I’ve written a lot about “sex addiction.” I haven’t written that much, though, about how I came to terms with my own “addiction,” and how I understand both “sex addiction” in general, and mine, in particular.
First, two basic points:
1. There’s no such thing as sex addiction. The use of the word “addiction” in reference to sex (or to any behavior) is metaphorical, not literal. Addiction is the “compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (as heroin, nicotine, or alcohol) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal.” (Thanks, Merriam-Webster.) AND/BUT the metaphor is extremely apt: the typical behavior of a “sex addict” (and of me, in my dark days) is indistinguishable from that of an addict to a substance such as heroin, nicotine, or alcohol. I lied, cheated, stole; I rationalized, blamed, hid, manipulated. I’ve read the Big Book, and there’s honestly nothing in there that doesn’t apply to me. SO: while one can’t be, technically speaking, addicted to sex, there is no meaningful sense in which a “sex addict” is any different from a heroin, or alcohol, or nicotine addict. For this reason, I tend to refer to “sex addiction” in quotations – as it’s something I don’t really believe exists. But I tend to refer to myself as an addict, no quotes, because – well, because the only thing that distinguishes me from a bona fide addict is that I never suffered physiological withdrawal, and I’m leery of the implicit superiority or claim of differentiation that would be implied by my denying my addict-ness. I’m an addict, for all intents and purposes, so – I’m an addict.
2. The 12-step model for recovery from addiction is one model. It is ill-suited for many. For me, the model’s absolutism and inflexibility were great for about six months, during which I figured out a lot of shit and began the long process of rebuilding my self. But in the long run, the model simply doesn’t work for me. This is particularly true of the fellowship in which I participated most consistently, which defines sobriety as “sex, free from lust, with one’s opposite-sex spouse only.” That is – no masturbation, no lustful spouse-fucking, no fucking of one’s same-sex spouse, no sex in the context of a long-term relationship not dignified by marriage, no spousally approved sex on the side, no swinging, etc. For many addicts, this clarity, this certainty, is helpful, vital even, to their “recovery.” They simply can’t negotiate a world that’s not black and white with regard to matters sexual. For me, this all amounted to a stifling, deathly sex-negativity that was worse, less manageable, less survive-able, than my previous, out-of-control ways.
My “recovery” came not when I limited my sexual activities to a certain kind, or to a certain partner, but when I stopped using sex to medicate emotions, and moved on to a more joyful, open, honest experience of sex. At some point, perhaps I’ll write about the steps along the way to this discovery/understanding. The 12-step model simply couldn’t accommodate the relationship with sex I needed in order to recover. In other words – my problem wasn’t sex, it was compulsivity. Sex was simply a tool I used. Once I uprooted (for the most part – I doubt I’ll ever fully succeed) my compulsive impulse to medicate emotions by acting out, and exposed my shame to sunlight, I was free to use sex in a life-affirming, joyful way. (If it were four years ago, I would be lying in a massage parlor somewhere, getting a handjob, rather than writing this paragraph right now. I discovered a whole set of responses to emotions and thoughts that simply weren’t available to me previously.)
So those are my two “preamble” statements: “sex addiction” doesn’t exist, but sex addicts do; and 12-step programs can be helpful, but they’re not the only answer.
Now a bit more about me, about the path I took.
When I read the first step, a little more than three years ago, it was like being hit over the head by a sledgehammer. That was me. I was powerless over sex. My life had become unmanageable. I admitted it.
There is, for an addict, something paradoxically empowering in admitting one’s powerlessness. I spent years trying to “control” my impulses, trying to resist them. I simply lacked the conceptual framework for understanding what was happening to me, because, like so many, I mostly believed that I was the agent of my destiny. But here I was, desperately trying not to do something, and desperately failing. Over and over. It’s hard to overestimate the damage this does to one’s sense of self, to one’s self-esteem. I believed that there was something terribly, desperately, shamefully wrong with me because I couldn’t stop what I was doing. The simple construction, “I am powerless over sex…” liberated me. It allowed me to maintain a sense of “I” that was coherent, and to admit that I was behaving in all these ways inconsistent with how “I” might wish to behave.
As I participated in the 12-step program, as I got to know my brothers and sisters in the program, I came to understand better the workings of “sex addiction,” the ways in which it works in general, the ways in which it works on me. I read, compulsively. I meditated, compulsively. I worked the steps, compulsively. I was never a “good” 12-stepper – I never had a sponsor and therefore never really worked the steps. But in the words of the program, I took what worked for me and left the rest. I made dozens of daily phone calls, I reorganized my basic conception of myself, and I came to understand the toxicity, for me, of secrecy and shame, and the vital importance of ACCEPTANCE.
And here was the paradox for me: part of the magical power of all 12-step programs is this acceptance, the unique, unprecedented (in most addicts’ lives) experience of sitting around a table, speaking horrible truths about oneself, one’s desires, one’s actions, and then standing up and being HUGGED by people who seem to love you MORE the more you reveal about yourself. And/but, they seemed to make exactly one demand of me that I simply couldn’t accommodate: they needed me to judge my lust as undesirable. The one “condition” for participating in the program in which I participated was that one be committed to living a life free from lust.
But I like lust.
Lust never was my problem.
My problems were shame, and secrecy.
This blog, the acceptance I find here, is an interesting analog in my recovery to the acceptance I found around that table. Even more so is the acceptance I find daily from T. (And a note there: she would, of course, have been totally within her rights to react to my depravity as most women surely would have, by walking out the door. Perhaps she should have. I’m so enormously grateful and lucky that she took my own situation as an opportunity to take herself somewhere different sexually, and that, together, we’ve created a sexual present – in both senses of the word – for ourselves that seems to work so well.)
I guess one could take issue with all this. Perhaps a die-hard program participant might say that I’m fooling myself, that clearly, my hypersexuality remains a dominant feature of my landscape, and that I haven’t “escaped” my “addiction.”
But here’s the thing: most of the time, I’m not powerless over sex/lust. And my life certainly isn’t unmanageable. Quite the opposite: my life feels more manageable today than ever before.