Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Bruce's Lecture

Perhaps the oddest result of inappropriate parenting occurs when a child is given the false and dangerous notion that he is better and more powerful than others. This "false empowerment" is what Pia Mellody calls "the one-up position," and grandiosity is the predominating feeling. However, from this position of "one-up" grandiosity, the child will not be able to enter into mutually loving relationships; he'll be as lonely and deprived in relationships as if he were "one-down." In either case, the child will not know how to love or be loved, to respect or be respected.

As is often the case for my clients, Joey's wounding has left him feeling both one-down, or disemplowered, and alternatively, one-up and falsely empowered. He was disempowered partially by the males in the family, by being denied emotional support and validation. His relationship with his mother Kay was an altogether different story.

Joey's mother's desire was abundant. Having grown up as the eldest in a family of twelve, the dye of her destiny had been cast early. She was not only well skilled in the care and tending of small children, she also adored doing so. Her plans were to have at least the same number of children as her mother had had. Because she and Joey's father had known each other from birth and their farm bordered each other, he was well aware of her love of children. Kay's plans to have a large family suited him fine because he believed it meant that he would have more helping hands to run the farm.

As they planned earlier in their marriage, Joey and his brothers were spaced about two years apart. Married at twenty-two, Kay planned to give birth to her last child at the age of forty-six.

Each of Kay's children had brought immense joy. However, Kay... a short slight woman standing only five foot one... had a difficult childbirth with each of her children. She sustained two miscarriages, as well as several medical conditions, that ultimately lead to her hysterectomy at the age of thirty. The devastation she felt was profound. She became severely depressed and although, she pushed herself to continue her familial duties, it was an arduous effort. She kept these feelings from her husband so not to burden him with her problems. She remained "strong," despite feeling as if she could crumble, at any moment, into a millions pieces.

To cope with her grief, she poured her energy and attention onto her youngest son. Extremely dependent on her, young Joey became the emotional balm to ease her pain. Joe became the center of her world, the focus of her joy. She lived for him, and his accomplishments and successes became hers. The emotional dependency grew like a cancer, infecting all the aspects of the relationship.

Kay became more and more distant from her husband, transferring her needs for emotional intimacy to Joey. She began to confide in him. In response, he became hypersensitive to his mother's moods, gestures, tones and expressions, as he felt more and more responsible for her happiness.

(To be continued.)

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Bruce's Lecture

Joe has to wait for what seems an eternity until the family huddles around the tree to begin to open the presents. Joe dives for his package, furiously rips off the bow, tears off the paper, and frantically opens the box. Because of his frenzied gesture, all the others have been distracted and are now fixated on Joe. His face is frozen, his eyes dilated, and his breath is heavy as he looks and sees the contents of the box: bricks. Joe feels dizzy; the room is spinning so fast he can hardly heart the hearty laughter of the family. "We got ya, didn't we, Joey?" he faintly hears his father say. He fights back the tears until the lump in his throat feels as though it could choke him.

Shame is the predominating feeling, and it fuels the adaptations that protect the child from actually experiencing it. No matter what disguise he adopts in order to fit into the family system, at the bottom, his emotions will rest on a bed of shame. What develops is a walled-off, highly defended frighten person who will trust no one other than himself. This need to handle everything by himself removes him from all cooperative intimacy with self or the others.

For Joe, the emotional scars from Christmas morning lay branded deep in his soul. His father's practical joke, although not intended as such, was emotional abuse. Joe's father carrying on a longstanding family tradition. When the youngest child was old enough, the parents would deliberately trick him into thinking he was getting his coveted present. The men in Joe's family had perpetrated this psychological hazing on each other for decades. It was not intended to be cruel; Joe's father was only doing what he knew to do, what had been done to him.

Building tough character was the foundation of Joe's family tree. And Joe's father was the architect of Joe's emotional fate--laying mortar and bricks one by one until Joey's feelings were securely sealed away.

In his book, I Don't Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression, Terry Real asserts that trauma and the resulting repression of feelings are the foundation for depression.  Although this is true for both men and women, men's cultural conditioning teaches them to refine this process to perfection. Terry describes the issue, "To understand depression in men, we must come to terms with the conditions that create it, the ways in which, in the name of masculinity and often with the best of intentions, we betray and deform or sons." Many say depression is often defined as "anger turned inward." And most men and woman are angry (mostly unconsciously) about the fact that they, to secure those walls, stuff those feelings, and pretend they don't hurt. This kind of conditioning is the breeding ground for all kinds of additions.

In my early work with clients, I want them to look behind the walls and under the anger, and to feel the pain. The problem, especially for men, is that such behavior runs counter to their conditioning, and it is terrifying.

Joe now stands six feet tall and has come to me, looking for help. His appearance, a tautly drawn jaw, sever, stern eyes; and a rock-solid stance... a tribute to years of his father's work. He is a man entombed, isolated from connection... a lonely, empty vessel adrift in an ocean of shame.

As Joe's therapist, I want to build enough trust with him to let him know that I am not there tear him down or to perpetuate the abuse he suffered. I want him to understand that I am there to help him believe that he has real worth, and that he deserves to feel secure. I want him to feel that he has the right to create an environment for himself in which he not only feels safe, but one in which he is able and ready to begin working on having healthy intimate relationships.

However, Joe's walls of emotional protection are securely embedded. He has become extremely rigid and angry in order to protect his underlying feelings of fear, pain and shame. When he feels threatened or vulnerable, he falls into a feeling of shame -- in Pia Mellody's work, such a feeling is called the "one down position". He will feel "less than" anyone else in the world.

Despite the fact that Joe is attractive, intelligent, full of humor, and successful in his own farming business, he will once again feel like that child devastated by the Christmas prank. He slips back into the feeling that everything is hopeless and that he is helpless. When a person  is in such a state, he has a childlike ego. He has been propelled back into the original trauma, re-experiencing it in his mind, body and emotions.

In order to protect himself from being propelled back into that painful place, he returns to that walled-off position where he feels protected yet totally dis-empowered and vulnerable.

(To be continued.)

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Bruce's Lecture

Joe lies still in his bed, listening intently for the sound of prancing hooves. But all he hears is the predictable train whistle that passes each morning at three, the ticking of the grandfather clock in the entryway, and the breathing of his brother sleeping in the bunk above. Joe hears no clanking or chatter from the rooftop.

Joe's prayers for his shiny new toolbox are born out of his Saturday and Sunday afternoons (Sunday mornings are reserved fro church services), which are spent fixing the machinery that runs the farm. Often his grandfather and uncle come down to lend a hand. Joe loves the large and spacious garage. He finds comfort in the familiar, greasy oil stains on the flattened cardboard boxes strategically placed under the cars to catch the inevitable leaks.

As he loves when the afternoon light reflects off the lids of jars meticulously nailed to the wooden beams. Lined upon in military precision, the jars hold a fascinating variety of nails and other items. But the most prized possessions of all are the worn, red metal toolboxes sitting atop their tall stands. Smeared with the greasy fingerprints and draped with filthy work towels, each box is a treasure chest to Joe.

