Playing with ‘Sexual Nostalgia’ to Heal Karmic Wounds
It’s a love loss / It’s in my mind / It takes me to places I don’t want to find / It’s a cold shock straight to my heart / Feeling afraid of what’s come apart / … Know if tomorrow we shall lie / In the relations of our life / Never thought you would go away / So far away
— Cardia, “Love Loss”
It has been nearly two years since my last relationship ended and I still have a cardboard box filled with neatly stacked piles of mementos — greeting cards, clothing, ornaments, photos and a dried bouquet — symbolizing treasured moments of a season rich in pleasure and pain. This is a longstanding habit of mine: saving souvenirs from foregone chapters of love with both men and women.
I pulled the box out from under my office desk on a recent dreary afternoon in a bout of boredom, creative frustration and loneliness I was projecting onto my present partner. As a recovering sex and love addict, my tendency is to sexualize stress. In those times where I feel especially isolated in my everyday mental unease it is easy to fall prey to an escapist mechanism by which I can reach into my sexual past (or the future) and settle there satisfied, complacent in the solipsism of nostalgic illusion where the bygone and yet-to-be (re)emerge as better than the now.
Leafing through some of the greeting cards and sniffing the tattered UPS shirt my last lover gave me (he was a delivery man for 30 years), I decided to write about the compacted desire welling up in me. As I did so, I felt a slow release from the isolation I was feeling that afternoon. I chose not to fight the temptation to yearn. Instead of closing the lid on the past and the longings it evokes, repressing it in the dark corners of my mind where it would just fester into a monstrosity of resentment toward the one I’m with, I let it out on the page.
I found with each stroke of my pen, as I allowed myself get lost in that bittersweet reverie of return to a former life, the urge to escape from the present and its burdens lessened in intensity. The more permission I gave myself to trek down memory lane, the more psychic space I had to become an objective observer of my feeling states and their accompanying impulses. I realized, by giving heed to the habit of looking back with conscious awareness and intention — by willingly unlidding the box and writing about the feelings which arose in so doing — I am present, embodied, self-possessed. In that, I was able to make the distinction between then and now by differentiating the quality of life as I experienced it with the “ex” and that as I experience it with my now-beloved.
The contrast is stark — in a good way — which I’ll bracket for later.
Now, standard advice would have me sever my old tie(s) with a bonfire to set the past ablaze, let go and move on. Certainly, I have considered this. In fact, my present partner and I have a stockpile of bracken on the lawn to which I could add some layers and finally shed old skin. We’ve talked about this — cremating what was to celebrate what is. I am not opposed to the act intellectually; it makes a lot of rational sense. Ritual has a way of embodying and emboldening the commitments we make to each other. This act would function as a commitment not only to my current lover but to myself — an affirmation of the present and the choices which have led to it.
But, despite the risks of nostalgia, I am deciding against it — for reasons intimated above and detailed more explicitly below.
The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines nostalgia as both “homesickness” and “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.”
A type four on the Enneagram, an INFJ on the Meyers-Briggs personality scale and a Virgo whose natal chart includes a Third House placement for the mystical planet Neptune, I am prone to romanticize the past, including its pains, and to daydream about the imagined pleasures of the future.
I also grew up in a family that covets religious tradition. My day’s routine was scheduled according to Catholic mass and rote prayer centered around the dual act of remembering and anticipating. The Eucharistic celebration itself is a kind of nostalgic play: an expectant memorial, hinged on a trajectory of messianic return. This is not to dismiss age-old religious practice as empty sentimentality but to acknowledge the shadowside of reverence for the past and its embeddedness in my cultural and spiritual DNA.
By nature and nurture, I am prone toward a kind of yearning the underside of which is fantasy, a form of psychological escapism that is perhaps all too human. When faced with the hours of mundane time in a cultural milieu that places great value in the dual ethic of productivity and progress, often at the expense of imagination, one is hard-pressed not to retreat into the imaginal — a space where everything is safe, secure, warm.
Yet, in a capitalist social economy that prizes industry and output based on ever-shifting consumer demands, our survival depends on the adult adjustment for which we are trained from an early age. Life in the “real world” is no walk in the park. It is a series of accountabilities to individuals and institutions which compete for our agency and attention. This extends into the realm of sexuality as well, where the cultural ideals of marriage and family place their indelible imprint, conditioning us to control our libidinal drives through an act of Freudian sublimation that grounds us in what he called the “reality principle.”
But, as intimated above, we all know how boring “reality” can be, how soul-suckingly dull the everyday of relating to others in our orbit can be, including and especially the ones closest to us. Quarantine has been a real litmus test for couples this way — some deepening commitments, others troubling them to the point of separation or divorce based on concealed intuitions this period of forced introspection has revealed.
