“My ears still ring with the foreign cry that had been my own voice.” –Annie Dillard
* * *
I am not OCD, but I still have compulsions. I think all of us do to some degree. Sometimes, even though I know that I locked the front door, I have to go back and make sure. If I see a piece of trash on the ground, I have to pick it up.
I can sometimes get through such compulsions by pushing them away until I’m at a point in which the action is no longer feasible. Then I am able to forget about it.
* * *
I started looking at porn when I was thirteen. I quickly became addicted, but I have been totally sober now for over a year and had slowly decreased by consumption for years before that. In late middle school and through high school, I was isolated in this knowledge and was unable to share it with anyone. At times, I would feel an overwhelming compulsion to spill the beans to my mom or dad, especially if I was alone with one of them in the car and we had time to talk. But I always managed to push the compulsions away.
When I was sixteen, I told my friend Drew about the porn addiction. That was the first time I had mentioned it to anyone of my own volition (I had been caught earlier by my parents, but we didn’t talk about it after the confrontation). I felt immense relief. The pit in my stomach that formed every time I felt the compulsion was gone.
Until the next time I looked at porn. But now I had a group of guys to walk through my addition with, so every Sunday night for two years I was able to fulfill my compulsion; I was able to release the pit in my stomach.
* * *
Up to this point, the compulsion was a good thing. It was a signal that I should cleanse my conscience, that I should seek absolution and support from others.
But then a curious thing happened. I would feel the familiar pit in my stomach, and thus the compulsion to confess, but there would be nothing to confess. I had done nothing wrong, and yet I would be overwhelmed by guilt. I spent a lot of my time in this condition, compelled to confess something I had not done. My brain went in circles, trying to discover if my stomach knew something that I didn’t, that I had sinned and forgotten. I was eaten up inside once more.
* * *
During my engagement to Amanda, and so far in our marriage, transparency had been essential. We have had to be honest with each other about our thoughts, feelings, and desires. And I have also had to confess the (few) times when I looked at porn while engaged, and the occasional time since marriage that I have been sorely tempted to. And this transparency, this honesty, has worked very well.
Until the compulsion came back. This time, though, I feel compelled to confess every time that I notice another woman, or see too much leg on a TV show, or glance over and notice a friend.
But that is not healthy. Because noticing another woman, seeing too much leg on a TV show, or glancing over and happening to notice a friend is absolutely uncontrollable. It is beyond my ability to restrict.
Should I stare? Begin to fantasize? Seek out these views? Absolutely not! But I would not be a straight man if my eyes, faster than my brain understood, noticed a woman’s femininity.
But lately I’ve been feeling the pit in my stomach and the compulsion to confess. And its harming me. And its harming Amanda.
It’s harming me because it continues to reaffirm the idea that I can only gain worth from the validation of another, even my wife. This is the root cause of my occasional compulsion to confess something I did not do: to gain her affirmation. And it harms me because it criminalizes actions over which I have no control. I don’t watch movies with nudity, but I can’t really block out every attractive woman in my life. I can refuse to dwell on what I see, but I can’t not see it.
And it is harmful to Amanda because, despite the innocence with which I notice other women, dwelling on that fact, and being subject to the constant knowledge of it, is emotionally problematic because it makes her feel like she has to compete for my attention and it makes her doubt her own implicit trust in me, as strong as it is. In constantly asking Amanda to absolve me of my guilt and thus validate me, I become a vampire sucking away her emotional strength for my own consumption (which, let’s be honest, is fine in certain circumstances, just not when there is no good reason for it).
* * *
I suppose, in the end, what I need to do is be transparent about the fact that my psyche is screwed up by my compulsions. I cannot always trust my emotions.
I need to learn better how to process some of my own crap before running to Amanda with everything (she is actually a good model for how to do this).
And I should be willing to own up to the idea that I am not okay, but I will be. And we don’t always have to talk about it.
* * *
As Annie Dillard notes, we are able to alienate ourselves. Not every emotion or compulsion I feel is me, or at least the me that I care about. Self-reflection is essential.