A man meets with me. He is filled with shame, guilt, and despair. He has decades of living a secret life of sexual acting out. His earlier life of pornography and strip bars graduated to sex chat online, anonymous hook ups, and prostitutes. He confesses that I am the first person he has ever told his story to. Both of his marriages have been no more than a shell of superficial communication and infrequent, obligatory sex. He hardly knows his children. I explain to him the progression of addiction, the logic of how sex addiction grows out of a childhood of isolation and loneliness, the brain functioning of an addiction including the brain’s search for dopamine and endorphins to manage painful emotions. I describe the resources of recovery including the reduction of shame, partnership with others in recovery, reading to understand the mechanisms of addiction and the paths toward healing and wholeness, the journey of self-reflection and self-acceptance through workbooks and journaling, gaining strength from a Higher Power. He starts attending a psychotherapy group for sex addicts or 12-Step groups for sex addiction and he says to me, “Now I know that I am not alone.”
Two weeks ago I heard Gabor Maté present at a national sex addiction conference on the topic of addictions. Since then I’ve been reading his book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, which is beautifully written and grows out of his work with drug-addicted people in the Downtown Eastside ghetto of Vancouver, British Columbia. Maté presents that it takes three conditions to develop an addiction: (1) a susceptible individual, (2) stress, and (3) a substance or behavior capable of being addictive. The susceptible individual, for any addiction, is the individual who is disconnected, feels unloved and unlovable. Maté describes the role of endorphins in creating the attachment bond between child and parent. When the child experiences a physical pain, say an earache, the child expresses distress and the attention of the parent produces endorphins in the child which comfort the child even before the effects of the Tylenol helps the earache. When that same child expresses an emotional distress the parent’s attentiveness produces the same bath of endorphins comforting the child. But what of children whose parents are not responsive to their emotional distress? That child will learn some type of self-comforting: to suck his thumb, rock herself, or to masturbate to self-soothe and get the endorphins flowing. This begins a life-long pattern of: emotional pain → wall-off from others → ignore the problem causing the pain → self-soothe. But the “sex addict in training” gets not only the comfort chemicals of endorphins and dopamine but also the fantasy of love and connection.
Maté quotes one of his heroin-addicted patients describing her first use of heroin as like getting “a warm, soft hug.” She experienced the same flow of endorphins in her brain that a child gets when she is wrapped in the gentle arms of a parent. Sex addicts are after that same “warm, soft hug” whether it is in the form of pornography, a prostitute, or an online sex conversation. The key to recovery is creating authentic, accepting connection with others. This begins in a therapy session, at a 12-Step meeting, or in a therapy group of fellow addicts. A friend of mine once said, “My mind is a very dangerous place. I really shouldn’t go there alone.” The Apostle Paul captured this same sentiment when he wrote about the “parts of the body” all needing each other: “the eye cannot say to the ear, ‘I have no need of you.’” We all need each other. Each of us needs to know, “I am not alone.”