Nectarines were my first addiction.
On my fourth birthday, in the hot South Carolina summer, my mom bought me four huge, ripe, and juicy nectarines. Despite her warning — “Kristina, don’t eat more than three nectarines” — I defiantly ate all four and then spent my birthday party with terrible diarrhea, calling out from the bathroom, “Is everybody having a good time out there?” I did the same thing at my 5th birthday party. Nectarines were my favorite fruit, and I could not moderate my intake. After these debacles, every time we went to the grocery store and I raced to the produce section to inhale the sweet nectarine scent, I heard my mom implore, “Kristina, don’t eat more than three nectarines.”
My mom: Southerner, eccentric person, and staunch feminist. She stands at 5’2″ and wears feminist T-shirts stating “well-behaved women rarely make history” and footie socks with the little balls on the back of the ankles. Arriving home from elementary school with play dates, I prayed we wouldn’t walk in on my mom doing high knees and punching the air to her Richard Simmons’ Sweatin to the Oldies videos. While she belted out “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” I cringed and feared social suicide.
My mom, as a southerner, is queen of the common cliché. She usually shared these gems with me in moments of difficulty. When I sat in a pool of fresh dog pee on our living room floor one morning and then went to school with a perfectly round green circle on the butt cheek of my white sweat pants, people made fun of me. “You gotta roll with the punches, Kristina.” When I did a sloppy job of scrubbing the bathtub as my weekly chore, she told me to redo the task using more “elbow grease.” She added, “Quit going around your ass to get to your elbow.” And when sick from eating my favorite fruit: “Don’t eat more than three nectarines.” Because my mom said it so often, I assumed that it was both a truism and a common cliché.
After a few years of my mom’s reminders, I began to hear her voice in my head each time I considered doing anything that might be excessive, like too much drinking or eating. Don’t eat more than three nectarines, Kristina. I also started sharing this pearl of wisdom with friends, and sometimes even classmates and acquaintances. A classmate shared aloud before a big exam that he didn’t study enough because he had “too much fun” over the weekend. I responded, “Yeah, totally, me too. You know, don’t eat more than three nectarines.” The class was silent. I certainly noticed that people gave me quizzical looks, but mostly I figured they were being deeply contemplative about the existential difficulty of moderation. I continued sharing this cliche regularly for fifteen years. At age 21, one of my friends had a hangover, so I responded, “Well don’t eat more than three nectarines.” She paused and looked irritated and confused. “Duh,” I said, ”the common cliché? Everything in moderation?” “What the fuck are you talking about, Kristina?” she retorted. At this moment I realized that oh, my god, there is no common cliché that includes anything about nectarines.
Ironically, a few years later, I developed a severe and life-threatening allergy to nectarines. I still crave their juicy sweetness but I cannot breathe if I eat one, much in the same way that addictions to substances and behaviors create a damning longing for something that is momentarily euphoric and yet potentially life-threatening.
In addition to nectarines, I developed other addictions. My addiction is a product of experiencing homophobia and sexism and feeling like I never belonged. Growing up in rural South Carolina, I felt tormented for not being the right kind of girl. Instead of wearing bows and dresses and winning a beauty pageant crown, I wore mismatched clothes to school and modeled crowns made out of my underwear at home for my family. Instead of being a pretty cheerleader or dancer, I looked like Peter Pan and aspired to be a WWF wrestler with arms as big as Hulk Hogan. Instead of learning that gender and sexual orientation are a vast universe of possibilities, I learned I was weird and felt alone, ashamed, and incapable of belonging. Not knowing anyone like me made me desperate for connection, so I tried a few attention-seeking tactics.
In preparation to attend a high school football game — a central gathering place in my town — I affixed band-aids in crosses all over my face in hopes someone would think I had a gnarly accident and ask me to tell the story. Instead, my mom commented that the band-aids would rip out the hair on my face and told me to remove them. I then began pretending to be the family dog, asking my dad to call me Cujo, and running through my house on hands and knees barking and trying to bite my sister. Rabid dogs get a lot of attention. As I got older, I started seeking romantic and sexual attention from anyone who showed interest in me. Sex and love addiction quickly became the most effective tool I ever found for escaping my loneliness.
I had learned from my parents that I am responsible for all of my choices and actions, and yet addiction left me feeling that I had no control over my ability to make healthy decisions.
In 1994, my family purchased an internet subscription for AOL and, after that classic long dial-up process with loud screeching to signal a successful connection, I found chat rooms filled with other lonely rural kids. I watched the O.J. Simpson car chase online while messaging with kids in LA in the “bored teen” chat room, finally feeling connected to something outside of my small town. I quickly learned I could use sex to get love and attention. I sent emails that cost $0.60 each to men who said I was pretty, so I gave them my home address, phone number, and picture, until I owed $500 for sending over 800 emails in a month. When men who said they were twenty and liked 14-year-old girls called me and masturbated on the phone and asked me to send them naked pictures, I got scared and hung up but talked to them again anyway the next day. When a man who said he looked just like Jeffrey Dahmer, the cannibal serial killer, wanted to come to my house and asked me to be his online girlfriend, I said yes because I wanted connection more than I wanted to feel safe.
