I walk along the sidewalk to a schoolroom. It is my second day in sex addiction rehab. I’m here because I cheated on my girlfriend, and I need to figure out why I would do something so despicable to the woman I supposedly love — and how I can make sure I never do it again.
A cherubic man named Jack walks in the room, introduces himself as the spiritual counselor, and then gives us a bunch of questionnaires to fill out, most of them a repeat of forms I already filled out when I arrived. Salvation by paperwork. Grace by redundancy.
After collecting the forms, Jack gives us an orientation speech, telling a group of strangers, as he has probably done almost every weekday for years, about a day, at age 12, when his mom walked in his room and saw him with his hand on the trigger of a rifle, the muzzle resting under his chin. She pulled back his hand, took him to the refrigerator, and gave him a tall beer. Jack drank it and within a few minutes was thinking, "Wow, a minute ago I wanted to kill myself. Now I feel great."
Ten years ago, Jack came here to stop drinking. It evidently worked.
Jack hands out another form with two words along the top: “Spirituality Survey.” I answer most of the questions with the same answer: None.
“Is it necessary to believe in a higher power to do the program here?” I ask Jack. There are 12 steps one supposedly must follow in order to arrest an addiction. Five of them involve a higher power. So if I don’t believe in a higher power, then maybe I should just leave, break up with my girlfriend, and accept my fate as a lifelong philanderer.
“It’s a huge help. The vital work for recovery is: Breathe, feel, pray, meditate.”
I’ve got the first one down, and possibly the second one. But the other two…
“Do you believe in a higher power?” he presses.
“Like someone who’s watching over me and cares about me?” I consider the possibility. “I don’t know.”
“You must believe in something higher. If you get cut and it heals, something makes that happen, right?”
“White blood cells probably make that happen.” He doesn’t like my answer. “I once did a book with someone who went to rehab and he chose music as his higher power.”
“Well, you can—”
“But that’s not a spiritual belief.” Fuck, now I’m thinking about it too much. But the truth is I say, “I’m not sure I understand what spirituality is anyway.”
“If you want, we can talk later and have a discussion about spirituality.”
I promise to take him up on it. I’m sure I have some sort of spirituality, but I just never attempted to articulate or define it before. The Church of the White Blood Cells. What I like about this place so far is that at least they’re making us grapple with the big questions here: who we are and why we’re here. And maybe I should take advantage of this opportunity to figure it out. Because I always thought it was to stay alive long enough to fuck each other, make babies, and raise them well enough so that they can fuck more people and make more babies. But maybe I’m wrong, because they clearly have a problem with fucking here.
After orientation, Jack sends me to a two-hour one-on-one therapy session, which only lasts an hour, and in which a nurse practitioner pulls out the same forms and asks me pretty much the same questions again. I ask her if they compare these to look for inconsistencies in my answers, but evidently they don’t. They just like keeping us busy.
Then I go for my third medical appointment of the day so they can check my vital signs. Turns out I’m still alive. Withdrawing from sex didn't kill me.
This whole thing feels like a waste of time and money.
At 6:30 that evening, I walk to the counseling building for my appointment with Jack. However, I get to the office and he’s not there. Instead, there’s a tall, thin, unshaven man with stringy gray hair. He looks like his brain has been permanently damaged from whatever drugs he was doing in the sixties.
“Come in,” he says, before I can leave. And I figure with the amount of acid this guy’s probably done, he’s surely done some thinking about the universe and how it works.
“I’m having problems with this idea of a higher power,” I tell him. “I know it’s important to recovery, but I don’t have one.”
“Do you believe in God?” he asks.
Prince once asked me the same question. I knew it was a test, so I evaded it by saying, “It depends on how you define God.”
The truth is that I don’t really know what I believe. So I tell him the truth: “It’s hard for me to imagine an intelligent being watching over me, who cares about everything I do. I guess what I believe in is the universe, and that it works through creation and destruction to preserve itself. But it’s indifferent to the fate of individual humans, whether good or bad, because it does whatever is best for itself. In fact, that’s probably what most people do too.”
“Let me help you out then,” he says. “For me, I believe in a loving intelligence that lives and moves through and connects all things.”
“So then why are children anally raped by their fathers?” I want to ask him. But I don’t. Because what he said sounds so beautiful. I try to imagine that loving intelligence connecting everything. Just the thought of it actually makes me happier. And I wonder if people who believe in God, who have faith in an omnipresent being who loves them unconditionally, who believe that there is a positive purpose to life, who believe that the good will be rewarded and the bad will be punished, are happier.
