Performance art + no sex = What?

I\'ve been wild, now I\'m successful but celibate. What am I hiding from?

Published March 29, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I'm a very successful performance artist/therapist, I live in my dream city in my dream home in my dream neighborhood. I love my work and have lots of mutual respect from my friends and clients and colleagues.

I travel, I see lots of theater and concerts with cool people, I dress really well, I run and work out, do lots of yoga. I read, I volunteer, I care, I give, I meditate. My dog loves me. I've worked hard at having self-esteem and giving up ego. I am deeply loved and respected by the woman who raised me (not my mom), a woman who prays for me and leaves me voice mails telling me that I'm wonderful. My dad died when I was a teenager but he and I had a loving, respectful relationship.

At 45, I look back and realize I blew my 20s by being a complete sexual compulsive (in elevators, in museums, in parks and cars, slept with hundreds of men and women). I blew my early 30s being in an eight-year, emotionally abusive relationship that held me back from success. So now my success is hard-earned. I want nothing to do with anyone who would interrupt the beautiful life I've built for myself. And maybe that'd be OK.

But ... I haven't gotten laid in about five years. And have had very few dates. My spank bank goes back to high school. And I'm handsome and fit. Successful and kind. Is this the curse of being a sex addict? All or nothing?

What's your diagnosis on the combination of:
1. A snarky, drunk, emotionally abusive mother who farmed out her job as a mother (thankfully, but still ...);

2. A history of being in exclusively codependent relationships;
3. My fear that opening myself up to anyone new will bring my success crashing down around me; and
4. My natural tendency for solitude that only increases as I get older?

Depressed, or knowing? Waiting for Mr. Right, or hiding from him?

Dear Depressed or Knowing,

Thank you for your letter. Your situation interests me.

What interests me most is the way a creative person will find ways to husband creative energy. The routes we create, the boundaries and schedules we observe, the pleasures we forgo may seem like aberrations but they serve a purpose. This purpose is not always explicitly stated. We sometimes do not like to explicitly state the purposes our methods serve, because subterfuge itself is a goal; to do our work, we must sometimes hide from ourselves what we are actually up to; if we make it too explicit, we may become confused about motive and consequence. So we keep our true purposes hidden from ourselves as we root around in the basement of the soul.

This is the strange game we play: We create elaborate deceptions to save ourselves, to channel our energy where it needs to go, to reserve ourselves for work, avoid banal temptation, shield ourselves from people who sap our strength and ordeals that make us feel as though our lives are being slowly drained away into a vast reservoir of mediocrity. We attune ourselves to the operation of whatever machinery the muse is operating. Our schedule, since its origins and controls are so deeply internal, may have no relation to the outside world. Thus in the middle of dinner we may so frequently be called to creative thoughts that we decide dinner is not an option. So we become that strange person who does not like to have dinner with people. What an oddball. What a scrooge. Bet he's not getting laid! It's not that we don't like to have dinner. We'd love to have dinner. But choices must be made. We are holding ourselves available to the muse. We reserve ourselves for her visits. In this way it is like having a secret lover. It excites suspicion. For whom are we waiting, standing on a street corner at midnight?

Perhaps it might be said that this is our way around the ego. If the ego gets ahold of our creative machinery, it wants to create empires and tributes; it craves easy praise and fears risk; it wants to make for us a safe and cozy home. The muse would die in a home made by the ego. So we protect the muse from the ego by playing elaborate games; we hide what she is up to; she, in return, rewards us extravagantly. The ego, for its part, must be content with the few tangible rewards that flow from moderate fame and success.

There are other things you are protecting that have to do with your early wounds and betrayals. That is part of the story too. But because you are a creative you are not seeking what many others are seeking -- an "ordinary, well-adjusted life." So your arrangements and subterfuges will be of a different order.

Sure, in pursuit of "ordinary, well-adjusted lives" people pursue arrangements, protocols, compromises and subterfuges to a comparable degree. But these are qualitatively different; they do not challenge the status quo. For instance, when people have kids they stop going out. No one calls them hermits or considers that strange. (As a side thought, it may be that some people have kids precisely because it gives them an excuse to live that life which to many of us seems so full of sacrifice.)

How much can you give, socially and in the sphere of intimacy, before your creative life feels threatened? That seems to be the issue. Perhaps if you were honest with a prospective partner about the severe limits under which you operate -- that you are first of all a creative creature, that your work demands your full devotion not just of time but soul, spirit, spit, sweat, skin -- perhaps you could experiment with some limited forms of intimacy. I have a feeling you have avoided all possibilities because of a reasonable fear of succumbing to your old behavior, losing all boundaries, becoming enmeshed and lost. If you can present your lifestyle as one that is not aberrant but necessary to your survival, perhaps you can entertain the possibility of intimacy without the danger of overwhelm.

Also, I imagine that you need a little creative headroom. You need not just the bare minimum but some extra; you keep vast spaces within yourself untouched; you reserve vast hours and rooms for contemplation; you keep them empty because their spaciousness itself invites speculation and intrigue.

In short, I propose this general template, this assumption: That you, as a collection of energies and archetypes, have done what you need to do to have the success you've achieved and maintain the balance you've acquired. Sex and intimacy require a great deal from you, and you are not sure if you can sustain that along with everything else you are doing creatively. That seems reasonable. Also, your history with sex reflects a pattern of loss of control. To sustain your creative life you need control. The thought of losing control in such a way, even for a few moments, may just be too much for you right now.

Whether to take that risk is for you to decide. I just think it helps to see yourself not in terms of pop-psych pathologies but as a mature artist who makes hard decisions.

By Cary Tennis

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