“It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that you’ll do things differently.”
I had a professor who later became my clinical supervisor. He was a jolly guy. He’d start classes by reading the “Real Fact” from the inside of Snapple drink lids and telling slightly corny jokes.
“Make me one with everything,” commanded a Buddhist monk as he walked into a pizza parlor. In asking for his change he was told, “It’s already within you.”
His phone would go off in class. The ring tone was “More than a Feeling” by Boston. Apropos for a psychologist. If his age wasn’t easily measured by his appearance, it certainly was by his choice of music and other cultural references. He’d quote The Blues Brothers or Animal House and I would think to myself, I wonder if I wear my age as readily as he does?
Of course I do. That’s the cycle of life. Despite our best efforts we become fossilized. But as I get older I’m learning that being a fossil may not be such a bad thing. Fossils tell us how similar organisms once lived…and died. They are our guides to what may be our own fates. To have a fossil in your life is to know where you may be going. To become a fossil is to give back.
My supervisor was full of catch phrases, themselves smaller fossils of a much larger fossil, like tiny teeth or metatarsals. The greatest of these catch phrases was, “Poor decisions are decisions made poorly.”
When I first heard him say this, probably in reference to a client’s recent binge with alcohol and prostitutes, I disregarded it as a small rock or seed, not as the priceless fossil that it really was. It wasn’t until he repeated this phrase a number of times, probably in reference to clients’ recent binges with alcohol and prostitutes, that I began to clear off the dust and examine it.
“Think of the worst decisions you have made in your life, Steven.” I thought of when I went to work for a slave-driving dude ranch owner in Wyoming at the age of eighteen and when, as a filmmaker in my twenties, I made an overly dark and self-serious feature film which wasn’t well-received (I still like the movie). “Now,” continued my supervisor, “Who was involved in helping you make those decisions?”
When I thought about it, I realized that no one was. Well, maybe I passed the possibilities by some people but I didn’t really want to hear their opinions. And the times in my life in which I have used porn? Was anyone involved in those decisions? Certainly not. Did I regret it? Yes. It didn’t add anything to my life, and may have even taken something away.
“My mind is a dangerous place,” my supervisor said in summation. “I never go there alone.” His point? The human mind is a master at deception. It can construct illusions and fantasies about which we are unaware, illusions and fantasies that if left unexamined can lead us to terrible places. The five-hour porn binge? I’m just connecting with myself, giving myself a little treat. The night with the prostitute? She really understands me, and can see that I’m special. The affair? We’re just friends.
“Help your clients play their fantasies through,” noted my supervisor. “Often they have no idea the fantasies have no basis in reality, let alone that they exist.”
I’ve learned that as a therapist my job is as “party-pooper.” Not a very fun job description, I suppose. The hope is that in helping my clients spoil the party, ruin the illusion or fantasy, they will begin to integrate themselves, become the same person in all situations not one person when alone and someone else when they are at work, with friends, or with family.
Compartmentalization is the opposite of integration. It’s having the ability to spend a day out with your affair partner and then return home to your wife and kids as if nothing is awry; all is normal. The shocker comes when the affair is found out, the prostitute charges are discovered, or the Internet browser history is culled through. Then reality hits, and it hits hard.
We’re able to compartmentalize and live in illusion and fantasy because quite often no one is involved in our decision-making processes. This doesn’t mean that other people need to be constantly in our stuff but if you’ve discovered that certain behavior is adversely affecting your relationships or profession then maybe its time to try something different. You may think you’re good at making decisions, but that’s an illusion in and of itself. The consequences of your behavior are telling you otherwise.
“Accountability partner” is a term that’s kicked around a lot in Christian circles. I hear it on a regular basis, especially in the groups I lead. “I need to get an accountability partner,” one will say, or “My accountability partner tells me I need to…”
Sometimes I think people get an accountability partner as a badge to demonstrate their sincerity to change, even if they aren’t really that sincere about it. Or they get an accountability partner as a bunch of garlic to ward off the werewolf of sexual temptation. The trouble with this thinking is that the werewolf isn’t “out there.” The werewolf is in you.
Not to sound too much like a therapist here, but I also think people who get accountability partners do so in an effort to recreate the dynamics of their parent/child relationship. The accountability partner is there to make decisions for you, shame you, judge you, belittle you, or otherwise do for you what you should be doing for yourself. The accountability partner becomes the police, or God in His Thrown of Judgment from whom you seek absolution, or punishment.
