Monday, September 30, 2013

The "Mental Redo"

Many equate being "in recovery" with being completely porn-free. If they blow it and have a slip, they conclude that they'll be back on track only after they've gone a few days--or perhaps even weeks--free of porn again.

That's an overly simplistic view. Think about how discouraging this perspective would be for someone who's just starting to try to get on the right track after viewing porn on a daily basis.

There are better indicators of whether we're in recovery or not. Either way we might relapse, perhaps even at the same rate to begin with. Whether we're in recovery or not we will likely regret that we lapsed, want to make a better choice next time, and fully intend to.

However, here's where a key difference emerges: when we're in recovery we do something distinctive after we lapse.

We probably won't be overly dramatic about it. We'll simply keep working our program. We may take notes on what we learned in enemy territory. We may report back to our therapist, sponsor, group, or a supportive loved one.

We're more able to take a slip in stride because we have a plan that takes it into account.

This is so different from someone who's not in recovery. They can't take a lapse in stride because their plan was to quit porn and never go back. Simple, straightforward, but unfortunately not very realistic for most people. Far from a twelve-step program, they've put their faith in a one-step program.

I strongly advocate working a recovery program over simply trying really hard to quit and never go back.

The mental redo is one example of a very powerful post-slip practice, and it takes just a few minutes to implement.

First, rewind and determine a point (or two or three) where you could have made a choice that would have led in a different direction. Then mentally practice, again and again (four or five times), taking that better route.

My client, Melissa, is 17 years old. She last lapsed when she was feeling lonely, frustrated, and angry one afternoon while alone in her room. She battled the urge for a while and then finally got on her phone and watched porn.

As she sat in my office she identified the moment when the urge first hit as the best potential turning point if and when she faces that situation again. I had her go back to that moment in her mind and imagine handling it differently. She closed her eyes and said, "I'm there. Okay, I know I shouldn't try to stay in there alone and win. So I get up off my bed and walk out of my room. I put my phone down on the kitchen counter and go find someone in the family to chat with. Yeah, I tell my brother about my bad day. He's always great when I reach out, I'm just reluctant to. So then we chat for a while and maybe watch something together. Wow, I did it! Give myself a high five." She clapped her hands together and smiled.

I had her run through that same imagined way of handling the situation again in her mind. Then I assigned her to mentally do it again on her own three times later that afternoon.

I've said it before on this blog: some key, very powerful parts of the brain that don't know the difference between imagination and reality. In fact, both Melissa and I got the chills as she imagined aloud handling things better than she had originally. As though it had been a real victory. And in a way, it was: her mind was getting the hang of it, leveling the mental jungle to make way for a different, better path.

A tennis player may curse themselves for missing a shot. They may hope they never make that error again. But it's also helpful to take a moment right after the error to mentally practice hitting the ball exactly the way they wish they would have. Swing the racket once or twice the right way. Let the body get the hang of doing it correctly. That's the same principle you're putting into practice when you implement a mental redo for the sake of your porn recovery.

If this post makes sense to you, make a commitment to yourself right now to run through a mental redo four or five times after each slip, relapse, or close call you have throughout the next month. By then you'll be able to tell whether this practice is giving you any traction against the addiction.

Then, let us know what you find. It's one thing for me to describe these practices; it's even more powerful for fellow readers to hear directly from you about what works and what doesn't.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Breaking the Trance of Temptation

What would you pay to be dragged around a warehouse for 15 minutes listening to an old, familiar song on a repeating loop in a slow moving cart guided by a chain hooked to a track in the floor with 14 other people in your cart, with other customer-filled carts behind you and in front of you for as far as you can see? How long would you wait in line for such a privilege? How far would you travel?

What if I told you that the whole time you'd also get to look at two dimensional cardboard cut-outs of buildings and landmarks from around the world and watch simplistic dolls mechanically “dance” to the tune that kept looping?

Getting excited yet?

A couple of years ago our entire family loaded into our Suburban and drove for 16 hours. The next morning we woke up and shelled out hard-earned money for admission to a nicely landscaped lot full of huge warehouse-like building with attractive facades. Then we eagerly waited for almost an hour to ride “It’s a Small World.”

No one complained because we were in a trance--a trance that convinced us it was all worth it. And we’re looking forward to going again, as soon as we can.

Look at the ride on Google Earth: it really does wind through a warehouse. So why is it a delightful experience instead of a drag? None of the riders really think they’re going around the world. But they’re willing to suspend their disbelief for a few minutes and buy into the trance. And there are a few key elements that help foster that process.

What if instead of winding through the dark, the lights in the ride shone brightly? What if there was no water-filled flume and you realized you were being dragged instead of floating? What if the speakers hissed with static and the soundtrack had glitches? What if the paint had worn off the landscape features and the cardboard underneath showed through? What if the attendant loading you onto the boat were smoking a cigarette and wearing worn out jeans and a Hurley tee shirt instead of a crisp sailor’s outfit?

It often takes many different elements, brought together in the right combination, to foster a trance. As we experience them all together in real time, they have a much more powerful effect.

We can identify the elements and see them for what they are—just ingredients that each make it just a little easier to buy into an illusion. As we extract them one by one from the whole and view each one separately, we can check our tendency to get swept up in and compelled by process we’re experiencing.

The other day my client, Richard, went through this process with a sexual craving that had led to a recent relapse. At the time the opportunity to get online and search for something delightfully erotic had felt so magical that he just couldn’t pass it up. The trance of temptation had a hold of him.

