After years of doing the exact opposite, a few months of celibacy changed Hugo Schwyzer’s life.
It’s not because I’m now too old,
More wizened than you guess..
If I say no, it’s only
Because I fear that yes
Would bring me nothing, in the end,
But a fiercer loneliness.
—”No,” Lady Ki No Washika
This short medieval Japanese poem appeared in the Los Angeles Times book review back in the late summer of 1998. I found it on a quiet Sunday morning as I sat with my coffee in a Starbucks; I ripped it out and taped it on to my refrigerator. Washika’s poem resonated instantly because I found it just a few weeks after I’d taken a vow of celibacy, a commitment that by that Sunday morning seemed nearly impossible to maintain another day. But in the last four lines, Washika summed up in 22 words my entire sexual history—and reminded me of why I’d made this vow in the first place.
As I’ve written before, in late June of 1998, at age 31 I hit an emotional, physical, and spiritual bottom. I attempted to kill myself (and my on-again, off-again girlfriend) after a prolonged struggle with drugs, alcohol, and compulsive sexual behavior. I had been trying to get clean and sober since 1987, and had been through half-a-dozen rehabs, even as I had managed to land a tenure-track teaching job. I’d been handcuffed and hospitalized over and over again.
But after this last attempt to end it all, a psych nurse in the hospital asked me a question that haunted me. “Hugo, do you have any idea how to be alone? I don’t mean single—can you really be alone with yourself?” I admitted that no, I really didn’t know how to do that. I had already burned through a couple of marriages, and was, for lack of a better term, compulsively promiscuous. I was a walking incarnation of toxic neediness; when I wasn’t going out (almost every night) I was home staring at Internet pornography. I’d gotten hooked early in the days of dial-up.
But something happened to me in that long hot summer of 1998—the summer of Bill and Monica, the summer of the World Cup in France. I found my faith again, and learned to pray once more. (My prayer was simple. In my journal, the day I was released from the hospital after that last suicide attempt, I wrote “Please, God, please be real. Because if you’re not real I’m so fucked.” Not exactly Thomas Merton.)
I went back to Twelve Step programs, once again as a newcomer. I got a new sponsor. And this one hit me with a brand new requirement: I needed to be celibate. Jack defined celibacy as not only no sexual activity, but also no dating, flirting, masturbating, or what he liked to call “intriguing” (I love that verb) with women or gay men. I asked how long this period was supposed to last, and he gave me the typical sponsor answer: “You’ll know. For now, just do this a day at a time.”
It gave me a weird sense of déjà vu to hear the word celibacy again. In the ‘80s, I had spent a brief period of time in my late teens considering whether or not I had a vocation to be a priest. As I prayed and wondered about joining the Dominicans, I kept hanging up on the issue of celibacy. I felt called by God to the Church—and at the same time, was terrified of giving up the sexual excitement that I saw as such a fundamental part of my happiness. That fear of everlasting chastity played the decisive role in my abandoning the process of joining the Church.
Thinking about what my sponsor was asking me to do, I realized that I had spent years and years chasing the next relationship. As much as I liked dating and hooking up, what I really loved was the fantasy that that night’s date might be “the one”, the one who was going to make me content and happy. I was always just one woman away from fulfillment! Just the prospect of someone new filled me with tremendous anticipation. I lived for years and years oscillating between hope and disappointment, idealization and disillusionment, neediness and loneliness. It’s not a happy way to live.
Before 1998, I had never consciously made a decision not to date or be in a relationship. I hadn’t gone without sex (or without a relationship of some kind) for more than a few weeks since I was in high school. I was a serial monogamist who lacked the willingness to stay faithful; I was addicted to novelty, to the illusion of intimacy, to instant chemical connection, to promise. That sexual excitement, coupled with romantic fantasy, was harder to give up than the alcohol, the coke, and the benzodiazepines.