He has spent many house sitting on the propane tanks, watching intently as his father and brothers twist, pull, crank, and prod various types of machinery, Joe does not dare join the others because the few times he did, unable to contain his curiosity, his father's hickory switch strategically slapped his backside.

Having his own toolbox is Joe's passport to this much coveted world... a world important not because of the mysteries it holds, but because of the emotional connection it promises.

When a child's instinctual needs for love, physical care, and coaching go unmet, the memory of that deprivation becomes imprinted on his psyche. Because the child believes it is because of his own inadequacy that his needs are not being fulfilled, his personality and his life come to be shamed based. All trauma gets its power from this original shaming.

As the morning light filters in and the first rooster's crow is heard, Joe flies out of bed and races into the living room. The magic has happened once more. Santa has arrived and, for this moment in time, all is right with the world. Seeing the sparkling ribbons and bows so neatly tied, Joe can hardly stand his excitement. Joe plops himself among the packages, shaking each one and reading the each name tag for possible clues. He assesses the packages... one heavy, one light, one long, one short. Nothing seems to fit until spies a large package in the back, camouflaged by a drooping tree branch. It's heavy, it has his name on it, and, when he shakes it, it rattles, could this be his coveted toolbox? A few more shakes, and he is sure this is his prized possession.

(To be continued.)

Bruce's Lecture

Trauma & Repetition

It was Christmas Eve in rural Missouri. A dusting of snow covers the frozen ground, lights twinkle from the warm farmhouses, and smoke drifts from the chimneys as if it were beckoning Santa and his eight reindeer to the eager children below. It has not been an easy year for Joe and his family; then again, in Joe's eight short years, ease has been a sparse commodity. His parents are hard-working, God-fearing folks who live by the land, and Mother Earth in control of their fate. This life, carved more from brawn than brains, is the only life Joe has known.

He has toughened to meet the requirements of this life and finds rewards in the sweet and simple offerings of his daily routines: the soft gentle muzzle from his mare, the dawn revealing a rainbow of light, the richly-plowed fields lined neatly across the land, the picking of green apples accompanied by vision of freshly baked pies.

Joe also has learned from life's hardships; the monotonous shoveling, raking, mowing, hauling, and plowing. He has lived with the scorching heat of summer, the brutal snowstorms of winter, and the rain and mud of fall and spring. Then there are the fiscal hardships, such as wanting to replace the soles on boots until the harvested grain has been sold. His clothes, twelve years old, are now faded and torn; the scars on his brother's hand-me-downs show the rough-and-tumble life of two small farm hands. Asking for more is forbidden, but wishing for it is Joe's favorite pastime.

Joe still believes in the magic of Christmas and the hope that Santa will bring him the fanciful bounty he imagines. The white sheet under the Christmas tree they chopped down lies barren, but tomorrow it will overflow with packages, and the thought leaved Joe dizzy with delight.

Each night before he falls asleep, Joe says his prayers, the same prayers he's said his entire life. Only in the past few months has Joe added this request, "And please, God, have Santa bring a new toolbox."

As in many children's fantasies, Joe wants to feel special; he wants to feel as if he can ask for and receive the love and nurturing he needs. It is the birthright of all children to be cared for, both emotionally and physically. However, not all caregivers are able to meet a child's needs.

In trying to understand the roots of my patients' illnesses, the childhood needs that have become most relevant are the needs to be physically and emotionally cared for. When the child's primary caregivers properly provide that care, the child safely and lovingly bonds with his parents. In so doing, he is given a model for the world in which he has peaceful expectations of safety and happiness. He develops self-esteem and feels he is worthwhile. Such people do not become my clients.

However, if a child's needs are rejected, he concludes that his caregivers do not think him worthy of love. He doe snot blame them; he blames himself. Even if his father beats him, he blames no one more than himself.

The child suffers a traumatic blow to his self-esteem. If the child were not helpless at this stage of his life, he would express anger or indeed his rage. Instead he feels shame and a form of trauma that will enable him to dismiss the reality of what he has experienced.

(To be continued.)

Bruce's Lecture

Chapter 3

Trauma & Distortion

Undoing the Abuse

At the heart of every sexually dysfunctional person who acts out is the desire to undo the abuse suffered in childhood at the hands of more powerful, controlling abusers. The difference is that, as children, sexually dysfunctional persons suffered the punishment; as adults, they dish it out. As children, they had no power or control; as adults, they take power and control. Sexual compulsive behavior is not about sex; it is about power and control.

The desire to undo the abuse is the modus operandi behind almost all sexual deviance. In my therapy, if I can help a patient understand his or her acting-out behaviors as attempts to "undo the shame," he or she has come a long way toward the path of recovery.

In sexual addiction, we learn to continually betray ourselves. Our childhood wounding provides our source of betrayal. We learn betrayal because our parents betrayed us. Their jobs as parents were to keep us safe, to nurture us, and to help us thrive. Instead they taught us either though covert or overt abuse or abandonment, that we did not deserve to be loved. We did not deserve to feel safe. Perhaps we did not deserve even to take up space on the planet.

When people get into healing trauma and early recovery work, they do not yet know how to stop betraying themselves. They allow themselves to do things outside their value system which continually eats away at their self-worth and perpetuates the conviction that "I am wrong. I am bad. I am unworthy. I am not deserving."

By acting against our value systems, by allowing ourselves to be led back to the world of our original wounding where we learned that we were worthless and inadequate, we trap ourselves in cycles of sexual addiction. Our trauma templates our maps back to the place of our original wounding.

(To be continued.)

Bruce's Lecture

As Harold sits across from me, the rains are once again pummeling the windows, the skies re rumbling, and the old ironwood tree rattles against the stucco wall. It is now that Harold can fully tell his story; he's finally able to explain the shame that was born of his traumatic wounding. He has gained the insight that led to the discovery of his truth. And this is when, automatically, he begins to cut loose the bondage of shame.

"I finally feel free," he explains. "That secret has dragged down my heart for so long," he says with a slight smile.

Again his look is distant, and his shoulders are slumped... except this time, the distant look and slumped are not from carrying his burdensome shame. Rather, they are from his road-weary travels, a journey that has allowed him to return to a feeling of well-being.

As so, as always at the end of a fierce storm, the rain begins to cease, the winds settle into quiet slumber, and Harold gently sighs, whispering, "I finally feel free. I'm finally free." As he says this, it is as if, in simultaneous union, the proverbial blue, sunny sky breaks through, allowing a sliver of light to filter through the blinds. Perhaps this is a light of hope, a light a promise, or simply the light after a good storm that allows us to feel cleansed, renewed, and restored.

End of chapter two.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Bruce's Lecture

I will then stop, acknowledge what is happening, and remind the audience that, within the human condition, traumatic events both large and small are inevitable. this does not condone abusive behavior, but it acknowledges the many levels of its existence. As therapists, it is our job to help our clients first become aware of abusive patterns or events... not in an effort to blame, but to understand and ultimately to resolve the original wounding.

There are two ways abuse can manifest; first is overt abuse. Overt abuse is usually aggressive behavior that is measurable, such as bruises, a raised voice, a verbal attack, or an insult. The second is overt abuse. Covert abuse is passive, often unconscious, and not seen as abusive (such as withholding love, giving a stern or threatening look, failing to protect a child, or minimizing her or her realities). One can be abused covertly and/or overtly and, no matter how the abuse is perpetrated, it always leaves victims feeling shame and pain on some level.

