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Fred Stein gets a text

As he stood upon the heel of a frost-bitten meadow, gazing out for a stolen moment at the tawny sunrise, Fred Stein took a labored breath and stopped what he was doing. This was a microcosm of his state, he thought—a state of mind within a state of being—in which he’d stolen a protracted moment of life and had stopped what he was doing.

The cabin near Bighorn Canyon, about a hundred miles south of Billings, Montana, belonged to the family. Fred’s father, Frank, had built this place decades earlier after inheriting the plot of land from his father, who’d once owned a horse ranch. By now, Frank was aged and too frail for the austere outdoor life, and despite the recent upgrades, including solar panels and thick double glaze on the windows, the quaint yet sturdy domicile required a tough outer skin, but also much more. The cabin was a fair distance from any highway and therefore any hospital should Frank, now 84, have what he reticently call a problem. Go ahead and use it, he’d said a year or so ago with a tired wave of his hand. Not exactly a gift, or a hand-me-down. More like how he reacted to Fred when his son was sharing something personal that excited him that he—Frank—didn’t understand. “Huh, not for me”, he’d say with a stolid look. Frank understood being available for his son in, shall we say, other ways.

Of course, the cabin in Bighorn was all about not being available. It was the point, the raison d’etre, Fred thought, employing a phrase his father would never use. His eyes turned back to the sight of his axe which was currently sunk into a piece of softwood conifer, cut from a nearby forest a month or so earlier. Fred had enough wood for several days, perhaps weeks, and knew that the stacks that he had were sufficiently dry for optimal burning. But in the pause was the question of how long he would stay in this incognito retreat—how long before he would head back to civilization, or else wait for it to find him. Fred’s wife, Anne, would have known, or at least guessed, that he was out here. She’d visited the place only once and hadn’t liked it, or hadn’t liked its location. The middle of nowhere, she once scoffed, not getting the raison d’etre—a phrase she wouldn’t have used either. Something to think about, Fred next thought as he swung down his axe, burying its tip into a soft wooden neck. Too soft, he murmured, flashing upon Anne’s visage again.

Something to think about? Something to trip on, he nuanced, thinking of the psylocibin stems that he’d brought along. They were currently nestled in his backpack, inside the cabin and warm, inviting him. After breakfast, Fred decided, about the impending trip. He now preferred doing this alone, though he’d shared doses with friends, mostly business partners, on a few occasions. Unfortunately, Fred’s partners, though habitually calm and cool in their office personas, were invariably neurotic under the influence. Their slavish adherence to rules, “control” issues would come to the surface, causing niggly disruptions, failures of flow. Not for me, declared Jared, Fred’s best friend, after a trip dominated by nausea and what he called “spinning”. Fred kept telling him to relax, and as that advice failed, he became less relaxed himself; distracted by irritation. That desire to control things or else get away reared itself, torn from memory of playground disappointments: the games that peers wouldn’t get and therefore wouldn’t play for long.  

It was ironic that Fred worked, or did work he now pondered, for a notable cell phone provider. In the surrounding area, there was little in the way of service. Even his company, which serviced his own plan of course, provided little in the north Wyoming, south Montana region. And it was a message from them, at his last stop in Lovell, just south of the state border, that served as his last contact. His last bill had been paid, apparently. Thanks, they were saying. Fred chuckled, felt a dark whim of good customer feeling, of employee compliance; of good 21st century citizenry. Would anyone else know he was here and try to reach him, and maybe succeed? That stop in Lovell was his last stop on the grid. With enough provisions for a month, an SUV last clocked in Colorado, a demented parent as an only witness to his potential whereabouts, he figured he was clear for a spell. Or was that all a naïve delusion? It was out here that his grandfather had once disappeared, Fred recalled—something his father had shared, the family folklore. Just drifted off on a horse, never to be seen again—that was Bill Stein. Horses didn’t have license plates, could never be tracked back in the day. These days, phones come and go, get lost, stolen. Yet you need them for everything, and they can betray you. Do they locate you, Fred later asked himself? All this wandering thought was much later, during his shroom interlude. He’d paid his bill, hadn’t he? They got no reason to come after him. What do they care about what he does to family or friends, or what they ever did to him?

On a creaking porch that was the next feature due an upgrade, Fred reclined on a rawhide covered chair and took out a cigarette. Through a thin plume of smoke, he next gazed out towards the opposite side of the meadow. Above rolling hills in the distance, pale blue had taken over from tawny sunrise, signifying mid-morning, and from a peaking sun a warm glow was softening the frosty air and would-be tundra. Stillness. Fred had long delighted in stillness, especially after bouts of unpleasantry that he could barely think about. Here the land was still, and so was the air, and the high, cloudless sky and light of the day was stirring imagination of long days within an Arctic summer. Amid dense patches of forest there were tiny hints of movement, from dashing rodents to darting birds, but nothing sizable like a family of deer or conceivably invasive, like an Elk. And nothing human, best of all. This land is your land, he murmured through hallucinogenic stupor. The cigarette was burning down, poised to sting his finger, and as Fred caught a glance of dancing blue and red colors, smoke drifted before his eyes, forming a screen. Silence was broken by the buzz of his phone from within his pocket: an alert that a new text was coming in, mocking nature, entrapping humanity. Those blue and red colors were coming closer now, approaching upon a snaky trail that would lead to Fred’s front door. Next, they paired off, forming an attack maneuver, like fireflies dispatched to hit the flanks of a target. Getting closer, the red and blue colored bubbles got bigger and bigger, but finally dissolved in a blur of dust inflected with cut grass. From the resulting haze, a phalanx of men in uniform stepped forward wearing grim faces under crisp, tidy Stetsons. They had come for the son of Frank Stein.

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So you’re angry…and guilty

So you’re angry. You feel entitled. You’re like Richard III with the deformity, or so wrote Freud. The world, or the microcosm in which you live, has dealt you a blow, an unfair disadvantage. You’re gonna take what you can get, not expecting anyone to do anything for you. And you extend this attitude to your sexuality, with which you play like it’s a toy; actually, like it’s a modern toy, as in some electronic goodie that merits an upgrade like, every other week or something. Meanwhile, you’re down on the old toys, and especially one toy in particular. And this toy is a she, typically (yes, I’ll be ironically sexist for a moment). She’s your wife, or your long-term partner, whatever. Long-suffering, some will opine. Deeply impacted, traumatized, abused, others will say, including her, though some of the words are borrowed. The thing is you agree. It’s not like you don’t feel bad after you’ve done your thing after the Xth time. It’s not like you don’t feel guilty. And in feeling guilty you will feel penitent, at least until resentment returns and you sort of remember why you felt the things that made it okay to act upon your fantasies which then led you to feel guilty.

Validation. See, it’s not just about sex for you. It’s about the package of emotion that you wrap around sex, which includes murky yet happy experiences of freedom, relief, the pull of seduction, of play. That sinful other offers a conflict-free experience: she’ll admire you, or at least not intrude with her own troublesome wishes. With her you’ll escape the vague feeling that you are used up, have been used up, studded and then dispatched to some figurative pasture wherein you perform tasks that are drudgery, or acts that border on the heroic but which yield little in the way of thanks. Can’t she—meaning the old toy—make a bit more effort? Lose weight, put on some make-up…ya know, act like she did before you put a ring on it. Those days are gone, it seems. Now you’re trapped, or you feel trapped, subject to daily criticisms that now far outnumber the once-upon-a-time compliments. You know what to do. It’s 2021 still (yeah, I know, wrote this a month ago), hanging on by a thread, and something that’s trending aint gonna stop anytime soon. It’s never been easier to have affairs, writes Esther Perel, a modern author on the subjects of sex and relationships. It’s also never been harder to not get caught. If you get caught you might come see someone like me. I’m paid to take your confession, and then, as far as you’re concerned, tell you what to do about the old toy that you want to keep, apparently.

