Book Review : A Calm Voice on Addiction Dynamics

Letters From Women Who Love Too Much: A Closer Look at Relationship Addiction and Recovery by Robin Norwood (Pocket Books: $18.95, cloth; 333 pages)

"This book is not intended," Robin Norwood writes, "to be a general treatise on love, on how to find the right man or on how to make a relationship work. Quite the contrary, like 'Women Who Love Too Much,' this book is written primarily for heterosexual women who are addicted to relationships. . . . "

When, several years ago, Norwood wrote her previous book, she was inundated by letters from women who saw themselves in her pages, and wrote--either simply to acknowledge that, or to ask for further information, or to provide more information about addictive personalities, or to ask for more information about, for instance, sexual addiction, battered wives and children, and so on. The great part of this second book--Pocket Books' first hardcover publication--is made up of the letters themselves, connected either by Norwood's thoughtful introductions or equally thoughtful answers to these letters.

This book is light years away from the standard, pop-culture, self-help book. (Just do this ! Just do that ! You'll be able to lose weight, keep your man, attain a blistering sex life, and learn Russian by listening to cassettes in the car on your way to work!)

A Repeated Reminder

Instead, this book is really about the dynamics of addiction. Refreshingly, Norwood refrains from giving any advice except for repeatedly reminding her letter writers and her readers that the only real help for any addict is to be found in support groups based on the Alcoholics Anonymous model; that is, programs grounded in "12 step work" and with a strong spiritual base. You can be in therapy until the cows come home, Norwood writes, but until you begin addressing your own addiction--whether it be to alcohol, drugs, relationships, sex, gambling, indebtedness, you will never even begin to be in "recovery."

This really is an extraordinary book. Simply by postulating romantic obsession as a disease; a progressive disease like alcoholism that, if left untreated, can literally cost you your life, sends electric shocks through the reader's brain. Putting these kinds of addictive behavior into a disease matrix, and repeatedly reminding the reader that every addict needs and has a support system of people just as much involved as the addict himself is--well, it's absolutely fascinating. It messes with your mind, it takes the dominoes of what you already "know" and arranges all that material in a different pattern that makes a lot more sense.

It's Norwood's contention that "addicts"--drinkers, overeaters, philanderers, wives of philanderers--have almost always been severely traumatized, abused, abandoned or molested in their childhoods, and that, as a general rule of thumb, they unconsciously set out to re-create the conditions of their childhood--to re-create their drama--so that they can come out the "winner" this time, except that there are never any winners.

Again and again, Norwood soberly, sensibly, serenely, reminds the women who write these letters that the only lives they can change are their own lives: They can't make the men they love different, or the children they protect different, or the parents they resent and rebel against different. "Recovery" begins with the person in question, and it is a lifelong project that really does happen one day at a time.

For me, reading this book was like watching the author slowly lay out a deck of cards that fell into an increasingly meaningful pattern. With every new point Norwood made, I found myself thinking, "I knew that! I just never thought of it before!"

(1) The idea that everyone in the family is involved in addiction.

(2) The idea that one addiction can mask or overlap another (exercise, for instance masking an eating addiction).

(3) The idea that an abused girl child may marry not simply an abuser but a compulsive womanizer who has been equally abused in his own life.

(4) The idea--based on serious studies--that incest occurs most of all in alcoholic homes but secondly in highly religious homes (and hasn't the image of the "sinning" clergymen been with us since Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" and before?) Again, these are things we "know" but choose not to know. . . .

But Norwood reminds us that "We are here to grow and learn and wake up." Soap operas are for television, not for our lives. Again and again I found myself, my family, my friends in these pages. There's no man-bashing here, no parent-bashing--just a polite invitation to grow up and behave sanely.

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