women, it found significant correlation between codependency and parental alcoholism. As it turns out, sitting on my friend’s bedroom floor relates more to sitting in Jenny’s driveway than meets the eye.

“The less my hope, the hotter my love.” – Terence

In a study of those recently dumped by their love interest, Fisher and her colleagues discovered activity in three regions of the brain. The “brain region associated with calculating gains and losses” and the “region associated with deep attachment to another individual” both light up. And the “reward system” associated with romantic love and addiction only burns even brighter. The simultaneous activity of these three regions explains why the obsession—the addiction—only intensifies after rejection.

Dr. Gabor Maté uses his expertise in addiction, trauma, and childhood development to dive even deeper into the human psyche. “We’ve all had the experience of having an inkling of a strong gut feeling, but we ignore it…and we get into trouble,” he said while discussing authenticity vs. attachment. “Well, that tells us what happened…At some point, we found out it was too costly for attachment relationships to be in touch with our gut feelings. So then it becomes our nature to suppress our feelings, to lose touch with ourselves, and to suppress our gut feelings…And then we pay the cost later on in the form of addictions, mental illness, or any range of physical illnesses.”

Take the night Jenny yelled at me in her driveway: My gut was yelling at me too. But I ignored it. Because my need for love, for attention—my attachment, my addiction—was greater than any instinct that my actions were wrong. Jenny and I had already had it out that night. There was no excuse for me to keep it going. But two years later, at least now I can understand why I did.

I never felt human around her. It was like all the love and fear I was feeling cancelled each other out, fading into nothing. She was never blind to the intensity. It swallowed us both whole.  [March 23, 2019]

Jenny became my addiction not because I craved her, but because my love for her took over my life, because I lost control of my behavior, because I wasn’t the only one who dealt with the consequences. Anyone who got too close felt the fire. And Jenny and I both got burned.

I don’t know how one stops being an alcoholic, kicks the drug habit, or cuts the casino off from their wallet. I can only surmise that like an addiction to another person, the answer lies somewhere in self-discovery, in self-love.

In the end, my dad’s addictions killed him; and time after time, I thought mine would kill me. Surely because it nearly did. But I’m still here, and nothing about getting over this addiction—over her—has been easy. I can’t only be in love with her sometimes. But I can try not to binge myself unconscious. I can focus on the love instead of the fear. I can carry her in my heart—and like Jack Kerouac in The Dharma Bums—say: “Everything’s all right forever and forever and forever and thank you thank you thank you amen.”

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