When I finally came out as a lesbian in high school and started dating women, I believed that finding and keeping a girlfriend would prevent me from ever feeling lonely or unloved. I was incapable of being single even for a day, and when someone broke up with me, I wanted to die and experienced flu-like withdrawal symptoms, including physical aches, shivers, and nausea. I cheated on partners so I would have a new girlfriend lined up before my relationship ended and would not have to feel sad. Sometimes I went on multiple dates before relationships ended to guarantee that I would have multiple options. When friends and I discussed our ideal attributes in a partner, I half jokingly stated that my only requirement was for someone to make eye contact with me.
[…] I repeatedly found my rational thinking overpowered by a self-destructive internal force that propelled me towards specific people, places, and activities.
When monogamous relationships no longer delivered a euphoric payoff, I began binge drinking and using sex to feel numb. I drank 10 shots of tequila so I wouldn’t remember my boundaries and could have sex with someone my close friend was dating, even though I also already had a girlfriend. The next day, my teammates thought it was funny when I spent part of my soccer game lying down on the field. When people commented that my life seemed like a lesbian drama-filled episode of The L Word, I decried the characterization as patriarchal stereotypes even though I felt afraid of myself because I could not stop my behaviors. As my addiction progressed, I became fixated on fleeting moments of euphoria, escape, or numbness. I lied, cheated, stole money, and sacrificed relationships, jobs, grades, integrity, self-respect, and my physical health.
I had learned from my parents that I am responsible for all of my choices and actions, and yet addiction left me feeling that I had no control over my ability to make healthy decisions. Instead, I felt powerless and bewildered by this internal force that led me to self-destructive behaviors. In some ways, I demonstrated a high level of capability, completing two master’s degrees at the height of my addictive behavior and binge drinking — but even in these areas, I lacked confidence and felt worthless. While others developed hobbies and skills in their teens and 20s, I pursued sex and love fervently. I never learned to pay bills, find hobbies, make friends without lying to them, and soothe myself without using sex to numb my feelings when I felt any emotions. I reached my “bottom” when I learned that my ex-girlfriend was dating someone and I could not stop myself from pursuing the same person for sex, even though I disliked her, because I felt vengeful. I hated her, I hated myself, and I felt powerless over my behavior. I justified my actions publicly by espousing sex-positive politics, but felt empty, lonely, and desperate to be loved. When I started lying to my therapist about my behavior, she commented that it seemed like I could not stop using sex to get love no matter the consequence, so I attended my first Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meeting.
My life changed slowly but dramatically. I began to attend 12-step meetings daily, worked the 12 steps, and found a sponsor who told me he loved me until I no longer felt disgusted with myself or with him for thinking that I could be lovable. I got “sober,” meaning I stopped cheating, having one night stands with people I met in dance clubs, and pursuing people who are unavailable. Initially, I was not sure which behaviors related to sex and love were addictive for me. As I reviewed my patterns over time, I learned that I felt compelled to repeat some behaviors — like cheating — even when I wanted to stop and the consequences escalated. Similar to my difficulty limiting my consumption to three nectarines, I repeatedly found my rational thinking overpowered by a self-destructive internal force that propelled me towards specific people, places, and activities. If there was some behavior I could not stop doing, then it was probably addictive.
I became willing to stop cheating and flirting with people in dance clubs, among other behaviors, even when the internal obsession and compulsion felt agonizing. I stayed single when relationships ended even though I felt worthless and scared that no one would ever love me. I cried regularly thinking of all the harm I caused to myself and others and prayed I would learn to behave with kindness and integrity. I had to learn to feel all of the loneliness, emptiness, and fear of being unloveable that my addiction masked for years. Eventually, I began feeling a peacefulness and an ability to make rational decisions that became more powerful than the compulsion on most days. Instead of craving euphoria and numbness, I wanted serenity and calm. One of the first times I ever felt content with myself was when I was running on the treadmill at the gym and crying audibly watching A League of Their Own on my iPhone while the person next to me simultaneously laughed and looked concerned. After eight years in recovery, I’m grateful that instead of the volatile life of my 20s, I enjoy simpler hobbies like completing jigsaw puzzles and playing the ukulele, activities that I described as boring in the past. Most importantly, I feel peace because I have integrity, as a result of my willingness to participate fully in the process of recovery. Ultimately, I try daily to adhere to my mother’s wisdom in the important cliché, “Don’t eat more than three nectarines.”
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