Many people in sex addiction treatment or recovery programs can remember and talk about their history of abuse or trauma. But sometimes recovering addicts have all the outward symptoms of having had traumatic childhood experiences but they don’t remember being traumatized or mistreated in any way.
Sometimes people in sex addiction treatment feel certain that “something must have happened to me” and though they rack their brains they cannot remember anything that they can label as abusive or traumatic.
We who work with sex addicts assume that there is always going to be a history of some problems in relationships with caregivers which lead to an insecure, avoidant or disorganized attachment style later in life. This problem with close relationships relates directly to sexually addictive behavior and is why we think of sex addiction as an intimacy disorder.
Often addicts will go in for EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) or somatic techniques in an attempt to connect with forgotten memories, and many claim this helps. And sometimes the abuse happened before the child learned to talk, which means that there is no way to remember it in words.
But just as often the traumatic events are there but are simply not recognized as such by the addict.
Why people can’t see their traumatic childhood
First and foremost, many people have a mistaken notion about what constitutes childhood trauma. Infants and children need consistent nurturing, closeness, touch, connection and love in order to develop as strong, stable normal adults. The absence of this kind of closeness and support does not allow the child to develop normally. So people in sex addiction treatment need to look at the kind of relationship they had with their caregivers and at what was missing in that relationship.
Many addicts were not held enough as infants, were not soothed enough or were left alone or with strangers. These things are traumatic to the developing child. As children many addicts experienced abandonment, were sent away, or were devalued or rejected by their caregivers in some way. All of these things constitute abuse and lead to problems later on.
Most people whether they are sex addicts or not tend to idealize their family and their early life, or at least to minimize the hurt or deprivation they suffered. Growing up we need to see our parents in a positive light; it is part of what helps us get through childhood. We want to trust and look up to our parents and it is very threatening for a child to think anything bad about their parents. This leads to a tendency to idealize our childhood even in the face of evidence of stressful and traumatic experiences.
Add to this the fact that most of us resist seeing ourselves as “damaged.” If we are survivors, we have come through a lot and we want to see ourselves as basically OK. This makes it all the harder to understand our early life.
How to connect with childhood trauma
In addition to understanding the biases described above, it is important to understand that people do not have to remember major horrible events in order to connect with their trauma history. Very often we already know everything we need to know but we have not looked at it closely enough.
Much of the work of uncovering our traumatic past history involves looking at events that took place and reinterpreting what was going on in light of what we now know as adults. What seemed like our parents having high standards for us may turn out to have been a way they put us down or conveyed negative expectations about us. What we saw as encouraging self-reliance or being given a lot of freedom may have been a form of neglect. And what we took for bonding may have been invasive or inappropriate.
It will be important to go back and look at what were vivid memories or recurring themes in childhood and look at them with fresh eyes, critical eyes.
What I hear over and over is “well, they did the best they could!” People don’t want to blame their parents or caregivers or seem ungrateful. But it goes without saying that our parents did the best they could. That does not help us unravel our own issues. In sex addiction treatment we need to look at what went wrong as much as, or more than, what went right. This is the real eye opener. Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource