Paula McLain’s Antidote To Toxic Love — Transcript
Paula McLain: So, we’ll just launch into it, and we’ll say all this shit and I’ll feel overexposed.
Terence Mickey: Welcome to Self? Help! the podcast for anyone who thought “Who am I? What in God’s name am I doing? How did I get here of all places?” and then to figure it all out, you turned to a book. Because that’s the kind of person you are. And that’s the kind of person I am. I’m your host Terence Mickey, and I do not judge from where you seek guidance.
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Paula: Terence, are you a woman who loves too much? Do you need to get straight with yourself about that?
Terence: Oh dear listener, please fax me your answer to that question. And in the meantime, while I wait for your feedback, I’ll continue with my guest, Paula McLain. Paula is an international best-selling novelist, the author of The Paris Wife and Circling the Sun and to find help during a difficult relationship, she turned to a classic from 1985 by Robin Norwood: Women Who Love Too Much.
Paula: First of all, I had to rip the cover off. I couldn’t even stand it, like, what if somebody sees me reading this? What does that say? How horrifying! How could I possibly be that person?
Terence: It takes a lot to become the person we are, and before Paula published best-selling fiction, she wrote a memoir. It told the story of how she grew up with her sisters in the foster care system when her parents could no longer care for them.
Paula: My mother said that she was going to the movies with a friend. She dropped my sisters and I off at my grandmother’s house, my father’s mother. I was four, my younger sister was three, and my older sister was six. She said she was going to the movies and she didn’t come back. She didn’t come back for 16 years. My father was in prison at the time, and when he did finally come home, it was maybe four or five months later, we’re just living at my grandmother’s house without knowing what was happening. He came back and he said, “You know, I really want to take care of you, but I’m not ready.” He drove us to the county courthouse. He essentially surrendered custody to us and we were put in the first of many foster homes.
Terence: Paula and her sisters were moved from one foster home to another, and in and out if these strangers homes, Paula was haunted by their mother’s abandonment.
Paula: She gave me away, and then in repeated placements, I had relationships with those mothers who rejected me, who criticized me, who abandoned me, who showed me no love or affection or approval or any of that. Talk about unmet needs. That was my entire life, was just one vast sea of unmet needs.
Terence: And as an adult, Paula paid a price for her childhood, especially in her relationships.
Paula: So I had decades and decades of wondering what is wrong with me that I continue to look for love where it’s not? That I choose unavailable men. I choose broken men. I obsess over relationships. I treat relationships like a drug. I say I want sex when I don’t. I give away my power. Like what the hell is going on?
Terence: Paula reached for Norwood’s book to figure out her patterns, and it gave her something she didn’t expect.
Paula: With this book, I actually thought I saw something I’d never let myself see before.
Terence: Women Who Love Too Much, is for people who find themselves habitually in relationships with people who are emotionally unavailable.The partners may be alcoholics, workaholics, sex addicts, cheaters. What makes them unavailable is irrelevant. The loving too much part is speaks to when we cannot stop loving even when someone is inappropriate, or uncaring, or unavailable, when wanting to love, yearning for love, becomes an unhealthy compulsion. Because we think something is fundamentally broken in us, and we need another person to fix.
Paula’s story contains a scene of sexual abuse. So if you have children in the room, or don’t want to be triggered yourself, please listen to another episode. If neither of these things are concerns for you, but you’re thinking this isn’t for me, I’d encourage you to listen. Paula shares insights into trauma. And even if you’ve never personally experienced trauma, you will know someone who has, and it will help you better understand them and their circumstance. Here’s the story of what Paula learned from Norwood’s book.
Paula: Okay. The first thing I did was when I was single I went on match.com for like four hours and then was just so revolted.
I felt unsafe in, like, every possible way. But listen to this: so I’m horrified by match.com, but then I get one note from this one guy.
He doesn’t even have a picture of himself. It’s like of a wine glass or something. I know. I know! He’s perfect. He’s perfect! And I just remember saying something in my profile about the fact that I like to cook, and he wrote back and said “I love to cook too.” And I said “what’s a favourite recipe of yours”, and he wrote back something like “cedar plank salmon.” Then, I pulled myself off and I never pursued it.
