How I overcame my sex addiction.
“My name is Jordan, and I’m a sex addict."
As soon as the words left my mouth, I felt like a total impostor.
The men and women seated around me, legs crossed and arms folded, draped over orange plastic chairs, would see right through me any second now. Even though I was staring down at the floor, I could feel their eyes burning into me.
These people had real addictions and my problems felt so entry-level by comparison. They had serious problems, not me.
I mean, sure, I’d slept with countless women who I felt no emotional connection to. Sure, I’ve felt a deeply permeating sense of shame at the core of my being after compulsively acting out sexually.
And, if I’m being honest with myself, I’ve probably cumulatively spent weeks of my life watching porn, scanning sex ads, and frequenting massage parlors and sex workers in multiple countries.
F*ck. Who am I kidding?
The more I listened to the stories of the people around me, the more I realized that I was in the right place.
Don’t Trust Your Thoughts
As human beings, we have a brilliant capacity for bullsh*tting ourselves. It can take years of spinning our wheels in the mud before we realize that we aren’t making any progress in a certain area of our lives.
Some people think that sex addiction isn’t a "real" addiction. Some people say dismissive things like, “Well, if that’s what sex addiction is, then every guy I know is a sex addict.” As with many process addictions, sexual addiction is a commonly misunderstood one.
So what is sex addiction, and why is it so frequently misunderstood?
I’d say the biggest thing that most people don’t understand about sexual addiction is that sex addiction isn’t about sex. The way that I see it, sexual addiction is more about shame, isolation, and unworthiness than it is about chasing after sexual experiences.
Or, as one SAA (Sex Addicts Anonymous) member once so eloquently put it in a meeting that I attended, “When I act out with sex workers, I’m not thinking to myself, ‘Oh boy, this is going to be super fun!’. But rather, I’m thinking, ‘I have such a tornado of pain inside of myself that I either have to kill myself or compulsively act out to numb the pain.'”
Compulsive sexual behavior is what sex addicts use to numb out their emotions, just like alcoholics often use staying drunk to avoid feeling their underlying difficult emotions.
Sexual addiction, just like any drug addiction, can have a sliding scale of symptoms ranging in severity. For some people, sex addiction looks like chronic masturbation to porn, where they don’t feel like they can function in society without climaxing at least seven times a day. For others, sex addiction could look like occasional flare-ups of wanting to "use" or "act out" with sex workers only when they’re going through emotionally trying times (breakups, divorces, losing their jobs, death of a friend or family member).
The consequences can be fatal. I know sex addicts who have knowingly had unprotected sex with people who had life-threatening STIs. I’ve met other addicts who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on sex workers, going further and further into debt to fund their compulsive behavior.
I’ve met hundreds of sex addicts (as clients and in Sex Addicts Anonymous group meetings) and there is no singular unifying theme that connects all addicts — at least not in terms of how they like to act out sexually.
With sex addiction, each addict defines what their acting out looks like and what sexual sobriety means to them. If a person masturbates a few times per week to porn and they have no moral obligations with it and it doesn’t interfere with their lives, then they’re fine. It’s only when the addict admits that their lives had become unmanageable that they will commit to making a real lasting change in their habits.
In fact, any addictive or compulsive behavior could be easily categorized with one simple litmus test. Do you find yourself consistently doing something that you do not want to do?
As in, you don’t want to gamble anymore but you find yourself at a slot machine yet again. You decided to give up drinking and here you are, alone in your bedroom, halfway through a bottle of vodka. You decided to give up having anonymous sex and here you are putting on your pants after a quickie with a total stranger.
If the behavior has control over you, then it has likely become a problem in your life.
Why Is Sexual Addiction So Difficult To Overcome
With substance addictions, like alcoholism or drug addiction, it is possible (and often recommended) to simply discontinue the use of the substance entirely. But with process addictions like sexual addiction and eating disorders, it’s impossible to just give up food or sex for life. They are interwoven into the fabric of our being and so the goal is to integrate them into our lives in a healthier way.
But because sexual addiction and compulsive sexual behavior is just the mechanism that numbs out the difficult emotions that addicts are unwilling to face and heal their way through, the most sustainable way that a sex addict can overcome their addiction is to work through their underlying emotional turmoil that keeps them stuck.
Deciding To Face My Past And Feel My Feelings
After a certain amount of feeling out of control of my behavior, I knew that the only way out of this pattern was to feel my underlying emotional wounds. And, as fate would have it, as soon as I set the intention of wanting to dig into my past wounds, my answers were revealed to me in the form of a dream.
