Sure, I’m Addicted to Love, But Can I Be Straight-Up Hooked on Music, Too?
I finally went to therapy and was told I'm a love addict. But wait, there's more: I always reverse-engineer my life to fit the songs I want to listen to, especially when it comes to my relationships.
As far back as my pre-school years I was showing signs of an unhealthy obsession with both girls and music—behaviors that remain with me today at age 32. Before I learned to write, I asked my mother to transcribe love letters to my day-care crushes. Before my brain developed the coordination to run down stairs without falling, I learned how to place a turntable needle into the groove of a record for a specific song—and thus learned how to escape the dark trials of reality and mentally dissolve into a fantasy world of sound.
A few years ago I was diagnosed as a love addict, my therapist explaining that music was my trigger for addictive behavior. But as I began looking into the neuropsychology of listening to music, I found that the experience often mirrors that of love addiction, leading me to wonder: Can I be straight-up addicted to music?
When we apply the word “addiction” to things like love and music (or chocolate, exercise, coffee, etc.), it’s often with a cutesy wink, as though these are endearing excesses rather than destructive vices. The term “hopeless romantic” is a badge of honor someone will proudly wear, whereas “hopeless angel-dust smoker” carries a much more sinister weight. Society has long accepted substance addictions, but when it comes to behavioral addictions, which can rewire our neurochemistry just as drugs do, we apply the ironically true yet dismissive phrase “it’s all in your head.”
When you’re a love addict, nothing seems real—especially not love. You become disconnected from reality. Brilliant and sincere people become nothing more than a pretty face, an imagined antidote to the jittery poison ingested during childhood. The physical world around you becomes secondary to the timeless realms of fantasy and need. And for me, there’s no greater ticket into this world than my record collection.
These records are less a soundtrack to the experience as they are the experience itself. In this way I’ve unconsciously reverse-engineered my life to fit the records I want to listen to. I’ll hear Radiohead’s “Nude” or Bjork’s “All Is Full of Love” and think: “I need to get laid tonight so I can have sex to this song.” I’ll look for a girlfriend who fits the bill for the kind of mixtape I want to make as a gift to her. When my last girlfriend and I broke up we were listening to Carole King’s Tapestry, and I dragged the conversation out an extra seven minutes so “It’s Too Late” would be playing during the moment we verbally agreed to end it.
Despite my theatrical approach to this breakup, losing that girl left me in a hideous state of panic and despair. Seeing no other option, I finally succumbed to the advice of so many ex-lovers and began seeing a therapist, who quickly introduced me to the term “love addiction,” and diagnosed me with the subgenre ailments of “romance” and “fantasy” addiction.
The DSM-5, psychiatry’s bible of mental illness and addiction diagnoses, touches only briefly on sex addiction and not at all on love addiction. It’s a much more complicated issue than the label suggests, mostly because love is not something that can be as easily defined as drug use or gambling, although countless people use the high of romantic infatuation the same way a junkie would heroin.
Following the breakup with my girlfriend (who was, not coincidentally, a musician), my itchy despair and withdrawal left me scratching and panting, not unlike Frank Sinatra kicking smack in The Man With The Golden Arm. I desperately consumed all the literature on love addiction I could get my hands on, finding comfort in learning that my misery most likely had little to do with missing my girlfriend and a lot to do with the scars of a childhood spent in isolation.
Large swaths of my childhood were spent alone in a giant house, terrified that no one was ever coming home. As spooky as those years were, they were spent with a decent record collection (granted, they were all my parents’ old Christian rock LPs, but my cultural snobbery wouldn’t develop until puberty). Disappearing into these songs several times a day, for years on end, acted as a therapeutic narcotic for my still-growing brain—rewiring my circuitry to associate “music” with “mother.”
“The story of your brain on music is the story of an exquisite orchestration of brain regions, involving both the oldest and newest parts of the human brain, and regions as far apart as the cerebellum in the back of the head and the frontal lobes just behind your eyes,” writes Daniel J. Levitin in This is Your Brain on Music. “When we love a piece of music, it reminds us of other music we have heard, and it activates memory traces of emotional times in our lives.”
Levitin, a celebrated neuroscientist/musician, has no qualms about comparing the music listening experience to drug use, gambling or sexual arousal, because it activates the same reward systems of the brain. When I obsessively listen to music today, I not only get a heavy rush of sensory neurons but a euphoric, “maternal” warmth and comfort—because the ritual is a hardwired message to my brain to release the same pleasure chemicals that pacified me as a terrified child.
When my last girlfriend and I broke up we were listening to Carole King’s Tapestry, and I dragged the conversation out an extra seven minutes so “It’s Too Late” would be playing during the moment we verbally agreed to end it
Television was another paternal substitute for me as a kid, and the relationships I watched unfold on The Wonder Years, 90210, Melrose Place and many daytime TV soaps formed my view of love, which always revolved around the narrative arc of romance, conflict and melodramatic acts of despair. As an adult I found myself fabricating dramas and jealousies, unconsciously reconstructing the storylines of Brenda Walsh and Dylan McKay.