Terence: A year passed and Paula went back online, with a different service, that quickly matched her with a promising date.
Paula: Listen, here’s the guy you’re going to meet him on Tuesday at Bodega at six o’clock. His name is Terry. He’s 58. He has three kids. He’s 6″1. I was thinking, oh, finally! I’ve been saying I need a partner. Here’s a guy. He owns his own business. He has these grown children. He’s in charge of people. He has employees. He doesn’t live in his mom’s basement.
Terence: Now, Paula had a hunch that this was the same guy from match.com, the guy she never met but who shared the recipe for cedar plank salmon.
Paula: I’m like, it’s the guy. It’s the match.com guy. I show up and he’s there and he’s really attractive. I remember underplaying myself that night. I wore a sundress and no make-up and like barely combed my hair.
So he’s there and I say, “I know you.” And he’s like, “Excuse me?” And I said, “I think I know you. I think we were in touch once. Are you so and so and did you send me this recipe for cedar plank salmon?”
Terence: It was indeed the same Terry, and this coincidence was not lost on Paula. She took it as a sign.
Paula: And so there was this feeling of kismet. For me, at least, at the beginning, in order for it to really be the dance, it has to feel right. It has to feel absolutely good. Like it was meant to be, like we’re soulmates, like this is my perfect person, finally. Finally, the universe is giving me finally what I deserve. I mean, that’s the dark part.
I could tell he was super nervous. He had three glasses of wine in like an hour and 15 minutes. So what do I do to put him at ease? I drink that much too, and suddenly he’s in my space. And at one point he reached out and put his hand on my face and in my hair a little bit. Instead of saying, “Listen, jack-off, I don’t know you!” I think it’s something else. I think it’s magnetic.
We got way too drunk. We shut the place down. It’s 12:30. And we’re on our way out the door and he kind of shoves me against the wall and kisses me. And again, I think this is erotic instead of boundary-crossing. Now Robin Norwood, the Women Who Love Too Much, author, she says, at the moment when a healthy person would say “This doesn’t feel good. I don’t give you permission to treat me this way.” the unhealthy person will say, “Aha. There you are. There it is. There’s the thing.”
I was almost in a trance, and I just thought, “Here’s the guy I’ve been meaning to meet. I wasn’t ready for him a year ago, you know, but I’m ready for him now.”
Terence: With the help of Norwood’s book and hindsight, Paula can now see what Terry revealed on the first date and what she wanted to see:
Paula: He was showing me that he had no boundaries. He was showing me that he had a drinking problem. He was showing me that he wasn’t healthy. And that he was really deluded about that, and he was completely willing to ignore all the ways that I was unhealthy.
When you meet that person, you don’t say. “Oh great. You’re just as broken as I am. Let me try to fix you so that I can fix something in me.” It’s like “Oh, let’s be blind together and to say that we’re going to fall in love.” Because, right?
Terence: Instead Paula and Terry swooned over each other over the next few days and fell madly and blindly in love.
Paula: He’s calling me every night saying, “Where have you been all my life? You’re amazing. You’re amazing. You’re so wonderful. How can you be single?” And I’m like, “How can you be single?
She also talks about the fact that there has to be something about the guy that lures you in because you believe that he’s a project. So, with Terry, what he told me almost from the first was that he was married for 28 years, but it was to a frigid woman. She was cold. She was aloof. She didn’t like sex. She didn’t value him as a man. They never had sex.
So, what he was looking for was what I was about to show him, which is that, you know, I’m sex on toast, right? I’m your girl. I’m going to make you feel desirable. And then, in that way, that will be my value. So we sort of tumble into this and and first of all, it feels like it’s a cure because before I had been feeling like I wasn’t getting enough acknowledgement of my wonderfulness, and here he’s turning around and saying, “You’re so amazing. You’re so amazing.”
I’m, like, finally, and I just sort of drink all that in. I’m amazing. I’m amazing. I’m amazing, and I’m going to make you feel amazing. We’re going to be amazing together. It’s going to be you know, the happy ending and all of that. And then, not even six weeks in, Terence, it might have been three weeks.