 Clients often have normalized abusive behavior or, even worse, blame themselves for the abuse, "If I hadn't been drunk, I wouldn't have been raped." "Putting each other down is just what my family does." When I point out that these are examples of abuse, I am often met with denial, defensiveness, or confusion.

Because of these common reactions, it is important to grasp the scope of abuse and to become aware of how abuse may have affected or influenced one's life. Below is an outline of the types of abuse, with examples of specific behaviors in each category.

I. Physical Abuse (any forced or violent physical action)

  • Hitting
  • Punching
  • Scratching
  • Spitting
  • Pushing
  • Burning
  • Choking
  • Poking
  • Unsolicited touching or tickling
  • Restraining
  • Pulling hair
  • Slapping
II. Emotional or Verbal Abuse (putting down, threatening, and saying cruel or untrue things about another person).

  • Cursing, swearing, screaming
  • Harassing or interrogating
  • Insulting, name-calling, shaming, ridiculing
  • Threatening to harm; beat up; sabotage; hurt; maim or kill pets, children or family members
  • Controlling others (e.g., through money or power)
  • Criticizing
  • Forcing others to engage in degrading acts
  • Making accusations
  • Blaming
  • Intimidating
  • Punching, throwing, destroying property
  • Going through others' personal property or possessions
  • Stealing
  • Threatening to kill oneself as a form of manipulation
  • Sexualizing others
  • Driving recklessly
  • Stalking
  • Not letting others sleep or eat
  • Making facial expressions or physical gestures that indicate judgment, rejection, ridicule (e.g., smirking, covering the ears as if unwilling to listen, walking out of the room while someone is sharing, rolling the eyes, shaking the head, moving the hands in a manner indicating that the other is wrong or inadequate)
III. Sexual Abuse (any non-consensual sexual act, behavior, or gesture)

  • Not respecting "no"
  • Making sexual remarks, jokes, innuendos, suggestions, insults
  • Taking advantage of situations and exploiting others' intoxication or incapacitation
  • Demanding or manipulating unwanted sexual acts (e.g., anal penetration, physical restriction, choking, golden showers, oral sex, sadomasochistic acts, role-playing)
  • Having unprotected sex while knowingly a sexually transmittable disease
  • Giving sexual criticism
  • Engaging in inappropriate touching (e.g., touching in public, grabbing, piecing the breast or groin)
  • Blackmailing or manipulating the vulnerable (i.e., the much younger and/or sexually inexperienced, the dibbled, the mentally or emotionally challenged)
  • Taking advantage of a power differential (e.g., the case of a boss, clergy member, judge, law enforcement officer, landlord, teacher, coach)
IV. Neglect (failing to provide the essential necessities for a child, including the following)

  • Nurturance
  • Clothing
  • Medical care
  • Dental care
  • Security
  • Protection
  • Hygiene
  • Education
  • Supervision
  • Shelter
  • Attention to physical, emotional, intellectual needs
This outline does not include every possible abusive behavior, but it does provide and overview of abuse. This awareness is vital to healing, because it is through creating awareness and resolution that we will act as sexually mature people in healthy manners.

Being mature means taking responsibility for our actions and setting limits or boundaries with others. when we are able to act in a mature way, we will create the safety, respect, and sense of well-being we deserve.

That is what happened to Harold as he began to understand his abuse. He learned that he felt disempowered as a child because of the continual fear, guilt and shaming he received, particularly from his mother. As he grew up, he was unable to resolve these shameful messages, and so he continued to react as he always had... as a victim. From this stance, Harold felt vulnerable and powerless. To counter these unbearable feelings... and fostered by his feelings of anger... he moved to the role of perpetrator. "I am not good enough; I'll masturbate." "My girlfriend doesn't appreciate me; I'll have an affair." "My boss is an asshole; I'll pick up a prostitute."

The wreckage of such abuse leaves all sexually compulsive people with a sense of betrayal so severe that they lose the ability to trust. They are convinced that if they are seen or really known, they will be despised. But when I establish a bond of trust, we can have a respectful attachment... a place at which the healing can begin.

(To be continued.)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Bruce's Lecture

The goal of early treatment is to help clients trust that I respect them in their full humanity, even the darkest parts. I want them to understand that I can deal with their demons and find the healthy soul trapped within. This is the beginning of the holding of shame.

"So Harold," I begin, "I will read this list, and you tell me whether you have participated in any of these behaviors."

Harold's eyes once again dart around the room as his body stiffens. I surmise that Milton's discomfort has just shifted to overdrive.

"Just let me know whether you have ever done any of these. And if you have and would like to explain anything," I attempt to say in a reassuring tone, "go right ahead."

There is no visible shift in Milton's expression or posture.

It is only through much discussion and "excavation" that Harold is able to admit to other acting-out behaviors not previously disclosed, including multiple affairs and exposing himself.

"Withholding information is very common in early treatment," I say to Harold. "It is shame that keeps us from telling the truth," I continue. "Nobody wants to talk about these behaviors, but by taking this step, you come that much closer to healing."

Milton seems less than reassured by my comments as he sits, staring blankly into space. He looks as though he's had the wind kicked out of him and may be on the verge of hyperventilating. Even though this early work is painstakingly tough for the client, I find it fascinating.

The first time I meet a new client, I am looking at a history about to be told, a life about to be given form. At first the story of this life was a complex puzzle, which will fit together into a coherent clinical picture. My client, usually my only source of information, lives in delusion and denial. I had better be very attentive and very patient.

I gather information on a lot of different levels. First of all, I look at what is happening to my clients' bodies: how they are sitting, the tone of voice they are using. Are they angry, are they shy, are they uptight and withholding, are they shamed, are they animated or enervated? I want to find out how they hold their wounding and all the shame associated with that. What postures they molded into their "suit of armor" to protect against the attacks of their shaming.

When I was a primary therapist at The Meadows (a multidisorder inpatient facility specializing in treatment of a broad range of addiction), I would never look at my paperwork about a client until I had met with the individual personally. I wanted to understand what she or he was like, to experience the texture of what she or he had to say, and to reflect on her most repeated themes. Only then would I recall all the clinical and written material that had been gathered about her and her problems.

Like most clients, Milton is lost in confusion about what lies behind his addictive behaviors. The next task in treatment, therefore, is to help Harold understand his behavior... to unravel the reasons he engages in these specific sexual acts, and determine how these patterns and beliefs came to be. I am "normalizing" Harold's behavior for him, not condoning it. He will come to understand that the way he was abused created traumatic templates for him, which he was powerless to change.

As I listen to Harold's story, I look for patterns in his trauma. This historical evacuation must unveil the connections between his wounding and his acting-out behaviors. As we explore the layers of traumatic events in Milton's life, I want to be able to make those connections--even more importantly, I want Harold to begin to connect the dots.

As this begins to happen, Harold happily reports, "I feel less and less like a perverted sicko."

