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At the root of all our addictions lies trauma, says Gabor Maté.
When I used to think of addiction, I thought of alcohol, drugs, maybe sex.
I never thought dating was something you could become addicted to, but now that I look back on my 20s, I clearly see I was addicted to cycling through a new man every few months.
At the time, though, I couldn’t see it. After another failed attempt at a relationship (as that is what I was telling myself I was searching for), I would tearily call my girlfriends asking, “Why isn’t this working?” I just wanted a relationship, and yet, I kept attracting men who couldn’t give two cents about me.
I couldn’t see that I was trying to fill a void. I couldn’t see that I was recreating a pattern of abandonment. Because I was actually traumatized at the time.
My mother was ill and dying and I couldn’t face up to that fact. In a way, I was preparing myself for that ultimate abandonment of losing a parent. In dating unavailable men, I created a cycle where I put myself through abandonment over and over again. I learned to become so familiar with the feeling, I almost craved it.
I craved the gushing waterfall of tears that would come after it didn’t work out with someone. Inevitably in my sadness, my thoughts would turn to my mother and her impending passing. It was a way for me to grieve for her impending death in little bits, drawn out over a period of three years.
There were many points I thought I reached a turning point. Points in time when I thought, this is it. I will not go online again to scroll through dating sites. I will not go home with that man at the bar. I will not convince myself that someone with drastically different views than me will be a good fit.
But I would be drawn back to it like a moth to a flame, unable to stop the cycle.
Even my mother’s death didn’t stop the addiction. But eventually, a couple years later, I knew something had to change.
The first thing that brought me out of the cycle was coming back to my body.
I began to become aware of a tenderness and tightness in my chest. I kept getting sick—coughs and illnesses of the lungs—which, in Traditional Chinese Medicine, are emotionally correlated to grief.
I realized that I couldn’t open myself to another romantic connection with the way my heart was feeling. With this space came a grief I had been avoiding for a long time. In the traumatic cycle of dating, I had skillfully created a pattern to avoid each and every disappointment of a failed romantic connection. Now, in the space my body was creating, I couldn’t help but revisit each little heartbreak over the last few years.
It was a painstaking and tender process, helped immensely by an amazing body-centred therapist, long walks by the ocean, and moving back home.
I realized a huge piece that was missing was self-love. In part of the internalized grief around my mother, I had created a story of guilt and shame, and also one where I didn’t deserve to be happy. How was I allowed to be happy when such a terrible thing was happening?
The second thing that brought me out of the cycle was prayer.
Not the prayer-to-a-man-in-the-sky variety, but prayer in the sense that I began to open myself up to seeing another perspective. Many therapies that deal with addiction talk about surrendering our problems to a higher power. In Alcoholics Anonymous, it is the Creator, and a common therapy for addictions being explored now is the use psychedelics.
In any case, when we are at a loss and frustrated by our own patterns but can’t see a way out of the cycle, we always have the option to let go and open to help. Whether that’s the help of a trusted therapist, God, or our higher self.
At this point in my healing journey, I wasn’t fully aware of how much I had been creating the cycle for myself. A part of me still believed that I just had bad luck in love—that the men were to blame. I was quite angry with men at the time, and I used this anger to justify being alone.
But I began to pray and dream for the kind of relationship I truly wanted. I realized that I hadn’t done this in a long time, perhaps not since high school. Instead of feeling like I needed to be dating to fill the empty places inside, I decided I would fill them up first myself. Then I could imagine another person adding something to my life, not just filling the empty void of grief and depression.
The third and final thing I did was speak aloud my wish for healing to a trusted friend.
This came at a dance event one night over New Years. We were both sad that we weren’t with a loved one at the time and I cried openly with him about my desire for a good man and to have children. It was the first time I heard myself say that I wanted children, and I remember being surprised at the depth of emotion behind the sentiment. It took getting honest with my true desires to realize that I had been looking in the wrong places for love.
If we are not honest with ourselves first, how can we expect to be met honestly by another?
In short order, after these three steps were complete, I met my current partner and the man who fathered my child. The whole process, though, took years, and it was by no means a straight road. It was messy, sometimes painfully so, and took a lot of making the same mistakes over and over again to finally realize I wanted out.
But that’s the thing about addiction—sometimes we really have to reach that low point before we are ready to make a change.
When I look back on those years now, I often cringe—but sometimes smile. Though I wish someone could have showed me the way out and the way to self-love sooner, I realize that the road of healing came at precisely the right time to meet my current partner and to have our child.
I couldn’t be more grateful.