*TRIGGER WARNING* – descriptions of obsessive/hypomanic feelings
[The quotes at the beginning of each Part of this post, are from ‘The Buddha and the Borderline’ by Kiera Van Gelder.]
Part I – What
“Of the three poisons that obstruct the mind’s clarity…..attachment is the most difficult of the afflictions. You have to be constantly vigilant, or it will take over your mind.”
Sometimes I wonder what love feels like. What it feels like for other people, and how they would describe it. Some people say that ‘love is not a feeling’, by which they mean that love is a matter of the head as well as the heart, and that feelings must be backed up by actions, or at least be consistent with one’s actions, otherwise love is just an empty four-letter word.
So often, love feels like an empty four-letter feeling. When I try and cast my heart-eye inward, to try and pinpoint what it feels like, it’s as if I’m searching in the dark, groping for something utterly elusive. Sometimes that disturbs me. At other times, I convince myself that it’s just a question of a perfectly natural inability to describe the indescribable. That it’s not a question of some deep flaw within me. And yet –
I can tell you with absolute clarity what obsessive love (or attachment) feels like. It’s almost as if the quality of reality itself is dependent upon the intensity of obsession – if a feeling is not completely overwhelming me and taking me over, then it’s as if I’m not feeling it at all. In a way that is very hard to describe, it’s as if I know there is a feeling there, but I’m not quite sensing it. I feel it – but I don’t feel it. Maybe it’s just a matter of terminology – maybe there’s no actual difference between the two.
Or it could be that the difficulty stems from the calibration of my emotions. On my emotional Richter scale, the magnitude ten earthquakes completely overshadow the the magnitude four tremors. It’s as if having been exposed to the thumping bass sounds of music at full volume, my senses have lost the ability to hear a full range of sounds. Intense emotions drown out all other music – I can feel the vibrations, but I cannot hear the melody. The opposite of intensity feels like emptiness – even when there’s something there.
Part II – How
“As soon as I’m touched, all of my power drains away and I’ll become a supplicant again.”
In my own drama of obsessive love, there are two players – The One Who Chases, and The One Who Falls. I think and feel very differently about them. I despise the game playing of the first, and am moved by the vulnerability of the second. I don’t want to accept the former, but I’d like to hold the latter in my arms. I suspect my therapist would tell me that the ‘two’ are just one little girl, looking for something that is missing. That I’m ‘splitting’ her out into all-bad and all-good. In which case, I ultimately have to either disown them both or embrace them both together.
The initial stages of a relationship are heady for many people, and the excitement of the ‘chase’, or the thrill of the flirtation, is intoxicating. I don’t think there is anything unusual in that. But for me, there is an incredibly addictive quality to those feelings. I can’t imagine a more powerful drug, or a more potent high. I wish that I could plug you in to how it feels, when I’m in the grip of that rush. I wish that I hook you up to my IV, so that whatever’s flowing through my veins, could flow through yours too. If I imagine it, it looks like liquid gold. If I sense it with my eyes closed, it feels like bundles of electricity bouncing around inside me, trying to get out. It’s a whirlwind of breathless expectation and thought in action, all swirling around a centre of powerful invincibility. The perfect storm. The perfect calm.
I flit from one thought to another – I am all over the place, but also just in one place. The place of this feeling, here and now, over-riding everything else. I see with perfect clarity. I shut my eyes to feel a little deeper. Rational mind slowly recedes and the focus of my inner mind narrows down to the width of a pin. I shut my eyes, and it feels like I’m standing at the top of a rollercoaster, about to jump on and join the ride. It feels like I’m waiting to fall.
The ‘falling’ happens when I’m not watching. Before I know it I’m caught in the grip of something just as intense, and just as addictive. There is nothing exciting or euphoric about this phase of obsessive love. It is horribly painful, and it is all-consuming. The One Who Chases is under the illusion that she is powerful and in control, although I know that that’s a lie. But the illusion gives her strength, and allows her to revel in the chase. The One Who Falls knows that she is powerless and helpless; that she is in the grip of something, and someone, that she cannot control. She is at the mercy of her intense emotions, and The One Who Chases has abandoned her to them, defenceless and alone.
