Acts of Compulsion

Unmasking the Allure of the Illicit

David Guy
Acts of Compulsion

If I’d had to give one reason for going to a therapist, the three times I did that in my twenties and thirties, it would have been the same every time: my stomach hurt. The pain wasn’t an ulcer: I had an X-ray to check. It wasn’t gastritis, though one doctor diagnosed it, starting me on antacids and eventually suggesting that I follow a bland diet, the hapless suggestion doctors often made in those days. I was an established writer at that point, with two novels to my credit and another on the way. I was married and had a young son, though my marriage was starting to unravel. My wife complained that I wasn’t really there with her, didn’t understand her problems, tried to solve them with my head instead of feeling them with my heart. I was also increasingly tormented by sexual compulsions, the one way I was able to feel. But the event that sent me back into therapy was a friend’s unexpected illness.

The novelist Reynolds Price had been my writing teacher in 1966, my first year at Duke University. Ever since then, he’d been my primary writing mentor. But in the early ’80s, he was diagnosed with a malignant tumor on his spine. Surgery removed half of it, but over time, Reynolds began to feel a numbness in his legs, then to lose feeling in them altogether. Paralysis seemed to be creeping up his body. I thought he was dying.

I’d met Reynolds just 18 months after my own father had died, and he’d fathered my writing career, one of the things in my life that was most precious to me. During his illness, I saw him frequently, two and three times a week, and the visits were eerily similar to times I’d visited my father during his hospitalizations.

My father, who suffered from leukemia, had been hospitalized a number of times in the last years of his life. He’d once been a big man, but the disease wasted him, caving in his chest, withering his neck and shoulders. He’d had bleeding ulcers in those final years, and his skin had taken on a sickly pallor. His hair had gone slate gray. By the time he died, he looked more like 60 than the 47 he actually was.

Reynolds didn’t look old, though when I saw him at the hospital he had the stunned pale look of a patient, lying flat against the sheets. I was determined to be there for him, but sometimes after a visit, my stomach would hurt so much I could hardly drive home.

It was difficult to admit to myself that I needed to see a therapist again, but I felt myself sinking, falling back into grief over my father’s death. The friend I trusted the most recommended his own therapist wholeheartedly, adding, “He has a spiritual bent.” This wasn’t good news. The last person I wanted to see was some New Age airhead, glowing with psychological health, poised to envelop me in a caring hug.

But the man I met was nothing like that. Daniel was tall, lean, broad-shouldered, hard-bodied. He showed up in the waiting room before I’d even heard him, moving with the quiet grace of an athlete. He was careful and spare with his gestures. Physical was the word that came to mind, rather than spiritual. If therapy is in some sense a confrontation, he seemed a worthy opponent.

I was cautious that first day, making it clear I might just be shopping around (though I hadn’t made any other appointments). I half-expected a hard sell from him, but he just shrugged. “That’s your right.”

My previous therapist had been a woman, and I’d always related better emotionally to women, so I went on for a while about the male and female sides of the psyche, what I might need to encounter at this stage of my development, and who might best do that.

“I think you need a good therapist,” he said. “Man or woman.”

Daniel was definitely intelligent, but not intellectual or particularly articulate. He mentioned that early on, as a shortcoming. He often understood something at the level of feeling and intuition, but had trouble putting it into words. In a way, he was my opposite: I could talk about things endlessly, but had trouble feeling. How do you teach somebody to feel?

I can still see Daniel sitting in front of me in his large, boxlike chair, his arms relaxed on its high arms, his body completely receptive. Probably–though I wasn’t aware of it–I was sitting with my chest caved in, shoulders hunched, arms folded tightly in front of me. He was open in precisely the places I wasn’t: the torso, the belly, the heart. I can still remember the stillness with which he sat.

He was what he was. If there had been anything overtly self-helpy about Daniel, if he’d been too ready with therapeutic patter, if he’d, in fact, been some New Age type, shining a golden haze over whatever I said, I probably wouldn’t have leveled with him. But he was just himself, one of the guys, and I trusted that. I knew I could talk to him.

The stuff I piled on him at first wasn’t easy to absorb–stories of obsessive interest in pornography, of visits to massage parlors where I paid for sex. I watched him like a hawk for the first sign of disapproval or disgust, but my words fell into him like stones into a well. He didn’t flinch or even blink, no matter how rough it got.

“This is good,” he said, standing and stretching after our second session. “We’re getting somewhere.” He was glad I’d jumped right in.

Then Daniel did something neither of my other therapists had. In our third or fourth meeting, along about the time I expected him to start curing me, he took a good part of the hour to tell a story about himself. He told it in his halting way, pausing sometimes to search for the right phrase. At first I didn’t understand: I should listen to his problems, on my time?

He told me that he’d had a cleft palate when he was born; once he’d mentioned it, I could almost see it. It had been repaired so well that he hadn’t known about it until a speech teacher mentioned it casually in high school. Then it became huge for him, not so much that he’d had this defect as that his parents had been so ashamed of it that they’d never mentioned it. He spent years working on the shame he felt about it, until finally it wasn’t an issue anymore. It was gone.

