The Problem List

Clark smiled broadly, which was unusual for Clark. Prone to anxiety and depression, he often sat through our weekly sex offender treatment sessions wearing an exhausted, dour expression, as though his life were coming to an end and he'd sooner sleep through the last dreadful bits. But today he smiled—it was a rather handsome smile—and he told the group that he had finally passed his polygraph. The other seven of us in the circle congratulated him, though for what I wasn't exactly sure. Were we congratulating him for telling the truth and abstaining from pornography or for passing the test? We knew well that the two were not necessarily exclusive.

It was his second polygraph in two months, a mandatory retake after having failed the first test. Clark had sworn up and down, as he was expected to, that he'd told the truth on that test, that he hadn't looked at pornography, not unless we considered that bare breast he'd glimpsed on Game of Thrones pornography, which we didn't. He swore he was clean, and yet the machine, that final arbitrator of our innocence, cried deceit. And just how, he'd asked, head in his hands, was he supposed to afford the $200 fee for the retake?

The circle of men had tried to console him by offering him tips for the next polygraph. Get plenty of rest the night before, they said. Never consume coffee beforehand, because caffeine can interfere with the test results. Be sure to eat a good breakfast, too—a piece of dry toast, oatmeal, or a banana—but nothing too heavy, as a heavy meal can cause drowsiness, which might also affect the test results…

Polygraphs. It seemed they were all we talked about—who was passing, who was failing, how reliable were they really, and just what does the word "pornography" actually mean?

Now, after having passed, Clark sat back in his chair looking like a man who'd just had his execution stayed, which was very nearly the truth. He looked so relieved it was pitiful. But what, I wondered, did a passing mark really mean? By failing the first test and subsequently passing the second, hadn't he only proved that the test is flawed, that it doesn't measure what it claims to measure? In which case a passing mark held no more veracity than a failing mark. To my mind, the only thing Clark had accomplished by passing the test was to buy himself another six months' time before the next polygraph, at which point he'd once again be an emotional wreck, swearing to the group that he'd told the truth, wondering if things wouldn't have turned out differently if he'd eaten a bagel and skipped his morning joe. I suspected the real reason we congratulated Clark wasn't because any of us believed or even cared that he'd told the truth. Rather we congratulated him because he had managed, for the time being, to escape a very bad fate, one that we all feared, which was the possibility of getting kicked out of treatment and sent back to prison.

"Did the polygrapher refund you the $200?" I asked.

Clark furrowed his brow, not following.

"After all, they sold you a faulty product," I said. All that talk about polygraphs had wrangled my nerves and made me snarky, not the least because my own polygraph was due soon and I was certain I would fail. Not for lack of a light breakfast but for real trespasses. For shortly after releasing from prison I had returned to my old habits by purchasing an illicit iPod Touch and using it to secretly download pornography. I quit the habit and iPod back in November, but the violations still weighed heavily on my conscience.

After Clark, the floor was turned over to the next man in the circle, Milton, who'd been living in a homeless shelter for the past two years. Last week someone asked him how long he planned on staying in the shelter. Milton said it depends on when his disability claim is approved. The system was complicated, the paperwork confusing. But some of the men wondered aloud whether Milton had gotten a little too comfortable at the shelter and had perhaps been dragging his feet. Milton got defensive, but after some gentle probing he admitted that, yes, maybe he had gotten a little too comfortable with his living arrangements and, okay, perhaps he was a bit scared of change and of venturing out on his own. This week, with the group's encouragement, Milton told us he finally completed and submitted the paperwork for his disability claim and hoped to hear back soon.

Next came Mason who was recently paroled after serving nine years for a drug crime and for aggravated sexual assault. He shared with the group that he'd recently gotten in touch with his adult daughter but the conversation hadn't gone well. She was still angry and resentful for having been raised for nearly half her childhood without a father. Though what could Mason do now? He couldn't change the past, he told us. He could only try to be there for her now, if she allowed him to, which she wasn't ready to do.

