Monday, February 28, 2011

A steep hillside vegetable garden terraced in Marin.

About 10 or 15 years ago Fine Gardening Magazine ran an article on developing a vegetable garden on a steep site.

I had just finished such a garden and was happy to send them the plans and some photo’s of the garden which they published.

The steep downward facing slope was terraced into 3 main tiers.
This project was a collaboration between myself and Matthew Farnsworth Landscape Contractor.
We used rough redwood boards to form the raised terraces and also built in a double compost bin, storage for a lawn mower and long handled tools.
We also built in a simple cold frame and a potting bench.
The path that leads to the fenced in vegetable garden is lined with espaliered apple trees and the arbors are planted with Thompson seedless grapes.

Below is the illustration :

From Potager Gardens

1. Double compost bins
2. Lawn mower storage
3. Long handle tool storage
4. Raised vegetable bed
5. Upper raised vegetable bed with built in seat
6. Lower level fruit trees
7. Cold frame - get an early start on veggie seedlings
8. Potting bench with sink and storage
9. Cut flower bed.

A photo of the work bench, raised bed with squash, the cutting garden and the grape covered entry arbor.

From Potager Gardens

This garden is now going into its 16 th year . The property has changed hands but I can still see the garden from the street and it is still pushing out food, flowers and herbs at a steady rate. It’s nice to see that it has been a valued resource over all these years.

Friday, February 25, 2011

How to Neutralize the Urge to View Porn

Try breathing and noticing.

It doesn't always work (dang it), but it's a good weapon to have in your arsenal for when you're ambushed by temptation.

Whenever I teach about methods to use in the heat of the moment here on this blog, in a podcast, or in person with clients, "breathing and noticing" is the method that I always get the most positive feedback on.

(I take that back. People have the most success with a method that's not from the realm of psychology. It's a spiritual tactic: the surrender prayer. Surrendering your obsession or desire to your Higher Power. Most people don't learn that one from me, they learn it in their twelve-step group. But I will certainly suggest it to clients if they're religious at all but don't attend twelve-step meetings.)

Of all of the psychological methods I teach people, people seem to get the most mileage out of this simple mindfulness exercise, breathing and noticing:

Feel an urge? Take a nice, full breath. As you exhale notice something you can see. Pick one point in your entire visual field: right where the wire meets the telephone pole outside your window. Notice exactly what it looks like this very second. What color is it? Is it lighter or darker than what's around it? Okay, take another nice, full breath. Close your eyes and notice something you can hear. What, exactly does it sound like at this very second? High or low pitched? Constant or discrete? Is it a steady or undulating sound? That's good. Now breathe and rub lightly on some surface with your forefingers of your dominant hand. Touch your sleeve or the armrest of your chair. Notice its texture as if you were touching it for the first time.

Good! It's taken you less than a minute to try it out. Repeat the process one more time for good measure.

It may not seem like you just meditated, but breathing and noticing is actually is a simple mindfulness exercise. More and more research is demonstrating that mindfulness can be a valuable aid in recovery from addiction.

But why? It's such a simple process! How does it work? Why does it help?

The processing capacities of the human brains is limited. It is decent at multi-tasking, but sometimes must select between two thoughts.

As the brain selects where to devote attention, all possible topics are not treated equally; our brains are biased. Thought content with the highest emotional salience is high in the pecking order. That's why addictive urges sometimes win out over the spreadsheet I should be creating or even thoughts about how much I love my family.

However, there's something that the brain knows is an even higher priority than an emotionally charged memory or future opportunity. The brain operates according to what neuroscientists have dubbed the "Reality First Principle." This means that "what's real now" gets highest priority.

Nervous system avenues can only handle so much traffic, and when we're focused on something that's real now it's as though the traffic cop in the brain holds up her palm to that plan about how we could pursue sex right now or that memory of a sexual experience we've had before. She says, "The avenue of consciousness is in use right now with traffic more important than you. It's busy with what's happening right now, which I always give the right of way."

Here's the cool part: What's real now may just be a the sight little old telephone wire or the feel of a sweater sleeve--something emotionally neutral or even boring. Nonetheless, the mind doesn't really have a choice, the brain's reality first principle holds true. Surprisingly, these little here-and-now sensations hold more sway than an emotionally intense fantasy or image.

Obviously, we can't focus on the telephone wire forever, but sometimes just a minute or two of breathing and noticing is enough to break the trance of craving, to detour the mind from the insanity of euphoric recall and lust.

At other times it's not enough, and it doesn't work...

But isn't it worth a try?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

How Can I Help My Porn-Addicted Husband?

This is what I'll be talking about today on KSL TV's Studio 5. Wish me luck!

What do you say to a woman who has just discovered her husband has a pornography habit and is trying to decide whether to leave or stay?

1. Relationships can heal. The title of our book and blog reflect what we hear from women: I hate porn enough that part of me wants to leave; I love him, we've built a life together. They want to know: Is there a way to work together to heal and conquer this? There is! Couples are stronger together than as individuals and they heal better with each other's help.

2. Work as a team. Women feel left out: "He deals with porn on his own. I'm an outsider and only occasionally get a window into how he's doing--and then by accident or because I do detective work." That's not a relationship. They're more willing to stay if it becomes us--husband and wife together--working against the problem of pornography. Men are surprised to hear, "Your dishonesty and secrecy hurts me more than the porn use," but it's typically true. 

What can a wife do to help her husband overcome his pornography habit?

1. Cut yourself slack. Women say, "I'm not myself. I feel insecure, even paranoid. What's happening to me?" You're not going crazy. You thought you could count on your husband to be mentally faithful as well as physically. That got turned upside-down. 
Panic and confusion are natural reactions. It's traumatic. It takes time to get your bearings again.

2. Check in to rebuild trust. One clients said, "Just his answering the phone at work is reassuring." For a while you may need concrete evidence you can trust his word. 

3. Talk out feelings. Don't bottle up pain, fear, anger, hurt. Tell him, "Talking it out is how I'll heal." When something reminds you of his porn problem in a movie or in the middle of the day, talk it out. If you want him to just listen and reassure instead of defending, explaining, or promising to do better, tell him that. You're not holding it over his head and it won't go on forever. Just as his recovery is a gradual process, you're healing will take time, too. 

4. Support him. Assure him you want to be a part of his healing. He may been trying to do it on his own because he's ashamed and frustrated with himself. You're the most important person in his life, he hates letting you down! He thought just needed to be a man and kick this habit on his own without bothering you about it. Obviously that hasn't worked. Over time men realize: we are stronger together and do heal better with each other's help. Many men say, "I can't tell her about a close call or lapse. She can't handle it." The truth is, she can't handle it without getting emotional, and he has a hard time dealing with her emotions. Learning to tolerate emotions--his own and hers--is an important part of his recovery. In recovery he will get to the point where he can handle you being upset. 

