Friday, December 24, 2010

Hearing the Inner Voice That's been Drowned Out by Craving

 It takes a while to develop the kind of inner attunement Nigel's now practicing.

Instead of meeting in person yesterday he phoned in for his session from his in-law's place. He and his wife and their new baby will be there throughout the break between semesters. Last year we did a couple of sessions the same way over the holidays, but the content of what Nigel talked about was very different. I was so struck by the contrast that I thumbed back in his file to check out my notes from a year ago. Here's how he started our December 20, 2009 conversation: "I'm feeling so antsy here. They live in the middle of the prarrie and they're not big on TV. I can feel this big hole where I'd usually be going to some form of electronic entertainment. I've looked through their bookshelves and pulled out three or four titles that interested me, but I just can't get into any of them. I think I'm feeling lousy because I can't get to my addiction the way I do at home. We didn't bring my laptop and their computers are all password protected. I want to be tempted, I want to have the opportunity to see something that will make me feel good, and I can't so I'm grouchy about the whole thing."

Part of what's different for Nigel now is that he has made it past the withdrawal he always went through back then whenever he managed to abstain from pornography for a time. But there's an even more important difference. He no longer attributes the antsy feeling he sometimes gets to his addiction. He doesn't interpret all of his distress as coming from an urge to go to pornography on the one hand or to a sense of guilt and shame from having relapsed on the other. He's getting so much more adept at sorting through his feelings. Here's what he told me this year: "I asked Melissa to sit down with me last night because I was feeling unsettled. It wasn't clear to me at first, but as we started talking it out I realized that I was wondering what we're doing here. What's our purpose? How will we know whether we've achieved it once it's time to head back to school? I want to make sure we open ourselves up to opportunities for good things to happen. I want to experience things that feel nice, like a real conversation with some of her siblings or her parents--a chance to connect more deeply with them. Or is there a project I can help with around their house that would help me feel good about pitching in? I decided that it might be as simple as going to the store and getting some blueberries so that I can make some pancakes one morning. As we kept talking, I realized that I'm also feeling some fear of the upcoming semester. It's supposed to be the hardest semester of the entire doctoral program. There's a desire to stay where someone else is taking care of everything. For some odd reason it's a little hard to enjoy the down time. In quiet moments, what's coming after the break looms it's head and stares me down."

I asked Nigel how it felt to talk all of that out with Melissa. "Oh, it was nice. It cleared my head. She's a good listener. Talking with her validates what I feel." I've learned over the years that, not only can our wives be good listeners, they tend to me more attuned to emotion than we are as men. As we talk with them about the events in our lives and, in particular, what it's like for us personally to experience them, they can often help us sense the feeling tones that color what we're going through. Before talking with our wives, we only see this messy stew of unformed things, a tangle we would rather cover up by numbing out with our addiction. Despite all the disadvantages of our addiction, at least it's a familiar problem and the emotions associated with it are well-formed and straightforward. "I haven't given in for a day/week/month, so now I'm lusting... I gave in, so now I'm feeling guilty." That two dimensional see-saw blinds us to so much of life's emotional subtlety and richness.

Nigel has always needed Melissa to draw close when he was in need, but it's so much easier for her to do it now that he's coming to her to talk about his feelings. He used to stuff his feelings... then find himself more tempted... then either fight temptation or give in... and then come to her to confess after the fact or wait until he was caught. She had a hard time relating to his wrestle with sex addiction, but she can readily relate to his real emotions: Wanting the holiday to be special. Being afraid of going back to school. These kind of feelings are universal and easy for her to empathize with.

I was so struck by how different things seemed this year compared to last, I had to check and see if Nigel could also tell the difference. "I'm looking at my notes our session a year ago. Do you remember how you used to handle it when you felt uneasy and out of sorts?"

"Oh, yeah. When I got into a dark mood back then, sometimes I didn't even realize it. That's no surprise, since I had lived my entire life ignoring my feelings. Once I did recognize I was in a down state--usually because it got so bad or lasted so long--I thought I had to get myself out of it. I needed to turn to the Lord more. Then I often felt like I didn't get any help from the Lord, but I blamed it on myself: I must not be doing my dailies well enough. I need to step up my prayers or scripture study. The Lord doesn't abandon you; you must have abandoned the Lord. The idea that when I was in that dark place, I didn't have to just trudge through it on my own, that was so new to me. That was good to learn. I don't have to just deal with hard times on my own. I don't have to just "take it." I can talk about it. That started to change as I learned to talk out what I was feeling in group therapy. And then Melissa and I started checking in each night, doing a little inventory of how we were each feeling and what was one blessing in our life. It has developed into this habit of connecting at the end of almost every day. Sitting on the couch and talking things out. If one of us has had a hard day we'll rest our head on the other one's shoulder or lap and let it all spill out. Nothing's off limits. There's this unspoken contract: we know the other person will honor whatever we're feeling without criticizing or getting defensive. We hardly ever watch TV anymore. We'd much rather connect. That time together unwinding and connecting has become our thing. I'm only realizing as I'm describing it how sacred that time has become for us. I think it's the primary reason I've gone this long without relapsing. Our relationship is getting stronger and stronger and it seems to be healing my addiction to sex."

