Finding the love within: Hedley Galt.

Finding the love within: Hedley Galt. Picture: Megan Webb

It was in the city of love that Hedley Galt realised she had a love addiction.

The 35-year-old had escaped to Paris having finally extricated herself from a toxic relationship.

"I was going 'Oh my god, this is not the fairytale' .... that was my rock bottom, my dark night of the soul." 

"Pretty much from the first moment we got together I knew it was not healthy and I could not get out," she says. "I tried to break up that many times and would go back. It got to the point where I lost faith in myself. I'd say 'It's over, I'm out, it's done' and then it wouldn't be."

Ashamed of her attachment, she began hiding the relationship from family and friends, who were also beginning to doubt her word.

"They could see it was wrong, I knew it was wrong and yet I was completely out of control and couldn't manage to leave," she says. "I didn't recognise myself."

In a moment of "suspicious, horrible" jealousy she rifled through her partner's phone and confirmed her deepest fears; that she was not the only one.

Feeling unhinged, she knew she had to get out, once and for all. So when she chanced upon a book singing Paris' praise, she booked a ticket. "I went 'that's it'."

It wasn't 'it'.

She would soon discover that she had simply shifted the focus of the fairytale in her mind. She had believed that her ex would somehow save her from herself and fill the void she felt within. Now she was hoping a Parisian man would succeed where her former partner had failed.

"When I broke up with my ex - in my romantic, idealistic thinking I thought 'I'm going to Paris and I'm going to fall in love' because when you go to Paris everybody falls in love," she recalls. "I got there and it was just one disaster after another from the very beginning."

Alone in a strange city where she knew no one, her luggage had been lost and the water in the hotel wasn't working. And for the first time she had gone cold turkey, cutting off communication with her ex.

"Having no contact with him, even though I knew I didn't want to be in the relationship and that it wasn't right, the pain was so visceral," she says. "I was going 'Oh my god, this is not the fairytale' .... that was my rock bottom, my dark night of the soul."

She survived her Gethsemane and after things took a turn for the absurd, when she accidentally split her lip by dropping her laptop on herself, they began to improve. Eventually, her luggage arrived and the water ran again.

Then a chance meeting with a girlfriend changed everything. Hedley told the friend of her romantic woes over dinner one evening. The friend recounted her own past as a sex and love addict and suggested there were parallels in their stories.

"I'd heard of the 12 steps of AA and I'd heard of gambling addiction and I'd even heard of sex addiction - David Duchovny and Russell Brand," Hedley explains. "I thought, 'Well only men can be sex addicts or sex and love addicts'... it was so foreign."

Yet, something in the story resonated and she knew it went beyond the distress of having been in a dysfunctional relationship.

"There were elements of her story that I related to," Hedley says. "Things like being in a relationship that you know is not right, repeating the same patterns over and over and then being in a world of pain and not having any idea of what to do and where to go."

Although she was already aware there was an issue, the help she had previously sought hadn't helped.

Contemplating attending Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) "was kind of like a last resort in a way."

She returned to her hotel and clicked on the SLAA website. Going through the self-diagnosis questionnaire, she ticked all the boxes.

According to author Ann Smith, an American therapist who specialises in healthy relationships, sex addiction is "a compulsive pattern of pursuing sexual arousal independent of emotional attachments".

Love addiction, on the other hand, is harder to define.

This is because, she says, "by nature we are all addicted to love meaning we want it, seek it and have a hard time not thinking about it. We need attachment to survive and we instinctively seek connection, especially romantic connection. There is nothing dysfunctional about wanting love.

"Love addiction, however, is a compulsive, chronic craving and/or pursuit of romantic love in an effort to get our sense of security and worth from another person. During infatuation we believe we have that security only to be disappointed and empty again once the intensity fades. The negative consequences can be severe and yet the love addict continues to hang on to the belief that true love with fix everything."

Fix everything. Until the fix wears off.

Hedley still had two weeks in Paris and was suddenly hyper-aware of her behaviour - of how she would use eye contact with strange men on the tube for validation of her worth or hang out at the cafe not for the coffee, but for hit she got from flirting with the cute waiter.

It was "really, really confronting" and yet she decided to use the time to try and learn a little self-love.

"I was in Paris and I was dating myself," she says. "I'd take myself out and I just really tried to get into a place of being with myself and being OK to be in my own company... it was really beautiful."

She returned to Sydney and began attending SLAA meetings.

"I went to the meeting and I was shaking, my heart was racing, I was terrified," she recalls. "I thought people would be having sex...

"But, they were the most normal, beautiful, everyday people... who had also been in their position of pain and realised they wanted to do things differently too... I was shocked by the normality."

Twelve painful, but liberating, months later and she had worked her way through the twelve steps of the program.

"It's been such an interesting process of learning about myself and relationships," she says. "I can now see where I've been misguided and misdirected in those pursuits - looking to men to meet my needs rather than me being responsible for my own needs and then being able to be in a relationship where I'm simply sharing my life with somebody rather than looking for them to fix me."

She says she also became aware of how terrified she was of having true, intimate relationships. Of being 'seen' by another.

It is six months since she completed the program and she still sees a counsellor and meditates daily as it "grounds me".

For now she is not in a relationship, but for the first time love is not a fantasy but is growing its roots in reality.

"Today I'm just not ready but I'm probably the closest I've ever been to being ready."

Galt is speaking about her experience at Sydney's Soul Sessions on April 10. Her book about her experiences, Finding Paris: An Unusual Love Story is soon to be released.