In “Unlovable,” out Friday on video-on-demand, a young woman suffers one humiliating affair after another until she realizes she’s addicted to love and sex. Charlene deGuzman, the actress who plays her, knows the territory: In co-writing “Unlovable,” which co-stars John Hawkes and won the “gamechanger” award at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, the 34-year-old drew on her own addictions. The California native tells Barbara Hoffman about the compulsions that nearly destroyed her — and what finally drove her to seek treatment.
There’s a scene in the movie where my character, Joy, wakes up in a strange bed with a naked stranger on top of her. She walks out, past other naked men, and someone hands her some cash. That didn’t happen to me exactly, but it was a reflection of a lot of the experiences I’ve had during my addiction. For nearly 20 years, I wanted so badly for someone to love me, I’d do just about anything. When I told someone I loved him, what I really meant was, “Do you love me?”
My parents, who emigrated from the Philippines, never talked about their feelings or really showed love. I didn’t fit in, because I talked a lot, and there were so many feelings I wanted to express.
My father was obsessed with women, and the garage was covered with Playboy and Penthouse centerfolds. One day, when I was home alone, I found a porn video and watched it. I think I was 5, and I felt something in my body I had never felt before. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I kept doing it.
By the first or second grade, I was obsessed with boys, constantly writing about them in my journal. I had my first boyfriend in eighth grade: Jack, the most popular guy in middle school. I was 14 when we first had sex, on the bathroom floor of a friend’s house. It didn’t last long, because I started crying. It hurt, it was gross. I don’t remember who broke up with whom.
After that, I jumped from boy to boy. I even followed one to Arizona State University, where all the women looked like the ones in the centerfolds — white women with blond hair and blue eyes. It crushed me, because I knew I’d never look like them. I felt ugly and suicidal. I started stripping in clubs and it felt like the answer to all my problems.
“Wow, I can make money and get attention from guys,” I thought, which is all I ever wanted.
‘If a guy was unavailable, I’d use sex to get his attention.’
I moved to New York in 2005, soon after I turned 22, to pursue theater. I played drums in middle school, so I auditioned for “Stomp.” I got in, but when they couldn’t hire me full time, I looked into stripping. None of the clubs then would hire girls with tattoos, like me, but I found a swingers’ party on Craigslist. I was sexually assaulted several times that night, and left without making much money. I thought, “If I’m going to compromise myself, I should make more money for it.”
Throughout my 20s, my drinking was really bad. Every time I binged, it was because I was hurting over some boy. If a guy was unavailable, I’d use sex to get his attention. Or, if guys were available, I’d push them away by having sex with someone else.
I had had so many bottoms, you’d think I’d do something about it. But it wasn’t until one boyfriend broke up with me that I almost killed myself. That was in the winter of 2015 in Los Angeles, where I live now. We’d gone out for almost two years, but the relationship wasn’t working. I’d read a book about love and sex addiction and started a 12-step program, but I thought the meetings were stupid, because I believed I was still in control. I relapsed soon after. We hooked up again, briefly, and then he ghosted me.
I paced around my apartment for hours. I thought, “I’m broken, I’m unlovable, I can’t live like this anymore!” I looked for a knife, but they were all dull. I looked for pills, but didn’t have enough. I thought, “Where do I even find a bridge to jump off?”
Then, he called. And when I saw his picture and name come up on my phone, it felt like a drug washed through my body. That’s when I knew I was a sex and love addict — the pain vanished just from seeing his name! After that man dropped me, I started taking the program seriously. I got sober: no dating, no masturbation, no sex. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done, and the best. I’d met a couple on a spiritual retreat, both recovered addicts, and we’d talk about the resentment I felt toward my parents. They helped me realize that my mom and dad were human beings, just people like me, who had no idea what they were doing and never modeled what healthy love was like. To this day, I see that couple every Sunday for dinner.
Two years ago, I started a dating plan. It’s essentially about going slow and getting to know someone before you have sex. I’d never not had sex first — all of my boyfriends before that were drunk hookups, so for me to have sober coffee dates and walk away was empowering! I started seeing my boyfriend two years ago. We don’t live together, but we definitely want to at some point.
Almost every day, I get messages from people who’ve seen “Unlovable” and say they connect with me. Before, I thought my only value was sex. Now, I realize I have a lot to offer.