What Addicts Teach Us About Love

By Sam Jolman | July 30, 2012

“People sometimes bond to objects incapable of reciprocating…  If a person’s brain targets an emotionally inert would-be partner, attachment needs can propel him to connect with that which cannot satisfy him, like a moth battering its wings against a street lamp in the soft summer night.” A General Theory of Love

“It happened this way: I fell in love and then because the love was ruining everything I care about, I had to fall out.”  Caroline Knapp

“I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made,Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.”  Psalm 139

Every addict has a first love, that one substance he returns to most frequently, the high he finds more invigorating than others. Its much like returning to the comforting arms of a familiar lover, or at least the one he can’t seem to break up with.  I hear this in the story of every addict I work with.  From pot to pills and everything in between (alcohol, food, exercise, sex, pornography, heroine, nicotine, etc ad nauseam) – to someone its a lover.  Oh, sure most addicts dabble in other things.  But they prefer just one.

Matt used to smoke a ton of pot during college.  Its how he started his day.  Everyday.  Wake up, use the bathroom, smoke pot.  “At that time, I wouldn’t talk to anyone unless I was high,” he said. “My normal required being high.”  On weekends he drank a little bit and did some harder drugs.  But no drug was as close to his heart and essential to his well being as marijuana.

Jaime on the other hand sold marijuana to have money for her bar tabs.  She worked at a restaurant and used it as the platform for her drug dealing.  “I never liked pot.  It was totally just a business for me.” Drinking was her thing.  She is now happily in recovery, but can still recall her passionate pursuit of alcohol.  She kept a bottle of vodka in her purse, under her car seat, on the night stand.  It was a constant companion – in every memory of her life for about a decade.

Darren, another addict, drank at bars because he knew he could pick up women there.  He was a single man and a sex addict, pursuing one night stands with the desperation of a junky.  Alcohol never took for him really.  Sure he drank some.  “But drunk sex is not as fun,” he once told me, “So I don’t drink or do anything else all that much.  It makes the rush of sex all the better.”

Can you hear it, that one high held faithfully above all others?  Ask any addict and you’ll see it on his face or hear it in his stories when he starts talking about his drug of choice.  Its such a personal relationship. With that one special substance or experience, he is truly having a love affair.

Caroline Knapp begins her memoir, Drinking: A Love Story, with these words of honest ardor. “A love story.  Yes: this is a love story.  Its about passion, sensual pleasure, deep pulls, lust, fears, yearning hunger.  Its about needs so strong they’re crippling.  Its about saying good-bye to something you can’t fathom living without… By the end [alcohol] was the single most important relationship in my life.”

Every alcoholic has their specific drink – that case of Keystone Light or Red Bull and vodka or white wine from a box.  A food addict has that favorite pastry or pizza joint. I once told a client he needed to write a goodbye letter to a specific porn star he always looked for on the internet during his pornography binges.  She more than others enraptured him.  It was hardly a fake breakup on his end.  Addicts are very particular people, with a well refined (though never dignified) taste.

Not only is there a specific lover, but also a unique way in which the addict makes love to his or her addiction.  Its well documented that each addict has a unique ritual of getting high.  The setting, the time of day, the friends.  Its that specific liquor store stopped at after work before heading home.  Or that one favorite band whose music gets played while smoking pot. Its that same chair or room or time of night where pornography is consumed.

Caroline Knapp tells of her ritual.  “I loved the sounds of drink: the slide of a cork as it eased out of a wine bottle, the distinct glug-glug of booze pouring into a glass, the clatter of ice cubes in a tumbler.  I loved the rituals, the camaraderie of drinking with others.”

One heroin addicted described to me with pride and affection the little kit he made to cook his rock before shooting up.  He told me the rush he got every time he meticulously set up his station in his garage, the ritual itself all a part of the pleasure.  You’d think he had been describing to me the intimate details of his love life.

My friend Mary Ellen used to smoke.  She can still recall with nostalgia that feeling of putting a marlboro light up to her mouth.  She will mimic it for you if you ask, down to the subtle yet elegant hand movement to get the little piece of tobacco off her lip, left on the filter from the box.  She closes her eyes as she remembers and sighs a little as she says, “Oh, I miss it sometimes,” like she’s reliving a romantic trip to Italy with an ex-lover.

What is this about addicts?  Why this fidelity?  Why all the commitment, passion, and attention to detail?  Shouldn’t getting high be enough?  Isn’t the point of any addiction just getting numb as fast as possible?  Why waste all this time with the process?

