Sex Addiction: An Imperfect Path to Recovery

Posted on September 10th, 2013

Sex Addiction: An Imperfect Path to RecoveryTandi sat on a bench in Central Park with Beth, her sponsor, beside her. The usual parade of nannies with strollers and joggers with iPods passed them by while Tandi cried, oblivious. Beth was breaking up with her; she said she couldn’t be her sponsor anymore. Tandi thought she understood. She hadn’t worked any of the steps in over a year. She’d been lying to Tandi—something she’d sworn she’d never do. And she was not only breaking several rules of their particular Sex Addiction Anonymous group, but she’d been “playing fast and loose,” according to Beth, with the bottom line behaviors they’d drafted for Tandi.

Nearly one year ago, Tandi had begun to feel comfortable. She’d memorized the steps by heart and believed she was no longer susceptible to the same urges that had taunted her for years. She’d been in recovery for sexual addiction for just shy of two years and felt officially ready to date. She wasn’t feeling lonely anymore, but she was sometimes anxious about her youth passing her by. So she put up an online dating profile and waited. As she began to open emails and check out photos of potential dates, a kind of nervous energy began to creep up. The idea of actually going on a date started to take on a whole new quality after so much time away; it felt like she was about to do something rebellious. Nothing about dating at this stage was actually off limits. There was an overwhelming feeling she began to experience that probably needed to be taken back to the rooms, but which Tandi failed to address. She didn’t even tell her therapist.

The first guy Tandi met was a corporate attorney that, after a few drinks, revealed that he worked so many hours he couldn’t possibly get involved with anyone. When Tandi asked him what he was doing on a dating website he responded, “What is anyone doing on a dating website?” and laughed. It hit her then that for a lot of people, not just the old Tandi, this had just been about sex. At this point both of them had had several drinks and he was starting to tell her she was beautiful. She didn’t want to disappoint him. Later, when he hailed a cab and asked her whether she wanted to come back to his place, she said, “No, you better come back to mine.”

Before long, Tandi was back to her old life of frequent casual sex. She’d seduced her boss’s 19-year-old son and her building’s doorman. She was flirting all the time, drinking too much on the weekends, and had even abandoned her vegetarian diet and daily meditation practice. She never went to the gym anymore.

Sitting there on that bench Beth finally said, “Tandi, I can see just by looking at you that now that you’ve fallen back down the addictive rabbit hole, you’re doing everything you can to prove to yourself why you’re unlovable. And that just isn’t true.”

“Then why are you abandoning me?” Tandi sobbed.

“I’m not abandoning you, Tandi. We made a commitment to work together. I explained my terms. You broke them. You’ve abandoned yourself.”

A Different Kind of Recovery

While recovering alcoholics do the work to avoid taking a drink, and recovering drug addicts do the work to avoid using their substance of choice, the work a sex addict must do is different and possibly more complicated. Sexuality is a part of our lives simply by virtue of being human. Having sexual thoughts and urges is healthy and normal. It is when these thoughts, urges and behaviors become compulsive and unable to control that they cause distress and dysfunction, that they are thought of as unhealthy.

Working with oneself around sexual feelings, urges, and triggers is an important part of recovery and may well take a lifetime. In fact, it is not unheard of for people to continue to have patterns of addiction even after libido diminishes or sexual function fails; the root of sexual addiction is almost never about sex.

Tandi’s experience is also not uncommon. Many people, especially early in recovery, begin to believe they have mastered the work or conquered their particular demons. Remaining honest is important—a willingness to be wrong about certain insights may save a recovering person from mountains of unnecessary hardship. No one who has committed to getting well ever wishes to return to the hell of the dark days that came before sobriety. This is not to say that at every moment an addict is always in extreme peril of using again. Like with anything, some days are better than others. The degree of vulnerability waxes and wanes but to be sure, no one ever fully conquers it. Not even a non-addict (if there is such a thing) can be said to be invulnerable.

The Promise of Recovery

Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) lists 12 “promises” in its literature:

  1. We will regain control of our lives.
  2. We will begin to feel dignity and respect for ourselves.
  3. The loneliness will subside and we will begin to enjoy being alone.
  4. We will no longer be plagued by an unceasing sense of longing.
  5. In the company of family and friends, we will be with them in body and mind.
  6. We will pursue interests and activities that we desire for ourselves.
  7. Love will be a committed, thoughtful decision rather than a feeling by which we are overwhelmed.
  8. We will love and accept ourselves.
  9. We will relate to others from a state of wholeness.
  10. We will extend ourselves to nurture our own spiritual growth and that of others.
  11. We will make peace with our past and make amends to those we have harmed.
  12. We will be thankful for what has been given us, what has been taken away and what has been left behind.

Maybe it would have been better if Beth had stuck with Tandi and tried to help her through her second bottom, but it’s hard to say. Beth did what she thought she should, for her own and Tandi’s sake, and that’s all anyone can ask. While Beth felt abandoned, it isn’t entirely true that she was. As a grown woman, she can’t be abandoned the way a child can, although her reaction may be cause for further examination, especially as it relates to her addictive behaviors. “Fearless and thorough” does not have to mean perfect. It just requires honesty. If Tandi can begin to show up for herself again—with truthfulness and care—there is no reason she cannot come out the other side of this relapse wiser and more equipped to handle the next bump on an imperfect path.

From shame & pain to resilience & joy.

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