I wrote the post Change, Part I because I knew it needed to be written. I knew it needed to be written because after years of working with individuals who were trying desperately to break free of their bad habits it was important to sketch out the essence of what they were going through. With knowledge comes power – power to experience our situation for what it is, power to make choices that confirm our goodness.
My hope now is that it made sense. Not just logical sense but emotional sense, intuitive sense, the sense that you can feel and claim, sense that you can apply to your life in real ways.
While I was writing that post I couldn’t help but reflect on Allen, a client I had been seeing not too long ago. For many reasons his experience seemed like the perfect corollary to that post. Of course, any life could be a good corollary, including my own, but his seemed particularly piquant because, at middle-age, it was striking how much he continued to struggle to rid himself of “bad habits” and, more importantly, live a life of his own.
Allen was raised in a very religious community on the East Coast. He was one of the oldest of seven siblings. Living in a two-bedroom home there was always commotion and turmoil. One of his earliest memories was his mother admonishing him for being too inquisitive and difficult. To bring this message home she physically beat him.
Like all children brought into this world, Allen wanted to feel included. He wanted to express his unique gifts of curiosity, energy, and friendship and have the expression of those gifts be mirrored. Unfortunately, whenever those gifts were expressed in ways that affected the stability of his family or school life he was abused to ensure that he remained not only within the boundaries of what his parents expected or needed from him but also within the boundaries of what his school and religious community expected or needed from him.
Throughout his childhood, Allen kept himself in lockstep with his family and community whether he agreed with everything they did or not. He learned at a young age that in order to receive that precious and vital experience of love and inclusion he was required to bend to the will of his mother, his school, his religious community, and even his friends; in fact, he was sexually abused by a friend. Bending to their will, or giving and giving and giving in the expectation of receiving was the compromise solution that allowed Allen not only to feel included, but most importantly to feel as if he existed.
In Allen’s community, marriages were arranged and in his early twenties Allen was matched with a woman whom he found moderately attractive, both physically and mentally. To make the marriage work, Allen gave and gave and gave. Allen’s wife and he had four children together, children whom Allen loved and mostly raised. But there was no amount of giving to his wife that would allow him to get the love that he needed. His wife dominated their relationship and it became strained.
Allen did everything his mind was trained to do in order to get that precious gift of inclusion and acceptance and it didn’t work. Allen felt alone and lonely. Perhaps more importantly, Allen experienced a profound dread. Based on his experience with his parents, there was only one pathway to love and if that pathway was blocked, as it was with his wife, his brain didn’t think, “Ok, we’ll go about this another way,” it devised an exit strategy to deal with his dread. This exit strategy was through porn and, eventually, prostitutes. When he was using either of these he perceived that he was connected, that he wouldn’t “float off” into nothingness.
Because of his religious upbringing, and what he had been taught about God, Allen didn’t like his behavior and he wanted to change it. A charismatic pastor had formed a congregation in Allen’s neighborhood and Allen joined. As he set up events, prepared food, and even funneled much of his hard-earned cash into activities and charity – that is, gave and gave and gave – Allen felt included again, and encouraged. He was getting the love he needed. He felt grounded again.
And then it came out that this pastor was misappropriating funds and taking advantage of a few of the community’s members. Unrepentant, the leader walked away from the community and ostracized Allen. Allen’s marriage was dead and his religious community had failed him. He experienced a deep depression centered on the perception that his fundamental needs for connection would never be met.
Panicked, Allen ran away form his hometown and moved where he had some acquaintances. If he couldn’t gain a sense of grounding, being, and connection from real sources his brain was going to get them through illusion. Not only did Allen continue to use porn and hire prostitutes but he also let a prostitute live with him. In other words, he gave and gave and gave. When this prostitute was arrested and removed from his home, to say Allen was crushed would be to devalue the reality of what was really going on inside of him.
If the one coping strategy that Allen had developed at a young age to feel as if he mattered – giving and giving and giving – didn’t work, to his unconscious mind it didn’t just mean that he had to start over, it meant that his most fundamental need for connection would never be met.
Late one night Allen ingested a bottle of sedatives. Just before passing out, however, something inside of him – I’d like to see it as his soul – pushed aside all of the other voices crowding it out and inspired him to dial 911. Allen wanted to live.
Allen had a friend who was living in Los Angeles who helped him leave the East Coast and the conditions under which he was living. This is when I started working with him. For months Allen was deeply depressed. Compounding his other concerns, his wife had made it impossible for him to communicate with his kids and he missed them terribly. During group sessions Allen would often stare silently out the window with nothing to say.
Allen gradually improved. Each day he added new windows of hope to his routine, little things like watching a bird in the air or petting a dog. His brain chemistry started to change to the point where he was increasingly stable. He read books on faith and eventually was able to enjoy the California sunshine, palm trees, neighborhood walks, and the new friends he had met.
But every week when I would see him he would always start with the same comment, “I’m not doing very well.” Sure, he had improved and was living a much more robust and connected life than the one he had on the East Coast. His faith life was sustaining him more, he wasn’t using porn or hiring prostitutes, he loved Los Angeles (yes, those people exist), he had friends who accepted him as he was, and he had a job. But every week he entered his sessions feeling depressed.
What was becoming increasingly apparent to me, and eventually Allen, was that although his parents– and by extension of them his ex-wife and ex-pastor – were 3,000 miles away, Allen felt the unconscious need to remain connected to them, as if on an invisible tether or anchor. If he did to himself what they had done to him, if he put himself in the psychological space in which he was trained to be – small, pleasing to others, and depressed – then he would feel as if he were connected, feel as if he mattered, feel as if he existed.
How many of us do this in our own lives? So desperate are we to feel fundamentally connected that we will deny our very value and worth in order to put ourselves in that emotional space that our original caregivers created for us. It is this emotional space that gives us the illusion that we are connected and when this emotional space becomes too painful to bear, or that no amount of self-denial will allow us to inhabit it, we turn to anything that will provide us with the illusion that we matter, that in someone else’s eyes we exist. This illusion is porn, anonymous sex, strip clubs, prostitutes.
The hard work with which Allen is faced, indeed, the hard work with which we are all faced, is taking the time, either through prayer, journaling, meditation, or therapy, to get in touch with what we are feeling. If we are feeling negative emotions such as hopelessness or depression it is our spiritual journey to start to make connections between this and the person we felt we needed to be in order to feel fundamentally connected and then start on the courageous journey of finding a new fundamental connection, one that enriches and supports.
Initially this journey will be harrowing, as many of us have never been on it before. If we psychologically cut the tether or sever the anchor connecting us to our early caregivers – or their surrogates found in spouses or friends – we fear nothingness. We fear the abyss, the void. If they don’t have our backs, who ultimately will? What we need to address is that whether we fight to maintain the illusion of control or not, ultimately we will never have control. This is the essence of life. But the nothingness we perceive is not nothingness at all; it is God.
To come face to face with God is not necessarily to follow the rules and regulations that have been given to us through our faith traditions, as Allen tried so desperately to do in joining a new congregation. To come face to face with God is to step into the unknown where we are no longer relying on the illusions of connectedness found in pleasing others or watching other people have sex. To come face to face with God is to begin to live our own lives and embrace the freedom that we have to be ourselves. As we do this we not only trust that everything will work out as it should, but soon discover that it always will.