This profound story of a powerful weekend retreat tells how the cultural concept of the sexual-spiritual split came to author Michael Picucci. This awareness has fueled his years of research since on common challenges that can be healed more efficiently in a cultural rather than strictly personal context.
Written by Michael Picucci
Confronting My Own Fears
The discovery of a sexual-spiritual split came during a weekend spirituality retreat that I presented in 1984 at Veritas Villa in New York’s Catskill Mountains. On Friday evening, I polled the group of forty women and men to determine what areas of recovery they would like to focus on.
A young man in the back of the room sheepishly yelled out, “Let’s talk about sex!” Since this was scheduled to be a workshop on “spirituality in recovery” everyone found the suggestion amusing. A raucous conversation took place in the room, after which the group implored me to address sex.
Always up for a good challenge, I agreed to schedule a Saturday afternoon workshop to investigate sexuality in recovery. In 1984, this was more challenging than it is today. Since the weekend had been created to explore spirituality issues, I felt challenged to integrate the two. There was another aspect of challenge that tested me in the fifteen hours I would have to prepare for the Saturday afternoon workshop. My co-facilitator was a Catholic nun named Sister Greta!
A significantly painful aspect of my own internalized sexual-spiritual split was planted by a nun when I was about seven. I had never totally healed from that trauma – talk about synchronicity! Although I knew Sister Greta to be a highly compassionate addictions counselor, I could feel a critical mass building inside. The universe was going to heal me whether I liked it or not.
Friday evening, before I went to sleep, I felt deep within that this situation offered a serendipitous occasion for healing. At that point I still didn’t know what to do to create interactive participation around this theme of sexuality within the framework of a spiritual retreat. With all the symbolic transference that Sister Greta elicited, the lingering awareness that she would be observing and participating, embarrassed and unsettled me. It triggered all my unconscious fears surrounding my own split. It was hell!
In the few spare moments I had between facilitating other aspects of the retreat, I observed my experience with sex as it relates to my concept of spirituality in addictions recovery. I decided that I would share my personal experiences with the group as a stimulus for discussion.
As the afternoon approached, I could feel both a fear and a mysterious power building inside of me. At lunch I told Sister Greta how nervous I was discussing sex with her in the room. Of course, I see in retrospect that this was highlighting my own sexual-spiritual split even before I had named it. She fortuitously replied, “Oh, go ahead, go for it Michael! You aren’t going to say anything I haven’t already heard; and if you do, I look forward to hearing it.”
What is Sex?
As the session started, I stood in front of the room nervously holding a piece of chalk. Sister Greta was sitting on a piano bench in the back corner. I looked back at her and we both began to laugh, and at that moment it came to me.
I would share with the group my most recent discovery – how I have been separating the concepts of intimacy, sensuality, and sex in my own mind, and how helpful that realization has been to my own sexuality breakthroughs. I darted to the blackboard and put those three words, intimacy, sensuality, and sex, in that order, from left to right at the top of the board, and started discussing the words.
Initially, the group was enlivened though chaotic. They tended to want to lump the words together. I could actually see participants’ faces twisted in confusion as they attempted to define these words as independent concepts. When the confusion was well established, I suggested that group members call out words they associated with the word “intimacy.” As they did so, I wrote the following words under the intimacy column on the board: “warmth,” “communication,” “honesty,” “caring,” “smile,” “knowing,” “trust,” “openness,” and so on.
Then we moved to the center column headed by the word “sensuality.” As people got silly and awkward they began calling out these words: “touching,” “candlelight,” “smell,” “lick,” “biting,” “tickling,” “music,” “whispering,” “massage.” The list went on and on.
Last, I called for words associated with sex, requesting that we not repeat words already used even though they may have sexual associations. People were obviously embarrassed, as I observed them slyly looking at each other. The presence of Sister Greta was ominous.
One woman in front of the room whispered “penis,” and everyone in the room giggled as I put it on the board. Then Sister Greta shouted out “orgasm,” and the room went into a roar. I listed it on the board, too. Then the words just started coming: “vagina,” “cum” (everyone was curious as to where that spelling originated), “fuck,” “suck,” “fantasy,” “cunnilingus,” and a few others. Sister Greta laughed and laughed with a magical healing energy. Without needing to overtly acknowledge or define it, everyone knew that a very special healing was touching us all.
This laugher fueled another insight in me. I was reminded of my own recent thoughts on how difficult it had been to merge my sexuality with an on-going, loving relationship. My fear of self-disclosure relaxed, and I saw how I might bring the group to a second tier of discovery by sharing my own polarizations in these areas for the group to identify with.
For a few more minutes we lingered with our creation on the board. There were still some confused expressions in the room and some quasi-enlightened remarks. Sam, a 22-year-old former marijuana addict shared, “I have never thought of separating those ideas before. To me they are all the same thing. Looking at them separately sort of twists my brain. I don’t know what to do with it, but it looks like an important discovery. What should I do with it?”
