What Does Recovery From Sex Addiction Look Like?
An alcoholic stops drinking, a drug-user retires his kit. As a recovering sex addict, I couldn't stop having sex. So my wife and I came up with a simple solution.
Men and women in Sexaholics Anonymous and Sex Addicts Anonymous initially come in not remotely sure how to recover. First we deal with the problems that brought us to the meetings—our compulsive, dangerous and often illegal behavior. In SAA, we develop “circles” that define the kind of behaviors that mark us as sex addicts. The “Inner Circle” represents the behaviors we'll never do again—like the drink for the alcoholic, the fix for the drug addict. If we slip, we start counting our time again. In SA, things are defined differently— it's more of a "slippery slope" mentality. Don't do anything that lights the fuse. Don't even masturbate. I've known guys who won't look at a provocative roadside billboard, guys who avert their eyes when they see a panty hose ad in The Financial Times.
Many of these men and women are in marriages or long-term relationships. Their lives are dysfunctional and they know it. They'll expect to spend months, if not years, in 12-step meetings, individual therapy and marriage counseling in hopes of saving their relationships. If they're lucky, they have understanding partners who can see beyond the addiction.
It doesn't always work out. But sometimes it does. Sometimes, as in my case, the relationship breaks down, then rebuilds on a stronger foundation. Sometimes, the person you're becoming is better than the person you've been.
I was 15 years into my marriage when my secret life unraveled.
And when this happens, when you and your partner work together to create the intimacy you've never known, you begin to incorporate sex—healthy sex—into the relationship. Because sex is supposed to be healthy, it's supposed to be normal. Right?
But what is normal sex for a sex addict? What does recovery look like?
I've been sober going on nine years—sober from compulsive, unhealthy sexual activity. I used to pick up prostitutes off street corners, go to massage parlors, spend countless hours buried under lap dances in Hollywood strip clubs. This had been going on since before I met my wife. It started long ago, when I picked up a hitch-hiker in Hollywood and, before I could ask where she wanted to go, she asked me the alluring question: "Lookin' for a date?"
I was 15 years into my marriage when my secret life unraveled.
The beginning of the end started with an inkling of suspicion—a simple lie I told my wife, a lie that didn't add up. It got my wife thinking and asking questions. I told another lie to cover the first and then I lied again. I lied desperately. I lied to save the hidden self, the secret me—to save the man who wasn't worth saving. I saw the fear in her eyes—she never thought I was capable of this. She didn't know what to believe.
"What do I need to do to prove I'm not lying?" I begged.
"I want you to take a polygraph test," she said, firmly. "I've been doing some research and I feel it's the only way."
I swallowed, not expecting this. The addict inside me was outraged. "Of course," I said, buying time. If only I could lie my way out of this.
"You're going to tell me everything before the test," she continued. "I don't want any surprises. I want to know who you are and what you've done. If you pass the test, I'll know you're telling the truth about all the lies you told me."
And so, in the countdown between that moment and my day of reckoning, I began letting it out. As Hemingway said of going bankrupt, it happened slowly, at first, and then all at once. My confession became a complete disclosure. This was before I knew what a disclosure was. Before I knew what a sex addict was or that I fit the profile. At that point, to my wife and to me, I was an adulterer. The word she kept repeating in my presence, the word that our first therapist corrected with the sentence, "Don't think of him as an adulterer—think of him as an alcoholic."
My disclosure left her in shock. She asked me to move out of the house. I knew it was over.
I stayed with relatives and friends for three weeks—close enough to be there when she called. She was disgusted with me but she was also disgusted with herself—for not knowing who I was, for letting herself be duped all of these years. And yet, now, she saw something she hadn't seen before: a human being, with sharp edges and flaws. A dark side no one knew existed. Maybe something that reminded her of who I was the first time we met, the thing that caused the attraction in the first place. It intrigued her.
What I didn't know was she'd been planning on leaving me before she even discovered my addiction. There had been no spark or passion in our marriage for a very long time. My disclosure made her pause. We joke about it now, how it was like that old Star Trek episode when Captain Kirk was split in two: there was the evil Captain Kirk, who practically raped Ensign whatever-her-name-was, who selfishly tore through the Enterprise doing whatever he pleased, and there was the kind Captain Kirk, who couldn't make a decision, who let the Klingon warship fire on the Enterprise until Spock ordered Chekov to bring up the shields. The kind Kirk was useless and the evil Kirk untamed. Together they made an admirable human being.
