Mindfulness Takes on Sex Addiction

Mindfulness Takes on Sex Addiction

By Erin Ryerson 06/24/15

George didn't realize he had a problem until a nurse looked him in the eyes and said, “This is not normal. You have a problem.” He was having sex with 10 to 15 men a day.

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George is in his mid-50s. He’s tall and thin with close cropped gray hair and he walks with a bit of a limp. He loves languages, he tells me not a half hour into our chat. “I’m just wild about them,” he says waving a hand extravagantly in the air. He is fluent in German and Italian and “dabbles” in French. For fun, George and his friends get together to read Shakespeare out loud.  

George was born in Canada, but there is something in the way that he talks, the way he pronounces every letter of every word, that is not an accent as much as an affect. He looks like a man from another era with his bright red pea coat with leather elbow patches, matching red fedora and the thermos of tea he always keeps in his jacket pocket, near what he refers to as his, “breast.”

George went to Germany in his early 20’s on a scholarship. In Berlin he was finally able to express that he is gay. He moved to New York in 2001 for a man and worked odd jobs. But not long after the move, the relationship he had relocated for ended and George began on a downward spiral. 

On July 3, 2007 George went to a gay-friendly health clinic for an STD test, which he knew would be positive. After giving him the results, a nurse that he was familiar with looked him in the eyes and said, “This is not normal. You have a problem.” The problem was not that he was positive- again. It was that he was testing positive for one STD or another every three months and that he was having sex with between 10 and 15 men a day. 

George was spending an average of 16 hours everyday on sex: organizing it, traveling for it, and engaging in it. He threw sex parties and spent hours in chat rooms looking for inclined men. His obsession with sex had cost him his job and, consequently, his apartment. But until that nurse looked him in the eye he didn’t realize how much of a problem it had become. 

The next day he went to his first 12-step meeting. “It’s a really terrible thing to have to admit to yourself that you’re an addict,” he says. “You really have to back yourself up against a wall.” Looking back, George thinks his sex compulsion was a visceral attempt to alleviate a terrible loneliness. It was also a ‘fuck you’ to his family who was not supportive when George opened up about being gay.

George is thankful to the 12-step community for supporting him. In the beginning, he vividly remembers at one of his first few meetings when another member said, “George, help is on the way.” But eventually, he got fed up with meetings where the gist was, “Listen to how fucked up I am.” The 12-steps helped George get on the right track but ultimately they were not enough.

“I figured there had to be something more to it than just showing up”, he said, “The steps help but they aren’t it.” 

On New Year’s Eve 2009 a friend took George to a meditation class. He wasn’t a novice. George had spent a week on a silent meditation retreat in Berlin and he’d practiced intermittently ever since. Maybe it was because he was starting to have misgivings about the 12-steps, but something about that particular class resonated deeply with him. George started reading about Buddhism and attending classes regularly. “I consider myself a pretty intellectual person but when I started reading those texts, I was just blown away. There were truths that I had just never even considered.”

He started to think about tapping into powers that he already possessed instead of searching for affirmation and answers from the outside.  “I could never get on board with the twelve-step’s emphasis on God, I just didn’t think he was out there and if he was he wasn’t working with much efficacy.” 

*****

Dr. Judson Brewer has dedicated his career to studying the ways mindfulness can break the cycle of addiction. He is the director of research at The Center for Mindfulness, which is housed in a nondescript, two-story brick building on a tree-lined street in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, a suburb of Worcester. The lab is in association with the University of Massachusetts Medical School. There is olive oil scented soap in the bathroom and motivational posters on the walls, but these are modest attempts to instill character into the otherwise drab building. 

The physical space of the lab is representative of the two modalities it combines: science and wellness. On the ground level there is a large yoga room with cushions and blankets. In the basement about a dozen technicians work on laptops, and in the small treatment rooms there are EEG machines, used to measure brain activity. 

Dr. Brewer is 41-years-old with a salt and pepper beard. He is genial and trim in a way that suggests a healthy lifestyle. He pens a column for the Huffington Post, is an avid bicyclist, and he practices yoga and meditation daily. When I mention that I stopped at a Shake Shack on my way to Shrewsbury, Dr. Brewer says that he likes their mushroom burger. He doesn’t eat meat. Wearing a light pink button down shirt and dress pants Dr. Brewer sits comfortably on a leather couch in his office. Behind him is a huge whiteboard with indiscernible scribble and sketches. “It’s the one thing I insisted on having when I came here,” he says.

Dr. Brewer got his bachelors degree in chemistry at Princeton in 1996 before heading to Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where he received his MD and a Ph.D. in immunology. His research was focused on stress and illness; he wanted to know why we get sick when we are stressed.  

It was a difficult time: long hours in the hospital, grueling classes, and it took its toll on his relationship with his girlfriend, to whom he was engaged. After calling off the engagement he found that meditating made things more bearable. 

Dr. Brewer started reading the works of Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Center for Mindfulness and creator of mindfulness-based stress reduction. “This is the house Jon built,” he says of his mentor. 

