Thursday, October 9, 2014

Jealousy,Compersion, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

I used to entertain the fantasy that I didn't get jealous. My ex-wife was an extremely jealous and paranoid person. It wasn't her fault, she had unresolved issues from the way her father left her mother. But it irritated me, because I had never been unfaithful in my life before I met her, and I found out several years into the marriage that while we were dating the first time (there was a breakup, then we got back together, which led to the marriage) she had been cheating on a previous boyfriend when she saw me, which I was not at all cool with. Eventually I was unfaithful, towards the end of the marriage. One night there was a brief drunken but highly satisfactory and affectionate encounter that led directly to me realizing just precisely how miserable I was in the marriage. A couple of months later, we were separated emotionally as well as physically, since the ex had been attending Cornell for several months when I cheated.

Now, all through my occultist period, I'd known lots of polyamorous people, but my ex was monogamous, and therefore I was. But I figured hell, sounds good to me, read The Ethical Slut, and I was sold. I know now that it was largely a reaction to how miserable I'd been in the marriage, but still, it made perfect logical sense to me. Cheating hurts people, those who've been cheated on, and it hurt me, because even though I had no real regrets about the incident, I still felt a bit guilty. So why the hell not make an agreement to be open?

I've since now gotten some experience dating poly-style, and it is working for me. There's been blunders, and scheduling can be a big pain in the ass, but it works in general. But then jealousy reared its head in a big way, and I wasn't even dating the person in question.

I fell hard for a friend of mine that wasn't interested in me. The unrequited love drove me into the worst period of anxiety and depression that I'd ever felt. I wanted to die, every day. It didn't help the fact that I was in constant contact with her and was a major confidant with the troubles she was having with her current boyfriend at the time. But I couldn't be with her, and hearing about the problems would raise false hope in my mind about the future (false because she still wasn't attracted to me, but anxiety brain tortures you with unattainable fantasies as well as the self-criticism that was making me hate myself). She finally broke up with the previous boyfriend. But if anything happened like a hookup, it would be like getting stabbed in the chest, because it wasn't me.

A few months later, she started seeing her current boyfriend, who is a really awesome guy. But I still wanted to kill him, because it wasn't me. I didn't want to feel bad about it, understand. I love this woman, and I wanted her to be happy no matter what. But my emotions would not let me let go of the fantasy, and so in addition to the unrequited pain itself, I also felt immensely guilty about feeling hurt. This is when the desire to be dead was most acute. I looked death in the face, and I wanted it. Oblivion seemed a much better alternative.

Now, while all this melodrama is going on, I've actually been making a lot of positive changes in my life. It started with the divorce, opening the way to finding satisfaction. Then I quit the job that I hated for one that made me much happier, even taking a paycut. At the same time as I was getting the new job, I moved into a house with 3 good friends who were very supportive. I didn't like living alone at the time, and the new place was much closer to where I worked. The most recent change was getting serious about starting to work out and losing weight, which is in process. I had to take a break from exercise while I healed an injury. But the kicker was starting CBT.

CBT stands for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, not the BDSM practice that I keep hearing jokes about, cock and ball torture, ;-)  CBT is actually pretty simple in theory. You see, you don't feel bad because of what happens to you. You feel bad because of how you think about what has happened to you. Depression and anxiety put you into a mode of thought where you have developed habits of automatic thoughts that are constantly self-sabotaging you, you tend to always pick the most negative perspective you can about the events in your life, and so you spend your days with distorted perceptions, paranoid that your seeming friends are all actually colloborating in an elaborate ruse that will eventually lead to your humiliation, that all of your seeming successes are just brief, unimportant events that only barely hide the fact that you are a complete failure, fun shit like that.

What you learn to do to with CBT is to identify those automatic thoughts, identify the cognitive errors that are in play (there's a list of 10 major ones), and then respond to them with a rational response. For example, if the automatic thought is "I fucked up at work today, I'm a total loser", the error there is all-or-nothing thinking. The rational response to that would be "nobody's perfect, everyone makes mistakes. There are plenty of times when you have excelled at your job". It sounds simple, but it really works. I am currently depression and anxiety free for the first time in 20 years, and it's as if a giant weight has been lifted off of me. I used this technique to get over all of it in a very quick manner.

