I wake up alone in the rehab dorm, the sun diffusing through a small dirt-filmed window, the muffled mating calls of birds and cicadas announcing another morning, and a raging hard-on pressing against my boxer shorts.
My mind drifts to an image of Carrie and the suggestive way she handed me her note. I remember she’s roommates with Dawn and I start picturing a threesome with them. I think about how her caretaking qualities must extend to the bedroom and I imagine her using her breasts in considerate ways. Some guys are ass men; others are into breasts, legs, or faces. My theory is that it has to do with the sexual position you prefer. If you like it doggy style and you’re looking at a woman’s ass when you come, you’re going to associate your sexual pleasure with that part of her body. If you like missionary, maybe you’re a face man. And if you like her on top, you’ve usually got an eyeful and a handful of breasts when you orgasm. And if...fuck, I just made a mess in my boxer shorts.
I waddle to the bathroom and wipe up. I feel like an alcoholic who’s smuggled a fifth of vodka into rehab and just guzzled it.
As I get ready for the day, I think about a book Rick Rubin once showed me. It was about a seventies commune called the Source Family, which was run by a bank robber, vegetarian-restaurant owner, and aspiring rock star known as Father Yod. In the book, there was a photo of him—looking eerily like Rick—sitting outdoors in his commune in the Hollywood Hills with thirteen of his hippie wives and lovers gathered around him, at least two of them pregnant with his children.
And I wonder what it would be like to live in an environment of open and unrestricted sexuality, with friends and lovers coming in and out freely, no one claiming ownership of another’s body as if it were a personal possession.
That’s when I realize why today, of all days, my mind is spinning out of control: It’s Sunday and Ingrid is coming. The force of light, monogamy, stability, marriage, children, and a normal life is on her way. And now my “disease” is blossoming like mold.
Check-in: guilt. And shame.
Guilt is about making a mistake. Shame is about being a mistake.
Two days earlier, when I was lying in a puddle in group therapy, seething over the violence of the phrase emotional incest, Joan suggested a couple of things. The first was that I call Ingrid and tell her what I’d learned about myself and why I’d cheated on her. The second was that I ask my parents to come for family week to work on healing our trauma and dysfunctional relationships with one another.
As I masturbated, Ingrid was driving hundreds of miles to see me for the first time in weeks and talk about my recently diagnosed intimacy issues. I think of her driving so far all alone, and I’m touched she would do that for me after what I did to her. And how do I show my gratitude? By plotting orgies.
I’m not a bad person, I tell myself. I’m just scared of intimacy.
Unlike reaching out to Ingrid, calling my parents and telling them I was in rehab for sex addiction wasn’t liable to be greeted with the same degree of support. So, like anyone faced with doing something emotionally difficult, I put it off until later.
Every Sunday, all patients are required to attend family-week graduation. So I walk across the property to a large classroom, where a dozen addicts and trauma survivors sit with their families in the front of the room. One after another, sons, daughters, parents, siblings, and spouses stand up and talk about how the week has begun a much-needed healing process for them.
“A lot of times, people in a family think it’s just one person who causes all the trouble,” Lorraine, the therapist who lectured us on trauma, is telling the assembly. “But a family is a system, and a sick person is the product of a sick system.”
As the ceremony continues, I feel a dry, sticky crunching in my navel hair. Evidently I didn’t wash away my sins well enough. I look around to see if it’s possible to slip away, but then the freckly woman from Henry’s rape-and-incest meeting rises from her seat and turns to face us. She’s wearing black slacks and a blue cardigan, and looks much less sallow than before—almost upbeat, bordering on charismatic. She’s standing next to a man in his late sixties with a large red face, a porcine body, and huge, crevassed hands. It is the adoptive father who molested her.
I don’t sense any hatred from her, nor any warmth. Someone looking at a photo of the two of them might think it was of a schoolteacher giving an old janitor an award for forty years of dedicated service.
“If some of you remember, when I first arrived, I was very depressed and cried a lot and thought about killing myself,” she is saying. “I don’t think I talked to anyone for my first two days here. But thanks to family week, I feel like a human being again.”