After Mason came Abrams who was in his mid-fifties and had served the longest sentence of any man in the group—thirty-five years. Like Mason, he'd been charged with a drug crime and sexual assault. We weren't clear on the precise nature of the sex charge, but the therapist once admitted to us she didn't believe Abrams really belonged in sex offender treatment. Perhaps for this reason he contributed little to the discussions about sex and porn. His check-ins mostly concerned his trying to come to grips with a world so unlike the one he had left behind over three decades ago. Lately he'd been struggling to learn to use a cell phone. The therapist tried once to show Abrams how to text and to use the calendar app to set reminders for registering. But the lessons never took and he only ever used the phone for placing calls. He couldn't bring himself to trust a device that still seemed to him like magic.

This week we were appalled to learn that Abrams didn't know how to cook and had been subsisting on much of the same foods he'd eaten prison, mostly ramen soup. The group decided that the first meal Abrams should teach himself to cook was spaghetti. It wasn't so hard. Milton instructed him to lightly salt the pasta water before setting it to boil. Mason suggested he add a bit of oil to the water to prevent the spaghetti from sticking together. Clark claimed that Abrams would know when the pasta is done when it sticks to the wall. As the Italian of the group I was offended by these suggestions, and had I been in a brighter mood I might have told Abrams that pasta water ought to taste like the sea, that oil does nothing to prevent sticking, and that under no circumstance should he ever throw pasta against a wall, for goodness sake.

But my mind was on the polygraph. And I was anxious too because the group and therapist had turned their attention from Abrams to me. It was my turn to share.

"Are you ready to present?" asked the therapist.

She was referring of course to my homework assignment. Each of us in the group was assigned a workbook unique to our particular afflictions. Mine was a thick red volume called Facing the Shadow aimed at sex addicts. Occasionally one of us in the group was called to share an assignment from his workbook, and today the burden fell on me. The name of the exercise was titled, somewhat ominously, "The Problem List." It instructed that I list all of my problems, sexual or otherwise. Doing so promised to reveal that many if not all of my life's troubles were tied to my sexual deviousness and porn addiction.

I cleared my throat. "My problems," I began, were that I worked in a kitchen making thirteen dollars per hour, requiring me to donate plasma to make ends meet. Meanwhile my computer degree and skills sat idle, held hostage by a draconian restriction that forbid me from using a computer. My career, my financial stability, my former life were gone, and what surprised and unnerved me was that I was only now, after a decade, beginning to fully realize and mourn those losses. I was often depressed and anxious. I had breakdowns for no reasons. I felt alone and isolated from the world. I had thoughts of ending my life.

I moved down the list point-by-point, though when I reached the admission of having used pornography I skipped it, slid my finger down to the next and final bullet point, which was no less horrific or easier to admit, not to myself and certainly not to a roomful of strangers.

"Finally, I have a problem keeping my fantasies in check when I masturbate. I think about boys sometimes, and more often I fantasize about being a young boy having sex with adult men."

I closed my workbook. Across the circle the therapist smiled. My admissions had pleased her.

David, the only other gay man in the group, was the first to speak. "If you don't mind my asking, were you ever victimized as a child?"

I laughed involuntarily. "No. Never."

He thought for a moment while the other men shuffled their feet. Had I arrived a few minutes earlier I might have gotten a chair facing the windows looking out at the airport. The planes, their quiet descents and take-offs, calmed me. As it was I faced the therapist and so contented myself by concentrating on the fluorescent lights.

"And when," David continued, "did you start having these fantasies, of having sex with older men?"

"I guess around the time I started looking at porn, around thirteen." I explained to the group that I'd found some copies of Penthouse and Hustler at the bottom of my brother's closet. It was my first time seeing male nudity, and the depictions of masculinity, power, and virility intoxicated me. "In a way, those magazines saved me."

"Pornography saved you?" When grilling other members, David had a habit of sliding his eyes toward the therapist, as if to ask, Are you getting this? He did that now. "Just how did pornography save you?"

Seeing those men as a teenager, I said, helped me to make sense of the feelings I'd been having and to realize I was gay. Growing up in Texas, in the heart of the Bible Belt, I had limited means of exploring my sexuality. Pornography gave me an outlet, free of fear, embarrassment, rejection, and shame.

David didn't look convinced. His eyes slid back to the therapist who remained silent but leaned forward expectantly in her chair, as though smelling a breakthrough. "But pornography," David challenged, "was also what led to your downfall. Couldn't you have found some healthier avenue for exploring your sexuality?"

