In 2008, author Kerry Cohen published her widely popular memoir Loose Girl in which she explored her search to fill a deep emotional void with connections to men. Cohen went on to write several books as well as become a professional psychotherapist. I had a chance to catch up with Kerry and we discussed sex, love, alcohol, and the meaning of addiction.
Regina Walker: In your first book, Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity, you describe your “addiction” to love and sex. Do you see those behaviors as actual addictions?
Kerry Cohen: I actually don’t like referring to them as addictions. When Loose Girl first came out I denied that label completely. My main purpose in that story was to show what happens to a girl growing up in our culture. Love and sex addictions for women are practically inevitable for women in our culture. We are set up to believe that romance and men will save us and make us worthwhile. All that said, my behaviors and feelings around love and sex are characterized as addiction in the world of process addictions, and I often speak about myself this way – that I’m a recovering sex and love addict.
RW: Words like “promiscuous” and “loose” are most often attributed to women. I wonder how this behavior in a young adult would have been perceived if the individual was a male.
KC: I have had that conversation often with men. A number of them have written me over the years because they identified with me so much after reading Loose Girl, which I always found fascinating. The emotions that led them to their promiscuous behaviors were similar to mine, but the way it played out and how they were perceived by society was so incredibly different. They slept with as many women as possible, trying to get some sense of affirmation. And they were seen as “male sluts,” which is still a reason to high five when they’re young. To be fair, as they age, if they don’t get out of this behavior, it can get much more difficult. For example, leading to sleeping with students or finding other inappropriate partners; and/or they are never able to settle down even though they, like every one else in the world, just want to find love.
RW: The reader finds you married at the end of the book. Where does the addiction go after that?
KC: It doesn’t end. It transforms. That’s the thing about addiction. It moves and shape shifts and shows up in different ways. The next way it showed itself was through my emotional affair when my husband and I could no longer connect because we struggled so much with our first son’s autism. After he and I divorced, it showed itself as an addictive relationship with my second husband.
RW: You mentioned that one of your children is autistic. I am also the mother of an autistic child. How did that reality effect your first marriage and your addiction?
KC: I hate to say it was the cause of the end of my marriage. It wasn’t. Our marriage ended because neither he nor I were equipped emotionally to get through that grief together, which has everything to do with the fact that we were already more friends than lovers. That was a difficult transition; when marriages end, it’s sad. That’s all there is to it initially. And, yes, that’s when I started drinking and smoking cigarettes after not really having been a drinker prior. We drank together, processing our separation. Over time, my first husband and I settled into the relationship we were always meant to have, which is an incredibly close and loving friendship. But I think the sting of that divorce, combined with the new addictive relationship I went into with my second husband led to more intensity around the drinking. Overall, there was just this feeling of nothing having turned out the way I’d hoped for or thought. It felt hopeless.
RW: In 2013, you wrote a piece about how your addiction had transferred to alcohol. Can you share a bit about that?
KC: My second marriage was a terribly addictive relationship for me, one that hit on my worst, core pain, which was my belief that I wasn’t lovable or chooseable. Because my love addiction was playing out inside my relationship, and it was making me feel worse and worse about myself, it was almost like I needed a new addiction. So, I turned to drinking.
RW: How do you address your addictions? Most people are primarily aware of 12 step groups. What’s working for you?
KC: My relationship to alcohol during those years was situational. I had never had a problem with drinking before then. I found that I didn’t need to quit drinking. Instead, I did the deeper psychological and emotional work around what I was using alcohol for, I took time off from drinking, and then I was effectively and easily able to moderate. There is a moderation management program, and I educated myself about its recommendations and then made choices that made sense for me.
RW: You are the author of 8 books as well as a psychotherapist. What made you decide to enter the world of counseling?
KC: I had always wanted to be a therapist. I actually got my therapy degree before I wrote any books, but because Loose Girl took off I didn’t focus on my therapy career until much later. Counseling and writing memoir have much in common, and they feed one another.
RW: Do you believe there is such a thing as an “addictive personality”?
KC: Yes and no. Some of us are more likely to feel the restlessness, often described as “boredom,” that addicts experience before acting out. In general, I believe that restlessness is simply the anxiety that occurs when you might feel your despair. I guess some of us tend more toward that despair than others. That’s the ‘yes’ part of the answer. I also believe, though, that we live in an addict-based culture. It’s hard for most of us to find purpose in a capitalist culture; that chase for the superficial is spiritually deadening. In this way, addiction is a spiritual disease, and I’d say most of us have a hard time not engaging in addictions – whether it be drugs, alcohol, shopping, or even things we deem ‘healthy’ like exercise — simply to feel better.
RW: Where does your addiction live now?
KC: It lives with me of course. It’s always disappointing to remember, but we can’t eradicate parts of ourselves. In my estimation, the closest we can get to wholeness and contentment is through integration and through being present and connected with all of who we are. It isn’t possible all of the time, of course, but being mindful of that desire to escape the shadowy self is the key to avoiding acting out. I learned in the process of writing my next memoir (Lush, coming out in 2018 from Sourcebooks), which is about my addictions, that I have one, true addiction, which is love and sex. Any other addictive behavior has occurred in an attempt to manage that core one. Knowing this has been incredibly helpful in changing my behaviors around alcohol.
Regina Walker is a writer, photographer and psychotherapist in NYC. Follow her on Twitter @ReginaAWalker