Allowing this question to provide a transition into the next level of the exercise, I asked Sam if he would join me in the front of the room to help demonstrate an answer to his question. He agreed. Sam and I stood facing the blackboard. I suggested that he was representing the entire group in this exercise.
I already knew that Sam was not married, he did not have a significant other, and he wasn’t dating at the time. I asked him, “Sam, if you met someone that you were attracted to, what would you aim toward first, intimacy or sex?” While doing this I paced back and forth in front of the board pointing at the three headings, first in one direction, then the other.
As I “walked the board,” I demonstrated the “journey” from each side, first starting with sex (a very common starting point when one has an addictions history), through sensuality and finally to intimacy. Reversing myself, I started at intimacy, moved through sensuality, and then to sex. I then asked Sam and the group to tune into their bodies and feelings and imagine that they were entering a dating situation from both sides, and note their feelings and sensations.
Sam blurted out, “I can’t do it. I can’t go either way. I can start OK, I can do that from either side, although the intimacy would be new to me. But I don’t think I can have both. When I was using pot, it was easy to just have sex. Now that I’m clean, it doesn’t work that way. My sponsor says I should date and get to know someone first, but I get terrified and just shut down.”
As I continued walking the board, I asked all the participants to raise their hands as soon as I got to a place where they felt they got stuck or paralyzed. In one walk across, every hand in the room, including Sister Greta’s, went up. Everyone looked around in surprise – no one more surprised than me. Every one of the forty participants experienced the same paralysis that I had thought was my unique struggle. Everyone in the room acknowledged that they had all thought it was their unique struggle. We were all suffering from a sexual-spiritual split.
I shared some of the other damaging sexual messages that I received early on: that God was synonymous with love, warmth, family, goodness and wholesomeness, and that sex was shameful, disgusting, sinful (mortally so), ungodly and spoken of only in whispers, dirty jokes and sneers. I also told the group that I had uncovered this internalized unconscious split in myself only recently, and that this discovery was finally allowing me to merge these two dynamic, energetic birthrights.
We all have our own version of this internalization. With such a deeply embedded, dualistic concept, how can one possibly bond in love and bring shame-based sex into relationship? The unconscious sends up powerful, though often deceptive, barriers that prevent a fulfilling merger.
Sharing My Own Painful Story
A good example of this comes from my own childhood. When I was about seven, I attended catechism class, which was a requirement for all good Catholics. The class was taught by a nun in full habit: an imposing authority figure to a little boy!
The class had about thirty students; in fact, I can remember sitting in the middle of a row on the left. The nun was explaining the difference between venial and mortal sin (venial being the lesser one, while mortal seemed to mean that you would be doomed to eternal hell). With these definitions on the blackboard, she pointed at them and strongly proclaimed, “To touch your private parts, or someone else’s, is a MORTAL sin! MORTAL, mind you, not venial.”
I was in shock: I was already doomed. Not only had I touched my private parts, but I had explored the private parts of friends during our games of “doctor.” It was devastating to me: not even eight years old, and I was going to hell.
I spent many years thereafter trying to repent to God, making deals to not do it again, only to fail in humiliation and sinfulness. I regretfully share that I was 31 years old before I was able to uproot this demon and quiet the internalized havoc that it brought to my intimate relationships.
Patrick Carnes touched on the subject of the sexual-spiritual split in his book on sex addiction, Don’t Call It Love. He writes, “Much damage has been done to sexuality in the name of religion. The result inhibits progress on both planes. To heal, start by acknowledging that sexuality is about meaning and that spirituality is about meaning. Search for areas of commonness between the two. Be gentle with yourself about old tortuous conflicts. They are not about you. They never were.”
Initially, most adults in recovery do not realize that they have incurred this psychic split, nor do they remember its origins, but they certainly experience the results. You might find the scenario familiar: once you begin to date, you may experience infatuation, even love and eros. Sex may be very pleasurable. Usually within three to six months, bonding begins as you share struggles and joys.
At this point the unconscious polarity begins to haunt the relationship. Since you are not necessarily aware of your past damages or repressed traumas, you may begin to amplify your partner’s imperfections in an unconscious attempt to sabotage the relationship. Or you might stay in the relationship and feel inadequate because sex is more work than fulfillment. You may even avoid sex altogether. Simply stated, once bonding occurs, either love or sex must be abandoned. Until we heal this sexual-spiritual split, they cannot seem to live in the same house.
People began to ask, “How can we do it?” In the uncanny, magical flow of that afternoon, I suggested that we move on to the final piece of the exercise and asked for another volunteer. A man in his mid-40s named Gary stood up. His wife Carol, who was sitting beside him, was aghast, laughing and turning red with embarrassment. Someone else roared out, “You can’t do it, you’re married.”
