My Final Battle With Sex Addiction

By James Wolfe 07/12/13

I stopped drinking and doing drugs, and I worked a solid program. But I had yet to face my most hard-wired compulsion.

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Twelve years into solid recovery from alcohol and drugs, I was not ready to discover another, hidden addiction. It was during the dot-com bust and my industry was dead. I was newly married, stuck at home while my wife was flourishing in her business. My AA program wasn’t strong enough then to keep me from falling into self-pity, shame and self-loathing, so it flooded in and I reached for the only drug I had left: me.

Long sessions of masturbation provided numbness and escape for a while, keeping me busy through the idle afternoons. I developed rituals for inducing what I called the lust-trance, and they enabled an intense cathected state that took all the anxious scatter out of my mental state and did trippy things with time. Three hours could feel like 25 minutes. After a few weeks of this, I observed that I’d crossed some internal line that defined me as a sober person. I found myself doing extreme acts that I used to get to only with a lot of vodka and cocaine in my system. I could always excuse going into these taboo areas because I’d been so whacked I “wasn’t myself.” But here I was, stone-cold sober in the middle of the day, doing the same rituals.

I was cursed knowing the markers of addiction, and here they were—craving, tolerance and demand vectoring up, and my personal standards lowering faster than I could keep up appearances. One of many new lows was the day I rummaged through a garbage can on a busy intersection near my Brooklyn home at one afternoon to recover the porn magazines I’d thrown out two hours earlier, not caring who saw me.

Recovery from sex addiction is the Marine Corps and everything else is the Boy Scouts. The surrender required seems to go against nature. 

I tried to stop many times after that, once burning my stash in a Viking funeral rite at Rockaway Beach with my AA sponsor. The moment I really sat up happened at a 'beverage' meeting when a guy I knew made the mortifying error of introducing himself as a sexaholic instead of an alcoholic. I saw him go crimson and felt the blood fill my face too, which horrified me: I’d just incriminated myself—had anyone seen? His shame was my shame.

I gingerly approached him after the meeting to ask him where I could go to out myself safely and get help. That was the beginning of my journey in the world of 12-step programs that begin with the letter 'S.' I was an eager beginner, going to meetings wherever I found myself, giving SLA, SRA and SA a shake. It took me a while to decide that SA was the only one that was going to work for me. I was used to the zero-sum premise of AA, a fairly straightforward proposition: If you drank, you weren’t sober. If you didn’t, you were. Of course, even here there are gray areas. You could fudge the definition by taking a pinch more of the pain meds than your doctor prescribed for your back injury. Some of us smoke pot and think we’re sober because we haven’t had a drink.

The S world was the Wild West by comparison, anarchy. In some programs you could set your own sobriety bottom lines. That might mean cheating was a slip, but masturbation wasn’t. Or you could watch porn and fondle yourself, but only to the threshold of climax—over, and you’ve slipped. SA, by comparison, had a clear sobriety definition: No form of sex with self or with anyone other than the spouse. It worked for me—still does— because I’m married and can have marital sex and remain sober. I would’ve struggled with miserable resentment if I’d tried to get sober in SA while still single. My higher power made me to have sex; it’s a God-given drive. This program is telling me I can’t until I get married? That’s a high bar to set, and yet people do stay sober and single in SA.

Recovery from sex addiction is the Marine Corps and everything else is the Boy Scouts. The surrender required seems to go against nature. Consuming alcohol or drugs is an indulgence, or at best cultural conditioning, not a biological imperative. Sex is natural, almost unavoidable; a sacred part of human life. Reward chemicals fire in the brain at orgasm to encourage procreative activity. When the same happens shooting coke, it’s a waste of dopamine.

