“Day in and day out, you’ll find that you notice sooner when you’re hooked, and it will be easier to refrain. If you continue to do this, a kind of shedding happens—a shedding of old habits, a shedding of being run around by pleasure and pain, a shedding of being held hostage by worldly concerns.”
~ Pema Chodron
In moments of pain, desperation or shock it takes incredible skill and presence to turn away from the thing that promises comfort and pleasure. Pema Chodron speaks of a “hook” in those situations that catches us and renders us no better than struggling fish, frantic to get free of what hurts.
It’s particularly hard to get free when the hook is a person. Love seems healthier than eating too much, gambling, shooting up or going on a bender. Love is good, sex is good, it’s all human, healthy, socially acceptable and legal.
Unless you find yourself stuck in a loop of unhappiness and desire that can only be fixed by another relationship, whether it’s “one more try” with an ex or the excitement of pursuing someone new. Because you can’t have a healthy, affirming partnership based on the need to feel good, avoid pain and free yourself from unhappiness. Among other things, no matter what you tell yourself, and no matter how badly you yourself may be treated, you are using another human being rather than loving and accepting them with respect and compassion.
We are insightful, evolved, spiritual people. We know that we should love ourselves first, and love with open hearts. We know the whole “if you love something, set it free” thing and we get it, we really, really do.
The thing is, and it’s a big thing, you can know something and be all wise about it until the breakup or the hardcore loneliness or the day when, still throbbing and raw, you see the ex at the grocery store. Maybe it wasn’t that bad, and actually, since you’re both still pretty much single, it would be okay, and so nice just to be with someone who is familiar and makes you feel all tingly. Just one night, just to see yourself as desirable again.
Or maybe you’ve been single for a while, and you’re getting stronger, loving yourself better and building healthy new habits, but you still find yourself aching to be loved and wanted. To feel better, you start dating someone who doesn’t feel right for you, or sending flirty messages to old boyfriends on Facebook. It makes you feel all alive and juicy. It feels better than being alone.
Either way, you kind of forget all that spiritual stuff.
What happens next is not usually healthy—-not for you, anyway.
Love and sex and your incredible gifts and energies are shared not as free offerings from a place of strength, but as part of a complicated bargain. You need something. You need validation, excitement, and the boost of seeing yourself as something of value to someone else.
I’ve done it. I had a pattern of falling in love with distant, emotionally unavailable men who made me incredibly unhappy and yet…they were the devils I knew. For about five years in my 20s, I basically rotated between two of them, believing (despite all evidence) that I’d have a “fresh start” with one when the other had become intolerable. The amount of time and energy I spent on those men, and on defending myself against observant and truthful friends and family was incredible.
I was never peaceful, never content, just a manic kind of “happy” that lasted only until I started panicking about when the good thing was going to end.
Nothing exchanged between partners in these situations is honest, and there will inevitably be pain far greater than the original “hook.” Unless we see what’s happening and stop the cycle, we’ll do it all again.
Even a healthy thing stops nourishing us when it becomes not the thing itself but a cure for pain, and a tool for numbing, and avoiding. Like any addiction “love” and sex in this context are things we misuse in the belief that they will put an end to our suffering, but really we just keep biting the hook.
It’s hard, but we can stop. They key is being aware of that first wave of discomfort. It can feel like sadness, anxiety, fear, loneliness, inadequacy, or some combination of those things, and it pushes us to do something to make it stop hurting.
The instinct is to struggle to get free from the pain, and if your addiction is love, you’ll want to call someone, text someone, see someone, message someone, and make something happen. You can totally know it’s a bad idea (most addicts do, after a while) but you’re just not all that rational when you’re in pain.
Rehab starts when you refuse the hook, and sit with your turmoil. You don’t need to analyze it, or rub salt in a gaping wound by telling yourself how weak and bad and silly you are. You just need to feel all the feelings, letting them swirl and pummel you, make you cry and break you open. You will think you can’t stand it, but you really can.
Eventually, it will end. And when it ends, you do the next thing that needs to be done. You get absorbed in the act of steeping tea in a sea green mug, or stroking the soft fur of a beloved cat.
It will happen again. That storm of agitated emotions will pull you towards your drug of choice. Over and over you can choose not to “bite,” choose to ride it out and come back to a present that is not an illusory “high,” but the only real thing there is.
And when you love again (and you will) you will have the deep peace of knowing that you are not a broken thing that needs a missing part to be whole, or an addict in need of a fix.
You are whole, and strong, and ready to give and take with generosity and self-respect rather than need and compulsion.
You are free.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Andi Jetaime on Flickr