5. Ask about feelings. If he says, "I struggled today with urges," don't ask, "What turned you on?" It's not about sex. Ask, "What dampened your spirits or hurt your feelings?" Men aren't used to exploring emotions, but if they don't reach out when they feel bad and talk out what's going on inside, they're more likely to act out sexually.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Instead of Porn, Try This

Hank had been tracking his close calls and lapses to porn for a couple of weeks. Now he looked like a cat who'd cornered a mouse. "I've seen a common denominator in eighty plus percent of instances."

I was very interested. Hank is good at gathering reconnaissance and combing through what he has recorded. He did it all day at work as a videographer.

"I tend to struggle when something earlier in the day hurt my feelings or dampened my spirits," Hank said.

Hank is like most of us. Our feelings get wounded or our spirits get trodden... and then the addicted brain tries to take over to help us feel better. 

We need to do more than just avoid acting out with porn. We need to reach out instead. Spill out. Moan out what's inside. Whine it out.

We can do it. Even we stoics are nothing more than reformed whiners. We may not remember that time in our lives, but it came so naturally when we were little that it just flowed. For most of us it wasn't all the time, just when it fit the situation.

Now we hold back, hold in... and store up. We find it hard to whine because we've been trained not to complain. "Come out of your room when you have a better attitude." "Cowboy up or go in the house with your mom and sister."

Despite our fears, whining won't turn us back into babies. There's not much risk of it taking over our entire personalities. We can do it part-time--we can moonlight--and only when we really need it.

Let's just make sure we do enough of it, when it's called for, or else we'll be in trouble. We'll be Jonesin' for some porn.

Hank is single, so he doesn't have a partner to complain to. 

Carol is married but she can't bear to whine to her husband. It feels to her like complaining aloud would wake up some remote gods and bring down their wrath. She's been keeping at bay most of her life by trying to be a good girl. Her father was an alcoholic. She had plenty to complain about. But her job was to be perfect, and part of that job was smiling and pretending everything was fine.

I wanted to give folks like Hank and Carol a forum here. If you're in their shoes, try out the "Crave Porn? Try Whining" tab at the top of this blog, far right side. Click there and complain away. It will be good for you. Tomorrow, you'll be glad you purged you feelings instead of escaping to porn. 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

She's Afraid He Now Finds Her Unattractive

LeAnn knew what Gary's impotence meant.

He'd watched so much porn, had masturbated to so many airbrushed goddesses, that he wasn't excited by her body and making love with her no longer appealed to him.

LeAnn thought she knew what Gary's impotence meant. She couldn't have been further from the truth.

The truth she discovered as they explored the issue together was this: Gary's conscience was so harrowed by his digital daliances that he felt guilt and anxiety when they were together. He was afraid that he didn't deserve her. He was afraid that he didn't measure up for her.
Gary had always wanted to measure up for LeAnn. He had always wanted to help her feel loved and cherished. He had a porn habit despite adoring his wife, not because he didn't love her, not because he wanted anyone else.

However, after discovering his struggle, LeAnn was afraid that it meant he could easily dump her and run off with someone else. She needed reassurance that he wanted to remain true to her. She sought that reassurance in the bedroom.

That was when a bad cycle got going between the two of them. She initiated lovemaking. Gary wanted intently to perform because he saw how much it meant to her. The more pressure a man feels to maintain an erection the worse it usually goes.

Losing an erection is a common occurance for men. When a couple is not in crisis, not overinterpreting the commonplace, they relax together and try again later. Or they go on with lovemaking. (After all, none of his other body parts have gone limp! His voicebox hasn't siezed up! He hasn't lost bloodflow to his imagination!)

After a while his erection may return again. It's amazing how exciting he can get watching her when she's lost in pre-orgasmic delight. Or they enjoy caressing or clinging to each other.

But a couple in crisis like Gary and LeAnn have a hard time relaxing and moving on. LeAnn thinks she knows what his limp penis means. Gary wants to badly to show her she's the only woman he loves. He doesn't find sex with her boring, he finds it too intense. He puts too much pressure on himself.

The good news is, Gary and LeAnn's situation is easier to resolve than chronic desensitization.

I could tell Gary's love for LeAnn was sincere, so I thought he'd be willing to take on a difficult assignment. They always spent time together in the evenings, so I told him to approach her every night between then and our session the following week.

"Your job is to spend a half hour or so making love with your wife. The catch is, you need to do it without an erection. You've been overly focused on that, on making sure that happens, that you've ignored LeAnn. So we need to remove that as an option for now."

I turned to LeAnn. "Before we go ahead with this, I need to check something out with you. There are two kinds of women. Some only feel loved if their man has a rock-hard erection as he's making love with her. To the other kind of woman, a hard penis is not her main way of feeling loved. She can feel attractive to him because of the way he gazes into her eyes and appreciates her body. She can feel cherished because of the words he whispers. She can feel adored because he doesn't want to stop touching and caressing her. LeAnn, before we go on with this assignment of Gary not having an erection this week, I need to make sure it won't devastate you. I need to make sure that your this second kind of woman."

LeAnn readily assured us that she would feel loved if Gary moved toward her rather than away from her, even if he didn't have an erection.

Now Gary had something he could do that he actually had control over. It would be a challenge to initiate being together when he had come to fear it. However, I also knew that he could respond well to this kind of pressure.

(He could handle intense pressure. He'd seen combat in Vietnam.)

Gary just needed to have a way of improving things that would go better under pressure instead of worse.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Porn Kills Real Sex with a Real Partner

Brandon was too young to be tired of real sex.

Nonetheless, at 22, he was a veteran. He'd been spending free time immersed in pornography for a decade.

He came in for help because of how it was going with his girlfriend, Mika. "I like her a lot. We're talking about being together long-term. That's why it bugs me that having sex with her is so bland."

"When I look at porn, it's toned bodies and smooth skin. The real thing is warm, and that's nice, but then it's like..." Brandon held his fist over his open mouth and sighed a fake yawn.

Later in the session, Brandon disclosed something he sometimes does to bring more spark and spice into their lovemaking: "I start to imagine that we're making a porno flick. The cameras are all around and capturing everything. I'll envision what it would look like to watch us onscreen. That sometimes helps me feel more turned on."

I have to admit, that session had me scratching my head for days.

It made me think back to my own first exposure to pornography. Evan Crandall flashing that picture of a nude woman all around Boulton Elementary School's East playground. I'm sure Evan's sharing planted some seeds of anticipation. But I'm confident none of us thought, "Maybe if I keep looking at stuff like that I'll prefer it to the real thing someday. Can't wait for that to happen."

