Tag Archives: psychoanalysis

The Ego & the Id

 

Not the original, but a variation on a theme

Jogging past an assembly of children one morning I overheard a lesson being directed at them. An energetic, fatherly man was giving a taut lesson in basic soccer skills to a host of playful novices, and prefacing their exercises with a more fundamental, context-traversing appeal: if you have any questions—any at all—don’t be afraid to ask. There are no dumb questions. Everyone got that? He asked, sounding a bit more forceful than necessary given the point of his statement. With numb expressions, the kids gazed up at him, nodding compliantly, with their parents (a few were flanking the group) looking down with prompting influence. Did they get it? I wondered. Did any of them dare ask?

Such encouragements or exhortations tend to presume the following of both adults and children: not so much the possibility of incomprehension, as this coach was implying, but rather the constancy of attention. Everyone got that? He asked, with seeming reference to comprehension. This after implying, despite a contrary intention, that anyone who did not understand was “dumb”. A reaction formation, this would be called. But what of the inattentive? What of those children whose minds will have wandered, onto whatever is more pleasurable, or less onerous. Less onerous than soccer? I ask incredulously, because I’m a fan. The ego says to listen; to listen intently, without interruption, distraction. Comply, and to pay attention is even more important than to understand, so to not listen is to commit the greater sin, and to be consigned to shameful silence, at best hoping the information is repeated, granting a second chance to hear. The ego adds that when the authority figure asks if you understand, you affirm him or her lest that also bring about a problem, despite what the authority promises. For what would it mean if just one of those children—each about four or five years old, I guessed—had raised a hand and with impish innocence said something like, “I don’t understand what we’re doing”.

My reverie. My memory, perhaps? My wish? Had I ever been so brave as to draw attention to my incomprehension, or my implied indifference to an endeavor everyone around me seemed so committed to? I scroll through the tapes: not much, I have to say. Oh, there are moments when I have, with confidence usually, asked something that challenged the premises of an exercise; made a statement or two that drove a fork in a process, compelling someone or everyone to halt momentum, deal with me, my opinions, plus the glitches that difference, indifference, or disagreement produces. Freud taught that the unconscious is ever pushing for expression. It wants what it wants, does what it does, and so it traverses repression barriers, leaking out our bungling, our dreams…our distractions, our pleasures. The symptom of distraction, at times aggregated into diagnoses like ADHD (typically aimed at children who don’t listen), constitute the return of the repressed, in disguise. “Sorry, I forgot” says the person who nodded compliantly when asked if he understood, but then behaved in a manner that betrayed a secret truth: his mind was elsewhere. The ego operates imperfectly. Like the Id, it operates unconsciously (not always), contrary to popular opinion, looking to postpone the seeking of pleasure (the sole purpose of the Id), collecting sense data through the body, but failing to plug all the gaps, blocking those ideas that stir in us. The Ego is responsible for the censorship of truth—that moment of compliance in which the secret of inattention is held close to the chest. But then, so, too, might the moment of disclosure by the “brave” person voicing incomprehension be an act of the ego. It speaks to reality. Repression, that signature defense which is meant to keep our pleasure-seeking drives at bay, exerts a pressure to keep the unconscious hidden. This results in a counter pressure towards the conscious, yielding anxiety. Repression proper, as it is called, manifests in the derivatives of neurosis: our displacing symptoms as well as our inhibitions. Our phobias and other compromises.

What is this compromise of play, and what is a game, anyway, if not one more human activity with rules?

 

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Where’s the meat?

 

A conversation:

“I don’t hear the meat of this. I mean, you’re talking about someone who won’t or can’t read your manuscript, or about a publisher who is unresponsive, but I don’t hear what this book is about, even”

Pause. I’m drawing breath…with a sigh.

“Well, it’s…(another pause) a book that presents a psychoanalytic or psychodynamic perspective on the treatment of sex addiction. Firstly, it takes a look at the definitions of that term, profiling the various attempts to…organize or codify the term as a diagnostic category. Then it casts the concept as useful but also limited, or that it’s been discussed in a limited fashion by hegemonic elements in the field”

“What does that mean?”

“It means that our book critiques the trend in which sex addiction is exclusively, or near exclusively, treated as a behavioral disorder, with interventions aimed at understanding the consequences of ‘out of control or problems behaviors’ rather than an understanding of what those behaviors are about, or if one prefers, the underlying reasons why the behaviors are happening, or even what’s happening within the dissociative spells which trigger the action that is called addictive behavior. Insight as a modality is rejected by most addiction specialists, as well as, it seems, those who speak on behalf of traumatized partners. People don’t want to think so much about what happened—they want to do something, as if the understanding is a known thing, circumscribed by the labels. You hear of treatment “plans”, or “protocols of intervention” as if these represent standards of intervention, predicated upon a known assessment. We offer the view that short-term interventions lead to short-term positive outcomes, but with narrow understandings such that regression is likely, leading to repeated if episodic entries into mental health care systems. We even illustrate cases, at least two examples, in which patients fled—and I mean fled—our style of treatment because they were afraid of their own minds, didn’t want to think in the manner that our approach called for. So, our book offers an outline of how to intervene initially, as in upon crisis, but also with an in-depth focus such that progress is sustained”

“An outline of what? It’s still not clear what this treatment would entail. Also, you use words like ‘traumatized’ alot without explaining what you mean, as if the meaning were a given”

Hmm, my listener now seems impatient, maybe annoyed. I am too, or am and she’s not, maybe. I entertain a brief reverie: one day I’ll be famous for my oblique way of putting things, not put on the spot and caviled at; reverent readers will strain to understand my prose instead of me straining to make myself understood. One day. One day I will write Bob Dylanesque crypt that credulous readers will make an effort with; work hard to understand.

