“I have a secret,” he whispers.
“What?” I ask, instantly forgiving him the pain and anticipating the new sexual adventure that he’d been delivering up to five times a day. Tears streak down my face and drip past my throbbing crimson lip.
“I have a fantasy about making love to a woman who is crying,” he says, as he thrusts himself deeper into me. Well, mission accomplished, I thought. Though I realize how fucked up this is, I can’t remember the last time a man wanted me this much.
I give into his fantasy, feeling so high that I can barely breathe. Even though I’m in ecstasy, I know that something is not right. I’ve had an insatiable appetite for love and lust since my first boyfriend at age 14, but never like this. I should be turned off by his fantasy, but I’m not. Instead I surrender and give myself away completely. Again.
It’s been six days since I met Zander, an over-the-top Casanova Sex God type who’s eleven years younger than me, jobless, and still living with his mother—in other words, a wildly inappropriate boyfriend choice. And he’s not the first one I had made. For six days, we didn’t leave my bed—the same bed that, a month earlier, hosted a parade of 20-somethings meant to mend my broken heart after my 9-year marriage imploded just two months prior.
Inevitably, my little love affair with Zander came to a messy halt. He told me he loved me, then he unfriended me on Facebook. I broke up with him in a whirlwind of hysterical 4 a.m. calls, emails, and texts. I even called his mother. Why? I don’t recall. I was entering an emotional blackout. A tantrum of broken wine goblets, dishes, and mirrors followed, ending only when I fell to the floor, curled up in the fetal position and crying uncontrollably amidst shards of glass. It was yet another painful breakup, but this was one was extreme. This was my rock bottom moment.
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I’d never broke down like this. Never. In retrospect, this wrath of emotion had little to do with Zander, per se. It was more of a delayed reaction to the loss of my marriage, and many past breakups that also ended in similar histrionics. Somehow in the throws of hysteria, I had a moment of clarity: This was a pattern that must stop.
It took meeting with renowned addiction counselor Bob Forrest (featured on Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew and Sober House) who told me, “You’re a love addict. There’s a 12-step program for this.” I didn’t believe it then, but as I flashed back to the emotional crime scene, the shards of glass, and my overreaction, I realized that emotionally healthy people don’t lose themselves in a relationship the way I always had. Emotionally healthy people don’t smash everything in sight.
“Your story is a common experience,” says Marty Simpson, a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified sex addiction therapist at the Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. “Love addicts tend to jump in, like you did, to a relationship often before they’ve really vetted that person, really know who that person is, whether they can trust that person with their heart, and if it’s a good match. Having him come over on a first date and not leave for six days is not a healthy way to start a relationship and may end up reinforcing your experience of abandonment.”
Many people still don’t believe that love addiction is real. This category of addiction actually comes in many varieties. You can be addicted to love, sex, love and sex, and fantasy, and/or you can be love avoidant, which is also know as “emotional and/or sexual anorexia. For many, sex addiction is easier to identify as it often manifests itself in promiscuity, unsafe sex, and/or an excessive need for porn and/or masturbation. Love addition tends to be more internal, more emotional and therefore harder to spot. I was a classic love addict.
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“It’s real and it’s really painful,” says Alexandra Katehakis, a marriage and family therapist and founder of Center for Healthy Sex in Los Angeles. “Love addiction is a pathological relationship to a mood-altering experience. The love addict lives in fantasy and does not pay attention to reality and the cues. There’s an overreaction to being abandoned and rejected. And even perceived abandonment will lead to high-level reactivity, such as crying, high anxiety, compulsively eating, or an inability to sleep,”
While there can be many causes, the most common is abandonment and intimacy issues. “Love addiction in females can come about as a result of abandonment by their fathers,” she says. Abandonment issues of course, don’t just happen when a father literally leaves the family. Simpson explains, “It can be the lack of a caregiver in their lives who was able to meet the child’s emotional needs. So then the child grows up learning how to self-sooth in other ways, such as with love and sex. Sometimes there is physical or sexual abuse, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be a part of the addict’s history.”
An argument against love addiction is often the confusion over how two siblings who were parented the same way can turn out as one addict and one non-addict. Simpson explains, “Children of addicted parents can have a predisposition to any type of addiction. There is this concept called epigenetics in which the ribosomes on the DNA, combined with life experiences, can activate a gene to express those addictive characteristics.”
Recovering sex and love addict Ethlie Ann Vare, author of Love Addict: Sex, Romance, and Other Dangerous Drugs, had her wake-up moment with a wildly inappropriate choice. “I was a 45-year-old, award-winning author screwing a 21-year-old skinhead in the bathroom of his sober living home,” she says. “But then I thought: What is wrong with this picture? Why was I wasting hours on the phone listening to a crackhead with a tenth-grade education? Was I nuts? And, I was nuts, as it turned out. Or, at least, I had a huge blind spot in the area of sexual and romantic relationships. I had no boundaries, no ability to say, ‘No thank-you.’”
