Help for Sexual Addiction
Sexual addiction is when you find yourself doing an unwanted sexual behavior and cannot stop. We live in a different world than we did just a few years ago. Some time back you needed to go to an unsavory part of town to find porn. Now porn finds you in your own home through the internet and television. It takes only a few looks to get hooked in some cases. Being a sex addict doesn’t mean you have to be into voyeurism, or S&M or visiting prostitutes. You may be addicted to porn, addicted to masturbation or sexual relationships and want to overcome lust. There is more to recovery than just stopping the sexual behavior. It usually means you have an unhealthy relationship with sexual behavior and you probably use it as a coping mechanism.
Erik Bohlin, M.A. has helped hundreds of individuals find healing from sex addiction, problems with porn and marital relationships over the past the past 15 years as a professional counselor for addiction. Believing that God is the source of all healing, he integrates a Christian model of healing with principles from Psychology and the Recovery field to help people get from from sexual addiction. Erik works in Lake Stevens serving the cities of Everett, Lynnwood, Marysville and Snohomish.
Sometimes sex addicts have an early history of masturbation, pornography and promiscuity. Sometimes sexual addiction afflicts a person later in life. But in most cases, there are similar patterns of how it affects us. Do you think you struggle with a sexual addiction? The easiest way to assess whether you have a problem is to ask yourself two questions.
1) Is what I am doing working for me? and 2) Can I really stop?
Here are some other questions to ask yourself about sexual addiction (adapted from the 12 steps of SA and other 12 step programs)
Have I ever thought I needed help for my sexual thinking or behavior?
Have I ever thought that sex is controlling my life?
Have I ever tried to stop or limit doing what I felt was wrong in my sexual behavior?
Do I resort to sex to escape, relieve anxiety, or because I feel I can’t cope?
Do I feel guilt, remorse or depression afterward?
Has my pursuit of sex become more compulsive over time?
Has my level sexual behaviors progressed, i.e. “I have done things now that I thought I would never do?
Does it interfere with relations with my spouse, girlfriend or boyfriend?
Do I have to resort to images or memories during sex?
Do I keep going from one “relationship” or lover to another?
Do I feel if I had a better sexual relationship with my spouse that this would help me stop lusting, masturbating, or being so promiscuous?
Does the pursuit of sex make me careless for myself or the welfare of my family or others?
Has my effectiveness or concentration decreased as sex has become more compulsive?
Do I lose time from work for it?
Do I turn to a lower environment when pursuing sex? Has it taken me to places in a city, I never thought I would go?
Do I want to get away from the sex partner as soon as possible after the act?
Have I used alcohol and drugs in the past?
Have I ever been in a situation that I might have considered sexually abusive?
Have I felt I had to keep this a secret?
Do I have difficulty expressing my feelings?
Was it difficult for me to answer these questions, or did I try to minimize and rational some of the answers?
Answering yes to any of these questions could mean that you have a sexual addiction is affecting your life.
Symptoms and Characteristics of Sexual Addiction
Sex addiction is really about a coping mechanism that involves living in extremes, minimizing, denying, and numbing whatever is going on that is too stressful or painful to deal with. One could have used alcohol or drugs in the past, or some may have avoided those pitfalls to find themselves coping by using compulsive sex. Many sex addicts avoid conflict and not deal with things. They live in fantasy world to get away from their problems. This happens automatically. They feel that if they find the right woman, image or fantasy that life will be wonderful. Addicts live in extremes in a black and white world. Some porn addicts set themselves up to fight with their spouse to get into a state of justification to go and use.
Many addicts have grown up in a dysfunctional or alcoholic family. They have three rules they live by:
1. Don’t talk. 2. Don’t feel. 3. Don’t trust.
Coping and the “feeling thermostat”
Did we use masturbation to cope as a youth? How affectionate and good at expressing love was our family? It’s as if in some families, the family’s expression of the “affection” thermostat was set to 55 degrees and the family called this “warm.” We thought that this was normal. Growing up in this cool environment causes us to seek anything that is warmer. We feel like something is missing. They don’t know how to talk about our feelings and what is bothering us. What happens? One day we discover masturbation and for us to seems to be the thing that will fix the loneliness, the fear, the pain and the boredom.’ We need this too much, because we are starving for affection. In a family where love and affection is expressed openly and the thermostat is set to 72 degrees, they also discover masturbation–yeah it feels good, but not so good that they develop a pattern of using it as a coping mechanism. They have other ways to feel loved.
