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When Love is Addictive…

At the recent DPA conference in Washington, DC, during the panel on “addictive brain disease,” an old Dutch friend of mine brought up the question, “What about calling love, and sex, and videos addictive?

He meant, of course, “How ridiculous to regard these things as brain diseases.”

Indeed, when I published Love and Addiction with Archie Brodsky in 1975, we received catcalls from my fellow faculty members at the Harvard Business School: “Right, love can be addictive—har! har! har!

As we pointed out in Love and Addiction, the fact that love can be addictive is proof against the drug-brain disease model.-Stanton Peele

My old “friend” thinks of himself as a radical because he believes that drugs should be legalized, but he misunderstands the fundamental meaning of addiction. He – and so many like him in the field – are hopeless. As we pointed out in Love and Addiction, the fact that love can be addictive is proof against the drug-brain disease model.

Others are not so unfortunate as my clueless friend. In her heralded new novel, The Mare, Mary Gaitskill (through her character, Ginger) describes her self-abuse, for which she turned to AA:

My sponsor knew the way I had lived: Blank loneliness . . . scene after drunken idiotic scene, mashed up conversations nobody could hear, the tears and ugly laughter quieted only by the rubber tit of alcohol or something else. Friendship was bad, sex was worse, and love – love! There was someone who rang my bell at 3 a.m. and I would let him in so he could tell me I was worthless, hit me, fuck me, and leave. . . .

It was like being locked into a nightmare more real than anything until I woke and couldn’t really remember the details or make sense of it, knowing only that it was terrible and that I would do it again.

So which was her worst addiction? Nothing engendered more despair, self-loathing, and self-destruction than her desperate attempts to latch onto a person, anyone available, to keep her from sinking, and then to recoil from herself and her life all the more in the aftermath of her fix. People generally don’t kill themselves when they quit smoking or can’t get heroin. They commit suicide or murder people all the time when deprived of a supposed loved one.

Now, if only Mary Gaitskill were to become director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, I’d be in like Flynn.

I don’t mean that it is only novelists who comprehend the meaning of – and thus the solutions for – addiction. After all, no person has done more to propagate the mythical 12-step version of the disease of alcoholism and recovery than Gaitskill’s fellow novelist/memoirist Mary Karr.

For her part, Gaitskill is fed up with AA. “I couldn’t stand the meetings, couldn’t stand the language, the dogma. They tried to make it sound like something else. But that’s finally what it was.” Indeed, instead of falling to her knees in obeisance (as Karr describes herself regularly doing) to keep from drinking, Gaitskill now drinks moderately.

Let me be clear – Karr’s life is her own to live. To fall down on her knees and to pray for redemption every day is her right as an American. My problem with this solution, psychologically, is that it still represents enslavement. (The Dutch title for Love and Addiction is Love and Enslavement.)

Gaitskill has gone a different route, one in which she aspires to love. The road isn’t easy, and perhaps she will ultimately fail. But it is the only life worth living. Not only does her character begin drinking again, she dares to love – the redemptive theme of The Mare, where she nurtures a girl who comes to live with her and her husband:

“She [her AA sponsor] had known me in the hard, ungiving way she knew herself. . . .[but I now] knew: Just because I had been in hell, I don’t have to be there always. Love is not always a sickness. . . .I have changed. I can trust myself. I love Paul. I love Velvet. I can trust it.”

Alas, the real Mary Gaitskill, after being married for several years and taking into her life a foster child, is now divorced. Her character in the novel, named Ginger, becomes alienated from her husband, Paul, in good part because he is an AA stalwart:

“I was drinking wine, but he didn’t dare say anything…we did it for the first time in months; he was not going to say anything. Yet.”

Can you move from addictive love to real love with an AA member? Ah, that is a thorny question. To judge from Gaitskill, not.

But, for my unknowing Dutch friend, let’s leave this clear: Actual love is the opposite of addiction.

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