“I’ve been arrested for exposing myself in public… more than once… and I struggle regularly with my compulsion to do it again.”
Humans have compulsions to engage in all kinds of behavior. Some people compulsively eat snacks when watching TV, other people have compulsions to smoke a cigarette every hour, and some others have compulsions to expose themselves to non-consenting strangers. There is a wide range of social, cultural, ethical, and legal acceptability among human compulsions. Addictions are a type of compulsion. I would argue that every one of us has one or more addictions and / or compulsions. Even people who are substance-free and live lives above-board legally may need to decompress in front of the computer or television as a matter of habit… and compulsion. It’s just what they feel they need to do, and they do it without really thinking about it.
If you look deeply, you might realize you have a compulsion to overeat, to surf the internet, to spend money, or to gamble. Maybe you have been aware of your own compulsion for some time, because you try to keep it a secret or risk potential ridicule or judgment from your romantic partner or family. Cross-dressing, hoarding, self-injury, and consuming pornography can be such compulsions. Some compulsions are shared by much of the US population, some are shared by few… some can cause you to lose romantic partners, others can cause you to lose your last penny- and still others can cause you to seriously harm others, become imprisoned, and prevent you from ever finding secure employment.
Some compulsions are not especially distressing to the person who has them. Others cause the person distress, as they do not fit into the person’s view of his or her ideal self. These compulsions are called ego dystonic. It’s a matter of perspective: one person’s “distressing compulsion” could be another’s “harmless habit.” You already know you have a compulsion if it’s an illegal one, because you’ve had to make the choice of whether to pursue it and face serious consequences… or not. Most people with illegal compulsions also find them ego dystonic. The illegal compulsions I’m aware of include paraphilias– abnormal sexual desires- that involve partners unwilling or unable to give consent, such as strangers rubbed up against in frotteurism, or minors exploited in pedophilia. Other illegal compulsions would be to murder people (as in: serial murderers,) addiction to scheduled substances (such as heroin or prescription medications for which you do not have a prescription,) and kleptomania (in which items are taken from non-consenting individuals or stores.)
The most negative consequences of any compulsion only comes to those who act on their compulsions- and not all people do. In researching for this article, I read a piece written by a celibate pedophile called, “I’m a Pedophile But Not a Monster.” The author bravely and vulnerably shares what it is like to have a compulsion that goes against his own wishes for himself, and causes him to be reviled by complete strangers… even though he has chosen to never act on his pedophilic compulsion. Those of us who are not afflicted with illegal or self-harming compulsions often don’t and choose not to understand them nor to have compassion for those who suffer with them. The important thing to realize is that most people who have such compulsions would rather not have them. As a society, we push away the things we don’t want to understand… which only makes those situations worse. The societal and individual habit-energy is the same: push away what makes us uncomfortable. Push it into the recesses of consciousness and pretend it doesn’t exist. Every time, those dark places decay into a major problem. We need to shine a light on all sides of ourselves as individuals and as a society in order to understand and heal.
If you have illegal compulsions, you can take care of yourself. As of now, the wider culture will not support you in this and seems almost complicit in your committing a crime by ignoring you until you have committed that crime. This is not an excuse to not care for yourself. Some of us have a harder road than most to realizing self-care, and those of us who are likely to have experienced trauma as a child (as have most people in the “illegal compulsion” category) and who are criminalized by the wider society (all people with illegal compulsions) and who are misunderstood and villainized by most people (again: most people with illegal compulsions) have the hardest time of all. Here are some concrete steps any of us can take- and those of us with illegal compulsions most need to take- towards self-care:
Take a Look
Very few of us turn our awareness onto our behaviors to look deeply and understand what compels us to do what we do, and to take responsibility for our choices. And fewer, beyond that, make the choice to not escape uncomfortable feelings through compulsive behavior- to instead sit with discomfort and befriend our challenging thoughts and feelings and transform them into insight and compassion. I refer to these types of skills as those of the psychological superstar. The opposite of a psychological superstar is moving through life as if asleep, not really aware of what motivates you or even what you are actually doing. Most of us, of course, are in the middle somewhere. When you have illegal compulsions and are blind to your motivations and actions, you find yourself, at best, at risk of legal repercussions. At worst, you hurt yourself, hurt others, and can lose everything dear to you.
