She Was Married to Jekyll and Hyde: Healing From A Partner’s #SexAddiction

Sex addiction is a very real and scary thing that reportedly affects 12 million people and their loved ones in the U.S. Considering how hidden and shame-ridden the condition remains, that number is very likely low. And although being the partner of a sex addict can be deeply traumatizing (not to mention dangerous), they are significantly less likely to seek help than the addicts themselves. 

Yesterday I had the honor of interviewing M, a woman who learned of her husband’s sex addiction ten years into their marriage, just as they were preparing to become pregnant. While her world was turned upside-down, she was able to heal and find her way back to happiness.

On the air, she shared the details of her experience—how she found out, the red flags, what helped or hurt her recovery and lessons the ordeal has taught her. I can’t thank her enough for her courage and openness, which will no doubt help many.

M also took the time to answer additional questions for this post. Pop over to iTunes, Stitcher Radio or Global Voice Broadcasting to download or stream our live-recorded chat, then check out the followup Q&A below.

Listen here: Girl Boner Radio: Learning to Thrive After Her Husband’s Sex Addiction

 

Girl holding hands in heart shape at beach

An After-Chat Q&A with M:

August: What’s one common myth about sex addiction you’d love to see eradicated?

M: MYTH: ‘Sex addiction’ is a made-up excuse by people who just like fooling around to get them off the hook with their wives and the public. TRUTH: Real addicts with compulsive behaviors don’t enjoy sex at all; in fact, they believe it exists to control others and escape from reality, especially intimacy and vulnerability. Their behavior not only destroys relationships, but often results in financial, professional and personal ruin, up to and including incarceration and suicide.

August: If you could change one thing about your decisions since learning of the addiction, what would you choose?

I didn’t tell my in-laws (addict’s mother & stepfather), with whom I was very close, about his addiction. At the time I felt, “He’s the addict. He should tell them. Why should I have to be the one to break their hearts?” Of course he never told, and his family was and are still confused about our split. Their ignorance further enables his behavior to continue. Closer to home, it has also created an expectation that my own family has to ‘act nice’ still on Facebook, etc., about him, which denies them their pain and justified anger at my ex, a completely unintended outcome that pains me deeply.

M: What decision are you the most pleased with?

Leaving him.

August: What benefit of healing and moving forward has most surprised you?

The complete absence of loneliness. The day I left our house, the loneliness left me. Of course I was in pain, but it was the horror of betrayal, not a longing to be loved, especially not by an abusive manipulator. There is no life lonelier than one with someone who says he loves you but withholds that love in a thousand ways every day. I actually don’t think I’ll ever feel lonely again, regardless of relationship status, which takes my breath away sometimes still. I never thought I could feel this whole.

M: What are you most grateful for in your life now?

Peace of mind. The unwavering and never-ending love of my supporters – my parents, my sister, brother-in-law and their children, and the amazing friends who have scraped me repeatedly off the floor, who never stop telling me I am worthy and loved. And every day yet to come.

****

Resources for Partners of Sex Addicts:

Useful resources for partners are difficult to find and programs that subscribe to the notion of ‘co-addicts’ are considered victim-blaming (i.e., harmful) by many. If you’re struggling with a partner’s sexual addiction, M suggests the following.

Trauma-Based Models:

Your Sexually Addicted Spouse: How Partners Can Cope & Heal by Marsha Means & Barbara Steffens – the Trauma-Based Model watershed study; the first people in the field to NOT label partners as ‘co-addicts,’ responsible for the breakthrough thought: “You can’t know the truth when someone insists on lying to you.”

Note from M: Though both authors have been through this trauma personally, one chose to stay with her partner, and the other didn’t. Regardless, the testimonials in the book come largely from spouses who stayed, as well as from people reliant on a monotheistic God. Atheists, agnostics, and partners who choose to leave the addict are honored here, but pitifully underrepresented in addiction literature on the market so far. The trauma model of recovery however doesn’t require any belief system, and both models leave the decision to stay/go up to the couples themselves.

Partners of Sex Addicts Resource Center: A Trauma-Based support model that acknowledges this level of betrayal as Relational Trauma with amazing resources such as coaches and support groups and articles.

Psych Central: 6 Stages of Recovery for Partners (A quick article)

Association of Partners of Sex Addicts Trauma Specialists: Helpful for finding a Trauma-Based Model Therapist for partners in your area

Married and Alone: Healing for Spouses of Sexual Anorexics by Doug Weiss, PhD

Note from M: Weiss, like many in the field, has lost faith in the ‘co-addict’ model of recovery, labelling it narcissistic and steeped in male privilege. You’ll have to be your own judge of what works best for you. Weiss’s work leans too however on the helpfulness of traditional spirituality in recovery. 

Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn & Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age by Robert Weiss, LCSW, CAS and Jennifer Schneider, MD, PhD – from PoSARC: “This book is a must-read anyway, and contains many examples of how surreptitious acting out on the web can be.”

Have you or a partner struggled with sex addiction? What’s most helped you? What struck you most about our interview? 