Using porn and masturbation just like a drug, that is, to fix disturbances in our life, when we are sad, mad, scared, bored, lonely or any other unpleasant feeling, probably means we have an addiction. When we lie about our sexual behavior, or hide it, it is likely to be a sex addiction. When there is a lot of shame, that is “I am such a bad person for doing this,” it becomes more addictive. When there are sexual behaviors that we can’t talk to anyone about, it is more likely to be a sexual addiction. The sex addict has 4 core beliefs. This comes from the work of Patrick Carnes, Ph.D.
Four Core Beliefs of Sexual Addictions
1. I am unlovable. The sex addict, like any addict at the core, feels really different from others. There is a sense of toxic shame. Yeah, we may feel and work hard just like the other guy and work at looking normal, but deep down we don’t feel the same as others and really don’t feel loved. In a marriage, our complaint is that our wives don’t love us enough. We may not express this openly or even have thought about this–but this is how we feel. We may have a lot of friends, but on the inside we think that we are fooling others and that given time, they will found out how “bad” we are an we will be rejected. In the book of Sexaholics Anonymous, it says “that first we were sex addicts, then love cripples, we took from others to fill what was lacking in our lives.” We were taking what was lacking in our lives.” This leads us to the next core belief.
2. If I share everything with you, you will reject me. So we begin to hide and not share honestly what is going on in our life. This is not just the sexual indiscretions, but just about anything we think presents ourselves in a poor light. In some ways, sex addicts may look great and better than average on the outside, while on the inside they feel death. We live a double life, and not just about sex. As a result of being dishonest, our marriage begins to suffer. It creates a wedge between us and our spouse and we really start to think that if “I share everything, I will be rejected.” So we put a spin on reality. We are in denial, which is not so much lying, but really about unawareness. We fool ourselves so that we can live with ourselves. We minimize. We admit to some behaviors but normalize them and justify them. We defend and explain. We say, “well, it’s not like we are having a good sexual relationship.” Could it be that the sexual addiction is the cause of that? We usually don’t think like this and think of it the other way around. If I were having a better relationship with my wife, then I wouldn’t have this trouble. Chances are we come to the marriage with this. They think, “I am just like all the other guys.” They develop an “accounting system” which is present in any addiction. This is the list of sexual behaviors they haven’t done to convince ourselves they were not addicts. “I haven’t gone to a strip club or a prostitute” “It is not like a masturbate everyday.” “It is not like I do it any more than every three months.” “I am not really out of control, I just need to work hard at this.” Eventually, if it is a sex addiction which is a progressive disease, it will be getting worse and not better. We then do a behavior on the accounting list, but move it to the acceptable list to help us stay in denial.
3. If I depend on people or God, they will let me down. Sex addicts are very independent, self-directed people. They don’t want to rely on anyone, because they feel that they could be let down. They have a hard time trusting people. This usually comes from their dysfunctional family growing up. This is not about blaming, but identify where the became “ill.” The “addiction” becomes the “trusted source of comfort.” We don’t know how to ask for help. That is why this usually goes on and on and on.
4. Sex becomes my more important need. It may not seem like it, but really we live from sexual experience to sexual experience. It begins to dictate our lives. The root of the word addiction in Latin is “ad dictum,” meaning, to the dictator. These core belief are present in most addictions, drugs, pot, alcohol, sex, food, working, gambling, and spending.
