I recently reached out to Charlene deGuzman, a writer, comic and actress in Los Angeles. After learning about a movie she has written and stars in on the topic of sex and love addiction, Unlovable (due out 2018), I couldn’t resist hearing, in her own words, her story of painful relationship experiences, and how recovery and her creative spirit saved her life. Charlene has been featured in Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Glamour, HuffPost, and much more. You can follow her on Twitter @charstarlene.
GIRLREBUILT: Thank you so much for connecting with me and supporting Girl Rebuilt, I wanted to start off by asking if you can describe what first made you aware that your relationships were different from your friends’ relationships, or rather, that your response to your relationships was not in the normal, healthy zone? In other words, at what point did you think you had a problem with love & sex?
CDG: Ever since I was a little girl, I always thought I was just “boy crazy,” and I thought it was normal. By middle school, I was obsessing over boys all day, and felt suicidal when they didn’t like me back. But it wasn’t until 2011, when I was 27, that a friend of mine asked me if I had heard of love addiction, and suggested I try Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA). At the time, I couldn’t leave a codependent relationship after breaking up and getting back together several times, while also obsessing painfully over a completely unavailable man that lived in another state and had a girlfriend. On top of that, meaningless hook-ups in between, enmeshed friendships, drinking, and drugs, all to try to not feel any of it. I tried three meetings and hated them. I didn’t think it was for me, I thought I was fine. By 2014, I found myself in yet another painful relationship with yet another emotionally unavailable man. It just wasn’t working,and I was getting crazier and crazier, and I wanted to save the relationship so bad. I started going to group therapy at a place that specializes in sex and love addiction, and started working the program in SLAA. I went with No Contact with my boyfriend for 30 days, he broke up with me after, we hooked up again a month after that, and he was unavailable all over again. It hurt so much. I paced around my apartment for seven hours, waiting for him to call me back, seriously planning how to kill myself, because I felt absolutely insane, broken, and unlovable. He eventually called, and I couldn’t answer the phone, because I could feel all of the pain and anguish I had been feeling immediately dissipate from my body, as if it were heroin. Just because of his name and picture on my phone screen. It was this moment, in January 2015, that I finally could see how sick I was.
GIRLREBUILT: There are many different types of love addiction. People have described themselves as romance addicts, relationship addicts, torchbearers, codependents, ambivalents and avoidants. Do you identify with any one kind of love addiction? Do you think it matters?
CDG: I think all of the different types are simply a different side of the same coin. I have identified with the behaviors of all of these types. When I was in my addiction, I often pursued avoidants. But when available men pursued me, I became the avoidant. As I got more recovery in my love addiction and relationship issues, I got to what was underneath it all at the core – my codependency issues, which were everywhere – with friends, with family, with people I work with.
GIRLREBUILT: Coming from a place of love addiction into a place of health and self-esteem and confidence is no easy task. A lot of people think it’s just about getting rid of the bf and going NC (no contact). But it’s so much more than that. Can you talk a bit about your own path to recovery?
CDG: For me, after getting sober for the first time, I needed to learn how to love and take care of myself, and take responsibility for my own life. And so much of that was learning how to feel feelings for the first time, in a healthy way, without hurting myself and self-destructing. I needed to look at my childhood trauma, my resentments toward my parents, and the sexual trauma of my adulthood for the first time, and actually feel the pain that I had been using my addictions to try and avoid. There was so much healing to be done, and I am still healing to this day.
With the help of SLAA, group and individual therapy, my mentors, and my new found spirituality and practice, I slowly began to find myself, which before recovery, I didn’t even know who I was, or what I liked. I took up new hobbies, tried new things, made new friends, and did loving things for the first time in my life, like buy flowers, light candles, and take bubble baths. I got into yoga, pilates, and hiking, was meditating twice a day, and taking myself out on dates. All kinds of stuff that I used to think was so stupid. But the two things that really saved my life were – being of service to others, and being creative. Once I started sharing my story, and helping people, I finally felt the value that I had always longed for and only thought existed in sex. And now that my world didn’t revolve around some man, I had all the time in the world to get creative. It was during my recovery that I wrote my first pilot, which is what I ended up sending to Mark Duplass, and is the reason why I now have a movie, Unlovable. I wrote Unlovable all throughout my recovery, and it is the one thing that truly kept me going through the darkest time of my withdrawal. I kept dreaming of this film being made and helping people, it was the biggest gift.
GIRLREBUILT: What was your life like after sex and love addiction recovery?
