Several months ago, an anonymous Deadspin reader checked himself into the infamous Gentle Path sex addiction program for 45 days — the same place Tiger tamed his wayward pecker. This is what our writer experienced in his time there.
I am a sex addict. Since age 19, I've been completely unable to control my use of pornography on the internet, my compulsive masturbation, my driving need to seduce women, and in recent years my nasty habit of spending hundreds of dollars a night in strip clubs, not so much making it rain as shamefully shoveling a wad of 20s at a stripper before scuttling away. It took a decade to hit bottom and shake my denial, but on the eve of my 30th birthday I flew to Hattiesburg, Miss., and finally decided to give myself a new chance at life.
The easiest way to break the ice at Gentle Path is to mention how little resemblance the place bears to the lush, leafy green compound shown on the website of its mother hospital. I'd been stoked to get away from life and go to a place whose publicity shots just screamed "stereotypical rehab." Tons of trees, a walking path, maybe a water feature or two? I could do 45 days there, no sweat. Problem is, the sprawling campus featured online (which I proudly showed my freaking grandparents to put them at ease) is where the drug and alcohol addicts get to go. Gentle Path is a few minutes down the road, adjacent to an Enterprise Rent-a-Car and sandwiched between two auto-glass shops. It's on the former site of what locals fondly remember as "the sleaziest motel in Hattiesburg." There are very few trees and certainly no water feature. It's not a residential area and train whistles — long, drawn-out train whistles — bellow incessantly through the night. I checked in one evening in early March, though that seems like a million years ago now. My time there was the hardest experience of my life, but I wouldn't have traded it for the world. Frankly, sometimes I think I'd like to go back for more.
There's no individual therapy at Gentle Path. The staff believes "shame reduction" is the only way out of sex addiction, and so every unbelievably perverted, scandalous, depressing thing I had to confess or tell a therapist was done in a group setting, sometimes in front of all 25 of my peers. Things I'd never said out loud — not even to myself — I shared with relative strangers, some of whom had just checked in that day. I went in there confident I would never talk about paying for sex with strippers, never talk about looking at animal porn, and sure as hell never describe how many times I'd been unfaithful to women. I planned on boasting about going to swinger's clubs with my girlfriend, but I quickly found out that activity was not considered "healthy sexuality" at all. Anyway, I shared everything — and it worked. Hearing other men say they've struggled with exactly the same websites was incredibly cathartic, and hearing them bare other struggles — voyeurism, kids out of wedlock, childhood sexual abuse — made me understand I wasn't alone.
We didn't pay $32,000 just to talk amongst ourselves, of course, and lectures, seminars and workshops took up most of my time there. I learned about why traumatic childhood events are essentially the building block of any addiction. I learned to see my problem as one of shame and isolation, and I enthusiastically warmed to the 12-step concept that I was completely powerless over my sexual behavior.
I learned about my "arousal template," and how massively fucked it was after years in the Internet's underbelly. I saw a psychologist who drove in special from New Orleans to meet patients with extreme tastes in porn. I told him every miserable detail, which he repeated to the staff in a Southern drawl/monotone sounding exactly like Mr. Mackey from South Park: "Uhhh, the patient has made plans to visit a British porn star who eats feces," he said. The staff nodded sagely. "But it was just to watch and it fell through anyway!" I wanted to plead, but had to stay silent. One of the more attractive nurses was in that meeting, and I wanted to die. It was the most mortifying day of my life by far. Except maybe for when I confessed the same things to my mom on Family Week. But she was a trouper.
My therapist said the fact I was aroused by shit and animal porn meant I had brain damage, simple as that. His conclusion took a couple of days to sink in. Essentially, the part of my mind responsible for rational decision-making has been overridden by a huge desire for more pleasure chemicals, and I do stupid, dangerous things to get those chemicals no matter the consequences. That's addiction. That's why I'd return to a strip club only days after being thrown out for getting a girl to piss on me, or why I'd drag my exhausted body back to the computer for another porn binge, having just finished an all-nighter. That's why I once dropped a girlfriend off at home, only to meet some friends for a drunken foursome, praying no one would notice how crooked and out-of-shape my porn-abused dick had become.