I am particularly keen about victimization. Do patients see themselves as victims? How did they become victims in their own minds? Who taught them to be victims? What are they gaining from being victims? How do they use the power of victimhood to manipulate others?

And so I notice that, when Milton explains his childhood and history of significant relationships, he repeatedly uses the phrase, "She (or he or they) made me feel this way..."

"When I was a kid," he begins, "my mother was always telling me what to do, and that made me feel like I was a bad kid. When my father would scream at me and call me stupid in front of my friends, that made me feel mortified. In high school, my girlfriend had this really loud laugh, and it made me feel like crawling in a hole. My wife is so demanding, it make me feel inadequate." On and on it goes.

This theme, which was indicated and perpetuated by Harold's inability to be supportive, taught him to feel like a victim.As children, we are all victims when exposed to any type of abuse, because we are unable to defend or protect ourselves from it.

Abuse can take many forms and be experienced in many ways. Most abuse is not intentional. It usually is an unconscious pattern or repetition of what the caregiver learned from his or her own childhood. The definition of abuse I use in from Pia Mellody's work, and is defined in her book the Intimacy Factor as "anything less than nurturing."

When I train therapists and share that definition, I can sense a definite shift in the room. A collective gasp erupts and the audience members take inventory of their own parenting skills, and realize that they have at times been less-than-nurturing parents.

(To be continued.)

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Bruce's Flashback

One of the most important challenging aspects of Harold's treatment comes when he begins to face his dysfunctional attachment to his primary caregiver. From this attachment, Harold developed a deep sense of betrayal. Through the dysfunctional bonding, Harold internalized the wound and ended up feeling that, because he was not worthy of love, the betrayal by his caretakers was his own fault. What ultimately develops from this wounding is an entire psychic life that rests on a bed of shame and resentment.

I like the idea that it is my responsibility as a therapist to hold temporarily for the client the burden of this shame. I respectfully and skillfully urge the client to describe his or her shame and the behavior it has generated. The client hands it off to me for storage until that time in our therapy when I can hand it back to him or her for inspection. At that point, the client has grown able to appreciate that he or she is not endemically evil, but is a victim of abuse.

I am able to hold the shame, the anxious hope, whatever belief system, or whatever emotion the client is feeling, and say to this suffering and trusting person, "You know what? I believe you can work through this, and that you can and will become even more that you now believe is possible. And I will hold all the shame or other emotion for you while we are doing this work together."

In our subsequent meetings, I want Harold to confess and describe all of his sexual behaviors in detail. I have a checklist of about forty types of behaviors, each of which can cause arousal (including sex with animals, with a minor, urination, asphyxiation, voyeurism, exhibitionism, sadomasochism, cross-dressing, and so on).

I ask Harold to tell me whether he participated in any of the aberrant activities in the checklist. Going through the checklist often facilities the first trusting moments in my relationship with a client. When he or she realizes in our first or second meeting that I am comfortable discussing these activities, the client realizes that I cannot be shocked. He or she senses that I have enough experience to know that whatever behavior the person has engaged in, I am there to understand, and not to judge. This was best described by a veteran client who said, "The first time I trusted you was when you pulled out that checklist of sexual behaviors, because if you could ask those questions and not seem to freak out, I figured you could handle my problems."

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Bruce's Flashback

Chapter 2 "Holding of the Shame"

I notice an unusual gray outside, as I adjust the blinks in my office -- but then, it is the monsoon season. It is the time of year I particularly love -- for several reasons. There is the first the unprecedented smell stirred when the large droplets of rain hit the dust-laden land, a sweet and earthy richness that pervades the senses. The smell immediately connects me to the earth.

The monsoons are fast and furious storms that sweep through the desert, volatile in nature and often unpredictable in their destruction. The storms contain micro-bursts, which are rain combined with winds of up to 60 miles per hour; they can knock down power lines, rip off roofs, and produce sheets of rain so torrential that it is impossible to see farther than your outstretched hand. These bursts usually last only a few minutes, and then the sky clears and returns to its proverbial blue, sunny glow.

Often you can see these storms coming from miles away. The sky turns purple and crimson, and the gray sheets of rain pound the earth below. As I finish adjusting the blinds, I see no dramatic atmospheric displays, so I continue to ready the office for my first client of the day.

When Harold arrives, he seems nervous and untrusting. His eyes dart around the room, his face is blank.

"Have a seat," I say invitingly. Harold responds without saying a word. His eyes are now fierce and piercing. He appears to be in the hypervigilant state, his breath shallow, his body rigid. I understand how frightened, pained, and confused Harold must feel. It is the kind of discomfort that I, a recovering sex addict, lived with on my first visit to a therapist. It continued for many years.

I am sensitive to Milton's painful predicament, but am equally sensitive to the great gift in store for me, for him. As I begin my relationship with Harold, I know that if we do our work, he will come to trust me enough to hold his pain and shame and suffering.

He will place his dark-side secrets into my hands, until he has developed enough strength and understanding to own them for himself. He knows I will hold them respectfully. This "holding of the shame is key to all my clients' recover--and is the abiding gift of my profession. That I can contain such pain safely beyond my boundaries in self-affirming evidence of my own recovery.

"Tell me what brings you into treatment," I ask Harold, noticing how his color has faded to match the gray, billowing clouds outside. Nervously adjusting his position, he responds, "I saw your ad." (My advertisement runs in a local sex-themed newsletter and offers help to those in the area struggling with  compulsive sexual behavior.) This means that Harold has probably not had prior treatment or even discussed his secret behavior with anyone outside his own circle of addicts.

"Oh, I see," I say with a warm tone. "So what made you call me?"
"I am sick of my life," he says, his body slightly softening.
"Um humm," I respond, nodding my head. "I am glad you had the courage to call."

A clap of thunder booms through the office as if to affirm his difficult decision. Harold jumps, startled by the loud noise.

Through a slow and arduous interview, Harold explains his behavior, his use of prostitutes, and his masturbation to pornography. At the end of our first meeting, Milton looks drained.

"How are you feeling?" I ask.
"Well, this was different," he says with a slight chuckle.
"How so?" I prompt.
"Well, I have never told anybody this stuff before."
"And how does that feel?"
"I guess good, but... " he says, trailing off.
"But, what?" I ask.
"Well, how did I ever get this way? I must be some kind of sicko pervert to do this stuff."

The rain has now begun to pummel the window as the wind soars, fiercely scraping the branches of the ironwood tree against the stucco wall. I can't help but wonder whether the torrential storm reflects how Harold feels. Is he feeling the enormous release of a lifetime of secrets and shame? A fierce cleansing, like the torrents of rain that are carving away at the exposed and barren earth? If so, does he not say: He seems to merely accept my validation that is is not a "sicko," but is, rather, a person who learned unhealthy and destructive ways to express his sexuality.

As we begin our work together, Harold soon discovers that, like a lot of other sex addicts, hi same is embedded in his childhood trauma. Like all children, Harold needed nurturing and love, a consistent mirroring from his parents to reinforce his sense of well-being and safety. Unfortunately, Harold's mother was incapable of giving this nurturing love to her son because she was mentally ill.

