This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s second e-book, (In)Sanity: What “Crazy” Looks Like, which is on mental health in Kenya and is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.
What can I tell you about myself? I’m a single mother of two wonderful children, I’m half Kenyan but grew up in Britain my whole life, I like reading and nature walks.
Oh yeah, and I’m a sex addict.
It’s not something I talk about often, but unfortunately it’s a rather large and inescapable feature of my life. I wanted to write this essay to discuss underlying personality traits and mental health issues commonly suffered by sex addicts, and why many people make the move to sex addiction as a coping mechanism. However, when I started to research this essay I found that there is a huge amount of scientific information with definitions, symptoms, causes, treatments etc., but very little personal documentation about how this actually feels and affects people like me in everyday life.
There are bitter and biased articles from hurt spouses or churchy, preachy articles about how to spot a sex addict in your congregation and what to do about it, but this makes people like me sound like predatory, dangerous individuals with no morals, no control over our actions and insatiable sexual appetites.
Lock up your husbands ladies, I’m on the prowl!
In reality, I haven’t chosen the way I am. Seriously, no one would choose the battle I have to fight every day to keep my thoughts and actions on the straight and narrow. Sadly, it’s a battle that I often lose, but the war is a long term thing.
What is Sex Addiction?
Just for a moment, I’ll follow the example set by those other papers and briefly mention what sex addiction actually is, but I’ll do it in my own words as an addict, and in as simple language as possible:
- It is a progressive illness – If left untreated, it will get worse and behaviour will become more extreme.
- Where sexuality is used in the wrong way – instead of sex being a celebration of love, sex becomes a desperate act to feel good about oneself and make a connection with instant intimacy (if sex is the end result behaviour), or using pornography to create a feeling of desirability and success without the risk of intimacy.
- Where sex or porn is used to create a “high” – there is now research that suggests the brains of sex addicts have imbalances in dopamine and serotonin, which are neurotransmitters associated with mood regulation and pleasure. Also long-term sexually addictive behaviour re-wires the reward systems of the brain, so addicts feel that they must continue with these behaviours or they may not survive. So, sex addiction is now being viewed by many professionals as similar to drug addiction.
- When the high wears off, sex addicts will experience withdrawals and cravings – this is partly to do with a “comedown” from the neurotransmitters, but also stems from a need to reenact the rituals and behaviour patterns of getting close to our “fix”. Sex addicts will go to great lengths to avoid withdrawals.
- Sex addicts will usually experience shame and self-loathing from their behaviour and seeming lack of control – this is a common theme described by every sex addict I have spoken to, and of course this is something I have experienced myself time and time again. When I was caught “in the bubble” of my sexual behaviour, I was completely powerful and untouchable. The next day, I could not look myself in the eye in the mirror, and I’d tell myself “Never again!”
- This shame and self-loathing will not stop the behaviour from resurfacing again and again – in fact, I’d repeat the same crazy stuff at the next available opportunity just to make myself feel better.
- Sex addicts will start using deluded thinking to explain and justify their behaviour – Many, many excuses can be used, such as “I was bored/tired/stressed/angry/horny/lonely/happy/excited/celebrating/commiserating…” the list is endless and we genuinely manage to fool ourselves. Yes, outright lies can be told, but the reasons behind those lies are often true to the individual. Defensive towers are built with this skewed thinking to protect the self.
- Sex addicts will block out risks that their behaviour will bring – risk of disease is obvious, but consider money spent on escorts or prostitutes; getting on the wrong side of the law with public sex, voyeurism and extreme internet porn; having no spare time because planning our behaviour and fantasizing about past behaviour is all-consuming; and having to more or less live a “double life” so that other people don’t find out .
- All in all, it leads to an unmanageable life – My own addiction causes me a great deal of guilt and confusion, but I wasn’t caught in the trap of active sex addiction for long. I have seen how bad it can get. Sex addiction steals and ruins people’s lives. In the most extreme cases, I have seen people who have lost their partners, children and friends. I have seen marriages break down. I have seen people lose their jobs, homes and even face jail and restriction to their personal freedom. At the very least, each and every sex addict at one time or another feels that they are a terrible, worthless, broken, isolated being, with no idea how to change, or how they even got there in the first place.
How do I know that I’m a sex addict? Is it because I have a high sex drive? Well, yes.
However, many addicts do not want sex at all, because pornography has left them so switched off to the opposite sex that they cannot stop viewing them merely as sex objects for their own gratification.
Is it because I think about sex all the time? Yes, sexual fantasy and obsession is a feature for most addicts. During my worst times, my every waking moment was devoted to thinking about or chasing sex.