This is yet another illusion. Whoever it is in whom you confide has his own life to live. Despite the fantasies you may have about him, the truth is he is concerned about his own family, career, faith-life, or mental health. Either that or he is in a co-dependent relationship with you and wants you to be sick so that he can feel needed.
However you look at it, if you picked the right accountability partner he or she can help you make better decisions. And if he or she can’t help you make better decisions he or she can at least be a mirror reflecting the good or bad decision you’re about to make.
I often joke with clients that I’m sure that if they called their brother and told him, “I’m in an alley downtown and about to have sex with a prostitute behind a dumpster,” your brother wouldn’t need to say much in response for you to realize that what you’re about to do is disastrous. Forget calling. If you took just a minute to compose a text with that same information, even without sending it, you’d probably see how unhealthy what you’re about to do is.
Easier said than done. Why is it so difficult to include people in our decision-making processes, especially when it comes to compulsive behavior? There appear to be two answers. The first answer is because, in truth, we don’t really want to change. The second answer is more complicated. The same shame and fear of vulnerability that leads us into our fantasy life is the same shame and fear of vulnerability that prevents us from relying on healthy and reciprocal relationships in times of need.
As a therapist – who also happens to be a human being – I can often fall into the habit of linear thinking. I do this more frequently when I’m tired or have too many of my own stresses going on in life. When I get like this I will forget that whatever goal I am helping a client work toward may not actually be the goal he or she is interested in achieving. Truthfully, the client may not even be aware that the assumed goal isn’t what he or she is after. After months and months of a client returning to his or her behavior without much progress I will often take a step back and, without judgment or ridicule, ask in the most genuine tone possible, “Do you want to stop using pornography?” Or prostitutes, or other people, or alcohol, or drugs…
If I’ve done my job right I will have created a space safe enough for the client to explore whether he or she really does want to change his or her behavior. Oftentimes he or she wanting to change is in itself an illusion or fantasy. Often what comes out is the realization that he or she isn’t ready to let go of his or her substance of abuse. And that’s fine. We’ll work on other things until he or she gets to that point, if he or she does.
But there are some clients who state rather emphatically that they do want to change their behavior; they do hate what their behavior has done to them and their relationships and careers. They are exasperated and don’t know what to do after repeatedly returning to their substance of abuse. It is in these times in which I will ask point-blank, “Whom are you including in your decision-making processes?”
Upon asking questions like this I am quite frequently faced with either abject resignation or instant dread. I can see it in my clients’ eyes. You mean I need to invite people into my world? their expressions seem to say. And I will probe, “What’s going on inside of you right now? What are you thinking? What are you feeling?”
Most of the time, they do not know what they are thinking or feeling. They don’t know because it is exactly this sensation that they have been trying to avoid for many years through their compulsive behavior. With a little bit of exploration into the gooey, sticky, bundle of emotions that is beneath this question is a deep fear of having to rely on someone else, especially in moments of shame and weakness.
This is the werewolf of sexual temptation. Not pornography. Not strippers. Not prostitutes. Not anonymous sex. The werewolf of sexual temptation is the shadow self, that part of ourselves that is walled-off and fearful, that part of ourselves that is five or seven or twelve-years old that is deathly afraid of asking someone for help with our pain or hurt or mistakes because we fear we will be ridiculed, laughed at, rejected, or worse, physically hurt.
To recover from compulsive behavior isn’t necessarily to create blockades against access to your substance of abuse, although there may be a season early on where this is needed. To recover from compulsive behavior is to be willing to make yourself vulnerable to a trusted other who can disconfirm deeply engrained beliefs that you are bad, defective, or unworthy of intimate connection. This must happen before you act out and is the purpose of an accountability partner. You contact your accountability partner to help you make decisions that confirm your goodness.
It is rare that I check emails in the middle of the night but I did a few months ago. An email came in with the subject heading, “Private: bad night.” It was from Donny, a client of mine. “I had an awful night and need your guidance,” the email read. “I made a terrible decision after a couple drinks…I don’t know where to go from here. I feel like I just did something that completely ruins all of my progress.”
The email went on from there, filled with self-recrimination and abuse. I immediately texted Donny to see if he wanted to talk on the phone and added, “God doesn’t stop working in your life because you make a poor decision. Each day God gives you new choices and they all lead to redemption.”