My wife had lived with the kind, wholesome, incomplete me. The dark side was missing—hidden in shameful, Hollywood nights. My wife wanted to see what a complete me was like. She wondered if it was worth her investment of energy, time and trust. She decided she would try, if I would try—if I would give it my all. But it had to begin with honesty.
I took the test and passed. It wasn't easy, but it was nothing compared to what I'd put her through. We were now at ground zero. From there, I went to 12-step meetings, then we went to 12-step meetings, and to marriage counseling, and to individual therapy. Slowly, gradually, we built something new.
And there was sex. A new type of sex, built on trust and respect and a growing passion. It wasn't always good. It wasn't always bad. Lately it's been great.
For me, recovery looks like this: no more compulsive behavior, no more secrets. When I was acting out, I'd spend four hours driving the same two-mile stretch of Sunset Boulevard, looking for the perfect girl. Four hours, sometimes more. Back and forth, street corner to street corner—that bus stop, this pay phone, that Denny's Restaurant. U-turn, repeat. Now, when I see a prostitute on the street, I drive on by. I do not circle back. That would be "cruising." And cruising is one of the many things in my Inner Circle.
Cruising lights the fuse.
Sex addiction isn't really about sex. It's about a lot of things and it kind of looks like it's about sex, but it isn't. It's about the hole in our lives and how we fill it—with alcohol, with drugs, with sex. It's about avoiding intimacy with the ones you love while making connections with strangers you perceive to be safe. It takes time to turn all that nonsense inside out. It takes time, and help, to right all the wrong.
Stopping the compulsive behavior was difficult but being truly honest was even harder. Looking the addiction in the eye and calling it what it was, instead of making excuses to let it take me down its road. I discovered that a lot of "innocent" things lead to my Inner Circle. Like flirting. If I do anything that resembles flirting, I have to tell my wife. Because flirting is my attempt to make a connection and there's no innocent flirting in my world. There's a line that must be drawn and my past actions show that I'm likely to cross it. I have to tell my wife about these flirtations when they occur because, eventually, she'll find out. She'll find out when I tell her, before the next polygraph test.
Addictions are crafty little devils.
See, as part of my recovery, as part of my new marriage agreement, I have to take that test once a year. It is the tool that makes me accountable and it uncovers everything. There's no gray area in the polygraph test. Before taking it, I inventory all the things I've done in the past year that might be considered slips, or might prove to lead to a slip if it isn't brought to light—like the hour I spent on the Internet, clicking from one pornographic image to the next. Left unchecked, this could lead to a full-on Internet addiction. Or the time I went for a legitimate massage, then waited around hoping the masseuse would do something about my erection. Now my massages must be supervised.
I've known guys who have failed the test. Me, I've passed every one—because I've told my wife everything that needed to be told before taking it. The test confirms that I'm living up to my end of the deal.
The truth is, and you can test me on this, the polygraph saved my marriage. I'm indebted to it. It has made it so that lying is not an option. The last polygraph examiner we used was impressed with what we were doing. He said the test has only recently been recommended by marriage counselors for use in bringing relationships back from the brink. We've been doing it for years.
I'm in recovery. It's different from anyone else's recovery. I have an active, sexual relationship with my wife. Some things we do might be considered pushing the envelope to others in the program—like going to strip clubs, which we do on occasion, because it's fun and a little edgy and sexy and we can share it, together. But I'll never go without her because there are no more secrets—no more shameful, lonely nights cruising the streets. No more masturbating alone, either, because it severs the connection I have with my wife. It sends me into a fantasy world that leads to compulsive behavior, which leads to my Inner Circle. Yet I can masturbate in front of my wife, if it feels right to do so, if it's about us and not me.
Sex is a good thing. Really. It should be explored, providing the exploration is done between consenting adults and no one is abused in the process. When I was picking up prostitutes, I was part of a system that encouraged the abuse of women, and the shame I felt translated as self-abuse. The pay-off—a two-second ejaculation—really wasn't worth what I'd lost, which was my dignity and self-respect.
This is what recovery looks like to me: the end of dangerous, compulsive sexual behavior and a life lived without secrets. Yet I know, as we all do, that addictions are crafty little devils. They wait in the wings until we're sure we're their master, then they return to assume control of our lives. So I know I'm not cured. But I am in recovery and life has never been better.
Stephen Jay Schwartz is the L.A. Times best-selling author of Boulevard and Beat, the dark mystery series featuring sex-addicted LAPD Homicide Detective Hayden Glass which has been optioned for television by producer Ben Silverman. This is his first piece for The Fix.