Is it because I have no morals? No, I have morals, but during active addiction I lose them completely, because my addiction is bigger and more powerful than my conscious thoughts. I often think “This is wrong, I shouldn’t do this” but a fog settles in my brain and then I’m free from my morals. It is a very liberating place where I don’t have to take responsibility for my actions (until later, and trust me the comedown is terrible), and it’s also very addictive.
Is it because I can’t control myself? The word “control” is hard to define in this context. Sex addicts can control their behaviour and go for periods without sex, but this is known as “white knuckling”. An addict will believe they have their behaviour under control, therefore they will then give themselves permission to go on a bender, “safe” in the knowledge they can “stop at any time” (think of an alcoholic having dry spells). So, overall, there is no control.
Is it because I don’t care about myself? Yes, sadly that is true, but I am learning the error in that kind of thinking.
To illustrate the above points, I am going to tell you a story. This is the reason that I realized I was a sex addict:
7 months ago, I went to a house party. A group of very nice looking men lived together, and I had had my wicked way with a few of them. They were all sitting drinking, and I gravitated towards one of them who I had previously had a couple of mind-blowing nights with. The fact that he was getting married in a month’s time was of no consequence to me at that point. We were flirting a little, but then he suddenly started fighting with another one of the guys. I didn’t know what was happening and I hate fighting. His mouth and hand were bloody and he kept accidentally smearing blood on me while he was drunkenly posturing. Eww. It was a stressful experience.
Looking back, I was really rattled by all that. Here is where I am different from other people. Instead of dealing with it, I chose block it out, and I did that by approaching one of the other guys who I knew was interested in me and started flirting with him. He was a very willing victim, and soon I was sitting on his knee while he was kissing my neck.
I found some stupid excuse to go to his room, but he knew the score and followed. The clothes were off pretty soon. Soon I was rolling, I was high from my drug. We didn’t actually have sex, he was too drunk to perform, but he helped me push the stress away. Between his kisses and caresses I found my peace, my safety. I was safe in the fog I had created, and not even another friend barging into the room in the middle of the action could stop me (Although, I’d slept with him too so him seeing me naked was neither here nor there. No, not the fighter. Another guy).
I’m not done.
We got dressed and we all decided to hit a club. The guy who I had just been with, who had been so happily pleasing me an hour previously, began to ignore me. I guess I was a box that he felt was ticked. I was still safe in the fog so I just ignored him and didn’t feel snubbed. That is a risk of being intimate with men that you don’t care about, and who don’t care about you. I blocked it out and danced.
I’m not done.
We drove back to their place and the fighter appeared. He was sober and showered and no longer blood stained. I was just starting to lose the buzz of my drug so I decided to top myself up to keep my high. I found some stupid excuse to go into his room and…well you can imagine the rest. Another mind-blowing night to fantasize about later.
Afterwards, I spent a couple of days in this blissed-out high and spent endless hours having romantic fantasies about the fighter. Then the comedown arrived and I felt truly, truly awful. How could I have done that? What was I thinking? I could not justify having sexual contact with 2 different men in one night. Stressed out or not, that was not normal. Oh my God, I’m abnormal. There’s something wrong with me. How do I fix it? Can I fix it? Who can I turn to?
It went on and on. I was ashamed and terrified.
It was not drugs or alcohol I was craving. I have a very different intoxicant and it was in complete control at that point. There are many other stories, not all as bad as that, but that was the last time I was truly out of control to my addiction.
So, what makes a sex addict?
To ask a simple question – is it nature or is it nurture?
The answer is – both.
Referring to literature again, it appears that all addicts (alcoholics, drug addicts, gamblers, exercise addicts) share some physiological traits:
Biologically, as well, as addicts having neurotransmitter imbalances as mentioned above, addiction is highly hereditary, with many sex addicts having parents or siblings suffering from various other addictions. Addicts are seen to have a lower level of cortical arousal, so we display extroverted behaviours to “top up” our low arousal level with adrenaline, as well as showing “thrill-seeking” behaviour. For sex addicts this could be engaging in risky sex, or looking up progressively more extreme pornography to up the ante.
Psychologically, while there are no set personality traits that cause addiction, addicts have several personality factors:
- 1. Impulsivity and compulsion (sex addiction is not currently recognized as an illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), but it is described as Excessive Sexual Drive in the International Classification of Diseases by the WHO. Some professionals maintain that it’s a branch of obsessive compulsive disorder. You know, just to confuse us more.
- 2. Valuing being different, combined with weak commitment to socially valued goals for achievement
- 3. Having a sense of social alienation and a tolerance for deviance
- 4. Heightened stress and lack of coping skills
Just being predisposed to these natural-selected personality traits and biological quirks won’t necessarily lead to sex addiction, but teaming up with certain environmental factors can lead to disastrous results.
