The following is an interview with a woman who self-identified as being in recovery from a sex addiction. She is in her 40′s, professional, and married with children. She asked to remain anonymous for the sake of her privacy; she used the pseudonym “Nora.” I asked her about her addiction and about being a woman and sex addict. I began by asking her to describe her sexual addiction:
Dr. S: How would you describe your sex addiction?
Nora: At this point in my recovery, many previous problematic behaviors have dropped away, leaving only the core of my addiction – which started in early childhood – masturbation with disturbing fantasy. So in describing my sex addiction, I would say that I have been able to let go of all my problem behaviors without great difficulty but struggled to achieve abstinence with masturbation with those fantasies. I am currently sober and have been for some time, one day at a time. My addiction started in early childhood, and later was obscured by the acting-out I was doing with men. But it was all deeply influenced by the control and rage-based fantasy world which started in my childhood.
Dr. S: How did you know it was an addiction?
Nora: I was unable to stop my behaviors on my own. I would make promises to myself to stop having one-night stands, unprotected sex and falling in desperation (love) with unavailable men. I would be in one desperate relationship, and cheat on that person, intrigue with other men, or cheat on him in my fantasies, and go from one bad situation to the next – from my teens until my late 20′s. I started therapy because I was terribly unhappy, and early-on in treatment my therapist told me to go to Al Anon because I had a family history and relationship history being with others who struggled with alcohol and drugs. I began understanding I was a co-dependent but I wasn’t able to yet accept my own sex and sex and love addiction issues.
Dr. S.: What made you accept that you were powerless over it/that it was an addiction?
Nora: Accepting my powerlessness has come in stages in my sex addiction recovery. About a year or so into individual therapy my therapist, who had already told me to go to Al Anon, next told me I needed to go to SAA [Sex Addicts Anonymous]. I was angry and refused. I am surprised that somehow I didn’t quit therapy. But later I was a bit more open because I could see my inability to stop acting-out sexually and with love addiction. I hit bottom. Prior to my bottom, I was sure I had met the love of my life: a seminary student who was moving out of the country in a week. I was certain I would be able to convince him to stay and be with me! When he left and I never heard from him again I came crashing down. I remember looking around and seeing natural beauty, and happy people, and I was miserable. I remember thinking that I had to quit these behaviors and get a grip. I went into to therapy deeply humbled and told my therapist I was going to go to SAA meetings.
Dr. S.: What made you feel like you needed recovery? What did you do for recovery?
Nora: I went to SAA. Unfortunately I didn’t continue to go to Al Anon. I didn’t understand at the time the struggle I had with co-dependency was as serious as my sex addiction problem. I was still confused and thought that now that I was in SAA that would take care of everything. Of course it didn’t and later I realized a lot of my inability to get completely sober in SAA was because I wasn’t working on my co-dependency. After a while I returned to Al Anon and remain in both programs now. I am not in AA but I understand from AA friends who also go to Al Anon they consider themselves “double winners”. I hope that is true for me as well.
Dr. S.: What have you come to understand are the origins of your sex addiction?
Nora: I believe that its origin was in my early childhood. I was raised by two parents both with significant mental illness. My mother had a severe anxiety disorder and my father struggled with depression and rage. There was a tremendous amount of tension, rage, and fear present at all times in my family. My father had been a war veteran and it was only later in his life that I suspected he likely had PTSD. He was also a high functioning alcoholic. He was terribly violent and for some strange reason, I took on the role of standing up to him and often bearing the brunt of his violence while no one in the family stepped-in or defended me from it. So I was an extremely angry, fearful, and anxious kid. I think my anger saved me but it became eroticized and the root of my sex addiction. I had all this anger directed at wanting to save my mother and defeat my father. I was never going to let a man or anyone have power over me and I was never going to let anyone’s anxiety intrude on me – at least that was my power fantasy, which of course isn’t – and wasn’t – reality. I wanted to have power over men and women. And in my mixed up thinking thought I could do that sexually. Unfortunately my concern about power was not just with men but in all areas of my life and these issues kept me from being close and intimate with family, friends, and my partner. At its root, I was terrified of intimacy. My “savior” anger has probably at the same time turned out to be my worst enemy. It remains a central part of my recovery work today.
Dr. S.: What made your recovery different as a woman than it would be for a man? Why do you think more women don’t get help for their sex addiction?
Nora: I think that some of the differences have been that there are far more men in [SAA] meetings than women. There have been more women who identify with the “love addiction” side of things and sometimes I feel they don’t recognize that “love addiction” is often eroticized fantasy of power and that has to do with sex as well. I sometimes feel isolated and alone, and that there still is as much social stigma about women being sex addicts as there has been historically about women being open about having sex. ”It’s just not done.” I see all the statistics that show women are becoming addicted to internet porn in larger and larger numbers, but I am not seeing these women in my meetings. It makes me sad. I have seen a tremendous increase in attendance in the conference call, women-only meetings but perhaps that still suggests we women are afraid to go to face to face meetings? I am glad for the support of the conference call meetings.
Dr. S.: Have you had any relapses? How do you think about relapse?
Nora: If you are referring to my inner-circle, or bottom-line behaviors, I have had no slips in areas such as sex outside of my relationship, affairs, and intrigue. But I have had slips with masturbation and fantasy. Sometimes I understand the slips and sometimes I have to work to get it. I have done a fair amount of therapy and work the 12-steps and understand that I have to practice my program, one day at a time. I don’t believe I can promise never to have a relapse, and that is not about having one foot out the door or making excuses. But I think with regards to my core sex addiction, if I stop taking care of myself and/or stop working my program, I can find myself in trouble. Sometimes I feel I am in my addiction even though I am not acting-out. This is when I have lost my grip on the “here and now,” and I confuse where I am powerless and where I have power. If I think I can deal with my addiction or stress by myself, then I am in trouble. I know I am powerless over addiction, so one day at a time makes me more responsible to do everything I can do to stay honest and work the steps and choose to bear the hard stuff that I used to act-out over.
Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D.