On the surface, Dara has it all together. She’s an architectural engineer with a degree from an elite private college. At only 30, she’s a project manager with a global company. Her projects take her around the world. She has a Southern pedigree; her father was a physician and her mother is still a well-known Junior Leaguer. Dara is a member of all the right clubs and organizations. She runs a half marathon and is a training triathlete. She’s always coiffed and expertly attired. She has a way of making everyone feel she believes they are interesting and attractive.
But Dara has a secret. Her husband filed for divorce two years ago when he learned she’d been having affairs – plural. She’d been sleeping with her boss’s boss and with a woman from the gym as well as with random strangers she’d begun meeting over drinks. Her husband found out about the affairs when he was diagnosed with chlamydia. He was unforgiving but had kept Dara’s secret. They came together from a world where such indiscretions ruin people.
Still, since the divorce, people in the office had begun to talk and Dara had been demoted from an important project. In response, she’d amped up her public works. She volunteered at the women’s shelter and publicly gave money to a local cancer hospital. She began attending church regularly – the same one many on her staff attend. She teaches Sunday school.
She doesn’t drink regularly but when she does, Dara doesn’t appear to have a limit. Her mission is as much about finding a hook-up as it is about catching a buzz – the second enforces the first. Dara’s father had been an alcoholic and a scathing critic of his daughters. The sisters were expected to be perfect but they never could be. He regularly called them “Jezebels,” “heathens” and “sluts.” Each morning that Dara makes the “walk of shame,” she convinces herself that whatever went on the night before was unreal; she rarely remembers it anyway. That person wasn’t her, she decides.
Why Sex Addicts Are Not Dissociative Identities
Looking at Dara’s life, it would be easy to see something of the Jekyll and Hyde complex. According to Dr. Linda Hatch, “[T]he only way Dr. Jekyll can feel safe in meeting some very basic human needs is to detach from those he loves, morph into a beast and then morph back again.” The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was an 1886 novella by Robert Louis Stevenson about a man with dissociative identity disorder (DID), or multiple personality disorder, as it was once called. Sex addicts are frequently accused of having DID because they can appear to be more than one person – at times, someone who is authentic, kind and respectable in front of family, friends and coworkers, and at other times, someone whose behaviors seem depraved or wholly lacking in empathy and self-respect.
People who suffer from sex addiction, by and large, are not suffering from DID, although they do frequently experience dissociation. Dissociation describes mild to severe detachment from physical or emotional experiences. Addicts of every stripe tend to dissociate as they prepare to use their substance or engage in their process because dissociation is a defense mechanism that makes acting out easier. It also occurred early on in the life of most addicts as a response to painful or traumatic experiences; children dissociate in order to protect their psyches from harm. And that is what addicts do as well.
Thinking in Extremes
As we see with Dara, many sex addicts are unable to accept divergent parts of themselves. Rather than integrating the aspects of their personalities others may find unsatisfactory, they push those aspects underground – they deny them. This suppression has the power to cause pieces of who we are to become powerful in dangerous ways. When we can’t accept a part of who we are, it gets pushed into what Jung called the “shadow,” and it then becomes possible for this shadow nature to blow up our lives.
Dara can’t admit that her sexual acting out is dangerous. She drinks to excess and then forgets her behaviors – behaviors that put her at risk for STIs or social ridicule, something she cares about (not necessarily something she “should” care about). She has begun to behave like two very different people.
A large part of healing sexual addiction is not merely about stopping damaging behaviors but teaching people to integrate all of who they are. It isn’t enough to vanquish half of ourselves; we must learn to love all of ourselves. When we can truly do that, we have triumphed over painful childhood experiences and made the battle against compulsions so much easier.