One woman goes three years without a date to kick her bad-boy habit.
When you hear the word "detox" all sorts of things come to mind: spas, juice fasts, colonics, rehab centers. People enter detoxification programs to rid their bodies of toxins, lose a little weight, maybe look and feel better about the damage they've done to their bodies. Detoxifications are done when you eat too many chips, drink too many drinks, do too many drugs. But how do you detoxify from poor love decisions? Is there a Promises out there for people who have had one toxic relationship after another? How do you take the damage done from too many bad relationships to enable a fresh start?
I came into dating like a lot of young women with a challenged self-esteem from developing too early. I spent a lot of time hiding from boys in junior high and high school. A a self-professed band geek with braces and glasses, my M.O. was to stay as far under the radar as possible.
All of my friends tried to give me advice as they had their first kisses and groping sessions with boys they'd learned to attract. I began trying these tactics ever so hesitantly on boys I thought were cute, which in high school meant any boy who looked in my direction for longer than five seconds. That was how it started: I became a Rejection Junkie.
The objects of my addiction took on many forms: the Misunderstood Artist, the Shy Musician, the Brooding Soccer Player, the Beatnik Fellow Band Geek. I would fall madly for them, they would lose interest, and I would lie at home crying into my covers. I'd lament love and listen to depressing radio until some poor guy would pick up a pencil I dropped in English class and become my next unwitting pusher.
On the last night of high school, one of the coolest boys in my class—the captain of the wrestling team and a smoking hot jock—came up to me and admitted that he thought I was cute. I didn't know what to do about what he said next: "Yeah, I always wanted to ask you out, but you were always into all these other really weird guys. I figured you weren't really into guys like me, so I never asked you."
I wish I could say I went out with him. I didn't. I didn't know what to do with that comment. He wouldn't have rejected me, so I wasn't really interested.
College was slightly easier for me. After the Hot Jock boosted my confidence, I went out to my first fraternity party and picked up the hottest football player I could find. He took me on my first date and we dated for about a week, which seemed like a lifetime to me. Then, the first love of my life arrived: brooding, cleft chin you could drink champagne out of, and green eyes that could burn a hole in your soul. He made a beeline for me at a party, and with one look at this Christian Slater look-alike, life as I knew it disappeared. We spent the entire night talking and kissing on the stairs of the fraternity house.
He said he would call me, he did and I remained interested. The streak was broken! I had a real life boyfriend who took me on dates, gave me gifts and proceeded to treat me like a princess. Except for the night he got so drunk in the frat house that he left me waiting in the lobby of my dorm, frantic that he was dead, I thought everything was perfect. That is, until the night he pulled me aside and told me that he had cheated on me. The spell was broken. The one guy I trusted to break the streak had betrayed me. I dumped him and proceeded to date five more guys throughout college—all of whom cheated on me.
My dating life after graduation followed similar patterns. I went for guys who were, I thought, deeply interested in me but soon faded away. I dated here and there for two years until I met my most serious boyfriend, the big addiction, a man so damaged and emotionally unavailable that trying to get consistent behavior out of him was like playing Emotional Unavailability Chess with Bobby Fischer. If the other guys had been gateway drugs, this guy was the Rejection Drug version of uncut smack, and I was completely ready to give up life, career, money and anything else that I had to get this guy to stay in love with me.
This was someone who almost delighted in seeing exactly how far he could push me before I would break—and let me tell you that the worst thing in the world is to deny a junkie the fix. One night after break-up sex following the umpteenth split, he smacked me. I got up right then and left him. I moved across the country shortly thereafter, thinking to myself, "This is ridiculous. I should seek help. That has to be rock bottom."
Rock bottom, it turns out, occurred with the emotionally unavailable guy after him. My gut told me he wasn't trustworthy, but I was attracted to him. I went ahead and dated him anyway. The breaking point occurred three months into dating him when I walked in on him having full-blown, forceful sex with another woman at a house party. It was like something in me just snapped. I can't describe the exact sensation, but I remember it happened the moment that he saw me and didn't stop. I ran out of the party and away from everyone. It was a moment where I realized that if I didn't stop, things could potentially go from just dating bad guys to a Lifetime movie: burning beds, abuse, financial ruin, or worse. I had to take a break from dating to see exactly what in the world caused me to make these horrible choices. I decided to go cold turkey. No casual dating, no flirting, nothing. I needed to be clear to sort out the drama of my life. I was going into a dating detoxification, and I was going to come out clean and sober.
I'd like to say I spent three years blissfully watching Lifetime movies with the shades drawn, but I can't. My first few months were spent like anyone who goes through any kind of detoxification process. The first step is just sheer pain and agony. The body and heart craves what it has come to know and love. Every time I would meet some gorgeous guy who had that playful "I am totally going to mess with this girl" twinkle in their eye, I'm sure the pain was evident on my face as I convinced myself to stay the course. I declined invitations; I ached for someone to touch me, for the drama of a bad relationship. Giving up casual sex was one of the hardest parts of the detox.
I needed space and time to shock my system clean. I took numbers out of my phone, I tearfully erased email addresses, IM names, whatever it took to make sure I had no way to take myself out of my soul-searching solitude. I was miserable at first, then irritated. Determined to stay the course, eventually I began to like the calm and order. I began to figure out I enjoyed doing. I discovered exercise, something I hadn't done in a really long time. How had I forgotten that I like to exercise? I discovered I was really interested in wine, so I took a wine class. People think this was really lonely, but it wasn't. I took myself out on dates instead of someone else taking me out, and I learned that I really value my own company. Without anyone else to get high on, I decided to make myself a bit of an addiction, and I learned that I was pretty freaking awesome.
Once I learned how to love myself, it became the foundation for a tremendous amount of bravado. If I could rid myself of the wrong guys in my life, what other wrongs could I right? I made huge changes in my life. I got rid of toxic friends who fostered negative feelings in me. I cleared the air with relatives who used to make me feel less than special as a child. I left a career in corporate America and moved to New York City to become a writer. I lost 82 pounds. I quit smoking.
When I decided that it was time to try dating again six months ago, I was terrified. I had just gotten my life in order; would dating bring back that old addiction? What if I couldn't be trusted? What if I fell off the wagon? With a mind full of questions, I decided to trust my instincts and give my new life a shot.
Something interesting happens when you start dating after a detox, as it does I'm sure when you have any addiction: your old vices show up out of nowhere. As if beaconed by some light, every ex-boyfriend I ever had suddenly arrived via Facebook. When I decided to befriend a few, they fell back into old behavior. For about five minutes I would, too, but then my new-found clarity would come through and help me see what was happening from an objective perspective. I would think, "Oh wait, I know exactly why I'm reacting this way, and I have to stop." I would calmly gather myself and end the interaction immediately.
I have fallen off the wagon, though, if only briefly. My first love from college was able to get me to believe we had both changed for the better and that he was ready to make a go of a relationship with me. Soon after that conversation, he disappeared into the Land of Emotional Unavailability. But this time, the same old situation had a new ending. The difference this time: I didn't chase him. This time I let him go.
Three years later, dating is actually enjoyable. I'm not looking for anyone I date to give me anything I can't give myself. If I sense emotional unavailability or lack of interest, I don't give chase. I walk away. The quality of the people I date is much better: they're genuinely interested, fascinating, and emotionally available people. With every date and interaction, it's like living a whole new life I never knew was possible. I wish I could say I came out of detox and my soul mate was waiting for me with open arms, but I now know that because I spent that time getting rid of my issues and clearing my emotional baggage, there will be a very healthy, happy woman waiting when he gets here. And that makes three years worth every minute.