OK, that was my own theology, but I felt compelled to offer it at the time.
We didn’t talk on the phone but our weekly session was in a few days so we met up then. Filled with shame and regret Donny explained to me what had happened. He had gone out with another member of our Tuesday night recovery group, just to connect. They had a few drinks. When they parted ways, Donny felt a crash of loneliness. He had been estranged from his family and felt deep isolation. A strip club was nearby. He entered, talked with a woman working there, and paid for a lap dance.
Donny had been working hard to change his behavior and felt like he was making progress but for him his behavior had disconfirmed all of that. How can he immediately go from spending time with a Friend in Recovery to doing something he had never done before in his life?
Well, there’s a lot to explore in there but this post isn’t about most of that. What it is about is including people in your decision-making processes. I’m not sure whether or not I asked Donny about why he didn’t contact anyone before he went into the strip club. Yes, that needed to be explored but at this moment in his emotional process “coulda, shoulda, woulda” was counterproductive. What seemed worth exploring now was what it would be like for him to take his current shame, fear, and vulnerability to a trusted other – the same process he would have gone through if he had contacted an accountability partner before he acted out.
Our individual session was on a Tuesday afternoon, which meant that in a few hours Donny would be attending group. A prompt on our group Meeting Response Sheet is, “State one lie you have told someone in the past week or a secret you are keeping from someone else or the group.” I asked Donny if he was planning on sharing with the group what had happened the previous weekend.
He hesitated. He was unsure. I asked why. He said, in part, that the man with whom he had gone out to drinks would be there. He’d feel ashamed, humiliated to share what he did only minutes after being with him. I encouraged him. “The point of the group, Donny, is for everyone to have a safe place to share the darkest parts of themselves, a place to shed light on their shadow selves without judgment,” I said. “Take the chance to have your vulnerability met with something other than ridicule. This is the process of change, not brute force or will power.”
At group, I anticipated Donny’s turn with the Meeting Response Sheet, keeping an eye both on him and the man with whom he had shared drinks. Donny skipped most of the earlier prompts and shared what had happened. He was uneasy and vulnerable, keeping his eyes down. I could see this was a painful experience for him. He shared, and that was it. His friend showed no signs of disillusionment or disgust, only acceptance.
Later I discovered that Donny had approached his friend before group. They had had a discussion about what had happened. His friend told him that he had done similar things before in his life and that he knows the feelings of shame that comes along with it. He was ok, his friend said, and loved.
No, this was not The Great Awakening for Donny. This incident wasn’t the turning point that made him sober and changed his life forever. But like little bricks that make up a large building Donny had mortared another one into the wall instead of taking another one or two out. And that is what the process of recovery from compulsive behavior is about – the gradual construction of a mighty edifice built on the day-by-day inclusion of healthy, sober people in your life, people who don’t live in fantasy and can provide inspiration for how you can carry the often-overwhelming burden of reality.
If there is a major turning point in recovery, however, it is the moment when one realizes that the process of destroying illusion and fantasy is meant for before acting out, not after. Before Donny acted out, he felt alone. Behind that loneliness was a deep feeling of shame, that he was inherently unworthy of intimate human connection, that there was no one who could care enough about him to help him with his real needs, to even help him make better decisions.
For a good while I saw my supervisor every week and every time we met I would ask him how he was doing. Each week he would give me the same response. “I have no complaints whatsoever,” he’d say. I never believed this. Who has no complaints whatsoever? I frequently have plenty.
Part of why he had nothing to complain about was age and perspective. Sure, just like I was becoming, his tastes were somewhat fossilized in the past, but the flip side of becoming fossilized is that we gain perspective. Part of his perspective was that we are never so wise that we do not require the input of friends and family when we need to make decisions. And these decisions about which we consult don’t have to be monumental like getting married or buying a house. Often the decisions that we regret not having consulted on are those that seem so small at the time, but have devastating affects on the remainder of our lives.
My supervisor had nothing to complain about because he was integrated. He didn’t lie and was able to account for all of the behavior he had engaged in his life. He just laid it out on the table and said, “This is me.” Maybe that’s part of being a fossil too, there’s no flesh left to contort and distort; you’re just down to the basic elements of existence, you’re down to carbon. Mostly carbon. Being carbon may not appear to be as exciting as being flesh, but it’s truth and reality and that, believe it or not, is to be most alive. It is also to be closer to God.