“Working through transference, for example. The book’s aimed at professionals so not everyone will get what that means, but practitioners should—the idea is not so esoteric. Our book reiterates something that’s been said by many others but again, not in the context of sex addiction treatment: the only real way to learn about patterns of thought, behavior, or feeling is to create the conditions such that these patterns are evoked in the treatment, with the therapist or analyst—then the deep-rooted conflicts can be addressed honestly and be dealt with. That takes time for that to happen organically, which is why in-depth therapy isn’t like a class, or a six-week rehab”

Silence, which I take to mean something like agreement. I breathe normally again, but I don’t learn whether my supposition is wrong. That’s part of the deal. The response of the reader, the listener, the other, isn’t really a known thing. Something subsides. A softening in my chest suggests a retreat, or a relenting. I’m off the spot. Thoughts relax, drift now that my polemical moment is past. Associations take over, back to an earlier theme.

“Maybe I worry about the response to our book, or the lack of it. I feel dependent on the figures that are involved currently. I don’t think there are many who would platform my views, or Joe’s. It’s funny, that’s a word I haven’t used until recently—platform, I mean. Is that a millennial term? Who knows? I don’t care for it. It seems pejorative: intended to de-legitimize dissenting speech, and to indicate by implication the privileged positions of those who hold the microphone…or control the space on the shelves.”

I’m being oblique again, but my listener doesn’t respond. Is she following me? Bored? I change subjects, sort of.

“I don’t know, maybe I’m projecting all this stuff about unimportance—making judgements about the indifference of others when this project has slipped into the background of my own life. I have other priorities also, I guess. (Pause) It reminds me of something I took care of, or tried to anyway, on the weekend. I’d gone back to that train store where I bought the locomotive model that doesn’t work—ya know, that revitalization of my old toy that I’ve been speaking of. I spoke to the guy at the shop who had worked on it and phoned me, saying its motor was dead. He asked, “Tell us what you want to do”, implying the ball was in my court to request a repair. I’ve been reluctant because this model’s been repaired once before already, and I’ve only had it for a month and a half. The first instance was my fault—I’d admitted that—because I’d connected the wires to the wrong terminals on the transformer. But I fail to see how its burnt out motor was a result of anything I did. Anyway, I sort of said that, to which the guy made no response. He’s a pretty stolid guy, like the stereotype I’d previously assigned. He’s a tinkerer, not a thinker, I think (soft laugh). There’s an air between he and I, like he thinks I’m a dilettante: someone who’s into trains for the short-term, just in time for Christmas or something. I won’t stick around, he thinks. I’m not a serious customer; not a real hobbyist. Anyway, so I asked, “ Can I get an estimate on a repair?”, thinking he might agree to meet me halfway, cover the cost of the replacement motor while I pay for the labor—something like that. He didn’t bite on that, however. He just said, “Okay, we’ll get back to you with an estimate,” in a clipped voice”. I was more or less satisfied, I suppose. Not satisfied by the outcome, which hasn’t occurred yet. Don’t know when that will happen. I just mean that I like how this is going so far…how I’m dealing with it, stretching it out because it’s worth it to do so. See, I could make a fuss and a demand, but where would that leave me, with them? Or, I could just slink away, hiding my dissatisfaction, and take my business elsewhere.”

I sensed in my listener’s silence a patient consideration: what is the relevance of this aside? I sighed amidst a lengthy pause.

“To your point, it’s not enough that I want to be read. I want shelf-life. I want to stick around because of an idea: an idea that it’s not so important what sex addiction is or even what we do about it. It’s about how we think and then talk about it.”

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The post-flight key

 

The temporal structure is off, which means that it doesn’t matter which thought, which symbol, came first. Still, I shall start, arbitrarily it seems, somewhere in the middle of the act. The first scene was an apt replica of a Star Wars moment—apt because the SW series isn’t exactly known for conventional adherence to chronologies. However, what I’m alluding to is the flinty wall of grey that began my vision, and the like barrage of grim imagery that confronts Rey and company in the recent and supposedly last SW installment. In particular, my scene resembles that in which Rey hijacks some kind of windsurfing boat and heads out amid a raging storm into a sea that envelops a derelict Death Star, there to meet Emperor Palpatine and her transcendent fate. Well, what I’m aboard is not a windsurfing boat, but what I’m faced with may be my fate, transcendent or not. Before me is a surface of concrete, I think, like an abandoned or half-destroyed freeway section that’s being assailed by waves that are lapping at its barriers. I’m positioned feet away from a precipice, dithering as to what direction to take, but apparently inclined to attempt stillness. It’s not working. At some point, I notice the structure beneath my feet moving, as if I were atop a great beast that is awakening from hibernation. The waves, it seems to me, will imminently consumer the structure I’m on and therefore me with it. It’s time for a decision, so I make my move. Next, I’m climbing onto a horizontal stanchion that is the summit of the freeway’s height as it is falling away, and as I steady myself for a leap I feel an exultant rush. A death wish? Not sure. The fear of the previous moment seems gone or at least subdued, replaced by a prideful spike upon making up my mind. The only thing that’s surprising is the sudden recession of the waves. Momentarily at a low ebb, I am convinced they will surge upwards again and wash me aside if I don’t jump soon.

