Walking into the Fairside Community Hall the next evening, Jenny was surprised to see Petra, Jonty and Ellen were already sitting down inside, chatting. She looked at her watch, 6.50pm.
‘Hi,’ she said, shyly.
The others turned in their chairs, and smiled when they saw her.
‘Hi Jenny,’ Ellen said, ‘how are you?’
‘I’m good,’ Jenny replied, as she walked to her usual seat in the circle. Reaching into her bag for her disinfectant and wipes, Jenny suddenly hesitated as she realised the others were watching her.
‘Sorry Jenny,’ Jonty whispered, ‘don’t mind us. Do whatever you need to.’ Ellen and Petra both nodded their agreement, and the three of them carried on their conversation while Jenny cleaned her chair.
Satisfied, she sat down and looked over at Jonty.
‘How are you Jonty? We haven’t heard much from you the past few weeks. On Whatsapp I mean.’
Jonty shrugged. ‘It’s been a tough couple of weeks, I guess. I enjoy reading the messages though, even if I don’t add anything to them.’
Jenny nodded and smiled at him. ‘Me too.’
As the door swung open behind them, Jenny turned in her chair and watched the rest of the group enter the hall, brushing the rain off their coats and stamping their feet slightly to warm themselves up. Suzanne, sour-faced and beautiful, was among the group - Maddison’s ‘chat’ at their last meeting about timeliness appeared to have worked.
‘Hello everyone,’ Maddison said. The last to enter the hall, she pulled the big door shut behind her. ‘Thanks for getting here on time this week. Take your seats, get comfy, and we’ll get started in a couple of minutes.’
‘Hi Jenny,’ Anthony said, as he took his usual seat beside her, hanging his coat on the back of it. ‘It’s bloody freezing out there.’
Grayson, who was sitting on Anthony’s left, nodded his agreement. ‘Ah, sure, it’s fierce out there. Colder than a witches’ tit, that wind.’
Jenny and Anthony looked at each other and laughed.
‘What’s this about a witches’ tit, Irish?’ Phil said from across the circle. Maddison raised her eyebrows, and looked at Grayson.
‘Er, nothin, just commenting on the weather, like.’
Wriggling her bottom into place, Maddison looked at each of the group in turn. ‘Welcome, everyone. Thanks for coming in on such an awful night. How are you all?’
After a few murmured answers, Ellen cleared her throat.
‘Maddison, I thought that I could speak tonight. If that’s okay?’ She looked around the circle. ‘Unless someone else wants to talk instead?’
Jenny looked at the floor, but not before she saw a few of the others shaking their heads. Maddison looked around the group, and then nodded at Ellen.
‘That would be great, Ellen. Is there any reason why you felt like you wanted to volunteer this evening?’
‘Oh, I, not really. I’m not sure. I suppose I’ve been thinking a lot, lately.’
‘Okay, we can relook at your reasons later if you want to. As per our last meetings,’ Maddison addressed the group, ‘we’ll use Ellen’s story as a starting point for further conversation. I would like to ensure that everyone remembers to be respectful while Ellen speaks, and I’m sure I don’t have to remind you again that everything said in these meetings is to remain confidential.’
The group nodded solemnly at Maddison, before turning shining eyes towards Ellen.
Ellen looked at the anticipation on their faces, and smiled tightly.
‘You probably think it’s not so bad being addicted to sex?’ Ellen looked at the group, who were nodding hesitantly back at her. ‘I bet you think you’d rather be addicted to sex than, than drugs, or alcohol?’ Again, more hesitant nods.
’Well, you’re wrong, you know. It is bad. It’s awful. Disgusting sometimes even. I’d rather be addicted to pills.’ Ellen looked at Petra, who raised her eyebrows sceptically in response. ’Honestly. I just feel so, so powerless.
‘Have you, um, thought about going to an AA meeting?’ Jonty spoke softly across the circle.
‘No, I’m not addicted to alcohol.’
‘I just wonder whether, well, the twelve steps might sort of work for you, if you applied them to your, um, problem. Sex addiction as a term actually first emerged in the nineteen seventies, when various members of AA sought to apply the principles of twelve steps to, um, unmanageable compulsive sexual behaviours.’ Jonty’s face flamed red. ‘I go to weekly meetings on a Thursday. And, er, I also do a lot of reading. You could come along, maybe just listen?’