Preferring the virtual to the real boggles the minds of most people my generation and older, but it's getting more commonplace all the time. I see it in my office. Others have noted the pattern and made interesting observations. Naomi Wolf's article in New York Magazine describes how porn crowds real women  out of men's sex lives--and how younger women are becoming pornified to try to compete. Marnia Robinson's new article on the Good Men Project describes the way porn interferes with our monogamy instinct and leads to marital dissatisfaction and disaffection.

The bottom line: If you love sex, you may find porn compelling. But if you love a real person, too--or want to in the future--then porn's not such a great idea.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Intimacy is More Satisfying than Gratification

Spencer writes, "Please talk more about how expressing our needs heals addiction. What do you mean when you say, 'it's more powerful to express our needs than to actually address our needs'?"

Spencer, I'm so glad you asked. It's such an important topic in recovery from addiction. Thanks for the chance to explain.

Here's what I've discovered in my own life and over the years working with clients: There's great power in becoming more aware of what's going on inside us and then revealing it to someone else, especially our spouse.

A good word for letting down our guard in this way is intimacy. It's about getting naked with our partner, not physically, but emotionally.

By taking the risk of being vulnerable and being real, we open the door for something very powerful to happen. We can be seen and heard for who we are. My wife can really get me. She can connect more fully with the real me than she ever has before, because I've just revealed to her even more of me to which she can relate.

The bond between us can strengthen because my interface with her has enlarged--there's more surface area to adhere.

One of the most helpful things we can do in recovery is conduct an autopsy on a close calls or relapses. (I like to assure clients: if our subject--their relapse--isn't dead before the autopsy, it probably will be by the time we're done.)

During these post-mortums, I'm always looking for the moment in their life when something real was going on inside, but it was something they quickly found unacceptable or automatically decided they shouldn't feel, so they tried to dismiss or suppress it.

I'm looking for missed chances to be real, missed opportunities for intimacy.

These are such important moments, because they show us those key turning points in our everyday life when we can be more aware of what we feel and stay connected to it instead of detaching from it. We can be real instead of trying to convince ourselves and others we feel something we don't. (A draining feat, often unsuccessful, and the trying can sure lead to dysfunction and misery.)

Here's how this looks in real life:

Trent was excited because his company's holiday party was at his favorite Mexican restaurant. As he walked down the buffet line in the banquet room, he realized that wouldn't be able to construct his favorite burrito because some of the ingredients he loved were missing. He'd dumped the pork and the black beans on his tortilla, but there was no sour cream or guacamole. It felt unsatisfying to sprinkled just lettuce and tomato chunks on top.

Trent felt bad, but he heard a voice inside saying, "Don't be a wimp. They're treating you to dinner for crying out loud." Then he remembered what he had discovered about being real. He knew from times past that the feelings he was having could put a kink in his mood for the night and hamper his ability to really "get into" and enjoy the party. Feeling ungratified could hamper his ability to enjoy himself and enjoy other people.

Unacknowledged resentments didn't evaporate, he had found. He would have found it easier to resent something during the CEO's state-of-the-company talk. Easier to find fault with little things about other party-goers. Easier to be irritated and annoyed with Stacy on the drive home.

What did Trent do? Simply ask a server for sour cream and guac? That might have worked fine, but what he did instead turned out to be even more powerful. He sat down by Stacy and said, "I was so disappointed when I got to the condiments and saw that there was no sour cream or guacamole."

Stacy looked over at his burrito and remembered what he usually ordered. "Oh, yeah. I bet that was a bummer for you."

Sounds simple, but very satisfying: Trent stays real with himself. He decides to be real with her. She gets him. She lets him in and let's him know she did. He stays more firmly rooted in reality. Enjoys the party more because he's not inwardly divided. He's not wasting mental and emotional wattage trying not to feel, trying to pretend he's not feeling something he really is feeling.

He talks to Stacy and it's over that quickly. Instead of the emotional energy staying contained and continuing to build up inside, it diffuses through Stacy like electricity through a ground wire.

That's the tremendous power of opening up to someone we love and having them understand and accept us as we are.

Trent felt at ease again. He got home that night tired and ready to sleep, instead of feeling disconnected and off-kilter and hankering for his old addiction to porn.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Patrick Blanc at The Academy of Science S.F.

Every Thursday evening The Academy of Science in San Francisco opens its doors to adults only for “date night”.
There is music , drinks, special seminars and of course, the fantastic Academy its self in all its stunning glory.
Last night , Feb. 10, The Academy hosted a special seminar featuring horticulturist extrodinaire Patrick Blanc and his new American vertical garden project, the Drew School.
Lots of San Francisco’s ‘hort-i-ratti’ were there mingling amongst the rain forest.
Members of The Hortisexuals ( who were extraordinarily well behaved despite all the alcohol ), a good showing from the local chapter of the APLD, Professors from Harvard and Berkeley , the Editor from our beloved Pacific Horticulture Magazine and passionate gardeners, designers and landscape architects from around the Bay Area were in attendance.

I was fortunate enough to know the local horticultural consultant David Feix , who is working in concert with Roma Architects, The Drew School and Patrick Blanc on this exciting new project.
David, always the generous host and consummate gentleman introduced me to Patrick Blanc head gardener Silvan.

David and Silvan:
From academy

It was a wonderful opportunity to meet , speak and walk around the rain forest with these two most knowledgeable men.

Silvan checking out one of the Academy’s vertical gardens:
From academy

A bromeliad in the rainforest:
From academy

Blue legs, red body frogs:
From academy

In the water tunnel:
From academy

The talk by Mr. Blanc was insightful and his enthusiasm for vertical gardens contagious.
I left the evening inspired to try my hand , yet again, to attempt growing another vertical garden.

A unique designed living wall at the entry to The Moss Room - a restaurant within the Academy ( a great place to grab a bite to eat before the Academy opens its doors at 6 pm :
From academy

From academy

Everyday Wounds and the Salve of Addiction

I'm reading Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand's harrowing memoir of Louie Zamperini, a B-24 bombardier during World War II. A gunner on Zamperini's crew was hit by enemy fire during the air battle over Nauru. He was injured and bleeding, but kept firing his gun, staving off several Japanese Zeros that otherwise might have taken them down.

Emotionally, our everyday lives can be like a bombing run. Flak flies all around, and sometimes chunks make it through our armament. In the heat of battle, coursing with adrenaline, we might be able to ignore what we're feeling and keep manning our station. 

But what do we do once we're out of the fray and back at our base? 

Then it's wise to attend to the pain. Tell the medic where it hurts. Clean out the wound so it can heal instead of festering. 

What if we pretend we don't need a medic, and just head for the officer's club instead? Well, we'll probably be drinking more whiskey than usual on nights like that.

Gene used to rely on porn to ease the sting of emotional flak. Now he talked to his wife, Linda. 