The biggest cost of addiction is not what it makes us do, but what it makes us miss. The main price Nigel paid for his addiction was not in what he did as he got so caught up in sex, but in what he missed when he was in the orbit of resisting and succumbing. For years he missed out on the quiet inner voice that was tugging at him, telling him to reach out, subtly prodding him to find meaning and connection, to cry on your wife's shoulder and probe your brother-in-law about how he made it through graduate school and make blueberry pancakes for all of your in-laws on Christmas eve morning. Oh, what a toll addiction exacts from us weary strugglers!

Please write and tell us what you're learning as you try to tune in, take your emotions more seriously, and open up and share what your feeling instead of keeping it all stuffed inside!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

How Couples Start to Heal

From early in their relationship, they shared a profound bond. When they were dating he “let her in” more than he had anyone else ever before. As she came to know the person he is inside, she saw his heart, and it won her over. She sensed deeply that she’d always be safe with him. Her guard came down and she came to trust him implicitly, without reservation.  

The discovery of his pornography habit is so piercing, so disorienting because it rocks the emotional foundation she has been building her life on for years. Some of the worst doubts, the bitterest anger, the shakiest trust are directed inward: how could she have missed the signs of something so important? How could she have been that poor a judge of his degree of devotion and fidelity? What she felt between them was as real to her as anything had ever been in her life. Now it’s like she’s in a funhouse with the moving ground and distorted mirrors. Will she ever be able to trust him—or her own judgment and sensibilities—again?

Her husband finds himself equally disoriented. This is the most important person in his life, the woman he esteems most highly and would give his life to protect. To see her so devastated takes his breath away. To know that she’s hurting because of something he’s done feels unbearable.

His own distress makes it hard for him to draw close to her in the way she needs him to right now. It makes it hard to keep hearing about her pain. Reflexively, he pulls away to give her space, hoping that the raging storm will pass, praying that her feelings will calm, and that somehow, maybe, over time, things can be good between them again. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the opposite of what she needs.

Their relationship heals as he checks his reflex to give her space and instead runs into the burning building of her distress. He helps her start to heal when he wants to hear about the dark moments in the middle of the day when they’re apart and her mind starts to play tricks on her. Their relationship keeps healing because he stays near her when she’s angry instead of retreating. When she needs her space he waits in the next room instead of leaving the house for the afternoon.

He remembers that she’s still hurting even when she acts like everything’s okay around others. He honors her reactions to sexual content on TV, in a movie, or on the news. He hangs in there through her suspicions and accusations. He comes to understand that she’s been traumatized and the world she thought she knew has disintegrated. He comes to accept that she naturally will be haunted by images both of what he’s done and what she imagines he might be capable of doing. She can’t help but keep sorting through scenarios and seeing him in those images. She’s trying to decide who he really is: the man she thought she knew or a very different one.

There are lots of ways he helps her heal. He asks if she wants a hug when she starts crying out of the blue. He keeps offering his support even though he knows that some days she will reject it. He accepts that some of the deepest wounds are reopened when they reenter the realm of sexual intimacy. He respects how hard it can be for her even if she wants to feel the closeness that sex can bring. He honors her need to call the shots and readjust her boundaries according to how she’s doing emotionally.

He has compassion for her inconsistency. One day she really is fine and feels like they’re putting it behind them… and the next day it really is right there in her face again, as fresh and large as it was the day she learned about his pornography habit. He realizes that she’s not playing games, holding it over his head, nursing her resentment. This is a genuine struggle for her, perhaps the most challenging of her life, and she’s no more of an expert through this terrain than he is.

Something happens inside of her as she witnesses his patient persistence, and then keeps experiencing it again and again. As they look deep into each others’ eyes again and again, as he lets her see what’s going on in his soul through the process of working through this problem, it is reaffirmed to her in an undeniable way: the man he truly is inside is the very one with the heart she thought she knew. Whatever role that sexual struggle played in his life, it is not as important as she is. She sees him invest his all in healing their relationship, and that makes it clear to her.