The first step to becoming a psychological superstar is to realize where you aren’t expressing the superstar-potential that lies inside you. This is where recognizing your own addictions and compulsions comes in. Recognizing is the first step to healing. All of the illegal compulsions involve the violation of others’ rights or the consumption of substances that are known to cause physical damage to the user- barring a few substances that are scheduled due to political reasons rather than science. If you look closely and see that you are compelled to hurt yourself or others, chances are that this is an ego-dsytonic fact- and yet, your baseline feelings are worse, because this compulsion is a kind of self-soothing action you have learned to turn towards when you are suffering. The truth is that every compulsion- illegal or not- causes temporary relief, but does nothing to address the underlying pain that brought the behavior about in the first place. Add the potential shame for having engaged in the compulsion, and you have a greater mass of pain in your consciousness to compel you into the behavior again.
If you have identified your own illegally compulsive cycle, it’s time to take action to free yourself. You are the best person to do this job; as I mentioned before, our wider culture has not prioritized helping you to get free; our wider culture only acts as a judge and executioner. You need to be your own friend, your own counselor, so that you never see that real-life judge nor executioner. You can identify places where you can make new choices and you can get yourself to the resources that will preserve your health, integrity, and future. Reading this article is just the first step.
Own Your Isolation
All people with illegal compulsions feel isolated. Social isolation and the anxiety it feeds worsens the compulsion, and having the socially-unacceptable compulsion pushes you further into isolation. This cycle can be broken. Underlying thoughts that fuel the cycle are along the lines of, “Why would the healthy/normal/beautiful people want anything to do with sick/weird/disgusting me?” Anger at being isolated can fuel the acting-out of the compulsion… but we’ve already determined that acting out the compulsion is only going to get you into trouble and increase your self-hatred, feeding a self-destructive cycle. You don’t need to self-destruct. Just because you had a disturbed childhood or otherwise inexplicably violent / intrusive thoughts and feel worthless, which has led to behavior that puts you in an isolated place- which would make anyone resentful and angry- leading to further isolation… does not mean all hope is lost! Isolation, like any emotion or experience, is impermanent.
You need to see, name, and own your isolation. See how it comes from the outside, but also from the inside? Do you see how your choices reinforce it? The choice to not make eye contact when walking down the street? The choice to over-share inappropriate information with strangers? The choice to not make friends, but instead go straight home after work and not reach out to anyone? These are examples of ways that people who feel shame and isolation push others away with small but significant actions. Your life happens to you, to a degree. Beyond that degree- the cards you have been dealt- you have the freedom to make a choice in every moment about how to live your life.
Every. Single. Moment. Is a chance to think and act in ways that are likely to bring greater health, happiness, and freedom into your life. It is courageous to own your isolation and decide to make different choices moving forward. The next two sections, Seek Care and Seek Community, describe ways to change your relationship to the world around you.
Much compulsive behavior is cyclical. There are uncomfortable feelings, followed by a ritualistic planning and then engaging in the compulsive behavior. The compulsive activity leads to temporary numbing or mild relief, yet the relief is never as good as had been hoped when fantasizing about engaging in the compulsion. Then, there are negative consequences in both the external world and the mind and heart of the person with the compulsion. The frustration, shame, and overwhelm from these consequences feed into a repetition of the cycle. Breaking this cycle is not easy, and having help from a mental-health professional who understands this process is a good idea.
While all licensed therapists have studied this cycle to some degree, there are many clinicians who specialize in addiction or even specific addictions, such as gambling or sex addiction. Sex addiction- specialists are likely to be most prepared to treat people experiencing paraphilic compulsions. Very few therapists would consider themselves prepared to work with a free (not in prison) murderer… and very few (if any?) serial murderers seek treatment. The limits of confidentiality, at least in California, state that a therapist must protect his or her client’s confidentiality. Even client reports of past murders are not reportable by the therapist. However, a client’s statement of developing plans to harm someone in the future must be reported, to protect the potential victim and also the client. A client who has homicidal urges- regardless of an acting-out past- who wants to heal and does not want to harm others may have to take the risk of seeing a therapist and honestly reporting homicidal urges, understanding that the clinician will use her or his best judgement to keep the client and a potential victim out of harm by involving law enforcement or a psychiatric hospital. In the end, is it better to have legal attention or psychiatric hospitalization before a crime is committed, or after? Most of us would agree that legal and medical intervention without having committed a crime is best.
