Sexual addiction and recovery can be controversial constructs. Unlike addictions to chemicals or substances, sex and sexuality are intrinsic facets of healthy human life and development. The goal of recovery from sexual addiction for most people is not to give up sex or the expression of one’s sexuality in its entirety. Rather, the purpose of recovery is to live a fulfilled life embracing a healthier model of sexual expression. Recovery is about setting boundaries and freeing one’s self of the suffering caused by acting out.
Like eating disorders, shopping addiction, and gambling, sex addiction is a process addiction. Process addictions are generally described as behaviors that are habitual and provide the person with an emotional high. The problematic behavior is often repeated to gain an increased high. A negative feedback loop forms wherein the individual cannot stop the behavior despite negative consequences. The origins of these addictions are rooted in trauma. Most people do not wake up one day and say, “Hey I think I’d like to become a sex addict.” Wounds leave their mark. The pain endured over time often becomes unbearable and prompts a form of escapism we see as addiction.
Shame often keeps people from seeking the help so desperately needed to develop healthier lifestyles in their journey for sexual recovery. Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) Green Book reminds recovery seekers:
Sexual addiction is not just a bad habit. Nor is it the result of poor self-control, a lack of morals, or a series of mistakes. If it were something we could stop on our own, the negative consequences would be enough to make us stop. Many of us tried to cure ourselves with religious or spiritual practice, moral discipline, or self-improvement. Despite our sincerity and our best efforts, we continued to act out. Our behavior eluded all rational attempts at explanation or correction. We had to face the fact that we had a disease, and that we could not stop the addictive behavior by ourselves (p. 9).
My name is Michael and I am a recovering sex addict, anorexic, and alcoholic. What follows comes from my lived experience as a person in recovery and as a clinician trained in trauma, addiction, and mental health. I work the twelve steps and traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA). I will forever be indebted Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) and to 12-step recovery programs for the gift of living free from the bondage of addictions.
The spiritual principles, tools, and suggestions contained within 12-step recovery helped me to find a life that was worth living. I learned that I deserved to be recovered, loved, and that I have worth. Recovery and trauma work helped me to thrive and accept who I am, was, and can be. In an earlier piece I wrote about the Step 1: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and sex, and that our lives became unmanageable.” The process to admit that I was powerless and that my life had become unmanageable took what felt like a lifetime to achieve. I bought the SAA Green Book and read through the entire text cover to cover in search for the answer of how to remain in sexual recovery.
The first task of this sexual recovery journey started 90 days of abstinence from all sexual behaviors. Let me tell you that it the most difficult thing I ever had to do in my life. I experienced withdrawal symptoms which included body shakes, anxiety, depression, angst, despair, craving, hypersensitivity, suicidal thoughts, and intense dreams. That list does not do justice to my lived experience during that time. It was a miserable experience, and yet a necessary one for recovery in my eyes.
When I joined SAA, I continued to hear a concept called “3 Circles.” It was all everyone talked about in meetings and in literature. In the Fellowship these three circles are how each member defines what is addictive and healthy sexual behavior for themselves. The program is quick to recognize the personal nature of addiction to sex. Not every human being acts out in the same way. For some their addiction is pornography. And for others it may be masturbation, destructive relationships, power and control, romantic obsession, cruising the streets for sexual partners, cybersex, prostitution, cross-dressing, having affairs, and fantasy. The list is endless.
Understanding what is addictive and is healthy requires distance and reflection. That 90-day embargo on sex and thinking or acting on sexual thoughts/desires were critical. The help of incredible trauma-informed sponsorship and therapy also played a major role in my recovery. I recall early in recovery listening to others share first step presentations about their powerlessness and unmanageability. I got into recovery in a Pre-COVID19 world with no local SAA meetings. My only options were telephone meetings all over the country.