Yesterday he was putting out little fires all morning at work. Then at lunchtime he got an email from the CEO chastising him for bidding too low on a big job for a demanding customer. "Work this hard and still can't please anyone," Gene thought. 

He had no time to stop and eat lunch. Thinking about all the phone calls and emails he had to catch up on ruined his appetite anyway. He worked through most of his lunch hour. 

However, before walking into his first afternoon meeting, Gene took a minute to text Linda. "hard day demand after demand found out i dropped a ball (big one) sore throat craving relief probably won't be home til 9 or 10 moan"

That's right.

Attend to the pain.

Say where it stings.

Clean it out.

Don't let it fester.

He discovered that evening that poor cell phone coverage in their building had prevented the text from even getting through to Linda.

And yet it had worked. It showed him that simply expressing a need can be as powerful as actually addressing it. Maybe expressing it is the most important part of addressing it.

It hadn't made the day easy. It hadn't eased the burning in his throat. But he knew what he needed at the end of the day, too. A hot meal and the chance to unload about his day with Linda. After he'd done that, he felt some relief. He was ready to go to sleep. He wasn't left jonesin' for the salve of his addiction.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Break the Trance of Craving

(Also check out our most recent post on this topic: Don't Fight Your Urges, Cure Your Cravings.)

Charlie had just relapsed the day before our session, so we had fresh craving material to work with.

"I was so discouraged after I gave in. I'd been doing well for two weeks."

I had Charlie close his eyes and imagine that he was looking down some stairs at a door to an underground room. "Walk down the steps 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10. Now you're on the landing. Open the door, walk in, and you find a table there with chairs around it. There is a window and a door in the wall to your right and a window and door in the wall to your left. Walk over to your right and look in that window.

In that room is you from yesterday, right after you messed up. Tell me what you notice about the guy in there, that former you. How does he feel? What's going through his mind?

Tears were squeezing through Charlie's closed eyes. He is 61 years old and he's been struggling with this addiction since he was a teenager.

"He's depressed and discouraged. He feels worthless. At times in the past he has even felt suicidal. He wonders if Louise is finally going to give up on him."

"Walk into that room and take him by the arm," I instructed Charlie. "Walk back into the main room with that downhearted you and take him over to the window of the other room, the room on the left. You both look in and see another you, the one from just an hour earlier yesterday, the you that was craving pornography, ready to go find some. As you watch him, can you tell what's going on inside him?"

"He's lonely. Confused. He's discouraged about mixed signals from Louise."

"What mixed signals."

"The night before, she initiated snuggling. We were lying close to each other and our legs were entwined. But when I tried to initiate sex, she pulled away. Then I remembered that she had pushed me away the last time I tried to be affectionate with her."

I asked Charlie to go into the room and bring that craving self into the main room and sit both the craving self and the downhearted self down at the table.

"Now ask them both, 'Isn't there a way to keep working toward connection with Louise--without feeling down on yourself because of the way things go or behaving in a self-destructive way?"

The discouraged, post-relapse part of him had an idea: "I could talk to Louise about wanting to be closer and tell her that the relationship is too important to me to keep destroying it by pulling away or acting out."

The tempted, pre-relapse part of him wasn't sure that would work. "It seemed useless to talk to her yesterday. It felt hopeless. It seemed like the relationship had no meaning to her, so why try? I lost perspective, got depressed, and then the good stuff in my life loses importance."

Charlie thought for a minute as I took notes on what he'd just said. "Plus, if I tell her that feelings about our relationship were a part of what led to my relapse, I'm afraid she'll feel like I'm blaming her for my problems."

What the heck, I thought. Let's bring an imaginary Louise into the room and let her speak for herself. We had both the pre-relapse Charlie and the post-relapse Charlie tell Louise what a central role she plays in his life. They admitted that they sometimes overreact to the way she responds. The bottom line for all three Charlies was this: he wants to be close to her. He wants to make love more often but he didn't want her to take on feelings of responsibility for keeping him sober.

He wants to be able to open up about what he was going through instead of keeping it bottled inside. I asked him how the imaginary Louise felt about that. The tears flowed again. "She can handle it. She welcomes it. She's always wanted it and keeps asking for it. It's me that struggles with openness."

Seemed like a productive session. A few more bricks out of the wall that keeps Charlie from reaching out instead of acting out when he's in need.

I think that future craving states will be a little less impervious to other options and other ways of viewing life. Hopefully, Charlie's maladaptive lines of thinking will be a little less convincing in the heat of future moments of temptation.

(A brief note about this technique: it is based on the work of George Leowenstein and others in the field of behavioral economics. They study the phenomenon of temporal flux in our preferences. At different points in time we experience very different states of mind with different preferences and inclinations. When I crave porn I can't relate to the way I will think and feel after relapsing. Leowenstein calls this "the intrapersonal hot-cold empathy gap." The me that I am right before I relapse doesn't empathize with the me I will become immediately after relapse. Fortunately, just as it's possible to develop empathy for others, we can also develop greater empathy between our own various temporally shifting states. That is the purpose of this technique. To delve further into the fascinating field behavioral economics, check out Dan Gilbert's book Stumbling on Happiness. To see how it can be applied in a practical way to overcome addictions... keep coming back to this blog and watch for my next book.)

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

How to Stop Looking at Porn on the Computer

I have more confidence in the next generation whenever I get done meeting with Wendy. She is delightful 17-year-old who has her own unique style, writes quirky poetry, and is editor for her school's literary magazine.

She also happens to be struggling with a pornography and masturbation habit.

We've met together for the better part of a year. She's doing better, but unfortunately still struggling. She's so sincere and motivated. She keeps showing up and doing all her homework. It inspires me.

When she starts to get down on herself, I remind her: "I'm dang good at what I do, and I'm struggling to figure this one out just like you are. But we haven't failed. We just haven't completely succeeded yet!"

Doesn't mean we're approaching the process wrong; it's just the nature of this struggle sometimes. We're still playing detective, looking for what's leading her to falter, exploring why her craving mindset is so insulated from her wise mind, and trying to address those issues as we identify them.

The fact that her treatment has taken a while has given us the chance to discuss quite a few of the tools and techniques that I've found to be helpful for other clients over the years. The fact that she's an editor has led her to pare down my wordy material into straightforward stop-drop-and-roll type steps.