You want me to validate you? Tell you what to do? Affirm that you were entitled (whenever that attitude emerges) to all the toys on the shelf because of all that you do, all that you have tried, that merits the reward of intimacy. You tried everything, didn’t you? Did you? If you’re like the average (or even the not so average) obsessive, or “addict”, then you tried everything except actually asking for what you want, regularly, in the relationships that you chose. You think you asked for it, meaning the things you want. Well, maybe you did…once or twice. Yeah, okay. She said no. Then she said no again. Then you gave up and sought out that or who that says yes.

So you’re angry. You feel entitled. You discovered that text from that someone else and it blew a fuse. You walked in while he was looking at those images with his hands down his pants and you wondered, in part because he’s usually better at hiding, how much is this going on? The first time you found evidence of this you brushed it off, thinking it was normal, for men that is. Your girlfriends said the same thing, waving their hands, moving the air, declaring it was no big deal. A dissenter is your one friend who is bisexual, or maybe she’s more gay than before, you can’t tell. Anyway, she’s woke and she tells you you shouldn’t put up with this shit. Well, you’re not gonna put up with this shit. Not anymore. Plus, this getting caught thing: it means he’s losing control, doesn’t it? It must mean he has an addiction, unless he wants to get caught. Does he? Maybe he doesn’t love you anymore and this is just his way of saying it? An avoidantly attached personality, your therapist friend said. But you’re confused on that point because he says he’s sorry, wants to work stuff out, get some help. For himself? So he says, though he keeps implying that you’re to blame for the thing that he is doing a lot—so much so that he’s calling it an addiction.

So now you’re angry. Now you’re angry? Actually, you’ve been angry, or at least tense, for quite some time, because you thought something was going on but you were brushing it off and he was saying it was nothing, and nearly everyone else was saying it was nothing, and now it’s out of the bag and the pants are down by the ankles and suddenly it’s a something. It’s an addiction? Okay, well now it’s time for all the pent up feeling that you didn’t feel justified to vent is coming out, big time—like never before, it seems, which stirs another thought: actually, getting pissed at things has never been easy. You’ve never felt entitled to vent your spleen, even though people say you do so all the time. What they don’t know is how guilty you feel afterwards; how painful it is to get angry. That’s why you do it in secret a lot, which includes speaking to confidants, people who are as secretly angry as you so they vicariously enjoy (sorry, feel) your pain. Thing is, that’s starting to ignite guilt also. These confidantes: they can take so much, or worse, they’re gonna start judging you, thinking you’re too angry. Bitter. Time to pay someone to listen to you. A therapist. Specifically, find someone who specializes in something called betrayal trauma.

Validation. You want to hear someone validate your experience, tell you that you’re entitled to your anger and, by implication, the vengeful actions that will proceed from that anger. Here’s your secret: despite what has happened, you’re not sure you’re entitled to your anger, or to that much anger. So the next bit is unconscious: you want to borrow entitlement from someone else, and specifically, an expert. This is a form of permission seeking, and guilt reduction. And this was Freud’s deliciously amoral point: righteous anger is how we soothe guilt. It’s the bone we look for to justify the diatribe, the melt-down, the action movie climax that we all want to inhabit: the one in which the hero, or heroine, gets payback! Ah, those movies! Those HBO/Netflix binge-worthy gems: don’t they trade masterfully upon our desires? Addictive, you might say. See, if you pay close attention you might notice your internal conflict is not so different from that of the addict. The problem is guilt. Guilt doesn’t quite get extinguished, even in scenarios wherein the righteousness is fever-pitched. Why? Because the capacity for guilt may be inherited. It may be part of character, part of who we are, as opposed to something stirred by circumstance, the strictly external phenomena. You wanna know what a psychodynamic or psychoanalytic treatment would “do” for a patient like this?

Well, if you’re a Winnicottian worker, your marching orders will incline you to validate the anger of the betrayed, and even the underlying disappointments of the acting out figure. You will likely think that many in our patient mist lacked an original strong parent to teach them entitlement. As a result, you’ll think that some of us are simply ill-equipped to ask for what we want, or to protest unfairness, or wrongdoing. As a result, you’ll think it your task to bolster the wounded selves of such patients, give them a hint, at least, that what they secretly or impulsively want is…dare they say…deserved—so deserved that they might integrate that entitlement into their daily lives, which leads, broadly speaking, to the likely therapeutic goal: to be entitled in a way that is honest, non-destructive; at peace with the world. Ah! Doesn’t it sound nice, like a soothing hot tea before a nice hot fire on a cold, damp night? It sounds nice, but sometimes a little condescending, when those who claim to have reached this promised land boast of the achievement.

If you’re not Winnicottian. If you are, say, a Bionian or Kleinian figure, you’ll tread a less popular path. When a patient asks you, “It’s only fair and right for me to ask him to leave, isn’t it?”, you might respond with, “what are you asking me for?” (to be fair, only if you’re prepared to piss off your patient), or—slightly less frustratingly—“well, I think we can see how you’re struggling with the question of what to do. You’re angry and you want to express that. But you’re not quite sure it will feel right, so you ask me what I think, hoping I can make it easier”. You’ll know you have an analytic patient if the person can think upon this answer; if they can, as Bion once proposed, tolerate the frustration of not knowing answers long enough so they can use their minds, think about who they are and how they relate, historically, to anger and guilt.

Whether they perceive the irony or not, the rest of the patient population will seek out that which makes them feel better. Like any addictive habit, that will feel good, for a while.

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Frankenstein’s Window

David didn’t think he’d done anything wrong. In fact, David thought he’d played it perfectly. Well, not perfect–nothing is perfect–but as near enough as he could imagine, uh, performing. Yes, he was annoyed that Jessie had spilt juice all over the sofa. Actually, he was seriously pissed that Jessie had spilt juice all over the sofa, especially as he had warned her to be careful with her glass so as to NOT spill juice all over the sofa. Sure, she’d said, hopping back and forth between kitchen and living room. No problem, she exuded. Oh shit, she then said as a stream of juice shot out from the glass looking like a frog’s tongue spearing a hapless fly. Sorry, she immediately said, looking sheepish, her shoulders hunched, already seeking a cowering pose. Goddamnit, David exclaimed with an air of bitter knowing, followed by a martyred sigh. Stay calm, he self-coached. Don’t lose your temper. Too late, some would say. Anyway, Just…be quiet. That’s what he said, what he thought. Best to not say anything more.

Still, can’t continue with the game. The game, the second game of—whatever it was that he and Jessie were about to resume playing—that was over. “Forget it”, he said. He figured they would. The next day, Patty, Jessie’s mom and David’s fiancé, was curtly disgruntled.

“What’s your problem?”, David asked.

“I don’t know”, Patty initially lied, gauging him it seemed. Then she plunged in: “Think you were a little harsh last night with Jessie”.

“What’d I say?” David asked, calling for evidence.