I don’t recall looking down. I barely remember the leap. But I did experience the fall—the continued thought that I was joining an adventure rather than dying—and then especially the scything dive into the water. It’s cold but not too cold; certainly not biting, cruel, freezing cold. It’s cold like the previous several days had been cold: it’s a clammy, hard but tolerable cold beneath a warming layer of clothing. It’s a piece from reality intruding upon my scene, hitching a ride on the trip and making things seem better than they really are. But how things are is scary, actually. The momentum of the dive is taking me too deep, I am next thinking. As my descent reaches a natural end, I turn upwards, instinctively looking to the surface, hoping suddenly that I’m not too far down. There is no light, shaft-like or otherwise, and this signifies not only a blanketing darkness, but the absence of a divine beckoning. An indeterminate passage of time follows, after which I am somehow back upon that previous concrete surface, or some semblance of it, and glancing about again at the stormy scene around me. It is a composite world, made up of images familiar and not; a geography that I’ve discovered, that I’ve longed to discover having barely known that it existed. Nonetheless, it is recognizable. Amongst the images that draw me is the shape of a three-to-four story hotel or apartment complex. It is slightly sunken, as if pulled into the ground by an earthquake, but its integrity has held, making it seem whole and surviving. It is a bit like psychoanalysis, I speculate: an aged edifice being slowly pulled underground but hanging on; an institution seated at the end of a mythical river, or at the far reaches of the globe, and I have arrived at its door. It’s a different kind of home. This structure is similarly blackened by the surroundings, rather like the violent waves that are causing all the damage, and contrary to what my listener will soon suggest, I think this dark greyness is not an indictment of absent color, but instead a sharp, almost film noir-like affirmation.

“I think this is your first analytic dream,” says my listener. My analyst. Welcome to my world. Really? I thought, both pleased and disconcerted simultaneously. I’m glad to have reached this apparent landmark, but I’d rather thought that I’d gotten past this bit already, having been in analysis for over a year. My first analytic dream, as in the first recounted dream that seemed to say something about the analysis itself? Was I slow learner? Am I on course in my learning? Anyway, I bit down on the plaintive observation and traded associations. I followed my analyst’s thought trail quickly enough and noted the crucial parallel. The dive was the thing: the deep dive into the unconscious. Of course, couldn’t miss that one. Then, due to the nature of the scene—the violent storm and so on—I mooted that the surface of the water might also represent death, which would make sense of my fear upon descending too far below the surface, plus the whole dream would link back to the recent reveries I’d been having with respect to that near fall from a ledge memory when I was two or three, and about which I journaled in the last entry. My analyst persisted, understandably enough, with the notion that I was poised upon another precipice, not one of imminent death but rather one of growth and understanding given the prospect of deepening work in psychoanalysis. We agreed upon one point only: it seemed important that my fears upon my watery descent were of being crushed or lost in darkness, not of drowning per se. We disagreed on the meaning of color versus black and white, as I’m not yet ready to cast my life so far as dull, or colorless. Or, we sort of agreed that the dark building that appears on the surface, plus the broken freeway that gets assaulted by the waves are…meaning, they seem to be recalling something like…

Nope. Lost it. That’s the nature of dreams, I’m afraid. My dreams, anyway. They exist in disorganized form and then die on the vine; a strangulated, inchoate death. Just as well, perhaps, because thoughts move on in daytime, on the couch, leaving some thoughts behind, abandoned, while traces of previously unfinished business are instead picked up. So I turned back the clock. I nearly died that day, I said, reiterating the link between the dream and death. I was about to revisit the scene or that script that I’d written about the aftermath of my rescue from the ledge: that imagined decompression of my mother’s terror juxtaposed against my cries of oblivious complaint. What did my toddler self imagine I was about to do, I wonder? What did I think she was stopping me from doing? Then something strange happened, in my process of recall, I mean. It was another temporal shift, this time one that picked up the story of my preverbal fall where I’d left off.

“Where were they that I was alone in the house like that?” I asked. As the question had trailed some version of the memory’s recap, my analyst followed along, mostly unconfused by my shift. Oh, I see, I heard the woman thinking: a prequel. I continued: “I mean, if she was outside in the back garden, and—as she insists to this day—my dad was nowhere to be seen…Karen, my sister, aged six at the time, doesn’t remember this…why was I left alone to wander about the house and be upstairs in a bedroom whose window is wide open?” I paused and listened to the blank space, as in the silence of a shared unknowing until that pre-thought also withered and died on the vine. I don’t know if I shrugged to punctuate the moment of deadening thought. It’s pointless to shrug when lying on the couch because the gesture is obscured. Mother blaming. My thoughts had stalled upon the point of mother blaming, I’m interested to note. Well, we don’t do that, do we? Yes, I know. I’ve been here before on a couple of recent entries. I went there in mine and Joe Farley’s forthcoming book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction. There I was following echoes, in a way. Not echoes of Esther Perel, as I’ve previously written, but rather psychoanalysts like Jean LaPlanche, or Robert Bly, the somewhat eclipsed men’s movement icon, whose book Iron John was a refuge for men like myself in the nineties.

Well, Bly had something to say about sympathetic mother blaming. His was more of a critical poke at the split-off self, like much my writing is, I believe. See, in his chapter, “The Pillow And The Key”, Bly revives a pre-Christian myth, later transformed into a Grimm fairy tale, about a boy who plays with a golden ball that unbeknownst to him represents his wholeness, but he loses it when the ball roles into a cage inhabited by the “Wild Man”, who has been imprisoned by the boy’s father, the King. This man says to the boy that he can have the ball back if the boy releases him from the cage. When the boy complains that he doesn’t have the key, the Wild Man replies, “the key is under your mother’s pillow”, and that pillow, with all of its Freudian sexual connotations, is where the mother stores all of her expectations for her son. From there, a tale unfolds in which the boy steals the key, frees the Wild Man but runs away from his family, to be mentored in the forest by the now indebted Wild Man. The remainder of the story entails the boy’s return from exile, which is less consequential as it pertains to Bly’s interest, which is to point out the mother’s implied role in civilizing the boy. What Bly and others of his ilk protest is the loss of healthy wildness in modern man, which is not to be confused with machismo, submission to corporate or industrialist slavery, or misogyny, but rather a mysterious realm wherein fathers are strong, decisive, and wise. It is he that is needed, for young men in particular, not a submission to a substitute and idealized feminine. But the taboo encoded in the “pillow” metaphor is in the way, suggested Bly, echoing Freud in his modern times. Women don’t want to hear this, Bly wrote in his preface to the last edition of Iron John: “We know that fathers have an erotic power over their daughters that they often don’t want to have named or exposed, and perhaps mothers are not eager to have their power named either.”

