Nostalgesia and Abandoholism
Why Do We Confuse Longing With Love?
I got an email from a reader the other day, and boy did I relate to some of her comments. She spoke about feeling “incomplete and bored and nostalgic” without a qualifier (aka crush or love object) to obsess over. “Nostalgic” is the perfect word to describe the love addict’s feeling of longing. We love longing, because longing feels like love. We wallow in wistful, sentimental longing for a blissful past that was probably more blissful in memory than reality. Or we long for a perfect future, a candy-colored fantasy of true love. It’s a nostalgia so powerful it anesthetizes that existential pain every addict carries inside. Call it “nostalgesia.”
We addicts are defined by longing — or, to use a word more closely identified with addiction, “craving.” The tricky part is that you can’t long for something you actually have. That’s the definition of longing. So being in a relationship by definition does nothing to make the pain of longing go away. Even the love addict who is trapped in one of those unhealthy, dangerous codependent relationships is longing for a version of that relationship that only exists in their imagination. Nostalgesia.
The next neologism is from psychologist Susan Anderson. This column from Your Tango does a Five Things wrap-up of “abandoholism,” the perverse attraction to being abandoned. I grok abandoholism. It’s a two-pronged mindfuck: First, there’s chasing after people who are obviously unavailable. As the old song put it, “How can I miss you if you won’t go away.” Then there’s being the person who is, down deep, unavailable yourself because if you’re not really with someone in the first place, they can’t really leave you.
But here’s the thing about addictions, whether to Jack Daniels or Jack and Danielle. They work, until they stop working. And we won’t give them up until what they’re doing to us outweighs what they are doing for us.
As my new pen-pal put it: “Sometimes I don’t want to heal, but I want to control my addiction enough to keep motivated on living. Of course I’m smart enough to know that I can’t control it, and it’s just matter of time before I get in trouble again.”
Very old joke: Granddad catches teenager masturbating. Tells him, “If you keep doing that, you’ll go blind.” Teenager replies, “Can I just do it until I need glasses?” That’s how we are with sex and love addiction. We don’t want the bad parts — the divorce, the unemployment, the STD’s, the godawful pain of withdrawal — but neither can we envision giving up the champagne sparkle of anticipation and infatuation. If we stop acting out entirely, won’t we be throwing the baby out with the bathwater?
Note to self: There is no baby. There is only bathwater, and it’s pretty dirty and I think someone pee’d in it.
I smile every time a love addict goes into therapy or joins a self-help group like SLAA with the specific goal of getting in a healthy relationship. It’s kind of like going to AA so you can enjoy a cocktail at Happy Hour. I’m not saying love addicts in recovery never find partners. I’m saying that if my life focus is on finding love… if I define myself by my relationship status… if my self-worth is determined by whether or not men find me desirable… if I am incomplete without a lover… that’s not recovery. It’s kind of the opposite.
“I keep putting myself in situations where I get into trouble again.” That’s another line in the letter that I related to. Continually doing the same thing and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. In AA they joke about the “ism” in “alcoholism” standing for “Incredibly Short Memory.” I don’t know about you, but “This time is different” is the inciting incident of every dumpster-fire of a romance I’ve ever embarked upon. It isn’t even a conscious thought. It’s more like waking up a week or a month or a decade later and realizing, “That wasn’t different at all. That was the exact same thing with different hair.”
So let’s stop glamorizing nostalgia. Whether it’s your grumpy uncle longing for a Mom-and-apple-pie America that probably never existed, or you longing for a soulmate who probably never existed either. Ditch the nostalgesia and make room for the here and now, because that’s where it’s all happening. Literally.