There’s More to Addiction than Booze and Pills

September 11, 2013

“I never knew what a sex addict was or that I was one until I offended. This term was not in my vocabulary of facts. It wasn’t until I checked into one of the local hospitals, did I become aware that such a term existed. Up to this point in my life, I thought I was normal. At the hospital, I was placed in their sex-addiction program, which at that time was made up of two people, me and another person. A horrendous amount of shame and guilt came over me when “sex addict” was first spoken. I had received a label of “SEX ADDICT”. We were grouped together with the alcoholics, drug addicts, overeaters, and suicidal people. People laughed when we said that we were sex addicts and made side remarks like “boy I wish I had that problem”. That dug deep into my soul, it hurt . . . people just don’t understand. I would exchange my addiction for any other type at any time. People seem more willing to come to the aid of people wanting to recover from other addictions but they shun sex addicts. We are like the lepers of old, condemned by society. Society is filled with sex addict, too many to counts. Look at all of the cars parked at the adult book stores, men’s clubs, bathhouses, at night at Memorial Park and the streets of Lower Westheimer. Most are either engaging or about to engage in some type of sexual activity that could lead them to end up like me. The only difference between them and me, right now, is that I got caught. My addiction took me to offend against another human being. I am now a sex offender and a sex addict. I am getting help now and with the proper treatment, I can control my compulsive sexual behaviors. “

This is just one of the many stories from the men in my sexual addiction program. Unfortunately, there are so many more.

Addiction is a human experience. Any activity that influences and shifts our conscious thinking holds addictive potential. Drugs and alcohol influence on experience and consequently these substances are highly correlated with addiction. Sexual behaviors, gambling, spending money, shopping, excessive exercise, food, are all activities or substances that may influences subjective experience. “Any pathological relationship with any mood altering substance, thing, or activity that despite adverse consequences is continued is considered an addictive behavior. The addict’s relationship with a mood altering experience then becomes central to his life.

Who are sex addicts and what are they hoping to find or escape through their sexual behavior?

Sex addicts are people who, desperately afraid of any truly intimate relationship, repeatedly and compulsively try to connect with others through highly impersonal, non-intimate behaviors; masturbation, empty affairs, anonymous sex, frequent visits to prostitutes, voyeurism, exposing themselves, indulging in fantasies and pornography, visits to bookstores, and cruising the parks. Sex addicts numbering in the millions can become mesmerized with the thrill and rush of adrenaline that they can achieve only through their obsessive highly ritualized patterns of sexual behavior. Sex addicts are gay and straight. Some of those that are gay have repressed their homosexuality. For these people, recognizing and getting help for their sex addiction also means coming to terms with their true sexual orientation, and it can be quite painful. Sex addiction cuts across ethnic and economic lines. For the sex addict, the quest to duplicate sexual euphoria becomes an obsession. They often neglect and sacrifice their jobs, family, friends and personal well- being. A sex addict is in search of that sexual high, again and again. Sex provides a quick mood change. It is a reliable escape from the stresses of their lives. It is used to mask pain. Eventually, the sex addict becomes powerless over it. The addict goes out of control as the compulsion takes control. Even harmful consequences cannot deter the sex addict’s compulsion to repeat the act and find temporary relief. The addict becomes powerless to change. Often he wants to change, and know that he has to change but reaches a point where he cannot do so without some outside help. Even consequences like the threat of disease, disruption of family life, and public humiliation aren’t powerful enough to extinguish the addiction. Like all addictions, it is progressive and grows worse with time. It does not stand still. It grows and it grows and can lead to insanity or death. These may seem like harsh words, but the truth is, I have seen many of my patients die from the consequences of this addiction.

Practicing unsafe sex while in the throes of his addictive behavior became a way of like for one of my clients, who we shall call ‘Walter”. Years of frequent affairs with both men and women, numerous visits to adult bookstores, tanning salons and bathhouses became a way of life. Coupled with his alcoholic behaviors, it became a way for him to numb the pain and suppress his feelings of loneliness and despair. At some point, he contracted HIV. Just recently, Walter died. I met him after he was arrested for public lewdness, and he was admitted to the hospital for a suicide attempt. It was during his stay there, that he finally realized that he had been a sex addict for most of his life. Some of Walter’s behavior patterns included the following:

• He felt ashamed for anyone to know about his sexual activities
• He would hide these activities from others, such as friends, family, co-workers, etc.
• He lived in fear of his double life, i.e. his addictive- compulsive sexual behaviors and his professional life
• When acting out, he would describe feelings of euphoria when engaging in sexual activity
• He often violated his ethical standards, principles and oaths of his profession
• After acting out, his moods would often shift from euphoria to depression
• He used sexual activity to either escape, deny or numb any negative feelings
• His behaviors interfered and were inconsistent with his spiritual and religious life and practices
• He would engage in addictive behavior with little regard for place or time
• He often jeopardized his own safety and health by not taking reasonable precautions or going to unsafe places to engage in sexual activity.

During his treatment, Walter learned to control his compulsive sexual behaviors. This is often a difficult and arduous task. It is during this phase, that many people get discouraged and give up. But with the proper support and guidance, these behaviors can be controlled. He began to understand the reasons for his addictive behavior and worked diligently in therapy. He utilized the 12-step program in his recovery process. Walter had also been addicted to drugs and alcohol but remained sober during this whole process. As he progressed, he began to set appropriate boundaries in friendships and relationships with other people. He was able to develop a sense of his own self -worth, and began seeing himself as loveable and attractive. Other people became not just sex objects to be used but people to be cherished. His shame and guilt about his past abuse began to subside. He broke off relationships with abusive people and began to get hold of his financial life. His addictive behavior had caused him to almost be in financial ruin. He had spent thousands of dollars on phonographic materials, 900 sex-line numbers, and visits to prostitutes. He began to be more responsible in fulfilling commitments. He engaged in healthy activities to maintain his physical and emotional well-being. He was able to identify his manipulative and intimidating behaviors toward others and finally participate in a loving, intimate, and committed relationship. During the three years that he was in treatment, he was always insightful, introspective, and sensitive to the needs of others. When he died, he left a legacy that will not be forgotten. His struggle for growth and his connection with his Higher Power brought him eventually to a place of peace. Walter’s story is not unique; his commitment to his recovery, however, was. It is my hope that if you see some of your behaviors in Walter’s story, that you know that there is help.

As Walter once said in a letter, “This war we fight is not all darkness. I am happy and my heart is full of joy. A real person, I love more than ever before. I have claim on more faith and hope that I could ever imagine. I experience life each and every moment and I am filled with it. Not perfection, but humanness continues despite the presence of my disease.”