After “finishing” my Cuddle Chronicles series (though is a touchy-feely queer man’s journey with physical touch ever really complete?) I’ve been pondering what tales to tell next. I’m flexing my Enneagram muscles in our currently airing ConvoCast series, so that’s been a ton o’ nerdy fun trading all those stories within our community. When I consider my own life of late, what comes to mind is therapy — things I’ve been learning, processing, and learning some more these last several years.
Some awarenesses have unspooled slowly, and others have been total lightbulb concepts, new language and practices, a clearer lens to see my world and the world. It’s why I love the Enneagram so much, learning patterns that help me both individually and interconnected with others.
Here’s one vocabulary term I’ve taken away from therapy: euphoric recall. I’d never heard that phrase until last year, and it gives language to this nebulous internal struggle I’ve faced since my first bout with pornography at 19. The phrase pops up in addiction/recovery circles, and a quick Google search took me to one site that put euphoric recall this way:
Euphoria means intense happiness. When an addict has an episode of euphoric recall, they will recall their using or drinking with happiness and comfort. The negative experiences and consequences that have been caused by addiction are pushed out of the mind. Only “positive” memories are remembered.
When I first heard euphoric recall described similarly, I immediately resonated. Because I do that all the time. Not with alcohol. Not with narcotics. But with other men. With fantasy. Sexual fantasies about men. Men from the Internet. Men in my real life. Men from the past. Men in the present.
Men. Men. Men. All the time, men. I can see roots of this internal struggle going all the way back to childhood.
When I was a lonely elementary school kid, I made up innocent stories of boyhood connection featuring myself and my male classmates, literally writing them down in notebooks, playing out countless others in my head. Come puberty, such stories and fantasies grew sexualized. Lying in bed at night, I felt aroused turning those metaphorical pages in my head, following the story wherever it led.
And then once I started watching porn, I replayed those videos internally without even having to click the play button on a screen. Like .mp4 files stored in my brain that could never be deleted. I replayed encounters in similar fashions when I started engaging in promiscuous web chats.
I can’t see inside everyone else’s brains, but my propensity to replay feels particularly nefarious. It feels all-consuming, euphorically recalling those images and videos and web sessions, ignoring any fallout.
I shared this sentiment on the Enneagram Four’s ConvoCast episode, but as a Four-wing-Five straddling the Heart/Head triads, I feel staked to a 500-year mortgage on 500 acres at the intersection of Feelings and Thoughts Boulevards. Whenever I’m awake, as long as I’m conscious, if I’m not intensely feeling something I’m intensely thinking; if I’m not overthinking it, I’m over-feeling it.
I’ve often struggled to fall asleep at night because I just can’t turn off inside — whether it’s my heart or my head, or both. Everything just buzzes and blares, nonstop, until I find ways, healthy or otherwise, to release the feels or silence the thoughts (porn, masturbation, replays of Seinfeld, etc.).
I’ve been practicing meditating, just sitting upright in silence for five to ten minutes at a time, and you can imagine how fun that’s been. It’s a struggle — the first nanosecond I actually find silence, the feelings and thoughts come roaring.
Remember that friend who abandoned you??
Remember how aroused you got during that long hug with him??
Remember that video you watched last night, that fetish you can’t talk about????
General thoughts and feelings hit me all day, but especially at night I experience what I now identify as euphoric recall: replaying sexual or pseudo-sexual experiences, over and over. Replaying those arousing times of touch or conversation, over and over. Re-fantasizing my sexual fantasies, altering details here and there like a choose-your-own-adventure novel, or building entirely new fantasies like Lego castles of desire.
In those moments I remember only the euphoria, the “intense happiness” of my elaborate inner fantasy world, while ever-ignoring reality. I get a charge from the creativity, the scenarios, the control. The ability to live out something in make-believe what I’m too terrified to pursue in real life.
Terrified slash convicted.
Myriad mental and relational health issues aside, my sexual fantasies are a betrayal of my beliefs as a Jesus-follower. I treat men not as fellow image-bearers but as objects for my pleasure, able to be used and discarded as I wish. I feel sad typing that out.
