Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Love is the Drug

My friend introduced me to a very useful but little-known word, limerence. It means the pain that we feel when we are obsessively in love with someone, when we can’t stop thinking about them, when our mood directly correlates with whether we’ve seen them and how we’ve been treated by them that day.

This term was coined by a relatively obscure psychologist in the Seventies, and it has no obvious etymological roots. This inscrutability mirrors the nature of the concept itself: like a prime number, the idea can’t be clarified by dividing it into parts. Nor is there any synonym in English that parallels the word’s meaning. The closest would be obsessive crush, or unreasonable pining, or love so bad it hurts.

And yet, in our culture that elevates romantic love over all other kinds, limerence is an everyday byproduct of our need to find our own mates, rather than having them assigned to us by our families or other social limitations like caste, class, or proximity. We can pair ourselves with virtually anyone, and this unending possibility leads to unending disappointment as we project ourselves into the lives of inappropriate and uninterested potential partners, wondering why they can’t see how great we’d be together.

Using the famous Eskimos-have-fifty-two-words-for-snow logic, you would think English would have dozens of words meaning obsessive, unrequited love, love that makes people anguished, insane, irrational, love that distracts us from every meaningful thing in our lives, that makes us irresponsible, unreliable, unproductive, that makes our lives into a long visit to the oncologist’s office, hoping with all our being for good news, crushed but not surprised when the news is bad.

But aside from limerence, we don’t really have a word to describe this state of being, which might explain why the emotion itself is so difficult to remember or relate to until we are experiencing it ourselves. Every time I find myself in this condition, I am shocked by how physical it is, how immune to reason, how distraught I can be over somebody who I have absolutely no claim over.

Nor do we have simple words to describe all the other extreme psychological and physiological consequences of attraction: obsessive elation, a feeling that nothing else matters besides seeing the object of our affection, the diminished importance of everything we usually care about, horrifying loneliness when the person leaves town for two weeks, the certainty that we could never be enough for this person, wanting to kill the person, wanting to kill the person’s attractive friend/coworker/second cousin, wanting to kill ourselves, the lacklusterness of everything else once the person is gone, the forgetting of what the purpose of life was and how we got through our days before we met this person.

What we do have, however, are hundreds of thousands of songs alluding to this sort of love, songs that are as blank and inscrutable as the word limerence itself, except when we are experiencing love-related derangement, at which point the lyrics suddenly light up with flagrantly obvious meaningfulness. For example, crazy and baby are the most commonly rhymed words in pop songs, despite the fact that they don’t rhyme at all.
You drive me crazy, baby.
I go crazy for you baby.
Love is crazy, pretty baby.
Our stubborn insistence on forcing these two words together shows how acutely we feel love as a mental illness. And the consciousness-altering effects of love are evident in all the songs that link the words or concepts love and drug:
Love is the drug for me.
You are the perfect drug.
I want a new drug, one that makes me feel like I feel when I’m with you.
These songs all seem to describe the pleasant part of the love-trip, the drug “that makes me feel like I feel when I’m with you” rather than the drug that makes me feel like my life is completely pointless without you. We have to focus on this aspect of love or we would come to our senses and go cold turkey, just as we go out drinking for the high, not for the hangover.

Still, there’s a new love-drug song out right now,“Your Love is My Drug,” that describes the negative side-effects:
I’m looking down every alley.
I’m making those desperate calls.
I’m staying up all night hoping,
Banging my head against the walls.
Songs like these show that we instinctively understand the connection between love and drugs, that love makes us completely out of our minds, that it’s a bunch of chemicals that make us feel this way.

We tend to minimize and dismiss this insanity, but we feel it, and we see its results every day: students dropping out of college over break-ups, people ruining their hard-earned careers by having affairs with their coworkers, politicians sneaking out of the country to be with their lovers when they are supposed to be governing, people walking in front of trains because they can’t imagine a life without the person who has rejected them.

These are serious drugs that have consequences as bad or worse than cocaine or heroin. But we can’t outlaw them or wage a war on them, because these drugs are in our own bodies, and we can’t get them out until we’re dead.


Anonymous said...

=O Does Karin have a crush on someone? I especially liked how you included second-cousin in the list of those to be jealous of, haha. As usual, you nailed the feeling perfectly. In the middle of a horrible fight with a boyfriend years ago, he yelled, "You can only hate me so much right now because you love me just as much!" I didn't get it when he said it, but eventually I understood. Love/lust/obsession is hard!

