Fantasy, Folly or Fortitude

By Ken Wells - 01/08/2021


Christmas is a season of fantasy. Famous singers perform holiday programs on TV titillating memories from Christmas past of times that never really existed. Advertisements capture the fantasy of the season with the Budweiser Clydesdales stomping in unison through a snowy Christmas night (got to be tough for those of us abstaining from our favorite brew). Millions of people watch the Christmas Story again and again every Christmas Day, reminiscing about days that never were for many who watch the movie.  Massive audiences watch Frank Capra’s 70+ year movie It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas season, fantasizing about how life should be transformed through characters who are all since dead. Everyone wants to be a “transformed George Bailey” influencing a miserly banker, Henry Potter, whose conversion to compassion saved the day and everyone lived happy ever after. The intricacies of fanciful figments of imagination are replete throughout the holiday season. 

Some analysts conclude that the average debt for Christmas spending for a standard family is over one thousand dollars each year. It’s all about capturing the anticipated thrill of a season that seldom fulfills the hope and expectation that was anxiously forecasted. Long ago we knew that the fantasy of the season is never reality. You would think that with this awareness folks would step back and spend less. Yet we all know that celebration is not the only reason we drink and medicate. Loneliness, stress, and heartache all fuel reasons to numb out and Americans are famous for doing just that during the holidays. One quarter of the 49 billion dollar distilled industry’s profits comes between the month of Thanksgiving and the New Year.  Medicating the emptiness of holiday fantasy becomes folly for millions of Americans every Christmas season.

Addicts struggle with fantasy, not just during the holiday season. The question for an addict is how I manage my fantasy life. Fantasy is defined as extravagant and unrestrained imagination. It serves as great inspiration to all that we do and create. My neighbor next door has been utilizing her fantasy life to recreate and remodel her house into a beautiful and inspiring home. It’s exciting to watch! Fantasy adds rainbow colors to who we are and paints vision to our future. Fantasy takes what is and adds expansive intrigue and unlimited possibility and potential for the reality that is to come. Fantasy is fun. As long as you don’t go against your values or hurt someone else, it is hopeful to take what is and hope for something more.

Yet fantasy can also be destructive in addictive living. With powerful imagination, you can fantasize about the next, drink, score or sexual intrigue. It can all happen in a nanosecond. This is where life becomes dicey for an addict. You can be in your head all day long, getting the hit from a powerful fantasy and hide the build-up of buzz from everyone else, while you feast in a fantasyland of intrigue and indulgence. Nobody knows, you tell yourself. Hanging around the barbershop will get you a haircut! Fantasy is that powerful. Soon you will be acting out when garnering unrequited fantasy. Many addicts discover that fantasy is impossible to escape. There is a lot of white knuckling going on from one 12-step meeting to the next. Fantasy can cause an addict to quake with fear that they will never be able to manage the craving and urge that takes over to use and abuse their drug of choice. So the question becomes, how do I manage my secret fantasy life.

1. Accept the reality that you are an addict.

A sex addict tells me “I can’t believe that I was overcome with wanting to lust for this stunningly attractive woman”. Why not? If you’re heterosexual and a sex addict, it would be perfectly predictable that at some time you will be attracted and even hooked to the beauty of another woman, whether you are in a committed relationship or not. It isn’t helpful to hate yourself for being triggered by the physical beauty of another person or the fact that you are tempted to obsess about their body. All this being true, that doesn’t make it ok—but, geez, isn’t this characteristic of what it means to be a sex addict? Chill out just a bit!  When you do, you won’t navigate the terrain of fantasy and temptation overwhelmed and in shock.  You must accept the reality before you will effectively address the fantasy. When you don’t, you minimize, become evasive and hide the reality of your inner fantasy life that needs to be addressed.

2. Move your cheese- make an intervention

Don’t just sit in the middle of the intersection noticing a bus is coming at you and wonder how you got there. You’ve got to move your cheese! Get out of harm’s way. Some addicts navel gaze about why they are fantasizing after all the rehab and 12-step work they have done. While wallowing with the wonder, the big mac truck of addiction runs over them! Utilize the 3-second rule. Unhealthy fantasy requires that you shift away from the desire of your drug of choice. The tool is not designed to be utilized with legalistic application. Rather, with skill and supportive kindness toward yourself. Give yourself 3 seconds to sit with the inappropriate thought and then shift away from the intrusive thought to something else—anything else. If you find yourself lingering with the intrusive thought for a longer time, catch yourself and then make the shift. Some days will be more of a struggle than other days. Some suggest that 3 seconds are too long. While there is no official application, the hope is that with your intervention you allow yourself to be human in its utilization. It is important to accept and normalize as an addict that I will need a strategy to manage intrusive fantasies and be able to shift away from unwanted thoughts.

3. Cultivate understanding in terms of what legitimate need must be met in a healthy manner with every inappropriate fantasy: 

Your fantasy life is indication that there are legitimate needs that need to be addressed in a healthy manner. Don’t just run from the thought. Once you are in a safe haven reflect what legitimate needs must be met. It could be that you are fatigued, distressed, feeling shame, loneliness or otherwise disconnected from self and others who are safe. Spend time identifying what need is present underneath the fantasy to objectify or lust for another person. You won’t be able to meet a need that you do not recognize. Getting out of harm’s way is important but the interruption of destructive fantasy remains incomplete until you recognize the emotional need that is underneath and disguised by the fantasy itself.

4. Transform the fantasy from a curse to a blessing with fortitude:

Fantasy that does not violate your own values and is not hurtful toward others is an excellent way to reimagine purpose and meaningfulness in life.  It doesn’t have to be a negative curse. Still, addicts tend to want to escape into fantasies around their drug of choice.  

It is understandable given the fear of relapse. However, after you take yourself out of a high-risk zone, it is helpful to transform the destructive fantasy into a healing vision by focusing on the critical emotional need that must be met in a healthy way. Perhaps, after a long pressure-packed day at the office, the temptation for the alcoholic is to pound a few cold beers. The cannabis user might seek to chill out with a blue smoke from Jamaican bake.  A sex addict may become absorbed with the intrigue of chase at a local bar or zone out with porn. Before surrendering to the junkie worm, it is possible to sit with intriguing fantasy and listen to genuine need that must be met in a healthy manner. Likely, cultivating connection with someone when lonely, getting a healthy massage, or talking out frustration, anger and disappointment is a creative and inspirational way of transforming fantasy from a curse to a blessing.  It is a way of reimagining and reframing destructive temptation and fantasy into meaningful intimacy by connecting to a caring person of support. As far as we know, fantasy is distinctly human. As Spanish romantic painter Francisco Goya expressed “fantasy abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters; united with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels”.

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