For many, sex is an addiction. And as Susan Cheever found out, giving in to the urge is like falling into an hypnotic trance. An excerpt from her new book, Desire: Where Sex Meets Addiction.
“It’s as if an electronic magnet in my solar plexus was switched on. At its most intense I’d go into a kind of trance, dissociated, beamed in from Mars, my mouth dry and my heart pounding, my usual waking consciousness hovering somewhere outside my body while I was taken in by the pull,” writes Michael Ryan.
One of the most mysterious and creepy symptoms of addiction is this kind of trance. An addict will decide not to do something, whether it’s not to use a credit card or not to drink more than one glass of wine or not to go home with the drug dealer. The decision is usually carefully considered and based on previous painful experience. The decision is final. The addict is sure.
Later, when the addict can’t understand how she could have done what she had promoted not to do, it seems in memory to have been a trance.
I made myself comfortable while he got dressed to go out. Then, somehow we were on the bed.
In 1978, City magazine folded, and Newsweek was ready to transfer me to San Francisco. The obstacles to Warren’s and my great love were removed, but I had become deeply involved with the handsome writer who had left his wife and moved in with me.
In moments of precious sanity, I told myself and my friends that, although I would always love Warren, I had realized that I could not build a life with him. My passion for the writer might not be the blazing, excruciatingly painful connection I had with Warren, but he was a wonderful, responsible, witty, and intelligent man, and I loved him too, in a different way.
Warren protested, of course. He came to New York to try to change my mind; it was too late. I was sick of his lateness and his wildness and sick of all that pain. Visiting him in his room at the raffish Chelsea Hotel, I noticed that there was a crumpled cigarette package under the bed. Warren didn’t smoke.
With the writer’s encouragement, I left my job at Newsweek and wrote a novel, Looking for Work, which was published in 1980. I married the writer; we had a wonderful daughter. I didn’t speak to Warren for almost four years. I told myself that I felt lucky to have escaped.
Then one morning, when my husband and I happened to be in San Francisco for a week, I called Warren. He met me in the lobby of the hotel, and in some ways it was as if we had never been apart. We stood in the hotel bar and talked until it was time for me to meet my husband for dinner. Warren said things about writing that surprised me, and as always, his liberal use of profanity was refreshing, like a blast of honesty and anger blowing through my carefully constructed married-lady world.
Still, I was wary. I was a happily married woman. I told myself we would just be very good friends, friends who had shared the amazing experience of being truly in love with each other, friend whose concern for each other had transcended our once-passionate sexual connection.
The next spring Warren was in New York for a visit; he was writing a column for the San Francisco Examiner. His boss, Will Hearst, had become a good friend and was a generous employer. We arranged to have lunch, and I said I’d pick him up at the Essex House, the hotel where he was staying on Central Park South.
I would have lunch with him, but I would not sleep with him. I had many good reasons not to sleep with him; I was married and I did not want to jeopardize my marriage and my beloved family. I left our apartment in a glow of certainty.
I took a cab down to the Essex House and went up to the desk. Warren had said he would meet me in the lobby. Of course, he wasn’t there. The man behind the desk gave me the room number and directed me to a house phone. I stood in the alcove and picked up the phone, and that’s the last thing I remember. I seemed to go into some kind of brownout.
I can hardly reconstruct what happened. Warren told me to come up to his room and I did. It was a big sunny room strewn with intriguing magazines, newspapers, and books. I made myself comfortable while he got dressed to go out.
Then, somehow were on the bed. Before I was back in command of my own actions, we were, indeed, having lunch under very different circumstances than what I had imagined. How did that happen?
I experienced the same thing with eating and drinking. When an addict says that she didn’t mean to do it, when the addict says that something else took over, she isn’t kidding. It sounds like an excuse, but it’s a dreadful fact of the way addiction works. Giving in to the substance is as involuntary as breathing; you can hold your breath for a while. But in the end you give in.
Addicts throughout history have struggled to describe this out-of-body feeling that takes over when they abuse their substance after making many promises that they won’t. In Alcoholics Anonymous, newcomers who are still at risk for this trance state are said to be mocus—a word created by combining “mind” and “out of focus.” In Debtors Anonymous this fugue state is called “terminal vagueness,” and it’s a good description.
“Every Thursday at noon I have sex with Rick in room #213 of the Rainbow Motel. Today, even though I promised my therapist I wouldn’t come here again, I pull into the lot and park besides Rick’s black Ford Bronco. I cut the engine and listen to stillness, to nothing, to heat,” writes Sue William Silverman in her sex addiction memoir, Love Sick.
She and Rick are both married, but neither can resist the lure of their meetings. “For months, like a mantra, my therapist has told me, ‘These men are kidding you.’ I don’t know if he means emotionally, spiritually or physically. I don’t ask,” Silverman writes.
“He explains that I confuse sex with love, compulsively repeating this destruction pattern with one man after another. I do this because as a girl I learned that sex is love from my father, the first dangerous man who sexually misloved me.
“‘I thought the intensity with Rick must be love,’ I say.
“‘The intensity is an addict’s high,’ my therapist says. ‘Not love.’”
Those who are hurt by addiction are often scornful of the way an addict describes being taken over by the addiction, and who can blame them? “I don’t know what I was doing,” doesn’t sound like much of an excuse. But this almost otherworldly suspension of the will and the reason is actually a symptom of addiction.
An addict is someone who comes to, who regains normal consciousness—either in the morning or at another time of day—and asks what happened, not to evade responsibility but because the things that happened really seem to have happened to someone else. In a way, this is one of the principal problems of getting addiction the attention it needs. Normal people find it hard to believe in the addictive trance.
“I didn’t know what I was doing” isn’t much comfort to a woman whose husband has been unfaithful or a parent whose child has been killed by a drunk driver, or even a headmaster who discovers a student in the bathroom with a six-pack of beer. Not only does the truthful description of the addictive experience—and it isn’t easy for addicts to tell the truth—sound phony, but it also sounds as if the addict is trying to avoid responsibility.
It is hard for an addict to tell the truth, and the addict is rarely rewarded for the attempt. Early on, addicts learn to lie, and there is something about the protection of lies, the slippery, easily acceptable surface of saying what people want to hear, that is extremely seductive. Addicts often become adept at lying and reluctant to tell the truth even when there is no harm in the truth.
The addict leads a secret life. This is both one of the thrills and one of the symptoms of addiction. When addicts find each other, and they seem to have some secret way of knowing who they are, they often bond over a shared lie. After all, there is something exciting about learning to lie, something exciting about knowing that even those closest to you don’t really know you.
Our world is filled with lies; addicts find a way to use those lies to separate themselves from other people and to protect their addictions. © Susan Cheever 2008. Reprinted by permission of Inkwell Management.