For me, this time of mandated introversion has been socially engaged with boots-on-the-ground experience doing street outreach for a homeless housing service provider in rural Humboldt County. It has been a harrowingly busy time up until I decided to leave that work in November to recover from burn out and turn my attention to the more creative and personally fulfilling pursuit of writing.
Since then, time and space seem to have opened up like an abyss. The hours feel simultaneously shortened and prolonged while one day bleeds into the next, as my father would say. An ennui hovers like haze and the mirage of greener pastures appears as a Narnian portrait, beckoning me into its dreamland while my environment fades into the background.
Suddenly, I begin to feel a creeping anxiety, laden with a depressive heaviness that triggers sexual compulsion. Like other addicts, I sexualize the stress which has me culling stored ecstasies as a pleasurable getaway from the demands of the day — like relationship, for one; work, for another.
In a recent issue of Psychology Today, social psychologist Madeleine A. Fugère, Ph.D., discusses research out of New York University (Muise et al., 2020) addressing the habit of reminiscing about positive sexual encounters with past partners. It’s what they’re calling “sexual nostalgia.” Fugère highlights how the social isolation attendant to the pandemic contributes to the loneliness which prompts sexual yearning.
According to the research, involving single and coupled participants of diverse sexual orientations that were administered surveys over the course of three separate studies, individuals tend to reminisce as a response to loneliness or to an unfulfilling relationship.
“The respondents noted that they felt more sexual nostalgia when they felt lonely or when they were unsatisfied with their current relationships,” Fugère writes. “Individuals who rated their relationships as lower-quality or who reported reduced sexual satisfaction also felt more sexual nostalgia. People who indicated that they were single rather than in a current relationship were also more likely to say they felt sexually nostalgic for an ex-partner.”
In this time of pandemic, which I’ve spent living with another man inside the shelter of an isolated forest grove, it has been a serious challenge not to seek escape, particularly in the very sexual yearning Fugère summarizes in her recapitulation of the Muise et al. study. For my part, the doldrums of quarantine are no small set of contributing factors to the heightened sexual nostalgia I’ve experienced since I left my last job.
My cardbard box encompasses this longing. It commemorates a transitional time in my life when I was coming into my own vision of an uncertain future that could have included the partner its contents recall. That was my intention, as I chronicle in a blog series detailing the connection I made with this man — someone who matched my “sexual thumbprint” to use the language of a close friend on describing those individuals who fit one’s preferred sexual type.
As I note on Coming Out Twice, I was drawn to his body in the swirl of immediate sexual attraction. Sex became the incentive for meeting him in the first place. It was an encounter that would eventually slip into a romance predicated on my pornographic lust for the daddy-son dynamic it was. It was not problematic in and of itself. What made it so was the ensuing confusion of sex and love that resulted in an 18-month relationship without which I could not seem to survive psychologically.
Without my being aware, even as I was writing about it publicly with the best of intentions, the relationship touched on all the signs of addiction I had recited ad nauseum during 12-step meetings the two years leading up to our extended tryst. But that is how addiction works — it preys on unconscious fears that cement an unhealthy attachment style in a bond riddled with rough patches that feel catastrophic. That is how it felt with this partner in particular in large part because the sexual hook was so strong.
It is what new age psychology would call a “karmic relationship” — characterized by an erotically charged push-and-pull that manifests as codependency but which is ultimately oriented toward a good: that of individuation. Only that comes with a cost: the opening of a core wound.
Only by exiting did I come face to face with my fear of abandonment which, throughout my life in friendship and romance, has created an anxious-avoidant attachment style. “Now come here, now go away,” is the mantra of this ingrained pattern — one that served a purpose for a time, a self-preservationist strategy developed as a childhood coping mechanism for the loss of an older sister with whom I was very close.
It wasn’t until I met another man in the course of my settling into life on the North Coast of California that the karmic hook loosened. This new man and his friendship knocked me out of an illusion months into a long-distance relationship as I was holding on to the hope of having my then-lover move up from Southern California, where I was living when we met. Despite my concerted attempt at intimacy and shared experience over the span of 600 miles, my former lover failed to take the initiative and visit me in a long-term space I was carving out for both of us.
Shaking this old love has been a practice in mindfulness. In meditation, I sometimes imagine myself a sitting Buddha, unperturbed by the “hungry ghosts” harassing him. My hungry ghost is a six-foot, four-inch bear with a linebacker’s build and the sex drive as strong as a bull. This love’s delusion was typified by the fairy-tale ending of happily-ever-after I still imagine for me and him in my darker moments of boredom, confusion and doubt. It is a longing into which I can retreat with the imagined embrace of a body that still haunts me in dreams, private thoughts and fantasy, intrudes upon encounter with my current beloved.
