The concept of “recovery”
I have seen many sex addicts recover from an unhappy, lonely, self-destructive pattern of behavior in their sexual addiction and go on to not only rebuild their lives but to reach greater heights than they ever imagined.
Yet there is a tradition in the addiction field of viewing addictions as in some ways similar to “chronic” mental illness and chronic medical conditions like diabetes; conditions that require ongoing care and can be managed successfully over time. This implies that there is no “cure,” that there may be periods of relapse and that there is no end point to recovery.
Current thinking about sexual addiction has moved beyond the earlier more limited concepts. See a recent review of the history of the concept of recovery in mental health and addiction.
Recovery from sex addiction
Recovery from sex addiction is considered today to involve much more than abstinence from the sexually addictive behavior. It involves a long term process of years rather than weeks or months in which the addict will make many positive changes in his/her life and functioning and in which abstinence is merely a first step along the way.
Sex addiction is viewed in the larger context of a problem with intimacy in general, usually relating back to a relational trauma of some sort during childhood. Treatment involves resolving the underlying trauma issues and building up the life competencies that have been compromised.
Sex life in sexual addiction
The sex life of the practicing sex addict looks very different from that of the addict in recovery. The sex life characteristic of sexual addiction is:
- Compulsive in that it involves preoccupations, cravings and urges that defy control
- Compartmentalized in that a chunk of the sexual life of the addict is separate from the addict’s intimate life i.e. the addict leads a double life
- Secret in that the behavior characteristic of the addicts sexual addiction does not square with the rest of the addict’s life and the face he presents to the world, and
- Used as a drug in that the hyper-arousal characteristic of the addictive behavior serves to distract, numb or otherwise escape from negative feelings
- Does not usually involve a real relationship although the addict may fantasize a relationship with a stripper, a masseuse etc.
Sex life in recovery
In recovery the sex addict will be able to integrate his sex life and his “regular” life instead of keeping them separate. This implies that the recovering addict will be:
- Less narrow and rigid in sexual preferences and fantasy scenarios
- Less compulsive about sex, meaning less preoccupied with seeking sex and less obsessed with sexual cravings
- More relational and less isolated in sexual activity (e.g. sex with a person vs. porn only)
- Less selfish, in that he will be less focused on himself and his gratification and more able to focus on a partner and
- Able to give up the “hyper-arousal” of addictive sex in which sexual excitation is used as a drug
Long term benefits in recovery from sex addiction
Not only can the recovering sex addict have a richer, less destructive sex life, but he or she will throughout the time of recovery make many other changes as well. If recovery continues to be a process of overcoming past fears and insecurities through active participation in treatment, therapy, support groups or a combination of these, the addict can grow in many ways over a period of 3 to 5 years and beyond.
Some of these areas of improved functioning are internal, and some have to do with relationships and general levels of functioning. The addict in good recovery will show improvement in
- Empathy for others
- Less narcissistic attitudes
- Greater feelings of overall comfort
- Improved self-care
- A commitment to honesty
- Greater ability to be responsible and nurturing as a partner and parent
Addicts in recovery can expect to learn many life skills they never had before, such as the ability to set appropriate limits and boundaries, to stick up for themselves, and to set life goals and achieve them.
So where does it end?
These are pretty hefty promises but I have seen them fulfilled. You might ask “So why do we keep on talking about ‘recovering’ addicts instead of ‘recovered’ addicts?” Perhaps addicts feel the need to be vigilant about habits that may still be deeply buried in their “lizard” brains. Perhaps it is just a leftover tradition from the founders of AA. For the time being we could just think of it as a way to stay connected to a fellowship and a reminder to us to give back.