Milton lived in a whirlwind of unpredictable behavior and emotions. When his mother was in a stable mood, she doted on his every whim. However, when she became psychotic or lost touch with reality, Harold was frightened and bewildered. Harold walked on eggshells and learned to prepare himself for the emotional storm that inevitably erupted each day. This left Harold hypervigilant to his environment. He learned to watch for the nuances of his mother's moods, changes in her physical gestures, a distant look in her eyes, a quick, jerky movement of her arms; Milton knew to brace himself. Her erratic behavior took many forms, but the most difficult for Harold occurred when she stripped off her clothes and ran stark naked around the house and yard, singing, dancing, and talking incessantly.

Harold was only a child; his father was a truck driver who would be absent for extended periods. This left Harold to fend for himself. He blamed himself for his mother's mood swings and erratic behavior, and believed that he triggered her outbursts.

Seeing his mother naked was a shock, but this erratic behavior soon became the norm. As Harold grew older and began to develop sexually, his mother's behavior became a profound influence in the imprinting of this sexual identity. His mother's behavior left Harold feeling anger, fear, danger, arousal, and intensity--a strange and powerful menagerie of emotions that became embedded in his sexual expression.

Harold's first masturbatory fantasies were of his mother, and, when he began to see prostitutes,he had them act out his mother's erratic behaviors. Harold learned to do what all sex addicts do, which is to repeat what they have learned from their childhood wounds.

My work with Harold, as with all my clients, becomes a collaboration. It is through our collaborative effort that trust, understanding, and respect begin to unfold. He will willingly off-load into my outstretched hands his darkest secrets.

I hope that all of my clients can metaphorically find in me the selflessly respectful, nurturing parent they never had. I hope they will allow me to store their sick behaviors and demeaning beliefs and emotions until they themselves are willing to acknowledge and deal with hem. I become the solid ego state against which the wounded ego can collide, yet survive. I mirror for them the respect, understanding, and safety they have never known. The wounded part begins to heal. The therapist becomes the good parent. The client internalizes that identity. The healing takes place within the therapeutic relationship.

(To be continued.)

Bruce's Flashback


"Will these people get help? Even if I cannot answer that question, one thing I now know: It fills me with hope and direction. It is more powerful than my fears and my doubts. I know that it is going to be my life's work to understand the engines of sexual dysfunction, to do my best to help the victims who have become the perpetrators of their of their own pain and the pain of others.

"It is suffering that consumes the room. I see it, taste it, and breathe it. I have come to recognize the common humanity I share with these abused people. I have been just like them, and I feel privileged--even blessed--that I will be able to listen to their stories, not as a superior, "better than" moralist, but as a comrade who has been shown the path of recovery and will found the willingness to walk down it. I will do my part to reveal that path to them as it was revealed to me."

When she finishes her presentation, Bruce drives back down the foggy hill. He knows that this is the beginning of his new life.

End of Chapter One
Next Chapter Two

Bruce's Flashback

"I entered college immature, frightened and badly prepared academically. For many students, college was a paradisaical new frontier. Many got their education in the local taverns, pool halls, and twin beds of their dorm rooms. I too, found most of this teenage hedonism fun, but the prospect of sex terrified me.

"Instinctively, I was living in reaction to my abuse, which I had yet to consciously remember. The abuse had taught me that if I "gave in" sexually, I would lose control. Without control, I would be vulnerable. Traumatized as I was, vulnerability would take me back to the soul-destroying terror of incest. I needed protection and, for protection, I chose to stuff myself with food. I went on a compulsive binge diet of doughnuts, pizza, cookies, chips, and beer. I put on 30 pounds the first semester. A wall of fat shielded me from sexual advances.

"Virtue" became another compulsion-obsession. Staying "pure" became my creed. I snubbed the "loose" girls and had little empathy when abortions were needed. I was virgin and proud of it. I grew grandiose. I'd watched them fall, one after the other, giving in to instincts of the body... the one thing I was determined to control. I saw myself as strong, and them as weak."

Bruce squirms in his seat.

"My grandiose purity protected me until I fell "in love." As his sexual demands grew more urgent, so did my fears of rejection--if I controlled to hold out. Keeping him became much more vital than my virtue. A storehouse of repressed sexual energy was released. My new creed was that sex equaled love. And that's the way it was in the beginning.

"When we moved in together, the euphoria ceased and the lies began. I started noticing little things, like his coming home later and later, his unavailability on the weekends, and the smell of perfume after his night out with "the boys." Soon my true love was gone, lost to another, and I was left with what I knew best... betrayal. I wanted to die, wanted to scream, wanted to obliterate him. But instead, I implemented the tools I had inherited from my family: I numbed and blocked my pain. Within a month, I had lost 30 pounds, begun drinking, and found a new man. I was entering the full cycle of obsession and addition.

"I followed this destructive, insane path into a loveless marriage with a drug addict. I filed for divorce. Shortly after came the fateful phon call from my sister, revealing the scret life in the basment with our father I just spoke about. With the truth of my incest history stimulated by her memories, I was overwhelmed by emotions I could no process sanely. I became overwhelmed by out-of-control anger.

"Sex became my weapon. I had, in the past, tried shutting down sexually in order to feel in control. I had also tried to find love through sex. Both had proved ineffective. But now I was going to right the wrong. I was going to take back my power. I was going to purge my rage. I was going to undo the perpetrations by becoming the perpetrator.  No longer was sex about love. Sex was about revenge.

"My sexual abuse at the hands of my father had comingled sex with fear, shame, and rage; it charged everything with intensity. The amalgam created in this emotional blast furnace was sexualized anger. It lies deep within us, and, once trapped and released, it obliterates its victims. I became a warrior, a skilled executioner, and my murder weapon was sex.

"Night after night I sought my prey, using sex as a weapon. I would kill before being killed, but each time I did, I died a little more. My conquests would have to pay for the sins of my father.

"Sex became my greatest need. I was in an obsessive trance, out of control, and spiraling toward emotional suicide. I was a junkie looking for my next fix, my next high. I looked for men in grocery stores, in restaurants, in nightclubs, through friends, at clubs. But with every high came the descent, the morning after, the shame, the worthlessness, the self-loating, the betrayal. I had done it to myself. Although my acting-out behaviors were different from his, in the end, I had become my father.

"The vicious cycle continued. I thought of suicide, a way out. I lay in a pool of tears. I rocked as the tumultuous emotions erupted. I rocked in the fetal positon, praying for the redemption of my grief. It is my pain that has driven me to the edge, and now it is the same pain tha can lead me to the truth. I know I must stop the cycle that will enslave me in my family's history.

"I now know I need help, and so I reached for the phone before I lose my courage. Dialing the treatment center's number, I hear a soft-spoken, kindhearted man answer; perhaps he is a lifeline to my salvation. I listen as he explains their program and answers my questions. My quivering hand takes notes. "Sex addiction," I write. The words stare back at me. I read them over and over, and I know that my life will never be the same."

(To be continued.)

Bruce's Flashback

Here is her quote. She pulls out a piece of paper. The room stays silent.

When I use the word gifted in the title (of the last post), I had in mind neither children who receive high grades in school nor children talented in a special way. I simply meant all of us who have survived an abusive childhood thanks to an ability to adapt even to unspeakable cruelty by becoming numb.. Without this gift offered to us by nature, we would not have survived.