But then there is also the mental/relational health side of things — the consequences I conveniently forget amid my constantly replaying states of euphoria. The truth is, and I hate admitting this, there is horrific consequence.
I so badly wish there weren’t. How I wish I could do whatever the heck I want with the fantasized men in my head, with no bearing on the outside world, on the other people — the other men — in my life.
But when I’m stuck in my head, when I’m entrenched in my fantasies, I’m not spending time with other people. Real people. And the more I punch my ticket from the present world to fantasy land, the less I want to return to this harrowing place.
It’s so much safer in my fantasies, after all. Men can’t hurt me there. Men can’t annoy me or abandon me. I can use them and use them to my heart’s wildest desire, and they always comply.
It’s just easier to isolate and live out a slew of fake relationships than accept or pursue the real ones in my life. Flaws and all.
But my lack of availability to others only starts my consequences. I also become unavailable to myself; my self-care suffers. The dishes overflow for weeks, sleep hygiene goes out the window, and fast food orders accumulate. Forget any sort of fitness or hobbies.
Ultimately, I’m not as available to the Lord. I don’t take time in His word, I stop praying, I stop listening, and I neglect the things He wants me to create, or what to practice in community.
Lulled by the clouds of euphoric recall, I trick myself into thinking I’m safely on autopilot when it’s actually a nosedive.
In those compromised times of staking out even more fantasy acreage for my 500-year mortgage, I need to escape the weight of my head and my heart. This circles back to that Enneagram Four conversation: we heart/head types desperately need outlets beyond the whirlpools of our thoughts and feelings. We need to connect with our bodies.
CrossFit was my running joke on the YOBcast for a while, but I can’t tell you how great CrossFit was for my mental health, even more than my physical; forget the biceps, lats, and pecs (actually, wait, I’ll take those too). Biking and hiking are other ways I love connecting with my body, along with the real world beyond a screen.
I’ve started walking with a pebble in my pocket as a way to ground myself when thoughts and feelings take over. I simply reach inside and remember the present moment. Essential oils also help ground me in my home, bring me back to the real world despite the swirling pull of the fantasy.
Euphoric recall has served me well to survive a lot of lonely times. It does a phenomenal job in the short term. It fills my evenings and nights and wee hours of the morning. Something to do. Somewhere to connect. Like pedaling to power a lightbulb that distracts me from the dark.
But I can’t pedal forever. Eventually the light goes back out. Leaves me alone in the dark.
Naming my struggle with euphoric recall has illuminated my need to exchange all these fantasy men with real men. Real men who, yes, can get mad at me. Real men who annoy me. Real men who can hurt me, betray me, abandon me. And vice versa, for that matter.
But also real men who can bless me. Real men whom I can bless.
Alas, I can’t bless anyone when I’m neglecting others, myself, and the Lord, following these roads of euphoria that only lead right back to a heart full of longing.
I want more than the fleeting charge of euphoric recall. I want what’s real — even though I feel the wince in my soul that real relationships take real work.
I have more to share from my therapeutic learnings over the years. But for now I’ll close on that harrowing, challenging, but reassuring note.
There is no zap to the mountaintop. Real progress takes real work. And I have to believe it’s worth the work.
Do you also struggle with this concept of euphoric recall? How do you escape your head or your heart, or both, when troublesome thoughts and feelings consume you?
Thank you for your vulnerable post Tom. I appreciate you going a bit deeper here thinking about what drives euphoric recall and also being aware of the consequences. I definitely find myself falling into many of the same patterns as you. Once I learned real relationships are often a solution for this, I put my whole heart into it and have tried my best – only to agree with you that it’s much harder than it sounds. Real life takes disappointment and contention and patience and can’t compete with fantasy as far as escape and seeking pleasure. Euphoric recall is definitely an adaptive mechanism our species has used to make it through difficult times, and has helped us succeed and flourish, but it can also be a vice. I have been learning more about mindfulness and meditation and using it as a tool not to escape painful emotions or experiences but as a way to more directly feel them, face them and process them. I’m trying to allow myself to feel them and use them to help my true self instead of escaping the parts of me that are asking for attention that I so often ignore… It seems like I’m also learning this is best done with the help of other loving people in my life and is hard to do on my own. I admire you for the journey you are on and cheer you on as fellow friend who is also finding joy and learning amidst the good struggle.
