The room is crowded, with all members of the group in attendance. The energy seems low, perhaps due to the tender issues being explored. The usual banter is absent, replaced by a somber mood.
It is Mark's turn to share with the group. His assignment was the exploration or visual representation of his addiction. He has made a collage and, as he unrolls the large butcher-block paper, I am immediately struck by the sparse images spread before us.
"This is my addiction," Mark says with little enthusiasm.
"Tells us about it," I say.
He begins with a litany of meandering thoughts, like blood leaking from a loose tourniquet that fails to arrest the bloodbath that has occurred. Making little eye contact, Mark limply points to the pasted images: "This picture of my tornado damage represents the damaged caused by my addiction; this money represents the money I have spent on my addiction."
The group's feedback is equally benign: "It sounds like you worked hard on this. Good job. Thanks for sharing."
"Okay, Tim," I say to the last group member to give feedback. "Now tell him what you really think."
Tim looks at me with fear in his eyes, as if to say, "Let me skate through this: I am not in the mood for a challenge."
"Are you willing to be real with Mark instead of sugarcoating it?" I ask.
Tim looks up at Mark, making brief eye contact and then quickly lowers his head like a racer guilty of a false start. Taking a deep breath, he looks straight into Mark's eyes, this time holding contact.
"I just can't buy this, man," he says, gesturing toward the collage. "I mean, for me, my addiction was dark, dangerous, ruthless. I mean, ready to destroy. I think you are holding back," Tim continues, courageously positioning himself in a vulnerable emotional exchange.
"Why do you think Mark would hold back?" I ask Tim.
"Well, I know for me it was the shame. I couldn't show this stuff to anyone."
"What was it like when you finally did?"
"I felt really good, you know, a relief," Tim continues, seeming to have found his stride. "I really want to get to know you, man; that's why we're here. I'm not here to judge you. I've been there."
"How does that feel, Mark, to hear that from Tim?"
"It feels good," he says, still walled off.
"Mark," I say, pushing his comfort zone. "I want you to respond with what is really going on for you."
Taking a deep breath as if garnering strength, he looks up at Tim: "I guess this is all new to me. I don't know; thanks for what you said."
"Mark, I want you to dig deeper. How does this feel?" I ask.
"It's different, you know, scary for me. I'm afraid if I show who I was in my addiction, you are all going to run away, and I can't say I'd blame you."
This maybe be the first authentic moment Mark has had in a very long time. This is the beginning of authentic connection. A pivotal turning point in his recovery, being real and intimate is a courageous step toward healthy sexual connection on all levels.