This was a story I ignored last month, because I was like, Oh god, not another Teen Story about being Addicted To Love with Robert Palmer wearing his bad mullet-cut and droning his boring 1986 ditty in the background. It was in almost every headline or lead: “Might as Well Face It…”

Except the media bent the story out of shape. They said, “Romantic Rejection Is Just Like Cocaine Addiction!” (The New York Daily News also got it wrong on a number of other counts: It was not 15 hetero men, it was 10 women and five men, but who’s counting?) Wrong.

The real story, when you read it in the July 2010 edition of the Journal of Neurophysiology, turns out to be this: Romantic obsession is just like any other addiction.


Guinevere and Lancelot

Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot, obsessed with each other behind Arthur’s back…

The operative word here is “obsession.”

The researchers interviewed 10 women and five men who had been rejected by romantic partners. And the ad the researchers placed on the Stony Brook campus asked, “Have you just been rejected in love but can’t let go?

I think I hear Lucinda gearing up here…

The difference between these subjects and the ones who didn’t respond to the ad isn’t that the ones who didn’t respond hadn’t been rejected. It’s that maybe they were able to let go. Move on.

The ones who responded to the ad told the researchers things like,

  • I think about him constantly.
  • We try to be friends but it doesn’t work; I’m too attracted to him.
  • What’s the point, without her.

Substitute “alcohol” or “drugs” for “him” or “her,” and you’ve got what addicts say about their substances.

The findings were not just about cocaine, either. The researchers noted that “craving for drugs is associated with a significant increase of dopamine in the striatum,” a part of the brain where they found activation; that they found activation in another area associated with cigarette craving; and that

These previous findings suggest that the experience of romantic rejection involves the same neural systems that underlie various addictions.

When we get sober, it’s easy to substitute one addiction for another. I’ve heard people talk about it all the time. We get rid of the chemicals and start in on the behaviors: shopping, television, eating, Internet surfing, cutting . . . sex.

After the whole Tiger Woods Thing, my Gmail inbox was stuffed with notices: “Does Sex Addiction Really Exist?” Who knows? It’s all obsession. Obsession is obsession is obsession. The monkey’s inability to let go of, as it were, the banana.

When I first got sober, and the chemicals leached out of my cells and tissues, my body woke up. A cloud passed over the lioness who had been sleeping, forever it seemed, in the sun, and the lioness roused for the first time in many years.

And all around her were lions.

I’ve written elsewhere about how I drank and used drugs (and came down with headaches and a great deal of physical pain) because I felt like I didn’t deserve to be sexual. It was a challenge, seeing all those lions—for the first time, really—and knowing I was married to only one.

For a while my striatum (or whatever) must have been flooded with dopamine, because I spent some months pretty distracted by all the activity that was crossing my field of vision. My radar hadn’t been so jazzed since I was maybe in my 20s. And since I was a lot more mature and experienced than a 24-year-old, I had more ideas about what to do with all that jazz.

It confused the hell out of me and I lost sleep over it, and I cried over lost time and opportunity and youth and being 44 and on the downhill slope, and like the students in the study I’d stand in front of the mirror and poke at my face and wonder “What’s the point?” and in general feel terribly sorry for myself that I’d “gotten sober too late.” As though I should have kept using, just because.

And then because all my negative feelings were too much for me, I’d make up whole scenarios in my head to get out of myself. I’d waste yet more time. And then beat myself up for wasting it. I didn’t know what to do to get out of this loop of tape.

This DOESN’T only happen to people newly sober. I’ve heard people with upwards of 25 years talk about using sexuality—whether real or imagined—to get out of themselves.

I was directed to write inventory about my sexuality and my resentments—against my mother for being the Thought Police and Sex Gestapo in my adolescence and early adulthood (the time of life when you’re supposed to experiment with sexuality and identity); mostly against myself for making “stupid” decisions, for “allowing” myself to become an addict, for being a Terrible Writer, a Failed Artist, a Bad Mother, a Weak and Compliant Daughter, an Exceptional Wreck of a Human Being. I am such a star at being bad. Ego, ego ego ego.

I even wrote inventory about my resentments against God, for making me an addict. For making addicts of so many of my family members, and “letting” them die.

(I still don’t know why God would make anyone an addict, btw. I don’t know why God would give my father-in-law dementia, or my niece Down Syndrome, or my uncle multiple sclerosis. One of my sponsors told me point-blank that God made me an addict . . . My ideas about God are still under revision and I don’t know if I buy that God made me an addict. If I stay with that thought for too long, I get pissed off at higher power, and getting pissed off at higher power isn’t good for me.)

But anyhow, writing inventory helped. My part became clear. My part—or part of my part—is to use my gifts productively and in service to higher power’s will.

And then I started meditating and praying. I’ve been meditating every day for the past six weeks, under direction of someone who has a strong meditation practice. I was directed to pray after I meditate… my own version of the seventh step prayer, asking higher power to relieve me of the bondage of self (helping me to LET GO) and build with me throughout the day. I’m still working on that version of the prayer… so I pray a half-assed spontaneous made-up version every morning, and it seems to be OK for now…

In terms of sexuality, I see mine as strong and beautiful and as a gift from higher power. I’ve relinquished the Catholic vestiges of shame that would make me view my sexuality or my body as “bad” or “wrong,” as long as I don’t hurt myself or anyone else with it. So … with all the soccer-dad lions that prowl across my radar these days … I allow myself to appreciate them. I let the saliva flow. And then I let them slink off into the desert and I get my roar out with the one I married.

Next I think these researchers should put addicts into functional magnetic resonance imaging and ask us to meditate on a gratitude list. I’ll be first in line. I want to see where all that dopamine goes when gratitude is applied to it…