Living with an addiction in isolation often drove me to act out. The beauty of phone and video meetings with others was that I could stay connected. I leaned early on in my process that recovery thrives in connectedness. I made several phone meetings part of my routine schedule. I volunteered on calls to read literature. During meetings I spoke up about my struggles and desires for a life built on a firm bedrock of recovery. It did not matter the time of day or hour of night. I made meetings a priority in my life. I stayed for fellowship hour at the end of each call. I exchanged numbers with other recovering sex addicts, and made phone calls during the week to talk about life, recovery, successes, and struggles.
I already received the gift of desperation. I needed something to give me hope in my life. As I called into these meetings, I heard men and women who shared their experience of what it was like, consequences of their acting out, and steps to stay in recovery. I sat and reflected on my own life after each presentation. I saw patterns of what behaviors I could not control. My first SAA sponsor, Adam, was a man who attended these phone meetings. We exchanged contact information and started to work the steps. I owe him a debt of gratitude for helping me to define what sexual recovery would look like for me. We have never met face to face. We conduct step work via email and phone calls. Sponsorship and meetings are my lifelines for connectedness. These are some of the tools in my recovery toolkit:
The Three Circles (diagrammed below) consist of three concentric circles. Each level represents a layer of addiction and recovery. Inner Circle behaviors are ones that cannot be safely practiced and/or controlled (seeking out emotionally unavailable people, pornography, drug use, alcohol use, disordered eating, etc.). Middle circle behaviors are actions, desires or behaviors that may lead to a slip or are risky (using sex to avoid emotions, lying, hiding, justification, etc.). Outer circle behaviors promote recovery (healthy sex based on choice, mutuality, and respect; meetings, sponsor, therapy, family time, staying connected, hobbies, step work, spiritual community time, dating, writing, dancing, creating music, etc.).
The process was a spiritual awakening. For the first time I could see my addiction; it had a name. It was real. It had a list of behaviors and symptoms. Defining healthy sexuality shifted my understanding. The best advice I received from my sponsor was live in the outer circle. What a jewel that insight was. The way I interacted with people and my surroundings changed. I noticed a shift in mind, body, and spirit. I felt alive again.
As a professional and a person in recovery it was important to define my boundaries especially around addiction. I carried intense shame for my addictions. I often felt that I lived a double life. My recovery work centered around integration of all the parts and pieces of myself. I never could be who I was. All the parts of me were cut off. Sexuality was one piece. Intellectual me was another. Emotional side was another. Creativity was lost in the abyss. I felt if I came out about my addictions or my parts of self, I would be shunned from the profession. My recovery integrated into every domain of my life. I turned a new leaf thanks to the program, recovery support systems, and others who have opened the door that I may walked through.
I am who I am. I will not change this inner-knowing for any person or institution. The process of recovery has instilled within me radical acceptance for who I am. I am not alone. Acceptance, I discovered, was key to healing. Once I made a thorough first step and opened the flood gates of the past, I quickly realized the need for trauma work. I could not stay in recovery from sex addiction without resolving the past that impeded on my present life. Spiritual awakening lead me to start EMDR.
I went to see Tom Buckles, LMHC, a former professor and licensed mental health clinician, who offered EMDR treatment. I quickly learned about my dissociative mind and how my parts of self directly influenced my acting out behaviors. Each of my eleven parts represented a wounded piece of my life. These parts were cut off facets of my life. I recall asking each of the parts to work together to help me heal. I believe because of this dissociative trauma work I was able to heal. At each session we completed between 4-5 trauma memories. I continued to see gains in EMDR. I started running, and I never thought I would be the running type. I restarted playing instruments, painting. My relationships with others took on a deeper meaning. I was free! I could remain present.
I have learned that my circles may change over time. In order to move something out of my inner or middle circle it requires an honest and willing conversation with my sponsor, recovery community and close friends whom I trust. My spirituality also plays a key role in helping to keep me on the road. Throughout this journey I have relied on faith to guide me. I turned over everything to the Higher Power of my understanding. I went back to the Roman Catholic Church, made confession, took spiritual direction, restarted mindfulness and yogic Practices, practiced spiritual principles in all my affairs. I remained open to what the universe, other people both inside and outside the fellowship, and my higher power were teaching me. I was an eager student.