In counseling we address these 4 core beliefs. We have them start to break these rules. We encourage people to talk in a safe and confidential place. Usually with their therapist, support group, or 12 step group (SA-Sexaholics Anonymous). We don’t encourage lying to spouses, but we don’t think it is wise to share everything, like their sexual history timeline with their spouse. We need to help them get used to sharing honestly with them selves and then a sponsor. Their spouse is typically coming from the place [and it is an understandable and healthy place] that their spouse has committed adultery, at least at a mental level. We help the sex addict start to “get sober” as we call it. That is they stop using porn, masturbation, etc. and they start to develop new ways of coping. They start to feel emotion again or possibly for the first time a a deeper level. We help them ask for help for what they need in life. We help they develop a better relationship with God. Many people have a relationship and have been going to church, but their addiction has gotten in the way.
This is just a glimpse of the work we can do to gain recovery from this problem that seems to be affecting so many of us.
Recovery is the process where we are tired of using and we say good by to our ‘drug of choice.’ The process of recovery is three-fold: Physical, Emotional and Spiritual. Some substances have a direct effect on our nervous system like alcohol, pot, street drugs and prescription medicine. Sex addiction is what we call a “process addiction” as they involve behaviors and not a substance. Other process addictions are compulsive, gambling, spending, work and Internet use. Don’t be fooled. These behaviors can be very addictive and affect our brains just as much.
Emotionally, addicts are numb. That is why many people with addiction look so good. They function pretty well. They appear even tempered at the beginning stages, because they are sedating ourselves with the glass of wine at night, the porn fix weekly or the “shopping therapy” on the weekend. They really don’t really think that there is anything wrong. This is what is called denial. Masturbation usually falls in the category in that the addict says to themselves I am not really hurting anyone. A spouse, parents or concerned person begins to feel more than they addict is feeling. As the concerned person becomes more motivated to help the addict, the addict does less to help their own life. The need to be “independent” and not controlled is a very strong need. It surpasses rational thinking and logic. They unconsciously choose to continue in their addictive cycle rather than look at the reality of what is going and doing what their spouse wants. Thus feeling “independent,” they are actually dependent on the sexing, eating, drinking, working, shopping, gambling, or drug use.
The Physiology of Addiction
For instance, there is a center in our brain called the“Cingulate Gyrus.” This area has to do with attention. It is the “channel changer” in our brain. When this works well, we are able to see options, have cognitive flexibility and be able to shift our attention from one idea to the next. When it doesn’t work well, we get STUCK, not being able to get a thought, worry or resentment out of our minds. People who struggle with “Cingulate Gyrus” problems tend to hold on to resentments from the past, worry a lot, and their brains gets into a lock-in mode. These people often come from alcoholic homes. Addiction is appealing to them. It momentarily takes away the obsession and resentment and numbs it with pleasant feelings. But the obsession become switched to the obsession to use or compulsion to act out. We know that sexual addiction and compulsive gambling affect the same center of the brain, “Cingulate Gyrus,” as in cocaine addiction. Dr. Daniel Amen, a psychiatrist whose clinics have looked at more that 20,000 SPECT brain scans of individuals, has provided us with a lot of useful information regarding addiction. His website, brainplace.com is very helpful.
12 Step Programs for Sexual Addiction
Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 step programs have helped countless individuals who have struggled with addiction. Out of this spiritual happening in America in the 1930’s came the 12 step groups for sexual addiction: SA, SAA, and SLAA. We are not endorsing any of these programs and speaking for any of them but making you aware of how effective they are. Most people of faith like SA as it has a more conservative values of marriage and sexual sobriety.
