It began with a boy in my youth group. I was 14 and awestruck by him from the moment we first spoke, on an outing to Philadelphia’s bohemian South Street.
I was just beginning to figure out, as a fledgling goth, how very different I was from my high school peers--which, unfortunately, seemed to dovetail with the first signs of clinical depression--and here was this cool-looking guy with a motorcycle jacket and skater boy haircut, a wide smile, and confidence to spare. At some point during the course of the night, he started holding my hand as we chatted. He acted like I was fascinating--me, the wildly unpopular girl at school trying to shed my nerdiness as I began to explore counterculture and seek out the punks, artists, queers, and other outsiders that I’d later claim as “my people.”
We didn’t exchange phone numbers, hadn’t kissed. But I could not stop thinking about this boy, and I was sure I was in love. I felt1 even more strongly when, some months later, we crossed paths again, this time at a party where we ended up kissing for hours. He moved from Philadelphia to L.A. shortly thereafter to further pursue what had begun as a childhood acting career, and moving forward I only saw him again on television or in an occasional small film role.
I wept over my unrequited “love” for this dazzling boy I barely knew, and I anguished over how small I felt in light of his wonderfulness. He shone so brightly that he actually did make it in Hollywood. And here I was, stuck in a small southern New Jersey town, having a thoroughly average-to-miserable middle-class adolescence, feeling like a loser, and hating myself and my surroundings.
Thus began my first experience of limerence, a term coined by psychologist Dorothy Tennov in the 1970s to describe a kind of lovesickness driven by the need to have, above all else, one’s affection reciprocated by the object of one’s desire. I really started out with a bang, as generally suburban girls don’t actually get to make out with their celebrity crushes. And I’d had crushes before. But this was a weird, sad obsession that lasted for two years. Strangely, during that time, I never tried to reach him, talk to him, or see him--it didn’t occur to me to try to stalk him. My self-destructive tendencies were something I had kept to myself, and anyway, this was pre-Internet, back when Google was not yet a verb and you had to look up someone’s last name in the White Pages to track him down.
As I slipped further into depression during my sophomore year of high school, I found that my brain had begun to race constantly with uncontrollable, redundant thoughts about my own worthlessness. My friendships deteriorated and my formerly high grades began to suffer. I felt bewildered and ashamed, which manifested at times in angry outbursts, a sullen attitude, and the urge to spend endless afterschool hours sobbing on my bedroom floor. That might not sound like atypical adolescent behavior, but I knew something wasn’t quite right.
It wasn’t until adulthood that I first heard about the concept of limerence, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that this is a fairly universal experience. In fact, I’m willing to bet that almost everyone I know, along with millions that I don’t, has at some point been all-consumed by an incredibly intense infatuation and can relate to at least some of what I’ve described.
And I don’t mean to imply that the experience of infatuation needs to be pathologized--as a practitioner of both professional and peer-based radical mental health advocacy and support, I maintain a healthy skepticism of psychiatric diagnostic criteria. Some of these can be helpful, but humans don’t operate in some kind of psychological vacuum; we have to be mindful of the ways in which oppression and marginalization affect emotional wellbeing and how we engage with the world. At the same time, I am always interested in further identifying and exploring my own patterns of thought and behavior, especially the ones that did not serve me well in my past--it can be empowering to reflect on and name them.
Yes, limerence is common, and sometimes you think you’ll die of it without ever having heard the term, while still calling it “being in love.” It can be awful enough on its own. But when you struggle with fixation on an object of desire in conjunction with symptoms of a mental illness or difficult extreme state, the duration and severity of the experience of limerence might seem like it will push you over the edge. That’s when it is time to seek help and support from a peer, from a therapist, from a support group, maybe even from SLAA.
Even while I confided regularly in close friends and in my own therapist, I would find myself repeating that teenage situation over and over, each time with a new limerent object. Eventually I came to associate my obsessions over people I did not know well with another preoccupation that kept me consistently distracted: my self-hatred. The ceaseless intrusive thoughts about my own inadequacy and the hopelessness of my life were, I realized later, a symptom of a mood disorder that could be addressed and treated.
As I gradually became well through years of traditional and complementary therapies and approaches to recovery, some of which I detailed in my last article, I gained clarity about the ways in which I was engaging in magical thinking. I hoped and prayed that someone could “fix me” by wanting me back or maybe even loving me.
There was the goth over whom I’d agonized for a year in college following a month or two of dating. The on-again, off-again never-quite-technically-a-girlfriend of my early adulthood with whom I don’t recall ever actually having a meaningful conversation. Then, when I was 31, there came the most powerful object of all: the lover I had met while exploring polyamory with my long-term girlfriend.
Lou captivated me in an unprecedented way. I never did put my finger on what drew me so powerfully to Lou, with whom I felt the strongest chemistry I’d ever experienced. We threw ourselves into a feverish romance and after a couple of months, Lou confessed being in love with me. But when he made the definitive decision to start his gender transition at the height of our over-the-top affair, Lou realized he couldn’t keep carrying on with me. Although he just abruptly withdrew from me rather than providing much of an explanation, I came to understand that he felt unable to manage both the intensity of our dynamic--especially while I had a primary partner--and the enormous change he was beginning to undergo. Though he came back to me a couple of months after initially ending our contact, by the end of an on-and-off year together he again concluded, without much empathy or apology, that he was not emotionally capable of a relationship with me.
Not before and not since have I fallen apart so thoroughly over someone who was not good to me, not good for me. I was devastated, experiencing physical symptoms like nausea and sleeplessness, and so depressed that after several weeks I ended up being prescribed a “booster” to my antidepressants so that I could eventually climb out of that black breakup hole. I thought of nothing but Lou for months on end, and even when I began to feel better, it was too easy to backslide by getting carried away with old memories and longing. That often happened as I muddled through a number of failed dating situations in the coming years. But this time I could not go back for more.
This is not to say that all of my relationships were superficial or consisted entirely of doom and gloom. That’s not the case--my aforementioned primary partner, for instance, had been kind and authentic with me, and for several years we were happy together. I have dated some genuinely nice people, and I am friendly with several of my exes.
But the moral of this particular story is that the limerent objects were extraordinarily powerful in my psyche and left a lasting, painful imprint on me. I would like to think that I have permanently broken a pattern of falling hard and fast for the idea of someone, for what I hope that person will be.
With time and lessons learned through my previous relationships--both disastrous and otherwise--introspection, curiosity, and treatment, I began to establish better boundaries and stop running through red lights when I meet someone new to whom I feel attracted. I was deliberate in getting to know my current sweetie before making a commitment or declaring my love (and, with over two years of being a couple but maintaining separate residences, we’ve defied that lesbian U-Haul stereotype!). It has served me well. Taking it slowly and keeping an eye out for red flags meant that what I was seeing was what I would get--and I love what I continue to get from this person.
My limerent objects presented the opportunity for me to project so much onto others--to externalize and mythologize and idealize. I used to think that old saying about how you cannot love others if you don’t love yourself first was hokey. But over the years I began to realize how it had played out in my own life: when I couldn’t stand myself, I would look to someone else to be my everything and to save me--to make me feel loved and validated and, somehow, whole.
It’s unrealistic to expect to get all of that from somebody else. When I began to love myself, I could expand that into loving someone who is not just compassionate and intelligent (well, and hot), but also emotionally available. I became capable of true intimacy with a person who is fully present. I sometimes joke that she’s really good to me and yet I’m still attracted to her, because it seemed that in days past those things did not tend to coexist for me. Today they do. I hope they always will.