The 3 Circles tool evolves with the person. Recovery is not stagnant. As I grew in healthiness and worked on the traumatic events that feed my addictions, sexuality took on a richer meaning for me. Today I am open to the potential in any situation. SAA and EMDR gave me the gift to live in the moment. Both 12-step programming and EMDR allowed me to face what seemed previously impossible. Today I can live a life that I never dreamed was possible. I realize today that sexuality is creativity and a vital life force. I channel that energy for good.
Today, I am a trained EMDR therapist. I get to help others in their quest to heal.
Recovery made this possible.
Painting by Michael Gargano
To read more about Michael and his work click HERE
“We’re all in this together."
It’s the messaging, tagline, hashtag, and well-intentioned sentiment that has been reiterated ad nauseum for the better part of 6 weeks. Apparently, the pandemic has brought us all to a place of Kum-by-ah, harmony laden nirvana, and we are all wrapped in snug and secure in our collective Shangrila. Except I’m calling bullshit.
We are, in fact, NOT all in this together. Sure, we’re all in it; it’s a global pandemic, how could we not be? As for the ‘together’ part? That’s where the phrase morphs from annoying trope to flat out lie. The word indicates that the collective ‘we’ is experiencing the current state of affairs in an equitable way, and this is the furthest thing from reality. When the response to the distress and trauma that is compounding day after day is “we’re all in this together”, there is an unspoken hierarchy being established; a domestic violence survivor held hostage in their home is shamed into silence, having been chastised with this insipid, hollow phrase. It strips away the validity of the individual experience that the trauma of COVID-19 has plunged our worlds into.
For trauma survivors, hearing “we’re all in this together” has become the latest iteration of “why did you stay” or “what were you wearing”. It is being used to minimize, marginalize, and delegitimize reactions and perspectives because it makes other people feel better to be able normalize the abnormal. This way, they do not have to sit in their own discomfort and try to hold space for those that have a different reality-not worse, different-than the one they are currently surviving.
At the very core of this entire reality is trauma. Trauma comes from medical Latin, and the root of the work is Greek for “a wound; a hurt; a defeat”. Here’s the other thing that goes along with trauma-crisis. Crisis comes from the Greek word ‘krisis’, meaning a decisive moment. Trauma has two parts, objective and subjective. We can agree that something has happened, and that our world has been picked up by this giant tantrum-throwing toddler of a virus, and shaken violently while we fly around helplessly, flipping upside down, solid ground yanked out from underneath us, like figures in a snow globe. How this seismic shift in reality is experienced can be, for some of us, a crisis on a daily basis. It is a crisis for parents who had no desire to home school their children; for the cancer patient who now finds themselves in chemotherapy alone; for the elderly who relied on home based services. When you are vulnerable, when you are homeless, when you are trying to serve and protect and maintain law and order, there is nobody else “in this” with you-you have earned the right for your experience to be uniquely yours and for the rest of us to acknowledge it.
We are grieving. As families, and communities; as a nation and as a world we are grieving. Grieving is the internal emotional experience of catastrophic, unexpected, heavy loss, an unexpected burden that is heavy for the soul to bare. Mourning is the external acknowledgment of your grief from the people around you. In a crisis, we go in to self-preservation mode, and while this is a completely expected, primitively driven survival response, we must stop, take a breath, shift out of survival mode, and see those around us. We cannot continue to dilute the relevance of engaging in empathy and holding space for individual lived experiences, despite our own discomfort with reality. Let’s start making the shift from “We’re all in this together” to “I see you in this”, and acknowledge the way we are each operating in our own experience of ‘this’, whatever that may be.
Originally published on Nikki Gordon's personal blog, 21 April 2020.
