Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Existing Significant Relationships (Part One)

Repairing existing relationships is another focus of healing. If you are in recovery, chances are your partner is aware of your addiction; it is probably the reason you entered treatment. He or she found receipts, e-mails, videos, or computer images, or received a call from an angry sex partner, disclosing the lurid details of your acting-out behavior.

Your partner was devastated, shocked, enraged, and desperate.  There were threats of suicide or homicide, accusations, name-calling, ultimatums, disbelief, and questions - so many questions.

You were shocked by the intensity of your partner's reaction. Witnessing your partner's gut-wrenching pain and anger was like staring at the carnage of your addiction. It was a reflection of the darkest parts of your addiction and the unimaginable places you allowed it to go.

You tried to explain, manage, apologize, make promises, implement change, or take actions to amend, but nothing seemed to help. Your partner's reaction was continuous, emotional waves so unpredictable that you felt like a boat being ravaged by a turbulent sea.

Like your wounding, the betrayal cut your partner to his or her core. The deepest parts of his or personhood were violated, probably a reflection of your partner's own trauma history. He or she needs to be angry to process the betrayal, and this process must be respected.

The reality is that this process is difficult, even when it is carried out in a boundaried, healthy fashion. For a person who does not have an understanding of the recovery process to receive such painful, intimate information can result in an excruciating loss of control. And although this loss of control can precipitate a crisis, there is good news: The crisis can create such desperation that the sufferer becomes ready to learn a new, healthier way to cope with the situation.

This crisis is like that of alcoholics who get "sick and tired of being sick and tired." They know the next drink will kill them, but they can't live without it. They reach bottom as the crisis confronts them with all its awful might. With great good fortune, they may finally be ready to accept help.  

There is always the possibility, although it is less likely, that your partner is unaware of your addiction. He or she is choosing to live in denial or knows something is "off" but is unwilling to explore the reasons. Your partner has developed his or her own coping mechanisms that serve to distract. These include work, over-scheduling, exercise, overeating, and overspending.


Monday, November 25, 2013

Slow Courtship (Part Six)

"What happened after you finished your conversation with your friend?"
"I checked it out with her, and she came clean about how she was feeling left out, jealous. So it was cool."

As the weeks passed, Hank's relationship progressed into a deeper connection.

"I think I need to tell her about my past -- you know, all the sex stuff," he said. "but I am not sure how to do it."

Fear was written all over Hank's body as he made this suggestion. The idea of being vulnerable and risking rejection is one of the most difficult challenges that recovering sex addicts face. The concept of being accepted and valued despite their past behaviors is so foreign and unimaginable that they can barely visualize it, much less believe they deserve it.

When Hank told Sara about himself, he began by explaining his sex abuse history, laying the foundation as to why his life had taken its particular course.

Hank began by explaining that his father, an ex-amateur wrestler, beat him, especially when he was drunk. His mother left when Hank was three, never to be seen again. He later found out she had been killed in a car accident when he was seven. His father regularly took him to bars, where Hank was exposed to his father's drunken stupors and carousing.

"I hated those times," Hank explained to Sara.
"My dad was so loud and obnoxious. Even though the place was a dump, I got embarrassed. He'd pick up women, often more than one a night, and either had sex right in front of my brother and me," Hank said, pausing to collect his thoughts.
"My sex education started early..."

In the middle of Hank's sentence, and much to his surprise, Sara reached out to touch his hand.
"I really admire you, Hank," she said with tenderness. I know this is hard for you, and I feel really special that you are willing to share this with me."

Hank now shakes his head as he relays the story: "It's a freaking miracle."

Hank had been willing to be vulnerable, and the results were an even deeper connection to Sara. He had picked someone who was willing to accept his past and believe in his future.

Hank was able to experience a common occurrence for sex addicts in recovery. When we are on the healing path and doing our work, we tend to attract people who match our healthy energy. It is a simple equation, like energies attracting. Hand was doing his work and reaping the benefits. He began to realize he was not the navigator of his life, able to chart his course. He was making choices and decision that allowed him to experience true intimacy and relational connection.


