I’m a Mental Health Occupational Therapist. I support ordinary people with addiction among other mental health concerns to build a life of meaning and purpose, a life worth living during their recovery. Day after day I see the crippling shame that surrounds addiction in Ireland today and I hope to use my platform to begin a conversation about sex addiction and compulsive sexual behaviour that will breakthrough some of the shame experienced by those recovering with this diagnosis and for those hiding in the shadows afraid to get help.
I have 3 questions for you to ponder before we begin…
1. What assumptions are you making about the diagnosis of sex addiction?
2. What words come to mind?
3. Do you know anyone with a sex addiction?
Let’s chat about some common assumptions here… sex addicts are male, sex addicts are sex offenders, sex addiction is an easy excuse for people who don’t want to take responsibility for their actions. Perhaps sleezy, creepy, greedy and perverted are words that spring to mind. Or maybe, you believe that it’s all just a myth and these so-called sex addicts are just delusional or unfaithful. From high profile sports stars to successful businessmen and actors, I’m sure there are a few celebrities that spring to mind when you think of sex scandals and abuse.
The reality of sex addiction or compulsive sexual behaviour, as it has recently been classified by the World Health Organisation (WHO, Dec 2019), is that it is a mental health condition that is seeping through our society affecting ordinary people. Ordinary “normal” people. Men and women, young and old, straight and gay, the wealthy and the poor and it is thriving today in secrecy and shame.
We’re mostly familiar with drug, alcohol and gambling addictions, whereas compulsive sexual behaviour is a relatively new term to be recognised in the field of addiction and psychiatry. Sex addiction may involve a variety of commonly enjoyable sexual experiences. However, it is the dependency on each of these experiences that classes it as an addiction. Not the actual behaviour itself. Just like someone with an alcohol addiction might use alcohol to get their “fix” or a drug user might turn to opiates, a sex addict will turn to compulsive and uncontrollable sexual acts. These may include internet pornography, masturbation, having many sexual partners, multiple affairs or regularly paying for sex. When these sexual behaviours become a major focus in a person’s life, are difficult to control, and are disruptive or harmful to the addicted person or towards others, they may be considered compulsive sexual behaviours. Sex addiction comes with defeating and demoralising episodes that cause humiliation and shame for the person behind the diagnosis.
Sex addiction may be a symptom of past traumas or living with addicted family members. It may be a sign of a lifetime of hardship and stress. We don’t really know why or how this happens to people and, like most mental health concerns, there is no singular cause. However, emerging research is showing us that the brain matter of those presenting with sex addictions (and other addictions) differs from that of the general population. These findings, as well as other emerging research in the field, are helping to explain the uncontrollable urges faced by this group of people.
This personal story is written by Jack. Jack is accessing Occupational Therapy support with Anchor Therapy. We’ve been working together for over a year now to help Jack build a routine that fosters independence, meaning and hope. Jack is a man, a son, a brother, a caring and funny man. Jack’s story deserves to be heard.
They said to feel empathy for an addict you need to put a face to them. With a certainty people will never see my face. I'm a sex addict. I'm not a monster, although I believe people think I am. I've never harmed anyone, nor done anything illegal. I'm guessing most people have had more partners than I have. I've had 2. Short lived. Over 16 years ago. I'm not a monster, I like taking my dog for a walk, watching stand-up comedy and I like to see people do well, whether I know them or not.
I was a teenager when I found pornography. An escape from the depression and misery I was going through. Family life was the dysfunctional chaos of living with alcoholic parents with mental illnesses. Not a rare Irish household.
I was very lonely. I had surface level "friends" but there was no acceptance of me.
My acting out took the form of looking at porn at night. One hour or two. It went on like that for years, hoping one day I would meet a woman I could love. I wasn't able to love. I was lost in addiction. Asleep in a coma. Living in unreality.
I didn't know it was capable of being an addiction. No one warned me. I'm not sure it would have stopped me. By the time I was 18 I was using it like medication. I was unaware. If someone had told me, would I have come to recovery earlier? Even though I didn't know it was addictive, I feel that I should have known. This adds to the pain of it. I should have known.
The shame is what hurts the most. I can work on my recovery, but I cannot own this. Not the way I need to. I cannot tell my family and friends (You can Imagine a family member knowing about your sex issue). The idea of it becoming semi known is devastating. I shut down at the thought.
Even though I must guard my privacy, and the shame of people finding out still lingers, life has become so much better. I've found recovery.
Good people in 12 step groups helped me get sober and continue to help me stay sober. My depression has lifted. I speak to people who have struggled with this and they share their wisdom from their recovery. Although recovery is a daily task and can seem a burden, it is actually a gift of freedom. I've experienced more happiness and more life in two years in recovery then the previous twenty. Doubts about myself have started to vanish. I've started to grow into the person I always wanted to be.
It hasn't been easy. I've had to fall on my face to learn. I've had to challenge core assumptions about life which kept my addiction in place. I must remain vigilant. The 12 step groups have given me a way to keep the addiction from taking over my life, while giving me the opportunity to experience the best parts of life.
I know if I lose my recovery, I will eventually lose all the good things in my life. For a long time, I was in denial of this. I argued that I could skirt the line of active addiction and have a good life. I couldn't. Each relapse hit harder. Glimpses of clarity would come in but would be soon be forgotten if I did not work on beating the addiction. After going to the 12 step meetings, I started to grow.
I'm still growing each day. That's where I am. Wish me luck.
Have a think back to the questions I asked you at the start of this article. Does Jack sound like a pervert or a sex offender? Or a sleezy, creepy man? Does he seem like the kind of person who wants to exploit others? No, he doesn’t.
It is my belief that someone who has the courage to speak out about having a sex addiction and seek help is someone who deserves to be admired and supported by our society.
If there was ever any confusion about the difference between a sex offender and a sex addict, I hope this has provided some clarity.
What if sex addiction could be viewed the same way as diabetes? To be prevented and cured. What if we loved, respected and cared for people like Jack just like we do those affected by diabetes? Is it possible to start treating it like other chronic illnesses so that the shame and stigma can be eliminated?
We need to work harder to create more compassionate spaces in our communities that invite open conversations with friends and family about sex addiction. We need to educate ourselves more about this condition. We need to empower each other so that we can create a safer and more accepting Ireland for every ordinary person living here. At the end of the day we are all just ordinary people with struggles, regrets and hardships and we’re doing the best that we can with the situations that we have. It’s a simple message. Show respect and empathy and help those around you.
Check out Sex Addicts Anonymous Ireland for more information and support.
Reach out to find out more about Michelle and how OT support can help you in your recovery.