Real Change: your addict doesn’t need to die, she just needs to shut up already
We often think that big change is black and white. That for growth and change to occur, one must become completely different. This isn’t exactly true. I watched some silly Lifetime movie on love addiction the other night and the character who played a counselor says to the love addict, “the addict must die, so that the healthy person inside can live.” I’m not sure I believe that. For years now, my addict has lived side by side with my healthy self. Thing is, my addict changed in order to live in peace and harmony with healthy me. Addict Me now defers to Healthy Me because it knows that Healthy Me makes better choices and there’s less pain than when Addict Me was in charge. So, the addict inside has transformed itself; it has become subservient, tamed. But she’s still there. And while she no longer has the power she once had, she can still poke her head out of the ether and demand attention. Addict Me makes herself know when I long for “longing.” She rears her ugly head when I am ladened with anxiety and panic, or when I allow myself to turn completely co-dependent with my kids. She sometimes keeps me from making adult choices, and is always there when I can’t cope with stress. Most of the time though, she is a shadow self that follows me around dutifully and stays out of Healthy Me’s business.
Anyway, my point in relating this is that change doesn’t have to be so massive that a part of you must die. Unhealthy behavior can act like a shape-shifter. It is malleable (hello brain plasticity!). It can be taught to do better. Addict You doesn’t have to die. But it does have to be put in its place and told who’s boss…
1. The biggest and most successful change I made in my life was to grow up. That’s something I never really wanted to do. Being an adult scared the pants off me. It meant being responsible, working, being accountable, taking risks I didn’t want to take and facing fears I didn’t want to face. And while becoming a mom helped me to overcome some of my resistance to growing up ( a lot of it actually), I still remained emotionally anchored to my youth. That all changed in 2008 when the pain of remaining immature finally outweighed the fear of becoming a grown up. And I have news for you, while being a grown up is hard, it’s not that hard!!! The longer you do it, the better at it you become. Stunted growth happens when we AVOID ourselves. Period. We use relationships and sex (and drugs, money, shopping, food, you name it…) to avoid. Once you realize that, it’s over. Your love addict can take a back seat, because you now know that the one thing she can’t have in order to be all-powerful, is self-growth.
2. The second biggest change was facing my fear of intimacy. In the past, I had always dated emotionally avoidant men who tended to be mentally, physically and emotionally unavailable. I did this as way to protect myself. I did this because I was unavailable. As much as I wanted love and a relationship, I was too immature and too afraid of exposing myself to someone who might have high expectations of me, to someone who might demand too much from me in the way of intimacy. I’m not a very intimate person. I can go “deep” every once in a while, but typically, I prefer to have very superficial relationships that don’t tie me down. I am this way because I have entrapment issues. My fear of entrapment ultimately led me to hop into relationships that were overly simplistic, where there was no real communication or intimacy (but lots of intensity). Getting over this meant finding someone who could love, respect, and show kindness to me, but didn’t trap me. Knowing yourself means knowing how much intimacy you are comfortable with. The more you experience intimacy with others and recognize that they will not “trap” you, and that YOU are in control to move about the cabin, so to speak, the safer you feel and the more intimacy you can handle. You also don’t want to confuse intimacy with intensity. Two different things. I could always handle intensity because it was a high that surged temporarily and gave me that feeling of connectivity with someone, but then it was over and I was free to remove myself from the intensity and recover. Many women experience this “roller coaster” of emotions. They experience the intensity of love and sex, then they crash and burn. I believe I subconsciously chose mates I knew would be this way (run away from me or neglect me) because I needed that recovery time to heal from the intensity. Surprisingly, I am still this way. Instead of a partner putting me on this roller coaster, it is my health and workout routine. I become intensely healthy and run and bike and workout to an extreme, and then I crash and desperately need to lie on the sofa and do nothing but recover for three weeks. Very strange! My mother puts it this way, “We’re sprinters, not long-distance runners!”