I grew up tortured by the tenets of fundamentalist Evangelical Christianity, and in my young adulthood, navigated to conservative communities within Catholicism. While some use my background against me, saying that I’m unnecessarily guarded, I believe that proactively healing from the wounds of spiritual abuse these last two decades gives me an uncanny ability to call out rigidity when I see it. Even as a kid being volleyed back and forth between two devout parents in their own right (one Evangelical, one Catholic), I learned to see the merits of both. AND I couldn’t understand why we all seemed to resist seeing the common ground. That included Jews, and Muslims, and Hindus, and Jains, and Buddhists, and all the great wisdom traditions of the planet! To me, our beliefs have a common thread, yet I grew up in contexts where I was told differently. The first time I ever saw the now legendary CoExist symbol was on a billboard when I first visited Sarajevo in 2000. I turned 21 that summer and Bosnia-Hercegovnia, where I would remain to live and teach for the next three years, was still in the throes of recovering from a brutal civil war. Personally, I was struggling to identify my own spiritual path as I sought recovery from addiction. When I saw that billboard, I knew with every fiber in my being that the CoExist symbol was my path. I came to learn it had a name--sanatan dharma—the threads that unite us are the essence of truth and worthy of embracing. The rest is just details.
Resting into this spiritual path serves me well in my personal life, and it’s largely shaped my professional outlook. Which brings this all to eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy… An experience with a phenomenally integrative EMDR therapist in 2004 saved my emotional life (when I was two years sober and still struggling with maladaptive dissociation). I received my training in 2005-2006, and jumped in with both feet, regularly offering the therapy to my clients. While working on my doctoral studies, I first attended the EMDR International Association (EMDRIA) annual meeting in 2007. Brazenly, I introduced myself to EMDR founder Dr. Francine Shapiro to thank her for what she created, yet it was at the conference where I would also meet other wonderful people in the EMDR community who would made even more of a difference for me. One of those people was Dr. Sara Gilman from Encinitas, CA, who became my primary consultant throughout the certification process. She also helped me wade through my frustrations around the politics and personalities in the EMDR community that bothered me immensely. Sara was (and still is) a radiant, real human being who truly understood how my mind worked, and she never once tried to change it. She worked with it and helped me fall in love with EMDR even more! A line that she consistently used in our work together, when I struggled with some of the rigidity in the protocols was, “Jamie, this is what the textbook tells you to do. This is what I actually do.”
That guidance from Sara represents a balance that I hope I have also been able to impart as an EMDR clinician, consultant, educator, and training provider. This guidance was the inspiration for my first book that Premiere Education and Media published in 2011, EMDR Made Simple: 4 Approaches to Using EMDR with Every Client. I knew that the book would likely make me a pariah in the EMDR establishment, and at that time I didn’t care. I believe I had something useful to say from my lived experience about how fundamentalism and rigidity benefits no one, especially people like me with complex trauma and dissociation. Even at that point, I would sit in conference presentations and feel like the powers that be who got the microphone on these topics were talking in such intellectual terms about people who need to be treated in a very human way—the way that Sara treated me. As I learned that EMDR therapy can play well with other therapies and approaches in a spirit of integration and modification, I started bristling when people said things like, “Well, that’s not really EMDR,” generally in putting down a savvy modification or adaptation. It reminded me of hearing people at church say things like, “Well, then you’re not really a Christian if you believe, say, or do that (insert any violation of the "rules" here).”
Ouch—why were people connected to a therapeutic modality that I loved, a therapy that helped me to heal from much of that trauma, spouting the same kind of aggression?
I dug in to investigate my reactions that were being elicited, and in 2010 I ended up writing an explanatory model that would become the basis for EMDR Made Simple—something I dubbed “the Four Faces of EMDR.” The idea is based on a teaching of St. Augustine called The Four Voices of God, presented for a modern audience by Fr. Benedict Groschel in the book Spiritual Passages: The Psychology of Spiritual Development. We studied this Augustine teaching in my Catholic graduate program and it was honestly the most important take away for me. People relate to God in one of four primary ways—as truth, as fire/oneness, as beauty, and a goodness. Of course we can have secondary paths of relating (I am fire/oneness first, and beauty second), and we tend to get along the least with the people whose style of relating to God most differs from our own (e.g., for me that’s the “truth” people… the theologians, dogmatic types, and to offer a clinical parallel, the strictly quantitative researchers). Augustine taught that all are different, and all have their place, for God shows up in a variety of ways and forms.