Mindfulness and meditation, simply learning to be present, has been such a point of growth for me amid my tendency to romanticize the past. I’m by no means accomplished at this, but I’d like to think I’ve come a long way of late. Especially not having a car right now and walking/biking places. It helps me stop, go slower, notice the world around me, instead of zoning out and fantasizing as easily.
Thanks for the cheers! Onward, brother.
Thomas, thank you for your raw vulnerability in describing your battle with”euphoric recall” and how it fills places in the heart and mind where real relationships with other men belong. Now, late in life, I realize how much my fantasy life, and my mental use and abuse of other men, has isolated me and kept me from being fully the man God wants, others need, and I long to be. This article, and so many others on YOB, allow me to have the conversations my soul needs and aches for but I don’t often have with people with skin on.
Ugh, Craig, I can relate with that need to discuss things with “people with skin on.” I’m glad we all have YOB as this place to get out some of the groanings of our hearts. I feel the isolation from people, especially other men, when I’m fully engaged in this euphoric recall. Or do I get fully engaged and then feel the isolation? Maybe both. I’m glad I have language for this tendency that I’ve been using since I was so young.
Thanks for introducing me to the concept of euphoric recall, Tom. And for baring your soul, as you brought your struggle, your journey closer to us readers. I hope the writing process itself was beneficial for you.
I am reminded that our minds, especially as followers of Jesus and members of His Kingdom, form the primary, decisive battle-/struggle-ground. Initiating contact – open discourse – with a trusted friend and companion and inviting him/her into the battleground is surely one of the most powerful weapons we have. Such an individual plays the part of a “living stone” in your hands/pocket and helps draw you back into the beauty of real life with all warts and stenches.
I love the metaphor contained in these (and the following) well-written lines:
[Fantasy gives me..] “Something to do. Somewhere to connect. Like pedaling to power a lightbulb that distracts me from the dark. But I can’t pedal forever. Eventually the light goes back out. Leaves me alone in the dark.”
The real life friend gently helps us realize we’re on the bike, pedaling hopelessly…and guides us into life-giving, light-filled community.
Thanks, Mathew. Writing this post was certainly helpful, a rewarding release of all these pent-up thoughts and processings from therapy over the last year. Hoping to continue unspooling these thoughts in the posts to come.
Hi Tom… From all your interesting report, the importance of staying in time caught my attention… I also like meditation, so I’m slowly incorporating Zen practice into my daily life, even as a preparation for the prayer.. O think that some Zen masters can help us a lot, such as Brazilian Buddhist nun Coen Roshi, and the late German Catholic priest Enomiya-Lassalle, with his interesting book “Zen Meditation for Christians”. Personally, meditation hás helped me to feel more connected and satisfied… That’s my tip. Big hug…
Thanks for sharing! I was using some meditation apps on my phone for a while, and I found them interesting (though hard for me to stay focused, as mentioned). I want to continue practicing staying connected to the present moment. It’s so vital.
I’ve been thinking more about this post Tom……Joseph Nicolosi Senior used a technique that is also taught in other therapy methods used for those affected by relationship trauma. He recommended that his clients visualize men in their lives who had made them feel like they had worth or validated as a man to help them when they felt weak or in a triggered state of shame. I have found that thinking about my good friends and mentors and the way I feel when I am with them does help me when I need it. This also helps me see that our imaginations can be used for good to help us when we need it and that going into fantasy doesn’t have to be seen as a negative thing but can be healing.
Thanks for suggesting that technique, Mark. While I generally steer clear of Nicolosi for the harm his work has done to gay people, I can appreciate this essence of remembering the truth of the men in my life rather than the lie of my fantasies.
I have never heard my struggle with fantasy so expertly described by someone else. Thank you for sharing this. It’s like you stepped into my life and wrote down what you observed. I’m even a 4w5 as well.
4w5’s unite! Thanks for sharing, Caleb. I always appreciate those lightbulb moments I receive from others. Honored to help do the same for people who read my story. You’re certainly not alone in this struggle.