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Romance in Recovery

Early recovery is a time of great confusion and uncertainty for everyone. While many won’t admit their uneasiness with the idea of a new lifestyle, ongoing for forever, without the comfort and security of their most sought after companion-drugs and alcohol-it is certainly going to be an uneasy time. A great number will look around for substitute behaviors to cushion the discomfort. Not a big surprise, this is a group of people known to need something to take the edge off. Now that the most abused something is no longer an option, new (or perhaps well-familiar old) ideas will turn to possible alternatives.

You might think that marriage would be a deterrent to romance in early recovery…it isn’t. Nor is a vow of chastity, promises of fidelity, nor any other common brake for other people. Addicts are a determined lot, and will power is not their issue. However, finding a healthy outlet for newly felt emotional dis-regulation is a common issue in early recovery. Why? Life without drugs and alcohol is a new concept and certainly a new feeling for this group. Replacing the drinking and using behaviors is a tough job when those behaviors have become an entire lifestyle. Most will begin attending 12-step groups and meeting new sober friends. This is a common meeting ground for new romances to begin. It’s a classic; boy sees girl (or whatever mix works!) across a crowded meeting room…their eyes lock…their palms get sweaty, their breathing becomes labored, and they have butterflies in their stomachs. They walk toward one-another and one of them speaks…the rest is all a bad take-off from a well-worn romantic comedy.

The problem begins for the recovering addict when they have pleasant sensations that strike and trigger a pleasure response in their brain, whether it be caused during a sexual encounter or in the first feeling of their heart beating pitter-patter. They have activated the part of their brain that houses their addiction. And now they believe it is love, although chances are good that it isn’t. But newly recovering, they do not yet identify the feeling as a type of high, just like those that they were fond of while using and drinking. That this part of the brain will become addicted (again!) to the sensations being produced in this encounter, whether it stays in the meeting room where they first gazed, or taken to the bedroom, and all stages in-between. What their brain is telling them, is Hey! This is great! More, please!

Remember that? People without addictive tendencies outgrow this type of emotional/physical attraction to a possible sexual partner at the age of 13 or so. It is a part of development everyone goes through. However, an addict, whose development stopped at the onset of their addictive behaviors, probably did not pass through this phase and does not understand the transitory nature of pleasure. And never discovered that it isn’t love at first sight, something we all wanted to believe in when we were young. Most people outgrow this idea and find that love is something that takes hard work to develop and that it is best tackled by emotionally healthy and available adults. Probably not appropriate at this time, but you cannot say that to a recovering addict. They will bend heaven and hell to prove their right to have love at first sight. And who are we to tell them they can’t? It is always an option that they may be right.

Kelly McClanahan has an MSW in clinical social work, with a specialization in substance abuse treatment. Having worked in this field for over 20 years, she is currently working on her certification as an addictions’ counselor.

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