Once he got started, instead of delight he’d experienced a frantic sense of searching and a looming, just-around-the-corner guilt that was kept barely at bay only by the speed at which he raced through image after image. Sexual arousal mingled with anxiety and coagulated into a mess of empty but still throbbing intensity. Because he’d experienced it so often, there was an inevitability to the crash of guilt, shame, discouragement, and bruised confidence that followed in the wake of his frantic escapade through the virtual brothel.

Afterward, looking back, he picked out a few of the elements that had come together to catalyze his drop into the trance:
  • He was recovering from the flu and still felt tired and achy
  • The day before he’d missed his train stop and felt like an idiot
  • Thus he missed most of his biology class and had to borrow notes
  • He’s been bummed out to discover that his classes very interesting this semester
  • He gets impatient with professors who aren’t very good teachers
  • He’d stayed up late playing flag football with some buddies and was exhausted
  • All this homework means less time for what he wants to do
  • He bought a suspense novel he wants to read but hasn’t had time to crack it
  • He’s gotten lazy about cleaning up after himself so his place is messier than usual
  • He gets stressed out that he’s not bringing in income on the days he watches his young son
  • He still felt bad about giving in last week after doing well for almost two months
  • When temptation gets strong he feels trapped, out-of-control, and hopeless
  • He’s sick of hurting his wife and sure she’s sick of getting hurt
  • All this leaves him feeling unsettled—it’s a heartache that won’t go away
  • He feels sad about his situation and scared he might not be able to improve it
  • His wife is caught up in her new internship and paying less attention to him 
  • He wanted comfort and soothing but she hasn’t been available
  • Some images from his latest lapse kept popping back into his mind 
  • He discovered the internet had somehow been unblocked on his iPad

Any one or two of these elements wouldn’t have been enough to sweep Richard up. It would be like adding a great sound system and sailor suits to an otherwise lame ride at an amusement park. You’d still be too cognizant of the fact that you’re being dragged on a chain in a cart behind a bunch of other carts. You wouldn’t pay money or wait in line for the privilege. But all together these elements led him to that strange but familiar place where he concluded, “It’s futile to keep fighting these urges. And that path is so tantalizing. What the heck, might as well give in.”

What good does it do to separate out these elements after the fact? It helps the mind practice recognizing them for what they are. Then, in the future, when these factors start to come into play again, we will have a greater capacity to see them for what they are: just aspects of life that, whether troubling, upsetting, or mundane, are nonetheless simply a part of the rough-and-tumble life we are blessed/doomed to live. Certainly not justifications to go search for sexually arousing pictures on the internet to heighten the pleasure of masturbating.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Isn't It Normal to Fantasize about Sex with Someone Else?

The other day a client asked, “Isn’t it normal to fantasize about having sex with people besides your spouse?”

Rather than argue about what’s common or typical, I’d rather talk about what’s healthy and helpful.

My mentor Craig Berthold often told clients, “Anyone can have an affair. It’s easy. All you have to do is mentally practice having an affair first thing in the morning when you wake up for two minutes while you’re still lying in bed. Then fantasize about it again when you’re lying in bed at night before you fall asleep. Before long you’ll be having sex with someone besides your spouse in real life.”

This brings up a great question: Why would we permit our brain to repeatedly practice imagining behavior that we never want it to carry out in real life?

Fantasizing amounts to mental practice. We may justify our fantasies with the argument that, “It’s only imaginary.” But that minimizes just how powerful our imaginations are.

Those research subjects who spent half their practice time actually shooting free throws and half their practice time “only” imagining shooting free throws in the end shot a higher percentage of free throws than those who spent all their time shooting real free throws.

Whenever you practice something mentally, you’re training yourself. Mental training is powerful; it enables us to better pull off the actual behavior in real life.

I once saw an interview with a police officer who was asked how he was able to handle an intense situation in a calm, cool, and effective way. He saved an untold number of lives because in the middle of a night out with his wife he was able to quickly get back into “cop mode” and take down an armed maniac. He said, in essence, “I didn’t have to figure out how to handle the situation. My training kicked in. That’s what we train for: so that in situations like this we can do what we need to do instantaneously and automatically.”

I was so impressed, but then I was also spooked. His words reminded me of so many of my clients whose porn use escalated into real-life sexual acting out. They didn’t one day wake up and choose, “Today is the day I’ll cross the line from fantasy to reality.” So often, looking back, they felt like it “just happened.” But it didn’t just happen. Their brain had been practicing how to be unfaithful over and over again for years.

Then, the wrong time, the wrong place, and the wrong person presented themselves. Sometimes the act of sexual betrayal is described as feeling “almost surreal” when it actually happens, or “as though I was having an out of body experience” or “in a dream-like trance.” That fascinates and troubles me: Sexual fantasies are compelling only to the degree that a part of the brain is convinced we’re having the actual experience. And then the actual experience becomes easier because it feels like nothing more than fantasyland. Mind-blowing, isn’t it?

Call me a prude. Accuse me of setting an unrealistically high standard. All I know is what I see every day: how hard it is to rein back the power of fantasy once it’s been given free reign. I see the price couples and their families pay. My clients go through too many boxes of Kleenex in my office for me to take fantasy lightly. I’ll encourage the higher bar; the stricter, safer standard on this one.