Initially, Dr. Brewer had no interest in psychiatry, when it came up as his first rotation during medical school, he figured he’d just get it over with then move on. But Dr. Brewer became captivated by addiction studies and tailored his studies to become an addiction psychiatrist. “Addicts speak the same language as the mindfulness folks,” he says, “It’s all about craving and clinging.”

*****

Kabat-Zinn founded the Center for Mindfulness in 1979, after earning a PhD in molecular biology from MIT. A dedicated meditation student, Kabat-Zinn adapted the Buddhist-teachings on mindfulness to create a stress reduction and relaxation program. He later restructured the course into an eight-week program, which he called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. He downplayed the connection between Buddhism and mindfulness choosing to instead focus on the scientific aspects of his work. 

The Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course is currently offered four times a year at the Center for Mindfulness. Tuition is based on income and ranges from $525- $700 for the 31-hour, eight-week course. Weekly group classes incorporate a combination of yoga, mindfulness practice, group sharing and discussion on topics such as stress and communication. 

Mindfulness training teaches students to take better self-care by adapting to the world around them. With addiction, this means acknowledging and experiencing cravings rather than indulging them and then getting to the root of a craving. 

*****

There are over 200 12-step programs for every detrimental behavior imaginable: sex addicts, crystal meth addicts, hoarders and workaholics. Each of these programs is born from the Alcoholics Anonymous ideology, which requires that one admit you are not in control of your addiction or compulsion, and acknowledge a higher power that will provide the strength to overcome it.

But if the 12-step methodology emphasizes powerlessness and turning over control to a higher power, mindfulness is its opposite in that it stresses the power of the individual to regain control.  

12-step programs are widely considered the “gold standard” for addiction treatment in this country. But skeptics are beginning to question their reign. Numerous critical books and articles about 12-step programs have been published in the last year. 

*****

The first step in addiction recovery is obvious: stop using. Whether that means not smoking a cigarette, eschewing a glass of wine or resisting the urge to buy a pair of shoes is inconsequential as far as the brain process is concerned. Because when you feel high after doing a line of cocaine, more relaxed after smoking a cigarette, or exhilarated with a new pair of Frye boots, you are hooking into our evolutionary reward-based learning system. 

When a caveman encountered berries that tasted good he created a memory so he could go back for more. Food is plentiful now but our brains maintain reward-based learning and substances from nicotine to crack cocaine have hijacked the system. 

All modalities can agree on the quitting part. The second phase of addiction recovery is more complicated. Mindfulness training says that the person has to become more powerful than the craving. That requires the brain to make some changes. The individual has to regulate their attention and valuation. One has to ask, ‘what do you value? Do you value being sober more than being addicted?’ Then one has to make a decision and implement it, says Dr. Zoran Josipovic a research associate at NYU’s cognitive neurophysiology lab where he studies meditation, consciousness and addiction. “Freedom from consumption is the ultimate freedom,” he says. 

*****

Dr. Brewer believes that mindfulness has the potential to help people no matter what their addiction. But for the sake of time and resources he has chosen to focus his work on some of America’s biggest health concerns: heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity by targeting smokers and overeaters. 

Most people are not able to spend hours at the Center for Mindfulness, meditating or having their brain waves measured, so earlier this year Dr. Brewer launched an app called Craving to Quit. Smartphones and mindfulness don’t seem like an obvious pairing but Dr. Brewer wanted Craving to Quit to be as accessible and easy to use as Facebook. Now anyone with an Internet connection can download the $1 per day 21-day program. An app geared toward overeaters will debut in early 2015. 

Craving to Quit sets daily goals, check-ins, mindfulness exercises and a place to journal your progress. The program is about paying attention as much as it is about quitting smoking Dr. Brewer says that human beings spend 50% of their time in a distracted state of mind. Think about that: half of our lives are spent with our thoughts in a different place than our bodies. 

The first goal is to smoke at least one more cigarette “mindfully” on day one. At least in the beginning, you’ve got the OK to smoke-there is nothing to feel guilty or shameful about. The program just asks that you pay attention while you’re doing it. An ethereal female voice guides you through the exercise, 

Take out a cigarette. Hold it, feel the texture, the weight, look at the paper, the colors, the specks of tobacco on one end, the filter on the other. Smell the cigarette… What do you actually get from smoking a cigarette? When you start to pay attention to what you’re actually doing you start to see more clearly what you’re actually getting from it. It might not be as good as you think.

*****

In 2010, after almost three years of sobriety George started his own meditation group that meets every morning in the basement of a small church in uptown Manhattan. George’s meditation is unadorned. There is no preaching, no chanting, and no sharing. At 7 AM he says something along the lines of, “Ok, let’s do some meditating.” Then he rings a bell and for the next 30 minutes the dusty old room is silent save for minor shuffles and sniffles. 

George has since reconnected with his family and has a close relationship with his mom and older brother who still live in Canada and visit him in New York about once a year. He is not currently in a relationship, but he hasn’t ruled romance out entirely.  

The attendance at George’s meditation group ranges from 2 to 10 people, usually closer to the former. Still George considers it a success. “I’ve planted a seed. Members come and they go, but people know it’s here. It’s the right energy.”

Erin Ryerson is a freelance writer based in Boston and on Martha's Vineyard.

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