I have been jolted brutally into one of those stark realities we frequently face in life. On a night of impaired judgment my perhaps-best friend in the world picked up someone for a sexual encounter, which went horribly wrong. The man snapped in my friend's apartment and beat him so severely that had a neighbor not interrupted the attack he would have been killed. The next morning I received the phone call that he was in the hospital, where I found him with bloodstains all over his body and stitches all over his face and in severe pain. He was lucky to be alive, yet deeply ashamed and enormously sad.
'He seemed nice enough.' 'It seemed like a good idea at the time.' 'He was hot.' Such statements litter countless mornings-after when many of us, after a state of being impaired or simply horny, seek to make sense of poor choices. Luckily for most of us, such statements are attempts to make sense of unfulfilling sexual experiences or encounters that leave us feeling empty, alone, or cheap. In my friend's experience, though, it was something far different, far darker, and far more terrifying.
In the aftermath I forced myself to answer some difficult questions. After all, it could have been me. First question: What really differentiates his outcome from my own? In the final analysis'an uncomfortable one'I had to admit that what separates us is luck. On many occasions I have made choices to hook up with people I did not know. It always has been a roll of the dice, and I have been fortunate that none of the encounters were dangerous. Unsatisfying, perhaps, but never dangerous.
Second question (asked in light of what I wrote in last issue's column related to shame): What choices do I make? And what do my choices tell me about how I really feel about myself? How many times have I in a moment of impaired judgment or loneliness taken someone home with me whom I barely knew? How many times, blinded by passion, have I ignored my inner voice telling me that a person was not a good choice? Too many to count.
I am sure this is true for many of you as well. As a therapist, I know that unconscious material presents itself in many ways but most obviously in the details of existence and the choices we make. Experience consistently shows that what we tell ourselves is frequently different from the actual truth of ourselves. For instance, just last month I spotted shame regarding my HIV status in my fear of my family's potential discovery that I was seropositive. I was unaware of the shame before that.
This month I look more deeply at my choice in sexual or romantic partners. What do I deserve? Do I deserve someone consistent, available, loving, and supportive? Or do I deserve someone anonymous, potentially dangerous, unpredictable, and unavailable? I invite all of you to reflect on your choices and your life and to spot these patterns'some of which are more self-destructive than others.
And especially in light of our shared illness, I invite us all to wonder about how having HIV affects our sense of self'and at times places us in dangerous situations. I wish all of you health and happiness but also safety.
Fransen is a licensed clinical social worker and is in private therapy practice in Chicago. E-mail him at email@example.com.