She turns to her father and everyone sits stock-still, waiting to hear what he has to say. “It was very hard for me to make the decision to come here,” he says. No shit: You’re staring at a room full of trauma survivors who hate you. “I feel very bad about what I’ve done. And I think Laura is an incredibly brave woman for being here and for allowing me to be here. I know nothing I can do or say will take away the past, but I’m happy that Laura can have a future now. I think I’ve grown more as a person with the therapists here than I have in my entire life.”
Listening to him, I resolve to call my parents. Since the day I left home for college, I’ve called my mom nearly every Sunday; the few times that I haven’t, she’s given me a guilt trip to remember. And it is a Sunday.
Besides, if this woman could invite the monster who molested her to come, then surely I can ask a woman who merely grounded me a lot. Not only would it be good for my parents to face the truth—my mother and I have never told my dad that we know his secret—but maybe the family healing will relieve me of whatever is hanging over my head and standing in the way of having a happy, honest relationship.
Rehab, One Hour Later
You’re not a sex addict, you’re a man. If someone wants to play with you, you’re not going to walk away. What are you, a dork? You’re going to play back.
The voice belongs to my mother.
Yes, but not when I’m in a relationship.
In my book, that’s how men do it. I believe in honesty in relationships, but if you’re going to cheat, you gotta keep it to yourself. As a woman, I’ve been asked out for coffee a couple of times and I say no thanks. But that’s because I’m a woman and that’s not my nature. Though if he were a multimillionaire and he wasn’t married, maybe I’d get coffee with him.
As I listen to her talk, I’m floored. I’ve never heard her views on fidelity before, except when she’s disclosing the latest piece of evidence supporting her conviction that my father is having an affair. Yet here she is on the phone, making the exact same argument I’ve been making all week—except she’s doing it her way.
I don’t think you need treatment. Everything about you is going to be in those hospital files for the rest of your life and the world is going to know about it. All you’re addicted to is life and living it.
It’s too late now. But I’m learning some things that will help my life. And the week after next, they have something called family week, when the parents of the people here visit. It really completes the healing process and I wanted to see if both of you could come for it.
To go there would be useless.
I really need you and Dad here. It would mean so much to me. And it would help me a lot.
Listen, you’re an unusual but normal person. If it were a life or death situation, we’d do it.
My father is also on the phone, but he doesn’t say a word—except to apologize when my mother tells him he’s breathing too loudly into the handset. No wonder I’m scared of marriage. Whenever someone I’m dating starts treating me worse than they treat a stranger, that’s always the beginning of the end for me.
What if I have a therapist from here call you and explain why it’s important?
Don’t you dare give anyone my phone number.
Okay. Please, Mom. I don’t know what to say.
There’s nothing you can say. Physically, it’s just very difficult to travel.
If they have therapists in Chicago they recommend, can we all go see one together?
I don’t think so. There’s nothing we could do or add. We don’t feel you have a problem. Whatever problem you have, you know and we know.
It would help us connect. Remember my ex-girlfriend Lisa? When she saw us together, she said it didn’t seem like there was any warmth or love between us.
Lisa was just with us for one meal. I wasn’t comfortable with her. She wasn’t friendly or smiling. She didn’t relate to us at all.
Joan’s words ring in my head as she speaks: another example of the women I date not being good enough for my mother. The implicit message is that sex and affairs are okay, but don’t get a real girlfriend because that would be competition.
I try using her own weapon against her: guilt.
As a mother, it would be one of the best things you could ever do for me.
How would it help you exactly?
It would help me be happier, healthier, and capable of having a functional relationship and starting a family of my own.
Charlie Aaron didn’t get married until he was in his seventies, and he was never happier. And he didn’t need any kids.
My breath catches in my throat. I’ve never heard of a mother who didn’t want to be a grandmother. Every word coming out of her mouth seems to support Joan’s horrific diagnosis.
But remember Irvin from high school? He said he didn’t even know the meaning of the word love until he became a father.