Coming from David the question struck me as ironic. In his fifties, he like many gay men of his generation, had explored his sexuality by means of bathhouses and anonymous encounters. "What tools did you have?" I asked. "I was thirteen, David. I had no resources that I knew of, no person I could turn to. Pornography was my safe space. For a time, anyway."

"So when did you first look at CP?" This question came not from David but from Clark.

"Around the same age." For that was the same year my parents got dial-up Internet, and in addition to looking at pornography online I began chatting with men in chat rooms. The awkward, isolated teenager had found a new outlet. "One of the men sent me some pictures," I said. "They were of boys my age. I didn't think much of it at the time and deleted them."

Hanging on the wall, just over the therapist's shoulder, was a grand, ornate clock whose impressive size seemed to suggest that time in this room was of a desperate interest to its occupants. I looked at it now. There remained still a half hour in the session.

"But you told us you weren't victimized." This from David.


"Those men in the chat rooms, they used you. They told you what you wanted to hear so that you would take your clothes off."

"Yes, but—"

A memory resurfaced then, as vivid as the red ink with which I'd scrawled the message across my adolescent belly: FUCK ME. Obediently I had stood before the webcam, proudly displaying my handiwork. Then, at the behest of the grainy silhouette, I wet the magic marker with my mouth and slid it in my ass.

"Yes, but it wasn't as one-sided as that," I said, my voice climbing in spite of myself. "Nobody forced me to take those pictures. I did those things because I wanted to do them. I enjoyed doing them. I'm not a victim.

Finally the therapist spoke. "But you see," she said gently, "you were a young, closeted boy desperate for validation, and those men took advantage of that. Those men didn't want you for your mind or for your talents. They wanted you for your body."

She eased forward in her seat placing both hands on the chair's arm rests. Our own chairs had no rests, so I clutched my arms around my midsection.

"Those men groomed you," she went on. "In that respect you are as much a victim as the boys whose pictures you later viewed as an adult. Which might explain," she added, "why you saw nothing wrong with downloading them."

The session ended, I hurried ahead of the other men and absconded down the emergency stairwell. Better to take the stairs then to stand in a cramped elevator with my peers, making small talk and pretending we hadn't just spent the last ninety minutes discussing masturbation and childhood traumas.

The assertion that I'd been victimized all those years ago unsettled me. I didn't like that word, victim. A victim was someone who was powerless, someone who couldn't fight back, someone who lived a burdened and broken life. I didn't wish to see myself in such a light. Nor did I wish to dredge up the past decisions and justifications I'd made as an adolescent or unearth the grief of those adolescent years.

Pulling onto the empty service road, my headlights the lone illumination, that grief raised in my mind again like a fresh welt. That I should ever have forgotten it seemed unthinkable now. Coming out had been a lonely and traumatic passage, one that began when my mother inadvertently recalled my computer's web browser history which had included a website for gay pen pals.

"What is this shit?" she spat. That word, shit, struck the keyboard like hot venom, burned a hole through the plastic keys and clear through the desk.

She never brought it up again, such was her way of dealing with things she didn't want to deal with, things that frightened her, like the sudden illness that would later kill her youngest brother, who was also gay. I came to understand then what I had already suspected, which was that being gay meant death, being gay was something shameful and not to be discussed, being gay was "shit."

The invisibility I felt at home was reinforced at school, where I wasn't so much picked on as I was ignored, which was in some ways worse than being harassed. Had I been harassed I might have felt I existed. As it was, my classmates took no notice of me, until my junior year when I was caught making out with a boy in an empty classroom after school. The bigoted Assistant Principal accused us of having sex and threw at me a crumpled wad of dirty Kleenex dug from the classroom's trash can as proof. He threatened to expel me. My mother only sat beside me clutching her purse, saying nothing. The school's administrators eventually dropped the matter after deciding it might not look good expelling a queer Honor Roll student. When I returned to classes the following week, it was to find that rumors of the boy caught sucking dick had spread like TB. I expected an onslaught of hateful remarks and physical threats, but my classmates only looked at me bug-eyed and increased their distance. I became even more of a pariah and took to eating my lunch outside, alone. Turning onto Cedar Springs, driving now into the heart of the city's gay district, I recalled all the hours I'd spent locked in my room as a teenager, sitting at my computer, scouring the Internet for people like me, people with whom I could talk.