She was nice enough to let me share the document with you:

When you feel the trigger…
Thoughts to look out for:

  • “I’ll just do_____, I won’t actually get all the way to______”
  • “Just one time isn’t a big deal.”
  • “The consequences won’t be that big of a deal. It’s worth it.”
  • -ack of thought. Just Action.
Be especially careful when you feel like A SLOB:
  • like Avoiding something
  • Stressed
  • Lonely
  • Overwhelmed
  • Bored

How to avoid acting on temptations:
Shift modes
  • Accept: “Oh, good. A chance to practice mastery.
  • Breathe: A few nice, full breaths.
  • Notice: focus on specific sight, touch, and sound.
  • Vision: picture an image that captures the feeling of freedom
  • Choose: now that you are free, make a choice (hint: choose freedom)
  • Surf the feeling

  • Recognize the thoughts for what they are.
  • Don’t fight the urges, let them come on, but don’t succumb to them, either.
Become a scientist:

  • Where do you feel it?
  • How much time did it happen for?
  • Observe, observe, observe.
  • Reach out to others
  • Call up someone and groan.
  • Tell people what you are doing online, and how long you will be doing it for.
  • Just talk to someone.
  • Make any sort of human connection to fulfill that need.
Stick to Dr. Jeff Robinson's 2 out of 3 rule (always do 2 of these when online)
  1. Someone is in the room who can see the screen.
  2. Tell someone what I am doing and when I will be finished.
  3. Stick to your white list (agreed upon safe sites)
Keep perspective.

  • Picture 8 year old and 13 year old Wendy, and how much you have grown
  • What would I do for a child that age who was in need. (Wouldn't give them sex!)
  • Go in the conference room with the sad little part of you that gives into temptation
  • Think of what other options you have. There are options.

Surrender the temptation

  • Pray.
  • Know that you are too weak to fight on your own, ask for help
  • Turn to the scriptures
  • Set a time that you can mess up at
  • Prepare for that time with previous steps, reading, praying, etc…
  • If you mess up at that time, let yourself. Delaying is the point.
Attach an ordeal
  • Do after messing up if you have to, but eventually try to make it before.
  • Do the dishes, or ten jumping jacks every time you mess up, or before you mess up.
  • Imagine the sensation after messing up
  • Imagine yourself messing up (not the actual process, just pretend it already happened)

What to do after you mess up:
  • Keep a journal 
  • Record ups and downs,
  • Record emotions before and after mess ups.
  • Tell someone
  • Within 15 minutes, let someone know you messed up.
  • It’s a bump in the road, not a wrong turn.
  • Don’t stress, as stress goes down, so will mess ups.
  • Christ has already won the greatest battle, anyway. If you’re doing well, 
  • celebrate that. If not, take solace in it.
  • Keep a playful attitude. It’s like a game. Satan doesn’t get humor. It is a 
  • freedom of mind. He isn’t a free being.
  • Progressing slowly and the problem not going away look similar, but they’re not the
  • same thing!
  • Going through the first few actions in the process of messing up, then stopping, to prove there is an exit option.
  • Make a paper chain, string of beads, etc. marking successful and unsuccessful days.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Best Free Online Help for Kicking a Porn Habit

Our blog is here to help couples heal relationships damaged by pornography.

But remember: relationship recovery is not the whole picture.

Don't neglect your individual recovery! We can't truly be there for a partner unless we are progressing toward personal integrity and inner wholeness.

Check out these other free online resources to boost your individual recovery... and then keep coming back here to work on your relationship.

1. Over at Feed the Right Wolf, Alex offers a great free course that will help you
understand and deal with cravings. Alex admits he's no doctor and English is not his native tongue... and then he goes on to explain the power of methods like Exposure and Response Prevention better than we psychologists do. He argues for a broad and balanced approach since, in his own experience, "a combination of different methods appeared to be bringing the optimal result."

2. Check out New Life Habits when you have time for a feast... or keep going back for quick snacks. You'll find practical entries like how to create your own rehab and thought provokers such as you'd better learn to enjoy your new life if you expect to keep it.

3. For years I've been referring people to Joe Zychic's work over at Look there for great insights on why willpower alone is doomed to fail and how to cultivate a deeper and more sustaining motivation for change. His work will convince you that addictive sex is no match for genuine loving sex in a real relationship.

On all of these sites, comments from other visitors are sometimes the most helpful and inspiring. You'll leave knowing you're not alone!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Intensive Help for Serious Addictions

For someone whose life was in crisis, Naomi seemed quite calm. “I was in turmoil, but now my resolve is firm. Once I determined exactly where I need to go from here, peace settled in.”
Naomi had amazing clarity. (It helped that she’d been talking with my friend Ken, who is an addict in recovery, and his wife.) Naomi had concluded:
  1. Otis is a good man, but his behavior has become intolerable. His addiction has numbed his conscience and altered his thinking. He not only committed adultery, he had reached the point where he behaved immorally in many other ways as well including lying, cheating, and stealing.
  2. She was no longer willing to participate in her husband’s demise. She realized that her patient persistence has only enabled him to continue to destroy himself, his marriage, and his family.
  3. Otis may be using his addiction to deal with underlying issues (ADHD, depression, and anxiety). It was high time that he be evaluated thoroughly so that those could be addressed.
  4. Her fear that Otis might kill himself had long prevented her from putting pressure on him to get help. She would no longer be controlled by this fear. Whether he lives or dies is not up to her, she decided. If he threatened suicide, she would call 911 so that he could get the help he needs from trained professionals.
  5. She was ready to stop taking primary responsibility for Otis getting better. She was ready to get out of the way of his recovery and surrender it to others: his Higher Power, treatment professionals, his Sexaholics Anonymous sponsor, his pastor.
  6. She had been a lifeline to him in a way that had enabled his addiction to continue. She was going to shut down those unhealthy means of support (for example, covering for him with their grown kids, letting him still sleep in their bed despite the betrayals).
  7. She and her kids needed time and space away from the drama and trauma that he had caused. They needed to return to a normal routine. They needed to eat meals together. They needed to focus on things like science projects and school dances. Otis and his struggle needed to be out of the picture for a while so that they could rediscover happiness with each other and in life.
  8. She needed to hold to her limits and reflect back to Otis his responsibility. She had started practicing phrases like, “I’m sorry you’re going through that… but that’s not my responsibility.” “Shoot. Sounds like you’re in a tough spot. I hope you find a solution.”
  9. She knew that, at that point, Otis’s word was worth nothing. She was willing to rebuild trust for him again, but he would need to earn it back by stepping up and being responsible for his problems and situation in life.
Naomi informed Otis that she wanted to work it out with him and stay together. However, in order for that to happen, he needed to get into an intensive treatment program. Serious problems require radical interventions, not the kind of half-measures that he had been applying thus far.

When they talked, Otis could tell immediately that Naomi had reached her limit. In a way, he was relieved. He felt like this was finally it: this would either be the end of his marriage or the end of the road for his addiction. Despite past ambivalence, more and more now he wanted out of his addiction. He definitely wanted to stay married and always had. In the past Otis may have tried to appeal to Naomi’s compassion, convince her to let him try again in the usual ways, or focus on the role she played in their problems.

In a strange way, it felt good to him to commit to a treatment program instead. If this was rock bottom, maybe it wasn’t so. He hoped that this could be the beginning of a new chapter of his life, a new direction for their lives together.