Friday, November 22, 2013

Slow Courtship (Part Five)

Hank, a thirty-ish committed bachelor, has been in therapy for more than a year.  Through the years, he as learned to defend his emotional core with a gruff, intimidating exterior. His full-body tattoos, heavy-metal jewelry, leather jacket, motorcycle boots that match his Harley, and his deep voice and bulging muscles send the message: "Don't mess with me."

Hank recently began dating a woman named Sara; it's the first exclusive relationship in his life. He is heartily embraced and is implementing healthy relationship tools: boundaries, communication skills, being real, staying in touch with your feelings, and getting reality checks from his support groups.

A few weeks into his relationship, Hank called the office between appointments, asking for clarification and support.

"I need to check something out with you," he began. "I got together with Sara last night, and she started to rail on me, how I was being an asshole."
"What caused that reaction?" I asked.
"We were out having a steak, and I ran into a buddy of mine. I started talking to him, and the next thing I know, she's shooting me the death look. You would have thought I was hitting on some chick," he said. "So I did that bubble thing, the boundary, you know, what we worked on last week: putting an energy field around me, protecting myself. Is that what I am supposed to do?"
"You got it," I said in an affirming tone. "How did that feel?"
"Felt good, safe. I liked it."

Hank's willingness to implement the relationship skills he is learning demonstrates his commitment to recovery. The building of new skills can often feel tedious, awkward, and uncomfortable. But the results of one's efforts can be gratifying.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Slow Courtship (Part Four)

That's the nice scenario. But let's say her response sounds like this:

"You know, this is not the first time that I have heard something like this. When you decide you want to be honest with me, give me a ring. Meanwhile, I have some thinking to do."

We may conclude that the recovering addict does not have right partner. As this point, at least you know the truth and have created an appropriate place to stop investing in the relationship. You are slowing down that process to find safety for yourself and for the relationship if you think it is worth pursuing.

Even though this painful scenario is not far-fetched, my clients who are walking the path of recovery usually find that honest intimacy in communication has good results.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Slow Courtship (Part Three)

Let us say the response to you get is polite but wary. It might sound like this:

"I appreciate your honesty. What I have heard is that you come from a sexually unhealthy and overactive family and that damaged you. Now you are getting treatment for it, and I am grateful for that. But I have some fear around this. Do you think you are well enough to go out with me? I mean, what are you talking about?  You say that you don't want to go into details now, but trust me with the details. Why are you withholding from me? Do you trust me?"
"I do. But the problem is I don't necessarily trust myself. I still have a lot of shame about what I am dealing with, and I haven't done this before. And I want to do this right."
"You know, I really hear you. And from what I know about you, that's great. I feel very warm toward you."

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Slow Courtship (Part Two)

Some kinds of sexual acting-out histories are particularly risky to talk about because they are so blatantly condemned by society. Bestiality is one example. Here is a scenario of how such a fraught discussion might proceed:

"I'm really enjoying your company, and I really want to move into a more committed relationship with you, be with you exclusively. But there are some things I want to share with you so that you will know who I am and where I'm coming from. I think this will bring us closer in our relationship. In the past, I have had some issues around my sexuality. Those issues began when I was a child when my family was highly sexualized and did not have appropriate boundaries around sexuality. And so I learned that was was my most important need. That's where I was valued. That's where the power and attention were. That moved me into some unhealthy behavior as an adult.

"Now I am going to therapy and am in a group in order to deal with these issues. I am not currently active in these inappropriate behaviors. What I am active in is what we are experiencing right now. but I want you to know this about my past, and I want you to ask me any questions that you need to for clarity. I don't want to go into the details of it right now, but I do want you to know who I am now."

Monday, November 18, 2013

Slow Courtship (Part One)

 Intimacy with a New Partner

When sex addicts move into a more intimate relationship, they must slow down the process. I recommend seventeen dates spread over at least three months before genital contact. During that slow courtship, the recovering sex addict has time to practice the habits of self-esteem and boundaries that he has learned in therapy and in group.

This courtship period at first involves boundaried communication, emphasizing the pleasures involved in being honest and respectful. I urge clients to use talking and listening boundaries because this kind of connection creates safety and trust. The recovering individual is implying, "I trust you. I am willing to be open to you. I trust myself enough to trust you."

