Hiding in Recovery: How Recovering Sex Addicts Act Out in Plain View
I have seen many sex addicts who have frequent “slips” (recurrences of addictive behavior), even though they have been working what looks like a rigorous recovery program. These people may be in individual or group therapy, attending regular Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings, engaging in a spiritual practice, and generally attempting to use the tools of the program. And yet they will predictably act out in little ways every few weeks or months even though they feel genuinely ready to let go of their addiction.
Slips in sex addiction can be any of the addict’s target behaviors, big or small. It could be going onto a porn site for “just a little while” or checking out dating ads or hook-up sites, or texting with a previous acting out partner or sex worker, or, for some, masturbating to addictive fantasies or memories.
To be clear, these behaviors may not lead to a total relapse, i.e. to prolonged resumption of addictive behavior and withdrawal from the recovery program. They are more like a short break from recovery and yet they serve maintain the addiction.
Using sexual behaviors in this way may not be disabling but it invariably limits the extent to which the person can resolve their deeper issues such as growing in recovery, achieving their potential and maintaining healthy relationships.
Still leading a double life
With this kind of intermittent compliance, the addict is still in partial denial. These addicts continue to identify themselves as being in recovery. They may “work” the 12 steps, and feel convinced that they have made significant progress in understanding their problems. They may even decide that they are so knowledgeable that they can sponsor other people.
Others often see these addicts as kidding themselves. They present themselves as old timers, they’ve read all the books, know all the jargon. And yet, someone who is regularly “slipping” even in little ways is permanently stuck at step one of the 12 steps. They think have control over their addiction.
In group and individual treatment these addicts be so intent on seeing themselves as succeeding that they neglect to mention their “slips”. This goes beyond denial and is a way to continue to lead a double life; outward recovery and covert acting out.
I have seen many sex addicts who feel that it is the recovery program, their therapist or someone else who is constraining and controlling their behavior. In effect they take a childlike stance that they can’t have what they want because someone is taking it away from them.
This sets them up to rebel against the constraint and to feel like a naughty child who has let their parents down. I have had addicts tell me outright that if it wasn’t for their spouse or partner putting pressure on them, they would abandon their program.
It is important for such people to begin to see that in fact there is no one and nothing to rebel against. If they feel deprived of their preferred behavior they are free to engage in it. No one is holding a gun to their head.
(Note: this rebellion issue becomes more tangled in treating addicts who have gotten into trouble for sex offenses. Here the outside force of the law is attempting to “make” them give up their addiction. It is harder for them to see that they still have choices.)
This is sometimes subtle and difficult to see. The addict may hang around with program friends who are cynical or skeptical about recovery and who also may be having trouble getting any traction. This allows them to feel somewhat validated and avoid shame. Or they may use the tools of recovery but in ways that are destined to be ineffective, like not calling anyone or avoiding their sponsor when things are getting slippery.
Another tactic to dodge a rigorous adherence to their program is to ignore situations which predictably lead to their “slips”. These are usually things that addicts have the ability to change or control like getting overloaded with work or childcare.
Lastly, the chronically slipping addict may be working a “boutique” program. These people feel so different or important that they customize their program to suit their uniqueness. To be clear, everyone works recovery in their own way, but this kind of pride can separate the addict from self, others and a higher power such that their ability to get and stay sober is limited.
The victim role
Taking the stance of victim means blaming someone or something for the situation and thus feeling hopeless and/or helpless. I have found that these “victims” will make frequent use of words like “challenging” and “triggering” which suggest that they are the innocent victim of their circumstances.
When pushed to describe in detail what these terms refer to, the addict may have a hard time. This is because these words circumvent the person’s internal experience and responses, as though they were just puppets being pushed and battered by things.
This type of responding often does not represent a conscious dodge. These addicts may be frequently dissociating, i.e. zoning out or detaching from the reality of the moment or of their experience. In this dissociated state it becomes impossible to accurately observe what is going on inside or outside.
Some addicts will hide behind the concept of being “powerless” over their addiction. In fact there is plenty for them to do and much that they have power over. They are failing to see that step one “admitted we were powerless over our addiction…” does not mean inaction. It simply means that will power alone will not be effective.
The fact is that addiction recovery is very much an action program. It requires the recovering person to do a lot. And built into every addicts recovery plan should be the understanding that if they are continuing to have “slips” and act out in little ways from time to time that this means their recovery plan needs to be changed to be more rigorous. They need to tighten things up or even go into a more intensive level of treatment. They must commit to this and they alone can make it happen.
Check out Dr. Hatch’s books:
Hatch, L. (2017). Hiding in Recovery: How Recovering Sex Addicts Act Out in Plain View. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 18, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/sex-addiction/2017/09/hiding-in-recovery-how-recovering-sex-addicts-act-out-in-plain-view/