Over-Simulated

Staying human in a post-human world

A clinical portrait of excessive online porn use (Part 7)

An outbreak of hostility moves the story towards its climax.

In this installment of "Paul and His Girls," the story moves towards a climax with an outbreak of hostility between Paul and the therapist.

Table of Contents (to date:)

Part 1: Getting started: Anything too good to be true, is

Part 2: "50 Way to Leave Your ... Therapist"

Part 3: A Rock and a Hard Place

Part 4: The Medium is the ... Sex Act

Part 5: Getting to know what it takes to be "one of my girls" 

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Part 6: From confusion to addiction to metaphor to ‘Scaffolding' 

Clinical confidentiality has been strictly protected. The story told in this series is a constructed clinical portrait of actual events, a common practice in both the professional literature and in popular books. To protect patients (past, current, and future), families, and friends all identifying information has been thoroughly disguised and the tale told crosses several specific histories.

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Going Deep Into Being Flat

With family and sexual history shared, with the details of his porn use freely discussed, sessions became heavy with worry. But it was all my worry. He was fine. Porn actually seemed like a pretty smart solution to him; it helped him comfortably live in the world he knew. Since he did not find much joy anywhere anyway, why not stick to an easy solution he enjoyed?

In the techno-jargon of the field, spending his free time with porn was ego-syntonic and enjoying life was ego-dystonic. I knew this needed to change. But I also knew trying to turn porn into a problem when he did not feel it to be so would only result in his feeling criticized. I've learned, sometimes the hard way, blaming (and shaming) patients never gives much therapeutic traction—however much it may have allayed my worries. So, I searched for traction in all the trouble he had enjoying life. What I found was a fight in which I became the target for his criticism, I felt the sting of his verbal belt.

"You know," I said after he told me about a weekend when he enjoyed his collection more than he enjoyed hooking-up with "this totally hot girl" he met at an art opening, "I've always been confused by that about you. What's going on? Don't you agree with the old joke, ‘a bad day of skiing is better than a good day at work'?"

He smiled at the joke, but held back to see where I was going. I pressed on, "You keep having all these experiences and wonderful adventures, and I don't just mean sex, I mean everything, but the time you feel best is when you are sitting alone in your apartment with your collection. What are we, what am I missing here, not understanding?"

"I thought you got it .... I guess you don't. Look, they only look like adventures. They're not. It's crap. It's all crap. No differences between any of it. Crap is crap, it's all flat. You're a fool if you don't get it. I hope you don't turn out to be one of those airheads who think life is an adventure. It's not, people—people like you?—are fooling themselves. It's just flat. Flat crap ... at least my girls don't bother me."

"Flat?" I asked.

"Look, not being successful is not an option, and I will succeed in whatever I do," he continued by describing various projects on his plate—like buying a place, taking an executive training course offered by his company—and how they're going to help make him successful. "But, but ... but ...." trailing off, "how I feel about it doesn't matter. Never has."

"It was all just for her? Is all just for her?" obviously referring to how anything less than everything would further disappoint his mother.

Annoyed by my going from the here-and-now flatness about which we were starting to openly disagree to a there-and-then explanation "yeah, I get it, you're a shrink, and it was that but we've been over it. It's not JUST that. You don't get what it's like out there. You sit in this office but you don't know shit. Everybody's playing charades, everybody is scared and just trying to knock off the top guy, or be like the top guy, or get close to the top guy. Same when I go out, it's all just who gets to do what to this girl or that girl. It doesn't matter, ‘mean' something." For emphasis he put air-quotes around "mean."

I realized that part of porn's 2-D appeal was that all of life for him was already 2-D. He was not a commitment-phobe trading rich, 3-D experience for the diminished experience of 2-D images. Instead, his world had already been collapsed into a meaningless 2-D experience before he put in any screen time.

At another session, he tells me, "You know at work, it's all just blinking and twitching, send emails with a bunch of numbers and next thing I'm on a plane to make a deal. Don't get me wrong, I like those big checks, but you know it's all pretty flat."

And he continued, "All that travel, big fucking deal! Everywhere I go it's the same shit, doesn't even matter what country I'm in."

A flat world wasn't a clever metaphor about globalization; it was how his life felt. Life itself, even with all it offered, was just as muted, just as flat as 2-D sexual imagery was—except life lacked any sense of fun and always risked the catastrophe of failure.

"You keep making life sound so boring, so empty, hardly worth the risk." I responded.

With a frightening finality he said, "It is."

Our eyes locked. I felt an urge to look away. I wanted to squirm away from his silent attack but I held my ground.

"It's all just fucking nothing and you fucking know it."

When this session ended I was exhausted: Can you imagine what it feels like to live with incessant pressure to achieve more, and then more, but without ever feeling achievement was anything more than empty? Other than a chance to achieve an ideal of mandatory perfection, Paul felt life offered nothing of value, to him or anyone else.

Tensions mounted. He took me to task for being so "damn gullible," for my "simple minded" belief in the possibility of a "good life." Many sessions were spent with him educating me about how life really is. "If you ever got out of your chair and left your office," he told me, "you'd know things are really disappointing out there. Everybody wants something, no loyalty, nothing. Ever watch Survivor? Reality TV? They nailed what reality is like."

"Some of it sure is, Paul," I would say in reply to his attacks. "You're having so many conversations that feel pre-scripted, so many experiences that feel prefabricated. You have so much disappointment." But along with expressing whatever empathy I could for his disappointments (and nihilism?) I still held tight to my belief that life is meant to be enjoyed, that a gratifying good life was still possible for him in the actual 3-D world of other people.

And this pissed him off even more.

[End of Part 7 ... to be continued]

 

Todd Essig, Ph.D., is a training and supervising psychoanalyst at the William Alanson White Institute with a clinical practice treating individuals and couples.

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