For most sex and love addicts, sex has always equaled power and control, something other than connection. So entering love in this way is a whole new experience for a sex addict because he is being present. And being present can be terrifying.

Once you are developing good communication skills, learning who your partner really is, and knowing your own needs and wants, you introduce physical but non-genital expressions of affection and love.

Activities might include massages, holding hands, snuggling, rubbing each other's back, and washing each other's hair; this allows connection to the physical. You want to take what you enjoy and share that with your partner. And your partner will do the same.

Learning relationship skills, meaning boundaried behaviors, is hard enough. So how does a recovering sex addict share, during the boundaried interchange, that he or she has behaved in destructive, unethical, immoral, and harmful ways?

If you are starting to date a new person, you want to share in broad strokes. You don't want to get into the details, but you do want him or her to know you have issues around your sexuality that are based in your trauma. Go into detail only to the level of what appears appropriate to you. You must trust your sense of authenticity.

Before you do this, do a practice run with your Twelve Step sponsor or therapist. Have it scripted out. Talk about it in group and with other people who have done it. Prepare yourself before the event with your support people and afterward share with them what the experience was like for the two of you. By doing so, you are connecting in a healthy way, and you are supporting yourself in doing something that is terrifying to sex addicts.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Stages of Relationships (Part Two)

The room is crowded, with all members of 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 the addiction. He has made a collage and, as he unrolls the larger butcher-block paper, I am immediately struck by the sparse images spread before us.
"This is my addiction," Mark says with little enthusiasm.
"Tell 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 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're 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?"
"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 my 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.


Thursday, November 14, 2013

Stages of Relationships (Part One)

Stages of Relationships

The fear of being discovered as defective makes sex addicts fear intimacy. The closer they move to their partners, the more vulnerable they feel. This increasing vulnerability scares sex addicts into aggressive and defensive postures.

The emotional walls addicts construct cause them to conduct their relationships in extremes. Their containment boundaries fail them, and they spew their emotions like a garden hose. Or their protective boundaries fail them, and they become emotionally flooded, not allowing themselves to be approached or touched by any emotion or physical contact. Or they may wall themselves off so thoroughly from their own authentic emotions and the desire to be physical that they become as silent and untouchable as a tightly shut clam. Boundary practice teaches us to regulate the levels of respect, affection, and sexual intimacy that are appropriate to our relationships.

With implementation of boundaries, the development of healthy relationships, it is helpful to apply the concentric circle model. This concept may be difficult or awkward for the recovering sex addict because of his limited ability to relate. To explore these levels, let's consider the diagram below.

Note by the retyper of the book. This is not the circle in the book. In the book it is:

Inner circle: Intimate relationship
Second circle: Second level friendship
First circle:  First level friendship
Outer circle: Acquaintances

The concentric circles represents levels of relational development or emotional connection: The closer to the center of the circle, the more intimate the relationship. 

The outermost region represent acquaintances, such as the clerk in the coffee shop. You are friendly with him or her but share little about your internal emotional world: "How is it going? Can you believe this weather? How about that game last night?" This emotional level allows for an amiable hello or passing exchange of niceties. The level of emotional risk is low, the exchange pleasant.

The next circle represents first-level friendship. These relationships are deeper than acquaintanceship. This may be a new relationship you are building and perhaps assessing to determine if it is appropriate to move into a deeper emotional connection. Or it could be a long-term relationship based on shared interests, hobbies, or beliefs. You enjoy the relationship but realize your emotional connection is limited.

The second-level friendship is developed and nurtured through deep trust and emotional connection. These are confidantes who have established mutual respect and are committed to the continual growth of the relationship. These friendships are very similar to an intimate relationship minus the sexual connection.

An intimate relationship reflects the emotional of a second level-friendship but includes a physical component. These are committed relationships between potential or lifetime partners. These relationships are nurtured at the deepest levels.

The circle and its levels can be adjusted for individual needs. For example, your levels of friendship maybe more defined; an added level or levels may feel more appropriate within your internal construct. The levels are also fluid; a person who is an acquaintance may progress into a second-level friend, or someone with whom you have a more intimate relationship may shift to an outer level. Life circumstances -- such as a move, a shift in job responsible, an illness, or the birth of a child -- may dictate a change in connection to another person.