Kristen*—a recovered anorectic and love addict—had an epiphany after her second abortion. “I was sitting in an abortion clinic with this former punk-rocker ten years younger than me, and I was waiting to terminate a pregnancy. He was really torn up and broke into tears. Even though three weeks later he was sexting another woman, I was still trying to date him and going nuts with envy, as I scoured his Facebook page daily, trying to figure out if he was dating other women. My bottom came when I realized that this wasn’t the first time I got myself in this situation, and for the first time in my life, I felt painfully lonely,” she says.
Some rock-bottom moments are subtler. “My rock bottom was realizing that I could not say “hi” to a woman with whom I worked without having obsessive thoughts about her for hours,” says Tina*, now sober from her fantasy addiction. “I couldn’t function at work, and my performance suffered and my supervisors noticed. My focus depleted, my professional demeanor became insecure and anxious. I found myself fantasizing and obsessing over her.”
I took that advice of my therapists and committed to attending 90 meetings in 90 days of the 12-step program, Sex and Love Addictions Anonymous (SLAA). My heart was racing as I first sat down in the meeting. Everyone in the room introduced themselves with their first name and their specific addiction. It was my turn to introduce myself and I didn’t exactly know what I was, so I said, “Hi. I’m Carrie. My therapist made me come.” I didn’t speak again for the whole meeting, but the tears streaming down my face spoke volumes.
As I sat there sobbing, hiding under my hat and nervously picking the black polish off my nails, I felt sick to my stomach. I started reading through the SLAA pamphlet, 40 Questions for Self Diagnosis, and I was stunned at my responses.
Do you find yourself in a relationship that you cannot leave?
Do you find that you have a pattern of repeating bad relationships?
Do you feel that life would have no meaning without a love relationship or without sex?
Yes! … to the love part. Not so much to the sex part, as I was more of a serial monogamist than a promiscuous person. I had nine “great loves” since age 14 with only three to six months in between relationships. This is classic love-addict behavior.
Do you find the pain in your life increasing no matter what you do?
Do you find yourself unable to stop seeing a specific person even though you know that seeing this person is destructive to you?
Oh shit, I mumbled. Yes! Yes! Yes! I get it.
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Like me, Kristen was both terrified and compelled when she attended her first 12-step meeting. “It was interesting; I didn’t hear a word about sex in that first meeting. Rather, the conversation was all about intimacy, and the struggle to build it as an adult, when you don’t have models for it as a kid,” she says. Adds Simpson, “At its core, sex and love addiction is an intimacy disorder; driven by a fear of being intimate or a fear that you’ll always been alone.”
The solution, for me, was a combination of cognitive therapy with a psychologist who specializes in sex and love addiction, as well as attending SLAA meetings, and a willingness to accept my patterns and vow to rewire my brain into a healthier way to live and love.
12-step programs can work, but they’re not for everybody. “The more traumatized somebody is, the deeper they’re going to have to go in their psychological process to re-wire their brain and nervous system. So initially it’s about stopping your behavior, looking at your thoughts and distorted thinking, but for long-term change to really take place, people definitely need to do the deeper therapeutic work,” says Katehakis.
“The two years I spent working a strong program made me realize that I had been assuming that all intimacy, particularly of the sensual kind, was found only in romantic relationships, and my emotional health came when I realized that I needed to divest my intimacy interests among numerous people—as in friends and family—rather than just expect that I’d get all the intimacy I needed from one romantic partner,” says Kristen.
Creating a healthy “dating plan” is key to recovery. This includes vowing to choose wisely, vetting your potential partner, making a list of your deal-breakers and past patterns to avoid, and spotting those glaring red flags. Dating plans - which can be found in Katehakis’s book, Erotic Intelligence: Igniting Hot, Healthy Sex While in Recovery From Sex Addiction, and on the SLAA website—are even considered useful for non-addicts too as most people aren’t taught to date properly
It was a dating plan that aided in Ethlie’s recovery. “Healthy dating for me started out simple: Date men your own age, who aren’t already married to someone else. You’d be amazed how tough I found that at first! In time, I learned things like: He knows where you are; if he wants to talk to you, he’ll call. I learned to stop using sex as a coin to trade for love.”
It was five years ago this spring that I tackled recovery as if I were going for my Ph.D. in sanity. I learned to be happy whether I was in or out of a relationship, to break my pattern of serial monogamy, to be more aware of the red flags, and to never smash a goblet or taste blood again.
Another mission accomplished.
*Names of the subjects have been changed.