In this month’s Tales of a Single, Middle-Aged Gay Man, Steven Smith looks at the drug we call “love” and asks, is it the worst addiction of all?
Love has been known to bring down empires. Men and women have even died for love. Some commit murder or take their own lives. What happens when we wake up from love and realise it has been a horrible trip? Or is love the anchor for security, a safety blanket that makes so many feel validated and wanted? Some might say one of the best feelings in the world is love—and what is life without it?
This has been one of those weeks when I find myself asking “Why am I single?” I don’t exactly need to wear a paper bag over my head and, socially, my name is on most friends’ and acquaintances’ party lists. Sure, I’m on the wrong side of 50, an age that can be the kiss of death on the gay scene, but things have progressed since a gay man would have to hang up his ruby slippers after 30. In fact, the golden years of the bears, daddies and silver foxes are very fashionable; as one friend in his 60s recently took me, “I am getting more honey than I did in my twenties.” For me, sadly, it was hard to relate; my dance card is frighteningly empty when it comes to dating.
Yes, I have tried several apps, from the ones that a friend introduces you to (so you join, only to be besieged by guys from the US military who seem to all live in Leeds and call you “Dear”) to Tinder and Match. Both came up blank, and the likes of Grindr and Gaydar just aren’t for me. Watching a friend on an app called Scruff was like watching the doors at Selfridges on the first morning of the sale: it was hard to keep up with who was going in and out, so maybe not the recipe for true romance that I’m (maybe naively) looking for.
Most of my peers seem to be either married or seriously dating, and to be honest, I was for the first time feeling sorry for myself and a little lonely—much as it might seem to the world that I was Mr Popularity, surrounded by company (as one magazine put it, I had “a social calendar busier than Princess Margaret’s”—she’s dead, but I get the point). But I’m sure that most singles get the lonely feeling on occasion, no matter what they say.
Interrupting my self-indulgent self-pity is the ringing of a phone. It’s my soon-to-be-married friend Angela. She’s around my age and super successful and bright. The woman does a degree as a hobby, as well as playing sport and having so many side gigs it’s hard to keep up. Angela has been married once before and has two amazing grown-up children; she supports their various ventures and is the best mum you can imagine.
But Angela falls short when it comes to love. She has not only got rose-tinted spectacles on, when it comes to the man she is about to marry, she is completely blindsided. Since she met this real-life equivalent of Netflix’s Dirty John, the phone has not stopped going with people asking me to have a word with her.
With maturity comes experience, and I have learnt that it is the message that usually gets shot. In fact, one of her friends has already pointed out that she was making a mistake, only to be quickly ostracised, though in a drunken moment Angela asked me if I thought the friend was right.
It was clear from the start that John was dominating and controlling. However, he was fun for a drink and he and I got on well. One by one, he started to alienate Angela’s friends who he felt were a threat—somehow Angela would tell me that it was her idea and she had seen the true light.
Then there was the pressure for her to stop supporting her kids and focus more on his ventures. Not too long after the engagement, he had a sports injury and the market dropped out of his field. He had to give up work altogether and lived off her while exploring his options. Much as he enjoyed a lavish lifestyle – flying first class, dining in the world’s best restaurants, and all that came with having a very successful partner, his clear resentment of her financial success over his was clear.
The man was self-medicating enough to feed Peru, but Angela would excuse it and say, “He only does it on occasion, you know what the banking boys are like.” (He did not work in the City.) It seemed obvious to me that the whole situation was a car crash waiting to happen. The only thing that might be of help was that he liked me, and I could still gently advise her and be a sounding board.
Today’s phone call is a humdinger. John wants her to sell her beautiful city home, move her son out, and buy something in the country nearer his aged parents and his friends. Angela thinks the country air might do her good, as John says she’s looking tired, and that it could be a nice change. My God, this whole thing is turning into a television show where you’re screaming at the screen, “RUN!” I take a deep breath and tell Angela it’s not a good time to sell. Why not try renting in the country and see how she likes it? But maybe not mention to John that I suggested that. I suggest we have lunch and chat about it tomorrow. It may have been easier if she’d had a chemical drug dependency and hit rock bottom; then I could get her help or at least stage an intervention, rather than trying to save her from this man.
Anyway, hanging up, it’s a worry, but I’m late for lunch. I’m off to see two bright stars, Simone and Juliet. Simone is single and works in marketing for a record label, and Juliet is a later-life lesbian: “I’m LLL,” as she puts it in her deep Tallulah Bankhead voice. She’s camp, and a fabulous PR manager. In fact, the restaurant we’re dining at belongs to one of her clients. I knew Juliet’s first husband, and I always wondered what she ever saw in him. But if I thought her taste in men was bad, she’s outdone herself when it comes to her current fiancée, singer Coral Jones.