I invite the sex addict to asses each relationship and where it falls within this continuum. You may realize that one level is deprived, whereas other levels are overflowing. As in all aspects of recovery, the goal is balance. Hopefully, this exercise will assist in the conscious assessment of your connections to others and in the enrichment of their development.

Relational closeness may feel overwhelming to the recovering sex addict because the threat of emotional exposure is not longer masked by sex. Learning to be present, authentic, and honest is part of the learning cure in developing healthy relationships.


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Vulnerability (Part Four)

As Janet drives, she is struck by the transformation of the foliage as she ascends the mountainside. The desolate terrain give way to a forest that stretches out like a multicolored carpet. When Janet turns the corner into downtown, she notices the yellow and crimson leaves dancing across the street, reminding her of Midwestern autumns. She is lost in her sweet memories and emotions when she is jolted out of her reverie by a sharp cry and the abrupt curling of her husband's body in the passenger seat, as if he is blocking the right hook of a prizefighter.

Shocked and upset, she yells at him: "What's wrong with you?"

His body is now poised like an animal ready to pounce. She is both surprised and curious about his erratic behavior.

"What is the matter?" she says impatiently.
"There was a car pulling out, and you didn't see it," he says with agitation, his finger pointing in the direction of the parking space.
"I saw it," she snaps back, feeling attacked and defensive.
"Well, you didn't act like you saw it," he says in an accusatory tone.

Janet feels insulted and dismissed. "Does he think I am incapable of driving?" she wonders from her victim stance.

Janet takes a deep breath. She wants to unleash her anger and shame on him, but instead she takes another breath, attempting to calm herself. This is where the challenge lies in mature emotional connection. Despite how her partner has acted or know she makes herself into a victim, Janet must choose to move beyond her primal response by interrupting her knee-jerk reaction.

Janet takes another breath, securing her containment boundary with the intention of creating emotional safety within the relationship. If she released her unbridled rage, she would experience boundary failure. She would be living in the reaction to her wounding. Instead, she choose to collect her feelings, reactions, and thoughts.

Janet chooses to respond from a mature and emotionally centered place. She will become curious about her response, as well as her partner's. She will become clear about her own history as it relates to the present moment and will invite her partner to do the same. This where intimacy and vulnerability begin.

Each of us is a collection of experiences that, when explained, will weave a clear path to understanding, compassion, and connection in our relationships. This conscious thought and action takes a lot of energy, awareness, and willingness. It is a practiced behavior that, with continued reinforcement, becomes more and more automatic.

"What's going on? You seem really reactive in the car," Janet says in a calmer manner.

Her husband just stares back at her, seemingly lost in thought.

"Have you been hurt in a car accident?" she asks with more tenderness.

Pausing and seemingly surprised by the question, he says, "Yeah, I have. I took out three windshields with my head."

When Janet's husband shares his history, his body relaxes and his eyes soften. Her sense of irritation is replaced by a sense of compassion, warmth, and love.

Through our trauma, we are conditioned to personalize another's response. In reality, it is always about the other person's wounding, experiences, beliefs, and filters. To avoid the victim stance, it is vital that we learn to ask, to be curious about the other's reality. When we do, we allow for connection, and that is where intimacy exists. We need to notice the response of the other but lose our own boundary by reacting from our wounding.

Where so many relationships land, however, is in the blame game: "You made me feel frightened, sad, angry, shamed, guilty," and so on.

These unrealistic accusations are basis for the resentments they harbor, and the walls from which they attack, defend, or retreat. Because the only "self" with whom sex addicts are in contact is the wounded self, they fear their inadequacies will be discovered if the truth is known. Because they cannot believe in themselves, they cannot trust anyone else to believe in them; if their partners knew the truth about them, they would leave them. Dysfunctional reasoning tells them to take what they want before it can be denied them.