She puts the paper, hands shaking, back into her pocket and continues after surveying the crowd.

"Adaptions can take many forms. At a very young age, I learned to become hypervigilant of my environment.  I was oversensitive to others' moods, body language, and innuendos in order to avoid imagined abuse. If my father entered the house and slammed the door, I would be hypersenstive to his mood. Would he become enraged? Had he been drinking? I could never trust him, so I watched him and everyone else, scouting out their moods.

"I also learned that to be emotionally vulnerable was not safe, so I erected walls around my emotions. I used walls of anger, silence, grandiosity, or seduction. Trust was an invitation to betrayal. I would watch and then decide how to respond in order to get what I wanted. I could never ask directly for what I wanted or needed because I had learned that I would not get it, so I learned to manipulate. If my father was in a good mood, I was seductive. If he was angry, I became silent. If I didn't want to hear what he had to say, I used a continuous stream of words to block him. I did this with everyone because I was terrified of being found out for the worthless person my parents had shamed me into believing I was.

"This shame was not my own. I was not born with it. I did not earn it. It came from my parents and from their shameful behavior, which, when dumped on me, became part of who I thought I was.  I carried it around for them, for certainly they did not have the capacity to recognize their own shamelessness. Carried shame in the instigator of trauma, whereby each reminder of our shame drives us back to the infant ego state in which we first felt our parent's shame. It freezes us in time. It arrests our development.

"I come from a linage filled with trauma and its subsequent, shame-based wounding: self-loathing individuals, all attempting to hide their pain. Each generation passed on the message to the next. My grandmother attempted to control with rages; my grandfather drank and withdrew. Like me, my father watched his parents and imagined that they treated him this was because he was "bad." And so, when he began to parent, he did what he had learned, and passed that same message to his children.

"Once carried shame is absorbed, it is stored in our unconscious and in the cells of our bodies. This poison incubates and leaches out to fuel our dysfunctional adaptations to abuse. We might not remember our abuse for years until it is triggered into memory. The event is cataclysmic.

"It was my 30th birthday. I was having a talk with my younger sister. She told me she had been doing some personal psychological work and remembered that she had been sexually abused. Up until that point, I had no memories of incest, and I was surprised by my reaction. Instead of denying or dismissing her reality, I felt a visceral shot of affirming energy throughout my mind and body. It was that moment I knew the truth.

"My abuse had been stored in the cells of my body and, when unlocked, it sent out a surge of released energy. Often, in the course of my life since my initial revelation, the energy bubbles more subtly. For instance, when I began preparing for this lecture, I thought I was feeling well and, intellectually, I felt secure dealing with the material. I'm recovered and this is all about recovery that we will be getting to. I promise. Anyway, about an hour into the prep-work, I got a severe headache and nausea, and I had to lie down. Today, I know the signs, and I take the measures necessary to allow this process to occur, but that was not always the case.

"My parents had poisonously gifted me with the tools to block my emotional pain, like a prizefighter blocking a right cross. Initially, I used walls, dissociation, and distorted adaptations to dodge and avoid the truth.

"I began this journey at a very young age. History's slave, I followed the model prior generations of my dysfunctional family. My behavioral repertoire of obsessive-compulsive or addictive behaviors began to multiply. The behavior my parents that I had modeled most persistently was intensity. I stayed busy... very busy. Like my parents, I conditioned myself to be in perpetual motion, using whatever means I could to distract myself from my feelings. If someone or something blocked my ability to stay distracted.. for instance, if my mother was too busy to take me to the park, of my neighborhood friends were unable to play...there was hell to pay!" For a moment the audience relaxed to chuckle identifying with their own childhoods. "I would relentlessly and intrusively coax, nag, harass, or manipulate until I got what I wanted.  

"Day after day, I feverishly concocted means to run from my feelings. I lived in hyperarousal. As I grew older, my calendar was full: school, work, meetings, appointments, gym, workshops. But still it was not enough. I needed more, always more, to suppress my immense well of pain."

(To be continued.)

Bruce's Flashback

Skip if you wish...

She continues to a now antsy but unable to leave crowd. Might some hear what they have buried deep? Force themselves to seal as if sealed it never happened, does not exist?

"My parents' initial months of marital bliss and lustful passion resulted in the birth of my sister. I arrived fourteen months later, and my younger sister--after a slight reprieve for my mother--arrived five years after that. The demands of early motherhood were overwhelming, so my father's newly found source of adulation and sexual fulfillment would soon be denied him. Once again my father felt betrayed by a woman on whom he depended for self-esteem that he could not supply for himself.

"The betrayal and anger my father felt were based in the unconscious, unresolved wounds that had simmered for decades... and which he had learned from his own mother. When my father's wounds rubbed, his rage descended on me and my sisters... without mercy, justice, or decency, and certainly without self-knowledge. He could not feel his shame.

"My father's crimes were, in part, the result of him withdrawing from his shameful acts behind a wall of survivor-mentality fortitude, which wove throughout our entire family system. That fortitude told him that his rage was necessary for survival, and that introspection would reduce him to the needy child he nevertheless remained all his life. Rage and silence--these were his survival tools, and he bequeathed to my sisters and me an energy that seeped deep into our lifeblood, teaching us to fend for ourselves but leaving us in terror of intimacy.

" My father's anger at what his childhood branded into his soul was acted out every night. The smell of alcohol and the blank look in his eyes taught me to hide with my sisters and pray for a reprieve. But each night he came, leaving the bed he shared with my mother to take one of us has his prisoner.  The squeaks of the door, the thin sliver of light, and the rustling of covers were all part of the ritual. I lay rigid, covers held tight, shallow breaths, closed eyes, like a scared animal burrowing, hoping to evade the advancing predator. I pretended not to see, not to hear.

"When it was my sister he raped, I would creep along the hallway to keep vigil over her suffering, know rescue was beyond my grasp.  Watching the second hand sweep over the miniscule dots on the oversized face of the wall clock, I pretended that each brush of the hand erased the filth that unfolded below. I sat, clenched jaw, tight stomach, sweaty palms, counting the specks in the linoleum, making up figures in the wallpaper, hating him and fearing him and the acts that were beyond the comprehension of my seven-year-old mind.

"When it was me he summoned, I learned how to leave my mind and body behind in the warmth of my bed. I delivered him only a shell, a lifeless puppet, one he would use and the discard like garbage. I heard only the rush in my head, felt only the sweat on my skin, saw only the stars dancing in front of my eyes, and smelled the stench of of his release."

(To be continued.)

Bruce's Flashback


Bruce sits there growing increasingly uncomfortable but unable to leave either. A woman continues...

"On the outside, it was an idyllic life. We lived in a middle-class Nirvana: tree-lined streets, barbeques on Sundays, G I Joe or Barbies in the backyard, kickball or soccer in the front. We caught fireflies as the sun set. We spent warm summer night son our grandparent's farm, and, when it turned cold, we built snowmen on the hill and drank chocolate by the fire. It wasn't until the lights went off that the secret life began.