Juliet is obsessed with Coral, and it seems to be all that she can talk about. Simone and I have started placing bets on how long it will take Juliet to bring up her fiancée. Juliet has turned into a type of woman she would have been truly appalled by a few years ago, the ones whose opinions and views are those of their partner.. Every other word out of her mouth is, “Coral says…” as if God created the Earth and on the seventh day, Coral took over as she probably knew better.
To make matters worse, Juliet is just back from the USA and the prestigious Coachella music festival in Los Angeles, where of course Coral was headlining and received rave reviews, or so Juliet is boasting. This is hard to swallow, as both Simone (who knows everyone in the music world) and I know that Coral was in fact performing at a downtown L.A. venue. Juliet had paid for her to appear to make it look like she was at Coachella, and Coral had nothing to do with the festival, although it was running at the same time.
It’s all smoke and mirrors with that one, as Simone says. Ironically, that’s also the name of Coral’s first E.P., which, according to Juliet, is driving record companies actress the globe to enter a frenzied bidding war. However, it took Simone three and a half minutes to discover that Juliet had helped to self-produce and release the record. “Oh, she’s so good that record labels just take advantage of the artist,” to quote Juliet. “So Coral set up her own record label.” Simone almost choked on her espresso martini the night that was said.
Of course, Juliet does not disappoint. We’ve hardly sat down when she declares that Coral is just such a good judge of character—“It’s almost like she’s psychic!” Simone’s eyes go up to heaven and she lifts the menu up over her face. Juliet goes on to say that 98% of the time, Coral can work people out in seconds, but we aren’t to worry as she likes us.
Juliet seems to be oblivious to the fact that no one is that keen on Coral, but we do all tolerate her, because Juliet seems more stable and happier than she has for a long time. Who are we to charge in where angels fear to tread? As long as a friend is happy, it’s none of our business.
The only thing you can do for friends is be there if it goes wrong, to pick them back up and not tell them “I told you so” or “I wanted to say something.” Just listen and be kind. Many relationships, no matter how dysfunctional they may seem to us, work. Who knows what happens behind closed doors? Maybe there’s a magic that we don’t get to see.
And as if my day hasn’t been filled with enough examples of why it might be a good idea just to be single, I arrive home to find Paulo on my doorstep. He and his boyfriend Antón have been close friends for the last four years, since they moved from Brazil. I know that Antón’s had addiction issues in the past, but he’s been attending AA and doing well. But tonight Paulo seems distressed.
“He locked me out!” he says, and stands there trembling. At first, I think he has been locked out and lost his key, but no—it seems that Antón has taken exception to Paulo having drinks with a mutual friend two nights before and not telling him, and has bolted the door to their home. There Paulo is, teary-eyed, in his work clothes, with not even a toothbrush to his name.
I of course text and call Antón, and eventually get a message back: Sorry please put him up for a bit I can’t do this anymore you’re a good friend xx
I look back at Paulo, who is resembling an abandoned puppy by this time. All I can do is suggest we order takeout and I’ll get him a toothbrush and some fresh clothes, and it should be all right by the morning. (Sadly, it wasn’t.)
There’s no denying that in its purest, idealised version, love is amazing—when you’re on a high and the mere mention of his/her/their name makes your toes curl and you can lose all rational thinking, and I for one have been there. Even in a friendship that isn’t sexual, it’s possible to have the same feeling. Who can forget their first friend in life—that moment when they leave you to play with someone else, that first feeling of jealousy, and the relief when they come back?
Could love be the biggest addiction of them all, making sensible, smart people do things out of character? Especially in the hands of those already living with addiction issues—and I use the word issues, because we all have addictions in us; it’s those that can’t control them who may fall at the first hurdle.
Or on the upside, I have seen two beautiful people who are my long-term friends, who have both battled with addiction, find love together and become each other’s anchors, and they’ve been sober and happy for ten years now. I can’t tell you how many people rang me to say, “Give that a month” when they first met, and yet they are still happy.
When I chat to my great pal, self-help and relationship expert Dr Pam Spurr of drpam.co.uk and @drpamspurr, she tells me:
“It’s said that love is a drug, and for some people it is. Falling in love stimulates feel-good brain chemicals like serotonin and endorphins that can be addictive for someone with an addictive nature. The addict craves that exciting ‘hit’, but once the excitement in the initial phase of a new relationship wears off, they may well look elsewhere for that excitement again.
“Where someone with a non-addictive nature adjusts to the next phase in a relationship—after the exciting, sexual chemistry phase—someone with addictive tendencies might feel disappointed and even bored. They may not have the emotional capability to develop a more mature way of relating.