Ellen looked at Maddison, who nodded thoughtfully. ‘I agree with Jonty, actually. The twelve step program may be applicable to your situation Ellen. In any case, we can discuss this at the end, please continue when you’re ready.’
‘Right, okay. Well, I suppose I’ll go back to the beginning?’ Maddison nodded encouragingly.
‘I don’t think I was like this in my teens.’ Ellen took a deep breath. ‘I wasn’t abused or anything. Nothing like that. I’m not damaged or anything. I mean, I come from a good family - I don’t ever remember even a raised voice in my house when I was growing up. And Mum and Dad have always had a good relationship, so it’s not like Dad was some bully or sex pervert or whatever and I’m subconsciously trying to find someone like him. And I was loved, you know? I don’t have big gaping emotional holes that I’m trying to fill.’ Ellen stopped talking for a second, and Jenny very briefly considered patting her shoulder in sympathy.
‘So, I don’t really know why or when it started. Maybe in my early twenties, when I went away to study Law at Victoria University – I suppose that’s when I started sleeping around. Then the more I slept around, the more I wanted to sleep around. I’m not even sure how I managed to pass all my exams and get my degree.’ Ellen chuckled sadly. ‘I did sleep with a lot of my lecturers.’
‘Nowadays, I have sex all the time, with people who mean nothing to me. Absolutely nothing. I don’t even have to like them. At all. It’s like I get this itch and I have this compulsion and I just can’t stop myself. I mean, I can’t stop thinking about it until I go through with it, and at the time I never think about the consequences. They could be a colleague, a client, the postman - once I feel the urge I don’t care who they are or what the consequences could be. I just can’t stop myself. Does that make sense?’
Jenny found herself nodding, and noticed others in the group were looking at Ellen with understanding, as if they were relating Ellen’s compulsions to their own.
‘My Dad, he’s a judge - I think I said that in our first meeting. Well, a few months ago, I had sex with one of his close colleagues. In a courtroom. And, um, there were cameras.’ A few in the group, including Jenny, gasped involuntarily. ‘Do you know what? I think I probably knew about the cameras, and I didn’t care. I honestly did not give a shit. I went ahead and did it anyway. It caused a big scandal, of course, and Dad went off his block at me. Mum was crying, saying I’m going to die of an STD or get myself murdered. I nearly lost my job, Dad’s colleague was relocated. It was, is, such a mess. And I’ve had the past month on forced leave from work, thinking. I’ve done a lot of thinking.’
‘What have you been thinking about Ellen?’ Maddison asked gently.
’Everything. Me, my life, where I’m going. I have to kick this, this… addiction. I’ve got to get back to a normal life. You know, where you have meaningful sex, with someone you actually care about.’
Jenny looked across the circle at Maddison, and noticed that Phil was looking over at her. As soon as she turned her head towards him, his cheeks coloured and he looked away. Jenny shrugged to herself, and focused her attention back on Ellen.
‘Being a part of this group is so great. Even though we’ve all got our quirks, we seem to have a lot in common and I don’t feel like such a freak. You know?’
The rest of the group nodded sympathetically, and Ellen cleared her throat. ‘Can I change my goal Maddison?’
Maddison nodded. ‘Of course.’
‘Okay, so, it’s not that I want to have no sex. But, but I want to have meaningful sex. You know, with someone who knows my middle name and how I like my tea, and what side of the bed I like to sleep on. That kind of stuff.’
‘I think that could be a wonderful goal, Ellen.’ Maddison smiled warmly at her. ‘But I also think that to get to that point, you’re going to need to first work on the powerlessness you experience with your compulsive sexual behaviour. I believe that Jonty was right earlier, the twelve steps may be extremely useful to you.’
Ellen looked at Jonty. ‘Meetings are Thursday nights you said?’ Jonty nodded.
‘Okay, so maybe I’ll come along next week? I started back at work this week, and I’m busy catching up so I don’t think I’ll make it this Thursday.’
