“My name is Nadia, and I’m co-dependent.”
That was how I introduced myself to a room full of strangers in a community hall after work one evening.
I’d spent the day stealing away to the restroom to let out deep, heaving sobs between meetings because I wasn’t coping with being apart from a new partner.
It had been eight months since my marriage fell apart, and a long list of men had followed, bridging the void from my husband’s absence with text messages, dinners, flirtation and sex.
I didn’t know how to let my bed be empty, how to collapse into it alone at night and listen to the thoughts fizzing in the back of my brain. And so I used. Not weed, or coke, or tequila. I got high on men.
I was never without at least six different guys on call at the same time. I needed the rush ― the zing of my phone lighting up with a sticky fistful of sugary words, or a still somewhat foreign hand lingering on my thigh. The thrill of holding a man’s power for those few seconds when his body would inevitably heave on top of mine was the ultimate trip.
However, despite its outward allure, maintaining a black book full of eligible suitors is a surprisingly exhausting process.
Yes, there are plenty of flowers, fancy dinners and the odd shirt tearing from a muscular body like a scene from a Danielle Steel novel. But there are also embarrassing name gaffes (you can never recover from moaning “Harry!” in bed with Sam), relentless Brazilian waxes (to this day, my vulva hasn’t fully recovered from everything I’ve done to it), and lots of near misses (two dates almost bumped into each other leaving the bar I’d cockily scheduled them back-to-back in).
Part of me wanted to be caught. An even bigger part of me wanted to stop; wanted to thwart the numbness that came with using men like flimsy tarps to patch up a hole so wide, it was only a matter of time until the wind ripped it apart.
It was after a pretty intense streak of using that I met Kynan.
We exchanged hasty messages over a dating app one evening, my longstanding aversion to getting to know anything about a new suitor before meeting blisteringly evident in my terse communications.
“Tell me something about yourself first,” he proposed.
“Why don’t we cut to the chase and do that in person, in an hour, in a bar downtown?” I contended.
Kynan was several years younger than me; an ambitious 26-year-old civil engineer with a rugged face covered almost entirely in hair, and steel blue eyes that seemed to look through me. He was drearily dressed in a hooded sweatshirt, ’90s cargo shorts and flip-flops, sitting alone at a table with an expression befitting someone who’d just received terrible news. When I sat down, he seemed genuinely confused by my presence for some reason, and then relieved.
“You’re real!” he exclaimed, before immediately launching into an enthusiastic diatribe on dating in the modern digital realm of automated bots and catfish.
“Your profile picture looked too good to be true. And your message was so upfront. I’ve never done this before, so I didn’t know what to think,” he said.
“Done what?” I asked.
“Dating. I’ve never been on a real date before.”
As it turned out, I was Kynan’s first actual date. He confessed his past relationships had evolved rather organically ― and, perhaps lazily ― from work friendships, conveniently negating the expense and effort of wining and dining.
After a round of margaritas and a conversation that spanned from politics to ice cream preferences, we missed the hint the bartender was trying to close up the bar for the night. Once the lights finally shut off, Kynan walked me home, refusing my invitation to come inside, explaining he was old-fashioned. Even getting a goodnight kiss proved a struggle; we playfully argued about it for some time before he gave in to my request and pulled me in for a surprisingly warm, passionate exchange.
We began seeing each other regularly after that, and for the first time in a long time, I felt at peace. My thoughts moved away from scoring my next hit, and instead to the next time I would see Kynan again.
But as the relationship intensified, I started spiraling back out of control. I needed Kynan to have sex with me ― two, three, four, then five times a day, to feel secure. Any less and I felt crippled by the sensation he was pulling away, preparing to leave me. It didn’t matter that there were spontaneous bouquets of flowers left at my door, romantic Post-Its tacked playfully around my apartment, and a bountiful supply of verbal “I love you”s from him. I ached with emptiness when he wasn’t physically intertwined with me. It was a suffocating loneliness that spread like oil in an ocean, exterminating everything good in its path.
Suddenly I found myself unable to carry on with my job when he let more than an hour go by without sending a text. I began breaking down every time he had to go away for the weekend.
Finally, the fateful confrontation I had been fearing came.
“You’re choking me. I love you, but I can’t live like this,” Kynan told me during yet another tearful argument over his late arrival home from work.
I wasn’t sure I could continue either, but I also knew I felt helpless to stop. However, I was about to get the revelation I’d been waiting for, courtesy of an affrontedly blunt life coach I desperately contacted the following morning.
Offering a box of Kleenex, he nonchalantly remarked, “You’re deeply co-dependent, my dear. And most likely a sex addict.”
The weight of his words hit me like a thud in the chest. I went home clutching a sheet of recommendations for support groups, one of which immediately stood out to me; an association with a similar premise to the 12-step program Alcoholics Anonymous. The group’s name was CoDA, an acronym for Co-Dependents Anonymous.
Intrigued by the idea of the group, and determined to prevent my relationship from self-destructing, I made my way to a meeting after work one rainy Thursday night, nervously fake-texting to mask my fear as I took a seat and waited for it to begin.
Chatting between themselves as the last people filed in, were articulate, well-dressed women and men of all ages. My heart seized. Was I in the right room? This didn’t seem like a group of people who were struggling to cope independently.
And then an older woman spoke in a voice that commanded everyone’s attention.
“Welcome to CoDa. Who’s new here tonight?”
I sheepishly raised my hand, along with one other woman who looked to be in her 20s and a silver-haired man in a suit. They were there for the same reason as I was. They too, remarkably, didn’t know how to be alone.
And yet, as each person took turns speaking around the circle that night, I didn’t feel alone anymore. I realized that, at 33 years old, I still didn’t know what a healthy romantic relationship looked like; but that, it was okay to admit that between those walls. There were no contrived testimonies, miracle cures or false promises that evening, just the commitment to honestly share your story, and return.
Six months later, I’m still returning. I’m returning to CoDA, and therapy, and ― because I’m sure you’re wondering ― to Kynan. But I’m only just now beginning to learn what real love looks like. And it can’t be gleaned through a heady encounter with a stranger, or even in support group, or the notes Kynan still sticks to our bathroom mirror. It’s in the face staring back at me in the reflection, with a steady voice that says, “My name is Nadia, and I’m a recovering co-dependent.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.