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.
You know it’s over when they let you enter without first scrubbing your hands.
This ends one of two ways. Only one means coming home with the one you love.
Safety precautions are no easier in intensive care, just clearer.
The ventilator, translucent skin, the unsteady beat of the monitors--all scream vulnerability and so, of course, of course you wash and gown and mask. That’s obvious.
The dying parent. The tiny babies. Every cell in your body wants to shield them from danger, even – especially – the invisible danger clinging to you from outside, hitching a ride closer to them. Looking for a way in; their vulnerability an invitation.
They can’t protect themselves.
Protecting them is obvious even when it’s not easy. You respect the barriers marking the threshold between the menace outside and the relative (hoped for, prayed for) safety here, inside.
When you can see blue blood rushing beneath translucent skin, it’s not hard to wash your hands.
The line used to be hard and sharp. Maybe it was imaginary, but it seemed straightforward. Safety is here: danger is there.
Now, the ink has smeared until that line becomes earth, becomes air encircling each of you and what does it mean to be safe now?
Ah, but you know what it means to keep a distance, so that you can protect.
You remember. It’s planted in the marrow of your bones.
How do you love through panes of glass? With a heart beating so hard you’re certain your tiny babies must hear it, too. When you touch them with a gloved hand, is it warm? Do they know it’s you?
Only your voice can touch without danger. The soft lullaby you sing into the incubators when you have to leave them. And the way his heart speeds up when he hears you coming into his hospital room.
On that final morning, they let you in without scrubbing. You touch your father’s hand with yours, unwashed and ungloved, because that line doesn’t matter anymore. It’s how you know it’s over.
All those years before, you got to take your babies home, drawing a new line around them, hard and strong for as long as you possibly could until you cracked it open to take them out. Out there. Unwashed hands and air travel leave them with bronchitis, but they’re stronger now and recover. You gave them time to grow and for their lungs to heal.
And you know it isn’t over.
It’s planted in the marrow of your bones.
And now? Now you will stay away for as long as you must if it means they will be safe.
You will love them again through a pane of glass (or a computer screen) when they are six-thousand miles away instead of in your kitchen, cooking and bickering, where you wish they were (where they’re supposed to be) instead.
You will send your voice through the telephone and hug over a video link and listen through a window for the music you know is out there because the line defining dangerous and safe has shattered, and you will protect them with the distance that you keep because this is what you do when you love.
- Visual Media and Poem by Dr. Mara Tesler Stein
The response to COVID-19 is unlike anything I’ve witnessed in my forty years on this planet. Seeing so many events and yes, even whole sporting seasons being suspended, has me wondering if I’m living in some kind of twilight zone. Or in one of the apocalyptic movies that I love so much. While I appreciate the arguments I’ve read about mitigating risk and slowing the spread of the potentially deadly virus, my mixed emotions about everything are boiling over, prompting me to write this piece and share something I want to scream from the rooftops. Why don’t you care this much about risk and contamination when it comes to trauma?
There is so much rhetoric out there, much of it legitimate, about putting the vulnerable at risk by exposing them to the virus. Even though I’ve soldiered on to finish some planned events this week, a concern exists over how people may judge me for potentially putting others at risk. Where is this same level of concern in a country and indeed a world where violence against women and children is the most brutal pandemic of them all? What about the endless stream of brutality and invalidation that developmentally vulnerable children can be exposed to on a daily basis from parents, other family members, teachers or peers? And have you ever stopped to consider the systemic injustices that the poor, underprivileged, and underrepresented minorities in our society have to battle consistently? All of these are a short list of risk factors living in our midst every day that, if left untreated, will tragically blossom into complex post-traumatic stress disorder, addictions, “personality disorders,” dissociative disorders, and cause or complicate a whole host of other physical health conditions like heart disease, hypertension fibromyalgia, or cancer. Read the Adverse Childhood Experiences study and the public health initiatives from that study for a primer if you don’t believe me.
The heart of my teaching as an author and clinical specialist in traumatic stress disorders is that to truly understand the human phenomenon of unhealed trauma and how to treat it, you must break down the word origin. The English word trauma is a direct translation from the Greek word meaning wound. My working definition of trauma is any unhealed wound. You can check out my TEDx talk on the trauma as wound metaphor from 2015 on YouTube for the full teaching. Here are the highlights: understanding how physical wounding, illness, and injury works is the key to understanding all other kinds of trauma—emotional, sexual, spiritual, etc. Think of everything you know about physical wounds. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some may require more urgent care than others or they can be fatal. Whether you are talking about a scrape or a gunshot wound, all wounds need care. Sometimes that care is to wash it out and then give it time and space to breathe, and other times the care needs to be professional. Of course, people with compromised immune systems or other health problems are naturally more vulnerable and professional care may be imperative.