‘That’s great, Ellen. We’ll look forward to hearing an update in our next meeting, as to how the AA meeting went, and whether you found it useful.’ Maddison checked her watch, and then looked around the group. ‘We’ve still got a bit of time left. Does anyone have any observations or suggestions they would like to add?’
‘I’ve thought of a few activities for meself that are inconsistent with gambling,’ Grayson spoke up, ‘maybe Ellen could do the same?’
Ellen nodded. ‘The gym definitely wasn’t the right option for me. Not a gym with a unisex sauna anyway.’ Ellen turned in her chair to face Grayson. ‘What activities are you going to do?’
Grayson looked slightly embarrassed. ‘Ah well, I’ve bought a mountain bike and, er, Adelaida’s gone and signed us up for feckin’ Salsa dancing lessons.’
The rest of the group looked at Grayson in surprise. Maddison nodded encouragingly.
‘Biking, outdoors, now there’s a novel concept.’ Ellen paused to think about it, and shrugged as if it might work for her too. ‘Salsa dancing, on the other hand, now that would definitely be a recipe for disaster.’
‘It’s a bleedin’ disaster for me too,’ Grayson laughed.
After the group spent several more minutes discussing activities that were inconsistent with their own addictions, Maddison looked at her watch once more.
‘Okay, everyone, we’re going to have to draw the meeting to a close. Are there any goal-related updates that anyone wants to add?’
Jenny squirmed in her chair. Despite this being their fourth meeting, she was still nervous about actively taking part in the discussions. Maddison, noticing her discomfit, smiled encouragingly. ‘Jenny, did you want to say something?’
‘Oh, well, yes. No. Never mind.’ Jenny looked at her hands. ‘Actually, I do have an update. On my goal.’
‘Wow, you’ve got yourself a boyfriend?’ Petra asked. ‘Did you go back to the supermarket then?’
‘That’s amazing Jen,’ Ellen said warmly, ‘good on you.’
Jenny’s cheeks flamed red, and she looked up from her hands. The rest of the group was smiling at her, except for Suzanne and Phil. Suzanne never smiled anyway, but the absence of a grin on Phil’s face took Jenny by surprise for a second. What’s up with him tonight?
‘Er, no. I haven’t.’ There was an audible sigh around the group. ‘But I’ve signed up to go speed dating. This Friday.’
There were a few chuckles around the circle, and smiles of encouragement.
‘Wow, that’s amazing,’ Anthony whistled. ‘Is it online speed dating, or actual in-person speed dating with a room full of strangers all trying to get off with each other?’
Jenny gulped. ‘A room full of strangers,’ she squeaked.
‘My psychiatrist has been talking to me about facing my fears,’ Anthony said, ‘but you’re really going ahead and doing it. Good on you.’
Maddison nodded her agreement. ‘That’s very brave Jenny, putting yourself out there like that.’
‘Well, I was actually just bringing it up as, um, I was kind of hoping that some of you might like to come along with me?’ Jenny looked around the circle hopefully.
‘Sorry doll,’ Petra shook her head, ‘I’m on shaky enough ground with my family as it is. Putting a bunch of bananas in a supermarket trolley is one thing, but actively fucking dating is another.’
Ellen also shook her head. ‘I’d love to come Jen, but I don’t think that’s the kind of sex-inconsistent activity I’m supposed to be trying. Sorry.’
‘Never mind, I just thought I’d put it out there in case anyone else wanted to come.’
‘I will,’ Phil said from across the circle, ‘I’ll come along. If that’s okay, I mean. Is that ok?’
Jenny smiled at him gratefully. ‘Of course, I’d love the company. Thanks! I’ve got a card in my bag with the details, I’ll get it out for you.’
Jenny reached behind her chair for her bag and started opening one of the plastic bags inside it, but not before she saw a look pass between Petra and Ellen. A look that seemed to be directed at her. And Phil. She raised an eyebrow at them, and they both smirked and looked away.
‘Okay then, it looks like our meeting is finished for another week.’ Maddison stood from her chair and put her clipboard under her arm. ‘Thank you very much for speaking today Ellen, and thank you to everyone else for coming along. I’ll see you at the next meeting.’