I found them in the pictures I downloaded and in the chat rooms I visited. Those men online may not have respected me or appreciated me for the right reasons, but they made me feel visible, desirable, and normal. They validated the parts of me that I'd been taught to be ashamed of and to keep hidden at home and at school.

In my twenties and now in my mid-thirties, I still gravitate to older men. Guys my own age rarely approach me, but older men always seem to look my way at bars and on the strip. Older men always smile and fix me with that hard gaze that can still make my stomach clench and groin ache as it did when I was thirteen.

I parked in a coffee shop parking lot and recalled again the therapist's theory, that my so-called victimization as a teenager had paved the way for the abuses I would later commit as an adult. It was this, more than dredging up my adolescence that unsettled me the most, for it meant that I had become my abusers. I had indulged in perverse sexual fantasies with the images of boys who had once been like me—alone, isolated, vulnerable. And I'd seen nothing wrong with my actions because I myself had been duped into believing that sex was a legitimate stand-in for belonging.

Oh, my. I really was fucked up.

"How was therapy?" Clay stood waiting for me at the top of the coffee shop's steps.

"Awful. Which is to say it was productive. How are you?"

"Swell," said Clay, clearly lying. We hugged fiercely. He'd just come from work and wore a pressed shirt the same azure as his eyes with dark slacks and handsome leather boots. I couldn't recall ever seeing him wear the same shoes twice.

Settling on a sofa in the coffee shop with lattes, Clay confessed to using last Sunday after a conflict with his husband. Clay and I met fifteen years ago when he was dating my boyfriend Jamie's best friend, Marcus. The four of us would go on double dates at a Denny's in the gayborhood on Friday nights. We had no affinity for the "Moons Over My Hammy" but ate there because it was one of only two places at which Marcus would eat, and the three of us indulged him because that's just what you did with Marcus. Later when he and Clay broke up, Jamie's loyalty to his best friend and my loyalty to Jamie had obligated us to side with Marcus. Consequently we lost track of Clay, though in truth we'd grown to prefer him to Marcus. Marcus was an extreme narcissist and possible sociopath. It came out later that he had fabricated much of his life story, which included a fake, rare disease for which he supposedly took black-market pills which we discovered later were really aspirin. After getting out of prison I reconnected with Clay and he filled me in on all of Marcus's bullshit—the lies, manipulations, emotional abuse. It was his experience with Marcus followed by a string of other traumatic relationships, including the suicide of a fiance, that led to his using crystal meth.

Which is what brought us to that particular coffeehouse on that particular evening. For it was on that night at the neighboring Methodist church that a group of some fifty queer men gathered each week for Crystal Meth Anonymous. I'd been attending meetings with Clay for the past four months, partly out of support for my friend and partly because I wondered if there wasn't something to be gleaned from a different kind of treatment program.

"So what happened on Sunday?" I asked Clay.

"Sean said he didn't know if he wants to be married to me anymore." Clay brought the coffee to his mouth with both hands and sipped. "I was dropping him off at the airport, for a business trip, and I noticed he wasn't wearing his wedding band. So I asked him there in the departures lane if he wanted to separate, and he said he didn't know."

There'd been an earlier argument, one that followed in the same vein as all their arguments. Clay accused Sean of drinking; Sean accused Clay of smoking. Clay maintained he was getting help and pleaded for Sean to do the same; Sean insisted he didn't have a drinking problem, it was Clay with the problem, not him. For three years Clay had been trying to get clean while sharing a bed with another addict. It was an impossible situation, like being on fire and trying to roll about on the floor of a burning house.

"I can't let this marriage fail," Clay said. "I told myself I wouldn't go through another engagement."

I placed my hand on his arm.

"What about you?" he asked. "What happened in treatment?"

"I admitted to the group that I like young boys and have a daddy complex. How's that for irony? That and we spent a half hour discussing polygraphs again, which put me in a funk."

"It's coming up soon, isn't it?"

"End of the month," I said. "I'm going to fail. I know it."

"But you gave up the porn. You gave me the iPod."

"Sure, but it's too late. It was always too late. My conscience won't let it go. That needle is going to do more swishing than Nico's hips."