A traumatic childhood as a prominent feature in most addicts I have spoken to, but not all. This doesn’t always mean physical or sexual abuse, but it often means having parents who cannot emotionally nurture a child (sometimes due to their own addictions or mental health issues) which can lead to many small perceived traumas. This can lead to a child feeling uncared for, and many will then make the leap that they are not worth caring for. The more sensitive children may turn to outside influences in an attempt to alleviate the inner pain they experience.
Mental Health Implications
What does it feel like being a sex addict?
Imagine you have a best friend. I’ll call her Addie. Addie is a lot of fun. You feel free and strong when you’re with her. When you’re sad, Addie will do her best to make you feel better by reminding you of fun times to try to make you feel happier. When you’re happy, Addie’s presence makes you feel amazing – powerful, desirable, sexy, beautiful, smart, strong and if you mess up you can say “It wasn’t me, but bless her cotton socks, Addie got carried away again. Won’t that girl learn ha ha ha!” Honestly, you just don’t know what life would be like without Addie.
Sadly, Addie is crazy and out of control. She is exhausting, infuriating, and sometimes you do not understand why she does what she does. She becomes a larger and larger feature of your life until you have forgotten where you end and Addie begins. And when you try to break free, you realize that Addie has cleverly made a cage – you are afraid of life without Addie. She hurts you, over and over again and you can’t stop her. Addie is stronger than you, she bullies you, she controls your thoughts and actions and you’re afraid of her. You feel yourself disappearing a little more each time she makes you do something that makes you ashamed.
And Addie is a part of you, and always will be.
It really, really sucks.
I have been attending Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) meetings for six months. While I can never consider myself “cured”, I am happy to report that my life is improving, one day at a time. I have met various sex addicts, and I can honestly say that it can affect anyone, at any age, from all walks of life, at any time. This is by no means scientific, but I have picked up a few common themes from observation and conversation with other addicts:
- 1. I am yet to meet any female addicts whose sole problem is pornography. The female addicts I have spoken to will watch porn, but the main problem is sex with multiple partners. However, most men’s main problem is porn addiction, with sex outside of relationships, cybersex and purchasing sex in various forms also featuring.
- 2. All of us have problems dealing with stress.
- 3. From what I have seen, we are a highly immature, rebellious, selfish, self-pitying, self-centred, sensitive, creative and proud collection of people.
- 4. We suffer from fear, and over-react to stressors in everyday life.
- 5. All of us have problems with self-esteem and self-worth. This appears before sex addiction takes hold, and is worsened as we begin to hate ourselves for our active sexually addictive behaviour.
- 6. Many of us have had difficult relationships with our parents and have had what we perceive to be difficult childhoods, but that is highly subjective. Sexual abuse does not feature highly. However, many people will not reveal to that to others during meetings or phone conversations, so I have no idea of “official” figures.
- 7. Sex addiction is overwhelmingly a male issue, so female addicts feel extra stigmatization and guilt.
- 8. Self-destructive tendencies feature highly. This could stem from not feeling cared for during childhood, therefore not feeling worthy of happiness.
- 9. We feature “all or nothing” thought patterns and struggle with moderation. Indeed, sex addiction, alcoholism and overeating overlap.
- 10. A distorted sense of time. Addicts can literally lose days of their lives watching pornography, and I have seen myself lose hours in sexual texting or fantasy. Time flies by when we are in active addiction, yet drags by at a snail’s pace when withdrawing.
- 11. Addicts often feel isolated, alone and that no one else understands.
It has taken a lot of soul searching, but I am done with blaming myself for being a sex addict. Whether it’s my brain, personality, upbringing or all three that led to me being an addict I’ll never know, but none of those things are my fault. However, I do not for one second condone my reactions and resulting actions because I still chose to be led down a path where I put sex before everything else.
Guilt, self-loathing, low self-esteem and low self-worth feel like familiar garments to me. However, I am learning to move on from the past, see my place in my addiction and stop blaming everyone else. By forgiving myself I can begin moving forward. This is thanks to the 12 Step SAA (Sex Addicts Anonymous) program, which is a journey of spiritual discovery linked to a fellowship of men and women who support each other in moving towards recovery.
“Recovery” is not defined as abstinence, rather it is freedom from those behaviours which cause us shame. Every individual chooses the behaviour that they wish to stop. In my case, I no longer wish to have sex outside of a relationship. There have been a few close calls, but at this time I have not had sex in five months. I am very grateful for this. I have no idea what the future holds, but I know I’m not alone.
If you have read this essay and feel it resonate with you, know that you are not alone and help is available.
The author of this post chose to remain anonymous. To read more such essays, download our book (In)Sanity: What “Crazy” Looks Like.