3. I learned what it meant to really love myself and have self-esteem. And while I don’t have nearly as much self-esteem and confidence as I would like (believe it or not you don’t need a slew of this to have a successful relationship) I found out that having just a little more than I had before was just enough to create beauty in me to the point of becoming attractive to a healthy partner. How much self-esteem did I find? Well, enough to know these few things: I’m not perfect. No one is. I have a right to a good life. I have a right to be respected and loved. I may not be the most beautiful woman on the planet, or the smartest, but I am the ONLY one on this planet with this particular combination of traits that make me unique in all the world. That means that I am a gift to others and that it is my job to surround myself with people who appreciate my gifts and see me as a gift. Being a “gift” to the world has very little to do with superficial beauty, intelligence, color, class, etc. It has to do with recognizing the importance of that unique combo of traits that only you possess. What do I lack? I don’t think I’m very pretty, or smart. I sometimes feel fat (although I only weigh 125 lbs at 5’4″ and am fairly athletic), I make a ton of mistakes as a mother, friend, wife, sister and daughter…I don’t always believe in my knowledge and experience…I feel shame a lot, and it is still hard for me at times to be intimate with my hubby and kids. Oh well! Like I said, I changed just enough for it to matter.
4. I said goodbye to fantasy and put action in its place. What does that mean? Well, to a love addict, it means that for most of my childhood and adult life I was very fantasy driven. I would dream of becoming a writer but not write. I would dream of falling in love with a Prince, but I wasn’t a princess. I would dream of great careers as a movie star or public speaker, but I would’t go to college. I had zero experience, I built up no wealth of knowledge in any field, but my dreams and fantasies about what I could be were enormous and elaborate. My rich fantasy life comforted me, UNTIL I was about 25, and UNTIL I actually had to socialize. And if anyone remembers back to being 25 what’s the one thing we all talked about? Or, rather, I should ask, what’s the one thing that HEALTHY people talked about? Their education. Their careers. Whether they were going to go on to grad school or if they were trying to find a job. Me? I was waiting tables at a beer and shots joint and trying to hop into bed with the first man that paid me any attention. This was not action. This was stunted growth. This was a refusal to grow up. My marriage was also a refusal to grow up. I felt protected from having to grow up while I was married. My husband would go to work and I could have babies and continue to feed my rich fantasy life. I could AVOID life. Trouble was, since I never did anything or became anything or gained any experience in any particular field (because I never invested in myself), I had a very limited pool of men to choose from who would want me as their wife. Who wants someone with ZERO responsibility and stunted growth and an inability to be intimate and mature? Well, someone who is EQUALLY stunted and immature. It wasn’t until I was about 36 years old that I realized the whole fantasy-world wasn’t sustaining me. And it wasn’t until I was 40 that I finally said goodbye to fantasy and was able to stand on my own. I went back to college, got a degree, even invested one year in graduate school. I rarely, if ever fantasize now. What I do now (duh! I could have been doing this all along) is make goals. Making concrete goals where action is required is the adult’s version of fantasy. You dream it, you plan it, you prepare for it, then you DO IT. Wow. What a difference. Since I gave up fantasy and became goal-oriented instead, I have had many accomplishments. And all these accomplishments are investments I have made in myself.
5. I realized that my failed relationships and the bad boy-avoidants that broke my heart did not CAUSE my love addiction. I did. The bad boys were a symptom of my love addiction. We often think that love addiction is about love. Not getting enough of it, wanting too much, etc. It’s not about love. It’s not even about other people. It is about self-avoidance (torchbearing keeps you from living a realistic life; ambivalence keeps you from making important decisions; straight up love addiction keeps you from growing up). It is about using love and relationships as tools to help you soothe, cope, defend and avoid. Therefore, the object of getting healthy cannot be found in solving the issues of your current relationship. When the torchbearer’s dreams come true and she finally has the object of her fantasy, the reality will never be as rich and she will need to hold a torch for someone else; if the ambivalent love addict ever makes a decision to stay or leave a relationship, more ambivalence will follow, etc.) As I’ve written about before, your unhealthy relationship serves a perfectly functional dysfunctional purpose: to keep you from avoiding yourself and growing up. When you “fix” it (without fixing yourself), the relationship will no longer serve its purpose and the PoA must go and another put in its place. This is why I continued to repeat the same patterns and be attracted to the same character over and over and over.