Irvin was your brother’s friend?
No, he was my friend.
That’s not possible. You were a dork. You didn’t have any friends.
Why would a mother ever say that to her son? I wonder. Then I realize that I just recently learned the answer: She’s keeping me in my place. I beg and plead for them to come, countering objection after objection, until she says flatly...
I have some really valid reasons why we can’t come. We love you, and we’d do anything else for you.
Hard to believe that right now.
Can just Dad come then?
No way, José.
He says nothing. He has no voice in the relationship. I try one last angle, my ace in the hole: promising to keep the secret.
Whatever you’re worried about, and I think I know what it is, we don’t have to discuss that.
I know who I am. I know who my parents are. I had an idyllic childhood. I think I turned out to be a great mother with two wonderful kids. I wouldn’t change you an ounce. But if you’re not satisfied with you, then you can help you by yourself. I’m not coming for personal reasons—very personal—and that’s it! Tell them not to call.
The words fall like a sledgehammer, breaking the ground around me, isolating me, sending me spinning off into space alone. I reach for a lifeline.
Can I ask you to just send me a copy of the keys to the house instead? They said it would give me a sense of closure if I could wear them around my neck as a symbol that I can be trusted.
I realize that since leaving home for college, I’ve always had an odd key fixation. I’ve never thrown one away, even to old dorm rooms, cars, and apartments.
Sorry, Charlie. It’s not you, it’s me. I don’t feel safe. And, besides, you’re absentminded. You lost that tape recorder when you were twelve and a million other things. And I can’t endanger my feeling of safety.
Okay, thanks for listening. Bye, Mom.
We can hire two people and send them to family week instead if you want.
Enjoy your incarceration.
The world I once knew, the one I thought I grew up in—strict, yes, but full of love and sacrifice from the parents who conceived, nurtured, and supported me—is gone. What she’s saying, ultimately, is that her issues are more important than my well-being. And they always have been.
It could be worse, though. At least she has a sense of humor.
I shower for a second time, making sure to use a washcloth, soap, and pressure, then trudge to a men’s circle in progress on the lawn. The thirty or so guys there are using what they call a talking stick, and only the person holding the erect-cock-sized piece of wood can speak. When he’s done, he says “aho,” which is some sort of macho Native American sound, and hands the wooden dick to the next lunatic.
“Hi, I’m Calvin and I’m a sex addict. And I’m feeling a lot of fear right now, but also joy, because Mariana”—the Brazilian prostitute he impregnated—“just told me she wants to keep the baby. Aho!”
He hands me the stick. It’s my turn to check in and I want to get it over with quickly: “I’m Neil and I’m tired of labels and I’m fine. Aho!”
Everyone sucks in air or exclaims “ooooh” like I’ve just stepped in shit.
“What?” I ask.
Charles gestures for me to hand him the stick. I shake my head in annoyance and hand it to him. Idiotic rule.
“Fine stands for fucked up, insecure, neurotic, and emotional,” he says.
“That’s about right.”
The men glare at me in silent accusation: I spoke without holding the talking stick. You’d think I just shot someone.
Charles hands me the talking dick and I place it on the ground next to me. “I love how someone can just make up a random fucking rule and you all follow it like sheep,” I tell them as I walk off. “I’ve been in a fucking men’s circle all week anyway. Aho!”
No one responds because no one is holding the talking stick.
I’m aware, as I walk away, that I’m not really mad at them. And I’m not mad at the talking stick. It’s actually a decent rule. If I’d had the chance to speak uninterrupted as a child and express myself and truly be heard, I’d probably be much healthier.
What I’m mad about is that some people’s parents can’t come to family week because they’re dead or broke or in prison, but my parents just won’t. A guy who molested his daughter has the balls to show up here. As for my father, he doesn’t even have the balls to speak up for himself on the phone.
Check-in: fucked up, insecure, neurotic, and emotional. And rethinking everything I thought I knew about my childhood, my life, and who I am.
The perfect frame of mind to see Ingrid after all this time apart.
The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book about Relationships is available in bookshops and online now.