Sex addicts, like alcoholics in AA, typically identify themselves as: “I’m so-and-so, and I’m a sex addict.” Some will say “I’m a recovering sex addict.” As with the traditional model of alcoholism, they see their problem as chronic: manageable but incurable, like some physical diseases.
I have lately come to believe that sex addicts can recover. I think there comes a point when they can say “I’m a recovered sex addict.”
Recovering begins with getting sexually abstinent
The 12-step model which originated with Alcoholics Anonymous became the basis for the other fifty-odd 12-step programs that came later.
As with other addictions, sex addiction recovery requires that addicts “kick” the habit first. For SAA members, each person defines their problematic, addictive sexual behaviors. These are sexual behaviors that are compulsive, go against the person’s values, are dangerous, or cause serious problems.
For one person abstinence may be refraining from exposing himself to women in movie theatres and on buses. For another it may mean abstaining from extramarital affairs and internet pornography. Each person decides a set of behaviors they need to avoid and then counts as days of “abstinence” consecutive days of avoiding those behaviors.
These “bottom line” or “inner circle” behaviors as they are called are usually decided on by the addict in collaboration with the therapist or sponsor. As recovery progresses the addict may add behaviors to the inner circle or take other behaviors out.
Why abstinence is essential in starting addiction recovery
In addition, sex and porn addicts are usually expected to have an initial period of several months of total abstinence from all sex including masturbation and sex with a spouse. This is because for the sex addict, sex is literally a drug. It is necessary for the sex addict to go through withdrawal in order to allow his brain chemistry to stabilize and his head to begin to be clear of the delusional preoccupation with the drug or behavior.
As a therapist, I can tell you that I would find it impossible to treat someone’s psychological problems if they were using drugs. This is equally true with sex addicts. A person’s drug of choice is bound to be stronger and more effective in the short run than anything I can offer in the way of relief. Before I can do therapy I must get the client to address this and other “therapy interfering behaviors” as they are called.
What comes after abstinence?
Sex addiction treatment, like the 12-step program model, is designed to go beyond quitting a drug or behavioral addiction. This is because abstinence alone will not make you stay sober.
In order for recovery to be lasting, the addict must delve into their life history and arrive at an in depth understanding of the ways they are damaged and how that damage has led to their addiction. In working through what is usually some kind of early relational trauma, the addict no longer needs to let old fears and insecurities direct his or her behavior. The addict can then become, as recovering people say, “comfortable in their own skin.”
Without this deeper level of psychological change, most addicts cannot stay away from some form of addictive behavior. They may manage a period of abstinence for months and even years, but their adjustment to life is fragile and unsatisfactory and they eventually get into trouble again.
The fruits of a fuller recovery
Recovery begins and ends with connection. In the beginning addicts are in hiding, leading a double life of deception and shame. The initial commitment to get into recovery involves a decision to connect with a group or person such as a 12-step program group or a therapist. This is an initial act of faith based on little more than being fed up with the way things are. This is a big step in itself, since believing in and connecting with anyone is often a stretch for an addict.
But what begins as a connection with a person or an SAA meeting grows into a deeper and wider connection; a connection with one’s own innermost self, with one’s significant other, with community, with meaningful work and with humanity. The addict “grows up” to become a fully functioning adult who lives in contentment and integrity.
Feeling peaceful and alive, feeling secure and happy, helping others, these are worth the effort. But I believe that in gaining this, the addict can be confident that he or she has truly changed. They are not the same person and thus I believe they can say “I used to be a sex addict; now I’m a recovered sex addict.”