6. I finally determined that I no longer had to “date daddy.” This was a big change for me as my idea of a perfect mate was wrapped up in who my dad was. Freud was right. A daughter’s first love is her father. And whether that love is reciprocated or not, betrayed or not, healthy or not, it doesn’t matter!!! A daughter will still see the combination of traits in that man as ones she must look for in a man of her own. If she gets along well with her father, respects him, and has a healthy relationship with him (and vice versa), her chances of finding a healthy partner are high. If, on the other hand, he neglects her, abandons her, does drugs, lies, cheats, steals, etc., and she loses respect for him and learns to mistrust him, her chances of finding a healthy partner have been sabotaged. I knew the psychology behind daughters dating their father. But I honestly thought that if I avoided men who did drugs or were alcoholics, I would avoid the problem of being stuck with a man like my dad. Wrong. It didn’t occur to me until much later that I was picking men with much subtler comparisons to my dad. Men that avoided me. Once I learned this lesson, I was able to finally recognize the avoidant and…avoid him 🙂
7. Equal in weight and importance to numero uno, was that I learned what values were and I made them more important than anything, even my relationships. Values are the most important thing in your life. Well, at least they should be. If you want to say goodbye to love addiction learn what your values are and choose them over anything else. When you do that, you change. You become healthy. You become true to yourself. Eight years ago, I could not tell you what a value was if it came up and slapped me in the face. You know how all those self-help books tell you “you won’t ever find the perfect man” and “you need to learn to tolerate a few bad traits” and “no relationship comes without problems”? Well, those books are right. But, they are preaching some very dangerous information without full disclosure. Let me explain: as a woman who learned that info, I never knew which traits were acceptable and which weren’t. Sure, I knew to stay away from big ticket items. I wouldn’t remain in a relationship with a serial killer. But there’s an equation to this information that I had all wrong. I thought that if I “loved” this man, and he, in turn “said” he loved me, and if I could write down more positives about him than negatives, I should stay. And yet, using this equation caused huge amounts of ambivalence. I would see on paper with my very own eyes that this guy only had four problems and about 100 positives. What was wrong with me? What I never in a million years understood until much later in life, was that the groupings of positives and negatives that we all come with are weighted. Picking your teeth at the table might be a negative but it may only hold a weight of one point, compared to smoking pot, also a negative, but that weight might be worth 50 points. This system of weights is not arbitrary. It comes from one source and one source only: your value system. You have a system of values already in place that you either use or don’t use. Either way, it’s there and it’s functional. And it weighs things all the time. For example: every time your PoA cheats on you and you feel like your whole body is on fire? That’s a value speaking directly to you. It’s saying: this is a quality or an action that I do not like and which causes enormous pain. Wether you listen to that value or not is the key. And when you don’t know your values or that you have to choose them over a relationship, you lose. A value you tells you if certain qualities are acceptable or unacceptable. If some traits weights one point or one hundred. If it is, in fact a value, or simply a want (not a must have). It tells you this through your emotions and through your logical brain–if you listen. When I realized what my values were I was no longer ambiguous. I was able to clearly see that while some guy only had four problems, their weight was too enormous for me to bear and they went against my value system. Once I learned this, enormous change occurred. I operated in a different way. My old ways of figuring out if someone was right or wrong for me became outmoded. This new values-based way of determining someone’s staying power in my life was a much healthier approach. It taught me to look for people who SHARED my same values. Once I did that, relationships became less painful.
Our inner love addict may be part of our true self, but it is the part of us that just doesn’t get it. It is the hungry, lonely, tired, angry, scared side of us, that makes unhealthy decisions out of fear and self-protection as opposed to health and happiness. It is the yin to our yang. The Mr. Hyde to our Dr. Jekyll. It is Pygmalion: the bedraggled, vulgar, uncivilized flower girl that I believe we need to educate in order to turn her into a duchess–not just on the outside, but the inside as well. So, no, your Addict doesn’t have to die. But she definitely needs to move over and let Healthy You drive from now on.