She replied evenly: “do you want her to be afraid of you?” Patty glided airily about him, casually dominant, like she needn’t outline a case.

“That’s exactly what I was avoiding”, David retorted, forcing a righteous surge. It was in his chest mostly, he noticed, building up a head of steam but stilled, like it was stood at attention facing a locked door. “That’s why I hardly said anything”, David added.

“Well, you said enough”

“Was I supposed to say nothing?”

Patty had a response: a verbose, sprawling instruction with a rosy prescription as its climax: “just be cool”

Somehow that didn’t resolve matters. David stirred, wondering how he’d gotten this wrong though not really thinking he’d gotten it wrong. He’d followed once tacit but later made explicit rules about having time outs when one is hot under the collar; to give space for everyone to calm down. Meanwhile, the objects of his suppressed rage were meant to respond in kind, not poke the bear. How much space, as in time? He didn’t know. A day or two maybe? He was vaguely aware of contrary instructions stemming from mythology and psychoanalytic folklore. His one-time analyst had told him the story of the Wolf man, a patient of Sigmund Freud who once had a dream of wolves perched in a walnut tree. They stare outwards, stilled in every sense, yet in their stillness they carry the menace of their hidden potential. The other mythic figure in the mental midst was Frankenstein, he of Mary Shelley’s creation, longing for human contact but exiled to the arctic due to his irredeemable monstrosity.

Silence is a compromise: an expression of dislike and a threat but also a pulling back that bespeaks the terror of the monster. And in our literature, our mythology and dreams it is ever a monster, a beast—some displaced contortion of ourselves—that has or will do the deed. And yet there is a window of opportunity for another compromise to take effect. It’s a therapist’s prescription, an “if you could just tell the (offending person) X, then…” —well, something will be averted, it is presumed, or hoped. It’s a sound idea, of course, this would-be declaration of truth, this proposed scything through the gaslighting moment; this potential capturing of truisms while the doors are still locked, the temperature set and poised in a mild-to-moderate range. However, it presumes a desire to repair and convey love and not hate; it suggests a willingness to sacrifice pleasure, the discharge of aggression, in order to preserve order; it gambles upon impulse control, frustration tolerance, or the containment of fear, but also the exercise of something deeper. It’s parked a bit lower than the chest you might notice if you’re familiar with the somatic derivative. It is bilious, guttural, nursing an old resentment that has yet to feel justice. It might help to realize that the once antagonist is no longer around, and that displacing onto substitutes will not satisfy for long.

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Dr Strangelove in the 21st century (live)

Yes, live. With all of the cliches that come with that word. You know how television stars and such used to speak of live television: they’d speak of the glitches, the flubs, that would occur in front of a live audience, with no space for editing. This has editing. If only I could erase from memory the frozen moments when the computer froze, the internet blinked, and my talk about the frailties of technology as depicted in the greatest cinematic feature of that theme was aptly, if cruelly exposed. What you’ll see in the long-awaited link (well, august of last year) is my resilience, I guess; my improvisational wheels turning…my what the hell else can I do attitude. No denial possible, but denial happens. The thing that happened: it happened. You just keep going, or in my case, talking, and now writing. What you’ll mostly hear and slightly see from my audience is a supportive, indulgent, interested if slightly nursery-home like response at times. Anyway, the talk’s the thing, I’m told: the human touch at the heart of an endeavor. Incidentally, there’s a film running on Netflix called Don’t Look Up. It’s the Dr. Strangelove of our time, basically: a film that will make you laugh and then gulp. Get depressed, or disturbed. Listen to my talk, regardless.

Graeme Daniels, MFT

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The group’s the thing

It’s a familiar routine. Someone calls a center, a “program”, which is comprised of therapists who will talk to the afflicted, make an appointment, perhaps several, about what will variously be termed “problem sexual behaviors” or “sexual acting out”, or some other euphemism for our typically chosen shorthand: sex addiction. That’s the term that’s gained a foothold in mental health even if it hasn’t yet found a home in diagnostic standards manuals. But it’s established itself in 12-step circles, as Sex Addicts Anonymous, or Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, and if the 12-step community says sex addiction exists, then for many that’s good enough. I cover that issue in another blog, so for now, enough said on the “is sex addiction real?” question.

Less stridently, or implicitly, 12-step programs assert something else: that addiction ought to be spoken of in groups of people whose privacy is protected via an anonymity principle; by extension, treatment ought to happen in a semi-public forum that is not shaming but does hold individuals accountable for their behaviors, amongst a peer group, not just professionals whose personal experience of addiction may or may not become known. What does this mean? Well, the meaning is ambiguous, but we may see illustrations of process, which we do see in vignettes presented via Getting Real About Sex Addictionhttps://rowman.com/ISBN/9781538158050/Getting-Real-about-Sex-Addiction-A-Psychodynamic-Approach-to-Treatment, mine and Joe Farley’s book, due to be published early next year. Anyway, many programs purport to treat addiction offering group therapy as its primary format. Being exposed to other struggling or “recovering” addicts: it will help newcomers not feel alone in their patterns of destructive behaviors and obsessive thinking; it will place them in the company of those who will not “judge” them for their habits, but rather help them set limits, be honest about problems, and above all, leave isolation behind and seek fellowship.

Such a support system, whether it is led by a professional therapist or not, should help provide a struggling addict with a consistent structure in which to learn about addiction, understand what “triggers” problem behavior, and offer real choices—perhaps the first real choices some will have ever felt—with respect to alternative behaviors. What else can an addict do to seek pleasure? Are there really other ways to cope with compulsion, or states of restlessness and anxiety? When a relapse-prone group member is “struggling with addiction”, which may include succumbing to rationalizations, justifying so-called “middle circle”, slippery, or even worst-case scenario actions, a support group may “call out” the so-called BS of the struggler and challenge him or her to not act upon impulse—that is, to not engage in the behavior that is explicitly aggressive or sexual.

The problem with groups is that they don’t necessarily help people think about how they are thinking. Despite what Kant once said about all meaning being group meaning—that an event or phenomena occurs because a community says it has, or Freud’s assertion that individuals find in groups avenues for identification and “fitting in”, the psychology of groups is suspect. Freud had in part based his thinking upon the work of a contemporary “crowd psychologist”, Gustave Le Bon, who wrote that crowds are intolerant, more irrational, more heartless, immoral, exaggerating, and uninhibited in its expression. A group protects itself and unites against outsiders. Bion later followed this line of thought, teaching that groups tend to blame, to follow messianic or “mystic” leadership, or to bond in cliques, especially against perceived outsiders. This is why couples groups or co-ed groups are fewer and riskier. But this is also the biggest problem of sex addict or impacted (or betrayed partner) support groups that are homogenous, thus protecting members from shame or guilt exposing experiences, but also shielding them from what may be the most insightful or incisive of peer feedback.

Fear of persecution is a constant subtext of the (typically heteronormative) male sex addict therapy groups that I lead, and members are quick to “act out” their defenses against such fears, which is problematic because it tends to blunt self-reflection, with members unaware that their reactions to one another’s sharing are often governed by assumptions and prejudice. A good example is a group session wherein one member shares about exchanges with impacted partners or an observably punitive authority figure, like a boss or a teacher. Everyone fears authority—spouses being a kind of authority. A man reports that in the aftermath of a computer porn binge he sat with his wife who asked him what he’d been doing with his time, seemingly with a suspicious air. The man reports feeling guilty but also resentful, to which I later offer a chestnut about guilt and anger being symbiotic, with resentment following guilt as readily as the reverse phenomenon that is more conventionally understood. Regardless, it’s not clear whether guilt is useful as a deterrent against acting out. Or, paradoxically, is it something that is reduced by a further instance of acting out? Another man relates a scene of being exposed at work for having used porn on an office laptop, and thereafter called into a manager’s office for an HR rebuke.

