October 31st, 2016
At a certain point, the consequences of someone’s actions may be so cataclysmic as to transcend clinical considerations.
Since FBI director James Comey informed Congress on Friday of the investigation of newly discovered emails related to Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server while secretary of state, an election that seemed to be in Clinton’s hands is plunged into uncertainty. Betting markets and pundits suggest that, where before we had only a slim chance of the nightmare of a Trump presidency, we now have a substantial one (though the mediocrity of a Clinton presidency is still, at publication time, viewed as more likely).
The emails were discovered, of course, during a separate FBI investigation into alleged sexting of an underage girl by former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner, 52, the estranged husband of key Clinton aide Huma Abedin.
I have often written that of all the forms addiction can take, love addiction is the most debilitating and destructive. Withdrawal from love is, after all, the greatest cause of both suicide and murder. While sex addiction lacks the full bite of love addiction, it seems as though Weiner’s relentless compulsion may be among the most profoundly damaging individual addictions the US has ever experienced.
I have worked with many people with sex addiction, and although it is far from inevitable, the basic scenario is familiar.
Phase I: Satisfaction
From 1999-2011, Anthony Weiner was a highly visible liberal New York City Congressman. Late in this stint, in 2010, Weiner married the woman Hillary Clinton most relies on during her day-to-day campaigning for president: Huma Abedin, now age 40. But it seems that Weiner had a craving for more attention, emotionally and sexually, than his career or marriage provided. He developed a pattern, not of actual sexual affairs with other women, but of sexting them.
Weiner’s sexts are notable for the preening poses he adopted in them, an activity he seemed to find highly satisfying.
As with any addiction, we need to consider who is addicted and what drives this particular individual on his addictive route. Weiner always struck political observers as being peculiarly devoted to his own ego-satisfaction with women. A New York Times article described Wiener’s sexual proclivities this way:
“Senator Chuck Schumer, for whom Mr. Weiner once worked, privately expressed frustration that Mr. Weiner was insufficiently interested in substance. . . . With a gift for combat on cable television, Mr. Weiner repeatedly forced himself to the fore of Democratic politics, despite being seen by many in the party as too boastful about his intelligence—and too hungry for attention from reporters and women.”
Phase II: Exposure
Unfortunately for Weiner, a slip on the send button revealed one of his sexting relationships in 2011, which Weiner (predictably) denied until it became impossible any longer to do so. As a result, Weiner was forced to resign his seat in Congress. For someone like Weiner, who lived on the attention and status his position brought him, this was tragedy. For his traditional, stand-by-her man wife, Abedin, it was humiliation.
Phase III: Chaos
Obviously bored to death sitting around his Brooklyn condo, Weiner decided to run for New York City mayor in 2013. However, he was revealed to have been continuing his sexual double-life the previous summer, under the pseudonym “Carlos Danger,” after resigning from Congress. At a press conference, with a tight-lipped Abedin by his side, Weiner confessed. Then, displaying what in New York is described as chutzpah, he vowed to continue his pursuit of the mayoralty. Weiner came in a humiliating fifth in the election.
Phase IV: Deterioration
With a return to a purposeful occupation further away than ever, and nursing ever greater injuries to his self-esteem, Weiner resumed his sexting with a vengeance. More than ever, the transgressive nature of his actions may have been his only buzz, veering into the pathological and the criminal. This August, a sexting photo from 2015 was published of a partially nude Weiner lying in bed with his toddler son sleeping next to him. This was, finally, too much for Abedin, who left Weiner. Then, in September, Weiner was reported to have sexted a 15-year-old girl, which is a criminal act.
Phase V: Apocalypse
The original revelation of Weiner’s sexting scandal prompted much debate about whether his behavior, continued compulsively despite a clear risk of catastrophic outcomes, represented a real addiction. That discussion intensified when Weiner bizarrely, brazenly carried on sexting beyond his resignation.
In recent months, since he had allegedly engaged in a crime, Weiner’s electronic devices were seized, the results of which have been seismic. FBI director James Comey disclosed that Weiner’s computer included a large number of messages between Clinton and Abedin.
This last phase of Weiner’s conduct has had an acute impact on his immediate family, including potential criminal sanctions for his wife. Abedin had previously sworn under oath that she had provided the FBI with all of her electronic devices on which any of her emails with Clinton had been stored. While Abedin is primarily the victim of Weiner’s actions, her own behavior may itself have veered into the criminal arena if she withheld information in an investigation of Clinton’s emails and lied about doing so.
Negative consequences can redirect people’s addictions, sexual and otherwise. Or they may not. Is this failure to recover the consequence of the severity of the addiction, or of the impenetrability, in this case, of the subject? There is no answer to this question, and in any case, the entire clinical debate was sidetracked by the horror at Weiner’s behavior involving his own son and (allegedly) another minor. Weiner’s actions had now so violated social norms that people no longer cared what the source of his conduct was—only the consequences mattered.
Beyond the criminality and the family violations, however, Weiner may now have changed the course of history in an all-time record example of narcissism—we’ll very soon see whether these emails affect the outcome of the world’s most important election.
Individuals’ psychological issues, problematic behaviors and addictions often call attention to themselves. The good news is, addiction can always be positively addressed—and there is never good reason to give up hope.
Yet sometimes, it may be too late—not for the individual, but for those he or she has impacted. Weiner’s addictive behavior, in a kind of political and social travesty writ large, is now affecting not only everyone he supposedly loves, but everyone in the world.
Stanton Peele is a columnist for The Influence. His latest book, with Ilse Thompson, is Recover!: An Empowering Program to Help You Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life. He has been at the cutting-edge of addiction theory and practice since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has since written numerous other books and developed the online Life Process Program. His website is Peele.net. Dr. Peele has won career achievement awards from the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies and the Drug Policy Alliance. He is currently working on his memoir. You can follow him on Twitter: @speele5.