“Them vs Us”, now that’s a crazy title for a blog for sure, so let me take a moment to explain. The title actually came to me this week as I was with a client. We were talking about how hard it is for him to open up and be known and vulnerable. This was not a new conversation for me. Every man has the same issue when they first get to my door. I tell each and every one of them that they have an intimacy disorder and that the only way to fix it is in the company of men. They all bristle at the notion of being seen and having to trust, especially with men. So I guess the next question is where does that come from? Let me explain.
When a child grows up in a non-nurturing home, whether overtly or covertly riddled with dysfunction or addiction, that child learns that he cannot trust one or both of his primary caregivers. This lack of internal safety leads that child to seek some form of adaptive behavior in search of some sense of safety or comfort. The internal mantra that a child learns as an outgrowth of growing up in that system is to not talk, not trust and not feel, because it’s not safe. The child retreats in an effort to survive. It is purely a self-protective stance. The tradeoff for this survival strategy is that these children’s emotional bandwidths are under-developed as they go out into adulthood. Their foremost thought is for self-preservation and the easiest way to guarantee self-preservation is to not be known. This is the foundational root of the intimacy disorder. At the end of the day they will never let anyone see their innermost landscape. If the adaptive behavior developed as a child was sexual in nature, their internalized rage and shame is off the chart. That does not stop most of these folks from getting married, having kids and being successful in the real world, but for those [mainly spouses] who try to get close, they remain an enigma. At some juncture the façade of their day job [nice, affable and even charming] meets the reality of their night job [compulsive sexual behavior] and life blows up. Welcome to my world.
That adult who walks into my office sees the world in “Them and Us” lenses and in the end it’s really “me, myself and I” against the world. So here goes a small case study. I had a client for about 6 months who was a 60 year old gay man who had never been partnered in his life, totally alone. He presented as polished and confident and had been successful in the business world. He tried to be androgynous around his sexual orientation, yet I believe most people would know if they cared enough to think about it. He had never talked openly about being gay with anyone, except the other gay men in the bath house where he acted out. To say he was closeted is an understatement. In his world no one could ever be trusted enough to get real with. On top of his self-inflicted homophobia was the fact that he was HIV positive and had been for a long time. Again he never told anyone, ever other than health care professionals. Years of isolation compounded with years of shame; a life is a terrible thing to waste.
I put him in a men’s group with two other gay men, one of whom was also HIV positive. As the group came together they were able to start to see their similarities instead of the differences. Their burgeoning openness and honesty was amazing to witness as these men, all of whom had never trusted another man before started to heal, all but one. In the end that man decided to go back to the isolation and the dark side of high risk sexual behavior. He could never push through his fear of being known. He could never let anyone see him cry, sweat, feel or even laugh, so he took his ball and went home. Now we are all left with the sadness and the knowledge of what he might have been if he could have just learned to see the difference between “Them and Us” and made the journey to intimacy with the others he started with. Truth be told, the NMS group room for many is the safest place these men have ever been in their entire lives.
I would plead with him to see that we were “safe” and I would validate him that his perception that the world was not safe might even be right, yet fear won out in the end. I think of him often. He was a good man with a bad disease who did high risk behavior. He left before the miracle. Let NMS be you’re “Us,” a safe haven in a cold, cold world.
If this story resonates in you even a little bit, give me a call and remember, misery is optional.