In both cases, the response of each man’s group peers did not surprise me. In both cases, there were opportunities to explore guilt—not because I or anyone thought the men in question ought to feel guilty—but rather simply because they reported feeling so, only to then move away from that feeling, largely enabled by group response. Curious listeners, those attentive to feelings that are defended against, which tends to result in acting out or “addictive” habits, might support the opening of space for guilt to breathe, be thought about. However, the “supportive” prejudice of groups tends to work against this possibility, substituting in its place a bias that supports and therefore perpetuates defensive thinking, unfortunately. See, in the cases indicated, fellow group members, identifying with the horror of being exposed in the workplace, or “grilled” by a suspicious spouse, moved quickly to denounce the intrusiveness of the impacted spouse; the humiliating, sadistic intentions of a punitive workplace. The result was a fueling of resentment, not a contemplation of guilt or even ambivalence (both crucial for the examination of motivational behavior so often obscured by impulse), and much less a responsibility-taking plan.

In these and other instances, I usually find it necessary to confront not just an individual’s denial, but that of a group. Among other things, I offer—okay, I come close to insisting—that “acting out” isn’t only an explicitly sexual behavior signifying a sex addiction, but rather any action or thought that supports a defensive pattern, such as deflection from feeling, the indulgence of persecutory anxiety, for example. Even the most veteran of my group members have difficulty with this notion, for despite the intentions of mine and Joe Farley’s book, my sex addiction therapy groups are not specifically framed as psychodynamic in technique. My bad, I suppose, though I may defend myself on this point: I joined this sex addiction treatment milieu/subculture years ago, knowing that psychoanalytic thought was hardly the standard brought to the field—behavioral management was and still is, mostly because of people’s fears relating to sex and intimate relationships, not anything like medical necessity. Anyway, the guys in my groups know I believe in an unconscious, and they can just about tolerate my drawing attention to it (as a concept at least) ad nauseum. But they don’t know what psychoanalysis is—not really. However, I’m no different from them in the sense that I am subject to thinking patterns, reactivity, that governs my life more than I realize. It’s just that I’m in the habit—with help, actually—of thinking about how my mind works, and where the unknowing body and conscious process will typically follow. We might offer, in principle, that a mind can take responsibility for, as in acknowledge and allow feeling about, say, binging on porn at home, or stealing time at work for the same behavior—and also have room for a little indignation for witnesses, that oppressive boss or overbearing spouse. However, some may acknowledge how they can get lost in blame: start talking about the latter phenomenon at the expense of the former; have a sort-of 90-10 split between “I shouldn’t have been doing…” versus “that was messed up that he…”.

Another example, perhaps even plainer, or certainly cruder, in its language: a man reports in group that he is dating a woman he found via a dating site (Bumble) whose rule is that women must select male partners; interested male subjects can’t “initiate”. Ostensibly, this is about protecting vulnerable women from harassment/abuse but whose implications stretch beyond that worthy purpose. On an early date, the woman (somewhat predictably) volunteers that her past dating history has been fraught with creepy men who “only want to cum on her face”. In the aftermath of that exchange, the man in my group feels stung, rejected, and has settled into what he dubs “the friend zone” thinking that sex is off the table. Now, there are several issues here, but first I’ll touch on the group’s response, which is sympathetic and sort of strategic (how to keep an open mind) but nonetheless observant of an adversarial scenario. I mean it’s implicit. So, the group offers its jargony feedback replete with questions like “well, we’re you triggered by that?” or “how did that make you feel?” about which I have no complaint. Well, I kinda do, because after all, the reason the book’s called Getting Real is that I wish the language would be a little less polite sometimes; a bit more…to the point.

So anyway, I stir a dialogue. Firstly, I point out that the woman’s expression was predictable because both the zeitgeist and the dating website implicitly decreed that it would be women’s prerogative to declare, within the dating ritual, their negative experiences of men and to serve warning to seeming nice guys that such behavior won’t be tolerated. This implicit prerogative is being imparted as early as grade school probably; is reinforced throughout the time corridors of academia, and across social media so it’s no surprise it rears its prejudicial head during a nice evening out, so men in contemporary society either have to endure this phenomenon or withdraw, simply put. If men were using the dating scene to protest against women who are typically heavier than what they show in profiles, or women who seem drawn to men who are lavish with money, then they’d be called misogynists. The analogous trend, as first described in this paragraph, might be called misandry (the analogy to misogyny) if people knew that word, but they don’t generally. People know words that are drilled into their heads by media, and less so by academia which is progressively-leaning so it doesn’t teach concepts that don’t fit agendas. It’s a big word, misandry, but more importantly, a subversive, counter-revolutionary cue. Now, you may be wondering, was I really educating my group about marginalized concepts like misandry? Was I lecturing about the zeitgeists of the 21st century that put guilty and innocent men on the proverbial witness stand? No, actually I mentally parked most of that in order to ask a more salient question: “Well, do you want to cum on her face?”

The answer and the subsequent exchange is not the point. It got a laugh. Also not surprising. It broke the ice. Yeah, we don’t notice what we don’t notice. The group, as in the microcosm of society—indeed, of democratic community, by implication—is and was meant to help us not slip into the murky abyss of isolated thought, typically a defense. Problem is, groups are people too, and as many say in psychoanalytic circles, we don’t know what we don’t know.

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That AB 1775 thing

Next, a well-trodden path of this blog: a subject that has received more ‘hits’ of interest than any other on this site—the subject of AB1775. This California law, passed in 2014, altered the 1980 Child Abuse & Neglect Reporting Act (CANRA), supposedly “merely” updating it for 21st century use, by adding language (words like “streaming”) that would require mandated reporters of child abuse to report to authorities clients/patients who disclose the viewing of sexual material depicting minors—in effect, those who view child pornography via digital media, which would include behaviors like sexting. Hitherto, it was optional to report such persons, not required. Well, as has been documented here and elsewhere, the proposed law passed easily (72-0) in the California legislature, aided in part by a demagogic political campaign that used slogans like “let’s stop child abuse”.

In our book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction, Joe Farley and I both write in opposition to AB1775, concerned primarily with the law’s chilling effect on client/therapist confidentiality. I argue that the law is grounded in a pair of dubious premises: firstly, that reporting to police authorities people who look at underage porn will necessarily prevent or reduce child abuse or exploitation (how did that rationale work out in the so-called drug war?); secondly, that those seeking help for the treatment of impulses towards child pornography (why else would they volunteer the info if seeking therapy prior to “being reported”? ) do not merit or require confidentiality rights.

Ugh

To which we tiredly ask, what kind of mental health treatment model proceeds without affording a patient confidentiality rights, as a baseline arrangement of therapist-patient care? Well, it’s clear what kind: models that contain authoritarian assumptions and methods, polished with virtue-signaling euphemisms like “limit-setting” and “accountability” to gird an approach governed by a compliance/non-compliance dynamic.

