The Hungry Heart
Today I am a SURVIVOR. Before my recovery began, however, I was an addict. My drug of choice, was romantic love. It kind of crept up on me. In the beginning, I was just an innocent—looking for love. Then things got out of hand. It all began when I was about ten years old and st started falling in love. My first crush was on a boy named Alan. Oh, how I loved him. I just knew he was going to make all my dreams come true.
Alan was embarrassed and angry that I liked him so much. He told me not to write his name on my school books. He threw rocks at me when I walked by his house. I can still feel the sting of those missiles. I cried, and was humiliated, but nothing discouraged me.
Every day I watched Alan play baseball at the park. At school, during recess, I would sneak into the cloakroom and put on Alan’s jacket. I wanted to touch something that was his—I wanted to smell his presence. I also wrote in my diary about my love for Alan. Day after day, I described the bittersweet pain of unrequited love, hoping that someday Alan would love me too.
There were other infatuations over the years. The pattern was always the same. I fell in love and believed that only this particular boy could make me happy. And I always felt so powerless—as if I couldn’t help myself. Eventually, I would get emotionally and physically sick from yearning to be with someone I could not have. Then, when the pain became unbearable, the obsession faded and I found someone more promising to adore from a distance.
High school was not a happy time for me. I prayed that someone would ask me out for a date. One time I did get a call from a boy. He asked me out and I agreed to go. I was so excited and nervous that I stayed up all night making a new dress. The next day at school some boys snickered at me as I walked by, and that night someone called to tell me that the phone call I had gotten the night before was just a joke. I was so embarrassed, I wanted to die.
When I was nineteen years old, I became desperate to have a relationship. I wanted to have a boyfriend and I was willing to do anything to get one. Of course, I did not feel loveable enough to attract someone I really liked, and I was too impatient to wait for someone compatible to come along, so I got involved with the first person who showed any interest in me.
I met Ray [not his real name] walking down the street in San Francisco. I was visiting the Haight Asbury district made famous by the hippies. Ray was twenty five years old, unemployed, and living with his mother. I started spending a lot of time with Ray and within a few months I was pregnant. I decided to sign up for government assistance (welfare) and find a place where Ray and I could live together. From that point on, I became Ray’s caretaker. I paid the bills, bought Ray’s clothes and gave him money for drugs.
I accepted a lot of neglect from Ray. I seemed to have a high tolerance for suffering because in my mind this was the price I had to pay for having a man in my life. Ray took advantage of this. He only came home when he felt like it. He didn’t give me any affection. Ray and I didn’t even talk very much, unless he was telling me what to do. He also took all of my money, except what went to pay the bills. Sometimes I would try to hide money for a rainy day. Then Ray would get into some kind of trouble with gambling or drugs and beg me to give him some money. He said the men he owed money to would kill him if he did not pay up. I can still see him standing there, tears running down his face, asking me to save his life. Of course, I always gave in. I felt responsible for Ray.
I also accepted a lot of dishonesty from Ray. I had no idea what it felt like to trust him. Usually he lied to me about other women. He said he was not having affairs and he usually was. Deep down I knew what was going on, but I buried my head in the sand because I was afraid if I said something to Ray he might leave me.
Of course, I wanted more than I was getting out of the relationship. I was just to afraid to demand it. So I just cried when my birthday went unnoticed. When Ray didn’t come home at night I spent hours lying in the bed, curled up like a child, waiting for his car to pull up.
Despite my dependency on this relationship, I tried several times to end it. I remember after six months of being with Ray I wanted to leave him. When I told him I was going to leave he got very sad. He said, “I guess you’ve gotten what you want and now you’re ready to move on and leave me behind.” I felt guilty when Ray said this and I stayed with him to keep from hurting his feelings. I projected my fear of being abandoned onto him, and assumed that he could not survive if I left him.
Later in the relationship, I thought about leaving Ray again, but I felt guilty about withdrawing my financial support. I knew Ray had become dependent on me. I was also afraid to leave the relationship because I knew it meant facing my fear of loneliness and giving up my identity as a caretaker. Most of all, I didn’t want to face the emotional pain of breaking up so I just kept putting it off, hoping my misery would end someday.
Another time I asked Ray to leave, but when he started packing his bags I panicked. The next thing I knew, I was begging Ray to stay—like a child begging her mother not to leave her alone in the dark. During this scene my fear of abandonment overwhelmed me, and I was ready to do anything to avoid feeling the panic that gripped my heart.
While it seemed as if I would never leave, eventually I did fall in love with someone else and decided to ask Ray for a divorce. Unfortunately, Ray was not ready to lose me. When I told him I was going to leave he held a knife to my throat and threatened to kill me. Then he beat me up and held me prisoner in the house. He kept saying to me, “I know you still love me, just admit it.” After three days of this, I agreed to stay with Ray and he immediately calmed down. Then I said, “Ray it’s time to cook dinner and I need to go to the store and get some things.” Ray agreed to let me go and I quickly hurried out of the door. Once I was safe, I went to a phone booth and called the police. Ray was told by the police to leave the house and he did.
The first man I got involved with after Ray was not much better, and that relationship failed too. From this point on, I became involved in a series of short-term relationships similar to the one I had with Ray. All of these relationships failed because I was too emotionally unstable to select an appropriate partner; and even if I did, I couldn’t sustain a relationship because of my neediness, low self-esteem, and fear of abandonment. So, as the years passed, my hungry heart went unsatisfied and this made me even more desperate to find love.