 

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The long and the short of it: a dialogue

 

So, the zeitgeist in sex addiction for so long has been to question whether sex addiction is an excuse—ya know, something that lets creepy, no-good scoundrels (heterosexual men, basically) off the hook, absolving them of…whatever the assessment of addiction is meant to let them off the hook from. Punishment, presumably: punishment from courts, employers, wives and girlfriends. Wives and girlfriends mostly. If a man has a sex addiction then he has a disease. He has an affliction, merits compassion and support, not judgement. Cue the next bit wherein someone says it’s understandable that betrayed partners would launch into a volley of judgement upon discovery of secretive behavior. They’ve been traumatized, after all, and not just by the addictive behaviors, the obsessive use of porn and prostitutes, plus those sleazy hook-ups and online affairs. Beyond that, these partners have been lied to incessantly; subjected to years of obfuscation, counter-accusations of paranoia, controlling behavior. Now the cat’s out of the bag he wants compassion, cries this beleaguered figure! Seriously? After years of being told I’m crazy I’m supposed to just accept his abject apology and then go along with this crap about addiction, while thinking what? Oh, poor thing, he just can’t help it. Let me tell you something, I’m…

Okay, I don’t hear that so much—that I’m-about-to-march-out-of-this-office diatribe. But I do hear of it from those who have previously been to therapists who tread a little close to the door marked GIVING ADVICE. Their “educational” comments carry an inflection of sympathy—too much sympathy for the angry person who is looking for someone to be angry with them, sort of. Yes, tsk tsk, exudes the right-minded listener instead, regarding that misbehaving other. What may follow next is a flurry of suppositions: how pervasively has this behavior, plus the secrecy, affected your life? How many conversations, potential intimate moments have gone awry because he was elsewhere emotionally, not truly present with you? What about the diminishing of romance, of your sex life, even? How many times have you been denied sex because he was with someone else, or thinking of someone else, taking care of himself, forgetting about you? How many times did he come home late from work? Now you know what that was about. And think about all the money that’s been spent, or the time that’s been wasted. No wonder his career has stalled, and how has that affected you, burdened you, given that you work also, plus you do the lion’s share of stuff for the kids. Treatment? For him? The person who really needs compassion and support is YOU.

There’s a subtext to such counsel, one that is rarely made explicit because that would render the message ironic. The task is to insinuate the potential for revenge while maintaining the position of victim/survivor. So, that subtext, stripped of its artifice, goes something like this: ya know, there’s a silver lining to all of this. If you’re honest, this relationship has had problems for years and until now you weren’t sure how much the problem was him versus you. You thought he had fallen out of love with you, thought you were a B, like what your last boyfriend thought, plus what your sister used to say about you. Anyway, do you have any idea how this could be used to your advantage? Do you have any idea how much this lets YOU off the hook? From now on being difficult is no longer your problem. You being difficult becomes your entitlement. Yes, I know you didn’t want this. I get that this was your worst nightmare, besides something terrible happening to your kids, of course. And I know that thinking he’s out of control will keep you up at night, worrying where he’s at when he’s traveling—who is he with, and whether he’d leave you high and dry. But think about it: this addiction thing can be the punctuation of all arguments for the forseeable future, and you can leverage his guilt. Believe me, sister, you may have the pain, but now he’ll get the blame at last.

             In most niche fields in psychotherapy, this kind of subtext, as well as the manifest content would be tagged as scapegoating. In psychiatry we have the term identified patient to in fact direct clinical attention to a systemic problem versus a “one-body”, internal or intrapsychic disorder, as it may be termed within a psychodynamic framework. In sex addiction treatment, however, the singular focus upon the acting out person’s “problem” is a virtual orthodoxy, reflecting an alliance of social and professional forces: on the one hand, the mores of social justice, which counter-privileges the perspective of underprivileged populations, especially women; on the other hand, a traditionalist objection that posits sexual betrayal as the most sensitive of personal offenses—an offense that clears the table of mutuality, allowing for an old-fashioned script of who’s been good and who’s been bad. Yes, says the offended partner, “I am no angel”. Translation: that’s all we’re going to say on that subject for a very long time, maybe ever. That’s the flip side of the “excuse” phenomenon. Reductionism, short term interventions, simplify and thus remove not only ambiguity, but also responsibility that might otherwise be dispersed; the addiction treatment stratagem, peopled by professionals with first-responder heroism encoded within their approaches, makes supportive gestures easier, confrontation of problem behavior more, shall we say, economical. Whoa, wait a minute, hold the phone, says a sex addiction specialist. Oh, I see. A dialogue:

Specialist: Are you saying that’s what a therapist would say to a non-acting out partner? We don’t give those kind of messages to non-acting out partners. Well, okay, we might say some of those things but not to encourage revenge, and you have to remember that most partners in these situations have been gaslighted and then traumatized by their discoveries. After all, do you have any idea what it’s like to pick up your partner’s phone, and by accident (maybe) read a thread between him and some other woman that is obviously sexualized, and know in your gut that it’s been going on for years. So of course we hold the acting out person’s feet to the fire. Of course we encourage polygraph tests, full disclosure. That’s necessary and fair for the partner so she can begin to heal…with the truth, the full truth of his past and present behavior. But anyway, we do counsel the women that the issue may be complex and that at some point it would be important to address in couples therapy some of the long-standing communication issues within the couple relationship.