Over the last 3 years, the California Supreme Court took up the question of confidentiality rights for those implicated by the AB1775 legislation, spurred by a lawsuit brought forth by, among others, mine and Joe Farley’s colleague, Don Mathews. In January of 2020, that court suspended judgement on the issue, not affirming the law, but rather sending it back to lower courts so that its premises could be further studied.

Where does that leave us? Nearly two years later, the likes of Don Mathews, myself and Joe Farley still sit with sex addicts, would-be sex offenders, who might decide to share about impulses they at times act upon, but owing to the consequences (reporting) outlined in our informed consent documents, also might think twice about sharing what they’re most troubled by. Supporters of AB1775 don’t care about this. They’d argue that the primary task of sex offender treatment is the protection of society, not the psychological growth of offenders. They’d secondly rationalize that sex offender treatment is not effective anyway (meaning, they think it hasn’t effectively changed the behaviors or pathological inclinations of offenders). Firstly, there’s no real evidence of that claim. Secondly, even if it is ineffective, then it’s likely a circular phenomenon. I agree that orthodox sex offender treatment sucks. If it’s ineffective, it’s because its models don’t follow the fundamental ethics of psychological treatment (offering confidentiality), therefore it doesn’t consistently elicit honest, substantive disclosures of actions and fantasy that could then be examined by trained clinicians.

Duh

Did the simpletons who wrote AB1775 even consider angles like this? No. They consulted police and other lawyers, and when they finally did disclose the law to therapists, via newsletter announcements via entities like the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists (CAMFT)—believe me, they got an earful of criticism. Also, in the rush to keep up with technology, what have they thought to do about entities like Snapchat, wherein images can be posted but then disappear without a trace—which is the point of that platform, actually. Anyway, now matters relating to AB1775 are in limbo, and so, on the eve of our publication, I propose something different, at least with respect to child abuse reporting law.

Before I share that, a bit more context: for reasons that are complex, the public at large is starting to tire of authorities overstepping in situations wherein mental health professionals ought to carry authority. With respect to other contexts, such as street interactions between police and the mentally ill, city governments are considering reducing policing involvement in situations wherein MH workers may be more effective. Why not in the context of sex addiction, or even sex offending? Perhaps it’s time to consider another amendment to the 1980 CANRA law, one that would create a special class of child abuse reporter, comprised of psychotherapists or psychiatrists—professionals who would not be “mandated” to report so much as granted latitude to decide whether a patient disclosing illegal, child abusing behavior ought to be institutionalized, or incarcerated if one prefers, or visited in the middle of the night by a SWAT team of computer-confiscating police officers (yeah, no doubt “upon consultation” with treating professionals). Otherwise, this professional might properly assess the context of a patient disclosure: determine whether there is genuine motivation for change amid an anxious presentation, for example, versus an aggressive, exhibitionistic disclosure indicating a sociopathic trait, or one of malignant narcissism. Either way, the law needs to be altered so that psychological assessment, or psychotherapeutic treatment, is given a proper chance.

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An analytic treatment of addiction: a follow-up argument

So, if treatment for an addiction, whether that is newly discovered or a relapsed condition, is to be longer-term, as in longer than a month or ninety days in a rehab, and intensive (meaning, multiple sessions per week), then that in part addresses one area of contention in the field: what should be the scope and duration of treatment. Linked to the scope of treatment is an area of treatment for addiction–and next I will specify sex addiction treatment–that is aimed at partners of sex addicts. This is an important if problematic area of treatment whose most prominent models espouse perpetrator/victim labeling that inclines participants towards splitting defenses which thwart in-depth or nuanced thinking, instead privileging fixed idea responses. This is further problematic if one considers that the assessment of sex addiction is yet to be codified across the medical or psychiatric establishment, which means that associated conditions or assumptions predicated on such assessments are in turn questionable. I’ll address that issue more fully in a later blog about betrayal trauma, but for now pose a question that lies within but also beyond medicine or psychiatry into the realms of culture and philosophy: what is addiction?

As suggested in previous entries, and of course in mine and Joe Farley’s forthcoming book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction, the matter can be addressed with metapsychological assumptions: epistemological (seeking to understand, or know), ontological (helping the patient emerge a state of being—who they are), or medical/scientific “problem-solving”, means-end analysis (as in achieving sobriety by any…), or utilitarian assumptions (going for the “greatest happiness”), which might mean privileging what is deemed most important by an arbitrary authority, or the needs of the victimized, which makes treatment about justice for the impacted. Notwithstanding the importance of those assumptions and hypothesized priorities, there are several psychoanalytic ideas, or “assumptions” if you prefer, that we explore in our book.

Firstly, because addiction is a cultural term and not in itself a scientific construct denoting a physiological phenomenon, we consider that addictive behaviors plus “addictive thinking” or “addictive personality” contain the following intrapsychic purpose: avoidance of conflict. Like the neurotic, the addict represses, displaces, sublimates (goes to work, or “keeps busy”), or exhibits reaction formations (shame/guilt self-loathing: “I’m such a piece of — for doing…”), but paradoxically continues the problem behavior, usually in secret. Reaction formation is a less popular artifact of psychoanalytic thought. By and large we don’t like the imputing of a reversed motivation beneath a virtuous surface. There are too many “nice” people who needn’t be troubled by assignments of concealed lechery, corrupt and self-serving motives relating to money; unconscious bias, racial and gender isms. The problem in another sense is one of thinking, of not thinking integrally. By that, I mean the difficulty of weighing matters, considering pros and cons, conflictual emotional states, or seemingly irreconcilable contingencies. Self-identified addicts tend to decry thinking, calling it analysis-paralysis, and usually confuse thinking with obsession. They fear their own minds, say things like, “I need to get out of my own head”, or “my head is a dangerous place to be”. There’s a deceptive humility in these expressions, as if the extinguishing of thought were a submissive act.

My wife doesn’t want me anymore, the sex addict laments. Or she does, but there are conditions that complicate sexuality, render it difficult. Well, addiction simplifies. Porn actresses, prostitutes, or “sex workers” want; they are accommodating, un-demanding; they appear to enjoy you, appreciate you. Depending upon how often you lease their services, they may even depend on you. And they’ll never criticize you for wanting too much, or wanting “it” too often, for their bodies are there for your use, and yet the maintenance of those bodies isn’t even your concern. This kind of person is irresistible psychologically, no matter how “hot” she might be. As a result, she may graduate to the level of affair partner, 21st century style. Actually, I don’t know how old the next phenom is: a man enjoys his regular sex worker for a spell; then she starts calling him “boyfriend”, which he starts to take seriously—he starts tipping her a bit more, maybe adding even more $ when she starts talking about her life, especially the aspects she wants to escape from. Soon, an enmeshment emerges, one that blends her desire to use you, plus your desire to be used…as a hero. This is power of a fragile kind, one that can easily be exploited, paradoxically, by those in underprivileged positions. How often does this happen? I don’t know. I’ve just met a lot of couples who began life as affair partners—that’s all—oh, except that many of the women were sex workers at the time of meeting.

So, you may be thinking this is all very phallocentric so far; that my assumptions are cisgendered, heteronormative, and privileging of heterosexual—wait, would it really privilege heterosexual men if a stereotyped image of their sex addiction elicited wide contempt, leading to pigeon-holing theories of intervention? Because that’s what has happened. The sex addiction treatment sub-field, contrary to the beliefs of some, is not exactly peopled with apologists who think that sex addiction is to be indulged. This is not 1959. Three quarters of our mental health proletariat is female, and the remainder of men are more or less compelled to patronize concepts like “toxic masculinity”, which is aimed at sex addicts, not just rapists or coarse men who loudly say things like, “yo, bro, what’s your problem?” in public places when someone is calling them out.