We had just befriended each other months after meeting and enjoying good conversation at a Christmas party a mutual friend hosted that January, around the time I moved up north. We cemented a good rapport when I reached out to find some company toward the end of a chapter that started in Orange County. In the ease with which we fell into one another’s gaze I had the sneaking premonition that this newfound connection could only go deeper. Between our common interests, shared values, similar spiritual upbringings and the sexual spark we felt upon following up with each other that Memorial Day weekend in 2019, it dawned on me: It was time to make a hard choice. I was going to give up to gain.
Not a week after this new friend and I met for a sushi lunch and a hike in the nearby community forest I called off the long-anticipated visit from my then-boyfriend and broke up with him to boot. All in the course of a less-than-five-minute phone call on a Saturday during a break from work that had me sobbing in my car after hanging up. I knew this is what I wanted — I could feel its pull physically, at a gut level: my body’s way of saying, “Get free.”
I released myself from that unconscious captivity only to feel ripped apart from the inside out.
In the midst of a panic attack and stricken by an inexplicable grief one sleepless night shortly after breaking up, l phoned my new flame as a diversion from the temptation to rekindle the old one. It worked. Without question, in the pre-dawn hours of a spring day, my fast friend happily agreed to rendez-vous at 4 a.m. on a moon-drenched beach in Trinidad, California.
“Oh, I’m bein’ followed by a moon shadow, moon shadow, moon shadow,” he crooned like Cat Stevens as we greeted each other, bare feet in cold sand.
Embracing me, he said I have a hole inside the size of a football player now, paraphrasing a depth psychological theory that we each have a “god-shaped hole” we fill with lesser things until something greater comes along. We might call this “greater” the god of our own understanding, the self, or, simply, subjectivity.
What my former lover represented was an archetypal ideal toward which I have wittingly and unwittingly aspired to unite all my life. He was the father, the protector, the man who delivers, the athlete, the auto-mechanic, the full embodiment of white American masculinity with the man musk to embellish it. He might be able to recognize me in a way my own father never could, my logic went. Maybe I could fix the broken connection between me and dad, my unconscious rationalized.
A fool who rushed in, I became obsessed, pedestalizing someone who was a god to me. Who in fact materialized a hetero-patriarchal and racist god image I thought I jettisoned years before when squaring with my homosexuality. He became my proverbial Santa Claus — the white, big, gray-bearded heavenly figure who bestows gifts, hearkening us all back to childhood when awe and wonder was a thing.
There was great warmth and tenderness there. In that refuge, our souls worked out a karmic contract so that, in the end, we could both be free to find love. Only the path toward the kind of awakening that slaps us out of our blindness in intimacy is arduously slow, wretchedly painful. It demands we trench through the muck of our deepest trauma.
My trauma erupted when I finally cut the cord with my old love and was left without a security blanket. Yes, I was fomenting companionship with a like-minded other in the context of something more transpersonal than I had heretofore encountered. But that was precisely it. What I was experiencing in relationship this time around lacked the anesthetizing effects of romance as I had known it before. Put simply, it began and continues on the basis of friendship, in which the other is beheld as a subject as opposed to an object. This was not someone who was going to caretake my fear of abandonment, enabling me to numb it with romantic intensity, but who would accompany me with the encouragement and support of a brother as I excavated the upwelling sorrow of this latest departure.
Juxtaposed with my past partnerships, this particular connection, the one I am presently maintaining, places a scrutinizing lens over those unhealthy patterns of relating I learned within my own family system. Where other romances were always accompanied by that sinking stomach feeling of a red flag warning, telling me something was off, this one felt organic — as if it was a natural expression of who I am on an intra-subjective level. It, in essence, holds a mirror to my past relationships in such a way as to continually demystify me, dissembling a psychic structure of dependency I had built around a projection of idyllic love that had me trapped in samsara.
The choices I was making in intimacy, previous to meeting him, were unfree, I realized, rooted in a deep-seated fear that I would be left alone, that I was unlovable. They were not motivated by conscious will and motivation, by a joyful enthusiasm for life, but by a shallow denial, if not outright refusal, of it. Here was someone with whom I felt no need to rescue or be rescued, even as he saved my life from the slavery it was living. Here was someone whom I could call an equal, who activated no fight, flight or freeze response but whose very presence inspired the kind of momentum one feels on a journey with a dear one.
