I had lunch with M one day to talk business, and I got on with him well. We were both excited about the projects we were working on, but soon got to more personal things. I told him about the depression I kept fighting and about treatment to keep it in check. He went into a lot of things about his life I didn’t know, then paused before opening a big door into a troubled past.
He talked about his separation from his wife – how they had put everything on the table – and now were doing great again. His big problem was that he was an addict – to fantasy and sexuality. I listened hard to what he was saying, staring intently into a part of my own life I didn’t want to see.
He described what he went through each time he faced something that could trigger him, like an alcoholic staring at a drink. It was essential for him to think about what he was doing in deciding whether or not to see a sexy movie, or pick up the playboy at the barbershop or carry a conversation with a woman beyond a certain point. At these moments he could change into a different person: his arms got prickly, his heart started racing, he couldn’t think of anything else but the powerful fantasy that was starting to consume him. Interest turned rapidly to obsession, he felt a compulsive drive building, and his critical mind shut down. For a while, he would sink into his urge, spending an insatiable night at a strip club or pouring over porn or getting into a strange woman’s bed. He felt driven, his mind a hungry torrent. Thoughts, such as they were, pushed him farther along at first: What harm could there be? He couldn’t see anything wrong in what he was doing, he just needed the fantasy and the sex from time to time. But the feeling would turn more desperate as the balance tipped and he could no longer take it lightly, and lost his confidence that he could turn this on or off at will.
In his case, he said, it was a clear addiction. Self hate and depression followed each binge, and he would be disgusted with himself, push what he had done far out of his mind, sure he would never do that again – until the next time the urge was upon him. – But, he said, after one last crisis with his wife, he had been able to turn himself around. It had happened through a twelve step program, and I could see the power of his frank talk as a way of reminding himself of the basic boundaries he had to live with.
I tried hard to believe that his description had never applied to me – but I was kidding myself. Though I hadn’t done the same things and might not choose the same words, there I had been for a long period, obsessed with fantasies of escaping into a life with other women, pushing every friendship to a point where it could become an affair, though saved from total disaster by a knack for picking women friends who simply would not cross that line. The fantasy was much more about seeking the high of feeling in love – but with that the more primal urge to have power over someone. It was like needing a drug fix but one achieved through an obsession of mind and feeling, even more than physical satisfaction. The woman in the fantasy could change often – she didn’t really matter. This was not about forming a relationship, it was about satisfying powerful drives that I did not even try to control.
I gave no thought to the destructive things that might happen to my wife and family or the women I knew. There was no thinking, only finding the excitement of the emotional high I needed. Yet, like my friend, as soon as the craziness of the fantasy became apparent, I would be consumed with guilt, or more than that, a kind of self-loathing. A deep depression would take hold, and I would scarcely be able to look at myself in a mirror. And also like M, it took a crisis with my wife to finally get me to scrape bottom and see the fantasies for what they were. That was horribly painful – there was a long day crying, a deep shame and the inner pain of facing something about myself that I had never wanted to see. But it was finally liberating too. Deep down I knew that this was what recovering life was all about. I began to find a calmer center that would enable me to move on.
Have you had that feeling of a powerful drive taking over and of your own reckless consent to give way, as you imagine how harmless it would be to indulge yourself – just this once?