We make a date and, by then, I’m taking two hours to get ready and have rollers plus everything: push-up bra, high heels, skinny jeans, the whole thing, right. I show up early like cute cute cute, and I sit at the bar and he’s not there and I’m texting him and he’s not answering me. And I get that sick feeling in my stomach like, “Oh, he’s been in a car accident.”
And then he’s sending me these weird messages like “Sorry. I’ll call you in 20 minutes. I’m tied up with something” or “I can’t explain.” An hour goes by. An hour and a half goes by. I’m sitting at the bar feeling really strange and finally the woman behind the bar is like “Get stood up?” I say, “I think maybe.” And so I had dinner.
I have a glass of wine. And then I have two glasses of wine, waiting for him. He finally shows up and he is wasted. He’s completely wasted. And he said he took a client to lunch and the client got really drunk and then he had to drive the client back to her apartment on the other side of town, and he’s so sorry and let him make it up to me.
So we start to have dinner and he’s sitting too close to me and he’s apologizing. We start talking about relationships and he was telling me about his wife and then I said something like “When’s the time that you were really in love? When’s the last time that you were like, really really in love?”
And he said, “I don’t know you well enough to tell you that.” And here I am thinking he’s about to tell me it’s me, right, like because I’m clearly the savior. I’m the person who has shown up at the 11th hour to prove his own worthiness to him. And he said “I can’t tell you” and I said “Tell me!” and he says, “Christine.” “Christine!? Who’s Christine?” And he’s like, “my business partner.”
And then he tells me the real story which is that he left his wife and his marriage years and years before that, because he was in love with his business partner and had been carrying on an affair for seven years. By the way, this woman was still his business partner, and he was clearly still in love with her.
Almost in a trance, I tell him that I need to go. It’s way too much information. I wasn’t prepared for it. It was just making me feel really strange. So he walks me to my car and he’s like, “Will you see me again.” And I said, “I don’t think so. This doesn’t feel right.” And he’s like, “Okay, well, I’m going to call you tomorrow. I just want you to give me a chance.” And the next day, he calls and he’s really depressed and he’s like “Just see me. I just want to take you to lunch. Just—”
I’m like, “I don’t think so. This just doesn’t feel good.” I meet him, though. I meet him for lunch, and I’m like super cold and just really ready to end it and something really interesting happened. I feel like I couldn’t have predicted it but I said something like, “You know, listen, you lied to me. You didn’t tell me the truth about yourself. You made me think you were available. You made me think that you were really interested in me. When, actually you’re just on the run from your own feelings for this other woman who’s married so you can’t have her. So, basically, I’m a stop-gap and all the stuff you’ve been saying to me and to yourself is a lie.”
And then he gets really cold and starts to pull away from me. Before that, he was apologizing and then he gets really cold and he flips it on me. “Listen, you know, you don’t need to beat me up” and “I just assumed— I was thinking we are getting closer and closer not further away.”
Like somehow he flipped it back on me, but it was diabolical because really what I needed him to do, which was to take all the power away from me. And we got back together. We got back together.
Terence: How long was this relationship from beginning to end?
Paula: About three years.
Like when I look back at it later, I’m like, I did what? Like he said what? When somebody tells you you’re wonderful and then pulls away, to me, that’s the catnip, that’s the hook. Somebody gives me all this attention and then takes it away really quickly so that I will fall all over myself to try to get it back.
You know, it was never good after that for years, Terence, for years. It wasn’t good and I stayed in it because I kept waiting for it to be good again. It used to be good so—it used to be good so—for what, three weeks?
I don’t know. I just couldn’t I like couldn’t get out it. I couldn’t get out of the fog.
Terence: So to get out of the fog, Paula attended a woman’s retreat with an old friend, Lori, and she took Norwood’s book with her.
Paula: And we’re there in our little apartment on the edge of the jungle and the monkeys are flying and it’s dawn and I’m eating dragonfruit, you know in fucking Bali and I turn to Lori, and I say, “Listen, I keep saying I want this, I want a partner. I want support. I want nurturing. I want love. I want acceptance. I want somebody to turn around and face me. You know, I want happiness. I want security. I want safety. I want. I want. I want. Right?”
