Infatuation in sobriety

The other day, a friend and I were debating the topic of infatuation. She’s an optimist, and she’s also dead-set on seeing the right now as good - great, even - absolutely nothing to complain about. The luckiest person ever. Everything’s fine. All good. Even when it’s not, it is. She says “all good” with as much compulsive regularity as I say “all bad.”

Every time she develops a serious crush, she considers herself to be peaking. I’VE DONE IT! I’VE MET THE BEST PERSON EVER. The very idea that she has not, in fact, met the world’s best-ever person - that another excellent, potentially even superior person is just around the corner - is genuinely offensive to her.

In her mind, it’s a disservice to the here and now to consider the cast of there and then.

And yet, every couple of years, she meets a brand new person who blows her socks off, leaves a mark, writes a chapter. Every year, she carries a new heart with her.

Is each new person, new chapter, really qualitatively better? What about the friend who, at 13, helped her cope with her parents’ divorce? Her OCD? What about the partners in college who taught her about loyalty, vulnerability, messiness, about the many forms that mental illness can take? Who helped her come to understand the world with more empathy - and more importantly, with wonder?

I argued no. She isn’t meeting categorically better humans every few years. She isn’t peaking again and again. The world isn’t holding back it’s best and brightest bulb until she’s in the nursing home. (Although this girl will absolutely take a new lover as a centenarian.) Rather, I argue that her crushes - that all of our crushes - are at their core contextual. Crushes have little to do with people, and everything to do with what you needed at the time. Crushes have to do with what you needed to see in the world, and just as often what you needed to believe about yourself.

Even the most ostensibly mundane people - people you wouldn’t look twice at walking down the street - are downright luminous in the right context. When they have something to teach you. At any given time, the next-door neighbor can reflect back to us a truth we needed to hear. And sometimes, we fall in love with them for it.

My friend calls this pessimistic. To her, I’m denying the reality that some people are special, insisting instead that it’s all in our heads.

I don’t think I’m pessimistic; I think I’m “delightfully postmodern.” There is no person boring or special, but thinking makes it so. The phenomena of infatuation - of seeing something remarkable where others see nothing at all - is perhaps the best thing humans can do.

As an alcoholic, I am prone to appreciate altered consciousness. And since I’ve gotten sober, I’m particularly prone to appreciate non-chemical alterations. Perhaps it’s the music or the weather or the water. Maybe it's a particular smell or a stillness or, in this case, a someone. Regardless of the catalyst, I am thrilled to announce that the feeling of high has a sober cousin.

When I was drinking, I was in a constant battle with impermanence. I loved alcohol for its ability to reliably alter my mood, my state of being, my perspective on the world - if only for a couple of hours. Of course, there was always a long and sober workday on the horizon, but even that harsh reality was tempered by the fact that there were inevitably weekend plans to do it all again.

Infatuation with a person is not so easily controlled. It is almost by definition impermanent. Never once have I fallen in love without falling back out. How do we fully engage with the here and now without becoming attached? Possessive? Without devising strategies to make sure it lasts forever?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the inner spotlight. I think we all have one. We can all make things radiant, larger than life, if only in our mind’s eye. The trick is figuring out how and where to shine it. Sometimes, it finds depression and anxiety. Our neuroses are under the spotlight. But other times, our spotlights find people. Maybe it’s the stranger you met backpacking, the like-minded soul on the work trip, the fellow deviant at bible camp, the friend who for a time is something more than that, something you can’t put into words.

These are just average folks. And under your spotlight, they are illuminated.