Over the next month, Otis spent a good portion of his waking hours at our clinic in Salt Lake City. Naomi joined him for the third week of treatment. It was good to see them addressing underlying issues and repairing old wounds.
It hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing since then, but it’s been a year and a half now since their intensive and their family is so much better off. Looking back, I can see that the foundation of their success was the groundwork that was laid by Naomi.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

My Boyfriend Looks at Porn and I Hate It

Tricia writes, "Ever since I was young enough to understand what pornography is, I've viewed it as something inappropriate and degrading. I am not religious at all--in fact I am atheist. Nonetheless, I have led my life by a very strict self-imposed moral code. 

"I've been hesitant to get into relationships with men who view pornography. From the very beginning, I make sure to bring this topic up and make my position on the matter clear. This is a challenge because most men look at pornography. I've concluded that those who say they don't are most likely lying.

"My current boyfriend assured me that he was quite disgusted by pornography and hadn't looked at it in years. I believed him. Our relationship progressed and I thought things were fine.

"Over time I had some problems trusting him. He would lie to me here and there about little things. I'd forgive him though we'd try to move on. However, sometimes I'd get this bad feeling inside that he was hiding something from me. I just couldn't understand it. I'd ask him if he looked at pornography and he'd say absolutely not. 

"The anxiety started to really get to me, so I decided to go to therapy. I figured it was just my own insecurities and I didn't want to make my boyfriend feel like I couldn't trust him. 

"Two years into our relationship, something awful happened. I found pornography on my his computer. I tried to let him redeem himself. I asked him if he was looking at pornography and he held me close and said he would never do that because he knows how it would hurt me. 

"I was furious. How could he lie right to my face about something so important to me? I told him what I'd seen on his computer. He tried to deny it initially, but eventually came clean. He told me he has been looking at it for the entirety of our relationship and just couldn't bring himself to tell me. He said that he'd always felt ashamed. He knew that if I ever found out I would be devastated and possibly leave him. Yet he did it anyway. 

"It has been really difficult for me to wrap my head around the whole thing. To realize how many times he has selfishly lied in order to get me and keep me in a relationship with him. If he had admitted that he looked at porn, I could have made up my own mind about what I wanted to do. Instead, he let me believe that he was the guy of my dreams who wasn't like other guys. I should have known better I guess. 

"He is willing to go to counseling and wants to change. I just don't know if I can go through what it might take to heal our relationship. I am feeling very lost. My anxiety is so extreme right now that I can't sleep. I can't focus at work. My mind races with horrible thoughts.

I'm trying to deal with my anxiety in therapy. I want to progress on the path of healing and eventually trusting again.  Any words of wisdom or advice would be greatly appreciated."

Thanks for writing Tricia. Our heart goes out to you. I know that you've spoken for a many women. Here are some thoughts about your situation. I hope they're helpful.

Each one of us has a sentinel in our brain that monitors what we go through every day. It’s a nervous system alarm mechanism that’s sort of like a love watchdog, and it’s always on the lookout for signals about how our most important relationships is going.

Human development experts call it our attachment system. Those researchers who have come to know it best say that it switches on in the womb and operates until we die. The signals it sends us are both unmistakable--in fact, they're unignorable. Subjectively, they seem to come from the depths of our soul, which makes me suspect that there is more than just biology at work here.

This love watchdog, this sophisticated yet primal network within the nervous system, has a key purpose in our lives. It tells us whether everything’s okay our relationship with our primary attachment figure.

When I need him, is he there for me? If so, the sentinel screams out from the castle tower, “All is well!”

When I call, does he come? Another shout from the tower: “All is well!”

Is he as interested in me as I am in him? Nothing from the castle tower. Well, is he? I’m on pins and needles waiting for the sentinel’s signal.

Since we’ve been together I’ve been sexually exclusive. I’m drawn to him so I eschew chances to pursue other relationships. I’m content. He’s enough for me. Thoughts of sex with other people are less compelling to me than thoughts of sex with him. Even when I do find someone else attractive, I restrain my yearnings and fantasies. What we have together is too important. To flirt or fan the flames of lust for someone else would seem to strike at the heart of what I want to share only with him.

It’s been awfully quiet in there. Did he leave? There he is at the computer wide-eyed. He doesn't even hear that I’ve come in. What’s he working on that has him so engrossed? What?! Oh my, no!

Women don’t choose to be offended by porn. Their attachment system gives them no choice. Stress hormones are dumped into the nervous system. The question, “Is he into me the way I’m into him?” gets answered in the negative. He can say it’s not about that. Perhaps she can come to believe him on a logical level.

Nonetheless, the gates of her emotional security have been splintered to shreds. Porn is the battering ram that did the damage.

Fortunately, when both partners are willing, relationship security can be restored. There’s a lot that can be done to repair and rebuild. So much that Geoff Steurer and I have written an entire book about it. Here are some of the most important insights you’ll find in it:

1. Pornography can be a hard issue for any couple to work through. It's not necessarily that either spouse is handling it wrong. She keeps bringing it up--or needs to--because she's traumatized. He doesn't want to talk about it because he's so embarrassed.  Each reacts the way they do because the relationship is so important to them. Unfortunately, they’re each unintentionally depriving the other what they yearn for most from the relationship.

2. She needs him now more than ever. She's hurting; he's the most important person in her life, the one she naturally turns to when she's in need. Sure he feels rotten for putting her through this, but he doesn't have to let that prevent him from being the one who comes to her rescue now by listening when she needs to talk. His attentiveness now will mean more than anyone else’s, be it a friend, family
member, ecclesiastical leader, or therapist.

3. His hesitance to talk doesn't mean he doesn't care. He feels more than he shows. In fact, he may be emotionally overloaded because he’s let her down. He may feel like he can't bear to discuss porn so much. He may freeze up when he thinks about admitting that he is tempted or that he gave in again. However, he can at least tell her why this is so: because she is the most important person in his life, the one he wants more than anything to please and measure up for!

4. He can learn to hear her hurt. Over time he begins to see that it draws them closer to talk about this topic that used to wedge them apart. He can take in--without always taking personally--what she's going through when she feels insecure in the middle of the day or night, when she lashes out or wants her space, or when the topic of sex reopens her wounds. As he takes in her pain and fear without getting defensive or pulling away, he becomes a healer for the relationship.

5. His relapses to porn are often fueled by feelings. An important step toward gaining control is becoming more aware of his emotional responses to everyday events. He can get into the habit of talking about what happened during his day and how he felt about it. Acknowledging feelings helps defuse their potential to convert into addictive impulses. This may be unfamiliar territory for him, but it becomes a tremendous relief to reach out (instead of acting out) in moments of emotional vulnerability. It also helps them bond as a couple.

