Licensed marriage and family therapist Jill Vermeire was on hand during the filming of Sex Rehab with Dr. Drew, bringing her clinical expertise to the world of reality TV. She’s agreed to lend us her perspective on the show’s shoot, as well as the rehabilitation of the cast. Below, Jill talks about the show’s fifth episode: Kari Ann’s new-found interest in sharing, Duncan’s thing for straight guys and James’ rape comment to Jennie.
Any thoughts on Kendra shutting down during the visit to Children of the Night?
She was really struggling, and again, it was still during her withdrawals. During the withdrawal phase, the patients are feeling really raw and really vulnerable. It’s almost like all of their nerve endings are exposed. Any little, tiny thing that touches a nerve for them can send them into a spiral. Kendra was really missing her husband, she really had been doing some great work, and she was looking at some issues from her past that she’s never looked at before. You have to understand that some of these people have never in their lives talked about or gone back to look at their past. They’ve just survived it, kind of white-knuckled it, moved past it, and ended up where they’re at now. Kendra has a pretty painful past. We kept pushing her and pushing her, and she showed up, she did the work, but every once in a while that defense mechanism just wants to show up and shut down because it’s too much. I always tell patients that it’s fine if they need to breathe, if they need a little space, a little time, if they want to just chill out.
On the other hand, Kari Ann, out of nowhere, ends up revealing so much about herself in this episode. Why was she so open to sharing all of a sudden?
Kari Ann is a great example of how alternative therapies can really help. She does not do well with talk therapy. As we’ve seen in several of the episodes, she gets very combative, she starts to feel that everything is an attack, she interprets everything as confrontational. With the art therapy, she’s able to really just put what’s on the inside and get it out on paper, or a T-shirt in this case. For some reason, it’s safer to put it on the paper than to say it out loud, which speaks to that more primitive part of the brain. It goes earlier than the trauma, so she’s able to really express and get it out without having to say it, because her verbal skills shut down when she feels confronted. The artistic skills come out and help that. And not only is it a great from a therapy for Kari Ann, but she’s extremely talented, artistically. She and Jennie both are amazingly talented artists. Kendra, too.
As Kari Ann is sharing, you repeatedly tell her not to smile.
Smiling is her defense mechanism. She’s learned to make everything OK and take care of everybody else by smiling. Other people won’t worry, other people won’t feel upset, or they won’t be disturbed by what she’s saying if she says it with a smile. It’s a defense mechanism. And there are people who will smile when something really upsetting happens — somebody dies and when they talk about it they’re smiling. It’s a nervous, unconscious defense, and I will literally have people hold their mouths down, because when you force yourself to not smile, it helps you access the feelings that you’re trying to avoid. It looks really ridiculous to hold your mouth down and not smile when you’re talking, but I’ve had patients do that, and they’re able to really access the feelings and then they have this amazing cathartic experience where they get to really cry and let it out and really get behind the smile. The smile is just a wall, it’s another one of her walls that she puts up to keep you out.
Here’s a bit of irony or…something, I noticed: Duncan says he feels alienated because he’s left with two straight guys when the girls are out of the facility. But then he goes on to talk to Dr. Sealy about his life-long entanglement with straight men. So, he feels alienated, yet only attracted to, straight men.
There are core beliefs of a sex addict, and one of them is: sex is my only value. Another one is: if a person really knew me, they wouldn’t like me. Duncan’s sexual acting out is pretty common. He chooses unavailable people, and for him unavailable people are straight men. He’s not going to end up in a relationship with a straight man because that man is not gay, which just further deepens the belief of: “Everybody leaves. I’m not good enough. If somebody really knew me, he would leave.” It has to do with this intimacy and attachment disorder that they all struggle with, as well as Duncan’s identity. He’s a very sweet man, and he’s also extremely smart and extremely talented. His wall really is words — he keeps people away with words. He has a very sharp tongue, and if he wants to cut you, he can cut you with his words deeply. He desperately wants to connected with people, and he desperately wants to feel needed and valued, but because his only value that he sees in himself is sexual, it’s hard for him to believe that straight men would want to be friends with him and not want to sleep with him. It’s hard for him to believe that they would actually want to be around him just because they like him. He unconsciously believes that James and Phil don’t really like him, they don’t want to really be around him, especially because he’s not trying to seduce them or sleep with them. What he was really uncomfortable with, without realizing it, is that he was starting to experience intimacy with men in a healthy way. He did start to build relationships with them, and it was really chipping away and challenging that very deep and old belief that his only value is what he has to offer, sexually. Because Phil and James didn’t want him sexually, but they wanted to be around him, it contradicted these beliefs he’s held from a very young age. And it’s really uncomfortable to have old beliefs and core values challenged like that. But I see it as a really positive thing because he didn’t act out with them. They didn’t need anything from him other than friendship, and that’s real, and that’s healthy. And as strange as it sounds, when you encounter something healthy and real and genuine, and you’ve never had it before, it’s painful.
The final major event of the episode is that James tells Jennie, “I’m going to rape the s*** out of you.” What were your thoughts on that? At least one person is mad that it’s handled so calmly.
When we were walking into group, Jennie told me that this statement had caused her to not be able to sleep, she’s been having anxiety. And we were all pretty sure he didn’t really mean that explicitly. It was just James acting in his adolescent way because developmentally, he’s delayed. Regardless, it’s an inappropriate statement. Even in a joking manner, in this kind of a setting, with this kind of a population, something like that should never ever be said. The intention was not to make James out to be the bad guy. When somebody violates your boundaries, or your internal makeup gets shaken up by something somebody said, it’s important to be able to say it out loud and start to have a dialogue about it. State the need and have a boundary. This is a really good opportunity, although somewhat extreme, to have the group watch a process, and then have the other person be able to hear it, so that the person saying it feels heard, the person who made the comment (in this case, James) can hear it, and he can also respond and show that he understands it. And he can make amends if he wants to, he can make a promise to honor the boundary in the future. I think the people in the group had such an extreme reaction because of the actual statement. You know, the word “rape” is such a loaded word because so many people in the room had been raped that it opened a can of worms for everybody. They were really doing the work, so they were just open and nerves were exposed, so you say the word and it’s going to bring up feelings. I thought it was really important for Jennie to have the opportunity to start standing up for herself in a safe place in a healing corrective way, and to have everybody see that happen. She just wanted to brush it under the rug like she always does. She really needed the opportunity to feel empowered, to take care of herself. And this was a really good opportunity, as difficult as it was. Believe me, you could cut the tension in the room with a knife. It was intense. But it ended up correcting itself and becoming a really healing experience in the end. It didn’t happen right away, it took some time, because everybody needed to process and digest and go through their feelings. After a day or two, it ended up being a positive experience in the big picture. They all ended up re-connecting and becoming a much more cohesive group because of that experience. You know that a group feels safe with each other, and has a rapport and an affinity with each other when they are able to confront each other. So in my view as a therapist, it was all positive, even though it was hard, even though it was intense. If we had ignored it and avoided the whole entire experience because it was too hard to talk about, that would just be ignoring an elephant in the room, and repeating an old family dynamic. It would be reinforcing unhealthy relationships and unhealthy behaviors that they’ve been experiencing their whole lives. That’s what they learned to do. “Oh, I’m feeling violated, I’m feeling hurt, I’m feeling upset, but it’s not OK to talk about it. So I’m just going to bury it.” If we don’t give them a place to start talking about this, we’re just repeating the same dysfunctional family that they grew up with. So this is a really corrective and productive experience.