It was love at first sight. That clench of the guts, wallop in the heart, stars in the eyes kind of love. Handsome, talented, funny and creative, how could such a man want to be with me? But he did and I was in a haze of happiness.
But I didn't realise it wasn't love. It was obsession. With his dark lashes and hypnotic eyes, he seemed to be surrounded by a halo of light. The energy poured from him in golden shafts. Or so I thought.
I resisted the drugs at first but heroin kept my illusions in place and him in the state in which he preferred to exist. And still I thought he was the most marvellous creature on the planet. Denial is the strongest glue there is.
Our relationship imploded in a fury of betrayal and lies when, while I was away at my father's funeral, he had sex with his ex-girlfriend. I was shattered, mad with grief, left with no trust in men or myself. The terror of being hurt and the fear of not being able to rely on my own judgment meant that relationships had no chance of surviving. I swung between looking for love and running away from it. An endless tug of war.
I found relief from this insanity during the time I spent in 12-step programs recovering from my addictions. I worked those 12 steps many times and shed my skin in therapists' rooms, yet relationships remained elusive and transitory.
My friends began to get married while I continued my pattern of short-stay serial monogamy. One of these friends suggested I try ''The List'' to manifest my perfect man. I had to write down everything: his physical appearance, his work, his hobbies and interest, the things we'd do together. I wrote pages of intense descriptions, hopes and dreams. Then she told me to hone it down to the essentials. My top 10. Next I had to sleep with The List under my pillow and burn it at the next full moon. Ridiculous. But I did it. Nothing happened. Instead I began avoiding my friend because of her questioning looks and my own sense of failure.
My love-life might have been a source of continual disappointment but my working life blossomed. I began a whole new career in radio and after some time landed the job of my dreams. Unfortunately the dream didn't last. With the arrival of a new boss my job turned into a nightmare. Thanks to my years in 12-step programs, I knew I couldn't change him, and I knew I couldn't change the company I worked for. If I was to keep the job I loved, I had to change the only thing I could. Myself. Ten days of silent meditation was the solution I chose. During those 10 days I was forced to confront the demons of my past and the monsters in my mind. On day seven I was shocked when that old wound of betrayal showed up with the same intensity as it had when it first happened. Had all that therapy been for nothing? I hadn't worked through it. I had just suppressed it.
That night I had a dream. I was walking through a spacious room. White gauze curtains hung from the ceiling. On a huge bed was the man I had loved, naked with a young woman I'd never seen before. The familiar pangs of betrayal and heartbreak flooded through my body. The woman saw me and approached.
''You think he's yours. You think he belongs to you. But he's mine now.''
It was then I noticed her skin was pierced with large, heavy hooks. I realised the same hooks were embedded in my chest and legs, their barbs puncturing my body.
She sneered at me. ''He never belonged to you.''
Her words hit me like a slap. She was right. He had never belonged to me. He was never mine. He had only ever belonged to himself. And as he had never belonged to me, all the hurt and pain I had felt was a lie. My body began to vibrate with pricks of energy. All the betrayal, anger, jealousy and fear flowed out of my body to be replaced with joy. He had never belonged to me. There was no reason to go through the torture I had put myself through. He was never mine. The hooks fell from my body. They left no marks and caused no pain. He had never belonged to me. The hooks were gone. I was free.
I awoke from the dream smiling. Nobody owns anybody. Love is a choice, not a commandment. We are all free. I realised I had never had a real relationship. Not one where I was present. I'd always been afraid, enmeshed, hooked in, jealous and obsessive. Terrified of being abandoned but also terrified of anyone getting too close. But if I don't belong to anyone and no one belongs to me, I am free. They are free.
After the meditation retreat was over, my challenges at work remained. But at a dinner party a week later, despite all my best efforts and worst habits, I met the man I would marry.
■ Mary-Lou Stephens' memoir Sex, Drugs and Meditation is available now through Pan Macmillan. $32.99.