Maybe religion evolved as a survival strategy, as a way for us proportionally big-brained creatures to survive mentally and emotionally through the hardships of life on a planet where we have to work so hard just to keep from freezing or dehydrating or starving, or having everything we’ve worked so hard for stolen or beaten out of us.
If I could stop thinking and just believe on the basis of faith alone, I’d be a much happier person. When I lose a job or a girlfriend, I could simply say, “God is watching out for me, and this was meant to be.” When a car rear-ends me at a traffic light, I can say, “God is watching out for me, because maybe that car prevented an oil tanker from crashing into me at the next stoplight.”
Wouldn’t life be grand?
I think about the positive things I believe in, but I really don’t know if I believe anything positive. That may be the problem. I believe I’m puny and insignificant in the grand scheme of things. In 10,000 years, not even the blink of an eye to a planet that’s over 4 billion years old, the names and works of everyone from Leonardo da Vinci to Christopher Columbus to Jesus Christ will be gone and forgotten.
“I guess for me, if this is all about feeling humble to be cured, I think there are a lot of higher powers. The ocean humbles me. So does nature. But I don’t believe those higher powers have any kind of goal of helping me. If nature thinks it’s good for a volcano to blow to release internal pressure, then it may be bad for the people whose homes and lives are destroyed, but it’s good for the Earth.”
"And it’s the same thing when a tidal wave or an earthquake destroys people,” he responds. “Yet they chose to live on the coast and on fault lines and near volcanoes, and ignore the power of nature."
“So it’s their fault for ignoring the higher power?” I struggle to grasp his meaning. “But what about all the people who don't live in disaster zones and who’ve tried to do nothing but good, who’ve tried to live safely and sensibly, yet who still suffer? They lose their children, they get terminal cancer, they are innocent victims of wars and accidents. If there were a higher power, whose goal was to restore us to sanity, why is the world so insane?”
“Those are very good questions, but…”
“And why are only human beings being watched over by this higher power? Wouldn’t it be watching over all living things, like all the stray sick dogs and the chickens we eat and the ants we step on?” It seems arrogant to believe that human beings have somehow transcended nature or that we’re intrinsically more special than any other animal.
He raises his voice. Not angrily, completely calm. His beliefs haven’t even been rattled. “I want to warn you against globalizing this; think instead about your own spirituality and what it is.”
“I don’t really understand what spirituality is,” I persist. “I don’t. A lot of people say they’re spiritual, and I just take it to mean that they believe in positive forces that we can’t sense.”
“Spirituality is a sense of connection,” he states emphatically.
I like this. I can believe in connection. I think that’s why I’m here, because I like that so much. Even scientifically, if you look at things on a molecular level, you wouldn't see separate people; you’d just see molecules vibrating in the air. We’re all touching each other, which is kind of creepy.
“I believe we’re like drops of water,” he continues. “And when we die, we return to the source.”
“So can my higher power be atoms?” The words sound idiotic. “Or maybe what I really think is that I believe in systems. There are all kinds of interdependent systems that make everything work. There's a universal system, an earth system, a human system, and a system inside our bodies and inside our organs, all of them in balance with each other and themselves. So maybe my higher power is interdependent systems.”
He looks at me, trying to think of an answer. I think I’ve come to the conclusion that there isn’t necessarily a meaning of life. There’s just a process of life. And we’re part of it. So just stay busy, have fun, don’t hurt other people, make babies if you want, and try not to think about the fact that everyone’s going to die and spend more time being fertilizer than they did being human.
“Do people ever choose systems as their higher power?”
“No, not that I’ve heard.”
“Then that’s my higher power.”
“You know,” he says, “if you spent less time trying to be unique and more time trying to be healthy, maybe you wouldn’t be here.”
He has a good point.
Perhaps the reason I’m here is because I have no spirituality and a faulty intellectual paradigm. So I cheated because I believed we’re no different from any other animal and that’s what animals do, and the consequences don’t really matter to the universe.
But maybe they do.
Which would mean that cheating isn’t something that animals do or that people have evolved to do. It’s what people who believe they don't matter, and thus that others don’t matter, do.
Neil Strauss is an award-winning writer for Rolling Stone, a former columnist at the New York Times, and the author of seven New York Times best-selling books. These include The Game, Rules of the Game, Emergency, and Everyone Loves You When You're Dead, as well as Mötley Crüe's The Dirt, Jenna Jameson's How to Make Love Like a Porn Star, and Marilyn Manson's The Long Hard Road Out of Hell.
His latest book is The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships (Dey Street Books/HarperCollins). Strauss lives in Los Angeles and can be found at www.neilstrauss.com.
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