Over-Simulated

Staying human in a post-human world

A Clinical Portrait of Excessive Online Porn Use (Part 9)

The end approaches. Does he stay or does he go?

The story of "Paul and His Girls" moves towards its conclusion with an episode about a missing celebration. 

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" 

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

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Part 7: Going Deep Into Being Flat

Part 8: War and (then) peace

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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The missing celebration

About a year after the rafting trip Paul showed up one morning for work to find an email from HR summoning him to an important meeting. They had news that could only be shared in person. Dutifully—and nervously—he made his way to the designated meeting room and found a Senior VP and the HR Director waiting for him. They shook hands and asked him to sit down. He told me he was ready to crap his pants. They smiled and told him he had earned the big promotion that had been the object of intense competition among Paul and his co-workers. It was the kind of major league promotion he had always thought he would celebrate receiving. In fact the promotion was so big with so many lifestyle changes they told him they wanted him to take a month to think it over before they would expect a decision. They wanted him to be really sure the life they were offering was the life he wanted.

There was a terrific compensation package, relocation expenses, lots of international travel, and a chance to manage a growing department under the tutelage of a senior exec who was something of a company legend. Getting catapulted several levels up the company hierarchy was perfectly consistent with his "golden boy" history. He had been "in training" his whole life to win this position.

But much to his surprise he left the meeting happiest at having been given the time to think it over. He felt no urge to celebrate. He found himself wondering whether it would all maybe be too much: a new city, lots of travel, a steep learning curve. It's one thing to be high school valedictorian, something else altogether to be top of the class for a large Fortune 100. He feared accepting this new role might put old ambitions into conflict with his budding ability to enjoy life: was this an example of his tired old plan of achieving success at any price? Or did he really (REALLY) want it? He feared going back into that flat—yet "successful"—life he had when he started therapy. If he was to become a corporate shooting star it had to be because such a life was what he wanted, genuinely wanted.

"This is going to be unbelievably fast track, real major league stuff" he reported, "but, you know, and I know this sounds crazy, I'm not sure I want to leave New York. I don't have to take this position. I kinda like how I'm living."

I echoed the implied ambivalence, "plusses and minuses."

He requested extra sessions so we could talk through all those plusses and minuses before the deadline for his decision. I agreed. Money, power, and ambition, as well as a chance to enjoy traveling were on one side. Did I say money, lots and lots of money? On the other side was losing his circle of NYC friends and having to spend even more time working, lots more time. His love life was a wash; he could date and he could enjoy his collection wherever he went and whatever he did.

At one point he said, "I hate to admit it but I'm glad you kept fighting with me, even when I hated your freakin' guts. You really hung in, I guess it was hard ... uhm ... I don't want to lose you."

Surprised by his tenderness I said, "You'll always have what we've done so far, it's yours whether or not we continue working together. But if this job is what you want maybe it is time to move on. A good life always has lots of loss, its part of what happens when you both let yourself get close to people and let yourself grow."

"If I leave can I come back, or maybe we can SKYPE or phone?"

"My door will always be open for you. But I think we should talk about what 'seeing' me via SKYPE or phone would mean to you, how it would feel."

There was lots to discuss. We had had a few phone sessions over the years when he traveled and it seemed to work well enough for him. But two things nagged at me. The first was how damned appealing it is to think of myself as so "special" as to be absolutely irreplaceable. My own narcissism was definitely tweaked by his request, as it always is when requests are made to continue treatment at a distance. But I also knew that an actual f-2-f new therapist might be more like the us he had always known than continuing with a technologically-mediated me might be. In fact, a SKYPE treatment might just be a way to avoid ever really experiencing that which was being lost. We might inadvertently be colluding with an illusion that growth can happen without loss, that this job would not really be as big a change as it apparently was to be.

Second, well, he already had "his girls." In a technologically-mediated version of our relationship maybe I would just become "his guy" and repeat the same kind of over-simulated relationship he had with online porn. I shared my worries that a SKYPE-based therapy might further anchor him in the over-simulated world, that a successful treatment might have the unintended negative consequence of making an intimate relationship with an actual other less likely rather than more likely. We ended up agreeing that if he felt a need to be in therapy then a referral to a good therapist in his new city was the best choice. For us, his taking the job would be a time to say good-bye.

Finally, as the deadline approached, he asked, "I haven't asked but now I want to know, what do you think I should do?"

After almost five years together I was glad I could say without evasion, "I'm glad to be helping you think it through and what I really think, really, is you should do what you think best. Your life, your call."

Two days later he met with his HR rep and the senior VP who was responsible for giving him the promotion. Careful not to tip his hand he started the meeting by outlining his understanding that the new job required absolute commitment. While there were tremendous perks and opportunities the job also required a tremendous sacrifice. He told them he had been working through all the pros and cons and he would not take the job, and they would not want him to take it, unless he could commit 100%. He closed by saying they could count on at least 110% from him.

He took the job.

We then spent a month of sessions saying goodbye before he left for a vacation prior to relocating. We agreed he would call me after he got settled so I could refer him to a good therapist where he now lived. Several months later I heard from him and we talked on the phone. He told me his new place was great, and his job was fantastic.

"I'm managing several managers, most interesting thing I've ever done. Every morning feels like a real adventure." Continuing to gush, "I really love it. I'm on the road a lot and I'm making a mint," he gushed.

I told him I had the names of two people who were wonderful therapists where he lived, but he said he had decided it was a good time to take a break from therapy. With all his travel and new responsibilities, as well as taking time to enjoy his new city and all the recreation it offered-including the occasional date along with his collection, he was thinking less and less about one day wanting a family. No more therapy for him for now.

So, there we ended, with monogamous intimacy and family eluding him—actually, it was off his radar screen—and the American (corporate) dream happily in his grasp. Other than the fact that he was not living the life I might have wanted for him, he was fully in his life. He felt he was thriving even though I might consider it an over-simulated life. I thought that as he rapidly climbed a very steep high ladder of success at least he had his "girls," and a "real" date whenever he wanted, to keep him company. Wishing him well and reminding him that I would always be available should he feel the need to talk were the only things I could think to do.

Then I hung up the phone.

[End of Part 9 .... Part 10, the concluding final installment, to be posted on Sunday]

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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