Me: Really? At what point would you begin that?

Specialist: Well, we wouldn’t. Our program’s only two weeks long, so we’re more about offering support and education—getting them started, teaching them about addiction and coaching boundaries, that sort of thing.

Me: Ah yes, getting them started. Reminds me of the “let’s get ‘em in the door” ethos of drug treatment; the “let’s fill some beds” mantra that program administrators used to utter to intake coordinators. It’s familiar to me, that get-them-started-then-forget-em-when-they’re-gone thing.

Specialist: It’s not like that. We give them referrals to couples therapists, people who truly know about sex addiction and understand about the traumatic impacts upon partners

Me: So, that “complexity” you spoke of—is that a euphemism for shared responsibility for a bad relationship, or do you imagine or hope that follow-up support groups and couples’ therapy will fossilize the dichotomous roles of victims and perpetrator?

No answer. Or none that isn’t a glib reiteration of previous points, anyway. So much for dialogue. I’ll just cast my mind back to those scores of books and academic papers, or that conference or two where revered figures in our profession were asked before an earnest crowd, what are the most significant factors in a positive therapeutic outcome? The therapeutic relationship, a gnomic elder would reply. I know, because I’ve heard that response more than once, and I’ve watched intently as heads nod in acknowledgement of the word. The therapeutic relationship. It seems to say everything and nothing, doesn’t it? Maybe it sounds like an offhand remark, or a platitude, and perhaps it is, though it’s not quite the oldest idea in modern psychology. Freud took a while, I think, to come upon the idea of the transference-love phenomenon in analysis—or the transference-hate equivalent. Before this, he’d traversed failed experiments in hypnosis, techniques like the talking cure, even the more resilient practice of free association, until discovering that a patient’s resistance to care, based upon feelings transferred from prior experience and relationships, is the most important hurdle to surpass if treatment is to succeed. I think our profession’s truest elders still think this the key to positive outcomes. Free association, as in a stream of unfettered thought, doesn’t come easily, yet that outcome is more important than most people think. And a clinician’s countertransference is part of the equation: he or she uses their internal experience and reflects something back that points to something missing in the patient–a lost self experience, as many have written of it. It’s a slow process, one that may take months or even years.

There are many who enter a psychotherapy episode, or who provide care, who simply do not understand this mysterious exchange. Some may think the magic happens in moments of inspiration—change on a relative dime because of a divine taking in. Yes, you work through that conflict with that person whom you had to endure for a spell and later, when they’re gone and no longer stirring your resistance, you reflect upon how they really helped you, and so maybe you’ll go back one day and tell them how they changed your life by telling you a blunt truth days before never having to see you again. Yes, that’s how that happens. Do they last, these prescriptive plans, these outlines of change that many leave therapy with. Do those galvanizing confrontations that didn’t stick before stick ever after? We like to think so. If we’re honest, we think not.

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Money thinks

 

Stemming from the Latin addictio, meaning giving over or surrender, the term addiction has come to denote a provocative concept in modern mental health, stirring associations with significant behavioral disorders with a medical underpinning: the activation of a brain’s reward system, connected by neuronal pathways, leading to patterns of reinforced pleasure-seeking behavior despite the continuation of negative personal consequences connected with said behavior. In psychodynamic terms, addiction is perhaps a shorthand for another kind of unconscious yet unrepressed phenomena. No, I’m not referring to social prejudice—yet—but rather to what is broadly termed acting out: that is, acting out feelings versus being aware of and expressing them. “I’m not doing it on purpose”, says a relapsing, self-identified addict (and the listener wonders). “Not consciously,” I have sometimes responded, eliciting quizzical looks. What’s the difference, the eyes ask? These are meandering thoughts yet still brevities, offered for menu-style perusal in mine and Joe Farley’s book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction, which of course focuses on pleasure-seeking as it relates to sex, plus the fallout that typically ensues. This tends to include estrangement from committed partners (the most common pretext for treatment described in out book), which may or may not have existed prior to the onset of addictive behaviors, which lends itself to a sinewy and fascinating treatment process, minus the dirty details—the real stories, for the most part. Besides the medical/behavioral elements, moralism and ontological philosophy do hegemonic battle on this topic, with advocates for variably impacted groups offering views that privilege the groups they represent. It seems to my co-author and I that a mini-culture war pits intimate partners, genders, and even sexual minorities against one another, and it may be that neither the theorists, the psychiatrists, the partners’ advocates, the LGBTQ advocates, nor the 12-step confidantes have all the bases covered. In terms of who is getting closest to the truth, as in the dirty details and the real story of addiction, I’d vote for the satirists.

A few years before sex addiction was a commonly used term, an a priori disorder and a recognized thing, author Martin Amis did for sex addiction what David Foster Wallace would do for drug addicts a decade later in his encyclopedic magnum opus, Infinite Jest. Amis gave the reader a taste of the sex addict’s mind, of his manic turn of thought and phrase; of the inchoate mechanisms that generate decisions, process experience, emotion. In his novel Money, the acting out is unrepressed and rendered conscious (largely, anyway) for the reader’s voyeuristic (our acting out) or otherwise sublimated pleasure. Here, for example, is a passage about brothel economics and dissatisfaction:

That session with She-she had done me no good at all. Although I had tarried in the Happy Isles for well over an hour, the actual handjob was the work of a moment—forty-five seconds, I’d say. I had to rack my brains to remember a worse one. ‘You must have been really excited,’ said She-she quietly, as she started plucking tissues from the box. Yes and no. Between ourselves, it was one of those handjobs where you go straight from limpness to orgasm, skipping the hard-on stage. I think She-she must have activated some secret glandular gimmick, to wrap it up quickly.

