Almost three years ago, I walked into my first Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) meeting. I wasn’t sure yet if the 12 steps were for me (I couldn’t conceive of a Higher Power, much less one that might be interested in helping me out), but I had absolutely no doubt that, if these groups did work, this one was for me. I’d been aware of my growing problem for years: a constitutional inability to say no to sex I didn’t really want to have; repeating the same tired cycle in one toxic relationship after another; running from love before it ever got off the ground; and soothing myself by sexually acting out. If sex and relationships could be an addiction, and if addiction was like a disease, I had it.
Growing up in the home of an emotionally volatile and all-consuming mother, I learned to compartmentalize my needs, even my very identity. Pain and hurt feelings lived somewhere over there, where I quietly put them on a way-back shelf, and the face everyone expected to see was right here, however it needed to look. I identified with my thinking, rational brain and forgot all about feelings; they were no good to me. Being “rational,” of course, was a lie; what logical person splits herself into a thousand pieces and walks through life like an automaton? That isn’t reason; it’s desperation. It’s a defense against heartache.
Defragging the Self
Those early SLAA meetings were the first place I dared speak out loud about this fragmented nature I’d begun to notice in myself. I was like an old PC, too many bits had fragmented, too many selves had spread around, clogging up my processers. I needed to get absolutely honest with myself and everyone in my world, so that I could defrag, and ultimately come to understand the real me – my true needs, real feelings, most authentic self. To do this, I could no longer “rationalize” parts of my life that were incongruent. In the past, I’d strongly felt that if I didn’t want to go home with someone on a first date, I absolutely shouldn’t. But come test time, I’d invariably give in. My addict dared me by laying on the seduction, just to see if I’d step in and actually say, “no.” I almost never did.
The first few times I practiced saying no, really held back and didn’t engage in the intrigue of sexual flirtation, was a little like learning to drive. I wasn’t sure what I was doing, but it felt really good to come away victorious, unscarred. I bonded with my SLAA friends and began regularly sharing those victories, and some occasional missteps. This is when I began to believe I was getting my power back; I was no longer powerless in the way addicts consider themselves. I was learning the tools and strategies to truly get well.
I dove into my past, examining the emotional roots of my problem, and wrote down my bottom line behaviors. And over time, the things I placed inside that circle grew. I wasn’t afraid to stretch my new abilities, to try parallel parking with a manual transmission (i.e., to delete phone and email contacts I no longer needed, to tell guy friends when something just didn’t feel appropriate for me without apology or deprecation). And because I was growing stronger, people who needed some of that strength mirrored back to them started to show up in my life. We can all stand to be reminded that we have the strength within us.
Mirroring Strength Through Friendship
I moved back to town and started to see an old friend again; we’ll call her Lea. There were occasional lunch dates and shopping trips, but frequently Lea would ask me out for drinks or “girls’ nights out.” I’d be her designated driver and off we’d go, catching up. Over the weeks, I started to notice a pattern. The more Lea drank, the more likely she was to become more than a little obsessed with a stranger (sex addiction frequently shows up when other substance use is in play). She sometimes requested that I leave without her, insisting she’d get a ride with the man she’d just met. The next day, Lea would text to thank me for not leaving her, and I could always tell there was more she wanted to say. I decided to fully open up to my friend about my past, no expectations and no judgments.
Afterward, Lea began what she called “confessing.” She had started to see someone she really liked and she was terrified that her “old patterns” were going to get her into trouble and ruin her relationship. She confessed to cheating on nearly everyone she’d ever loved (so had I). And she admitted that she felt like the desire was somehow beyond her control. She didn’t cheat because she wasn’t happy or in love; she didn’t know why she cheated. But it wasn’t just that. Even when Lea was single she found herself engaging in multiple one-night stands, sometimes with married men from work. She feared she’d developed something of a reputation in the office and that it was inhibiting her career, one that should have been extremely rewarding given that Lea made excellent money doing something she loved.
I’d been where Lea was before and easily could be again. I cared. I gave her Susan Cheever’s excellent memoir, Desire: Where Sex Meets Addiction. Twenty-four hours later, I got a text from my friend, “I just finished the book, and I’ve had a revelation. I keep trying to work on relationship skills, but my problem is with addiction. I think I’d like to go to your next meeting with you.” And off we went.
From Cheever’s book:
It’s the dirty trick of obsession that, getting its way—spending time with the object of desire, having sex with the object of desire—doesn’t lessen the obsession, but increases it. Although an addict, while obsessed, truly believes that being with the object of the obsession will cure the obsession, the opposite is true. When an alcoholic promises that all he needs is one last bender to achieve satisfaction, he’s chasing a chimera.
Like me, Lea – the child of a raging father who loved to disparage his daughter by calling her “slut” and “not good enough” – had spent her entire adult life trying hard to quash her emotions and to identify solely with her rational mind. But for women with sex addiction, and really any other kind of addict, there is no such rationality. We can fool ourselves into believing we are tough, but without a strong connection between our hearts and our minds, there is little sanity and no wholeness. Getting sane and whole is as much about getting honest as it is about becoming compassionate for the self we meet when we do. The 12-Steps offers the only place I know of where people share the truth about what they believe are their very worst selves, and yet meet each other with non-judgment, humility and grace. When you find yourself in a group of people so full of acceptance for the part of you that you’ve been running from for years, it begins to rub off. You finally begin to meet that part of you with love too, and that is the key to change, if anything is.