I’m not a therapy virgin; I’m a lifer, a career client.
Considering that there is no instant gratification in doing the real work—the trauma work, the sit-with-discomfort and feel-your-feelings work—frequently I don’t notice that I have grown at all, until someone who knows me well observes that I’ve changed dramatically or I see a vast shift in my desires.
It started when I was little and my taste buds had adapted to absolute trash. Because that was what I was permitted to eat and that was what my peers ate and that was what was marketed to me on television and radio and billboards.
I pitied—and to some extent feared—my friends from health conscious homes. The ones whose parents made them lunches with apple slices and dried fruit and granola. A colorless, tasteless, uneventful pittance compared to my spicy Doritos, sugar-gushing “fruit” snacks, shiny packages of Oreos or Nutter Butters, PB&J and a “Squeezit” or Capri Sun. I was a cool American kid, and I had a cool American kid lunch.
My taste buds remained dead for many decades. Only now, after years of detoxing from sugar and carbs, have my taste buds matured. It’s a hard sell to convince people that I don’t feel deprived, but rather genuinely desire juicy salads and nutrient-dense smoothies. It’s not a punishing lifestyle (although, maybe at first, when I went through the physiological drug-like sugar withdrawals). And then the emotional roller coaster after I stopped self-medicating with massive quantities of artificial colors and flavors.
But you learn to break through all of that social conditioning that equates toxic food with fun and pleasure and comfort. I did the same thing with cigarettes years prior and alcohol before that. Breaking the physical dependence is, in my experience, the easy part. It’s the decades of social conditioning and psychological reinforcement that can create deeply entrenched barriers to physiological freedom.
But this piece isn’t about food, or alcohol, or cigarettes. For me, they all functioned from the same place to serve the same purpose. They functioned from a space of compulsion and avoidance. The purpose was to distract myself from my feelings and hack my happy chemicals and cheat code a rush that would stop the pain.
Rush, crash, rinse, repeat, and numb.
So, back then, the whole grains and unflavored yogurt wouldn’t do a thing for me. Because this was not about nutrition. This was about addiction.
One day, after all the work, all of the wars, and the ceaseless processing, the shot of tequila no longer demanded resistance; it just sounded as appealing as swallowing a grenade. The cigarettes and sugar provided the same epiphany: wasted money, empty calories, hangovers, and so on. I’ve grown. The cells in my body are seeking true sustenance and no longer looking for cheap thrills. Except for one.
My addiction to toxic, unavailable men and women—particularly those who’ve experienced a great deal of trauma and choose to self-medicate rather than seek professional help—ran so deep it seemed like nothing could save me from the need to save them (which, of course, never worked).
I’ve been doing the therapy. I’ve been to Al-Anon and codependent support groups. I wrote the poems, cried the cries, bonded with the homegirls, and doubled down on self-care.
I read Women Who Love Too Much at 17, and here I found myself again at 40 loving too much. Addicted to giving more than I receive. Addicted to fixing, feeling good, compromising my dignity in order to keep that fleeting satisfaction at all costs. Addicted to self-sacrifice and self-medicating (with codependency instead of food or booze or cigarettes, but it functioned the same way). It served the same purpose. The familiar self-destruction with moments of sexual release and Easter eggs of potential reciprocation keeping me tethered. Keeping me seeking, stopping, and hunting for hints that I’d beat the game.
One problem was that positive messaging like “learn to love yourself and embrace being single” struck me as about as appealing as carrot sticks when I was seven. Why have carrot sticks when Cheetos are the same color but so much more addictive and exciting?
As bland as being happily self-partnered seemed, discussing “healthy” relationships with therapists made healthy relationships sound about as sexy as a church retreat. I may smile and nod. Of course, I can see how spaghetti squash is technically better for you than takeout, deep dish pepperoni pizza from the franchise that’s been brainwashing me to think that they bring the happy since I was six (who I now have scent memory associations with, triggering carefree childhood feels). Also, spaghetti squash is gross. I’ll risk the obesity and heart disease to feel good right this moment.
And no, “two trees growing side by side but not enmeshed or stunting each other’s growth” doesn’t sound like a real and true and passionate relationship. It sounds sterile was what I thought at 20 in my Jungian Psychoanalyst’s office (20 years and countless toxic relationships ago).
I’m approximately the same age as Travis Barker and Kourtney Kardashian. Their recent homages to the movie “True Romance” and to the ill-fated bassist Sid Vicious and his slaughtered lover Nancy Spungen didn’t come as any surprise here because, for a long time, I, too, was influenced by the inherent sexiness of chaotic, love-you-to-death relationships (“Natural Born Killers” should be next in their Halloween Costume repertoire). Their partnership—as well as Machine Gun Kelly and Megan Fox’s incessant PDAs and relationship flaunting—is reminiscent of Tommy and Pam in their paparazzi frenzied heyday.
And I ate it all up back then. I wanted to merge with my twin flame on a different dimension than everyone who never understood us. I wanted the world’s validation that I was loved and lovable and sexy via the confirmation of nailing a sexy bad boy or bad girl.
I don’t know what I wanted. I wanted cigarettes and booze and sexy people with tattoos. Attention and a continual dopamine high. I wanted the romantic junk food that society has been peddling to me all of my life to make me feel better about myself, about you, about being in this mortal coil.
But “Natural Born Killers” and “True Romance” are works of fiction. Patricia Arquette is a phenomenal actor and activist who’s gone on to a lot of important, beautiful work that deserves all of the recognition her Alabama Whitman character has received. Sid and Nancy were real people who met untimely and experienced tragic endings. And there really is nothing aspirational about them. Tommy and Pam are divorced and moving on respectfully but separately.
Those of us who do the work to grow up like a tall tree that isn’t enmeshed with another tree will eventually get there, firmly rooted and independent, and our taste buds will mature. I no longer think flagrant displays of intimacy are necessary, and quite the contrary, are kind of a mood killer. I don’t want to be destroyed by someone’s needs or by my own need to fix their destructive needs. I just ended my last codependent relationship.
I know it’s my last.
I’ve been chipping away at this codependent stone for a long time, and it took me awhile to see results, but I see them taking shape now. The healthier I get, the harder it becomes to tolerate toxic behavior in others or myself. I now can say I like being on my own and know that I’m not lying to myself or you.
I can look forward to the things I do—sans accomplice. If I meet a man or woman, that’s great, but I’m in no hurry, and I will absolutely not be compromising who I am to complete someone else. I don’t want to be attached at the hip or anxious or insecure when out of each other’s sight or posting constant pictures to prove our passion to strangers or clinging, clawing, or cuffed to them. Suddenly, that all seems incredibly childish, empty, and decidedly unsexy.
So how about the one or two or more trees, growing up.
I love broccoli.