I woke up sobbing in the middle of the night, lying next to my girlfriend at the time, and the memories of how isolated and unwanted I felt in my childhood came flooding back to me. It took months of journaling, therapy, and other deep healing modalities to come to terms with the pain that I felt. As cliche as it sounds, I had to learn to fully love and accept my wounded inner child.
The behavioral antidote for me was to reach out to people for help and allow them to be there for me. And, once again, as soon as I set the intention to do so, a rush of new friendship and community came pouring into my life.
Obviously, healing past emotional wounds is something that must be done on an individual basis. There is no one-size-fits-all model.
I recognize that I am still relatively early on in my process (having only been going to SAA meetings for just over two years, on and off), but I feel like I’ve gained some valuable insights that I wish someone had passed on to me at the beginning of my journey. Here are those insights.
1. Tell the full truth to a trusted person.
“You are only as sick as your secrets” goes the saying that originated in Alcoholics Anonymous. The more we keep ourselves away from others, the more we suffer. The more we suffer, the more we downward spiral in a pattern of shame and isolation.
One of the best things that addicts can do for themselves is to find a trusted person (friend, family member, significant other, fellow addict in a 12-step program) to tell their secrets to. The more you can verbalize the thoughts, fears, and desires in your head that keep you feeling stuck, the freer you can be of them.
2. Go to meetings and get support.
If picking one person to share with seems too scary, you might want to try going to a few 12-step meetings. You can hear other people’s stories (that will help you feel less alone in your addiction), and you can share your own experiences with the intention of freeing yourself from ruminating on how seemingly strange your thoughts/behaviors are.
There’s also an added layer of accountability that comes with going to meetings. Once you’ve told a group of strangers about the ways in which you act out, you will be less likely to repeat those same behaviors because they won’t hold the same level of power over you. By externalizing your fears, you neutralize them to a large degree.
3. Cultivate new habits when you’re about to act out.
One of the core components of personal growth is coming to the fork in the road when you’ve always done one thing, and doing something different.
If, whenever you feel stressed/anxious/depressed/isolated you start to go into your psychological acting out bubble, instead of loading up porn/cruising ads/searching for anonymous sex, pick up the phone and call a trusted friend instead. If you understand that feelings of unworthiness and isolation are at the root of your desire to act out, then the best thing you can do is connect with someone who cares about you.
This point ties in elements of the first two points. Have two or three trusted friends on speed dial for when you’re going into the rabbit hole of your suffering. As you’re approaching the moment of truth, simply reach out to one of those people instead of acting out.
If reaching out for support is too challenging for you when you feel like acting out, another thing that you can do is induce crying.
Emotional stress, ultimately, is just a culmination of compounded unfelt feelings. If you feel those unfelt feelings (by releasing your sadness, anger, grief, or whatever else is present for you) then there won’t be any underlying emotional turmoil for you to try to numb out. Feel your feelings, and set yourself free from the pattern.
How I Will Manage My Sexual Addiction Going Forwards
It is well understood that addiction is a brain disease. Therefore, I don’t think that recovery means that you will never have addictive/compulsive thoughts for the rest of your life, but rather that you know how to manage them and not adhere to their unhealthy desires.
This is the same reason that alcoholics will still identify as being alcoholics years after they last had a drink — they know that the substance has a power over them and that it affects them differently than it affects most other people.
I went through an emotionally trying time this year and, during a phase when I would have historically acted out the most frequently, I refrained entirely from my most compulsive behaviors, which was a huge turning point for me. I no longer felt like I was at the mercy of my addiction.
Does this mean that I think I’m "cured" forever? No. Just like any addiction, I believe it is something that I’ll have to be aware of and continue to manage for a long time to come (just like alcoholics are alcoholics for life, they’re just wired a bit differently and can’t indulge in a casual drink).
For me personally, the biggest tools I have available to me are self-awareness, self-compassion, and the courage that it takes to reach out to a friend for help (aka embracing community). Self-awareness to realize when my mind is leading me in an unhealthy direction, and self-compassion for being able to be gentle with myself when I find myself feeling stressed, anxious, or any other negative feeling that I would historically want to numb out.
For most sex addicts, the goal of recovery is to be sexual when they’re feeling sexual feelings with a committed partner, as opposed to acting out sexually as a means to numb out their difficult emotions.
This article was originally published at Jordan Gray Consulting. Reprinted with permission from the author.