This last bit I said under my breath, for Nico, another CMA member, had spotted us from across the room and was walking towards us, his high-heeled boots clicking, arms flouncing, gold bracelets and necklace glinting. He was heavily lacquered and dressed in black leather pants and a fishnet shirt that revealed his thin chest and dark kitten nipples.

"Hey, boys!" he cried. He stooped to give Clay a peck on the cheek and gave me a nod. We exchanged pleasantries for a time until he spotted more acquaintances at the bar and excused himself. When he'd gone, Clay smirked. "Girl, you cannot pull off that shirt."

"He's even more dolled up than usual tonight," I observed.

"He's been clean for six months now. He'll be collecting his six-month chip tonight and wants to look good in front of the other boys." Clay checked his watch. "Speaking of which, the meeting's about to start."

By the time we arrived next door most of the some forty folding chairs were filled with recovering meth addicts, all gay men save for one lesbian and a newcomer, a man who appeared to be straight and who sat on the fringe of the semicircle looking anxious. Clay and I sat behind him. Seated at the front of the room was the evening's moderator, Joel, a handsome twenty-something with diamond-studded ears and painted nails who had recently celebrated his fourth year of sobriety.

This was very different from sex offender treatment. CMA and other twelve-step programs were facilitated not by psychologists but by recovering addicts. I appreciated this distinction. While the therapist's lectures on developing healthy habits and coping skills were helpful, what I often longed to hear most from someone was, I get it. I've been where you have been and here is how I dealt with it, here is what worked for me.

Empathy, the kind that comes from personal experience with addiction, was a fundamental component of CMA, and was most keenly demonstrated by the program's heavy reliance on sponsorship, wherein each member was encouraged to pair with a mentor, someone who'd been living sober for at least one year and who could offer continuous support, encouragement, and council. Sex offender treatment offered no peer sponsorship. We were forbidden from associating with other sex offenders or ex-inmates outside of group. The therapist once admitted to me that twelve-step programs such as CMA had been shown by a wide margin to be more effective at promoting long-term recovery than traditional therapies. She couldn't explain why, but I suspected after attending several meetings with Clay that it was this sponsorship and the deep communal nature of programs like CMA that made them so successful.

Not all the men in my own treatment group were capable of empathizing with my particular brand of issues. Because lawmakers had seen fit to lump us all beneath the same sex-offender umbrella, we were common in name but our charges and circumstances varied widely. Some of us, like myself, had addictions to pornography. Some had histories of physically abusing children and adults. Others were guilty of one-off sex offenses, often fueled by drugs. By the therapist's own admission at least one member of the group didn't even belong in treatment. Which meant that I never felt entirely comfortable expressing myself in front of the other men. The one exception was David, who was gay, and who shared many of my own experiences and struggles. I would have liked to have confided to him the problems I'd been having—the secret porn use, the late-night visits to sex shops, the frequent breakdowns and feelings of loneliness, isolation, and depression since releasing from prison. But to have sought his council and friendship outside of our weekly group sessions was forbidden.

As it was, Clay had been the only person I could turn to whose struggles and background most closely aligned with my own and who wouldn't turn on me or turn me in. He was the only person I could have told about the iPod and the porn.

Beside me Clay silenced his phone as Joel called the meeting into session. After reciting a brief manifesto we took turns reading from the slim blue volume that laid beneath our chairs. There was no manual specific to crystal meth addiction, so we read instead from the book of Alcoholics Anonymous, from which all twelve-step programs are based, substituting the words "alcohol" with "meth" and "alcoholic" with "addict." Step Three, the third chapter, concerned itself with realizing the depths of our addictions and accepting the need for help. My eyes flicked to the newcomer sitting in front of me, who fidgeted nervously.

After the reading, Joel opened the floor to anyone who wished to share their experiences with Step Three and the moment they realized they had hit rock bottom. The first to speak was a young man with blonde curls and rings on all his fingers.

"Hi, my name is Adam and I'm a crystal meth addict."

"Hi, Adam," the room chorused.

As was customary, Adam began by giving his sobriety date—August 2, 2019. He told us he'd started using meth at seventeen, shortly after coming out to his parents and consequently being kicked out of the house. He moved in with a friend and got a job which he soon lost. Then his friend kicked him out. What followed was two years of on-again-off-again homelessness and near constant drug use before finally deciding he'd had enough. "My life had become unmanageable," he said, a common refrain among CMA members.