6.  Reaching for each other is more healing when we make it habit. The wounds from porn are deeper when it was a frequent problem; healing must be even more regular. Couples can make it a daily ritual to draw close to one another by talking and touching first thing in the morning, during the day, when they reunite in the evening, and before going to sleep.

An interesting thing happens for couples as they apply these insights. It takes time, but somewhere along the way, as they continue to work at it, the attachment system in the betrayed partner’s brain is put at ease. From the depths of her soul she hears the cry from the lookout on castle wall… “All is well!” 

And it really is!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

When Sex Is Not the Answer

I'm as pro-sex as they come. I'd rather sing its praises than be the guy talking it down.

However, there's a painful, out-of-whack theme I see in the lives of men I have the privilege of chatting with for several hours a day.

Partly it's a guy thing. Even those of us who have never been addicted can get pretty needy when it comes to sex. Rather than face our everyday hurts and heartaches, we want sex to be the ultimate nightcap that just soothes them all away.

When our advances aren't accepted, no wonder our emotional world crumbles. We're not just missing the warmth of skin-to-skin contact, the pleasures of intimate engagement, and the ecstasy of sexual release. As much as we may miss those, that's not the real kicker. After all, we can have that all again sometime soon. (As wonderful as Disneyland is, we don't mourn that we can't go there everyday.)

The real bite is this: when we don't get sex, we are at risk of being left in emotional limbo--purgatory even. We have to face our demons without a narcotic.

We may go to all ends to try to avoid facing what we feel inside when we want sex and can't have it. We may pressure our partner. Women love feeling wanted and needed, but nothing turns her off sexually like suspecting that she's not much more to him than a live human masturbation aid.

Women who keep succumbing to the pressure to have sex typically become emotionally disengaged--not only during sex but from their husbands in a general way.

On the other hand, she might become less willing to have sex. Then he feels an even greater hunger and applies more pressure. Which in turn makes her even less interested. Actually, she's not just uninterested, she's actively avoidant. This is a cycle we can get stuck in, an amusement park ride that's easy to get on and hard to get off. 

Some men then look outside the relationship for gratification, which is like planting dynamite on the merry-go-round to get it to stop.

Fortunately, there's a healthier way out of this struggle.

Look at it as an opportunity. When we're not able to have sex, we get to face some of our demons.

I suggested this a couple of weeks ago to Jonathan, who was so sexually frustrated that he was considering chemical castration as a solution. He laughed when I talked about this "opportunity" to become more enlightened and thus freer from his impulses.

His usual approach was to keep turning to her, pleading that she read another blog on the benefits of sex, emailing her a link to an online Christian program that discourages abstinence, offering to give her a massage that he would try to turn into an opportunity to make love.

His homework from me was to go sixty days without sex.

He admitted to me this morning that he left that last session angry. He felt like his wife, who was there to hear the assignment, would take it as a justification of her position. He feared that if he took the pressure off her that they may never have sex again. "She has everything she wants. I take care of her financial needs and our kids all still live in the area." He didn't have any confidence that she would actually choose sexual closeness with him, if given complete and utter freedom to choose for herself.

How sad for Jonathan! He deserves more love and affection than that! But I don't think he had any confidence that my approach would help him get it.

I had a more confidence in her. Not because I know her very well yet, but because I've seen many women like her before. It's amazing how their sexuality can awaken once it's no longer being smothered by his.

I encouraged Jonathan to talk to Michelle about how he felt emotionally when he wanted sex but knew he wasn't going to get it (which would be every time over the next couple of months if he followed my suggestion).

"However, before you can talk with her about all the emotions that come up for you then... you have to become more aware of all the emotions that come up for you then." To do so, I encouraged him to:

  • Stay with the emotions that come in the wake of realizing you're not going to be sexual.
  • Pay attention to the physical pain. Where is it? Exactly what does it feel like?
  • Keep breathing. Nice and full. Slow and easy.
  • Accept that you feel this way.
  • Let yourself feel this way.
  • Give yourself permission to feel this way.
  • Remind yourself that no one died from not having sex. (Not that a coroner has confirmed, at least.)
  • Notice where you feel the emotional discomfort in your body.
  • Stay with that.
  • Keep breathing.
  • Let your mind float back in time. Keep attending to the feeling in your body but let your mind drift from the current situation and back over time. Maybe even way back. What memories come to mind? When else have you felt these feelings in your body? 
Often, the memories that come up have nothing to do with sex. Homesickness during my first summer camp. The day I discovered dad's model train table gone from the basement and realized that it meant my parents were getting divorced. Feeling rejected by the group of kids in my neighborhood because they thought I had a funny name and skin color.

Take those feelings to your wife. You know what you'll get? Her heart will go out to you. She'll want to hear more. She'll stay with you through the thick of it.

Jonathan didn't make any intriguing discoveries by trying this out. But something else happened when he followed my directions to not pressure his wife for sex. (Actually he did "invite her once in a very easy-going way," but then she just reminded him about the assignment.) Even though Michelle had to remind him that once, guess what happened? I haven't spoken to her yet about it, but perhaps because of the easing of external pressure, she had the opportunity to listen to her inner desires. Guess what they told her. After a week and a half, they prompted her to initiate lovemaking. For the first time in a long time!

Amazing things can happen when sex is a choice, and you feel free to have it--or not--rather than feeling like it's the intravenous line through which your partner is receiving their emotional life support.

Porn Used to Numb His Need for Her

It’s a thing of beauty to see a man who has been addicted to porn finally let his wife in emotionally. When he does, she can finally see how much he needs her.

I wish I had a plan that predictably helped couples get there. Then again, maybe that would detract from the miracle of it.

In Trent and Stella’s case, a little reading went a long way. I encouraged Trent to read Terrance Real’s book, I Don’t Want to Talk About It: The Hidden Legacy of Male Depression.”

“I was a basket case all week,” he reported at the beginning of our next session. “I read and cried, read and cried.”

Stella nodded. “After I held and comforted him one night, I had to turn my pillow over before I could go to sleep. It was soaked with his tears.”

This was different for Trent. He didn’t usually cry. In fact, he didn’t usually feel. At least he thought he didn’t. Underneath his calm exterior he had always been feeling. Feeling so regularly, in fact, that he had to go to porn to escape what he would otherwise have had to keep feeling.

For a week he had been feeling and voicing it instead.

It was helpful for both Trent and Stella to see some of the history behind his habit of escaping feelings rather than reaching out when he was in need.

That had been a part of those crying sessions throughout the previous week. Trent had talked about his dad leaving their little family when he was four. And he had cried. Trent had talked about banging on the door to try to interrupt the arguing and slaps and knocks he heard coming from behind his mom and step-dad’s bedroom door. Telling Stella about it, he had cried and yelled and pulled at his hair and wrenched into a fetal curl.