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Vulnerability (Part Three)

Learning boundaries is a fundamental tool in relational development. In order for our relationship to become intimate, we much learn the art of controlled vulnerability. A concept from the work on boundaries presented by Pia Mellody. Controlled vulnerability means the ability to keep yourself safe and utilize boundaries, while at the same time being vulnerable. Controlled vulnerability keeps us open enough that our partners can know us, but it defends us from destructive incoming energy.

Our bodies are made up of energy. We learned as children to become attuned to our caregivers' energy. We knew when they walked in the room what their mood was, without saying a word. In fact, most of us became hyper-vigilant to energy; it's the way we learned to survive.

Addicts live in extremes. They flood energy like Ingrid Berman in Casablanca, oozing sexual energy like think molasses dripping off the screen. Or they are walled off, emotionally shut down like the Terminator, a robotic character void of emotional connection and authenticity.

The goal in emotional maturity is the moderate expression of our energy, neither flooding nor damming its flow. It becomes a steady stream of conscious expression.

When we practice controlled vulnerability, we protect our partners from the unloving or disrespectful energies that we, as perfectly imperfect human beings, have their potential to discharge. This is the job of our "containment boundary," whereby we protect our partners from ourselves. At the same time, we learn to protect ourselves from unloving or disrespectful energies targeted towards us. This is the job of our "protective boundary," whereby we protect ourselves from our partner's lack of containment.

Sex addicts have fears of abandonment and judgment. Their fears build unconscious expectations that their partners in relationship "make them feel" the way they do. This is called "the victim stance," and it runs rampant in our culture. We habitually blame another person or situation rather than taking responsibility for the realities we choose to create. I say "choose" because our realities and reactions are products of our personal experiences. What might upset one individual could mean nothing to another. A person's response to a certain situation or another person is determined by his or her individual experience.

For example, if every time your father beat you, a red light turned on, you became conditioned to respond when you saw a red light. You may break into a cold sweat, your breath may become shallow, or you may panic.

Or let's say that your mother was controlling, or yelled or withheld her attention when she was upset with you. You will respond within your relationships the way you responded to her. You will react to a certain behavior, tone of voice, or other nuance that taps into your original wounding. This is why the implementation of boundaries -- for both partners -- becomes crucial as relationships develop.


Friday, November 8, 2013

Vulnerability (Part Two)

The floors of the high school halls shine like the polished deck of a luxury yacht. The low morning light gleams from them as Mitchell makes his way to this locker. His habit of arriving early to school began years ago. The early start gives him an added edge, which Mitchell finds comforting. He usually sits on the floor, his back against his locker, reviewing or finishing his homework. He likes to imagine that the "peer-proclaimed wimp" is in control. It provides a confidence booster prior to the distress he feels when the halls stream with fellow students.

Mitchell's daydream is interrupted as he notices the signs hung by the student council the night before; brightly colored artwork lines the halls. Mitchell feels despair as he reads the announcements for the homecoming dance.

Mitchell lives in a small town in southern Indiana, a tight-knit community that demonstrates its enthusiasm and spirit through Forth of July parades, town-hall Christmas carols, and sold-out high school sporting events. An event like this is a big deal.

"How did the dance turn out for you?" I ask.
"It was the worst," Mitchell say. "My mother, if you can believe this, set me up with this girl, who I later found out she was paid to go -- some girl from another county who didn't talk to me all night."
"Your mother probably thought she was being helpful, but that must have felt like a huge betrayal. And then the humiliation of how your date acted," I say.
"Exactly," Mitchell says, no animated. "That really cemented my fear and distrust of women."
"Wasn't this when your addiction really took off?"
"Big time. After that, I just gave up."

Mitchell learned to hide in his addiction to porn. He learned that his shame and fear of emotional rejection far outweighed his risk of being vulnerable. Instead of living in connection and sharing his truth with another, he leaned to live in reaction, behind walls of fear, anger, and resentment. This was the home of Mitchell's trauma. From this place, he could never have a relationship, much less a truly erotic one.

Like other recovering addicts working toward healthy sexuality, Mitchell must identify his fears and expectations as belonging to his wounding. He also must understand how his dysfunctional traumatized self undermines his attempts at intimacy.

