How do I heal?
I know I have a problem with sex addiction. What do I do about it?
“People who have never had a good relationship need to discover why they avoid intimacy. The problem is not sexually addictive behavior. The problem is fleeing from intimacy. Sex addiction is the method of fleeing.”
“There is only one thing you need to change to overcome addiction – EVERYTHING!!” – 12 Step Fellowship aphorism
If you have problems with sex addiction, you have been using sexual and relationship behaviors to help you cope with distress. When you realize that the negative effects of these behaviors are destroying your life, you make the decision to stop the behaviors. However, it is often very difficult to stop: not only have these behaviors become habitual but these behaviors are the best coping strategies that you have figured out to manage your distress. Here are some of the challenges:
- You may need help if you have difficulty stopping unhealthy behaviors –
- You need to develop healthy resources to cope with distress
- You have underlying issues and problems that need your attention and care, difficulties you have ignored or not recognized
- You need to recognize and clean-up the wreckage caused by your destructive behavior: damage/loss of your intimate relationship, impact on your children, financial consequences, loss of your job, legal issues, health problems, etc.
Healing from sex addiction is difficult, but possible
It is not easy to change life-long habits and heal your brain, but if you are motivated, persistent, seek help and guidance from others, you can recover. Here’s what you need to do to heal:
The foundation for healing begins with a decision to be honest – especially to be honest with yourself about your behaviors, your thoughts and your feelings. Often, it takes time to become honest:
- You may dissociate and not be aware of what you have done;
- You may rationalize and minimize the consequences of destructive behavior; or,
- You may be overwhelmed by shame and be unable to acknowledge what you have done.
Seek Supportive Relationships
If you could have fixed this problem yourself, you would already have done so. Stop isolating yourself, and seek supportive relationships with individuals and a community with whom you can develop the trust and safety you need to be able to be honest, who can affirm you and be with you through the difficult journey of healing, and offer you guidance.
It may be extremely difficult to speak honestly with family members and friends who have been negatively impacted by your acting-out behaviors. This is especially difficult and especially important in a culture in which it is often not safe to speak honestly about one’s struggles: some may minimize the seriousness of the problem while others may make moral judgments and humiliate you. You can find support in 12-step fellowships as well as in individual and group therapy.
Stop Compulsive Behavior
As with other addictions, you have to work to stop the unhealthy behaviors. Often, that is very difficult because the urges to act out can be very strong. Having people in our lives with whom we can be honest about our struggles is essential.
Many individuals find it helpful to create controls and accountability so as to make it more difficult to act out when the urges are strong – installing filters on one’s computer that block access to problematic websites, allowing those who support us to monitor our spending, email, etc.
Start Healthy Living
It isn’t enough to stop destructive behavior because you have been using these behaviors to cope with distress. Unless you find healthier ways to cope with the distress, you are at high risk of relapsing and returning to your old unhealthy behaviors. You need to work to:
Improve personal self-care. Healthy routines for diet, exercise, sleep, recreation, etc. are the foundation for a healthy life. Identify specific, incremental, practical, and meaningful commitments to these behavioral changes.
Access body wisdom. In your addiction, you may have been numb or hyper-focused on your physical sensations. In recovery, you will develop your ability to:
- Be aware of your moment-to-moment physical experience,
- Recognize when you are dysregulated and at risk or responding impulsively and primitively from limbic system reflexes to fight, flight, freeze or collapse.
- Learn strategies for calming yourself physically and regain the ability to respond to situations creatively and constructively.
Identify and change distorted beliefs and patterns of thinking. The initial task is to become more aware of your beliefs and thoughts and deepen your understanding of their impact upon your mood and your behaviors. You then work to:
- Clarify the distortions associated with the addiction and
- Systematically cultivate more accurate and constructive beliefs and thought patterns that help you maintain a positive, hopeful mood while also being realistic about the difficult realities of life.
Enhance emotional intelligence. As you make progress in abstaining from addictive behaviors, you will work to:
- Heighten awareness of your mood and emotions,
- Understand what triggers evoke those feelings, connecting not only to the present moment but also to experiences in one’s past.
- Discover what you need when you feel happy or sad, afraid or excited, peaceful or angry, etc.
- Acknowledge and validate the truth of your subjective experience,
- Refrain from expressing those feelings in ways that might be destructive for you and others, and
- Develop internal resources for emotional self-care.
Develop healthy relationships. Sexual addiction can be understood as an intimacy disorder. Addictive behaviors have been the best way you knew to have intimacy or the illusion of intimacy. As you learn to abstain from the addictive behaviors, you will need to develop the range of social skills needed for healthy relationships and have the ability to assess when each is appropriate and constructive:
- To make connection with others,
- To communicate and to listen,
- To be assertive and responsive,
- To seek help and give help,
- To follow and to lead, and
- To engage in co-creative collaboration and win-win conflict resolution.
Cultivate spirituality. There are two important aspect to spirituality:
- Healing shame and guilt – As you work to acknowledge the destructive consequences of your addictive behaviors, it may be difficult not to be overwhelmed with shame, guilt, and despair.
- Clarify values and priorities – After you are no longer trapped by compulsivity and impulsivity, you need to clarify your values and your priorities as you work to rebuild your life.
