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!

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