As readers of this blog know, I have been doing mindfulness meditation for a few years now. I have not been doing it nearly as regularly as I would have liked to, but I've done it enough to the point where as I'm trying to focus on my breath or sensations from my body, I've gotten minimally competent at noticing thoughts as they arise and letting them pass by as a cloud, rather than grabbing onto them and engaging with them.  As mindfulness goes, I'm still a tyro, but that little bit of skill bootstrapped my engagement with the previously mentioned CBT technique. I basically had to spend no time at all learning how to notice those negative thoughts as they occured, and it was like "A-HA! There you are, you motherfucker!", at which point I could categorize it and come up with a rational response. I found myself not needing to even write them down as recommended in the popular book for CBT, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, a book I highly recommend for anyone feeling miserable, whether you have been diagnosed with anything or not. Also useful is the followup, The Feeling Good Handbook, which has even more tools on a broader range of topics, and lots more exercises. However, there was one other thing that I had to do first, and that brings me back to jealousy.

Another technique CBT is good for, one geared specifically towards phobias, is to expose yourself to the phobia, little by little, until the aversion goes away. What cured me of my jealousy was this, although rather than gradually, I did it at the end of a night that I had spent getting completely intoxicated on various substances, wanting to die, and feeling completely miserable. Finally I said to my brain, "Look, you keep torturing me with the fact that she's with someone else, I give up, show me your worst!", at which point my mind started filling my head with images of the two of them together. But it backfired.

Graphic as those images were, once I gave in to the fear and let it ride, I started to realize that whether I was involved or not, what I was visualizing was two people who had great affection for each other, giving themselves pleasure. I'm not going to say for them that they are in love, that's for them to determine, but what I was seeing was loving, at any rate. Then I remembered that the whole source of this pain was that I myself was in love with my friend. Sure, it wasn't being returned in a physical way, but she has helped me through numerous rough patches with compassion, affection, true sympathy, as I have done for her. If I really loved her, how in the fuck did it make sense for me to feel shitty that she was receiving love?

And almost like a shot, all the pain, jealousy, and agony was gone. It took seconds from the realization to the point where I no longer wanted to die. I was shocked by the rapidity of it. I had achieved compersion.

Compersion, for those who don't know, is a term bandied about a lot in poly circles. It means "a feeling of joy when a loved one invests in and takes pleasure from another romantic or sexual relationship." It's often called the opposite of jealousy. Before this, my poly explorations were interesting, but I hadn't really felt strongly enough about anyone to feel jealousy about their other relationships, even if at certain points I had convinced myself that I might be falling in love. Now, I got it. I truly understand what it's like to love someone genuinely, without any selfish intent. I won't say that I won't ever feel jealous again, but it's gone now, along with the rest of the misery.

So anyway, I'm great now. As mentioned, better than I've felt in 20 years. Where I am now is living in the present moment. I'm spending time with several extremely attractive women that I'm becoming good friends with. I'm interested in them romantically, but all of the neediness and desperation that's haunted me for years is gone. I'm just taking things as they come. If something develops, great, if not, no problem. I have no expectations, no fantasies about the future, and absolutely no sense of entitlement. And that goes triple for the friend I love. If it's at all possible, I think I love her even more now. But now it's unconditional. I am happy when she is happy, no matter whether that involves me or not.

Que sera sera.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Consent, Depression, and Anxiety: A Conversation

This is a transcript of a post-date conversation I had earlier today. It rambles a little bit, but I think preserving the natural back and forth is worthwhile. It covers two subjects that are often on my mind, consent, and depression and anxiety.

All irrelevancies and identifications of the other participant have been redacted, and I've fixed typos. For the record, all we were doing was relaxing and listening to music together after a nice meal. We weren't entirely sober, but that's all I'm saying about that. Anyway, here it is:

"...How much do you recall? My memory is particularly spotty...."

"I remember the whole, extremely mellow and pleasant evening.
Was there anything in particular you wanted to recall, or any questions?"
"In the event I may make sexual advances I'm going to ask that you exercise control as I have to say under the influence I'm not in my right mind to consent..."
"Of course. All that happened physically is that we kissed a bit, quite pleasantly, but I was in doubt about your ability to consent, so I backed off and let you just chill out."
"OK, thanks."
"But like if we are doing that again and I start begging for stuff.... Just say no."
"Of course. Only if you initiate in a sober state of mind. I have too many friends who have been raped, I am strict about consent."
"Personally, I do enjoy sexual activities while under the influence of certain substances, but only when it's discussed beforehand sober, and only with people who have a similar level of experience with whatever it is, and that feel totally comfortable with them. You don't qualify, ;-)."
"Just wanted you to know my policy in detail."
Me (I'm at work):
"Gonna make my rounds now, feel free to ask anything else, there will just be a delay in my replying. But I have no expectations, I just enjoy spending time with you."
"Keith, I want to expresses my true gratitude for the safe place to explore new horizons and I value your respect for me and women as a whole."