Trent had talked about “horrors” and his “nightmares.” Like the kid who waited to beat him up as he walked home from school in fifth grade. Taking a different route some days, running really fast some days. And then there were the days when his buttons got torn from his shirt and the raspberry streak on his face stung from being ground in the dirt and his ribs ached from being kicked. He hid in his room instead of coming out for dinner because he was ashamed that he’d gotten beat up.

Trent talked about feeling alone through all that, but now he wasn’t alone. This was the first time he’d let these things out in anyone’s presence. It was the first time he’d cried like this in front of anyone.

By the time they were back in my office, the tears had dried. He had started calling the bullying “a stupid little thing” that had happened to him. He’d been bothered by hearing mom in her room with strange men, but now he said “funny little things like that got to me back then.”

“I know you want to shut off that pain and put those things back in the box they’ve been in all these years,” I said. “But you don’t have to. You don’t need to minimize it anymore. Being real about your pain makes you more real to Stella. To be able to stay with you, she needs you to stay real.”

His sexual addiction has been so bad, Stella sometimes considered leaving. That week, she said, she’d found an apartment that might work.

Her own apartment?! Dang! didn’t she see that Trent was doing better? Wasn’t she feeling closer?

“How did it feel to you when Trent opened up about what he feels. When he allowed himself to talk to you about the pain he’s been through and cry with you?”

“I felt so sad for him. Intimate and close--not sexually, but emotionally. When he talks to me, I feel at ease. It’s when he closes off that I feel my rage over what he’s done.

“When he cried and I held him, it was amazing. Like nothing could get in our way. Like we’re going to get through this and I can be here for him. It even felt like we’ll be able to get the passion back. We could have fun being around each other and doing things together again. If I had my way we’d talk like that all the time.”

“And yet, as close as that felt, you hurt so much that you’re still thinking about leaving.”

“I told Trent I’d found a place that might work, but it won’t be ready for a couple months. Do you know what he said? ‘I’ll try to help you.’ I don’t need his financial help! I don’t want him to help me pack! I just need to know whether he even wants me to stay, whether he really wants me.”

“Trent, what happened inside when she said she’d found a place?”

“Oh, it killed me. But I know it’s because I’ve hurt her so badly. I have nothing to whine about. It’s my own fault.”

“But what happened inside? Where did you feel it in your body?

“Oh, my gut. Sick. Ugh. I can feel it now.”

“You’re sick about the idea of losing this woman who means so much to you. But you couldn’t tell her that.”

Trent shook his head. His eyes were getting wet.

“You felt sick, but frozen by it and like you deserved it and the best you can do is help make her move easier. You couldn’t tell her what you were feeling inside. Can you tell her now?”

“Not without bawling.”

Trent laughed. I could see the realization in his eyes as he remembered what Stella had just said about his tears and they way they had drawn her to him and how much closer she felt when he let her see that he was in need.

He reached out and patted her hand, then gripped it. It took him a while to speak. I could see his knuckles whitening. “Don’t…” Without letting go of her hand Trent bent all the way forward like he might be about to get sick. He sat back again, took a breath, and turned to look at Stella. His tight throat barely let his voice rasp through. “I don’t…” He wiped is eyes with his other hand. “I hope…” A few more breaths. “I‘m not...”

He hadn’t made any sense at all. Stella knew exactly what he meant. She stepped over and bent down and embraced him.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Human Connection is the Best Relapse Prevention

Troy had been sober from porn for 40 days. When we talked yesterday, he was so delighted: "Life's better. I can sit and read to my little boys--sometimes two or three books--without feeling so impatient. Celeste and I go for walks and it feels good to just hold hands."

What surprised Troy most is the improvement in his sexual relationship with Celeste. "What we both feel when we're together has been electric. Of course the whole package is better than porn because I'm living with integrity now. What blew me away is that the intensity of pleasure is reaching a level almost as high as what porn was in its best moments."

I remembered back to a few months ago when Troy talked about "porn at its best." Part of his motivation to get sober was that he was devoting more of his time and energy and receiving less and less in return. When he was craving, he might recall the most euphoric incidents of porn consumption, but once he gave in to the craving the actual experience was rarely living up to those memories.

Troy wasn't alone in this. It's porn's law of diminishing returns. Another word for it is tolerance, and it's a fixture on the landscape of all addictions.

Now he was experiencing one of the sweet laws of recovery: human connection is the best relapse prevention. Here are a couple of reasons why:

1. A committed relationship is porn addiction's nicotine patch. The chemical oxytocin is a source of natural biological bliss. It calms anxiety and makes us more easily satisfied. It's released in our brains and bodies when we spend time working beside, caressing, conversing with, resting a hand on the shoulder of, or even touching base by cellphone with our beloved.

This "cuddle chemical" has also been found to diminish addictive urges. In 1998 G. L. Kovacs and colleagues administered to rats regular doses of heroin, cocaine, and morphine in order to develop dependence. Then they gave half of the rats oxytocin. Those oxytocin-dosed rats opted for less of their "drug of choice" when they had unlimited access and also showed fewer signs of withdrawal. In 2006 Billings found that oxytocin had the same effect on rats' cravings for sweets.

2. Oxytocin makes commitment more appealing. Scientists didn't have to dose up any rats to discover this; nature had already done the experiment for them on some other rodents. All they had to do was compare the "Family Values" of Mountain Voles to those of Prairie Voles. These cousins are biologically similar in almost every way, but the brains of Prarie voles produce and release more oxytocin and have more receptors for the chemical in key areas. The effects of this difference? Prairie voles are more sociable, they mate for life, and both parents care for their young. That's a far cry from Mountain Voles, which are promiscuous, solitary, and the dads of the species are deadbeat, leaving the mothers to care for the young on their own.

Some have wondered whether philandering humans have brains more like these promiscuous rodents. I think a different implication of this research is more interesting: As humans, we can influence our own oxytocin levels. Why not do the things that lead to the production and release of oxytocin rather than remaining victims of our original set point, whatever it happens to be?

Couples who are the happiest and most satisfied touch and talk to each other more. But let's not assume that the causal relationship just goes one direction. Sure we can respond to feelings of contentment in our relationship by connecting physically and verbally... but we can also make an effort to touch more and talk more. When we do we're dosing up with oxytocin, which in turn makes us more satisfied with our partner and less likely to even want to wander.

It was fun to see Troy's face light up as we talked about this miracle chemical. He was understanding more about what he'd already been enjoying in his life. I could tell how good it felt to be in the driver's seat of his life--so much better than his former enslavement to porn.

[Just a brief final note to twelve-step adherents: By calling human connection the best relapse prevention, I'm not trying to diminish the role of our Higher Power in recovery. After all, who else would get the credit for having put these loved ones in our lives?]