“One sure sign that someone who’s had problems with addiction in the past is developing an emotionally healthy way of living is that they accept that relationships change with time. They accept that they move from the exciting first phase into a calmer, yet hopefully more substantive, second phase and further phases.
“Anyone living with addiction needs to enter any new relationship with caution. The rule of thumb is that an addict should not enter a new relationship within a year of going sober, going clean, or, for example, giving up gambling. Research tends to show that a year of sobriety or being clean of any addiction, is a ‘good enough’ amount of time to be clear-headed when wanting to begin a new relationship.
“With existing relationships, they and their partner and/or loved ones need to identify any dysfunctional patterns in the relationship. For instance, if when the addict feels unhappy, angry or stressed with their partner they learn to express their feelings and their needs calmly and without drama. Because learning to express how they feel and discovering solutions to any problems within the relationship means they are less likely to self-medicate in the way they have previously.”
Such great advice, but in my experience, so many very intelligent, worldly people would rather jump under a bus than talk about emotions with their loved ones including counsellors and therapists I’ve known who in real life can’t do it. It’s a little like “Those who can do, those who can’t teach.”
The next day I’m watching GMB and they’re attacking the couple of the moment, the royals Harry and Meghan. In between the name calling and all that’s going on, something hits me. Is Harry living with addiction?
Apart from the fact I think he’s cute, you can’t help but really like him; he’s the fun royal. One evening I was in the night club Bujios in London’s exclusive South Kensington. It was getting late, and there seemed to be some commotion, even excitement.
“It’s a royal,” said the footballer next to me (who I won’t name). I asked which one, and he said, “The ginger one, Harry.” The woman next to me whispered, “I hear he likes to party.”
It was a similar story when I was in Abu Dhabi. My good friend who runs a track there told me the exact same—“Lovely fella, Harry. He likes to party.”—and gave me a wink. Judging by the photos coming from Las Vegas, Harry is the party wherever he goes.
Yes, your average lad likes to party, and God knows I do. I just forget I’m not a lad anymore and refuse to be put in a box. Having interviewed so many people who have battled addiction, especially gay men, they all seem to have some trauma during their early years through abuse, loss, or abandonment. Surely Harry, who lost his mother Diana at such an early age, must have had a huge amount of trauma surrounding it, but was still expected to keep that stiff British upper lip for all to see. As we watched the young Princes Harry and William walk behind their mother’s coffin, a nation’s heart broke. It’s certainly a vision that will haunt me for life.
Mental health issues and addiction have been rife amongst the royals, from Henry VIII’s problems with commitment to Edward VII being known as a sex-crazed party animal, to the divine Princess Margaret, who never seemed to have a cigarette out of her mouth, and whose erratic behaviour could certainly be put down to addiction. And how did Diana’s battle with mental health and eating disorders affect her boys?
You can of course understand how Harry might crave normality, and when he met his fairytale princess it all looked like a dream come true. It was a chance to escape. Is it possible that when he met Meghan, who comes from a dysfunctional family background too, and who clearly craves fame, that unhealthy pastime fraught with addiction, they became each other’s anchors—each other’s lovers and healers? If Harry ever wakes from love, will he be okay with the choices they’ve made? Those shouting at the couple clearly haven’t seen what love can do when it becomes the person’s drug of choice.
Harry’s great great uncle Edward VIII gave up the throne for love of the American divorcée Wallis Simpson, a woman rumoured to be gifted in the sexual department. No matter what is said, you have to draw similarities between Harry and Edward.
Yes, they are free to live their lives the way they want to—just because Harry was born into a family and a title does not mean he has to stay there. in this day and age you can choose to walk away—but the issue I see is that they walked away saying they wanted privacy, yet Meghan has never stopped the publicity machine since moving, first to Canada and then Santa Barbara. I personally don’t believe that, with a Netflix deal and many more vehicles in the pipeline, a nice private life away from public scrutiny was what Meghan ever wanted. She certainly is having her cake and eating it too. My general feeling is that most in the acting profession are like Tinkerbell: they die if they’re not getting enough attention.
My fear, if Harry ever falls out of love, would be for his already fragile mental health. Let’s hope it’s love forever for them and that they have their fairytale ending, but remember, not all love stories are Mills and Boon, and fairy tales have dark, evil queens and fire-breathing dragons in them too, not just princesses and princes ending up in Utopia. If you lose a shoe at midnight, you’re drunk.
P.S. Angela escaped Dirty John and lives happily in Singapore. Paulo is well and runs a garden centre. Antón is an addiction counsellor, but can’t talk to those he loves still. Juliet is still happy with Coral and telling us Coral is going to be the next Carol King.