Share the average sex addict profile with the average observer, professional or not, and observe the rising judgement. Such figures are exploitative, sexually lazy, or guilty of relational cowardice, most will opine. Meanwhile, narrowing traditionalist circles, pockets of locker room talk, may continue to sanction the seemingly masculine habit of attaching to things versus people, or people-as-things; the practice of outsourcing frustrated sexuality to sex workers and such. But the above-ground world of progressive orthodoxy is having none of this. Theoretically, most clinicians are aware of the concept of splitting—the Freud/Kleinian idea that a mind keeps separate good and bad—and thus creates what today we call “compartmentalized” worlds in which the civilized ego is protected from the timeless desires of the id; a traumatized mind undisturbed by complexity. As a patient of mine who wrestles with his dilemmas has put it: “If I act out (sexually), I’ll kill off the intimacy between me and her, my best friend. But if I don’t act out, I’ll just grow to resent her”. Note the impossibility of resolving conflict, or even living with a problem, without the valve of release. The “solution” is in the escape, this person believes. The “problem” is in the escape, this person believes.

I believe that most of my colleagues in this field, even the angry and strident ones, are reasonably nice and compassionate with the sex addicts who stir their countertransference (psychoanalytic-speak for hate). They are professional, empathetic; sometimes patronizing; they use terms like “insecure” to denote an underlying neurosis to addiction—that reservoir of soft feeling that many just have not learned to share in our modern world. Putting aside the strained expressions of concern, the activist among us reserve their hard comments for the consulting office, or for networking, coffee-talk circles: rigorous, pamphlet-wielding exercises, no doubt. Within this field there are assumptions and politics—sorry, the intersecting social context and treatment strategies—that either inform or contaminate approaches depending on your point of view. Don’t split on that thought, however. 

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An analytic treatment of sex addiction: a basic argument

“Analyses which lead to a favorable conclusion in a short time are of value in ministering to the therapist’s self-esteem and substantiate the medical importance of psychoanalysis; but they remain for the most part insignificant as regards the advancement of scientific knowledge. Nothing new is learnt from them. In fact they only succeed so quickly because everything that was necessary for their accomplishment was already known. Something new can only be gained from analyses that present special difficulties, and to the overcoming of these a great deal of time has to be devoted”

— Sigmund Freud

One of the basic criticisms of psychodynamic or analytic treatments, particularly as they pertain to addictions, is that they don’t do enough, aren’t urgently focused enough, to arrest the escalation of problems associated with addiction. The epistemological approach (knowing, understanding) isn’t sufficiently pragmatic to halt unnecessary suffering for those directly afflicted, or their impacted others. Or, a more ontological approach, wherein emphasis lies in exploring a person’s being—discovering who they are as an emerging self—misses the severity of problems that addicted patients present.

I understand. As a patient in analysis, a past and present practitioner of analytic psychotherapy, and as a current candidate in full analytic training, I get that changes (or progress) in analytic treatment can seem “glacial”, as some put it. So, what would be the rationale for an analytic treatment of an addictive pattern, which is the matter of concern as addressed in mine and Joe Farley’s book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction. Well, sidestepping for now the questions of whether sex addiction is a legitimate diagnosis, or the linking question as to whether it merits an urgent, detoxifying focus comparable to say, chemical dependency, I’d like to offer more of a perspective than a rationale.

I’ve worked in the field of addiction, either directly in hospital-based programs, or peripherally in my private practice, for roughly twenty five years. In that time, I have, like many other psychiatric or mental health professionals, known countless individuals to go in and out of treatment multiple times, whether in rehab or therapy, upon slipping and/or relapsing, reflecting a chronic, repetitive problem. This observation is nothing new. Anyone who has ever attended a 12-step meeting will attest to hearing rhetoric asserting that addiction is a progressive, relapsing, even “incurable” disease, etc. Yet the crossover fields of addiction and chemical dependency treatment continue to offer as its dominant paradigm a short-term approach that ever treats the incoming patient as a so-called “newcomer”. Though acknowledgement of a relapsing pattern may be given by interventionists in such programs, their approaches tend to operate as if the patient is ever starting over.

I say the following: particularly when someone presents for therapy observing that their so-called addiction has lasted for years, with only sporadic interruptions due to painful consequences, followed by decisive interventions, why not suggest the following plainspoken yet analytic prescription: “Let’s explore the root of the problem. Let’s go deeper this time”. Does this proscribe some of the following tasks that are offered with virtue-signaling language: boundary-setting, relapse prevention plans, 12-step meeting attendance, medication consultation and regimens; the “inclusion” of an impacted partner in treatment? Of course not, though that last one is particularly tricky, as undue disclosures, explanations of pathology, achieved collaterally or directly, may thwart confidentiality and contaminate transference (development of a patient-therapist relationship). *Incidentally, disclosure exercises may also conflict with 12-step principles, an implicitly individualized model in which participants are typically urged to consider partners’ needs “none of your business”. Next, I hear some who suggest that a separation from the “triggering” environment is necessary for acting out persons, hence referrals to intensive outpatient programs or residential facilities. Okay, but with respect to sex addiction especially, such options are expensive and are thus available only to the wealthy. What’s that? I hear you scoff. Isn’t psychoanalysis expensive, especially if it lasts for years?

Not necessarily. Many analysts or analytically-oriented clinicians are quite flexible with those with low-fee needs, especially if they commit to multiple-sessions per week treatment. I’d be willing to bet that many such clinicians are more affordable than an average, one meeting per week, certified sex addiction specialist, and certainly more affordable than an out-of-state residential or short-term intensive program. Besides, what would you rather spend your money on? Thousands of dollars for an episode of treatment that will be over in a month, or the same amount (roughly) for something that may proceed more practically, more steadily, with more room for thought versus shoot-from-the-hip judgement, for over a year? I know. Get it over with quickly, some would counter—professional and lay-persons alike. But does anyone think it ironic that a condition epitomized by a mindset of immediate gratification would be treated with an approach that mirrors that thinking? Also, again with respect to sex addiction (versus chemical dependency), urgent, intensive interventions designed to arrest behavior ASAP are more about placating the anxiety of impacted others—not a requisite detox from a life-threatening withdrawal syndrome, or the imagined dangers of a sexual overdose.

Chill, one might say, crudely. Time to slow down, just a little at least, and think, and allow time to pass, which means space for a person’s motivation for care to intertwine with what is truly there within them: a pattern of defense that manifests habitually, often unconsciously, and sometimes dangerously. This pattern of defense is a character trait in all likelihood, not just a feature of “addiction”, and it reveals itself over time if someone is there to notice it regularly. Time. And Transference, actually. This is also why I place less stock in psychological testing, whether a comprehensive, “battery” of questions that may capture contradictions, indicating conflict, or a simple effort to elicit memory and conscious reflection, such as the HB-19 (regarding hypersexual behavior) inventory. Though I don’t have specialized training in psyche testing anyway, my basic objection is that such testing explores a patient’s mind outside of context—that is, outside of the flow of therapeutic relationship (known as Transference), and is therefore artificial. Simply put, patience and conscious witnessing are the two ingredients that counter the addict’s propensity to hide, facilitating change with lasting effect.