When I’m in this phase of an obsessive attachment, the other person becomes my entire world. They are my first thought upon waking, and my last thought at night. They are a place (either in reality, or in my head) that I escape to constantly and willingly, losing myself in every conceivable way. As desperately as The One Who Chases wants to take someone else over, the One Who Falls wants to be entirely taken over and engulfed by the object of her attachment. This phase of obsessive love is so painful because although I idealise the centre of my universe, they are always only human, and always just beyond my reach. Connectedness feels only ever partial, and my neediness is like a well that just gets deeper, the more I try and fill it.
Apart from a need for intensity, the One Who Chases and The One Who Falls have one other thing in common. They both long to be touched. The One Who Falls wants to be touched in order to feel loved. The One Who Chases wants to be touched in order to feel alive. And that is her undoing. Her illusion of control unravels, and she has to leave the stage. A single touch can floor her, but it’s The One Who Falls who ends up in a heap, horrified at the spotlight thrown upon her need.
Part III – Why
“Why does this always happen? …..it’s a reflection of some sort of deep trouble – a desire that eclipses reason and takes me over…”
It’s very easy to judge ourselves for our obsessive attachments, and to hate ourselves for them, particularly as they can lead us to behave in ways that we may consider to be ‘out of character’ or even ‘wrong’. Sometimes, despite the pain, it feels that there is a certain beauty to obsessive love. It feels self-sacrificial in its other-centred-ness. Love is often described in personified terms –‘love is patient’, ‘love is kind’. But although obsessive love can feel self-sacrificial, it’s more like a force, than a person. And as a force, the darker side of it can sometimes be devoid both of reason, and of morality. It’s not that obsessive love chooses ‘wrong’ over ‘right’ – it’s just that in a world taken over entirely by the object at its centre, nothing else seems to matter.
But rather than judging myself for my obsessive attachments, I am trying to figure out what they can teach me. Rather than trying to find the fault within myself, I am trying to find the explanation. Let me be clear – I am not trying to whitewash painful situations or make excuses for hurtful behaviour. But there is a reason (or a multiplicity of reasons), for our obsessive relationships. This is not just ‘the way we are’, where ‘the the way we are’ is an indirect way of saying ‘broken – cannot be mended’. For me, I think obsessive relationships are about two things. They are about what was missing, or what became twisted, in terms of childhood attachments. But they are also a coping strategy.
More than one therapist has suggested to me that my obsessive relationships were a way of coping with life. It seemed an odd idea at first, but looking back, the truth of that explanation is obvious. Those relationships, whether ‘in my head’, or played out in reality, all occurred at particularly difficult or dark times for me. They were an escape, they took me (mentally) out of the situation I was in, and they gave me something else to immerse myself in. They were a distraction of the most powerful kind. I used to wonder why I only started self-harming a couple of years ago, until a therapist once again suggested that it was because I was replacing one coping mechanism with another. Obsessional relationships may have been a ‘readily available’ coping strategy in the past, but given changes in circumstances, such as working, and being a wife and mother, they could no longer operate in the same way.
A friend of mine recently gave me an incredibly helpful way of describing what is going on with me, in situations when I might otherwise be tempted to judge myself. She said that I was ‘processing something’. It seems to me that that is a much kinder way to talk about the patterns of obsessional relationships that we can fall into, while also motivating us to try and discover what is really going on.
‘Processing’ can mean so many things. It can mean becoming obsessed with your best friend; it can mean having an internet flirtation with someone you barely know; it can mean ‘falling in love’ with someone in a position of power. And sometimes, it can mean inappropriately trying to push boundaries with someone that you are just starting to trust. I have been so busy keeping watch on The One Who Falls, and guarding against the possibility of developing feelings of obsessive love in the context of my current therapy, that I didn’t even notice when The One Who Falls opened the door for The One Who Chases to come out and play. On the one hand, I want to lock her away keep her behind closed doors. On the other hand, I know that there could be no safer environment for her to play in. No other place in which she can be herself, without fear of condemnation, or without risk of causing long-term hurt to others or to herself.
So in the name of ‘processing’, as deeply uncomfortable as it may feel – let the games begin.