If you grew up in the mid to late ‘90s, you probably listened to Loveline, a brilliantly conceived radio show for young people to call in with their sex and relationship problems. I’m jealous of you. Somehow, I missed it. I was mysteriously, tragically deprived of the sage, poignant advice of Dr. Drew Pinsky and his comedian co-host Adam Carolla to help guide me through the conflicting desires and general emotional turmoil of my adolescence.
Those of you who know Carolla only from his work on the critically unacclaimed Man Show, or, God forbid, Dancing With the Stars, may have difficulty believing that, on Loveline, the man was clutching-your-stomach-from-laughter-induced-pain hilarious. He knew when to mercilessly mock the particularly clueless callers (most of them), and when to tone down the teasing in favor of offering real advice (usually along the lines of, “Whatever you do, don’t get pregnant”). He referred to many of the female callers as “babe” in a way that managed to sound sincerely affectionate rather than condescending. His sarcastic refrain in response to callers with especially traumatic histories or outlandish predilections: “Perfectly normal, perfectly healthy.”
And to those of you who consider Dr. Drew a fame-seeking hack who appears on television solely to discuss the drug habits of celebrities: I sympathize. I reflexively suspect the motives of anyone who courts fame. But Drew is a board-certified internist and addiction specialist, and even if he has some pathological need to be liked by everyone in the world — the truth of which I really have no basis to assess — I believe that his intentions were and are benevolent, and the advice he doled out to troubled adolescents was genuinely good.
Whatever the co-hosts’ present day reputations, something in the combination of Drew’s deadpan professionalism and Carolla’s curmudgeonly irreverence brought out the funniest and wisest in both men. The alchemical magic between these two guys made Loveline the massive phenomenon that it was for the 10 years Carolla co-hosted. (He left in 2005, after which a succession of lackluster bores tried vainly to fill his shoes.)
A typical Loveline call:
Fast forward to 2009. I’m recently graduated from college in New York City, an experience that, though it afforded many and varied, uh, interpersonal adventures, did not entirely resolve a persistent doubt about my romantic future. You see, I have, for as long as I can remember, been very, very attracted to older dudes, much more than guys my age. I'd spent a fair amount of time trying to determine the causes of this affinity, and found quite a few plausible ones — power imbalance, financial security, emotional stability, the appeal of authority figures — and one simplistically Freudian one: my father’s an emotionally distant jerk. But whatever the cause, I still hadn’t figured out how this preference was going to dovetail with my life plans, which included marriage to an age-appropriate fellow, and children.
By divine providence (I can’t remember exactly how, probably some errant blog link), I ended up listening to an old Loveline clip, and was immediately hooked. For months after, in a stereotypical post-collegiate slump, I spent whole evenings downloading and listening to episodes from the Carolla era, indulging in the passive joy of feeling superior to the misfit callers, secure in my own comparably vast knowledge of the various topics discussed: STIs, birth control, personal hygiene, the difference between veal and venison.
One night, browsing the show’s archives, I was struck by a revelation: Loveline was still on the air. God knows who the co-host was, but Dr. Drew was still at it five nights a week, helping the lost and misguided figure their shit out. I visited the show’s website to see who was co-hosting that night. Some band I’d never heard of. I had a thought that, out of boredom and semi-ironic amusement, quickly became a plan. I didn’t expect, by calling, to discover any epiphanic truths about myself, or really to resolve my issue in any meaningful way. But what else was I doing?
I should also add that, by this point, I was a little bit in love with Dr. Drew, the irony of which was not lost on me. I’d Googled the hell out of him, read about his life, watched clips of his TV shows. Perfectly normal, perfectly healthy. And, based on the evidence of the Internet and a couple of friends, perfectly common. It’s not surprising; the caring, well-groomed silver fox appeals especially to girls with troubled relationships with father figures, which is a whole lot of us.
And so, friends, late that night, I dialed the show. After only a few rings, a youngish man answered.
“Loveline, what do you want to ask about?”
Call screener. Crap. I should have mentally composed a pithy summary first.
“Oh, well, uh. I’m 22 and I can’t seem to stop sleeping with middle-aged men.” Oops. That came out a tad more dramatically than I’d intended.
“Uh huh, okay. I’ll put you on soon. Stay on the line.”
Wait, what? That was all it took to get on the air? Boy, this show’s popularity must really be on the wane.
About a minute later, I heard the good doctor’s voice.
“Jen, you’re 22.”
Ahh! He said my name! Phew, play it cool, Jen. Get to the point.
“Yeah, uh, hi. Can I ask my question?”
“I’m 22 years old, and I’ve always been attracted to much older guys, say, 40s to early 50s." [Drew makes kind of a tutting sound.] "I’m pretty sure I know why — “
“Well, I don’t have a great relationship with my father. I wasn’t molested or anything — “ Did I just say that on the radio!? — “but my parents got divorced and he behaved badly toward me. Yeah, so in college, I started going out with these much older guys. I know I have no real future with them, so here’s my question. Do you think it’s possible to change who you’re attracted to?”
“Ooh, that’s a really interesting question,” said Dr. Drew. Score! I gave myself a figurative pat on the back for distinguishing myself from the horde of comically benighted teenagers that comprised the show’s caller base.
“I don’t think you can change who you’re attracted to,” said a softspoken female member of the band. Whatever, lady, I’ll ask your opinion when you’ve been handing out sound, empathetic advice to young adults for 20 years.
“Well, it turns out, in therapy, people do change not only who they’re attracted to but who’s attracted to them,” said Drew.
“Oh, I’ve been in therapy,” I butted in.
“Right, so what happens is you build a healthy relationship with a therapist, and then you become interested in healthy relationships, not in sick ones — not to cast aspersions on my peers, who you’re attracted to — “
“He’s a very handsome man,” said a male band member.
“Yes, thank you. So here’s the deal. You have enough insight to know that it’s not gonna work out, you’re basically fetishizing men and acting it out, and that’s fun and great, but it’s not going to make you happy. So you’ve got to maybe look for butterflies, not lightning bolts. These lightning bolt attractions are really the sickest part of one person attracted to the sickest person of another person. Your pathologies fit together. So go for guys who are not quite so exciting. Now this is an intimacy disorder, so you’re going to have trouble being close to guys your age, it’ll feel smothering and saccharine, but that’s really where a healthy relationship lies. Does that make sense?”
“Yes, totally, thank you.” Was that it? Was I meant to say more? I hung up and turned on the radio to catch the tail end of the discussion.
Whoa. Okay. Intimacy disorder. I considered this phrase.
Now, I won’t pretend that this call Changed Me, that Drew’s advice single-handedly transformed me into a purely healthy woman with purely nourishing desires. But I can’t deny that, years later, I still find the deceptively simple mantra “butterflies, not lightning bolts” immensely helpful in thinking about my history and my attractions, which remain vital objects of contemplation. Drew was right; neuroscientific research has shown that therapy can literally alter the structure of the brain in order to change deep-seated attachment patterns for the better. And he taught me a second lesson: that even if you know something — for intuitively I did know that I needed to teach myself how to be intimate with men my age — sometimes you need to hear it repeated by someone you respect. Sometimes that’s enough to jog you out of the habits of traumatic repetition that define so many of our lives.
Jennifer Bernstein is a Seattle-based writer trying to follow the butterflies.