This means that, if a person is going to engage with another, whether in friendship or intimacy, he has to learn how to access his needs and wants while respecting the needs and wants of his partner.

When we enter into a relationship, we strive not only for the enhancement of the self, but for the enhancement of the relationship. When we work for the betterment of the relationship, it takes us out of our self-centered fear and out from behind the walls of aggression, defense, and retreat. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Vulnerability (Part One)

Learning to Be in a Relationship

The step-by-step process by which we reacquaint ourselves with healthy pleasure is part of reviving our ability to recognize what is going on inside of us. Once we can properly identify our emotions, needs, and wants, and attune to our bodies, we must learn how to communicate that truth to others. Speaking our truth with respect and listening to the truth of others with respect are the basic necessities of healthy relationships. But, because sex addicts have damaged relational skills, in self-defeat they put all sorts of blocks in the way of relationship and connection.

Because of the wounds they have endured, leaning to relate is one of the most challenging tasks we undertake in our lives. As we have explored, the issue of betrayal is huge for sex addicts and so, in turn, is the restoration of trust.

Most recovering sex addicts are terrified of re-creating painful or shaming experiences. We teach ourselves to sexualize our feelings in order to buffer ourselves from being emotionally vulnerable. Sexual addiction becomes the defense against real or imagined emotional rejection.

Aware of it or not, the wounded sex addict learns to approach all potential and real relationships through the filter of his relational history. His intuition tells him that being close to or vulnerable with another is not safe. When a new person comes into his life, he will screen this person through his filter, and the message that will be relayed is: DANGER!

By the time sex addicts have arrived in treatment, they usually have few, if any, friends. They may have many people in their lives, but most of their relationships are based in enhancing their sex addiction.


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Precursors to the Sexual: Little Pleasures (End)

Mitchell, now three months further into treatment, looks tired and road-worn. His skin is sallow, his eyes puffy, and his expression blank.
"I don't know if I can do this anymore," he says in a defeated tone. "I'm having a hard time."
"How so?" I ask.
"It is just dragging me down."
"Have you relapsed, acted out?" I ask.
"No, no, not at all."
"Well, that's is great progress. Even though you are emotionally uncomfortable, you have been able to tolerate your feelings. Congratulations."

Mitchell's anger is deep-seated. The rejection he experienced early in life made power and control the compass of his life.

It is the second of May, and Mitchell, who has crossed each date off the kitchen calendar for the past month, is well aware it is his birthday. As is tradition in his first-grade class, his mother will bring cupcakes for the afternoon party, where his classmates will play games and sing "Happy Birthday." Mitchell is a shy, small boy who has few friends. He is often teased about his thick glasses and pigeon toes. At the tender age of six, he suffers from headaches and constant skin rashes. On this day, his birthday, Mitchell believes all of this will be put aside. For at least one day out of the year, he will feel proud.

Anxiously, he watches the clock. The afternoon bell rings, signaling the start of his party. Mitchell is ecstatic. But, to Mitchell's surprise, his classmates head for the door and out to the playground, not at all interested in participating in the classroom nerd's birthday party. Some kids even grab cupcakes as they go.

"Let's get out of here." Let's get away from this weirdo," he hears them mutter under their breath. Mitchell can barely breathe as tears stream down his face.

"It was devastating," Mitchell says.
"Sounds like it," I reply. "This memory is what triggered your sadness?"
"Yeah, it just came to me when I dropped my daughter off at school. I hadn't thought of it for years. I saw this kid with a balloon on the playground and, boom, there it was, clear as a bell, like it happened yesterday."

There is grief in recovery as we remember those times when we think we didn't deserve our place on this planet. So many of us have been told that it is shameful for us to have wants or needs. Self-care becomes a shameful act. WE forget that the pleasure associated with fulfilling our needs and wants is our precious birthright. Believing we deserve this becomes a daunting and smilingly unimaginable task.


Monday, November 4, 2013

Precursors to the Sexual: Little Pleasures (Part One)

Buddhists believe that, to be integrated into the creative and destructive natural processes of the universe, we must learn the acceptance of suffering. Psychoanalytic and existential therapies make a distinction between two fundamental kinds of suffering. One is a consequence of fate (i.e., everyday problems such as sickness, grandiose bosses, and rambunctious children). We bring further suffering on ourselves wen we try to escape it by denying its existence. If we accept the fact that suffering is part of our lives, we don't have to fight it by hiding our eyes from the truth -- or from what the truth demands of us in the way of acceptance.