Something important happens inside for him in this process as well. As he lets himself absorb her pain, his empathy expands. As he realizes what he stands to lose, his caring for her increases. Her sensibilities about the sanctity of sex heighten his own. It’s not that he’s externalizing his conscience, but internalizing how sexuality impacts her. He grows into the man he knows she needs him to be.

How is the journey of healing is going for you and your spouse? Husbands and wives: what are you learning along the way? What have been your low points and high points? Are you stuck in a seemingly hopeless valley or looking out from a particularly inspiring peak right now? Tell us about it! We need to hear it, and you may benefit from sharing it. May the Lord keep blessing your efforts to heal your bond and draw even closer than you ever have before.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Male Vulnerability and the Mask of Addiction

This week I started working with two different men and their wives. On the surface, these men appear to have very different addictions. Yet as we have talked about their development, they have similar roots.

8 years ago Raymond was able to give up marijuana when Kelly made it a condition of accepting his marriage proposal. For the first four years of their lives together, Raymond recalls, “I didn’t need pot. We were everything to each other. That connection we had as a couple was all I needed.” Then Raymond and Kelly had their first baby. He started to feel less important to her. One weekend he felt neglected, got mad at her, and stayed out late with one of his old friends. He smoked again for the first time in years. He felt too ashamed to tell Kelly. After that it sometimes felt like he needed just a little to get through a hard weekend. Before long it was an almost daily thing again.

It’s been interesting to hear Raymond be more honest with Kelly about what he wants from her, deep down: her time and attention, to know that he’s important to her, to know that she won’t give up on him as he’s trying to get clean again. This is very different from the way Raymond reacted four years ago as he started to slide back into his addiction: “She’s going to be that way? Well, I don’t need her! I’m fine. I’ll take care of myself.” He couldn’t take care of himself... he needed regular doses of THC to do that for him. It reminds me of what my colleague, Geoff Steurer says all the time: As humans, we can’t help but reach when we’re in need. The question is, what are we going to reach for: an addictive substance, or that someone who means the most to us?

Then there was the other couple. Cheryl was drawn to Alan because of the tender-hearted, big hearted guy he was. Twelve years later she was ready to divorce him because of his anger. She talked him into taking an anger management class three years ago, but it did not help. If anger was his addiction, Alan seemed to be high all the time. When they came to our office for an intensive, week-long treatment, we talked about the time when things went from good between them to bad. Alan remembered hearing from a friend something that Cheryl had told that friend’s wife. It was something that hurt him deeply; “It was like a kick in the teeth.” Cheryl had never known how hurt Alan was. She didn’t remember saying what he’d been told she said, but acknowledged that, at the time, she very well may have. “I shared too much with that friend. I should have been working things out with Brad rather than complaining to her.”

What a relief it’s been for Brad to tell Cheryl about the deep hurt he’s felt over the years, from that initial comment, and then the immense shame he feels over his reputation with her family as “a monster” as his anger has worsened over the years. “I would rather have had you cut me loose and divorce me than to feel the way I did, that I was this guy you didn’t want, who was bringing you down, making your life worse.” Cheryl never knew about these hurt, and finds Brad so much easier to approach in loving ways when he’s “soft like this. When I can see what’s really going on behind the anger.”

It’s very powerful to hear these men talk with their wives about what they really need from them and from the relationship. It’s also been interesting to watch the difference between Cheryl’s and Kelly’s responses. Cheryl’s right there, willing and able to show Brad the love and acceptance he’s been craving from her once he lets her in on what he’s feeling beneath the anger. Kelly, by contrast, is not feeling very supportive or loving right now. I’ve been impressed that Raymond’s openness and honesty with Kelly is facilitating his recovery nonetheless. Seeing this with Raymond and other clients has changed my perspective. I used to think that we had to identify our real needs and have them met in order to overcome addition. There’s more power than I realized in merely talking about how we’re feeling to the most important person in our lives and exploring with them what our feelings tell us about what we need. The greatest power seems to be in the reaching, and not necessarily in the meeting of the need. Even if our spouse can’t or won’t in turn respond in the way we’d like them to and thus “give us what we need,” we feel better for having been real them. Being seen and heard for who we really are has a healing power in and of itself.

So get real with yourself about the vulnerable feelings that you’ve been masking by going to your addiction. Then get real with your beloved by opening up about those feelings. This process will help you heal your addiction… and more importantly, it will help you heal your relationship. May God bless your efforts!