"Late at night, in the basement where my father stole my virginity and raped my soul, I learned how to hate my body, my sex, and all that was to become me. My abuse began before I could speak. Too young to comprehend what was happening to my body, I was able only to sense the physical violation and the despair.

"My father's father was orphaned in his formative years, and, having no family to take him in, he spent the remainder of his childhood at a boarding house. My father's mother, an Irish immigrant, was living in tents at age thirteen, outside the city limits in a rural town in western Missouri.

"I remember my shock when I first saw the pictures: hundreds of tents lined up on a military base. Women adorned in faded dresses, men in worn overalls. They stood in mud up to their ankles, their expressions dull and lifeless.

"My father's father joined the Navy as soon as he was of age, and when, he returned home from World War II, he became a miner in the Missouri hills. Those caverns were known to swallow men or blacken their lungs, but my grandfather survived. He married my grandmother, eventually bought a farm, and produced three boys, my father being the youngest.

"My father's childhood, although markedly better than that of his parents, was dominated by deprivation and hardship. He endured having to work at relentless chores even before light of day, plus snowstorms on his three-mile walk to the schoolhouse. The physical exertions took their toll, as did the emotional abuse, dolled out more from ignorance than from intent. His parents were neither demonstrative nor loving. They learned and lived the bare, cold existence of survival -- a life lacking emotional connection, something my father needed and longed for. The devastating effect of this abuse were a void in my father's soul, an ache so deep that he would never emotional peace. His mother was loud, domineering, and controlling... a defense masking the anxiety of her own troubled youth. Her father was withdrawn, absent, and alcoholic.

"My father had wit and intelligence but, like his father, he became an alcoholic. He married my mother... a woman he simultaneously adored and feared... in the late 1960's. He adored my mother's doting nature, her adulation, her attention. But his own mother, the first woman in his life, had taught my father not to trust. He knew the pain of emotional abandonment, and he feared the same fate would befall him if he were vulnerable. Long ago, he protected his emotions behind a wall so thick that even my mother's invariable coaxing could not earn his trust.

(To be continued.)

Bruce's Flashback

As she listens, Norma's locked jaw and chiseled face soften, and she gives him a knowing smile. There is a bond between them.

As we are talking, a tall, big-breasted blond in a very short, black skirt joins our circle and is introduced as one of the department's "decoys," a female officer who poses as a prostitute.

Earlier, I had noticed her talking with some of the johns, laughing and joking. It seemed strange: the friendly, light-hearted banter between the hunter and the prey.

The hour-long break feels like a lifetime while I await the start-up of the afternoon session. As the men settle in, Norma begins.

"There is an ugly truth out there on the street. It is not glamorous. These women do not make money. They are usually in a stable controlled by a pimp. In the stable, there is a pecking order. The senior women are beaten less. The new girls are beaten daily. Beaten for anything: for taking too long with a customer, showing up late, complaining, lying.

"Most of these girls are tired, sick, but the pimp doesn't care. All he wants is the money and, if he doesn't get it, they get beat. At the end of the day, all they have to show for their work is a black eye and some bruises.

"The women you are about to meet are here to tell you their stories. they are here to share with you the realities of their lives. Most of these women did not intend to end up on the street. No one does. They got hooked and barely broke free."

Norma speaks with conviction, focus and determination. I hear it. It is as if it is guided like a rocket launched missal right at me. Once a medical technician, Norma got hooked on drugs and, by the end, was shooting up six times a day. She turned her first trick at twenty-eight.

She is most proud of her recovery and of the SISTERS program she helped establish. Through the District of Columbia jails, SISTERS has helped women get out of prostitution. "Each and every one of these women is a walking miracle," Norma says with pride. This chokes me up. My eyes well. My throat tightens. I've made it. I'm financially secure. I won't have to turn tricks. But I understand these women, their situation. Being held captive. If not by someone, by something. Something unseen. Only felt.

He snaps to when she continues, "I felt dead," one of the graduates begins, addressing the men in the room. "When I was out there on the street, or even in a high-class ring, and when you wanted to turn a trick, I was completely numb. All I knew was I hated you and used you to vent my anger. You weren't a person. You had no name. I told you what you wanted to hear, did what you wanted me to do, and died a little more each time." Bruce feels like bolting but can't. Fact is he doesn't want to.

Her voice is gravelly, her body taunt, her eyes glued to the floor. Perhaps she'd been a beauty at one time, but life on the street and as an addict has eroded the traces of that beauty.

"I was from a white upper-class neighborhood," the second woman says. "I was in college going for a degree in design and got hooked on coke and speed, mostly for staying up late studying. I needed more dope and ended up on the street to pay for my habit."

There is no traces left of that suburban life. She, too, is hardened and edgy.

"I'd get more money if you didn't use a condom," she continues. "I'd lie right to your face, saying you were the only one I ever did this with. I just wanted your money to get drugs. You guys were so stupid to believe me, because it was all a big game."

"I was molested by my uncle," the petite third woman begins in a soft voice. "He used to tie me up and rape me when I was twelve years old. I was scared shitless, but I never let him know. On the street, I used to act that shit out, tie guys up in the closet, have sex with the, and then leave them in there for hours. They became my pets; I did whatever I wanted to them. I got to vent my anger and feel in control, " she adds with a sigh that collapses her chest, ass if telling her story has drained the life out of her.

"Each of us is off the street, clean, and sober," Norma continues. "For me, I had to plead with a judge to lock me up. He told me to go home, but I had no home. I knew that if I went back out, I'd end up dead. I went off drugs cold turkey, and I got lucky when I mean an exwhore--turned--social worker who helped me get clean. Not all of us are so lucky."

The room is quiet as the men disperse for their break. I wonder whether they are touched, or are they detached behind a wall of denial?

As Norma comes back to the room, she tells me that I will be up next. Feeling very small next to her, and I'm not small, I muster a smile best I can saying, "Your story was very moving."
"Yeah," she says, half-smirking, indifferent to my comment.

I am greeted with a sea of eyes. Some of them seem interested, most of them bored. I tune out Norma's introduction a I reflect on what has brought me here. Why I'm here. A quote from Elie Wiesel runs through my head: "Let us remember, what hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander."

Perhaps that is why I am here: to have a voice. I, too, have known pain, lived through it, and survived. But I still question whether I am entitled to it, as if my voice against a superlative of suffering of which my own does not compare. I have never been arrested nor had a venereal disease, that wasn't curable or an STD that wasn't. I have never been in jail or shot up drugs. I have never been a male prostitute in a pimp's stable.

But I can relate to the eyes I meet and the stories I hear because I, too, have been sold--not on the street, but by my own mother, who turned away when the abuse began and who remained silent during all the years that followed.

End of One.

(To be continued.)

Bruce's Flashback

Again side project. Please feel free to skip... no bad feelings, promise!  

I introduce myself in a manner suited for the director of Junior League than for a participation in a criminal sex offenders' program. Ignoring my extended hand, she bends over and retrieves from the backseat a tattered cardboard box overflowing with material.
"Um humm. I'm Norma." she grunts, hitting the top of the door-frame, dropping half the contents onto the concrete.
"Oh hi." I say, in my enthusiasm spilling over, much like the contents of Norma's brimming box. Once Norma is upright, the other women and man shoot her a look of exasperation that whisks by me.