Another man who introduced himself as Blake told us that he'd been sober for eight years, which was as many years as it took him to admit he was an addict. He began using meth, then switched to heroine, and then, in that funny way that addicts have of rationalizing their irrational behaviors, he switched back to meth because he figured it was the less dangerous, more sensible drug. The other members laughed in recognition. His lowest point, he said, was when during a typical night of smoking and drinking he was raped—by whom he couldn't remember—and later tested positive for HIV.

Patricia, the group's sole woman, said her lowest point was when she lost her fourth home, and then her wife.

Another member, Ryan, admitted he wasn't sure he'd reached rock bottom yet. His sobriety date, he said, was January 15—he'd been sober for one day. Nevertheless, the group applauded him for his bravery and tenacity for showing up at the meeting, because they knew that fucking up wasn't a failure exactly but part of the process of getting clean.

The stories continued. They were unabashed, exultant, even celebratory, for they were stories of survival and perseverance. Beside me Clay fiddled with the clock app on his phone; he'd volunteered to be the evening's timekeeper. As a courtesy, members were asked to limit their checkins to three minutes, but the rule was never enforced. If anyone had needed more than his allotted three minutes to get something off his chest, nobody would have stopped him.

I wondered what Clay's lowest point had been. I wondered if he'd even reached that point yet. He never shared at meetings. He said he wasn't ready. He was only on Step One, and he had a fear of making himself vulnerable. I myself had never shared at the meetings. It would have been inappropriate, as I wasn't a meth addict, and my attendance at the meetings was itself perhaps inappropriate. But had I been asked to speak, I'd have introduced myself and pegged my sobriety date November 16, the evening I gave Clay the iPod.

"Here, take it. I told myself I was going to make a ceremony of it, throw it in Turtle Creek or something, but I realize now that I was only procrastinating. So here."

Clay turned the device over in his hand. The screen, when powered off, resembled an impossibly deep hole. "If you drained the lake beside my house," he said, "you'd find the dozens of pipes I've thrown in there over the years. But what am I supposed to do with this thing?"

"I don't know. Keep it, throw it away. Just don't let me have it."

As for my own lowest point, I might have told the members that for me it had been a culmination of events, beginning since my release from prison, and the realization that November evening that I was in the same place I was ten years ago, facing the same consequences. My life had become unmanageable.

"Am I supposed to give you my pipe?" Clay had asked, laughing, hugging me. "Is that how this works? Because I don't think your PO would approve."

Before the meeting adjourned, Joel volunteered Adam to pass out the chips which resembled poker chips and were organized in a small wooden box. Each colored chip represented a number of months of sobriety. In the front row Nico sat eager and beaming.

"Is there anybody here," Adam called, "celebrating a year of sobriety?" He pulled from the box a black chip and held it aloft to any potential takers. There were none on this particular evening so he moved through the box offering up chips for eleven months of sobriety, ten months, nine. At the offer of six months, Nico rose to his feet waving his manicured hands, and the room cheered him as accepted his chip and curtsied.

Finally Adam reached the last and, as he put it, most important chip, the Desire Chip, awarded to anyone with a genuine desire to remain sober for the next twenty-four hours. I looked to Clay, but he had stopped collecting Desire Chips long ago, said he had a glove box full of them. Instead it was Ryan, the man who'd used the day before, who rose to collect the powder-blue coin. The room applauded fervently, everyone except the newcomer in front of me who'd been on his phone texting and who now rose from his seat looking panicked.

"Excuse me," he said. "I'm sorry to interrupt, but"—his eyes flicked across the room—"but there are some people looking for me and I really need to fly. Can anyone tell me the quickest way out of here?"

Joel, still holding the box of sobriety chips, suggested the elevator at the end of the hall.

"No, no. I need a back exit. Please. Someone."

I wondered whether any of the men in my sex offender treatment group would have offered directions had any of us aimed to make a run from police. Patricia, Blake, Ryan, and the rest of them didn't hesitate: Take the hall. Turn left past the bathroom. Take the stairwell on your right, the metal door on your left.

Fleeing the room, we called after the newcomer, all of us wishing him luck, though no one more than me.