I had never heard the phrase "Addicted to Love" uttered outside a Robert Palmer video or bad poetry until a few years ago, when a particularly poisonous breakup drove me temporarily insane. After endless hours of listening to me cry and obsess over what went wrong during my seven-month relationship, a few friends gently suggested that I seek professional help.
Fighting off sobs, I asked them if this was like the "Sex and the City" episode where Carrie's friends cut her off. They replied that they felt more like the passengers in Airplane!, who chose to hang and stab themselves rather than be subjected to yet another sob story about someone's ex-lover. The next day I found myself a psychologist whom I saw twice a week. Soon after I was officially diagnosed as a love addict.
That's why, a few months after entering therapy, I found myself seated in a flimsy folding chair at a Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (S.L.A.A.) meeting in a moldy church basement. I approached my first meeting with more than a little trepidation. To my surprise, many of the other attendees appeared to be relatively normal. Others were stone-cold crazy. For the next hour we all went around the room sharing our tales of unrequited love and bad romance. One woman appropriately wearing a pink 'HOT MESS' rhinestone-studded T-shirt, confessed she had driven by her ex-boyfriend's house every day for seven years after their break-up. She was still obsessing over him 14 years later.
While Love Addiction didn't make the cut in the latest D.S.M.-V, the bible of the psychology world, there's no denying that it's the season's hottest new affliction. Many critics blasted Dr. Drew when he put Tiger Woods' former mistress Rachel Uchitel on "Celebrity Rehab" alongside a bevy of meth and crack addicts, but Uchitel insisted that her "disease" was related to a "hole" that she was trying to fill in her heart. Despite my initial impulses, I started to believe her. Some of the women in the meeting looked like they were in withdrawal from heroin, not Hallmark. Wasn't this a bit extreme? Surely drunk dialing and crying into my third container of Haagen Dazs couldn't really be equivalent to chasing the dragon?
The truth is, detoxing from love addiction can be dangerous: People kill in the name of "love" every day. Just ask former NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak, who was charged with kidnapping, after she drove cross-country wearing diapers and armed with pepper spray to confront her love rival.
At my first SLAA meeting, I pored over the fellowship's "40 Questions for Self-Diagnosis." By the time I arrived at question 20 I started to wonder if it isn't our culture that's really sick. After all, how can we tell if we are love addicts when the idea of intimacy and intensity is so ubiquitous? "Have you lost count of the number of sexual partners you've had?" "Totally," I responded. "But hasn't everyone?"
Another question: "Do you find that you have a pattern of repeating bad relationships?" could also be responded to affirmatively by almost every person I know. It also pretty much sums up every plot line in "Sex and the City". But maybe that's just me. Other questions were more intense, but upon completing the whole questionnaire I got the message: "Have you ever thought that there might be more you could do with your life if you were not so driven by sexual and romantic pursuits?" Well, hell yes! The problem is, we're all instructed from a very young age that our main goal in life is to find our perfect soul-mates. T.V. show and movies and ad campaigns are constantly selling us on this airy idea of everlasting romance. But re-reading fairy tales through the prism of self-help books is not a pretty picture. After all, The Little Mermaid had to give up her voice to stalk some guy she barely knew (in the original version of the fairy tale, she was offered a knife to stab the Prince, but was turned into sea foam instead!). Snow White found herself in a coma surrounded by a crew of necrophiliac dwarfs, and Cinderella's love-starved sisters cut off their toes to fit into her glass slippers.
From Romeo and Juliet (underage bride, double suicide) to Wuthering Heights (animal torture, violent death) and Jane Eyre (insane hidden wife, arson), every great love story had two things in common: A healthy dose of suffering and a body count. Not to be outdone, Hollywood has offered up heroes like Lloyd Dobler, super-stalker. For women who aren't old enough to remember an era before trench coats in high school were considered threatening, the movie featured John Cusack as a lovable teen outcast, dumped by his brainy valedictorian, who then parked himself outside her bedroom window holding a boom box. Where once I saw cute, I now see as creepily codependent. Lloyd was just one of a long line of romantic heroes who deserved a restraining order.