“The way a child soothes himself—whether it’s with fantasy or melancholy or being sexually aroused—those experiences don’t go away, they’re in our neurological makeup,” psychologist Brenda Schaeffer, author of Is It Love or Is It Addiction?, tells me when I call to talk to her. “And as adults those same kind of experiences can get triggered if we hear a certain type of music, especially if it gave us a soothing experience of escape.”
There is perhaps no greater example of music that celebrates the bipolar behavior common to love and music addiction than that of the psychedelic glam-rock band Of Montreal. From their kabuki and confetti live shows to their dark-pop dance records, the band is the ultimate embodiment of a chemically unbalanced brain—like a Renaissance painting of heaven and hell framed with pulsing neon lights.
I have probably listened to the Of Montreal song “The Party’s Crashing Us” more than I’ve ever looked into a lover’s eyes. Not only is it a profoundly infectious piece of electronic dance-rock, but it lyrically embodies the process of love addiction as well as the hyper, juvenile pursuit of ecstasy. “I only feel all right when the VU is flashing,” sings OM frontman Kevin Barnes. (VU is a soundboard meter that flashes when the volume is too high.) “And bombs going off in my head. / I want to grab you, and just kiss you, no icing me down.”
In his book, Levitin says that the catchiest songs follow a formula of setting up certain patterns of rhythm, melody and pitch, and then deviating from those patterns within the same song. “Music communicates to us emotionally through systematic violations of expectations,” he writes. “Our cognitive system interprets these violations as a source of pleasure and amusement….The beat that Stevie Wonder plays on the high-hat [during “Superstition”] is never exactly the same way twice; he throws in little extra taps, hits and rests…nuances in his performance that add to the sense of tension.”
This is similar to the well-known formula of misdirection and unexpected reward used by magicians, stand-up comics, slot machines—and love addicts. In Is It Love or Is It Addiction?, Schaeffer’s chapter on romance addiction includes a section on “intermittent reinforcement,” the process of getting affection at unforeseen intervals, setting you up to constantly seek reward, but rarely getting what you need, leaving you always wanting more.
In recreating the inconsistent presence of my parents as a child with inconsistent affection from lovers as an adult, I’ve tried to control what was once uncontrollable. This never leads to any resolution. In which case I turn to the same needle that soothed me as a child—the record needle.
“Addictive love is not unlike addictive gambling,” she writes. “You never know when you will be rewarded or punished. In gambling, for instance, you might play for an hour on a slot machine and not win anything. Then just as you play the last quarter, you’re rewarded with 10 more. Now you are likely to play again. This is also true of highly addictive romantic relationships. You may put in more than you receive and, just as you are about to end the relationship, you are given just enough to feel hopeful about the possibility. Thus you stay.”
I am an addict with many vices, though I never understood the appeal of gambling until I began therapy and realized how often my approach to women mirrors the thrill of potentially losing your life savings on a roulette table. Just as a gambler could invest his money in a more stable, consistent endeavor, my love-addicted brain has never been drawn to balanced, supportive women. When you have low self-esteem, any woman who wants you for you is immediately written off as having bad taste. It’s the lovers who look down on you who seem to have good sense, those who are at first mildly interested, and then lose all interest within a few weeks, wearily stringing you along with monosyllabic responses to my texts, which I eagerly gobble up like puppy training treats.
Addiction is all about seeking control. As the pharmacy-robbing Matt Dillon says in Drugstore Cowboy, “Most people don’t know how they’re gonna feel from one moment to the next. But a dope fiend has a pretty good idea. All you gotta do is look at the labels on the little bottles.”
Or, in my case, the label on the record sleeve.
In recreating the inconsistent presence of my parents as a child with inconsistent affection from lovers as an adult, I’ve unconsciously tried to control what was once an uncontrollable situation. Naturally, this never leads to any resolution. In which case I turn to the same needle that soothed me as a child—the record needle.
As with any addiction, removing the pacifier that is my headphones could potentially stimulate faculties in my brain that provide healing from trauma. By denying myself the fantasy world of romance and music—thereby engaging with the real world and all the emotions that come with it—I’d gain access to the tools needed to process dark memories.
Though instead, when the anxiety of existence molests me awake each morning, I habitually grab the Beatles’ Revolver off the shelf, put on my headphones and sing along with John Lennon’s message to a world of pain and reality: “Please, don’t spoil my day,/ I’m miles away/…Please, don’t wake me, /No, don’t shake me./ Leave me where I am./ I’m only sleeping.”
Josiah M. Hesse is a Denver-based journalist who covers marijuana, politics, entertainment and pop culture. His work has appeared in Westword, Colorado Public Radio, Out Front Colorado and Vice magazine. His previous piece for Substance.com was about the Democratic Party’s failure to support the legal-pot ballot measures at the midterm elections.
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