Wounds generally need treated from the outside-in to stabilize, although true healing occurs from the inside-out, over time. Check out the talk if you want even more of the metaphorical parallels between physical and emotional wounding; believe me, I can’t shut up about them. A major point to highlight is that it can feel easier to deal with a physical injury or illness, especially one that is visible like a broken leg or an audible cough. Because they are visible in the realm of the five senses, they are more likely to be validated by others as problematic. And if the risk of a more immediate fatality looms, the concern is generally worse. I argue that this is due to humankind’s overall fear of death and dying, but there’s not enough room in this blog to even begin to go there. Maybe the next one…
Yet if wounds are unseen, like the kind we experience in our hearts, through our emotions, and in our souls, we are more likely to get told things like “get over it,” or “pick yourself up by the bootstraps.” Or my favorite: “You’re triggered all the time! Enough already.” Usually it’s the people who complain about our triggering that are the ones who have done some, if not most of the wounding. Let me be clear—we’ve all hurt other people and we’ve all been hurt by other people. The severity of some wounds may require professional intervention, just like with physical wounding, while other wounds may simply need a little space, time, and tender loving care from another human being like a friend or confidant in order to heal. Having an awareness of how we are wounded and how we’ve wounded others is the key to understanding the risk of contaminating others with the blood of our own unhealed trauma. Hopefully this awareness can inspire willingness to proactively heal ourselves so that we do not contaminate others with our words, actions, behaviors, and the sordid fruit of our own unhealed wounds. Because it is often those we love—our partners, our children, other members of our family, and our friends—that we can harm the most. Until that widespread awareness happens, perhaps we can at least do less harm. In physical healthcare there is a greater sense of awareness that safety measures must be taken to minimize the spread of bodily fluids and pathogens in order to prevent disease. When we heal ourselves emotionally, we engage in similar prevention and initiative for mental health…see the parallel?
There’s another angle for me to share this week, this one much more personal. Like many in the clinical professions, my own struggles with trauma, mental illness, and addiction led me to this work. In recent years I’ve been much more public about my seventeen year journey in recovery from addictions, a dissociative disorder, and bouts of persistent depressive disorder (formerly called dysthymia). Due to reasons having nothing to do with the Corona virus, the last three months have been hell. I’m struggling to date again after an adulthood filled with poor romantic relationship choices resulting from the impact of childhood and adolescent trauma. Just before Christmas, one of my best friends died by suicide and I’m still dealing with a flurry of emotions stemming from his loss. And the mounting pressure of growing a business and becoming a more public figure in my field, I have to admit, is getting to me. I am privileged to have access to the best possible mental health care. I have the most kickass recovery support system in the world, an inner circle of friends that would walk through the fire for me or with me, a daily wellness practice, grounded spirituality, and a solid commitment to self-care. Yet the sheer volume of work and travel, coupled with a growing disconnect from relationships I value, is causing a level of exhaustion unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
Two weeks ago, I experienced my first significant suicidal impulse in years and earlier this week, it flared up again. There are plenty of factors that keep me protected, yet the reality is that I just want off the fucking merry-go-round. Exhaustion was the main culprit, coupled with a persistent conflict I’ve been feeling over having such success in my professional life while still struggling with interpersonal relationships and my inner world. I hate that the more honest I can get about my suffering, the better that I teach. People draw strength from it, and it can also make me feel like all I was put on this earth for is to teach and to help others. I struggle knowing that so many people see me as someone who inspires them when I still feel like such a train wreck who has been having trouble getting out of bed in the morning on more days than not. On the day of the second major bout, I told my manager and friend that when I meditated and listened to my body, the one word that came up was, “Rest.” I had this overwhelming sense that my body needed a good few weeks to rest and reset herself, in the larger scope of reevaluation I’ve been conducting about my life, my work, and how I spend my time.
Of course, Dr. Jamie the public figure was hesitant to cancel anything—I have commitments and a reputation and a business! Although I have taken time off for my mental health in the past, I feel like I’m in a whole new territory now regarding my schedule and how many people rely on me. I’m not proud to admit this, but I actually said to my manager, “Maybe if I get this Coronavirus thing, I would actually get some rest and nobody would question it.” That was a wakeup call. And when widespread suspensions forced me to cancel my upcoming teaching tour of the UK and Ireland, it was even more of a wakeup call for me that I wasn’t really disappointed. I adore traveling and teaching abroad. And yet my body, mind, and soul needs the rest more. I’ve been granted it due to the risk and contamination precautions around a physical virus, and yes, I feel less guilty taking the time because of this physical manifestation of a disease and its implications for spreading. Yet would people in my work world—the people who book me, the people who come to my trainings, the people who depend on me in my life—have been as compassionate if I needed to rest citing a preventative mental health concern?
Maybe yes, maybe no.
The bigger problems is that me—Jamie—wasn’t even compassionate enough with herself.
Could this be the result of some healing in me that I still have to let happen? Of course. Yet I also believe it’s the result of societal conditioning that none of us are immune to—this idea that physical health care will always take precedence over mental health care. That the medical model trumps the holistic model. And that what shows up in, on, or through our physical bodies and appearances is more important than what is inside.
Enough of this already.
Let’s connect in a way that honors the physical in a healthy way, yet values that who we really are as people is so much more.
The healing power of human connection rests at the center of my work, and this week I’ve been given multiple personal reminders about how this power is where our hope rests. Nothing is more important to me than human connection, and I want to reestablish this primacy before the endless grind of touring and “being public” makes me resent it. My manager and long-time friend Mary, my best friend Allie, and countless other people in my kickass support village have breathed me back to life this week. Whether in person, on the phone, or even through the sometimes cold medium of text, my people were there for me and I am grateful beyond measure for their time and their love. Allie, who lost her own father to suicide, reminded me that in order to get through this I would have to be fully honest about what I am feeling, especially with the inner circle. I teach this stuff all the time! It’s not lost on me that the teacher can be the most likely to forget, especially when she’s flirting with burnout. In those moments, the healing power of friendship and being rigorously vulnerable helped me to hear my own lesson.
I wasn’t expecting to share this vulnerably with my readership this soon, and yet here it is. With the healing power of human connection a potential casualty on the COVID-19 chopping block, a reminder is in order. If my story as its unfolding this week has done this in some small way, I’m truly glad I shared it.
Institute for creative mindfulness
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