Researchers believe our addiction to love is more Darwinism than disease. When we fall in love, our circuits are flooded by vast amounts of dopamine. When our "fix" gets taken away, our brains are conditioned by evolution to get back that loving feeling. "I suspect that anyone can become a love addict," says Dr. Helen Fisher, an anthropological biologist at Rutgers, who studied the brains of people who had just been dumped and found activity in a region associated with profound addiction. "Our brain circuitry evolved millions of years ago, and we all share it. But some people fall in love more often, or find themselves more dependent on their partner, as result of their childhoods or genetic propensities." That's what drives the formerly beloved to turn into a bunny boiler, like Glenn Glose inBasic Instinct. But what makes one person reach for Kleenex and a bottle of Pinot Grigio, and another for a pack of Pampers and a road map?
"We've all had to deal with heartbreak and excruciating pain in our lives," says Alexandra Katehakis, Founder and Clinical Director of the Center for Healthy Sex in West Los Angeles. "The true test of mental health is how you cope with these setbacks. Do you turn to family and friends, or do you start spinning out of control and stalking your ex? When something happens to blow up the fantasy, true love addicts go into physical withdrawal, and then into psychiatric meltdown."
"It's complicated. So many powerful experiences can be addictive, and love is the most powerful of these," writes Stanton Peele, addiction expert and author of Love and Addiction. "These experiences can form the basis for addiction, but since responses are so variable over people...they can't really be classified as diseases." Peele doesn't buy into the disease model, and claims that love addiction is "not lifelong, not inbred." According to him, as we mature in life, most of us eventually overcome love "addiction" -- which is why there are more love-struck teenagers than adults.
So maybe the reason that so many of us identify as love addicts now is that we stay stuck in adolescence, constantly looking for that falling in love feeling. Do we just need to grow up and get over it?
Looking around at the love-lorn women crowding the church basement, it occured to me that in our modern world, relationships have become tantamount to a religion. We get older, but we still hold on to that Prince Charming ideal. Pia Melody, the author of Facing Love Addiction, points out that love addicts have typical traits: They are often abandoned by one parent and spend lots of time alone, fantasizing about connecting to someone.
So these women did have something in common with me after all: They were addicted to the fantasy, not the real person. "You have to work with the addictive process, the fantasy, the denial that protects the fantasy, the withdrawal from the fantasy, the returning to the relationship and return to the fantasy, or spinning off and doing it with someone else," says Katehakis. "Then you have to do trauma work with the original neglect or abandonment. Then you have to do what I call core work: teaching them how to esteem themselves and how to take better care of themselves. That is where they are really weak: it is self-care and self-esteem."
I didn't go back to S.L.A.A. Not because I felt I didn't belong, but because I feel like everyone has these tendencies, whether they realize it or not -- and I didn't want to put myself into a special category. If love addiction is a disease, then we're all infected. My dysfunctional love life resembled a "Sex and the City" episode. Except that instead of stalking out when my therapist said "The one constant in all of your failed relationships is you," I perked up.
For a long time, I was drawn to seemingly strong, successful but distant men -- just like my dad -- guys who looked great on the outside but weren't emotionally there for me. But that didn't mean I had to jump into super-intense relationships with them! Over time, I started making better choices, but I'm still a work in progress. Sometimes, in the aftermath of yet another heartbreak, I find myself wondering if it would be easier just to be zapped with an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-style cure. Dr. Fisher explains that some antidepressants can help after tough breakups because they elevate the brain's serotonin levels, but there's no magic pill for heartbreak. "Serotonin blunts the emotions," she says, "so it can theoretically kill feelings of romantic love -- unless you are so passionate that nothing will kill it. The best way to speed the recovery from romantic rejection would be to treat it as an addiction. Throw away all the cards and letters, cut off all contact. Ultimately the only cure is time -- and a new partner." So for all you love addicts out there desperate to ditch an old lover, a tried-but-true canard may provide the surest route to recovery: "The best way to get over someone is by getting under someone else." Just make sure you don't find yourself hiding in the bushes later.
Catherine Townsend has written for New York magazine and The Independent in London. Her book, Sleeping Around: Flings and Faux Pas of an American Girl in London, was published this month. Follow her at http://twitter.com/townsendcat.
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Flickr photo by Breahn Foster