Gary cut through the lighthearted bantering and replied, “Yes I can. I’ve been married 14 years and sober for 16, and this damn split has haunted every minute of every day of my marriage. I love Carol, but you would never know it by the way I act sexually and intimately. I’d really like to work on this.” So we did.
During a break that preceded this part of the exercise, we had moved the chairs from the center and I procured some large 16″ x 20″ sheets of paper and some felt-tipped marker to make signs. I asked Gary to stand in the center of the room.
I thanked Gary for his honesty and courage to take part in this psychodrama, and then asked him to take a deep breath and relax, look around the room, and notice all the friendly faces. He did so, beginning to smile and relax. I asked him to go deep into his memory and share with us an early message that he received about sex, and to just look within and say whatever comes up without censoring himself. Gary related, “You’ll go blind if you play with yourself.” I thanked him and wrote that message with a felt-tip marker on a placard.
Then I asked Gary to pick another participant to represent whoever gave him that message, and he selected an older women named Martha. I asked Martha to hold up the placard six feet in front of Gary and face him.
Then I asked Gary for another message that he had received while growing up. He responded, “Women are sluts.” I put it on a placard and Gary picked another workshop participant to represent the person who had given him this message. This time he picked a big, strapping man in his late thirties named Mike. I invited Mike to hold the placard in front of Gary next to Martha, and begin to form a circle.
This continued with messages like “Sex is sinful,” “Vaginas are ugly,” “You are a pervert,” “Women should be virgins,” and so on until we had eight people circling Gary and holding placards toward him.
You will do it if you love me
The last message he shared was, “You will do it if you love me.” As I wrote the placard, I asked him what it meant. He answered, almost crying, “That’s what my uncle would say to me when he molested me.”
As Gary took some deep breaths to regain his composure he said, “I’ve never told anyone, not even Carol, about this before. I can’t believe I said it.” The visual image was quite profound: Gary in the center of the room being encircled by these early messages.
As Gary tried to compose himself further, I encouraged him to stay present and avoid zipping up his defenses. To enhance the experiential component of the vignette, I asked the “message bearers” to turn the placards toward themselves and loudly read the messages to Gary one by one. I instructed them to keep going around and reading them louder and faster until I asked them to stop.
This continued for about two minutes, bringing everyone in the room (especially Gary) to a fevered pitch of discomfort. After stopping the action, I checked in with Gary and asked how he was doing. He replied, “I can’t believe I carry all that with me all the time, especially to bed.”
I then asked Carol if she would participate, to help us complete the exercise. She said yes, and I asked her to stand about six feet outside the circle facing Gary. I instructed the message bearers to go around reading the messages one more time. Then I asked Carol if all of this made her feel close or distant from Gary. I said, “Does it make you want to move closer or further away?” She replied, “I want to stay right here, I feel like there is a wall between us.”
I then invited the group to share. Everyone was enlightened by the realization of how these deep inner messages make sexual intimacy impossible. They could see it and they could feel it; it was crystal clear.
I suggested that we move on to a symbolic exercise that would release these unwelcome, uninvited demons. I directed Gary to slowly, one by one, tell the message bearers, “Take back your lousy message. I don’t want it. It isn’t mine and it never was.” I suggested that as he addressed each one, to tear up the placard and then either throw it on the floor or give it back to the bearer and dismiss them from their role.
After Gary “gave back” the first two messages, I checked in with Carol. I asked her if she was feeling any different. She reported that she felt a little closer to Gary, that he seemed more open and available as he discharged the symbolic carriers of these messages. I suggested that she move closer as she intuitively felt his availability. When all the messages were confronted, Gary just stood there facing Carol and began to gently weep.
And the Walls Came Tumbling Down
As all the walls and barriers melted, Carol gracefully moved towards him. As she did, Gary fell to his knees sobbing, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know. I didn’t mean to push you away like that. I have been bringing all of these ghosts into bed with us all these years.” Carol joined him in a kneeling position. They embraced in a manner that included all of us in their intimate connection.
The wall of shame was gone. The room glowed with a healing spirit. We all spontaneously became more open, affectionate, and tactile. I stood in warm embrace with Sister Greta. Other participants gently touched or leaned on each other as we all bathed in the intimate healing energy generated by Gary’s courageous uncovery process. In those moments I experienced transcendence and simultaneously understood what the humanist therapist Carl Rogers meant when he said, “Whatever is most personal is most general.”
As the afternoon session came to a close, participants were sharing their insights regarding their own repressed shaming messages, and wanted to know how they could continue this healing work on their own. I offered to share some techniques with them, and we designated time on Sunday morning for this purpose.
I was awed and positively overwhelmed by the grace and power in these various exercises which have since been incorporated into our recovery workshops. I have come to realize that the resolution of the sexual-spiritual split is a milestone in this vital work.
Excerpted from The Journey Toward Complete Recovery: Reclaiming Your Emotional, Spiritual & Sexual Wholeness by Michael Picucci. Read an excellent essay by Michael titled “Graceful Guidelines for Sexual Healing.”