It speaks to the shape of our heart.  We are wired for passionate and loyal love.  We were designed to be faithful lovers, faithful friends.  And it shows it self here of all places – in relation to a substance or experience.  Addicts point us all to a profound truth: we are created for relationship, for love, to depend on others, and to be faithful.

And they tell us another thing too: We can never rid ourselves of our essential humanness.  No matter how dark or lost or ravaged we become by our addictions (or anything else for that matter), we can never escape the beautiful design of our hearts.  The hand of God has restrained us of from sinking the knife into our core.  We are not able to destroy our original glory.  We can never kill off our hearts.

We will always long for a lover, for a god, for someone to give our life to and depend on.  We are wired for deep, euphoric, adventurous, unique, faithful relationship.

And there in lies the hope for an addict.  If she can see this whisper of glory, this hint of her truest design, she may realize that her addiction will never be enough.  That in fact her addiction is only making a fool out of her.   This love affair with a substance, though relieving and enticing is fundamentally degrading and humiliating.  It mocks the beauty of her hearts design. Oh, that the scales could fall from her eyes.

Author Margaret Bullit Jonas says, “Every act of addiction is a criminal act, the most ferocious of criminal acts against the self.”  And she knows first hand.  This line comes straight from her memoir Holy Hunger about her love affair with food.  Only when she came to recognize the holiness of her desire could she see the violent effects of her eating disorder.

My counselor friend Sharon Hersh told the story of walking with a woman caught in the throws of alcoholism.  Like all addicts, alcohol became a consuming passion she gave herself to more and more.  For her it was red wine that she drank every night at home alone from a giant big gulp cup.  Yes, a 44oz plastic cup long, faded I imagine as they all get from frequent washings.  During one counseling session they actually measured out with water in wine glasses how much she was actually consuming.  The visual of that many glasses on a table was staggering.

Sharon marveled at the choice of a big gulp cup.  It screamed something symbolic.  An aged red wine, the accompaniment of special meals like first dates and weddings, consumed from a discardable, late night dirty gas station cup intended to deliver as quickly as possible injuriously large amounts of soda. The cup mocked the beauty of the wine.  Sharon wisely saw in this the symbolism of how she was treating her own heart.  Here was a woman, created for beautiful fidelity, whoring herself out to alcoholism.

Sharon gave her the assignment to buy a goblet, a really nice expensive crystal goblet.  A strange even dangerous request, some might say, potentially inviting her further into her addiction.  But Sharon knows drinking is not about alcohol.  Its about a posture of the heart, a willingness to degrade what is good.  She was symbolically trying to get this woman to honor her hearts design, with the hopes that if she did, God may open her heart to the mockery of her addiction.

Its the choice every addict has to make.  Your addiction is making a fool out of you:  Will you have the heart to see it and end the relationship?  That’s the thing about rock bottoms: it can always get worse.  There are always new levels of loss and humiliation you can fall to.  Will you have the heart to recognize it?  Will you risk accepting the invitation from God that you were made for more.


  • Hmm, such good words. I look back on my own alcohol addiction in my 20’s and think that I really “knew” these things on a deep level. But it wasn’t until a friend came alongside and walked with me, lived as Jesus to me, that I finally had the courage to do what I’d wanted to do for a decade. There on a mountain hillside I raised my glass to the heavens and said to God: “Take me, I’m yours”, tremblingly toasting hope with what would be my last glass of wine.
    Keep speaking to the heart, Sam, even (especially) when you don’t see much happening; it really, really matters!

    • Sallie, that is such a great story! I love it! And thanks for the encouragement on my writing. God isn’t going to let me quit anytime soon 🙂

  • Sam, these are such rich and knowing words; such a heart-level glance at the way our longings get lost on lesser (yet highly enticing) lovers. Thank you.

    • You are welcome, Kjersten, from one “heart’ focused counselor to another. And thanks for your blessing on my words.

  • Sam this is my favorite line ”
    We will always long for a lover, for a god, for someone to give our life to and depend on. We are wired for deep, euphoric, adventurous, unique, faithful relationship.” How very very true. Keep going.

    • Thanks Aaron. Yes! I’m stricken with that line too. And thanks for the encouragement to keep at it. Just read a blog on shipping it even if its V1.0 (wink wink nudge nudge). Super encouraging!

  • Sam, do u ever find that some struggle w addictions to suicidal thots/escapism? Does that fit in the idea of what u r saying here?


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