Everything I write in this article is based on my own experiences, and therefore from a first-hand perspective.
The word addict is very loaded in today’s modern society, but like any disease, addiction is incredibly nuanced and is often a result of a series of complex life circumstances, to which one chose a substance as a form of method or escape from the life they’d be living, or the mind that will not be still. But instead of understanding people’s stories, we’ve grown up in a society that teaches us to be an addict means that one is untouchable, damaged or unlovable.
If we really open our eyes to see what is going on around us, we might notice that those who fall victim to their own behaviour, are often victims of life-long trauma, or a circumstance to which they could not change. It only takes a moment to look into someone’s eyes to realise they perhaps loved too much, loved the wrong person, or found solace in the love of forgetting. But how do we navigate the waters of dating or falling in love with an addict?
Addiction is grossly undiagnosed and misunderstood in a society where we actively celebrate and encourage binge drinking, and fried sugar-injected carbohydrates. In the city, you can satisfy both burning cravings around the clock. Then of course, for the personality types within a society that chose a vice of some other means, we then must dip into the black market for some tainted illegal highs, that could be more harmful than setting your nose on fire, but of course, how will it ever be in an unregulated market? Addictions come in many forms, some are recognisable, but I’ve come to realise, many aren’t.
So with the breadth of the addiction baseline being so broad, and in some cases undiscoverable at first glance, how do we know if we are dating an addict, and what are the signs?
Before we assess our recent love interest, or partner for possible addictions, we must address our relationship with ourselves. There are two key questions I always start with, “is there something in this life (other than the necessities and basic rights and principles of living) that I believe I couldn’t live without?” If that’s a yes, then it’s time to look at what that thing is, to know better why you feel a dependency on that thing, person, or object. Then the second question is “how does it feel to remove that thing/object/desire from my life?”. Sit with the feeling of that object being removed from your world, how does it make you feel? Do you feel lighter? Do you feel anxious? Do you feel free? Your body will not lie to you, and the emotions that come up for you are worth listening to. I say this believing that every single one of us deserves the right of freedom, and a dependency on something external to ourselves, no matter how glamorous, takes us away from a true sense of happiness.
So, once you’ve sat with a sense of how you interact with yourself and your own possible vice, it is easier to better lean into a relatability, and an empathy for someone who is actively using. According to official statistics, about 300 million people worldwide have an alcohol addiction, and that is only those that are recorded, and that is not considering other addictions, and the more hidden addictions. I am convinced that is a world where modern dating and the attainment of love is harder than it has ever been, despite the likes of Tinder and Hinge telling us it has never been easier, dating can also be, it makes establishing everlasting connections harder, but concealing parts of ourselves much easier. On a dating or social media profile, we are only displaying the parts of ourselves we want the world to see, so concealing the parts we don’t like to look at, means we can control others' perceptions of us.
Of the 35 lovers I’ve had in 18 years, not to include the one-off dates that amassed to over 100, more than 70% of them abused a substance of some kind, and those were only the ones I knew about. In some cases, it was not enough to keep me awake at night, and in others, it was the thing that induced my own addictive and toxic cycles, which led to a downward mental health spiral, to which I came out ever stronger, learning a new lesson every time. Again, the Russian roulette of dating means putting some level of trust and confidence in another person, that your time and space will be respected and honoured, even if for a short period of time, but we can never truly determine the outcome, the best we can do is show up and hope for sincerity, and an open mind as vulnerability is the key foundation to any deep connection.
So how do we protect ourselves in the wild west of dating? How do we navigate the modern-day dance of the heart to find healthier connections for ourselves? I say this in knowing, in not resolving my own triggers and addictive behaviours, I was, without realising, holding up a massive signpost to those who’d walked similar paths screaming “Hey, I’m over here!”, subconsciously knowing that they would excuse and often denied my unloved behavioural patterns. Below for me, the five fundamentals for seeking a well-suited soulmate, and when seeing the signs of an addict, knowing better how to navigate them, for their protection, and your own.
1. Always put yourself first
As with any dating scenario, it is important that we put oneself first, an easily forgotten rule for many women. but this is honestly the best advice I can give. Frequent check ins during your first exchanges, and first date are crucial. The internal mantra of “How does my body feel in this moment?” will tell you a hell of a lot about your next moves.
2. Signs to look for
This is a broad stroke, because all addictive behaviours vary from one person to another, but the classic signs are quite obvious once you know what to look for.
Excessive drinking, and encouragement for you to keep up with their pace
Late-night calls to their dealers after one too many
Not knowing when to stop the party, continuing into the night
Erratic moods, in person and over text
Complete withdrawal over messages, and then a bounceback return, as if nothing has happened
Lack of boundaries
Lack of self-awareness
They spend a lot of time talking about their good times, and most of these stories begin and end with intoxication
3. Healthy boundaries
If you have come to suspect that the person you are dating may be under the thumb of an addictive substance or tendency, this can usually be confirmed by a boundary setting. Not only is this going to be healthy for you, but it will reaffirm for them what is healthy or not. Referring to point #2, this could be saying no to any further drinks that evening, or no to inflated behaviours that make you feel uncomfortable. If your boundary setting for this is a trigger, then you have your answer, and it is better to know earlier on.
4. How to help yourself after a potentially harmful exchange
If you realise you are in the early stages of a connection with someone you suspect is an addict and feel you could be at harm, there are ways to protect yourself. Ensure any first meetings are always in public spaces, always tell a friend where you are at all times (there are quite advanced tracker apps now you can share with your bestie). If at any point during a meeting you suspect that you could be dealing with someone who is an addict, I recommend acting with compassion and removing yourself from the situation.
Shaming, shouting and delivering harmful or hurtful words can exacerbate their need to outreach for the substance. Go gentle on yourself once you exit the situation, and head to a space that offers you the most comfort and safety, and spend the next 24 hours being gentle on yourself. Soft music, a cup of your favourite tea and a hot water bottle are all encouraged.
5. How to help them
In an exchange where you feel you may be dealing with an active addiction, you can help by acting with compassion. If there is a behaviour you believe could be harmful to them, it is OK to highlight this if you feel safe to do so. If they do not welcome your observation and it causes a negative response, then a gentle removal is again encouraged. At all costs, avoid name calling, arguing and shaming them. The best you can do is wish them the very best, and move along.
If they are willing to hear it, you can always refer them to some very useful organisations who are on hand to support people with addiction. Firstly, I’d recommend they speak to their GP, but there are also support lines such as The Samaritans, Narcotics Anonymous or Mind.
The steps above are a loose guideline to dealing with any potential harmful situation for you, or another who is in an active addiction. And though these steps may seem intuitive or even common sense, once you’re faced with the situation itself, it isn’t always so easy to recognise what you’re in until much later on. I myself have been in situations where I wish I could have lived different endings too, and have experienced the same for many girlfriends.
The continued stigma around addiction perpetuates unless we change the narrative and start treating people with compassion and dignity, for we are all human. I wrote this article because we all seek love, and it is often the one place we open up ourselves and our vulnerabilities, in the hope of someone loving us back. These exposed vulnerabilities may highlight wounds for another, so I believe we have a responsibility to our fellow humans to whom we share space with to try our best to show them compassion, and treat other’s dignity.
The thoughts and suggestions in this article are that of my own. If you think you’re in any real danger, I urge you to call emergency services.