In January, Pernille Rose Grønkjær called me up and invited me to New York City. I had taken part in a documentary on love addiction two years ago with G, my “person of addiction” and it was finally finished. Grønkjær, the director, wanted me to come up and be one of the first to see it. I was thrilled, but scared as hell that exposing my “story” would be a loss of personal dignity. If there was one thing I wanted to avoid it was being presented as a “junkie” or some reality TV nightmare– hard lighting, stark camera angles, disproportionate, ugly presentation, compromising bodily or facial expressions- face down in the gutter type stuff. That wasn’t me.
So when I sat up in her tiny hotel room (in a chair at the foot of the bed) at the Paramount on Times Square, her laptop in front of me and the earbuds on, I have to admit, I squirmed in my seat with anticipation. What was her vision for this film? Would she do justice to defining a personality disorder that could be as simple as dating men to avoid individual responsibility or as complex and pathological as fatal attraction? Or would she try to make the documentary as hideous and bizarre as possible for the sake of ratings and reviews, only capturing the extreme end of the subject? If you haven’t noticed, American TV does that—makes mountains out of molehills, turns a rather benign, quirky topic into an outlandish, extraordinary tale of bizarre proportions to the point where whatever is being presented looks bleak and disturbing. I was hoping to avoid that too.
Of course, in my segment, all I really do is sit on a bench with G, Princeton University behind us, and describe what it was like (ahem, note the past tense) to stay in a relationship where I was underappreciated and putting up with less than ideal treatment from a guy who did, in fact, love me. Is that really “love addiction” or just being a sucker? I’m still not sure. And yet, there I was, at the beginning of the documentary—my face plastered on the big screen, discussing love and addiction. Dignity seemingly intact.
Or was it?
The six other character, whose lives were being lived concurrently with the filming of the documentary, seemed as though they’d sacrificed their dignity (it’s so easy to recognize faults in others; nearly impossible to recognize it in yourself). Christian, for example, is a long-haired musician, living with his mother, dating a woman online whom he only met twice, and who ends up breaking up with him over the phone. Tracy is an overweight, tattooed mother of 38 who’s in a relationship with a 23-year-old, unemployed guy. At one point she finds out she’s pregnant and despite her boyfriend’s obvious horror and rejection, she says she hopes to keep the baby anyway. Adelaide is a rather attractive, well-spoken, petite actress from New York, a torchbearer, who had refused to let go of the man she’d fallen in love with and had previously been suicidal. And Jennifer, the most haunting of them all, is a morbidly obese love and sex addict who, when lonely enough, goes into town and offers herself up to any man (or group of men) who will have her for the night.
This brought me to question whether or not I really could maintain my dignity if I am presented with such a raw, exposed line-up of folks who just can’t seem to get their acts together. I mean, let’s face it, I am exposing the same desperation, the same vulnerability, and the same despicable weakness. I am, after all, one of them. Am I not?
As the documentary progresses—80 minutes worth of up close, personal stories unfolding, each one seemingly more tragic than the last, Grønkjær sits on the bed half working, half watching my reactions. When Tracy says, “I know this guy’s not good for me, and that’s why I break up with him time after time, but I can only do it for a little while before I have to go back,” my eyes well up. It brings back painful memories, the embarrassment of who I used to be. At another part of the documentary I’m mortified at Christian’s denial. He really thinks this woman loves him and yet, it’s so obvious she doesn’t. Again, another reminder of my own past transgressions. But it’s when Jennifer, sitting on a faded, worn sofa in a dark, empty room says that her love addiction “is an attempt to fill the void we all have inside us,” that I lose it. The dignity I thought I’d be able to hold onto goes out the window. The reality is, there’s nothing dignified about this story.
The documentary, aptly named Love Addict – Stories of dreams, obsession and longing, presents an idea—love addiction—for debate and discussion. But it walks too fine a line between depicting actual addiction and poor management of one’s own life. What we call addiction, does not appear to be the case in the lives of these individuals. Instead, you have my segment, which comes in the beginning, and which “describes” what love addiction is—almost psychoanalytically. I describe the pain and loneliness of waiting for G’s call, of putting up with his drug use, of having no sex or even touching for over a year and of not being able to end the relationship despite obvious signs that it was over. It’s a story of frustrated love most people can identify with–at least to a point.
And then you have the others’ segments, which “show” each individual’s mis-management of his or her life. People who attempt to hold on to love, but go about it in a very dysfunctional way. On the one hand you have characters that are deeply aware of their behavior and on the other you have characters who are clueless. There is some disparity, and yet there’s not. Realistically, whether I like to admit it or not, we’re all the same. We are all trapped in addictive behaviors, unable to get out.
