There’s a saying in addiction recovery that “we’re only as sick as our secrets.” Even after completing drug addiction treatment, some people continue to keep long-held secrets and/or act out in unhealthy ways. Much to the dismay of concerned family and friends and despite their best attempts at healing, some men and women may find themselves relapsing repeatedly on drugs and alcohol, even though they’ve tried counseling, 12-Step programs and drug rehab.
Is the chronic relapser doomed to a life plagued by addiction? Was drug rehab a waste of time?
Chronic relapse has varied causes. For some, ongoing stressors such as family dysfunction and major life transitions can trigger a return to drug or alcohol abuse. Others may stop using drugs only to “transfer” their addiction to other substances or behaviors that stimulate the reward circuitry in the brain, such as gambling, spending, overeating or sex. In some cases, an unrecognized and untreated sex or love addiction may contribute to the relapse cycle.
Secretive Sex and Drugs – a Dangerous Duo
More than half of people struggling with drug addiction suffer from co-occurring mental health disorders. Sexual addiction commonly co-occurs with substance abuse and is often an unrecognized cause of relapse, especially in female drug addicts and alcoholics. Like drugs, sexual behaviors and the pursuit of sex can release “feel good” neurotransmitters in the brain. This reward leads the individual to seek more of the sexual stimulus.
Over time, tolerance may develop and the individual may require more intense or unusual sexual experiences to feel the original rush. Some who used to be hooked on drugs may now obsessively search for a romantic or sexual partner, pick up strangers at AA meetings, masturbate compulsively, have multiple affairs, or spend much of their day looking at pornography or seeking out partners online.
Signs That Sex May Be Tied to Drug and Alcohol Relapse
A common characteristic of sex addiction is leading a double life. Lying to a spouse or partner and keeping secrets about sexual behaviors – and the feelings of shame and self-loathing that accompany those behaviors – are the types of stressors that can lead someone back into the grip of drug or alcohol addiction.
Sexual acting out and drug abuse can be interrelated, and one can become a trigger for the other. People with an underlying love or sex addiction may be part of a ritual of drug abuse. They may use drugs with their sexual partners, pay for sex with someone who is abusing drugs, or cruise for partners in bars, clubs and other places where drug and alcohol use is prevalent. This environment creates a set-up for relapse, even for someone who is resolute about maintaining their sobriety.
Bars and clubs are an obvious challenges to drug and alcohol sobriety, but dangers also lurk in unexpected places such as 12-Step meetings. These groups provide a safe forum for sharing stories and receiving feedback from peers, but participants with an underlying sex or love addiction may find these meetings an irresistible place to meet a romantic or sexual partner. In many cases, these relationships are not only distracting and dysfunctional, but they also put both partners at increased risk of drug relapse.
Some don’t realize how significantly they have been impacted by sex and relationship problems until they enter rehab and begin looking at their past behaviors. Perhaps it is during a therapy session or Fourth Step inventory that an individual realizes their adult sexual behavior isn’t healthy for them or their loved ones. Some miss out on the work of treatment altogether because they have become “distracted” by other romantically and/or sexually attractive clients or treatment staff. Some clients even have sexual and romantic affairs while in drug and alcohol treatment, and thereby become completely distracted from the serious emotional work they have to do.
New romantic or sexual relationships in early recovery can lead to relapse. Break-ups can also trigger the kind of anger and despair that is too easily assuaged with drugs or alcohol. Relapses can follow every time a relationship doesn’t end well. During the early stages when recovery is at its most vulnerable, there is great risk of becoming attracted to someone who is struggling with their own addictions or who is unavailable or even abusive.
The challenge of being alone, feeling worthless or unloved when not in a relationship, or a sudden drop in self-esteem brought on by having fewer sexual partners can all point to a deeper issue of sex and relationship addiction. All of these challenges can lead to drug and alcohol relapse.
Special Treatment for Multiple Issues
Because addiction is a chronic, progressive illness similar to diabetes and heart disease, relapse is common. Drug and alcohol rehab does work over time, but the person in treatment must address all of the issues contributing to unhealthy patterns and take an honest look at what can fuel their addictive patterns. Recognizing and developing the necessary skill set can require a special type of help.
People with co-occurring addictions require integrated treatment delivered by a team of professionals who are able to address all conditions simultaneously. Those men and women who may have co-occurring love or sex addiction concerns will absolutely benefit from a drug rehab center experienced in treating both drug abuse and sexual addiction. A number such of residential and outpatient treatment centers assist patients with these types of multiple disorders.
A New Way of Life
In early recovery, unhealthy sexual behaviors and relationship patterns can be a sign that the underlying emotional challenges have yet to be fully resolved, and that relapse may be imminent. Having the disease of addiction means alcoholics can’t drink the way others can, and sex addicts can’t go to strip clubs, have affairs or the kind of detached, non-relational sexual behaviors that can lead some back to self-destruction.
Robert Weiss is Founding Director of The Sexual Recovery Institute and Director of Sexual Disorders Services at The Ranch Treatment Center and Promises drug rehab. These centers serve individuals seeking sexual addiction treatment and porn addiction help. Specifically, the Centers for Relationship and Sexual Recovery at The Ranch (CRSR) offer specialized intimacy, sex and relationship addiction treatment for both men and women in gender-specific, gender-separate treatment and living environments.
Follow Robert on Twitter @RobWeissMSW
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Last reviewed: 6 Sep 2012