The rush Lisa Etherson got from the first flush of love – or sex if love wasn’t on the table – became the drug she couldn’t do without.
This is my last article for Standard Issue, and what I’ve loved most about the magazine (apart from it being bloody hilarious and brilliant) was how brave some of the women have been about sharing their personal experiences.
So, I thought it was only fair to share something about me.
I’ve spoken about this before, but I’ve never written about it for the whole world to see. The vulnerability is immense, but here goes.
Up until about 10 years ago, I was completely addicted to love (and sex, if I couldn’t have the love). I say love, because a lot of the people I was addicted to, I wasn’t necessarily in a relationship with. And nor did I want to be.
What I wanted was what the feeling that being in love gave me. The excitement, not sleeping, not eating – so losing a shit load of weight and thinking I looked fabulous. But most of all, I wanted the obsession.
When I was in that place, it felt like I was in a trance or bubble. I felt like the world couldn’t get in and I was safe.
My first memory of being in this dissociated state was when I was about four years old. I was sitting watching TV, with my parents arguing behind me, and I started to think about a boy in my nursery called Richard. I understand now that distressed kids will use fantasy to remove themselves from situations that they can’t physically move away from, and boy, did it work!
“I didn’t think that anything was wrong with using people to self-soothe the pain I was feeling. All I knew was if I didn’t have someone to be in love with, I felt like I was going to die.‘”
Fantasy became my best friend. All throughout my school years, from infants through to secondary school, I was in an almost permanent parallel universe. I realised I could switch this on or off whenever I wanted, so I was able to function quite successfully, presumably because I always had somewhere to go.
Things started to get tricky in my adult years. Gone were the days of being able to hide in my own head. Now I had the opportunity to act out, rather than act in.
At 16, actual boyfriends came along. It was like moving from a gateway drug to the real, hardcore stuff, and I was completely hooked. The dopamine high was like nothing I had ever experienced, and I wanted it all the time. I wasn’t really interested in the person, all I wanted was that chemical release.
Obviously, I didn’t realise this at the time. I didn’t think that anything was wrong with using people to self-soothe the pain I was in. All I knew was if I didn’t have someone to be in love with, I felt like I was going to die.
I had a big gaping hole in my gut, and the only time it felt filled up was when I was with someone, either physically or in my head. When one person was dismissed, without much feeling, the next hit was lined up, ready to take his place, ready to give me that rush.
I had two long-term partners while my addiction was in full swing. I was unfaithful to both, because I would just move from one emotional affair to the next – justifying my actions along the way because I wasn’t having sex with anyone, so how was I causing any harm?
Addictions are often described as progressive and mine did progress into an affair, something I never thought I was capable of doing. I ended my long-term relationship, not to be with the guy, but to make sure I could justify my actions. It was all about the love drug, not the person.
“When I was in that place, it felt like I was in a trance or bubble. I felt like the world couldn’t get in and I was safe.‘”
Eventually, I became single for two years around the time internet dating started to become a bit more socially acceptable. All I wanted to do was be with my laptop. I went on dates but they were always a let-down. And besides, that wasn’t where the action was. It was in the searching for people, the chatting, the cyber chase, not in the actual real life, getting together for dinner and a possible relationship; that didn’t cut it at all.
I was becoming increasingly isolated. I would cancel plans with friends, lie to loved ones so I could get back home – and my internet haven.
In truth, this pattern of behaviour wasn’t anything new. I had always been dishonest with people in order to get what I wanted, but my actions were becoming increasing clear to me, and it was getting harder to lie to myself.
I had a conversation with someone, who could see what was going on. He asked me to describe what it felt like for me when I was involved with a guy, whether in real life or in cyberspace. His response was, “that sounds like what heroin feels like; welcome to addiction”.
And that was when I woke up. I stopped all of my addictive behaviours from that day. Sounds simple when you write it like that, doesn’t it? It wasn’t and I needed to go into therapy to keep my habit kicked. (There was a great article in Standard Issue last week about counselling; I urge you to read it).
I had to face the deep-rooted pain I so desperately wanted to avoid. I also had to start taking some responsibility for myself, rather than expecting others to do that for me. I had to take responsibility for my actions, and getting to that point was often anything but pretty.
Ten years on and life looks a lot different now. I worked with a couple of incredible people who helped me to face up to the pain of a very dysfunctional childhood; to really look at it rather than trying to numb it out. I no longer feel so much shame that I could die. I’m happy, content and full of self-acceptance (that’s what really good therapy can do for you).
I’m very happily married, with not a sniff of an emotional affair, or any other kind in sight. We can recover from this stuff, I think we just have to recognise it for what it is first.
My story isn’t that unusual, we just don’t talk about it enough for it to be OK to admit. If any of my words have resonated with you, get help. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.5338 Views
Lisa is a Geordie sex therapist and soon to be author. She has at least five books floating around in her imagination but has opted to start with Sex Over 50 as she is currently hurtling towards that age and wants to know what the hell to do.