Call me crazy (I truly don’t care, it’s a compliment these days), this idea seemed to fit as it relates to all psychotherapies and the controversies that ensue about model fidelity versus tendencies to innovate and to modify. And from there I proposed “the Four Faces of EMDR:”
I’ve long embraced that all of these faces of EMDR are valuable, and we need all of them in the clinical arena. Since I attempt to be as non-dogmatic as possible, I also agree it’s possible to identify with more than one face. For instance, although primarily Face 2, I have a great deal of Face 4 in me. I consider the Dancing Mindfulness approach to expressive arts therapy that I developed in 2012 to be an extension of my EMDR work and thus Face 4 in many ways. Additionally, a person may see themselves as somewhere between Face 1-2 or between Face 2-3. Although I am Face 2, I can pull out my "Face 1" language and savvy when I need it, especially in offering foundational (basic) trainings or in communicating my ideas to other Face 1 people.
I published this model in an attempt to promote some semblance of unity and cohesion among people who love and are intrigued by the wonders of EMDR therapy. Of course many resented me for it, and many considered me a genius for it… I’ll let you be your own judge of that. I’ve been thinking a great deal about “The Four Faces of EMDR” since the COVID-19 pandemic thrust an entire community of therapists, not just EMDR therapists, into working in telehealth…an area where so few of us are trained and where few research studies exist on best practices. As battles ensued around me over propriety and appropriateness in shifting EMDR therapy to telehealth (e.g., do you let people self-tap or not?, is it ethical to do trauma work online with people who dissociate?, is it prudent to venture into an area where there is so little research?, should we be taking advice on online therapy from people who are in different ideological camps?), the Jamie who wrote EMDR Made Simple ten years ago re-emerged.
I admit, especially since I am now an EMDRIA-approved trainer who has more Face 1 qualities than she used to, I’ve sometime wondered if EMDR Made Simple did more harm than good in helping therapists hone their EMDR craft. I am much less rebellious and a lot more party line as it relates to proper EMDR technique than I was back then. I’ve learned that the technique isn’t the enemy; it’s the attitude and approach that people take to the technique that causes problems. You can use it rigidly, or you can use it artfully. I even wrote two pieces lauding proper technique and explaining how I reconciled with the standard protocol here on this blog. I’ve come to appreciate that much of what I initially interpreted as rigidity in Dr. Shapiro was truly her push to get EMDR therapy validated as evidence-based by the metrics of empirical research. Even though thinking in those terms does not serve me either personally or clinically, I see how it serves our larger community. And in 2018, Springer Publishing—one of the largest publishers of mainstream EMDR material and the publisher of The Journal of EMDR Practice and Research—put out my second EMDR book (EMDR Therapy and Mindfulness for Trauma Focused Care, co-authored with Dr. Stephen Dansiger). Rebel Jamie from 2010-2011 was a bit shocked by that one!
Yet in the week when we switched over to telehealth and I struggled to find resources for my trainees and community—I listened to the different voices and the old Jamie who wrote EMDR Made Simple paid me a visit. I realized that rebel Jamie is who I need to be for myself right now, and how I need to show up for my students and my community. As I declared on a public webinar I did with my friend Mark Brayne on March 22, however you do EMDR in your office and in whatever face you work—transfer that to telehealth. Your confidence in your approach will inevitably translate and we can continue to ease or even end some suffering during this difficult time. There’s plenty of time to debate and even to research when all of this is over. For now, show up for your clients with whatever EMDR face you wear and do your best to honor other EMDR and EMDR-related clinicians who are doing the same.
Institute for creative mindfulness
Our work and our mission is to redefine therapy and our conversations are about the art and practice of healing. Blog launched in May 2018 by Dr. Jamie Marich, affiliates, and friends.