Note the wry, detached voice. An astute ironist, Amis gave his protagonist, John Self (such a psychodynamic name!), an observant mind, and while Self is an ignorant slob with his fictional peers, he is literate with the reader, which gives us something to hope for. The addict thinks! Yes, he acts out: he is compulsive, ethically reprehensible; he is violent, exploitative, and shameless, yet his dignity persists because his humor, honesty and intelligence are intact, affording him a charismatic villain’s appeal. Because Self has no one to answer to except the invisible reader, he is guileless in his confidences, and also unembarrassed by the pitiful failures he shares for our pleasure. Without apology, he admits his affliction and defends it with proprietorial hunger:

Besides, pornography is habit-forming, you know. Oh yes it is. I am a pornography addict, for instance, with a three-mag-a-week and at-least-one-movie habit to sustain. That’s why I need all this money. I’ve got all these chicks to support…

Never mind the anachronisms, the essence of immersion, of relationship with anonymity, has likely not changed in the forty years since Amis’ seminal publication. Meanwhile, there is no shadow consumer, as I term long suffering, non-acting out partners in Getting Real, for this character to report back to. The imagined reader is his only judge, and while he or she may be disgusted or rendered indignant by the anti-hero’s shenanigans, there is collusion in being the reader; in being, in effect, no less a voyeur than if watching one of Self’s porn clips, plus his masturbatory routine. In a novel like Money, there is complicity alongside a critical witnessing. Author and protagonist take us on a tour of debauchery, and as a novel suggests drama, there is a crisis afoot for the reckless Self. Of course, before the written word, the reader has no responsibility beyond that of a passive confidante; unlike a therapist, he or she need not pretend to relate to or distance from the wayward behavior of the confessor. There are no goals for the reader to assert; no warnings that we have to issue, and no calamity that we have to do anything but wait for. And we don’t have to answer to a shadow consumer either.

As a result, we get more than we bargain for. More information, more insight, than we bargain for if we read a book like Money, which is about an addict and narcissist’s mind as it takes a treacherous journey. Self wonders aloud, plays with his own thought like an X-rated Richard III: What is this state, seeing the difference between the good and bad and choosing bad—or consenting to bad, okaying bad? For the struggling, recovering person who is not afraid to think his own thoughts, John Self is a learned companion in a study of pleasure and pain. And it’s not just about addiction, this book, but about the medium of porn, with its degenerate, inferior, yet truthful venture beyond repression barriers. See, it goes without saying that sex has always been in our music, our plays, films and books, yet I must say this a lot, I find, to people who don’t want to think about sex—not really. Still, we’ve insisted sex be present lest the action of art become dull and plainly unincentivized. We’ve asked only one thing across most contexts, across most societies: that sex appear artfully, perhaps subliminally, with reminders that we are more than our savage, venal and aggressive drives. Porn is therefore dangerous. It defies this traditional artifice, stripping us of our pretenses, and refusing to honor our niceties, or the institutions that require us to pretend so that civilization itself may continue. Yes, it’s that bad, porn. We hate it that much.

 

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Happy endings/beginnings

Happy Star Wars week! Have you seen it yet, the supposed last installment of the franchise? I haven’t. Is it uplifting? A downer? My first question will seem strange in the future, when I imagine more readers may be giving these entries a look than they will right now. Time will obliterate this moment of wondering. In time, as in the next week or so (an eternity in my present circumstances) I may get around to seeing Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker (think that’s what it’s called). Forty two years after the first film came out, I am far removed from the excitable state that had me seeing the first installment back in the day. Like I shall be on Christmas day next week, I am a jaded adult wanting to sleep in rather than get up early to see if Obi Wan—sorry, Santa—has brought toys.

If I’m excitable or indeed compulsive about anything then it’s about corrupting things like the Star Wars mythos with sexualizing commentary. At least, that may be the view of clients and a few others who have been on the receiving end of my associations recently. One moment a man is innocently speaking of holiday plans, a weekend outing to see the new Stars Wars movie with his kids, and soon enough there are links in the air, connecting his idle thoughts with exercise routines and sexual fantasy. A languid sharing had undercurrents of arousal, I said: the plan to visit a gym would stir energy, place him in mixed company, with thoughts of improving his condition, building up his body…for what? The man caught my drift but perhaps didn’t like the suggestion. He’d wanted to keep things light and wholesome. I can tell because a compliant but begrudging man lowers his voice, starts to sound like a grumbling bear emerging from hibernation. He doesn’t like the talk that threatens to stir something threatening and I feel a bit like a fly that might get swatted any moment. Anyway, he insisted on lighter matter, turning back to the plan of taking his kids to see Star Wars and reminiscing about the first series of films that he’d also seen as a kid. A New Hope, the first film, released in 1977, is still his favorite he declared. A gratuitous recollection of trivia followed. The first Star Wars film was actually episode four, he recounted—suggesting three prequels that would not emerge for another generation. The first film had the best story, he went on to pronounce, and the most triumphant ending.

Not like the second (or fifth) film, The Empire Strikes Back, I suggested, colluding with the sublimated flow for the time being. That’s right, he agreed, adding that despite the deeper story-line, the eloquence of Yoda as he tutors young Luke in the ways of The Force, the ending is a downer. Depressing. Luke gets his hand cut off by Vader’s light saber and the future of the rebellion is uncertain.

Bummer.