-Jessica Hansen

sondra said...

"We can’t get them out until we’re dead"?? Uh-uh, no way! I just can't see myself at 80 pining away for someone. (Of course, I used to not be able to see myself at 40 at all, yet here I am ...)

Karin Spirn said...

I don't have crushes anymore, Jessica. I am doctor spock. I love your story about your boyfriend!

BUT, I do hear that 80-year-olds are not immune. Haven't you seen all those news stories about how people are increasingly hooking up at nursing homes? I just learned, in writing this piece, that Sandra Day O'Connor's husband found himself a girlfriend in his nursing home when he was suffering from Alzheimer's, and that O'Connor gave the couple her blessing because she hadn't seen him so happy in years.

Anonymous said...

Have you read Bukowski's 'LOVE IS A DOG FROM HELL'? Very fitting. Might make you want to vomit every time you hear the 4-letter word mentioned (and I don't mean the one your mom told you not to say). Or it might make you want to get really drunk, make love to a whore, and piss yourself. So it goes...

Joseph Smigelski said...

My favorite singer, Lucinda Williams, puts it this way in her great song "Essence":

Baby, sweet baby, you're my drug
Come on and let me taste your stuff

Baby, sweet baby, bring me your gift
What surprise you gonna hit me with

And I think that bit about the Eskimos having 52 words for snow is a myth, but of course you seem to be using it as such.

Melinda said...

I like the idea of Dr. Spock with a crush, kind of.

But I love the idea of old people hooking up in nursing homes.

Great analogy with drinking. Lord knows none of us drink for the hangover, and yet I shudder to think of how many times the (slurred) words, "C'mon, just one more" have escaped my lips.

While no one consciously chooses to roam the earth like a wraith racked with longing, it's a state that we've all found ourselves in. There's no such thing as a life untouched by limerence. Even Dr. Spock fell in love once.

An optimist might argue that these bouts of irrational emotion provide grist for art, but recollections of the crazy loves in my past are more likely to inspire toe-curling embarrassment than a foundation for the great American novel.

Joseph Smigelski said...

Aren't you two talking about "Mr. Spock" from Star Trek, not Dr. Spock, the anti-war baby doctor?

Karin Spirn said...

Yes, how embarrassing! I mean, I do enjoy watching children throw tantrums, but that hardly makes me Dr. Spock.

Karin Spirn said...

You made me think of something, Melinda--

I remember once telling my musician friend Kelly Caldwell that I thought dating was such a horrible distraction from everything I was really supposed to be doing. She gave me this really uncomprehending look. "That's funny," she said. "I write love songs. I think of tyring to find love as the main, most important thing I'm supposed to be doing." She was really good at writing songs about it, too, somehow.

After that I decided that there are people who are supposed to date and people who aren't, and she and I fell on opposite sides of the border.

Anonymous said...

Karin, that conversation you had with Kelly is much more 'real' and convincing than the thin assertion that the prevalence of lazy rhymes in pop songs somehow shows '[o]ur stubborn insistence on forcing these two words together' and 'shows how acutely we feel love as a mental illness'. but while you credited Kelly's songwriting talent, you neglected to mention your talent at writing from your 'side of the border'. i, for one, prefer it to love songs! -k.

Karin Spirn said...

Thanks, K. I am glad that people-who-should-not-date such as myself have a legitimate genre to write in!

Karin Spirn said...

PS--it may be a rather flippant conclusion that people are subconsciously rhyming "crazy" and "baby" on purpose, but I still really like it.

mlucas said...

Ain't no big thing!


Karin Spirn said...

I love it! I'm also weirdly partial to this one:

With every goddess a let-down, every idol a bring-down, it gets you down.

Melinda said...

Oh hey, now I'm embarrassed. I used Dr. Spock 2x. Confession, I've never really watched Star Trek but I DO know there was an episode where Spock falls in love.

Karin, what you said reminds me of something that Dan Savage said about how some people are kind of meant to be alone. The problem, though, is that many of these people don't realize that they're one of the world's eternal loners. How can you really know?

Karin Spirn said...

I think those people could figure it out from the fact that (a) they are my ex-boyfriends, or (b) they are me.