My dilemma is not specific, but I think it's one that many women my age suffer. I'm single, mid-30s. I'm beautiful, funny, smart, successful and professionally sought after. I'm happy with my work, though thoroughly saddened by my personal life. I want love. I want to meet someone special. I've had many boyfriends, who get to the six- to nine-month period with me only to fade away. It's around the time I begin to get clingy and antsy, tend to drink too much, with them and by myself, and I stop being honest with my feelings. The woman they loved is disappearing. I know I have deep-seated issues with addiction and intimacy, which I can quell for long periods of time, during which I am healthy, yoga-fied, sober and in touch. But one little fear can send me spiraling.
My last boyfriend was a long-distance affair that ended after I moved to his city to (ostensibly) pursue a real romance with him, but also to pursue professional contacts. We lasted six months, until he said he just didn't feel that rush of love that he needed to feel in order to take it to another level. This came as a shock, as he seemed in love, and certainly in the beginning he was besotted. He is easily emotionally disconnected but able to give me splashes of real love, though never able to really sustain it. Still, I felt there was something there, just enough to keep me in love with him. Though I know, loving an idea of someone, and not a person just as they are, is problem number one. I understand that distinction, but when it ended, I was devastated. I left, and he moved to another city for a spell. We both cried like babies when we said goodbye, but we both knew there was no way we had what it took to sustain another long-distance spell.
It's been two months. I'm still sad. Still want to hear from him. Still thinking about him constantly and wondering how to let that go. I feel like I lost my best friend. He sent me a card recently to say hello, that he was thinking of me. I replied that unless he was willing to show up on my doorstep, he needed to leave me alone.
I am making strides to stay sober, to take care of myself, to work hard at other things, not at love. But it's such a difficult thing for me to do. All I want is for this last boyfriend to show up and tell me he loves me, that us breaking up was a big mistake. Sometimes I feel that love will set me free, but I know it's a fallacy. I have to love myself. But how? I was never taught this -- insert our mutual back-story of standard cold, abusive mother (father in his case), and passive, hapless dad (mother in his case), emotional train-wrecks, the both of them, resulting in cruel divorce, subsequent head games with children, decades long (both of us).
I should add the recent ex had a crack habit, years ago, though he still smokes pot, sits in front of his computer all day (for a living and for leisure), and drinks sporadically. I know and knew we were both battered and numbing ourselves. We admitted this, and these were the times we got so close. Can't two people heal each other? Can't we change? Does it have to always happen separately? I have, for the most part, let this one go, but anger, sadness and longing are lingering. How do I stop feeling like this? How to prevent it from happening in the future?
Losing Faith in Peoria
Dear Losing Faith,
Yours is a very moving letter, and as I read it over, trying to find a way in, a way to be useful, I feel freighted with its intricate and powerful sadness. Too much is there for me to try to address it all -- how do you stop doing the same things over and over, how do you love yourself (P.S. try just not hating yourself), how do you deal with childhood memories -- so my way in is to talk about addiction. And even so, this is going to be a long and perhaps somewhat rambling response. Please bear with me.
I know I am biased in that way, because that's what I am, an addict, and whatever I know about dealing with emotions and patterns of behavior I learned by dealing with addiction.
So, at the risk of selling you a mule when you really need some flour, I would suggest that you turn first to the question of addiction. You mention periods of sobriety and periods of heavy drinking, which indicates that you have some sense of the role that alcohol plays in your suffering, but you may not have come to see it as the central agent.
You may still see the drinking as the palliative you turn to after the pain, or the comfort you seek when you are afraid; you may not yet see the alcohol itself as the danger and the pain. What's so vexing about it, when you're in its grip, is just that: Addiction is like a repairman who breaks your car and then insists that only he can fix it; then he breaks it again and insists that only he can fix it; then he breaks it again and says his rates are going up. And you keep going back because he always fixed it in the past.
I picture you surrounded by tanks approaching, coolly noting in your log book that the situation is, on its face, quite hopeless, and yet you have not yet found it necessary to formally surrender because the tanks have not yet reached the crumbling walls of your compound.
Addiction is a radical state of siege in which whatever central "I" that would negotiate issues has been subverted by a constant need to supply the organism what it needs, at all costs. So it can only be in the service of that addiction itself that anyone would insist that the "I" is still a central mediating force, for instance by saying "I have addiction issues." If you have addiction issues, then surely addiction issues have you. And since you are in the grip of these things you cannot solve the problem any more than you could perform brain surgery on yourself. That's why you have to take yourself in to get worked on. That's why I want you to admit the tragic nature of your dilemma once and for all, to go and ask for help from a group in a well-lit room where there is weak coffee and stale doughnuts but strong fellowship and fresh insight.
The healthy paradox is, of course, that nobody but you can decide that.
Addiction is the great distorting glass through which a host of devouring evils appear as our allies; it is the ventriloquist who speaks in many voices but with only one objective: to divert our money into its coffers, our energy into its machinery, and our emotions into its bottomless hunger for drama.
To say that addiction is simply an "issue" is to imply that it is only one among many competing problems equally deserving of our attention, when it is, as I said, the puppetmaster, the distorting glass, the enveloping shroud, the bottomless pit. It is all of those things.
You have to admit its power. You have to admit you have it and that it has you.
Its enormity strikes fear into our hearts, and that, I guess (not because they like the atmosphere), is why all those damaged souls sit in circles or rows in well-lit rooms, in the basements of churches and the meeting rooms of civic clubs: because they know the power of this thing, and they are rightly afraid to face it alone.
And that is why the liturgy of recovery can sound so corny, so tinny, so devoid of the grave poetry that should accompany such a procession of souls to the edge of their being. Because we are not born poets, those of us caught in its maw. If we were poets, would we be there in the church basements, mouthing our platitudes to get through another day? And if poetry had the power to cure a soul, would we still be reading aloud from a text written in halting and severe prose by a stockbroker and a doctor? If poetry could cure a soul, what of all the poets dead of drink and flung off bridges in icy despair? And so perhaps there is not just a literal but also a kind of tonal wisdom in the dry, creaky, unadorned precision of the AA Big Book and its derivative texts; and perhaps underlying our corny platitudes is a wise and hard-won distrust of shinier, loftier words.
Because we know the curative limits of poetry and other formal diversions. The romances, the yoga, the success at work, the physical beauty, the moving around, it would all be wonderful, wouldn't it, if you were otherwise OK? But none of it will be wonderful until you are otherwise OK, and you will not be otherwise OK until you undertake some program of recovery from your addiction or, if you must, your "addiction issues."
Now, see, look what I did, I went and assumed you had an addiction, even though I didn't mean to. I can't know that. Only you can know that. I apologize. And I belittled your choice of words too. I don't mean to do that. I apologize again. I just want to be helpful. Addiction is all I can think of.
So let me be as clear as possible, as though I'm talking to a friend. If I were you, I would see a therapist who specializes in abuse and addiction, and I would start going to recovery meetings of some sort. And give yourself up to it for a while, fearlessly and completely. The process of recovery, if pursued with rigor, has the power to reorient your life. Put the other things aside, the boyfriends, the search for love, the job, the moving around. They will still be there for you when you're ready for them.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Want more advice from Cary? Read yesterday's column.