I was fine labeling myself a hedonist, a kinkster, or a playboy, but to actually admit that I couldn’t control my destructive behavior took years, even decades.
With the exception of certain harm reduction models, when it comes to addiction, there isn’t much controversy around what constitutes sobriety. If you went to rehab 10 years ago because you couldn’t stop drinking alcohol or injecting heroin, you probably have a pretty solid idea of what sobriety looks like in your life. But if you went to treatment because of sexual addiction or sexual compulsion issues, recovery might feel a little different.
Almost all of us want some form of sexual satisfaction. When, if ever, does a sex addict move forward with their life and feel comfortable with themselves sexually again? Is that part of you gone forever?
Years ago my life was completely out of control, all due to my sexual behavior. To say that I was sexually compulsive was an understatement. I knew my life was a disaster, but even so, it took me a long time to get help and to come to understand that I had a real problem. I was fine labeling myself a hedonist, a kinkster, or a playboy, but to actually admit that I couldn’t control my destructive behavior took years, even decades. I kept lying, manipulating, and sleeping around, all to give my brain enormous shots of dopamine, which of course was designed to keep me from noticing how miserable and anxious I was.
I was having numerous affairs, but they were never enough to satisfy me. My whole goal was to cheat on the person I was cheating on, then cheat on that person too. My entire life’s purpose was to either get laid or indulge my kinks, and I put a ton of effort into accomplishing this. I lost jobs and two marriages and went into financial ruin because of my sexual behavior, but to get off that ride of adrenaline and anxiety seemed impossible. I lied constantly and was deeply ashamed of who I truly was.
Finally things got so incredibly awful that I went to rehab, twice in fact, because the first time didn’t quite take. The first time, I went to an outpatient clinic in Los Angeles for two weeks, where we hung out at night and ate sushi. Another time I spent a month in a gritty inpatient facility in Philadelphia.
At the time, it seemed impossible that I would change my behaviors, but with a lot of soul searching and some hard work, I did. It took a while. In fact, it took years. Going to rehab was just the beginning of my journey. I’d walked a long way into the woods and it took a long time to walk back out.
Now, I consider myself to be doing well. I rarely think of myself in terms of being an addict or sexually compulsive anymore. But what is long-term recovery for a long-term sex addict?
Dr. Rob Weiss is an expert at Seeking Integrity, which offers treatment for men struggling with sex addiction/intimacy disorders or co-occurring sex addiction and chemical dependency. He told me, “In early recovery, when it comes to sex addicts or people with intimacy disorders, the treatment is all focused on what negative things have happened in the addict’s life and how to avoid them happening again. But at a certain point, even if the addict struggles for a bit, many sex addicts get to a point where what has happened in the past isn’t ever going to occur again in their lives.”
That certainly has been my experience; I still struggle at times, I still have to watch myself and am still more than a little outside of the norm sexually.
But now, 12 or so years post-rehab, I am in a long-term relationship. We have sex, much of which indulges the same sort of thoughts that I used to be ashamed of. I’ve made amends with people I care about. I am even really good friends with one of my exes and hang out with her all the time.
Lying or Compartmentalizing
So am I cured? Not hardly, but I’m totally honest about who I am with pretty much all the people in my life, including those I am romantically involved with. More importantly, I’m actually honest with myself, and I like who I am.
The honesty piece matters, perhaps more than anything else. Dr. Weiss said, “At some point recovery isn’t about sobriety; it is about integrity. How honest you are in your relationships, how meaningful are your relationships, how connected are you to the people in your life? How much are you being completely honest? Are you doing anything that takes you out of integrity? Are you lying or compartmentalizing?”
If you’re sexually compulsive or an addict, you’re going to have to find a whole new way to look at and understand sex and all the things that surround it. This new outlook must exclude compulsive behavior and all your old destructive patterns. It isn’t the sex itself that’s the problem; it’s how the addict misuses it and turns it into something dangerous and compulsive.
Triggers and Compulsions
Your bottom line behavior is probably going to stay the same over time and there are certain things you used to do that you might need to stay away from forever. No matter who you are, you’ll have triggers and compulsions that you need to avoid. But not all sex addicts are created equal. Your triggers are going to be different from mine.
One of the biggest tools used in treatment for sex addiction is something called the three circles. You draw three circles: an inner circle, a middle circle, and an outer circle. Your inner circle is where you list everything you do when you’re acting out in your addiction—things you simply cannot do. For some, it might be porn or phone sex, but for others, those might not be problem issues. The base issues in my inner circle were lying, manipulating women, or having affairs. Those behaviors stay constant over time. If I do them, I am not being honest with myself or other people in my life, which is dangerous for me.
Your middle circle is filled with the actions and behaviors that might lead you to engaging in your inner circle issues. Then you have your outer circle; these are activities that help you have a productive and healthy life. These activities and behaviors are likely to change. Something that might have caused you to act out sexually ten years ago might not even be a blip on the radar today.
Practicing Honesty and Love
In my experience, the most important mindset for combating sexual addiction and compulsivity is honesty, loving yourself, and being okay with who you are. Once you stabilize your life and start being honest and true with yourself and those around you, you’re most of the way home.
Dr. Weiss agrees: “If I were working a program of sexual recovery and I was spending time with a prostitute, that would mean I wasn’t living with integrity. My goal is to not have anything in my life happen that I would be embarrassed about, or be ashamed about, and that the actions in my life are things I would be glad to tell anyone about and feel good about. No matter what those are.”