Not the happy ending of Star Wars, the first film, I remarked. Exactly, intoned the man, thinking (briefly) that we were on the same wavelength. Strange term—happy ending—I then ruminated. Strange that for most recovering (or not) sex addicts the term happy ending has been co-opted and given a sexual meaning, pertaining to manual stimulation and illicit massage parlors, even sex slavery. I detected a slight sigh in my listener as I extended my comment, pointing out that happy endings in action films are usually orgiastic. For a spell I indulged my own tangential reminiscing, thinking that such endings were few and far between in the seventies. Star Wars, if the reader recalls, has often been described as a revitalization of the western ethos, only in space. See, by the mid-seventies the western, or at least the kind of playful, serial westerns that my father will have once enjoyed, were in decline, replaced by serious, socially-conscious action fare—stuff like The Godfather, or Taxi-Driver. The remaining westerns of that era—the odd, residual John Wayne flick, for example—were tired and unoriginal. Or there were good films that were complicated or too thought-provoking, like Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller. Not as much fun. Star Wars, todays’ kids won’t know, was a throw-back to a time when it was okay to like a simple action story with good guys and bad guys and not worry that Marlon Brando would tell you off for enabling stereotypes and oppression.

Come to think of it, maybe the culture hasn’t changed so much since the seventies in that respect, so maybe Star Wars still serves the same function today as it did then. Anyway, so why did I have to go and stir the pot and spoil the fun with my weird evocations of unconscious process? One moment, this poor man was having a nice moment, thinking of the happy ending wherein Han and Luke are getting medals hung around their necks by the lovely Princess Leia, with the cute and comic support characters Chewbacca, C-Threepio and R2D2 looking on, grunting or else making their funny electronic noises; then suddenly I’m making more comparisons with Empire: in the first film, the darker back-story is under the surface. As viewers of the light-hearted space western, we don’t yet know, though we might dimly feel, the Oedipal crisis that awaits Luke—that he will be tasked with fighting Darth Vader (a play on dark father, according to Robert Bly in Iron John), who will symbolically castrate Luke before finally succumbing to his son in the third film, Return Of The Jedi (the third film also resolves the near miss on the incest between Luke and Leia—whew, that was a close one, says the ego!). Then I conjure the climactic scene of Star Wars, with Luke as the lone fighter/sperm diving in his spaceship at the giant death star/egg; then he shoots his last shot, his precisely-aimed photon whatever/wad that strikes at the hard-to-get-at slot, leading to a giant blast explosion while—I swear to God—it looks to me now (okay, not so much when I was eight) that Luke hangs his head back, breathes out and pulls back like a man who has just…well, you know. But enough. I’ve surely done enough harm with my words.

“Great shot, kid. That was one in a million”, exults Han Solo, affirming the risen hero, Skywalker.

Indeed it was. Now that’s a happy beginning/ending.

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Life weans the giraffe

 

Not so randomly placed in mine and Joe Farley’s book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction, are the ontological issues surrounding the term sex addiction. It’s in the title, even, this suggestion that what we’ll be doing is examining the term sex addiction more than any other mental health abstraction and therefore addressing the problem of problem sexual behaviors: is this a thing, a variously skeptical public asks? The members of Sex Addiction Anonymous (SAA) have of course made their decision on this question. Committees of The American Psychiatric Association and The World Health Organization have not quite made theirs, rejecting the proposed diagnosis Hypersexual Disorder in the case of the former body, and recently (and provisionally) accepting the diagnosis Excessive Sexual Drive in the case of the latter organization. To be clear (or not), neither of these terms are synonymous with the construct of sex addiction, but we’re in the same ball park here. The issue is complex. It is medical, psychological and meta-psychological, as in ontological: is a human being’s sexuality a function of biological drive and are problem behaviors therefore a matter of excess desire? And even if that natural conclusion is drawn, where is the role of nurture in the matter of etiology? Are we talking about an interpersonal versus an intrapsychic event, as in a phenomenon derived from early childhood development—a weaning that went awry versus a web of innate fantasy (or phantasy as Object Relations terms it) within an infantile mind? Or is the broader social and cultural environment the more prominent accomplice in a dysfunctional sexual development?

We’d prefer to think so, at least. And so we hear weary chestnuts that even the most progressive-minded observers must be tired of hearing by now: theories of pubescent or post-pubescent development wherein boys are subject to mores that encourage their essentialist aggression, their concomitant sexual freedom, with consequent pressure to conform and therefore perform when being so deterministically sexualized. Meanwhile, girls are discouraged by societies across cultures from expressing freely their sexuality; they are raised to be demur, ashamed of their sexuality, and therefore passive or possibly manipulative in their sexual expression. And even if this is changing somewhat in a millennial age (really, have you noticed?), then it is surely a reaction to those previous oppressive norms, yielding a confusing transition phase wherein girls, boys, or those along the gender fluid continuum (suggesting a flight from binaries) switch roles at times, thus conforming to a newly burgeoning if less-defined ethos. And so we observe a faction of diffident men and boys who speak of respecting the feminine as if they are resisting in their stance a combined biological and social force upon their being. And we observe women and girls who seem increasingly aggressive and entitled in their sexual freedom while proclaiming the lack of freedom that is afforded them by an arbitrary social reality. In analytic terms, this is the realm of the unconscious but not the repressed, these habits and mores that we download from the culture. By unrepressed I mean something that is not kept away. Isms and other mores may be unconscious, but as we routinely observe, they are hardly kept away. They leak and make a mess, pervading our experience.

