This post was originally published on December 8, 2014.
“Can you see the pattern, Alice?” my therapist inquired, five years ago. It was one of our last sessions before I moved to Los Angeles, and I didn’t understand where she was heading.
Today I know that she was talking about addiction to something only remotely looking like love.
I was a chubby and not particularly pretty girl in my early teens, when hormones partied non-stop in my ever-changing body; I was born and lived with my family lived small town in the Italian Alps for 27 years. Boys didn’t exactly wait in line for me.
But shortly after discovering anorexia, bulimia and cocaine, my newly found figure and bold presence attracted quite a few men. When I was 22, I moved in with a nice guy and after only three months of dating, he proposed; unaware of the bigger picture, I slowly became a pretty doll with whom he could do as he pleased.
Because I was never the most popular girl in high school, I envied many of my girlfriends who had boyfriends and got power drunk on the special feeling of being the first one in my class to have a serious relationship—an actual domestic partnership with a wedding on the horizon.
As my fiancé held power on me, I began to unconsciously feed on the crumbs that remained and on what I perceived to be the admiration and envy of the small town where we lived. I ignored the fact that my feelings and actions had nothing to do with love and that I was using him as a weapon of revenge against the people who had mocked and bullied me. This relationship would mark the beginning of my addiction to love—a concept that for me is very close to the first drink.
Thin and beautiful, I would be the first one to get married, I reassured myself, although marriage itself was never one of my priorities in life. I’ll never be alone, I thought.
Instead of wearing the ring my boyfriend had given me, I was wearing him as an accessory. And I continued to do so even when our relationship turned out to be emotionally abusive and quite far from unconditionally based on love.
As life went on, so did I.
I didn’t marry him, but moved out after almost four years instead. With my new apartment, I had also found a new perverse behavior—having a man by my side to complete me. That seemed to be giving me the confidence I lacked.
I was 25 years old and about to let alcoholism take over. Of course I was incapable of truly caring for somebody, of experiencing honest and unconditional love.
Most of the men I surrounded myself with represented a desperate attempt on my part to feel safe or at least like less of a failure. Few of them were looking for a serious relationship, and even though I claimed I was, I can now see in what a deep sea of humiliating denial I was in as I tried to stay afloat.
I, Alice Carbone, wasn’t enough in the world by myself; men seemed to represent my only guarantee of worth. And sex—in most cases—was simply what kept us together. Do I need to mention that it was seldom a pleasure?
After being in the rooms of AA for a while, I started hearing folks talk about the “ism.” I promptly discarded the notion as another excuse alcoholics used to lessen their burden.
Many women shared with me their experience of past tumultuous relationships with men, sex, food, shopping, cigarettes and the like. They were trying to give me emotional room to see my reflection in their words.
So one day I looked at myself in the mirror and admitted, swamped by shame, that I had barely enjoyed sex during those years of wild, drunken conduct.
I could finally see the pattern my therapist had tried to illustrate for me. I had emotionally and physically binged on men (just like I did with drugs, booze and food) in order to try to be somebody else, to fill up holes and to obliterate reality.
It’s still very difficult for me to follow directions and do what I am told.
Still, when I embarked on my second (and hopefully final) sobriety, I followed people’s suggestions not to get into a relationship during the first year. I had already had my heart broken and relapsed the first time, so a combination of cynicism, desperation and willingness got me to do what was recommended. I was slowly getting to the understanding that—although it sounded clichéd—I had to love myself and truly be sober before I could love a man and not hurt him or myself in the process.
I stopped acting out and surrendered to what the journey was, a road paved with meaningful solitude. I wrote a novel and read a lot; I cooked meals for myself and went to the farmer’s market in the early mornings. I took long walks by the beach and made peace with uncomfortable emotions such as fear, loneliness and shame.
I didn’t think that I would love again until I did, when the right time came and when I was recovered enough to be called a woman.