But prayer worked. The Twelve Steps worked, at last—maybe because I was finally working them. I went to a meeting every night, and still had more time than I knew what to do with. I’d had had no idea how much energy I’d put into chasing sex and relationships until I was celibate. All of a sudden, I had this huge surplus of hours in the day. I started running seriously. I read three novels a week. And I started volunteering. Though I’d already been a college professor for five years, I finally figured out how to be genuinely useful to others.
As the weeks wore on, and the “newness” of my celibacy began to wear off, the commitment to no dating/flirting/intriguing became more difficult to maintain. Surprisingly, the abstinence from masturbation was less difficult. As my sponsor had predicted, the longing for orgasm and physical release ended up being less intense than the hunger for validation, the longing to know I was wanted. (Let me make it very clear that I’m not anti-masturbation in the slightest. Masturbating can be a wonderful and liberating thing, and ought to be encouraged among the young of all sexes rather than shamed. But masturbation had become for me a way of coping with uncomfortable feelings, and I knew I needed a time away from that habit in order to find a new strategy for dealing with anxiety and longing.)
It’s at this point that I found the poem by Washika. I recited it to myself over and over again that summer and fall. I repeated it over and over as I ran laps on the track or on the fire roads near my home. I knew what it was to trade an hour’s pleasure for a fiercer loneliness; living out that infernal exchange had made me (and many who cared for me) abjectly miserable. Somehow, Washika’s words got through to me on a soul level when nothing else would. Perhaps it was the title of the poem itself: “No.” Such a simple word, often a child’s first word, but before 1998, my least favorite word in the whole language and the word I found hardest to say. This poem was an important part of my learning to say it.
Of course, my sponsor Jack was right: the time of celibacy did come to an end after many months, and it came to an end in a positive way—with what would be the first honest, real relationship of my life. Though I still had much growing and learning ahead of me, in the 13 summers since that “conversion time”, I have lived very differently. Today, my extraordinary wife and I have the sort of marriage I could never even have imagined having years ago. Though I still have my petty neuroses, I’m no longer the bundle of neediness (beneath a carefully crafted exterior) that I was in my acting-out days. Of all the tools I used in those early days and weeks after I chose to live and live well, none save for prayer was more important than the discipline of celibacy. It was only by completely quieting that aspect of my life that I got still enough to listen to God; it was only by learning that I could live without romance and sex that I learned how to have both of them in a joyous, life-affirming, enduring way.
When I first wrote on this topic on my own blog, I was called out for one commenter for “sexual privilege”. Though I had been by my own estimation and that of others a shy, nerdy, and chubby teen, by the time I reached college I discovered that for whatever reason, finding willing sexual partners wasn’t especially difficult. I didn’t think of myself as having “game,” and I certainly never gave any thought to to the advice of “pick-up artists” (who may not have even formally existed in the 1980s.). I certainly tasted rejection and disappointment, but I know that others dealt with loneliness and bitterness far more than I did. For some, celibacy was less a choice than a constant and unfortunate circumstance, a prison from which they had difficulty extricating themselves. My musings about voluntary celibacy came across as grating to those for whom it didn’t seem like a choice.
But celibacy is about much more than just being single (whether by intent or by unhappy accident.) It’s about committing to focusing on relationships that have no romantic component, to quieting one’s own sexual impulses, to redirecting that aspect of one’s energy for a brief season of one’s life. Even someone who is a sexually frustrated virgin might find value in choosing to stop pursuing sex and relationships for a time.
I began that summer of 1998 addicted and despairing. I began that summer with little capacity to say the word “no” to anything or anyone I wanted. I was living with the consequences of all the many indiscriminate, need-fueled “yeses” I’d sad over and over again. In order to live, I had to learn to say no—not just to the pills, the booze, and the powder, but to the even more powerful drugs of sexual chemistry, ego validation, and illusory intimacy. Above all, I had to learn that to defeat the fear of loneliness, I needed to be alone.