My name is Bill, and I’m recovering from sex and love addiction.
There. I said it.
It’s taken me a year to get up the nerve to write about this. The shame associated with sex in general and the concept of sex addiction in particular makes it even harder to admit than alcoholism (recovering alcoholic here) or drug addiction (ditto). I know.
I got into recovery from my alcoholism and addiction to other drugs 25 years ago this coming September 14th, but didn’t recognize my issues with sex, which go back much farther than the chemicals, until maybe two years ago. Even then I didn’t realize that my preoccupation with sexual acting out was another addiction. I knew I was spending too much time looking at porn online and that I fantasized a lot about women and girls that I saw in public. But it didn’t dawn on me that it isn’t normal to do it for hours at a time — that it isn’t normal to fantasize about and objectify every attractive female within view, to judge each one according to my “standards” of desirability, to fail to recognize them as someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, someone’s sister with her own personality and life to live. It never occurred to me that I was addicted until circumstances forced me to look at my obsessions in a new light. Finally I was able to grasp the depth of my issues, and begin to search for answers.
Sex addiction is a fact. I know hundreds of people addicted to alcohol and other drugs, and I know quite a few folks who admit that they are addicted to sex. I’ve been sitting in 12 Step meetings with them for a year — probably around 300 meetings — and I’ve sat with them in group therapy. I’ve listened to the recovering drunks and addicts, and I’ve listened to my new comrades in addiction. The stories are the same. The obsession is the same. The progression is the same. The powerlessness is the same. The unmanageability is the same. The descent into a morass that seems impossible to escape is the same. And my own experience and study of the subject has convinced me that most of the other stuff is the same, including the path to recovery.
Most of it. Because sex is different than alcohol and other drugs. Like eating, it is part of us. We can’t put the cork in it. We can become abstinent, but it’s always there. It’s not down at the corner, it’s not at the pharmacy, it’s not at the liquor store. We can’t dump it in the toilet and flush it, nor pour it down the drain. We can’t avoid the things that might trigger us — at least not entirely — unless we become hermits and never have contact with anyone (or thing) that we might find sexually attractive. Even then, we can have sex in our heads.
All living things are wired to eat, have sex and raise babies or the equivalent. Those instincts are primary in all creatures, and there ain’t a thing we can do about it. Not only is sexuality a part of our birthright as human beings, it’s hard-wired into our bodies and brains. Our impulse to relate sexually to those we find attractive is hard-wired. Our autonomic nervous system is poised to react to sexual stimuli, programmed to create certain responses to certain cues — to fire up the same reward system that encourages us to use drugs, even before we speak to or have physical contact with an attractive person.
We can have sex in our heads, with ourselves, with others, with multiple others, or simply by watching others. We don’t even have to watch others having sex; all we need is a view of someone with whom we’d like to have sex and we’re stimulated. And. We. Can’t. Turn. It. Off.
We drink or use drugs or other behavior to feel different. Often we do so to forget things that have happened to us, feelings that we have about ourselves, and so forth. Alcohol isn’t a bad thing. I don’t drink it, because when I do I can’t control myself and I drink too much — but I couldn’t care less if you drink. If it causes you no problems, or if you’re willing to put up with them, that’s up to you. Same with drugs. They’re just things. We’re the ones who choose to take them into our bodies, enjoy the results, and sometimes we become addicted — though probably no one chooses to. With prolonged use our bodies and brains become so accustomed to the high stimulation of our reward system that we have to have those chemicals in our systems in order to feel normal, and sometimes to function at all.
I was that way with alcohol, amphetamines and benzodiazepines (Xanax, etc.) When I drank I became one of the guys. I was witty, urbane, and I fit in. I was able to talk to women without feeling shy. I was brave. I felt confident. It changed me, and I liked the change. After a while, I developed the tolerance I mentioned above, and became a drunk. The drugs helped too, especially when I couldn’t drink for some reason. But then my life ended up in the toilet, and I quit. When the alcohol and other drugs were out of my body I was — at least in theory — able to address the issues that made me use in order to like myself. In any case, if I didn’t drink I managed to do okay. In fact, quitting was ridiculously simple for me. Once I got into recovery, I was amazed. Folks around me were relapsing right and left, and apart from a few twinges early on I had no urges at all. I always wondered why.
Well, I found out why. I wasn’t really clean and sober. I’d just transferred my addiction to my sexuality, which had been providing me with many of the same favors since I was introduced to sexual activity by a neighbor when I was about 4 or 5 years old. Because of other childhood issues I learned to turn to self-stimulation for both entertainment and comfort. As I got older and gained access to sexually-related material, and ultimately people, my preoccupation with sexuality increased. Heck, that was normal, wasn’t it? Guys were supposed to look at porn, to chase girls, to “score” with as many as possible…right? Right?
Well, maybe not as an avocation.
My screwed-up notions of the meaning of sexuality prevented me from developing really healthy relationships, male or female, for most of my life. It turned me into a person with a shadow life: on the one hand a skilled professional, husband and father; on the other, a man obsessed with sexual fantasy who went into emotional and physical withdrawal if deprived of my fixes. The secrecy and shame separated me from the people I love, and kept me from trusting (not that I ever really did; the childhood issues took care of that). After I quit drinking and drugging, the addiction escalated; my need for more variety and greater stimulation grew. The time spent looking for more exciting porn increased to hours and hours a day (and night) spent searching for something new, something with that edge that would give me the jolt I needed to achieve satisfaction.
My preoccupation and the distance engendered by secrecy, coupled with my alcoholism and drug addiction, was a major factor in the destruction of my first marriage, and mortally wounded my second. The compulsion, misery and unmanageability were at least as bad as with my chemical addictions, and lasted much longer — a total of about 63-64 years. I’m doing better now, but the addiction is still with me.
I am recovering, but I’ll never be recovered. I’ve been abstinent for a while now, but I’m not cured. Every day requires vigilance. Every glance at an attractive female needs to be minimized, while at the same time I need to remind myself that she isn’t a vehicle for my fantasy, but rather a living, breathing human being with a life, hopes, loved ones and dreams — who most decidedly does not fit into my life, and can’t live in my head.
There are places I don’t go, websites (thousands of them) that I don’t visit, conversations that I don’t have, and billions of images that I don’t view. With the help of my 12-step fellowship, my fellow addicts, a couple of months of treatment, an excellent therapist that I trust absolutely (probably the only human, so far, about whom I can say that), the support of an amazing wife who understands the disease of addiction even better than I, and — last, but not least — my remarkable kids and their families, I’m starting to get a handle on this thing. But I have to remember, every day–hour–minute, that the handle is still attached to the disease. All I have to do is get careless, and that door can open at any time.
According to Patrick Carnes, one of the first therapists to treat sex addicts, sex addiction is a “sex-related compulsion that interferes with normal living and causes severe stress to family, friends, loved ones, and one’s work environment.” Don’t tell me that it’s just a hook on which over-privileged celebrities hang the responsibility for their behavior, because I know better. I’ve been there, done that, and I’ve got the dirty, ratty t-shirt to prove it.