What I initially thought the documentary failed to do is present a more black and white, cookie cutter version of the addiction. And yet, I think that’s crux of the problem—defining love addiction is a near impossibility. There is no one black and white manifestation of the dysfunction and thus, why so many terms exist to define it: love addict, romance addict, ambivalent love addict, torchbearer, avoidant, and so on.
Unlike drug addiction or alcohol addiction, love addiction is not black and white. An alcoholic is addicted to alcohol and so he drinks and cannot stop. A drug addict is addicted to drugs and so he shoots heroin or pops a pill and cannot stop. Well, a love addicted is addicted to love, but there’s a myriad of ways this manifests itself. The addiction is uniquely personal like a fingerprint; it is an amalgam of distorted behavioral traits that comes out in the realm of a person’s dating life and/or relationships. It’s vague, mercurial and evolving. Susan Peabody writes in her book, Addiction to Love:
“Love addiction comes in many forms. Some love addicts carry a torch for unavailable people. Some love addicts obsess when they fall in love. Some love addicts get addicted to the euphoric effects of romance. Others cannot let go of a toxic relationship even if they are unhappy, depressed, lonely, neglected or in danger. Some love addicts are codependent and others are narcissistic. Some love addicts use sex to manage feelings; others are sexually anorexic. What we all have in common is that we are powerless over our distorted thoughts, feelings and behavior when it comes to love, fantasies and relationships.” – Susan Peabody, Addiction to Love
Like any addiction, love addiction is nearly impossible to control. You may recognize you’ve got a problem, you may even be so self-aware as to psychoanalyze yourself. But you keep repeating unhealthy patterns of behavior without the ability to control them. I’m not so sure the American public gets this, when it concerns love, or anything else addictive. I often hear, “if something’s ruining your life, then just stop doing it.” Then again, this is the country that has bought millions of copies of “He’s Just Not That Into You,” ominously indicitive of a possibly greater probem of love addiction in a younger generation. And yet, it’s difficult for most to understand why someone who “gets it” and recognizes the problem cannot change their behavior. I’m not so sure the documentary makes this point clear. But what the documentary does do is offer a glimpse of a rather undignified way of existing. For love addicts out there who can relate to this, that just might be the catalyst that helps incite a desire to change, and to recognize that it’s not OK to stay with someone if they no longer love you, if they beat you, neglect you, avoid you or hurt you.
What the documentary fails to do is present the less glamorous, more mundane side of the issue: recovery. Recovery rates for addictive behaviors, like alcoholism, are disappointingly low (according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, only one-third (35.9 percent) of U.S. adults with alcohol dependence that began more than one year ago are now in full recovery). In that sense, recovery is a rare bird, an anomaly and therefore, you’d think, worthy of a documentary in and of itself. And yet, recovery is, for lack of a better term, boring. It’s making peace with daily life, living without drama, sticking to values and believing in your own self-worth. It’s dignified. And who wants to pay money to see that on the big screen when instead, you can watch some poor sucker licking Jack Daniels off the kitchen floor? And yet, it may be more important to tell one side of the story (addiction) so as to inspire the other (recovery).
Who can tell? At the moment, the film is creative, aesthetic, and intense, with a fairy-tale-like, evanescence threaded throughout. At certain points, there’s a little girl in a delicate white dress who walks through an enchanted forest looking for her “Prince.” A young boy meanders through the rooms of an old house, looking for his “Princess.” The fairytale scenes are a reminder that we all grew up believing that one day we would find our Prince Charming or Princess. In that sense, are love addicts that much different from anyone else when it comes to wanting true love? But the main gist of the documentary is our tales of perverse, twisted reality– what we think we have versus what we actually have. And yet, the characters are likeable. I found myself rooting for them, feeling sorry for them, relating to them, and cringing at their shameless confessions. I even wanted to give a gentle pat on the back to the old me, the girl up on the screen I used to know long ago, and tell her, “You’ll be OK. You just have to believe in yourself.” I should never have had my doubts that Grønkjær would fail to create an alluring work. The fact that she’s from Denmark is proof. European filmmakers can shoot someone sitting on the toilet and make it look like pure art.
And honestly, that’s what Grønkjær did. Sort of. She may have removed some of my dignity (or did I do that?), and forced me to recognize the ugly side of my addiction through the lives of all of us. But it’s worth it if she has the ability to collectively present us to an audience willing to listen. And whether said audience will judge us as love addicts or a bunch of fools who can’t management our lives, so be it. Recovery– because that’s the only solution to any addiction– teaches us this: that dignity is achieved despite a sense of failure. It is the one constant that leads us out of the trenches and keeps us from ever going back.