Whether your own compulsion is legal or not, there is help. I am aware of resources in public mental health systems (meaning: for those with the lowest income) for substance-abuse recovery and basic group therapy, but there is not always the option for individual therapy. This means that, if you have a paraphilia that is illegal or if you have homicidal urges, you may have a difficult time finding treatment. If entering a public health system is your only option for treatment due to low income, a good way to frame your needs during the intake process would be, “I believe my particular symptoms would not be well received in group treatment.” At the same time, you need to have symptoms of a specific mental illness in order to receive any treatment at all. Chances are, you probably do have symptoms of at least depression or anxiety- so you need to express those symptoms in order to be approved for treatment, while not disclosing your specific unwanted thoughts if you do not feel comfortable disclosing them. If you feel pushed by the intake clinician to specify the content of your thoughts, you always have the right to decline. Speaking from experience, knowing that a client has “unwanted / intrusive thoughts” is just as good as knowing that a client “has thoughts about exposing herself in public” when it comes to the data needed for diagnosis. Only share what you feel comfortable sharing. Once you are working with a therapist whom you trust, you can dig deeper into your story.
Seek Community, While Also Protecting Your Privacy
There is nothing quite as healing as communicating with people who share your experience. An otherwise isolating experience can turn into a community-building experience when you look for others who know your struggle. The more rare or socially unacceptable your situation, the harder it will be to find community. It’s still worth trying. The author of the previously-mentioned article writes about finding a community of pedophiles online, and finding some who shared his perspective that it is best to not act on the pedophilic compulsion. He also made the choice to be open about his real identity, which led to him being harassed and now publicly known as a pedophile. For the purposes of self-care, I would suggest cautiously seeking community, while being smart about what information you share online.
For less complicated compulsions, such as substance or behavioral addiction, there are 12-step programs available- in-person in larger cities, and also by telephone and internet. A lot of people have hang-ups about 12-step programs on account of the spiritual component. All I can really say to that is that recovery requires humility, and letting go of what you think is the answer. If you attend a meeting and see people who have recovery that you want to have, why not look a little deeper? If you attend a meeting and don’t see people with the recovery you want, I suggest attending more meetings. It’s true that 12-step meetings are not for everyone- but then, recovery is also not for everyone. Many people are on a path to die because of their addictive and compulsive behaviors. If you find humility and surrender to guidance from outside of your own head impossible… the prognosis is not good. Are you more afraid of accepting that you don’t have the answers, or of living another day doggedly pursuing relief from a substance or action that will never deliver the relief you seek?
Finding others who know your struggle and sharing resources and mutual support on the path of recovery has saved many a life.
Develop a New Ritual
Between the stages of emotional pain and acting out in the compulsive / addictive cycle is the preoccupation with the substance or behavior, which can be described as a kind of ritual. The heroin addict thinks about how great it will be to get high, locates the heroin and the implements needed to use it. This could be a 10-minute or multi-hour ritual. The exhibitionist fantasizes about the reaction of the victims to his self-exposure, about how great the orgasm will be when he sees their expressions. He then finds the right place to do the exposing and masturbating, and waits to find the right victim. This could be a 1-hour or a multi-day ritual before acting out.
As mentioned earlier, every moment offers us the chance to make positive choices- and there are many moments in these sequences at which a different choice can be made. The earlier a different choice is made, the better. If fantasies are entertained for any significant time, the enchantment of the substance or behavior will win. Therefore, it is important to create a new, soothing ritual to begin at the first sign of heading down the old ritual’s road. The support of a recovery community and / or therapist is very helpful in this. The first thought of, “I just want to get high” is the red flag waving, saying, “it’s time to pay attention to what’s happening here” and initiate, instead, a crime- and self-harm-free ritual. Best of all would be a self-care ritual!
Maybe you don’t have a self-care regimen at all. This is the time to identify 2 or 3 actions you can take for yourself that you find soothing. They can be anything from getting outside for a walk, to listening to spiritual music, to meditation, to speaking with your therapist or 12-step sponsor. All you need is something you can do in response to the earliest signs of fantasy, in order to short-circuit the pattern you have had over the years or months, and create a new pattern. Instead of the first moments of fantasy leading to preparation and acting out, now the first moments of fantasy can lead to making positive choices for your own physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health.
Self-care is within reach for anyone- every moment is an opportunity for the situation to make a turn for the better. What are you going to do to help it along?
Important skills you are strengthening:
Share Your Experience
If you have experienced healing around compulsive behavior, please share about it in the “comments” section. The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!