Diary of a Sex Addict
Drinking heightened his desire to be touched, and strip clubs provided the ideal environment for his addiction to flourish. But now that he's sober, he still can't resist the allure.
Before it became a pattern, it was just the thing I did.
Here’s how it went: I would have a few bottles of Heineken, then switch to a glass of Malbec, then another, and next I’d hear myself ordering a whole bottle.
Whatever I was feeling, the alcohol made the emotion more intense. Most of the time, I was burning to touch and be touched. After a few, every pore of my body wanted another person to validate me through their uninhibited affection.
Soon my eyes were floating the bar looking for that person. For a time, I had a pocket-full of lines that maybe didn’t seem as silly as the guy’s at the other end of the bar. The key was observation. That would lead to engagement. If she were reading Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, I’d slide over and ask whether she was working her way up to Madame Bovary. If she knew about Bovary, it was on. If she didn’t, or was disinterested in play, was all the work really going to be worth it? That was in the '80s when I cared crucially about what women read, and when many women on the Upper West Side of Manhattan might be reading someone like Flaubert at the Dublin House.
What I did at all those bars—engaging, charming, and making a conquest when I could—wasn’t vindictive or misogynist. I was just a guy who liked to drink, and that drink heightened my need for women in all her varieties.
One of my all-time favorite lines was, “What country are you from?” It never failed to put people off guard. “Do I look like I’m from somewhere else?” “You look Italian.” When you’re young and good-looking and drunk, you can get away with a lot of bad lines. Maybe she’d take the bait, maybe tell me off. If she saw right through me, there were always other girls and other lines.
But if she engaged, here’s how things might proceed: Kissing on the street, "your place or mine," an awkward undress, heavy panting, then sex, sometimes steamy, often a letdown…and finally escape. Numbers exchanged, knowing that I’d never call. This was excitement. This was life.
And then suddenly it wasn’t. After more than a decade of such entanglements, it stopped being fun. Drinking alone on another Friday night, waiting for her to come into this bar. And another thing: I was getting tired of hurting people, tired of knowing that in truth I didn’t want any of them, for none could help me the way I needed help.
I want you to know: I never intended to hurt anyone. What I did at all those bars—engaging, charming, and making a conquest when I could—wasn’t vindictive or misogynist. I was just a guy who liked to drink, and that drink heightened my need for women in all her varieties. Why did it have to be only one anyway? I wasn’t the callous sort. I was hurt. I needed to be held. Why did they all have to get angry when I didn’t call? Hadn’t we had fun? Hadn’t we been happy? Wasn’t that the point of this thing called life?
But I’m jumping ahead of my story.
After graduate school and a few months in the East Village, where I drank too many Pabst Blue Ribbons at the Coyote Ugly before it became a theme park, I decided to migrate west, to Los Angeles. I arrived several months after the 1994 Northridge earthquake, staying with a friend in Los Feliz, where many restaurants and cafes were boarded up in a post-quake depression. It didn’t take long to find my place at a restaurant-bar called Birds, on Franklin Street, which was on its way to becoming a scene.
I had found a job at a movie studio, reading books and scripts, and after work would come home from over the hill and land at Birds before the bar seats were taken. The guys who sat near me were dull and dreamy and about a decade older than me, and drank Jack Daniels or vodka on the rocks to my wine and beer, leaving me wondering whether I was them in training. I became just another regular flirting with the bartender, who would flirt with everyone, but only for the tips; she had a boyfriend, a big guy who didn’t talk much, but everyone knew exactly who he was.
As the seasons flew by, I fell in with the intoxicating rhythm of LA. My bar lines grew less clever, if they ever were, but that didn’t matter: many women in LA were more interested in power, or the appearance of it. I now had a good job working for a movie director with a studio deal, and had learned to play that for all it was worth. In other words, a whole lot of drunken promises to introduce him to the actress for whom I had just bought a drink. Sometimes, that promise led to a state of undress and more. But sometimes, more often than I would have thought, it led to heartache.
On one occasion, I arranged to meet a woman I had been dating for several weeks at a poorly lit coffee house. My voice cracked as I told her in plain English that the relationship wasn't working—that it was my fault, my male wiring. She stood, bowed her head. The life was sucked out of her once-glowing face. She tried to muster a smile, walked quickly away.
I sat alone at Birds scribbling on napkins. I had had too much to drink and was liable to say anything to anyone, do anything. I scanned the bar, looking for another engagement, another conquest. But suddenly I realized I no longer had the stomach for it.
That’s about the time when I started going to strip clubs. I was driving home from work one evening and found myself parking in front of a lurid place on Hollywood Boulevard. I must have passed that place a thousand times and never had the least desire for it, but now it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. I walked in, paid the high admission, ordered a drink, and sat in a back row staring, like everyone else, at the naked beauty climbing a pole.
