Sometimes I feel as bewildered and frustrated as my sex addiction clients when they periodically slip up and engage in their addictive behavior, even as they seem to be making progress in their recovery. (See also the excellent article by Dr. Patrick Carnes entitled “The Perfect Storm: Assessing for Sex Addiction”)
What is it that makes some recovering sex addicts continue to relapse frequently? Why are some sex addicts seemingly unable to cut the cord? I believe that beyond the question of “hitting bottom”, the process of letting go of an addiction is similar to the loss of a relationship and that some addicts get stuck at various stages of the grieving that loss.
Addiction as a relationship
The idea of an addiction as a relationship has been around for a long time. Sex addiction, like addiction generally, has been defined as a primary relationship with a mood altering experience. That experience may be a chemical such as a drug or alcohol or it may be an activity such as gambling or sex. Whatever the chemical or activity, there is some evidence that the brain mechanisms involved in the addiction are all similar.
But beyond brain chemistry, brain alteration and changes in mood (excitement, euphoria, soothing), addictive activity is also something that develops like a relationship. And the activity as well as everything leading up to it and surrounding it becomes like a friend or even a loved one.
This affection for our addictive activity is not entirely illogical. For most addicts, their “drug” is something that they have relied on to regulate their emotions, escape stress, and even maintain their ability to function. A porn addict I know once said “Miss January (his name for his addiction) is always there for me.” It has served the addict well in some sense. Yet it also has destructive potential and usually goes against the addict’s own value system. Hence it is a relationship that needs to end.
In sex addiction treatment a commonly used exercise is that of having the client write a good bye letter, a “Dear John” letter, to his or her addiction. In this letter the addict “breaks up” with his addiction, often acknowledging that the addiction was important, fun and will be missed. This exercise underlines for the addict the fact that he or she is letting go of something important. Whether it is giving up porn, prostitutes, compulsive hook-ups, or fetishes it is going to amount to a real loss.
Grieving the loss
All grief is about the struggle or process involved in coming to acceptance of a loss. Loss is stressful. In fact one definition of stress is “a loss or the threat of a loss”. And so the loss of an addiction is stressful, challenging and potentially even traumatic.
Most sex addicts have a history of childhood relational trauma. The drug, the “relationship” with a fantasy became a way to endure stress and to substitute something for what was missing in reality. In dysfunctional families intimacy is fraught with danger and self doubt. The addictive fantasy involved in much sexual acting out is one of being able to be gratified in a way that feels safe.
Getting stuck in the grief process and relapse
It is possible to get stuck at any point in the process of letting go. Even once past the denial phase and even after acknowledging the need to let go of the behavior, there may be predictable stages of anger, bargaining, and depression. A good example is the addict who knows that porn blocking software would hugely improve his chances of getting free of porn addiction but who either rebels against getting it installed, finds excuses, or finds ways around the filters. I have seen clients use their GPS or their children’s devices when other outlets are blocked. This addict is stuck in anger and possibly old rebellion against authority. He or she is saying “you can’t make me.”
Bargaining can go on for a long time too. The addict makes a deal with their treatment program that says basically “If I get XYZ then I will be able to let go of my addiction”. This can mean that the addict is going to support group meetings, going to therapy, and reading all the right books but is not willing to experience change. He is waiting for it to feel right to stop being an addict. Or he is waiting for a “sign” or for a new relationship to save him etc. The unpleasant reality is that in giving up the addiction there is nothing that will immediately take its place. No way to avoid experiencing some sense of loss.
Some addicts go along way down the road to recovery but still can’t give up their addictive behavior completely. They find that the loss of the addiction brings on depression. They endlessly analyze why they have relapsed this time. They feel they cannot tolerate stress or loneliness. But there is no way to eliminate all of life’s stresses and challenges. Eventually they begin to realize that they can experience unpleasant feelings without reaching for a drug. This is the point in a sex addict’s recovery when he or she has turned a corner and is finally done with acting out. They know it and you can see it. They will come to acceptance and begin to be solid in their sobriety.