This is a question I think about often because I have clients who struggle with addictions and I can really relate to some of the experiences that have been shared with me in my office. In my humble opinion as a therapist there are quite a few similarities between survivors and individuals suffering from addictions. At the very least I have seen them in myself.
If you have ever been with an addict when they need their next hit or are in withdrawal you can almost feel their panic, anxiety, and sense of urgency. Depending on their level of dependency and what their addiction is, certain addicts would do almost anything to find their next fix. Once they take that drink or drug, the addict feels a sense of calm and relief and temporarily all is good in their world; however, this calm and peaceful state doesn’t last too long and before they know it, they are desperate for that next high when the substance leaves their system.
If you are a survivor or still in a narcissistic relationship you probably know all too well the power of trauma bonding and the confusion that is caused by the cycle of love bombing, idealise, devalue and discard. Many narcissists want us to be dependent on them either emotionally or financially so they can control, manipulate and abuse us. They are masters at creating this dependency without their victims understanding or knowing that is their goal. The prince or princess charming act sweeps us off our feet and that mask that they showed us during the love bombing phase becomes the drug that we crave.
I know that when my narcissist would play push-pull games I would feel so confused, panicked, and anxious. I would rack my brain trying to figure out what was going on and how I could make it better. I was willing to do anything to make the relationship work and felt so unregulated when he would suddenly disappear. This caused such disruption in my eating, sleeping, and even my ability to go to work. I just didn’t feel like me. Eventually he would come back, show me attention, give me just enough affection and I would feel that sense of relief, just like the addict does when they take a hit. I would then feel hopeful that my wonderful romantic thoughtful most perfect partner (who never really existed) was back or at least on his way back.. But then the cycle would start all over again. Before I knew it, I was in another state of panic and urgency trying to get him to come back and make things better.
The more times that you go through this cycle and the more extreme differences you see from the love bombing to the discard phase, the more you are going to feel confused, panicked, and anxious or the more you may present like an addict looking for that fix. Just like how your body can develop a dependency on a substance, unfortunately the way the central nervous system works and the chemicals that your body releases during the cycles of narcissistic abuse, you can feel the same way about a person. Cognitively I knew that my relationship was unhealthy and that this was a self-destructive pattern but I was so deep into the trauma bond and so desperate for love and that ‘fix’, I kept engaging in behaviours that were bad for me again and again.
Also, similarly to some individuals struggling with addictions, I was in denial. I focused and put too much weight on how I felt when I had my narcissist and decided to ignore the chaos, pain, and problems he was causing in my life when he would disappear. My friends and family would try to intervene and tell me I needed to “quit” him, but their words went in one ear and out the other. I wanted what I wanted and unfortunately that was a toxic relationship. I just wasn’t able to think clearly because both my brain and central nervous system were offline!
Going no contact, just like quitting a substance cold turkey, is hard work and sometimes depending on your circumstances, not realistic right away. But just like with drinking or drugs, you need to quit and not use the substance anymore to kick the habit. You also need to distance yourself from people and things associated with your old ‘addict lifestyle’. Just like with addictions, there is so much temptation ‘to use’ and many people relapse, just as survivors can when our narcissists come ‘hoovering’.
The good news is that addictions and narcissistic abuse recovery also have something important in common; these are two very treatable conditions. You do not have to stay stuck here. You can break free, get treatment, figure out the patterns and get healthy. Even if you relapse and fall off the ‘narcissistic survivor wagon’, you can start over and get back on. Remember to be kind to yourself if this happens. Your central nervous system and other centres of your brain have been altered and impacted by toxic love but you can heal and become healthy. And you will.
Jenny Tamasi is a psychologist, survivor, and author of The Psychologist & Her Narcissists A Guide to Surviving Toxic Relationships.