Even though I had never done this before, it felt harmless. And after multiple visits, it was just like being at the bar again, but now I didn’t need to do any work, didn’t need to come up with any clever lines or flashy connections, didn’t need to hurt anyone.
Beautiful women would come up to me and appear to want me, and I believed them because, well, I was a needy sucker and didn’t everyone believe they were special? Once I allowed her to take me into the VIP room, and I handed over my credit card, we both knew our role in the relationship; she was there to please and I was there to be pleased. I could leave at any point; come back in a week or not at all; spend little or spend more than I could afford; flirt or be quiet. At the strip club, I was anonymous and yet powerful. Fired by alcohol, I could be anyone I wanted to be, everyone I couldn’t be in the real world. Drinking had brought me closer to fantasy. At the strip club, I was living in the fantasy. It was fleshy environmental theater of the most addictive kind.
I quickly learned how to size up a good strip joint: the seedier the place, the more fluent the women were in the art of easing men’s pain (in other words, hand jobs or more in the back room, proportional to the amount one was willing to shell out.)
What I really wanted, I later realized, was a place where I could get further away from a real connection to anyone. Alcohol was one layer; the strip club, a deeper one. I began to feel insulated by the dynamics of the club, and even feel that the types of interactions I was having with the women at strip clubs were as real, maybe more so, as those anywhere else.
Some years later, I found myself living in a small East Coast college town. I had willed myself off alcohol and strip clubs, replacing them with spurts of intense marathon training, but I hadn’t fully probed what undergirded the problem. In sober moments, alone in my apartment, I would remind myself of a refrain I hummed alone in a corner, at about age five, when I was feeling like I hadn’t gotten enough attention from my creative and busy parents: “Nobody loves me,” I’d chant over and over, until my mother would tell me, in a scolding tone, that it wasn’t true, that I was loved, and wouldn’t I kindly be quiet once and for all. Was lack of affection and attention as a child the root of all of this, I wondered, and, if so, what could be the cure?
Gradually, I found myself back with a glass of wine or two, which less gradually became three or four or more, and then the search for a nearby strip club. Because I still hadn’t allowed anyone to get close to me, was I more vulnerable to the false love I received for an hour in a back room? What became clinically clear to me was the unavoidable connection between drinking and sex; intoxication would kick-start the craving brain, so that I was more animal than man by the time I arrived at the strip club, looking for a woman shaped to the proportions of my fantasy.
The truly liberating and scary thing was the lack of control. Blackouts were increasingly regular, and I was susceptible to every temptation, including harder drugs. One day a stripper gave me several hits of cocaine in a VIP room. Next thing I knew I was agreeing to meet at a nearby hotel, where more cocaine was promised and delivered. As people were rushing off to work, I got myself home and once in bed noticed my heart racing. I summoned all my energy to climb into a taxi and enter an emergency room, sheepishly answering the affirmative to the question posed by a hard-working intern, “Have you taken any drugs”?
What became clinically clear to me was the unavoidable connection between drinking and sex.
I escaped that night, but my addictions were spilling into work. I was less tolerant of difference. After a heated conflict with a co-worker, I decided to give notice and move back to New York, where I was most at home.
I started exercising more, taking yoga, meditating. I went to counseling and gradually weaned myself off of alcohol. Now, two years sober, I like to think: I traded in a good salary and job for a balanced life with fewer thrills but more assurances. The pain I had induced upon myself began to ease. The world had changed, too; the recession deepened, I started freelancing, found new girlfriends, and fought to be more honest with others and myself.
A few weeks ago, I saw a familiar-looking face near a subway stop. On closer examination, it was definitely her: we had met at the Dublin House, kissed on Broadway, gone to her parent’s house, been intimate, and I had deliberately lost her number—never even called. I wanted to apologize, to tell her how wrong I had been, how I had thought about that night for years and felt terribly. But she vanished into a blur of rushing bodies, just another reminder of the man I couldn't be, of how far I have traveled.
This article could end there, but it wouldn’t be truthful if it did. Although I may have beaten my addiction to the "fix" alcohol had long given me, I’m still wrestling with a lingering sex addiction, which might be an even tougher opponent in terms of how it continues to keep me from real intimacy.
Just a month ago, I went to a strip club in Latin America. Yes, I went sober, with far more awareness and control than when under the grip of alcohol, but the point is I went. Alcohol had spiked my sex drive and heightened my need to touch and be touched. Fueled by that seemingly celestial fluid, I had developed a system to escape the mundane, enter the fantasy world, and "cure" and "replace" what I might have lacked as a young boy. In the dimly lit caverns of the club, Stripper becomes all-attentive Mother, and sex is available without responsibility or guilt, without heartbreak or drama.
But maybe, with the new year, it’s time to own up to this: Going sober to the strip club might save me money and even my life, but it clearly won’t bring me any closer to the intimacy I desperately long for and need. The lure is great, but so are the losses.
Lance Lewis is the pseudonym for a writer living in New York.