Therapy is an effort to open our eyes to the reality of how we have distorted our minds and emotions in order to avoid and deny painful reality. Therapy does not deny that reality can be painful; it teaches acceptance and, at its best, the joyful transcendence that comes with the recognition of a power greater than ourselves.

Making yourself into a victim, as women tend to do, or making yourself into a stoic anti-dependent, as men tend to do, is a disemplowering delusion, part of an elaborate process of self-deception instigated by childhood abuse. Acceptance of suffering as part of the life of each human born of imperfect parents is a healthy recognition of the truth of the human condition. Such acceptance empowers us because it prompts us to find ways to live healthfully within that truth.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Intimacy Factor

In her book The Intimacy Factor, Pia Mellody explains that self-esteem is built through self-nurturing, or the attunement of your physical, emotional, and spiritual needs and wants. By attuning and pleasuring yourself at this level, you create connection -- a connection that was severed long ago.

As trauma survivors, we learn to disconnect not only from our feelings, but also from our bodies. This was how we survived. Coming home to our bodies, or being present, can feel awkward or uncomfortable. It can also generate a great deal of fear: a fear of the unknown, the fear of triggered memories, or actual physical discomfort or pain.

This is why recovery is a process, a gradual building of self-attunement and awareness. We allow ourselves to build on each step to avoid overwhelming or flooding our systems with too much change, confusion or information. We learn to live in the moderation of recovery, as opposed to the extremes of addiction.

"So what is the reward of lighting scented candles?" Mitchell asks snidely.
"It isn't about scented candles," I say. "It's about learning what you like and integrating that into your everyday life."
"And this helps how?"

Mitchell has come to learn that, by habitually catering to his sense of pleasure, he will reawaken his sensitivity to pleasure and discover that pleasure does not accompany fear, intensity, powerlessness, and shame. He will learn that pleasure is not the reward of manipulation and control; it is something he deserves, in and of itself.

It is not a usual part of my therapy to philosophize with clients about how, at the deepest level of our being, we are vitalized and made spiritual by our erotic energy. However, as "the holder of their shame," I know that my own creativity, based in my own recovery of sexual, spiritual energy, makes me an appropriate trustee of my clients' secrets. I draw my healing power from my belief that the liberation of sexual energy is a return to the authentic self and to the Eros, which is our sexual energy.

In these modern times, sexuality has become overwhelmingly associated with genital stimulation. But it is important to understand that there is an ancient and respected tradition in which sexuality -- what the Greeks called "Eros" -- was a divine energy at the center of creation.

In Plato's Symposium, Eros is the longing inherent in the human being for the Original Source, the Creator. It is the "sexual instinct," or spirit, that drives us from the earthly realm to seek transcendent union.This erotic theme is expressed in art, dance, literature, and mysticism. The philosopher Paul Tillich described Eros as "the driving force in all cultural creativity and in all mysticism."

One commentator on the Hebrew wisdom of the Torah said:
We moderns have an almost desperate need to be in control. The rugged individualist who is captain of his fate and master of his destiny is our cultural spiritual model. And yet we know in some deeper place that we cannot always, nor is it desirable for us, to always maintain control.  

The Eros of sex is the place where we learn to give up control. And a great truth is revealed to us. In the act of letting go -- of giving ourselves up -- in the la petite mort (the little death) of orgasm, we find ourselves as well. A the very moment when the self is lost, it is rediscovered in higher and more brilliant form. Sexual Eros models for us a moving beyond old contradictions. Self-control is not the sole cauldron in which self is forged. Losing control with holy intentionality becomes the place where finding higher self is a genuine possibility.
To surrender to this force of another is true eroticsm, and it is, in my opinion, holy. I believe that Eros in our intimate relationships models the undercurrent to a higher power. But for sex addicts, who are so damaged that they have lost the preciousness of their own being, true eroticism has become impossible.