I press on.

"I know that I am not presenting until second to last, but I thought I would get here early to hear the whole program."

Norma is less than impressed as she closes the squeaky door of her car.

I say, "I have bought books and reference material, I will go get them from my car; so just tell me where we will be meeting."
"Umm," Norma grunts again, walking right past me. "We'll be in the through those doors." she says, including her hand in the direction of the building.

As I turn and walk back to my car, I feel heaviness set in. The view of the city is now obscured by the fog bank that settles like my mood.

The room is large. Men are taking their seats on the hard metal folding chairs. Norma is busy unload her material while she talks with a large man in a cheap, tight suit. I notice the second woman from the parking lot, and man too, taking with a few other women. I gather my courage to approach Norma. She tells me where to put my stuff and to take a seat in the back. Her tone is dismissive, detached, and cold. I sense she doesn't care about me, and I feel diminished.

The men are all ages and races. they are quiet as they await an eight-hour day of instruction. If they are successful and finish the course, they can expunge this from their record--this first-time arrest for solicitation of a prostitute.

Norma is making her way to the front of the room. But with the rustling of papers, squeaking of chairs, and murmurs from the crowd, introductions and instructions are barely audible until a commanding woman, the district attorney, rattles off the remainder of information for the daily schedule. The health department, the prostitutes (male and female), an intervention plan for sexual addiction, and the irate neighborhoods are on the lineup for the day's agenda. The room quiets down as the area's residents are invited to begin the daily proceedings.

"These are our neighborhoods, our homes."
"You are disgusting, dirty."
"Think about our families, our children. We see you. We see what you are doing. We used to look away, but no more. This has got to stop."
"My children see you doing it outside their bedroom window. My children find condoms on sidewalks. My children have to walk past the pushers and the pimps. Does your family have to deal with this in your neighborhood?"

There is little response from the men. The energy in the room is heavy, as if the shame they feel has been carried for decades, alongside lost love, lost childhoods, lost selves. I realize that they are acting out a compulsive ritual. They don't care about children. They don't care about families. They don't care about anything but their fix, their sexual high. They don't care what or whom it costs.

I have come to believe that it is a longing to find love, or the illusion of love, that drives these men and women to the street, where they use sex as an elixir to soothe their pain.

Because I understand both sides I am saddened by the irate anger of the neighbors, although I understand it. The neighborhood residents would not say these things if they understood the self-hate and the indescribable shame of the perpetrators.

"Never again," these sex addicts tell themselves. "Never again will I put myself at risk. Never will I come to this neighborhood and act out my perverse fantasies." But those "never agains" last only until the next urge.

As the room empties, Norma introduces me to Lieutenant Dutto.
"I have known Norma for years," the Lieutenant explains.
"I used to be the arresting officer in vice crimes when she was working the streets," he says, chuckling.

The large man I had seen earlier is no longer intimidating. Instead his face has softened, and his smile is warm.
"Yeah, Norma was one of our regulars back in those days. We arrested her more than a couple hundred times. I never would have believed she'd turn her life around," he says with pride, as if he had mentored her transformation.

(To be continued.)

Bruce's Flashback

Side project. Please feel free to skip... no bad feelings, promise! 

I am sitting in my car, stuck behind a Pepco electric truck on somewhere in an old neighborhood. My months in the tree lined streets of Old Town have made me vulnerable to the horrors of downtown traffic. I watch as the driver/conductor tediously repositions the electrical power arm that has been jostled off the track high above his head. He annoys me, and so does the stupid electrical system at fault for keeping so many in DC without power during the smallest storms. I am trapped between hostile traffic and anger, my friend, and frustration that co-exist with me at all times.

In the suffocating cocoon of my car, I wonder about this journey I am embarking upon. The irritating knocking of the diesel engine and the stifling air seeping in through the vents intensify my insecurities. I feel anxious I think of how my sweat-stained armpits will embarrass me in front of the people I want to impress. I glance at the clock, worried not only about my appearance, but about my tardiness as well.

Only two weeks earlier, I had read an article in the Washington Post about a revolutionary program to reform first-time solicitors of prostitutes. My eyes darted to the bottom of the page to find the contact numbers. I called immediately and volunteered my services. The men and women I was about to meet had been violated in the law in pursuit of psycho-sexual needs that were oblivious to danger and social consequences.

One hundred of them wold be sitting in front of me, doing penance and/or seeking understanding and relief. But the tales of the male perpetrators were not my primary interest; it was the stories of the women they had used, who had sold their bodies to nameless faces. They would tell their stories, and what I wanted to hear, above all, was how they had crawled out of the darkness.

I am now honking as the sweat pours down my face. I am distracted by the motorcycle in my rearview mirror. The driver is waving in and out of traffic. "Jesus Christ," I mutter to myself, "that guy almost hit me."

As I continue down the street taking my short-cut, I realize I am in parts of the city I rarely visit--seedy, dirty, and repulsive. I see the homeless, dressed in stained rags, pushing shopping carts. What would it be like to live on the street, to have no home and no food, to be forced to sell my body? I was once told that pain is pain, but I can't help but wonder: Do I know the suffering of the women and men I am about to meet? Do I see my pain reflected here on this street corner? Do I know what it is like to hear the clicking of high heels as I maneuver to turn a trick? Do I know the smell of the 'johns,' the man or woman I sell my body to, as I rock to the rhythm of their pelvis?

It is grim, but, at the same time, this seedy underbelly of life fascinates me. How do women and men reach this degradation, and where does it end? I am hoping to find some of those answers today, to look into the lives of those women and men called "soiled doves," those hardened men and women who hold tight the john's secrets, and even tighter their own.

Traffic has freed up, and, as the road rises, the neighborhood improves. Gone are the dirt and ragtag stench. I see increasingly affluent homes nestled on along the roads now. My car does her best to take the winding hill, affording a cool breeze through the open window, the smell of eucalyptus, and the incredible view. I am feeling calmer until I realize that I have passed my turn.

I had anticipated that the Police Academy would be in a rundown neighborhood, in keeping with the sordidness of the clientele. Nice shopping areas, nice brownstones. It is jarring, the juxtaposition of these two worlds colliding on this hill. As I make my turn, descending, I see the Academy, a large institutional facility set among large trees with views over looking the city.

The parking lot is empty except for a few cares lined up in front of the biggest building. Pulling into the parking space, I feel anxiety rising, when I am distracted by the loud squeak of a car door and the sound of laughter. I see two women and one man get out of the car.

From a distance, I can't make out their faces. They seem young and jovial but, as they move, it is as if a weight bends their shoulders and drags at their feet.

I sit and watch, wondering how to approach them in order to learn from their lives. Does my own history of pain and my current course of recovery and this assignment justify my curiosity, or will they think I am a voyeur?

My too rapid steps and shallow breathing remind me to contain my nervous energy. But the pounding of my heart drowns out these thoughts. As I approach the two women and man, I thrust out my hand to one in an overly confident manner, and we lock eyes. The two pools of darkness, in which I instantly imagine volumes of rare and powerful experiences, startle me. I feel humbled and caught off guard.

(To be continued.)