Nicola Vivian learnt an agonising form of love from her alcoholic father and her drug addict boyfriend – and it nearly drove her insane
Love for me was high-octane drama. It was co-dependent love, learned first from my beloved alcoholic dad, and later replicated without restraint for my drug-addicted boyfriend, Will.
My idea of love was a bottomless well, a tightrope between life and death, a web of rescuing and failing. Rousing anthems were its soundtrack.
It was elastic forgiveness, tenacious guilt, self-blame, self-denial, and pretence. It was bleeding sadness at the slow suicides of the two men I loved. In my personal dictionary, love was defined simultaneously as ‘devotion, loss, affection and suffering’.
It was also conditional love: ‘I will fix you so long as you love me’ and ‘I’ll give you my all, so long as you never leave me.’
My variety of love didn’t come with a health warning: that I would repeatedly hook the only addict in a crowd – as if I had an in-built tracking device that defied good sense and drew me magnetically to addicted souls.
My tribe was the damaged one, addicted to something that could kill. Then it did exactly that. In 1988, when the heroin culture was peaking, Will died of an overdose at 26, when I was just 24.
He had blown my clouds away like a ray of sunshine, and burst into my heart before I’d understood that he was a junkie. He was vulnerable, troubled, self-doubting, beautiful, funny and kind. His home life had been unstable and, at a young age, he’d lost his father to alcohol.
Love would heal him, wouldn’t it? Love would repair the cracks. I gave him every last drop of my love, and more. And, for a while, we revelled in celebratory bliss, entwined like a braid.
But his inner disquiet defeated him. His new job at Kleinwort’s, the bank, was pressured, and he lacked faith that he could maintain the pretence of a city whizz kid, let alone that of a normal, conventional bloke. He had spent too long dulling his doubts with heroin, and heroin had spent too long being his master. Not even the elation of revival from his drug-induced lows – nor my undying and inexhaustible love – could deter his craving to flee back to it.
My dad, too, had been a casualty of his own battle against infinite doubt, stemming from early boarding school experiences and his parents’ emotional war wounds. After a military career, he’d had a farm in 1960s Kenya, where, in a culture of ever-flowing sundowners, he had seized the liberating effect of intoxication. Everyone did, after all. But his off switch, like Will’s, was defunct. Dad died from drink in 2001, aged 69.
High moments with Will and Dad were dry moments; clean moments – a walk, a late-night chat or a picnic. They were rare and sky-scrapingly high; like nuggets of gold for the miner, tarnished alas by my jittery expectation of the dramatic switch to the inevitable low.
Any minute now, the ice would crack under my skates, and I would be mopping up blood-streaked kitchen cabinets, vomit from the lapels of Jermyn Street suits, and tears of family members.
I would be standing over Will’s coma-like face in intensive care, or watching his swollen thigh being lanced of the threat of gangrene. I would be pulling him up off a restaurant floor, pretending that he suffered blackouts, or out of a lift in which he had wet himself. I would be threatening to shop armed dealers to the police, or pleading with a prison officer to let him free.
Ultimately, I could neither pedal fast enough to control their self-ruin, nor pour enough love into their cups to make a difference. Fear of losing them – or fear of failing – took me to the horizon of insanity.
For ancient man, whose survival depended on the success of his mammoth hunt, fear was intelligent and rational. Modern fear is often personalised; the result of experience or trauma – or irrational, despite feeling real.
When the severity of mental fears – fear of failure, abandonment, rejection, imperfection or being unlovable – are overwhelming, and the distress or paralysis they induce interferes with daily functioning, they often provoke escape towards the self-desensitising alcohol, drugs, starvation or love elicit.
My book is about habits that incrementally grow into addictions, usually from trauma or perceived doubt and fear. It is about their dramatic consequences, and how they unwittingly get handed down to future generations who shape them in different forms.
Love has been my governing addiction. Although you might think, ‘I can think of worse things to be addicted to than love,’ it nevertheless results in the same life-consuming, morale-crushing mess as do alcohol and drugs.
Yet love, like breathing, is learned from birth and is essential to life. I once attempted to learn the language of tough love, but I felt like a foreigner inside my own skin. There are as many ways to love, I have discovered, as there are chocolates in a box of Roses, and it is how you love that determines where that love hovers on the barometer of healthiness.
Nicola Vivian’s My Will: A Portrait of Love and Addiction, published 17 May