I said “I keep saying I want that but then I go looking for this. Why is that? Why do I get stuck? Lori, What’s standing in my way?”
And she said, “Honey, it’s Terry.”
And I said, “Honey, no, it’s me”.
Desire comes from the Latin, and it means “away from our star.” Desire, all by itself, is not dangerous. What hooks us is something else: the way we then empower somebody with the ability to fix all of our pain, suffering, unmet needs, while hiding from ourselves that were doing that.
Terence: With this insight Paula started to revisit the story of her childhood. When Paula told the story of her abandonment as a child, she focused on her mother disappearing, but not on her father reappearing.
Paula: My mother left when I was four and didn’t come back. My father kept coming back. He would get out of prison. He would come visit us. He would show up in a new car. He would take us out for the day. He would bring a book. He would read me “Peter Pan”. He would show up with a stuffed animal. He would remind me of stories. He would say, “Don’t you forget, you’re always my favourite.”
When I was a kid, the story was that the reason he went to prison and my mother ran away, is because he tried to rob a drive-in movie theater with a butcher knife. And he was always kind of a knucklehead. It’s like, who robs a drive-in movie theater with a butcher knife? He was always just a little bit of a goofball and funny, but also he had a violent side, a really deeply violent side that I didn’t let myself remember. But I also didn’t let myself remember that I was always waiting for him to come back.
My mother left and she became a black hole. Never thought about her, never had fantasies about her. I remember talking about this with my therapist. She said, “You must have had a fantasy that she would come back and make everything right again”, and I said, “You have to believe me when I say the moment she left, I erased her from my psyche. I just erased her.”
But my father then became that person—I didn’t remember it at the time, I only remembered it later—who would make promises: “I’m going to get my act together. I really want to come back and get you. It’s going to happen. I need a better job. I need to make a little more money. I need to go away for a while. But when I come back, then, I’m going to get you and then, we’re going to be a family again.”
The second foster home we were in, so around the time I was five, it was a really terrible—I mean they were all terrible—but it was really a deeply terrible place. The mother was incredibly cold and controlling. She didn’t feed us. She wouldn’t let us drink water. She would lock us outside. It was really rejecting and emotionally withholding and the father was a sexual predator. So, my sisters and I were being molested and it would happen in plain sight. So, what you were saying earlier, Terence, about how if you’re a kid and your feelings get denied, if your reality gets denied, then you won’t trust your own feelings as an adult.
So I started to think that nobody could see me. I must be invisible. I must be invisible. I would be walking by the living room and he would in a pull me onto his lap and sort of tent the newspaper and then have me masturbate him behind his newspaper.
I’m 5 years old. His wife is in the living room and also, people are coming through the room. So I started to think, either I didn’t exist. It wasn’t really happening. Or, I wasn’t alive. I didn’t matter, like, I wasn’t an actual human. And my reality my suffering, my pain, and I think, I couldn’t feel my pain.
And so I just hid it. I just went so deeply inside myself. I couldn’t… I was a zero, I couldn’t… I wasn’t in my body. My body was an intolerable place. It was an unsafe place. That home was an unsafe place and the only way to endure it was to feel nothing that I was actually feeling. And at that time my father came back.
He had gotten married. And he had children with this woman that I never even knew about, and he’s like, I’m ready. I’m ready. Let’s be a family.
I’m about six. And for whatever time that was I can’t even tell you how much time it was. It might have been a month. It might have been four months. It might have been a couple of weeks, time is very slippery in childhood, as you know, we came home one day and there were cops in the driveway in front of the trailer. So he was a thief or he was whatever he was and they took him away and here’s the thing: we went back to that house.
