Thanks for Sharing, a new movie that opens September 20 and stars Gwenyth Paltrow and Mark Ruffalo, lets us inside the world of sex addiction recovery. We meet four recovering sex addicts: a man new to recovery, a 5-year-sober man, a 15-year-sober man and a female sex addict. The movie centers around the "crazy making" these characters create for themselves and the people around them, and the struggles portrayed in the film are very real to each of the characters.
I want to set aside the persistent debate around the question of whether sex addiction is real or not to address the very real issues this movie addresses. The characters in the movie represent the struggles involved in recovery from unwanted sexual behavior, and the limitations in intimacy they experience with other people.
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Getting into sexual recovery is a unique experience to each individual. Each person has his or her own "rock bottom." For some, it is their marriage falling apart due to some sort of extra-marital sexual behavior. For others, it is losing their job, their reputation — or all of the above. Some even lose their life to this addiction through suicide or homicide. After recognizing that life like this is intolerable, many people will seek sexual addiction recovery.
Early recovery involves getting real with yourself and with others. Addiction involves deception to protect yourself from imagined or real threat. The threat may be fear of abandonment, rejection or just a habit you have gotten into and have found hard to stop. The first step in 12 step process is to "acknowledge you are powerless over your addiction." This is important for the addict to understand, because they have been trying to cope entirely by themselves; in their experience, people have not been trustworthy or reliable, and they have learned to isolate themselves.
Thanks For Sharing begins with a 12 step meeting that shows how this deception can look. It explains that the problem is the deception hurts the deceiver the most. He or she won't can't find themselves in recovery until he or she gets real with him/herself and honest with others. Brutal honesty is the key to recovery. Others can help if you are honest first with them. Learning to trust others is an experience that has to be felt, not thought. 12 step groups are great resources for helping people gain this experience of felt trust with others.
Another theme in the movie — and in real life — is that flawed people can help each other and give meaning and purpose to their lives. Let's be honest: if you are human, you are flawed. Many addicts compare themselves to others and feel they don't measure up — or else that they are better than other people. What they don't understand is that the people who are "all put together" are often struggling just as much as everyone else... they just wrap the crazy up in a prettier package.
In the interest of honesty, I include myself in the "messed up" category too. Early in my life, I thought everyone else had it all together, and I was the only one who was messed up and insecure. But as I studied psychology and human behavior, I came to understand that most people felt as I did, and some covered it up with a false bravado to hide from their insecurity. Others were so disconnected from their emotions they didn't even know they felt insecure. I now encourage people to stop comparing themselves to others and to like themselves for who they are — warts and all. Each person is unique and has value: even in recovery, and even when they are in active addiction. Al-anon 12 step meetings can help family and friends of addicts set appropriate boundaries for themselves to take care of their emotional needs; needs that the addict in their life is exploiting.
As recovery progresses, at 5 years Adam (Mark Ruffalo), has a self-care routine. He prays, meditates, exercises, goes to 12 step meetings, and has a sponsor with whom he meets regularly. These healthy behaviors help a person in recovery stay in recovery. The healthy behaviors are ways to cope with anxiety and stress (emotions everyone feels). Addicts' brains get hijacked by the need to use addictions for coping. They were not taught how to deal with anxiety in a healthy way. As such, recovery is the process of learning to rely on healthy behaviors to cope with the unavoidable stresses of life.
The danger is that if the recovery plan is not adhered to and unanticipated stress enters the addict's life, the possibility of relapse is present. The brain becomes hijacked once more to primitive responses that have helped sooth the person in the past. However, now the "acting out" and inappropriate sexual behavior only brings chaos, grief and remorse. This happens to many and is nothing to be ashamed of, but recovery does involves sharing the relapse experience with the sponsor and 12 step group. The relapse behaviors should also be shared with a committed intimate partner, so the addict is truthful with their partner and makes them aware of the potential risks involved — such as sexually transmitted diseases.
Sex addiction is a disease, just as alcoholism is a disease. It operates in the same way, physiologically speaking, preying on the reward system by generating dopamine (the feel good chemical) in the brain. If you are suffering from your sexual behaviors, there is help out there. Find a 12 step program, or a therapist who specializes in sexual addiction treatment.
Why consider a 12 step program? The benefits of sexual addiction recovery include: the experience of unconditional acceptance, learning to trust others, learning to be authentically you (no masks), living in community rather than isolation. You'll learn to be honest with yourself and others, replace addiction behaviors with healthy behaviors, and stay in the present moment, living one day at a time. If you want this for yourself or a family member, take inspiration from Thanks For Sharing and reach out for help.
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