The premises of these positions must be difficult for the average mental health professional to sustain given the contradictions of theory and life itself. Firstly, within our profession’s demographic map, that average person is likely female, white and therefore privileged in terms of race, at least. She has been raised and subsequently educated within an atmosphere that encourages or affords (not privileged—we only use that word in this context if we’re feeling critical) a social justice lens, which means supporting narratives that advocate for the underprivileged. In Getting Real, I argue that within the niche field of sex addiction treatment (and perhaps psychotherapy as a whole), this demographic phenomenon of recent generations results in a skew that targets a privileged (non-ironic diction) client population–heterosexual men—for devaluation. The aggregate of thought suggesting how males and females are socialized towards sexual behaviors and identities emphasizes the post-pubescent experience, which for some might imply agreement with an embattled psychoanalytic idea: that pre-pubescent and certainly pre-verbal sexuality is repressed, as in kept away, and for the most part is not leaked and is therefore a lesser factor in pre-teen childhood development. There is no scientific evidence of an Oedipus Complex, say critics of psychoanalysis. There is evidence of pre-verbal attachment styles, the capacity to communicate and comprehend on a pre-verbal level, thus children’s psychological development is profoundly impacted from birth onwards by events, both benign and traumatic, that occur perpetually.

The onset of sexuality is a function of hormonal development, says a medical argument—not some manner of release from childhood repression. Puberty is the psyche’s sexual alarm clock, indicating that it’s time for play of another kind; an incipiently adult kind. Feelings like joy, excitement, wonder, fear, shame, and guilt may all be observed in small children, some pre-verbal, some not. Emotional expression, proximity-seeking, may be developed or not, contingent upon the presence and consistency of a capable adult. The nature of a child’s attachment to a parent (or primary caregiver) will be internalized as a working model of attachment that will further shape development and relationships, possibly over a lifetime. That was John Bowlby speaking and writing over fifty years ago, saying something similar to what D.W. Winnicott was teaching, only with more attention to physical need than the fostering of a distinctive, creative mind. If you the reader are silently nodding in agreement, then you’re joining at least two generations of mental health providers who generally agree with these principles while implicitly thinking that sex is not part of the early attachment equation. You’ve likely been taught to believe that proximity or object seeking, plus patterns within those relational drives, are shaped interpersonally and by broader environmental norms; that we have implicit (neurobiologyspeak for the unconscious) memory of early attachment patterns, whether they were traumatic or not; that we have implicit bias (appropriating social justicespeak for the unconscious but not repressed) in relationships, yielding prejudice directed at distinct social groups. Yes, joy, creativity, and some of that bad feeling stuff is indeed fostered in a child’s development, but not sex. Not arousal, or longing. That potential is activated later…when it’s appropriate, of course.

So, why are there excesses? Why this untidy disorder, this chaos of spillage, as if life were some kind of cosmic dumping. There, says…something: here are your tools in a pile and a flood. Do with them what you will. Is addiction, for example, a blend of natural hormonal excess negatively complemented by an insecure attachment style, of weak or failing repression barriers? And if this shaping does occur both intrapsychically and interpersonally, shall we break with our profession’s current theoretical orthodoxy and resolve that sexual nurturing largely coincides with biological schedules and is dominantly imparted with the help of the cultural village? A village that also fails, perhaps. Because if this isn’t the roughly hewn plan then we must revisit what our developmental theories otherwise imply: go back to society with ideas it doesn’t want to hear and consider taboos, as in pre-teen or even pre-verbal sexual exposure, as the original source of sexual development. We’d have to imagine that arousal and longing are part of the same dyads or village-child-passing-around norms that bring food, enable good sleep, play and a spark of imagination. We’d have to imagine that breast-feeding, or the bathing of infants’ genitalia, or the physical control of their evacuations are truly antecedents of sexual desire, or that excesses in this private realm nurture later distortions of sex as much as any unconscious yet unrepressed social message conveyed via so-called modeling to a conscious mind.

Though it would likely elicit thought-blocking accusations of misogyny or homophobia, we’d need to re-think child-rearing in a way that might stir panic; contemplate sexual orientation in a way that would challenge etiological assumptions. If the excesses of sex addiction are rooted in early childhood development, trauma specialists sometimes suggest (but don’t prove) that childhood sexual abuse is an accomplice to later sexual acting out. In this way, modern psychology comes full circle, revisiting Freud’s original Seduction theory, only with a significant permutation. Instead of conversion symptoms like the paralysis of limbs, patients present with compulsive behaviors, what Freud described as repeating versus remembering, or the shorthand, repetition compulsion. Sandor Ferenczi later gave us the term and concept “Identify with the aggressor”, attempting to rescue Seduction theory from its then-exile, to denote a relational identification between victim and abuser—to indicate a kind of psychic hostage-taking. If the vast majority of sexual abuse perpetrators are male, as a mother-idolizing culture would have us presume, then why doesn’t a corresponding majority of male molestation victims report or manifest ego-dystonic feelings of same-sex attraction? Or perhaps they do and are therefore, in keeping with analytic thought, manifesting the defense of reaction formation via a false heterosexual identification. Does it seem complicated, this human development? Maybe that’s why it seems to be taking longer and longer for children and young adults to grow, with the meta-tasks of an internal, interpersonal, and collectivist set of systems to navigate. I understand that some animals in the wild are able to walk within a day or an hour of their births. They grow up quickly in less complicated systems, with simple brains that are mindlessly free of sexual neurosis. Are the plainer brutalities of nature—the ubiquity of predation, or the threat of being left behind if not ambulatory—the forces that force giraffes to their feet? Do their hormones help? Or do they “grow up” quickly in other ways, if you know what I mean? What if our life expectancies were less than a decade? Would we evolve a quicker, more expedient onset of the pubescent watershed, becoming unrepressed yet thoughtless, and actively or relentlessly sexual, all because it was necessary to survive?

 

 

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