We went back to that house, that same house. And of course the abuse just continued I mean for at least another year and this is to me what the Robin Norwood book showed me. The dance, the suffering. It has a very particular story. And we will spend the rest of our lives trying to get to the bottom of it and also trying to recreate the very particular circumstances of that story. So, it doesn’t have to be an addict right? Terry had a drinking problem, but I’ve also been involved with men who were sex addicts, or men who were emotionally withholding, or men who were impotent, or I mean, on and on. Whatever it is, the secret formula or the secret sauce has more to do with the fact that they are almost there, almost. They want to do it. They want to pull their shit together. They want to be there for me. They realize my wonderfulness. And if only this one last thing happens, right, then they’ll turn around and then it will be okay, and then I’ll be a whole person.
And that’s the thing. That’s the thing that I hadn’t quite been able to see all the way, or take all the way down. And that’s the core of this book: somehow we think that the other is the solution to solve the deepest unmet needs at the core, the essential core of the self.
This is the other piece of it. There’s the denial of our feelings right then there’s the fact that we feel like we are responsible for everything that’s happening to us. So my dad got a pass. My dad got a 53-year pass for being incapable of pulling his life together and showing up. I forgave him at every moment.
None of this was his fault. Somehow, it was my fault. I had to figure it out. Like I said, he didn’t love me enough. I wasn’t good enough for her. I wasn’t… I didn’t behave or you know, what? Whatever it is that children think—that they are in the driving seat—is, to me, somehow more tolerable than the truth, which is that, all the chaos and the pain and the suffering—we’re helpless against it.
Terence: We are helpless as children, we’re at the whim of our custodians, but as adults, we have the opportunity and power to own our lives. So, with one final trip with Terry, Paula ended the dance she’d been stuck repeating even though she’d grown tired of it a long time ago.
Paula: So we took a trip. We were in California—a winery tour.
Doesn’t that sound perfect? Laughs We were driving back to reality. We were dropping our rental car. I said, “Okay, so listen, these are all the things I said I wanted for myself; I wanted a partner, I wanted companionship. I wanted someone to partner with me and help me raise my children and enjoy them not just raise them, but actually enjoy them. We don’t have that. You live six miles away from me and I see you every couple of weeks. These things that I say I want, do you want them?” And he said, “no.” I said, “ok, so tell me this, if this woman Christine said she wanted those things. And she was ready to leave her husband and get married. Would you want that?” And he said, “yes.” And somehow I let myself hear him. And I said, “thank you for being so honest with me.”
And that was it. We didn’t get back together after that. It really did feel like such a relief; he finally he told me the truth, but it was really that I finally let myself hear it.
Terence: But even in that moment like it’s so easy to turn his words and think, “I’m not Christine. I’m not good enough. If I were he would want that with me.” What stopped you from going on that bandwagon? Because I mean that’s what she describes in the book, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, once you go through these relationships, they’re all confirming your own narrative to yourself that you’re not worthy.
Paula: I think what happened in that moment is I was able to see both sides of the dance, right? I was able to see that I was dancing with him the way that he was dancing with Christine. Christine was probably dancing with somebody else, the way that somebody else was dancing with somebody else. All of our unmet needs in a chain going on and on and on.
I would love to say that that was the last time I let myself get involved with somebody who couldn’t show up for me but the thing about getting healthy is that once you start, you think you’re healthy enough to throw yourself back into another relationship. Then, as soon as you do, as soon as I do, as soon as I did most recently get back into a relationship after a little over a year of being single, I felt that same narcotic. It’s like, oh now, now, it’s fate. Now. This is my soulmate now. I finally got healthy. And here’s this person Robin Norwood who says really the only way the only way to ever break the cycle and end that whole realm is to nurture yourself to nurture that wounded child in you to turn around and face that to see that you know and to not abandon that person yourself for another. To not think that this person has more value than you do to get to the very core of your own self-loathing and shame and mortal terror and all of that. Keep doing it as long as you have to, you’re worth all that time, decades of therapy, all the books…
It’s hard work to love yourself. It’s the hardest work of all.
Terence: Amen to that. I want to thank Paula for being an emotional warrior. Today’s episode was produced and edited by yours truly, with audio engineering help from Dominick and production assistance from Nat.
Please tweet me your book recommendations. I’m @terence_mickey. And on Instagram, I’m @Terence.P.Mickey. I look forward to hearing from you.