"Caught me on a smoke break. I appreciate it. Look, my romantic history is full of people manipulating me, subjecting me to emotional abuse to the point where torture is not too strong a word for it. Throw in years of rejection in my formative years, all of which triggered my initial depression and anxiety. My ability to gauge when people are actually interested in me is basically non-existent, and it's only very recently that I've been able to trust people, and I've often had the stink of desperation and neediness about me."

"I'm fucked up. Most of the last 20 years has been brief periods of respite in an ocean of pain and despair. I'm finally in a place where I'm getting better, but I still have a lot of fear associated with such things."

"Take all that, and I've never been sexually assaulted."

"I can't imagine what that does to a person, but with what I have been through, which I wouldn't wish on anyone, and I can only imagine that it's even worse."
"I would never put anyone through what I've been through, let alone anything worse. For fuck's sake, I'm in constant fear of violating boundaries inadvertently."
"As I recover, I still seek companionship, emotionally, physically, and romantically, but I have decided to just take things as they come, because it's the only way I can possibly see to proceed. So that's where I'm coming from."

"Thank you for trusting me to share that."

"I am tired of living in fear. I need to trust people, so I'm just going to fucking do it. Hell, I'll probably include it in my next blog post. If I've had to go through it, I'm going to share it with the fucking world. If it helps a single person through a rough patch, that's reason enough. Thank you for providing the impetus for me to put it in words."

"Fear is something I've been seeing as a recurring impediment to the happiness of so many people I've recently met. And I was paralyzed by it for too many years to count."

"Yep. My diagnosis of anxiety is just a fancy word for it. Ok, I really am going to finish my rounds now. Thank you for listening."


Having friends is my favorite thing in the whole world.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Love and Honesty

Lately I've been thinking a lot about how I feel about love. It's one of those big huge emotions that lots of people stress about. I've done my own share of that.

When I was married, I kind of took it for granted that I was in love, since that's usually the reason one gets married. But for much of that time, I was miserable. I didn't feel desired much at all, let alone appreciated. It felt more like I was someone to be tolerated so that the bills would get paid. Needless to say, I'm much happier now that it's done.

But now that I'm in a place where I sometimes do feel appreciated and desired, I'm reassessing what I think love is. It's definitely nothing to do with monogamy for me. I used to entertain all kinds of notions about "the one", and now I realize that's just bullshit. People are complicated with all kinds of needs, and it's ridiculous to expect one person to fill them all.

Now that I'm exploring polyamory and open relationships, I'm realizing just how many cultural assumptions about love simply don't apply to me.  I definitely have no desire for exclusivity, and am dating someone with two other ongoing relationships, which doesn't bug me at all. I am rarely possessive, it's never been my thing, and especially after the paranoia and lack of trust that I experienced as a result of my ex-wife's possessiveness, I shy away from that like the plague.

In the past, sex and love have always been linked for me. I did tend to form emotional bonds quickly with those I've been with, but as my experience post-marriage develops, it's less of an automatic thing. I am quite fond of those I've been with, but there is less pressure in my head now to jump into such things. Being older probably helps this a lot, too.

Another thing I've noticed lately is that I'm a lot more open to feeling and expressing love to people even if I am not in a relationship with them. There are some people in this category that I'd like to be in a relationship with, but that's not the majority. In the past, I think I had more expectations from those who I declared my love for, like the fact that I experienced a particular emotion made them obliged to me in some way.  Now I realize how self-sabotaging that attitude was. My take now is that if I feel love for someone and choose to tell them, whether I'm romantically involved with them or not, it's just me expressing my appreciation for the joy they bring to my life. Somehow, by knowing them, they have made my experience of life better. There is no longer any sense that they are obliged to love me back. It's more of a "credit where credit's due" thing. I want them in my life, definitely, but as a free entity, not as property.

Letting go of the obligatory actually makes it better in my opinion, because I'd much rather only hear expressions of love from those for whom I have made their life better somehow, I don't want anyone to say it because they feel like they have to. It wouldn't be love then, obviously, and I'm done with pretending. My marriage lasted twice as long as it should have because both of us were too afraid to come right out and deal with our issues, all for the sake of staying married. All it did was prolong our misery. I'm no longer afraid of coming at problems head on. If a problem in a relationship is insurmountable, I'd rather find it out now and make a clean break than torture myself and my partner chasing a delusion.

I'm living a lot more honestly these days, both with myself and others, and I'm much happier because of it, and experiencing much more joy.  I may have more thoughts along these lines in a future post, but this is fine for now.