I realized that my sexaholism was at the core of who I am once the other noise, the static of booze and dope dependency, was cancelled. The true, pure signal of my wounded, flawed, defective, broken, sinning, unrecovered self was addiction to sex. I’d always had it. It went back to kindergarten and that delicious confusion I felt when little blonde Cindy came into view. It was there in grade school when I spied on my sister through the hole we’d made in the wall separating our bedrooms. I knew it when I found the scrap of hardcore porn on Park Avenue near my private school and felt my whole body fill with feelings I could barely handle: Pleasure, shame, secret joy, fear, guilt, paranoia, but above all, an aliveness.

It also defined me as a successful predatory male, a “swordsman” more promiscuous than my father had been in his day as a young man in Hollywood and then married, in the whirl of New York high society. In the decadent 1970s alone, I had more sexual encounters than he had his entire life. Not too long ago I read a best-selling book about my family, and discovered that my dad’s mother was undoubtedly 'One of Us.' Apparently she spent a lifetime falling in love and into bed with any male who gave her the mildest smile of approval. She was euphemistically described in the book as “having a heart big as a hotel,” but I knew the dark, dirty secret behind that.

Even when—especially when—you know every nuance of your addiction, S recovery is the toughest by far. We count time in dog years, one year worth seven in AA. I knew really cool things about my MO’s, like the fact that acting out was a way of turning the shame on and off in a world of uncontrollable shame feelings. Through a decade on the slippery slope of elusive recovery, I earned a PhD in me. When the addiction is to self, there’s no safe place. “People, places, and things” doesn’t really apply when the danger zone is anywhere you are. The 12 Steps and all the actions of recovery became more life-and-death urgent as I continued to act out between stints of recovery. Each time back I would have rapturous breakthroughs, white-light God moments, spiritual awakenings, then I’d take back my will and fall on my face again. The bottoms got more serious than anything I’d known. Once I realized I wasn’t safe with myself, a panicky claustrophobia set in. Will and hell became four-letter words ending in—ll. I ran meetings and wowed ‘em with my insights. I spoke at conferences. I became, in the words of an old-timer, “a channel for God’s love.”

I’ll have lust in my mind until three days after they throw the dirt on my face, but I hope to keep having obsession-free days.

I even did a Warrior Weekend where I got naked with a bunch of guys I didn’t know and told them my darkest shit and the incidents of sexual abuse that likely led to my specific chosen (or not) ritual. That weekend fell on 10/10/10, which happened to be my birthday and the mass global celebration of the Buddha’s enlightenment, a day of immense sacred significance to millions of people. This detail made me feel gifted, lucky and special; I took that feeling and did vile things to myself a few days later.

Now I was sure I was insane, and of course I was. Obsession with self is a distortion of mind leading to a derangement of natural instincts—look it up in the Big Book. I’m wired to perk up before female beauty. But some days lust was so unmanageable I could fall in love every 10 feet walking through Grand Central. A hot August night in New York with college girls out on the hunt dressed like hookers could overload me to point of physical collapse.

Many times in the last few years I got to a place where suicide was the only way out. I knew that sex was between the ears, not the legs, and my mind would not give me peace. Even my sleep was lust-ridden with willful dreams that freed me to have sex with anyone I wanted to. I used to pray for clean dreams, and sometimes it worked.

The good news is that I’m still here. I’m sober two and a half years, a personal best, and I’m living recovery every day. Sex addiction from this view is the best thing that ever happened to me. Without it I may never have done the steps really completely, whole hog. I may never have gotten honest with myself and another human being about who I am at my gnarliest, nastiest core. I may never have faced the real me I’ve been running from for five decades. I suspect one of three addicts qualifies for S—at minimum.

This is the digital crack era of Internet porn. Lust is out in the open, encouraged and rewarded. In this culture, the choice is hard—but it’s never been easy. Remember St. Augustine, asking God in the fourth century AD, “Grant me chastity, but not yet”? I’ll have lust in my mind until three days after they throw the dirt on my face, but I hope to keep having obsession-free days. For rock-bottom sex addicts, there’s a way out. These are the best days of my life and I’d be insane to want to give that up. SA keeps me on the safe side of insanity and self.

James Wolfe is a pseudonym for a writer.

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