That was the point. Healing was possible.

I appreciated the story, but I didn’t believe him; my wounds were too much a part of me to imagine myself without them. I hoped I could find a way to cope with my sexual compulsions. I couldn’t imagine getting over my father’s death.

But it definitely mattered that he’d told me about himself. The therapists I’d had in the past had kept their lives walled off, supposedly to keep the focus on me; but my sense was either that they had things all worked out or–more likely–were keeping huge parts of themselves out of bounds. But Daniel made himself vulnerable so that I could be.

He helped me understand that my sexual obsessions related directly to what I was shutting off in the rest of my life. The sexual need I felt was proportional to what I wasn’t feeling elsewhere. Sometimes, the urge to go to a massage parlor–to bury myself–was so strong that I’d lie on my bed and shake. The force of the compulsion, and the illicit acts themselves, split me in half. They made me a Jekyll and Hyde character who couldn’t control some dark part of himself.

One day, I went to Daniel in the throes of these compulsions. They tended to come up when I was feeling anxious–when I’d finished some writing or was starting a new project–and my appointment fell on one of those days. I felt wound up, restless, desperate to escape myself. I wanted Daniel to explain these feelings away.

He wasn’t much for explaining.

“Just go into it,” he said. “See how it feels.”

I sat slumped in a corner of the couch, wrapped in my unhappiness. He wanted me to feel. I didn’t know how. “Just try,” he suggested.

“How is it now?” Daniel asked after a while.

“I feel small,” I said. “Alone.” As if the room were closing in on me. I wanted out of there. “There hasn’t been anyone I could talk to about this.”


We sat for a while as I sank into the feeling. Then Daniel moved forward in his chair and spoke softly, with a tone of authority.

“You’ve put a mask on yourself,” he said. “You’ve put a mask on that person who goes to massage parlors. I want you to take that mask off and see who he really is.”

As soon as I did that, I could see that the man under the mask was the person I’d always been–a man who loved women but didn’t think they could love him; who thought he had to do something (like pay them) before they would. He wasn’t a shameful person. He wasn’t wicked. Those were things I’d added.

“Think of how you’d have been if you hadn’t had those women to go to,” Daniel said. “It was good that you went.”

I was startled by his words. People had told me before that going to such women was okay (given the unstated premise that I was sick and twisted). A few men had grudgingly admired my nerve. But no one had ever told me that I was right to have done it, that to have buried such impulses would have been to snuff out my feelings altogether. Daniel showed me why I’d done what I had. He took the shame out of it.

I’d had that one source of feeling in my body, my penis, but elsewhere I’d been completely walled off. We began with anger, the blind adolescent rage that my father had died at all. Shutting that off was where the numbing process had begun. To the outside world I’d looked like a boy who was doing well with his father’s death, a big, stoic, serious guy, good student, slightly shy around girls, unsure of himself in general. But inside I was dead to feeling. That was what came across as stoic.

We scheduled a special session after hours to give me a chance to confront my rage. When I arrived at Daniel’s office he was waiting for me, looking around the room at his modern, comfortable furniture. Just under a window was a long couch where I normally sat. He nodded toward the couch, gave me an encounter bat, and told me to work it over.

He stood beside me like a buddy egging me on, as pissed off as I was. Most of the anger clustered around people at my high school.

“There were teachers who didn’t even speak to me!” I shouted.

“What the hell was wrong with them?” Daniel yelled.

“One guy asked why I’d skipped school. My father’s fucking funeral!”

I raised the encounter bat with both hands, screamed as I brought it down on the couch, stomped the floor, and screamed again. That ignited my anger as nothing ever had. The roars from deep in my belly startled Daniel, standing by my side, and even startled me. I went on until I was sweaty, hoarse, exhausted. My muscles were sore for days.

Afterward, on the way home, I plugged in a tape I’d played dozens of times before, of Ray Charles singing with some of his famous buddies. A slow, sad ballad came on about a woman who couldn’t face life without her husband, and right there in my Volkswagen Rabbit, in rush-hour traffic, in the middle of a three-lane boulevard, I started sobbing. The tears poured from my eyes. Nothing like that had ever happened to me. A couple of tracks later came a comic song, and I roared with laughter.

At a session a few weeks later, I was talking about my father and felt the old tightness creep into my belly.

“Do you want to just feel it?” Daniel said. “Why don’t you lie on the floor?”

A few months before I’d have refused outright, thought the idea crazy, but by that time, I trusted him. I lay on the floor, and Daniel knelt beside me. The feeling moved to my solar plexus, and he lightly touched me there. My body began to convulse, waves of tension pouring out. It was like the shakes I used to get from my sexual compulsions, but much stronger.

I started to cry, but I had no idea why. I wasn’t sad. The energy convulsing my body was tremendous, a huge orgasm of tension pouring out. Daniel left his hand on my chest, softly telling me to stay with the feeling. Not since I was a small boy had I felt that kind of tenderness from a man, that sense of comfort. The convulsions went on and on, lasting maybe 20 minutes. Afterward, I felt the same lightness and ease as I had after that evening with the encounter bat. My stomach was clear of pain, of any tightness at all. I could breathe much more deeply, but I hadn’t done anything. I had just felt.