Consider two psychic defense concepts, one of which is decidedly psychoanalytic (displacement), while the other has a psychoanalytic pedigree but has been co-opted by other models: the aforementioned “acting out”. In sex addiction treatment, the term “acting out” denotes a sexual act, or a pattern of sexual activity, that is deemed inappropriate, exploitative, adulterous, etcetera. In psychoanalytic terms, it means replacing thoughts and feelings with action. Now consider two popular phrases whose ethos contradict each other: “actions speak louder than words” (positive connotation assigned to “action”), and “think before you act” (negative connotation assigned to “action”).

Thinking.

Analytic treatments privilege thinking, not to be confused with intellectualism, observing that addicts, in particular, act rather than think or feel, largely to their detriment. Still, they (would-be addicts) tend to enter treatment extolling the values of action in general, thinking it’s best to keep busy, don’t let idle hands…you know the rest.

Thinking

They’ve been there before. Those who have rinsed and repeated, done this cycle of keeping busy, overworking, then feeling entitled to binge on pleasure and seek inappropriate rewards may take notice. Back to that notion of “chill”, which doesn’t mean lounging on a non-analytic couch smoking something that used to be illegal. It means not acting, not acting out that is, which doesn’t just mean not looking at porn, not finding a massage parlor, or not checking out the profiles on Tinder. What next? Well, imagine you, the would-be analytic patient, are laying on an analytic couch, or (okay, let’s defer to Covid for now), speaking on the phone with an analytic practitioner, someone trained to observe the mind as it is working moment to moment, feeling it’s anxiety and restlessness, poised to act out a state of unease…about anything. You start speaking of something that, by implication, causes anxiety. But you took care of it! You paid that bill, you made that call, sent that e-mail, or said that peace to someone who was giving you grief. Next, you moved on to the next subject. Have you? Have your thoughts and feelings really moved on? And did you notice something else? The thing you were anxious about pertained to the person you were talking to, only you didn’t really go into that–that relationship with that professional who is really in your head, which is…what you asked for? You vented about someone or thing else, which is called a displacement. That means a way to avoid the conflict you are feeling, which leads to a climactic theory: addiction has two names, two categories of motive. One we know easily: pleasure seeking. The other is conflict avoidance, the escape from unpleasure, as Freud will have put it. And you know the rest.

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I’m Alright

Watching Rope, a Hitchcock film. Thinking of death and life instinct, as is my wont. Diffused? As Freud wrote. More like blended, intertwined, bonded. Two characters loom over a body they’ve just strangled, their heads nearly touching; their bodies almost inseparable. They are breathless, fearful, yet still excited. One lights a cigarette, like he just came.

I’m alright, don’t nobody worry about me. Why you gotta give me a fight? Why don’t you just set me free. I woke up with those words swimming in my head, leftover from a dream about which I’m still chuckling. My wife rises with me, picks up her thought from the night before, about my aged dad and his chuckling, teasing ways. He mumbles like Popeye, dribbles asides that few around him hear. I’m distracted. He wasn’t in my dream, I say. Jason was. Again. Really? My wife asks, like she’s surprised. It is surprising, actually—the clarity of the scene anyway. It was like the kind of political rally I don’t attend: boisterous, right-wingish, congested with people, specifically people who look ill in mind and body. They’re excessively round, swollen, circumscribed by bad body odor, and with their words they emit bile.

Ostensibly, this is a light hearted gathering, eliciting daisy smiles and cheerleader glee. On stage there’s an entourage of performers surrounding a protected, totemic figure. A pocket of circus freaks, including thwarted dancers treading tiny steps in tight spaces, lumpen musicians protruding brass above heads, consumes a platform. There are tiers to this cake-like riser, as if this band/invading force is atop a battleship that has impaled an arena that is vast yet closeted, spurring claustrophobic feeling. A victorious troupe is onstage, rousing the population with a triumphant song that boasts of something untrue: we’re all alright. For some reason that dreams don’t bother explaining, my back is to the stage, not a part of all this. I don’t wish to be part of all this, I should amend, if I am to accurately, theoretically reflect my conscious mind.

My unconscious friend. Where is he? Oh, that’s right. He’s not here. He’s gone now. But wait, is he here? In coded form, condensed or transformed, repressed but still living in this scene. About this totemic figure on stage: where’s he at? When is he going to show his face, reveal his identity? I see him finally, as I glance over my shoulder at the stage and look up. I am in the front row, like I’d gotten there early (as is my wont), like I’d been eager to attend this monster-truck atrocity. Now I can’t look at all the ugliness I chose. I glimpse the figure’s image through bodies, smiling at me, catching my eye, like he’s spying. He’s also singing, albeit lightly, barely above the crowd, despite being the only one with a microphone. Kenny Loggins. Eighties icon, only just. The song suggests Kenny Loggins, though the figure I see in slivers is a hybrid of Jabba the Hut and John Sebastien, a sixties willow who sang of love, magic and, I don’t know…hippy shit.

What are you looking for? Hard to say, but that might have been the pissy, quarreling question I’d directed at my wife. She is also in the front row, looking down, fussing with her purse, looking for something, attending to a detail I might have overlooked. It may have been important, but it distracted me from something important. Within a compressed, discontinuous moment the Kenny Loggins figure was away from the stage, leaving the arena through a giant door that suggested a fortress. I become excited as I glance around again, regarding the bemused looks of the assembled trolls, the disappointed, professional wrestling crowd of which I was not a part. Me? No way do I belong here, with these people.

I’m alive. I think that’s what I want to say. That’s why I shouldn’t be here, having this dream. It’s not happening. Well, what happens next is the return of the repressed. The guy, the totem, the Kenny Loggins whatever: he’s back; back in black, as Jason might have quipped, singing a different tune. Da-nuh, Da-nuh, Da-nuh: wish I knew how to write the chord sequence. Jay might have known, though he’d have preferred his amendment of lyrics. Fuck chicks, drink beer, do cool thing with the guys, yeah!: the screeching essence of classic rock, he’d opine. Or would that have been me analyzing his bit? That would be me trying to keep up. When he was truly on, Jay’s quips and other jests fell like rainfall. With him, droplets dashed at you, made you laugh and follow along, but were too numerous to retain. That’s one reason Jason didn’t write, actually. He had too much to try and capture in print. Anyway, back to my dream. Kenny L re-entered the arena, dressed in formal black attire, flanked by a posse of similarly dressed roadies. They form a phalanx at the base of the stage, clear a path for the totem to rise again and seize his ceremonial role. Who knows why he left in the first place. Perhaps he was dissatisfied—disgusted even, like I was—by the obnoxious brays, the fascist “We Will Rock You” atmosphere.

Now he is back with dignity, portending a solemn requiem, something that would be in keeping with his status, at last. I waited, I think, in the temporal blur of dream space, for him to ascend the tiers of the battleship stage. At the summit is a cloudy white surface, puffy and smooth, like a parody of cartoon heaven, with brass pillars framing its shape. A bed. Brass of another kind, trumpets, sound out from the bloated figures below. The dancers spread out, find their feet as their limbs come alive and the music swells. Then, at its climax, the totem lays himself down upon the bed and sinks into its mist. A deputy steps up with a speaker and in a moment’s silence as the music lulls into a false ending, he says the following, “And now, ……. (the figure is not identified in the dream) will perform an impersonation of a man in an ICU”. I woke up, laughing darkly. I’m alright, I think.

