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July 28, 2011

Lovesick? You Might Have a Legit Illness

Samara O'Shea thought she'd had a really bad breakup — but actually she was suffering from a rare psychological condition.

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I did everything right: I took his number out of my phone. I removed him as my friend on Facebook. I even started dating someone else, hoping it might help move me forward. But this was one breakup that time wasn't healing.

I had it bad for this guy from the beginning. My stomach dropped in anticipation every time I saw his name in my e-mail inbox. My day wasn't complete without receiving a text message from him. And I lay awake at night obsessively fantasizing about our future. He appeared to be equally interested in me — calling me all the time; buying me thoughtful gifts; and giving me spontaneous, genuine compliments. Yet after six months, he wouldn't solidify our relationship. "I just don't want a girlfriend," he shrugged.

We went our separate ways, but my grief grew more intense by the day. I was increasingly ruminating — replaying steamy moments over and over again, to the point where I could actually conjure up his scent — and rehearsing what I would say if I ran into him. My desire to get over him and the fear of appearing crazy gave me the self-discipline to stay away, but after eight months apart, it was clear my feelings weren't budging, so I gave myself permission to send him a friendly e-mail. He wrote back and told me he was engaged.

The news made me sick — literally. I woke up every morning dry-heaving, and with stabbing chest pains that struck with no warning. I couldn't eat or work, and my heart pounded with frightening regularity. Sleep wasn't an option, and the few times I achieved it, I dreamed of him.

A therapist told me I fit the profile for a condition called "limerence," and referred me to Albert Wakin, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, and the leading expert on the condition.

"A man or woman suffering from limerence is in a constant state of compulsory longing for another person," Wakin tells me over the phone. "It doesn't matter if their affection is returned; nothing will satiate their need for emotional reciprocation."

Normally, the beginning of a relationship is marked by the "honeymoon period," whereby both people feel intense euphoria, have obsessive-compulsive-like thoughts about the other, and experience a heightened desire to tear each other's clothes off. This blissful state is due to a hormonal cocktail of oxytocin (the "bonding" chemical released during sex), dopamine (a pleasurable neurotransmitter), and elevated levels of the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen, all triggered by the sheer novelty of the relationship.

"In healthy relationships, these hormone levels go back to normal after roughly six to 24 months, but a person suffering from limerence is stuck in the infatuation stage," says Wakin. "Such intense, relentless emotions can cause heart palpitations, shortness of breath, loss of sleep, and aching in the chest or abdomen, until he or she can barely function on a day-to-day basis." Typically, someone will fixate on one person for three to five years before transferring their obsession onto someone new, but Wakin has patients who have suffered from limerence toward one person for as long as 60 years.

Currently, experts are conducting brain-imaging research to determine which areas of the brain are most active in patients with limerence, and experimenting with treatment involving beta-blockers and cognitive behavioral therapy, even a 12-step program. And Wakin aims to enter the condition into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is due for renewed publication in 2013. According to his estimation, 5 percent of the country's population suffers from limerence.

This isn't something I discuss with my friends — I can see how it might seem fanciful. The upcoming movie Hysteria is a reminder of how women were once deemed "hysterical" for exhibiting sick-like symptoms which doctors credited to women being overly emotional. In 1869, this crazy condition, viewed as chronic at the time and suffered only by women, was treated with a pelvic massage administered by a cumbersome, steam-powered machine — in other words, an early version of the vibrator. Trust me, if a vibrator could have alleviated my condition, it would have done so long ago!

Until a cure is found, I'm taking a low dose of the antidepressant Lexapro. It thaws the part of my brain that feels frozen on obsessive thoughts. I still have to work at keeping these thoughts in check, but therapy and meditation also help.

Wakin congratulates me on being able to regulate my thoughts — it's a luxury people with limerence usually don't have. "I have high hopes you'll overcome this," he says. That is music to my ears, and I look forward to falling in love — the real way — someday.


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