It was during these years of endless searching for love that I neglected my children. Kaitland and Randy [not their real names] were always important to me in between relationships. I cooked their meals, washed their clothes, walked them to school, volunteered as a PTA mother, went to their sports events, and tucked them in at nights. But when I had a boyfriend, things changed. I am ashamed to admit this, but I actually brought men I barely know into the house to stay for long periods, and while these men were there they became more important than my children.
Eventually, all these toxic relationships, and my guilt about neglecting my children, took their toll and my health began to deteriorate. I developed a spastic colon and high blood pressure. I was chronically depressed and almost died in two car accidents. Once I couldn’t see the road because I was crying and the other time I was fantasizing instead of looking where I was going. Finally, after another failed relationship, I was in so much pain I swallowed a bottle of aspirin.
In 1982 my father died. The day before, I had asked my boyfriend if I could use the car to visit my father. My boyfriend said “no,” so I didn’t go and of course my father died. I cried about this in front of my boyfriend and he promptly punched me in the eye. I guess he thought I was trying to make him feel guilty. So I sat at my father’s funeral with a black eye wondering what had become of my life.
On the day of my father’s funeral I went to work. I wanted to be a “brave little soldier.” Across from me was the desk of a co-worker by the name of Barry. Barry had only recently been assigned to the desk near me after the office manager, for no logical reason, decided to move everybody around to a new location.
Around 4:00 in the afternoon I was typing away when I looked up to see Barry staring at me. I was curious about this and decided that it meant he cared about my situation—perhaps he felt sorry for me. This was good news for someone who felt invisible and unloved. I would take any kind of attention I could get.
I started stopping by Barry’s office more often after this. It did not take long for me to fall in love. Eventually I asked Barry if he wanted to go out on a date. He very nicely said he was dating someone else. I was devastated, but undeterred. I decided at that moment that I would seduce him come hell or high water. Thus, in the blink of an eye, my final toxic relationship began—the last one before finding my way into a new life.
My master plan to seduce Barry was to lose weight and become so attractive that Barry could not resist me. Men were basically weak, I assumed, when it came to sex. Over the next few months, I took off a lot of weight and spent all of my money on sexy clothes. Unfortunately, my plan didn’t work. Barry was my friend and that was all.
To his credit, Barry never gave into my obsession to be with him. Instead, he only tried to help me with my depression. He never once mentioned the heavy drinking which had become alcoholic by this time, or the dieting which had gotten out of control.
One day, I was sitting in Barry’s office, very depressed, and suddenly I started crying. I turned to Barry and said, “Barry, can you die of loneliness?” I really thought he was going to tell me to stop feeling sorry for myself, but instead he looked at me with such compassion and then he turned and said to me, “Yes, you can die of loneliness. I know this first hand.” I looked at him astonished, because after months of pouring out my heart to him he had never once told me anything personal about himself. Finally, after a long pause, he said, “Susan, I think you need to go somewhere where people understand you.” That was it. No warnings about my alcoholic drinking or obsessive dieting—just a simple “get help.”
I didn’t visit Barry for a few days after this. When I did see him he asked me if I had gotten any help. I looked at him and blurted out, “No, I am afraid they might cure me.” I was surprised at what I had said. Barry just laughed. It was only years later that I realized I had become addicted to the pain—the depression, the self pity, the misery. It was the only thread I had left and I was afraid to let it go. The idea of happiness made me nervous.
Eventually, I did get help. I went to a support group. At first, I really didn’t think my behavior was out of control, but as the facilitator explained how the program worked something she said caught my attention. “You will have to learn how to ask for help,” she announced. “Not me,” I said to myself with the assurance of a lonely, stubborn survivor. “I can take care of myself.”
I had been attending the support group for about a year when Robin Norwood released her book Women Who Love Too Much. Needless to say, I recognized many of my own obsessive behavior patterns. Enthusiastic, I looked around for a “Women Who Love Too Much” support group. Unfortunately, there were none in my area. Undaunted, I started my own meeting for women who wanted to deal with the issues introduced by Robin Norwood. This seemed like a great way to promote my own recovery and at the same time offer other women the opportunity to turn their lives around.
A year after the group began, when I was about a mile down the road to recovery (according to Robin Norwood’s chart), I became interested in teaching others about the “disease” of “loving too much.” Armed with a teaching credential, a desire to be instrumental in helping others, and the support of all my friends, I approached the principal of a local adult school. He was very enthusiastic about the general subject matter of the course I wanted to teach, but he encouraged me not to limit myself to just the issues presented in Robin Norwood’s book. He also wanted me to allow men in my class.
Excited about the challenge of teaching, I set aside Robin Norwood’s book for awhile and began reading other literature about obsessive behavior in relationships. This, of course, was a great learning experience for me. I was amazed to find out how much had been written about love, obsession, and dependency. (Even Kierkergaard, as far back as the l840's, wrote about the “habitual” nature of romantic love. See Works of Love.)
Once I had acquired a lot of professional information about love and addiction (information which I could use to supplement what I had learned from my own personal experiences and the experiences of the women in my support group), I began to prepare an outline for my course. My goal was to condense and clarify many of the ideas introduced by others, and then to interject some of my own concepts. By my own concepts I mean an analysis of my own experiences.
When I finally had what I thought was a model of a course about love addiction, I taught my first class. It was an exhilarating experience, and the response of my students really made it clear that I had put together some valuable information about a very serious problem.
Today, I am still involved in helping other love addicts. In 2006 I celebrated 24 years of recovery. I am happier than I have ever been and enjoy helping others find their own recovery.
Well, this is my story. As I said, I am a survivor of a painful disorder. And while I might be embarrassed about some of the things I did in the name of love, I am proud of how far I have come in the last 24 years. If you also suffer from love addiction I hope my story inspires you to change and reach out for a brighter tomorrow.
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