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Who the f is Sir Walter Raleigh

You know, I think it’s best to remember people when they’re at their best, not as they are at the end: struggling to breathe, to look lively and motivated, like they don’t want to live anymore. He had so much life in him, my father exclaimed, upon hearing the news of Jason. Jason, my friend of over thirty years, passed away last Saturday morning after collapsing into a diabetic coma. He was not at his best, it’s fair to say. He had a habit of not returning calls, of ignoring texts for extended stretches, ghosting me; now he is really ghosting me. He may have wanted it that way, or at least he may have longed for a state in which he might watch others who could no longer watch him. See, he’s no longer on show, displaying his inimitable wit, or his elastic, toothy smile; his shining blues eyes below arched, Jack Nicholson eyebrows. Actually, if watching and listening or reading, he’d frown at this point, complain that he more closely resembled one of his idols, David Bowie (sans the bad teeth), than the guy who threw an axe at a door in that film about the Stephen King novel.

             Jason liked books more than he did movies, even great movies. He also preferred science over religion, though he’d given the latter a good, loving shot, I think, largely because he once met and fell in love with Monica, an Elizabeth Taylor look-alike with an air of Snow White whose sweet nature he found irresistible if not exactly like-minded. He remembered lyrics more than he did melodies; liked football more than soccer, kicking and punching more than wrestling or throwing balls; dogs more than cats, disliked rapists more than murderers, liked pizza more than steak, hard liquor more than beer (okay, not by much), esoteric words, plays upon words more than simply dirty ones; inside versus shared jokes, heroes more than lovers, brunettes more than blondes. To my surprise, he liked me more than he did his other friends. At first, it wasn’t flattering. Despite being two years my junior, Jay affected a superior, big brotherly air from the outset, sort of adopting me when it seemed to him that I was dour and brooding, if smart and therefore worthy of his interest. During our shared twenties, conversations with Jason were dizzying, sometimes marathon efforts, reflecting an array of interests and desires—more his than mine, though I often thought him a dilletante, too easily bored. Compared to him, I was a bamtamweight intellect, but it seemed I was a useful ear and competent foil, managing to spar with him evenly when we bantered. Our back and forth jabs would have few witnesses over the years, but those who did observe our private dialect tended to withdraw, feeling like third wheels. The odd woman or two got in the way of this, which elicited jealousy on occasion, mine and his. Some of these women fell away, moved on in life. The ones that stuck around knew to not devise so-called double dates very often. The result was a friendship that lacked an adjoining circle; a bond and rapport that was too difficult to share with others.

             A memory from our early days captures the essence of us, maybe. When he was younger especially, Jay was insomniac, which was convenient as it meant that I could come over to his house at any time of night, which likewise suited my then nocturnal habits. He lived with his father and older brother, who seemed to keep similar hours, on a hill with a driveway and walking path that speared up toward a doorway that would often be left wide open, as if inviting the neighborhood to enter. This was not friendliness but rather inattention and apathy. I recall one of the first times I gingerly crossed the threshold to their home. Jay had paged me and directed me over, after which I appeared in minutes and stepped inside. I saw a light down a hallway of an otherwise dark residence and heard the soft hum of a television. From above, the silhouetted figure of Bart, Jay’s brother, appeared half-dressed and holding a rifle in his right arm. “Who is that?” he asked with flat menace before adding, “Oh, hey Graeme” with only slightly more warmth. “I dunno” he said when I asked after Jay’s whereabouts. He might not even be home, he suggested. I got it. This was a decidedly femaleless home in which independence and granted space reigned and so no one knew where anyone else was at.

             I ventured down the hallway, heading toward the light, half-thinking this was the politer choice but knowing it was wrong. Jason didn’t really watch television. His father did—incessantly, in fact. Therefore, it was him that I found amid the glowing light, couched in an armchair, watching a military documentary on the history channel. He didn’t seem to know where his younger son was either, but he didn’t seem to mind my sticking around regardless. Actually, had I asked a question about the documentary or else just stuck around for a further thirty seconds, I’d have gotten an impromptu lecture on the uses of the Sherman tank during World War II. Like Bart, Jason’s dad permitted my heading upstairs, and for a moment he seemed to glance in its direction as if contemplating an unprecedented curiosity.

             When I got to Jay’s room I nudged my way in, not bothering to knock because a) Jason usually didn’t answer, and b) he seemed to not care what anyone would see anyway. Once inside, I saw him in the corner of the space smoking, bathed in black light and sat in a quasi lotus position, appearing to commune with something unseen. He softly invited me forward, speaking quietly as if the onus would be upon me to approach him and join his rumination. Entering his thought-in-progress, I gleaned that he’d been listening to a collection of songs over and over again. The current selection was by The Cure, the notoriously morose eighties band whose leader, Robert Smith, had essentialized gothic depression for a generation of listeners alongside performers like Morrissey, who wasn’t on Jason’s playlist. Another song in the mix was “No One Lives Forever”, a mischievous pop ditty by the contemporaneous Oingo Boingo. With his own precise diction and versatile expression, Jay could easily mimic that group’s lead singer, a leeringly clownish Danny Elfman. Then came a Beatles song. “I’m so tired”, by John Lennon, featuring a second verse that sent Jay into peels of delight. “That’s so awesome!” he enthused, regarding one line in a stanza: “And curse the walls to rally, they’re such stupid gits”. Even if he wasn’t quite sure of the second clause, he baritoned it with conviction, this not being the first time he’d ape British slang with glee. But it was the first part that truly stirred him, capturing the hallucinogenic ethos that was guiding Jason’s feverish mind. Yes, we must bring to life the inanimate…rally the walls, and so on. Had I been more sensitive and less pedantic I might have refrained from bursting Jay’s bubble. “It’s not curse the walls to rally”, I said primly. “It’s curse Sir Walter Raleigh, he was such a stupid git!”.

             Jay looked at me blankly. Who the fuck is Sir Walter Raleigh, his eyes asked? “Sir Walter Raleigh”, I repeated, undeterred. “He either invented the cigarette or first brought tobacco back to England—something like that”. Cigarette. “See, it’s in the previous line”, I said, like that was proof of my argument. It took another 4-5 repetitions of the song before Jay begrudgingly admitted that he might be wrong about the lyric. Still, it doesn’t matter, he concluded. His version of the lyric was better regardless—John Lennon be damned.

             Not one to accept things simply for the way they are: that was Jason Stephens. In thinking of him now, I conjure another band and one-time singer, plus a song that was close to both of our hearts. “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”, a two-part epic from Pink Floyd’s 1975 album (yeah, I had to mention the date, didn’t I Jay?), features melancholic lyrics of tribute for the group’s original singer/songwriter, the mentally wayward yet beautifully-minded Syd Barrett. Beyond words about reaching for life’s secret too soon, the music ebbs and flows, soaring with classic rock guitar one moment, then sliding into eloquent diminuendo the next. My favorite passage is the last section in which a drifting synthesizer floats a final melody towards the piece’s end. Give it a listen. Actually, you might summon it right now from Spotify or whatever, let it serenade you as you read my last few lines on this matter. Pay attention to the last minute of part two in particular. The soft strains wind down the song, sounding like a ghosting soul leaving the stage, and as we listen to the last few bars, we dreamily flatline along with the music, finding rest at the end of our collective breath.

             *Rest in peace my friend. You’ve broken my heart, and you will be missed and unforgotten.

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