Every peer at GP has stories like that to tell, and that's the magic of rehab — to meet other humans you can relate to while thinking: "Wow, this guy's pretty fucked. Guess I'm not the worst person in the world after all!" Fellowship like that is key to recovery, and so our walking track and dining hall became decompression chambers, places to chat with other guys and hear their stories. Our aging basketball hoop hosted endless games of HORSE and I'd often try the "bottom lines" shot: shooting while reciting my list of sobriety-violating behaviors. It was fun to see others try it, and there was something freeing about being able to laugh a little about the worst things I'd done.
So it wasn't all homework and weepy confessions at Gentle Path, but we all knew that socializing as much as possible had inherent therapeutic value. We had an ancient foosball table, a closetful of board games, and an endless pantry of junk food to console ourselves with after dark. Once a week we'd be allowed to watch a therapist-approved movie on our giant flatscreen, and we got permission to watch the Final Four and the Masters, too. We heard that a South Park episode about GP came out while we were there, but there was no way in hell the staff would let us watch that.
Once a week came the much-welcomed trip to a Hattiesburg Wal-Mart to stock up on approved supplies (no caffeine, no alcohol-based toiletries, staff member inspects our bags) and chill out at the attached McDonald's. A peer with a fat-woman fetish confessed it was all he could do to keep his eyes on the ground when we visited. I couldn't laugh; it took my every strength not to objectify the super-hot college girls who worked out at the gym we went to three times a week. In Gentle Path terms, staring at women for longer than three seconds constitutes "objectification," and thus requires a reset of your sobriety date. And nothing is more discouraging than that.
The rhythm of life at GP got grating after about a month. In those first 30 days, my mother came, listened to the worst of me, and left even more proud and supportive than she'd ever been. On staff advice, I broke up with my girlfriend via speakerphone so my therapist could listen, and I spent a few days absolutely shattered. I reached a month's sobriety and knew I could make the 45 without worry. The constant workouts and yoga improved my body and settled my mind, and I felt a serene calm I'd never felt in my adult life. My shame, anger, fear, and suicidal thoughts melted away as the Mississippi winter turned to a scorching spring. I felt great but my therapists warned me I could use a few months in a halfway house, or at least a couple of more weeks at GP, to calm down my brain. But I'd had enough. I was ready to go home and re-start my life.
My last night there was the most powerful and amazing experience I've ever had — I told my life story to the full group, and in turn they offered me their best wishes and a book full of their warm thoughts and contact information. A camp-like "we'll be in touch forever" vibe prevailed. I was officially sent off with a primal scream-type ritual I thought was idiotic on Day 1 but couldn't wait to do by Day 45. I've since realized that night was the ultimate act of "shame reduction." For the first time, I believed from the heart that I was a good person and not a monster. I signed my full name and phone number into peers' books, now completely vulnerable and trusting them implicitly with my darkest secrets. Being able to do that made me feel more human than anything else.
Speaking of which, a word on confidentiality: I can't tell you what you want to know. Sorry if you made it this far in the hopes of finally reading some salacious tabloid gossip, but I just can't. Nearly every morning in our "community" meeting, staff would brief us on the importance of confidentiality and how vital it was to building a sense of trust. Several people confessed to telling wives or new peers about "famous people" or "celebrities" who had passed through, thus offering themselves up for punishment and public shaming. Now that I'm out, it's not like I'm legally bound or anything, but I made a commitment. And for once in my miserable addict's life, I'm going to honor a commitment and not crap out when it's convenient. So that shit goes with me to the grave.
I will say that in preparation for an alumni weekend, our director asked for help taking down the hideous black anti-paparazzi tarps that made the place even uglier than usual. I looked at her and said, "So are we not getting any more A-listers?" She glared for a second and shot back, "Dave, you're an A-lister." The funny thing is, she was right. We all were. Stars in our own minds, grandiose addicts who spent years thinking the rules didn't apply, absolutely unmatched at pleasuring ourselves and smashing lives in the process.