"This is news?" Someone posted this on a journalism website in response to the Herald on Sunday's lead story yesterday; running star Nick Willis speaking out about his pornography addiction.

Sir, if I may be so bold as to answer? Yes, it bloody freaking well is. This was an incredibly brave story. It was brave of Nick Willis to speak out, brave of the Herald on Sunday to run it prominently and very brave of his wife, Sierra to support him publicly.

Did the story make you feel uncomfortable, perhaps? I'm guessing it did. And isn't that interesting! We may be (a little bit) better at being able to talk about depression these days, but there is still deep shame in being honest about other forms of mental illness and the myriad, sometimes weird ways that we try to escape from our psychic pain.

And seeking to escape the shame we engage in dysfunctional behaviour, which makes us feel more shame, and so the feedback loop continues.


Because we don't talk about this stuff much, I imagine some people will read Willis' story and be bewildered by it. How could someone with so much that is good in his life, and with such impressive achievements, be susceptible to something as seedy sounding as a porn addiction?

Sadly, I think the answer is: quite easily.

Research shows that addiction develops when we can't bear to be present in our own lives, and that can be for many reasons. I'm guessing you don't get to be an elite athlete without a tendency towards perfectionism. And perfectionism sets you up for toxic shame.

Do I need to explain how that works? You don't have to look far to see our culture has an almost psychotic preoccupation with youth, beauty, success and winning. The standards we are supposed to attain are impossible to reach. This leads to a discrepancy between where we are and where we think we should be. So our mind thinks there is something wrong with us. No wonder you need some substance or behaviour to give yourself a break from the tyranny of your relentlessly high standards. And not just any kind of break.

For the perfectionists who have trained themselves to do, simply being sounds like a euphemism for ceasing to exist. When we are emotionally shame-bound our feelings can be unbearable, and so we seek to numb them out in whatever way we can.

The trance of sensory numbing - which can be achieved by any stupefying substance or behaviour - stops us from feeling. Some people use alcohol or food, others use love or sex as an analgesic, to numb this pain. Interrupting this pattern - rupturing the trance - is deeply painful.

That is why I admire Willis so much. It takes guts to do what he has done - not just in being public about it, but in facing his own fragility. It is the awareness, the full experience of how you are stuck, that makes you recover. But the difficult truth is, that it is not enough to give up the booze or drugs or porn. That is only the start. That is when the hard work of learning to live in reality begins.

If we want to give up our toxic shame we have to do the work of developing healthy shame, the recognition we are limited and that we will make mistakes. We are not Gods; we can't always win. Without the crutch of our various escapes we find ourselves living in the terrible dailyness of life in all its moment-to-moment crappiness as well as glory. This kind of enlightenment involves progressive disillusionment.


And what we want, achieving rapport and connection, is both simple and difficult. When we withdraw our fairytale projections from one another we end our grandiose illusion of omnipotence. We are going to die and we must die alone; all relationships must end.

Without our projections we see each other as we really are; as our all-too-frail, human selves. We may find this terribly disconcerting.

Debate on this article is now closed.