Your spiritual life and all that encompasses – beliefs, practices, ritual, community, guidance – is essential.
- You may have a strong spiritual foundation; or,
- You may have not have had the opportunity to develop an adult sense of spirituality; or,
- You may have had negative experiences associated with religious life.
You will need to reflect on your experience,
- Build on the positives,
- Distance yourself from negatives and
- Discover new sources of spiritual support.
You may find spiritual resources in traditional religious frameworks on in a more unique personal spirituality. Your spirituality may or may not take the from of belief in a personal God or formal religion.
Get Help for Underlying Mental Health Issues
To a lesser or greater extent, your addictive behaviors may have been an attempt to cope with underlying mental health issues. As you gain control and work to abstain from those behaviors, you may find it helpful to have an assessment to clarify if you have an underlying biochemical imbalance. You may have a biological predisposition to depression, anxiety, bipolar, or other mood disorders; or, you might have an attentional disorder or other psychiatric problem that can be treated with medication, alternative therapies such as acupuncture, or various modalities of psychotherapy.
Heal Wounds of Childhood
You may also have used addictive behavior to cope with chronic childhood trauma – physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, or severe physical or emotional neglect.
- As you learn to abstain from the addictive behavior, you may experience greater distress since you are no long medicating and anesthetizing yourself against the pain of the past abuse.
- In addition, you may have developed ways of surviving and coping with the abuse that protected you as a child, but that are unhealthy for you as an adult, especially with regard to the ways in which you relate to others: isolating yourself, being unable to be assertive and set limits in relationships, being overly dependent, getting involved with abusive people, etc.
To heal these wounds, you may need both to explore some of your childhood experience as well as work deliberately to change unhealthy habits of relating to others in the present.
Heal Your Brain
Addiction causes changes in your brain, especially to the dopamine system which is associated with feelings of pleasure, with one’s capacity for impulse control, with cognitive processing and other brain functions. Fortunately, as you gain control over your addiction, your brain can heal.
- In your addiction, distress or triggers of various kinds resulted in unconscious, automatic, habitual impulses and behaviors to engage in addictive behaviors.
- Attempts to stop resulted in withdrawal symptoms – extreme discomfort that made it difficult to maintain abstinence.
- As your brain heals, the neuro-pathways of the addiction change.
- Addictive urges will be reduced more of the time.
- You will have awareness of the urges when they occur, and
- You will be more able to interrupt them and
- You will be able to utilize healthier strategies for coping with the underlying distress.
The changes in the brain take time but they do occur, and over time, you will feel more stable, resilient, hopeful, and productive in your life. You cannot predict how long it will take and the changes are incremental over a period of years, but your brain can heal.
Heal Your Life from the Wreckage of Past Behaviors
As a result of your addictive behaviors, you may experience a variety of problems – issues related to your partner/spouse, children, finances, work, friends and family, and legal difficulties. As you make progress in abstaining from your addiction, developing supportive relationships, and improved self-care, you will have the resources to overcome these difficulties. It will not be easy, there will be grief over some inevitable losses, and you may need to make significant changes to create the foundation for a healthy life – perhaps needing to change your work, where you live, your life-style, end some relationships, etc. Over time, you will find yourself feeling good about yourself and your life.
Heal Your Intimate Relationship
The wounds suffered by your partner as a result of your violations and deceit are not easily healed. You may be experiencing some relief as a result of emerging from years of lies and addiction, but her world has been destroyed. She may be:
- Experiencing shock as she discovered that everything she thought was real has turned out to be a lie.
- Desperately searching to discover if there are more lies, more that you have hidden;
- Blaming herself for not having been more vigilant and allowing herself to be deceived;
- Doubting herself as a woman, wondering if it is her fault that you have acted out;
- Enraged with you and unable to contain or control her anger;
- Seeking to reassure herself by frantically seeking to have sex;
- Feeling extremely isolated, not having anyone with whom she can share her experience, fearing their reactions; and
- On a roller coaster, as a flood of changing feelings overwhelm her.
You are fortunate if your partner has the generosity of heart to give you a chance to heal your relationship. It may not be possible to do so, but if it is possible, it will require a sustained commitment and effort on your part to rebuild trust and help her heal. You will need to work to :
- Become honest;
- Accept that you have earned a reputation as a liar and do everything you can to be transparent and make yourself accountable by allowing her access to your email, your texts, your phone records, your GPS location, your finances, etc.;
- Respect the boundaries she has has with regard to your living situation, physical and sexual boundaries and whatever else she needs to feel safe;
- Respond empathetically when she is distressed, to listen, to acknowledge the validity of her pain, and the damage empathically inflicted on her;
- Recognize when you are dysregulated, unable to respond to her in a constructive manner and be able to take a time-out respectfully, without blaming her, and letting her know when you will reach out to her to resume the conversation.
Supplemental Resources - Sex Addiction
You can take a brief, online, anonymous questionnaire for self-assessment, the SAST (Sexual Addiction Screening Test) at http://www.sexhelp.com/sast.cfm
You may also find it beneficial to contact one of the 12-step programs for sex addiction:
Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) – slaanei.org;
Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) – saa-recovery.org
Sexaholics Anonymous (SA) www.sa.org;
Recovering Couples Anonymous (RCA) – recovering-couples.org.