CDG: Love addiction is so unique that it isn’t just like quitting drinking, or getting off substances. You need to learn how to love and have sex in a healthy way. After being sober for a year and a half, I introduced dating into my life, through a dating plan. A dating plan basically entails going incredibly, almost painfully slow, and getting to know a person fully before committing to them, and having sex. On my plan, I couldn’t even kiss until the second month. It was challenging when I first started. After my very first date – a daytime coffee date that was only a couple of hours – I came home and sobbed in the fetal position, shouting, “I NEVER WANT TO DO THAT EVER AGAIN!” I had never been on an actual, genuine date before, let alone sober, and the intimacy of it all was physically painful at the time, I was terrified. But with practice, I found the most fulfilling rewards: if I didn’t like a person, I could walk away. And not have sex with them. If I saw any red flags, I would not date them. I didn’t have to get stuck in a relationship with someone I didn’t know. For the first time, I collected NO’s. This, after a lifetime of taking crumbs from anybody. Everything was so new and mind-blowing to me. I eventually found someone who was looking for the same things I was, someone who I connected with on a very deep level, someone who was working on himself just as hard as I was. We dated on the plan, and didn’t have sex until three and a half months in. It’s the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever experienced. We’ve been together for a year and a half now and the recovery still continues – it never ends.
GIRLREBUILT: I’m a big believer in the idea that addiction is not a disease. In the words of author Marc Lewis who wrote The Biology of Desire, addiction is “an unintended consequence of the brain doing what it’s supposed to do—seek pleasure.” What are your thoughts on addiction as disease?
CDG: At the core, I think addiction is being incapable of feeling pain. I think addiction is just one’s need for self-love. When the pain is so bad that it is impossible to face, at that point, addiction is survival. It may sound too simple or naive, but I believe the solution to addiction is simply love. And love means healing the wounds, finding the acceptance and forgiveness, working towards consciousness. When I think of the term “disease,” I think of some kind of medical condition that is inflicted on people. I think addiction is much more spiritual than that. I think it’s damn hard to be a human being and more people use addictions to cope than we’re even aware of. There’s such a stigma on addiction. People are just “bad,” behaviors are just “bad,” when the truth is that we don’t need prisons or medications for these people, we need love and human connection.
GIRLREBUILT: One of the questions I get asked all the time is, What is the one most important change you made to finally find a healthy relationship? This question bothers me for two reasons: it makes it seem that the end result of recovering from love addiction is a healthy romantic relationship (it’s actually not) and it also undermines the fact that it doesn’t just take ONE action to become healthy. It takes thousands. Nevertheless, I am going to put you on the spot and ask you a similar question: What is the one most important change you made to finally become healthy?
CDG: Truly loving myself. This means, putting myself first, no matter what. Choosing myself. Being my number one supporter, even when things don’t look the way I want them to. Even when I make mistakes. Even on bad days. Especially on bad days! It’s easy to love yourself when things look good, but how about when they look bad? Learning how to feel feelings, allow them, and not judge them. And love myself. No. Matter. What.
GIRLREBUILT: Like you mentioned, you have an indie film called Unlovable that was backed by Patton Oswalt and stars you, John Hawkes, and Melissa Leo. It recently won The Film Lab at the 2017 Sun Valley Film Festival. Is it the story of your life?
CDG: Unlovable is based on my personal stories of my recovery from sex and love addiction, but the story centers around two people learning what true intimacy is through playing and making music in a garage.
GIRLREBUILT: I want to end by telling you how courageous I think you are for talking about your personal experience with love addiction, and for turning it into a platform for creative expression. Two last questions: is it “out in theaters,” available for viewing yet? And has your work on this film changed the way you think about yourself and your years as a love addict?
CDG: Thank you so much! We actually screened a very rough cut at Sun Valley so people have yet to see the final product of the film. We have recently been working really hard in post-production, and are preparing to submit to all the film festivals. The film should premiere in 2018 at a festival, and hopefully end up in theaters after that. I can’t wait for everyone to see it. I’m seeing a lot more love addiction and SLAA meetings in television and film nowadays, and it seems like the world is ready to talk about it, and relate. The way that the film was even made, through Kickstarter, and so many supporters that believed in me, was a dream come true. When we were filming, I would cry almost every morning on the way to set, because I couldn’t believe any of it was happening. It has always felt like this was meant to be. The reactions that we got in Sun Valley were so positive and moving, people were stopping me in the street to tell me their stories, and how they related. This is exactly why I wanted to make this film. This is all I want to do for the rest of my life – make things, and help people feel less alone. This movie, and the work I do now, have helped me to see that my life of pain and suffering, my darkest times, the things some people would think I should be “ashamed” of – is all of complete value, it wasn’t for nothing, it was actually the biggest gift I could ever receive. Because now I get to help others, I get to understand people’s feelings, I get to feel compassion, and I am definitely not one to judge. It feels like freedom. It feels like love. And that’s all I’ve been needing my whole life. I never knew I had it all along.