Having said all that, my core trauma constellates around my sexuality. It is a wound aggravated by the absent father and the overbearing mother, saying as much about my troubled relationship with the Catholic Church and its institutional representatives as it does about my fraught familial ties despite how unconditionally loving my parents are and have been. They, like the Church, have only been as hospitable to me as their limited worldview and the boundaries of dogma will allow.
My wound tends to flare up in boredom and loneliness, when the bedfellows anxiety and depression rouse from the crevices of my psyche to remind me I am not good enough or worthy of love. Sex cuts through the mental distress of doubt and confusion around who I am and how I’m showing up in the world with its utilitarian measures for what it means to be human. This has been the case since I started masturbating compulsively at 15, after an early pubescence spent white-knuckling my libido for fear of eternal damnation. And what better kind of sex to do so, my wound tells me, than the consciousness-obliterating kind that has me screaming “Daddy!”
Only, I don’t get that kind of sex with my current lover — nor do I want it with or from him. I am still repairing from the psychological damage of that complex when it is devoid of, yet conflated with, intimacy. As a playful manner of expression bordering on the literal: It is a total mind fuck.
Yet, that sexual past is precisely where my imagination goes when the seconds drag into days. Time in pandemic, with its ennui, and longterm partnership in general, with its all-too-quickly routinized sexual play, dull the sheen of romance with contemptuous familiarity. It is Pandora’s guile at work, forcing me to reckon with previously unawakened psychic material as it surfaces in intrusive thoughts in the boredom and loneliness of routine intimacy with my forever beloved.
So I am allowing myself permission to explore the inner dimensions of that boxed yearning — no longer frustrated by it and thus made angry. As I dialogue with the memories of a sexual relationship and its illusions, which cast a long shadow across my marriage bed, I know that the repressed contents of that cardboard box will only amplify the longing to return, will only retreat me further into the fantasy of lost love’s spectral presence (and absence), if I do not illumine them with the soft light of careful and conscious self-examination.
By archiving those contents as remnants of a meaningful chapter in my sexual history — one that was the start of a sojourn leading to now — I challenge myself to engage in serious play with my nostalgic inclinations as they arise in moments of boredom, isolation and loneliness. I might ask them what they are looking for and how I might manifest the piquancy of their imaginal content in the flesh and blood of my body, and that of my partner, in sex and love. What’s more, I can give testimony to my own queer truths, piecing together the fragments of a gay man’s history that trouble “easy assumptions” about sexual identity in the manner of what cultural historian Barry Reay calls the “counterarchive” in his enlightening assessment of American erotica.
Sorting and storing my archival traces bravely, honoring them like ritual objects on the altar of Morrisonian “rememory,” I am more emboldened to anticipate and participate in the indwelling of “presence” — which is to say, life-force, the animating principle — from within rather than looking for it from without. In that, my soul reveals itself as the lost little boy for whom I now have the agency to become father, lover, friend, brother. No wistful longing, here, but a holy awe and wonder at what I behold in the looking glass and the verdant light it reflects on the present — dark shadows and all.
“You know that hole can be filled,” my partner, a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker, reminded me after proofing this piece. It’s just a matter of how we fill it and the substance with which we’re filling it, I think, improvising on his response.
If we’re trying to fix our relationship with our parents by latching on to people who emulate their emotional unavailability, then we will be left a slave to our own hollowing devices — ultimately marrying our mother or father to make the fractured family system work and falling up short of happiness, contentment, fulfillment in love.
“It’s only after we do that repeatedly we come to see this is not what we want or need,” my partner said. “What we need is someone to mirror us.”
Only then can we come to see ourselves as we actually are, or at least become more acutely aware of ourselves and the unconscious complexes that drive us into cycles we cannot break until we’re blindsided by them — until our center of subjectivity shifts by the presence of an other who really sees us, whom we can really see.
Otherwise, riffing on my partner’s wisdom, we remain in constant thirst, famished for our next prey and falling into the same old relational patterns beset with addiction, guilt, shame, duty, obligation, resentment. We don’t have to hunt to find love, this insight says. Sometimes it comes looking for us, often in the least suspecting of people and places — the ones who aren’t serving as our surrogate parents but as our lifelong companions.
I go back now to that cardboard box, returning its contents with gentle ease. They have less power over me now — a slight tickle of scar tissue perhaps, but not the searing burn of grief sight of them once provoked. If 2020 has taught me anything, it is the lessons of hindsight — if and when I choose to listen. In that, there is a deeper knowingness awaiting revelation by which I can turn toward the past, re-member it in the fullness of this pregnant moment and finally heal its traumatic repetition.