The steps are simple spiritual processes that when utilized help people overcome what they could not do on their own. These principles, even though they appear simplistic, are pretty profound and life changing once they are explored, understood and practiced. The recovering addict claims “spiritual progress, rather than perfection.” (taken from the book Alcoholics Anonymous) Perfection was part of the disease. Addicts could not admit many mistakes, imperfection or any problems prior to recovery. Why? Shame is a big part of it. We tend to use the word shame to describe what in fact is really, “toxic shame.” Healthy shame reminds us that “we are not God.” Most of the shame addicts experience is this “toxic shame,” that is not being human. To compensate for the sense of shame, they are perfectionists. It is difficult for them to be honest with themselves about their faults, their shortcomings and the life in general. Without honesty, there is little growth. So unrecovered addicts tend to repeat the same mistakes without ever learning. Shame makes them arrogant, prideful and “better than life.” They are in a “better than/less than” dance. You are either better than them or less than them. Health is recognizing that each person was created by God and that we have all been affected by the fall. This disease has affect us all. Since we have the serum, the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, why then do we pretend to not have the disease. Shame? If we can only see ourselves as we really how, think how much more we could repent and make progress. In a shame-free environment, there is acceptance. Acceptance of another human weaknesses and strengths. By accepting we don’t meaning condoning sinful behavior, but acknowledging and dealing with it. Because of shame we don’t even want to deal with it. We bury it. We repress it. We actually don’t think it is there. That is why so many alcoholics don’t really think that there is a problem. Shame is the experience of being a “defective human being.” Recovery helps us see that we are a “human being with defects.” This shift in our approach to ourselves, helps us see ourselves as we really are and then repent and recover.
The Illusion of Control
Another element that addicts experience is that they feel so out of control, that they overcompensate by trying to control the externals–people, place, situation. Letting go is foreign to the life of an addict. In essence, they are “control freaks.” We tend to think of negative situations involving control. But control can be trying to make everyone happy. Not ever really telling people that we are upset, because we don’t want to upset the proverbial apple cart which would ultimately make us feel out of control. We don’t want to be rejected, so we lie. Lying could be seen as form of control. We would any of us lie, except to alter peoples perceptions of ourselves. God knows that truth. We try to control our feelings. The more we seem to control, the more out of control we feel. We use our drug of choice, to give us a false sense of control.
The Four Paradoxes in Recovery
In recovery, paradoxes become evident.
We surrender to win.
We give away to keep.
We suffer to get well.
We die in order to live.
We SURRENDER TO WIN. We need to totally surrender unconditionally. We acknowledge that we cannot win the battle against addiction and have totally made a mess of our our life. We are better off if we stop running our life and let God run it for us. We pray in Step 11, “asking only for God’s will and the power to carry it out.” We are like a prisoner of war who who surrenders with our hands up and we do whatever our higher power tells us to do.
We GIVE AWAY TO KEEP. This strange expression identifies our selfishness and understanding that we can only be healed as “we give away what God has given us.” “Freely you have received, freely give.” (Matthew 10:8) When we are hoarding, greedy and stingy we are likely to use our addiction again as we have left a state of Grace.
We SUFFER TO GET WELL. There is no way to escape pain or suffering in this life. It is a truth that most alcoholics as well as most people try to ignore. The alcoholic, drug addict and sex addict use their substance to avoid suffering. This is why they use. Many people reserve the term alcoholic for those that really suffer–shaking, needing another drink, getting sick from drinking. But perhaps they are numbing themselves in minor ways and are too out of touch with themselves to identify that they are drinking as a form of self medication. To recover, we must go through the pain. We must learn to be mature and to face reality. Thankfully, the 12 steps help us face reality with the Grace of God.
We DIE TO LIVE. This beautiful paradox comes right out of the biblical idea of “losing our life” (Matt. 10:39) and denying one’s self and carrying one’s cross. (Matt. 16:24) The harder we hold on to our life, the more it slips through our fingers without us realizing it. (We call this white knuckling it) But when we empty ourselves of our ego, and die to our dreams, our will and our ways, God will give us life. We must die daily. While we may decide to surrender at a certain point of time, we must surrender every moment, so as to acquire God’s grace to keep us sober. This only comes through death, his and ours.
Links for Sexual Addiction
Sexaholics Anonymous (SA) – Puget Sound
Treatment for Sexual Addiction-mp3 recording. This talk was given to the Stephen’s ministers at Northcreek Presbyterian Church. The above handout on Treatment for Sexual Addiction can goes with this talk. NEW!
Treatment Center Resources – Listing of resources around Washington, Oregon, California and Arizona
Resources for Addiction Recovery by Erik Bohlin, MA
Acting Out or Acting in Recovery: The choice is yours – Good article about recovery during the day.
Lake Stevens, WA 98258