Finally, after months of work, I told Daniel the thing that haunted me the most about my father’s death.

“When he was really sick, every time I left him at the hospital or even at home, I always wondered if I should stay. If that would be the last time I’d see him.”


“But that happened so many times, I got used to the feeling. It began to seem like a superstition.”

“Of course.”

“So when it really was the last time, I didn’t say good-bye to him. I wasn’t there when he died.”

It was the biggest failure of my life.

My father had gone into the hospital on December 30, a night when my brothers and I were going to a special showing of a movie. The next day, as usual, my family went to the hospital in shifts, but when it was my turn, my father was too tired, so–with my new driver’s license–I drove around the city instead, on a gray, depressing afternoon.

That night, New Year’s Eve, I’d been planning to go out with some friends and my mother wouldn’t hear of a change in plans. “Your father would want you to go,” she said.

“But at midnight,” I told Daniel, “my father called home and spoke to everyone, one by one, wishing them a Happy New Year.”

“And you weren’t there.”

“No.” I was silent for a moment. “Early the next morning, the phone rang, and it was my brother, telling me to rush to the hospital. He was crying over the phone. By the time I got there, my father had died.” I felt my stomach twisting.

Daniel shook his head. “That must have been terrible.”

Terrible didn’t begin to describe it.

Throughout my therapy with Daniel, I’d done a lot of self-exploration by writing. So at his urging, I sat at home with my writing board and notebook and began to write about that moment with my father. I told him how sorry I was that I hadn’t been there at the end. I spoke the words aloud.

The father I pictured was the one I remembered from before his illness –a big man, broad-shouldered, thick in the chest and heavy in the belly, starting to go gray. He sat relaxed in his chair.

“It’s all right,” he said, in his quiet voice.

A wave of rage rose up. “Then what isn’t all right?” I shouted, as if to say, What isn’t all right with me ? Why am I in such pain? I raised my writing board, slammed it to the floor, and ran out of the room. When I got back, I found the board–almost an inch thick–split in half.

What I discovered in that moment was not anger that my father had died, but anger at my father, an adolescent rage I should have felt when I was 16, but hadn’t because he was so ill and weak. I was furious at all the things he didn’t like about me: the fact that I was overweight, lazy about schoolwork, shy and inept in social situations, never had a girlfriend. It was all right for my father not to like those things (I didn’t either), but he’d brought them up in hurtful ways. One time, he was driving me to a game with a car full of friends, and I said how much I wanted to play varsity football. He shot back mockingly, “You’ll have to lose your baby fat first.” For years–first because he’d been sick, then because he’d died–I’d pushed down memories like that.

“Why did he talk to you that way?” Daniel asked.

“That’s the way men were in those days.” My first impulse was to defend him. “They razzed kids, made fun of them.”

“Are you that way?”


“You’d talk to your son that way?”

“Hell, no!”

I hated that way of treating children–ridiculing them to correct them.

“That isn’t the way men were in those days,” Daniel said. “That’s the way some men were. Some men are like that now. But it was possible in 1960, or whenever it was, for a man to be sympathetic to young people, treat them with respect. Mostly your father was that way, but he slipped up some. Don’t let him off the hook.”

There had been times in my life, many times, when anyone who’d criticized my father had crossed a line, and I wouldn’t hear it. But Daniel was a father and so was I. We’d talked many times about being fathers, of the difficulties we’d encountered, the mistakes we’d made, the times we hadn’t had a clue what to do. We were speaking of my father now as a peer: Sometimes he’d screwed up, sometimes we had. It was all right to see my father as a fallible man, just like me. I could stop protecting him, begin to relate to him as a human being.

I’m in my second marriage now, just celebrated my tenth anniversary, and in the evening when my wife comes home, I’m out in the kitchen, cooking. She opens a beer and sits at the low counter that leads to the dining room, talking about her day. She heads a large program at a major university, and her work is full of difficulty and stress. She tends to tell me about the rough moments, and I’m often full of emotion, angrier at what’s happened than she is. (How dare you treat my wife that way!)

Sometimes, my first impulse is to charge in like the guy on the white horse, offering some simple solution that will supposedly fix everything. But I know that isn’t really helpful, not to either of us. I’ve found that it’s much easier–a relief, actually–just to listen, to let the feelings move through my body, feel them even when they’re violent and uncomfortable. I’ve discovered that even bad feelings feel good, in a way. So I do my best to just listen, and wait for what comes. By the time dinner is ready, my wife is usually talked out, and I’ve opened a beer myself. We’ve made our peace with the day. We sit down to eat.

David Guy is the author of five books, including The Autobiography of My Body and The Red Thread of Passion: Spirituality and the Paradox of Sex. He is also a contributing editor to Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. He works as a writing instructor at Duke University’s Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy.

This article first appeared in the March/April 2004 issue.