Does Dirt Have Calories? — My Story

I awoke that morning as I did most mornings while living in Paris—woozy, exhausted and determined. During what should’ve been a pinnacle in the modeling career I’d held dear, I was enraptured and controlled by an eating disorder. Where logic would’ve told me to get some rest, nourish my body and tend to the day’s work responsibilities, E.D. commanded I wake up and run! Breakfast, castings, agency meetings and photo shoots would have to wait; my sole priority was the upkeep of my disease.

My emaciated body had been surviving on carrots, sugarless ice tea and Coke Light, yet felt gigantic and punishable. If I could eat as little as possible and burn far more than I chewed, I might finally reach thinness—i.e., happiness, success and perfection. I had to run.

I slipped my feet into my worn out, blood-stained sneakers, stepped out of my tiny Parisian flat and headed toward the Seine. The Eiffel Tower came into full view atop the pastel haze of the sunrise—a living, breathing Monet. It’s beauty could’ve taken a blind man’s breath away, I wrote in my journal. I didn’t deserve it. 

The dewy earth squished beneath my feet as I ran to the rhythm of calorie-counting. Forty-five plus six plus ten… Plus five plus ten plus three… I estimated the ‘damage’ from the day prior then plotted an itinerary of exercise and occasional food bits to compensate. So accustomed to ignoring the dizziness and fatigue accompanying me, anything else would’ve felt foreign. But this time was different.

I observed that the dip in the ground ahead looked like an adult-size cradle. Perhaps I knew what was coming.

I ran with increasing dizziness and pain, as though a metal clamp squeezed my brain. Run! Don’t stop! You can’t. Tears stung at my eyes as I tried to outrun the inevitable. I fell to the ground, as though in slow motion. And for a brief, savory moment, I felt weightless.

I awoke later, lying in the grassy cradle, the taste of blood and dirt in my mouth. Rather than wonder how long I’d been there or if I’d been hurt, one thought filled me with terror: Does dirt have calories? 

I don’t recall who found me or how I made it to the medical center, only the words of the British doctor: “You have anorexia. Do you understand what that means? You could’ve died. You could die.”

Her words blurred together like fog on a windshield as my thoughts went wild. She’s crazy! I can’t have anorexia. Please don’t make me eat… I felt neither thin nor “skilled” enough to have a disorder characterized by starvation. Sure, I had problems—the “cancer in my soul” I’d journaled about. I felt physically and emotionally rotted and weak, but couldn’t make sense of anything. I only knew I had to go home.

The week after I arrived in Minneapolis, I began treatment and fought harder to remain ill. Once I accepted my diagnosis, anorexia seemed the one special thing about me. If I let it go, what was left? The word ‘recovery’ seemed synonymous with ‘fatness,’ ‘failure’ and ‘mediocrity.’

As my starving measures increased, my emotional and physical self tolerated them less and less. My therapist repeatedly threatened in-patient treatment. I lied, promising I would eat more and gain necessary weight.

Finally, one of my worst nightmares came true. In a moment of despair, I gave in to my longing for a single bite of chocolate ice cream. As I placed the dollop of creamy cold sweetness into my mouth, my entire body trembled. I felt intoxicated, a sense of danger, head-to-toe orgasm, temporary relief. But one bite turned into two, then six, then all that remained of the half gallon. The fatty cream sat like a putrid rock in my shrunken stomach. I’d never felt so ashamed.

The bingeing/starving roller coaster that followed was the most excruciating and important occurrences in my recovery. At its worst, I entered what my therapist called a “bulimic trance.” The bingeing took over and I had little awareness of all I’d consumed until I found myself sobbing amidst wrappers and crumbs.

As weight returned to my body, friends and family told me how healthy I looked.

“You’re filling out so nicely!” The well-intended comment haunted me for months. Desperate to stop bingeing, I decided to take my treatment more seriously.

“I will do anything to stop this,” I told my therapist.

“Good,” she said. “It starts with eating. After you binge, don’t skip your next meal.”

Anything but that. I resisted her instructions, holding staunchly to the belief that if I were just strong enough, I could attain the thinness I desired and stop bingeing at once. It sounded Utopian. Meanwhile, I mourned the loss of my anorexia like a lost soulmate.

One night, after a fast ended in a gargantuan binge, I hit bottom. I considered gulping the poison I’d used on occasion to vomit, aware of the life-threatening risks. I didn’t want to die, but I couldn’t bear life as I knew it. In a fury, I scavenged the house for the tiny bottle. When I couldn’t find it, my heart raced. I struggled to breathe.

Then something remarkable happened. Incapable of purging in any of my viable methods, I calmed down. Calmness brought clarity. Rather than plot restriction strategies for the coming days, I began plotting a future free of ED.

I walked with trepidation to my wall mirror and looked not at my hips, belly or thighs, but into my eyes. The head-on stare punctured the swollen balloon of hurt inside me, releasing sobs.

“You can’t live like this anymore!” I told my reflection. “I won’t let you hate yourself so much. This is not who you are.” I didn’t know what I was fighting for, but my instincts said, don’t give up.

My anger at ED and proclamations in the mirror were the first signs of self-love I’d displayed in years, the light switch in the dark cave I lived in. If I managed to turn it on, I knew my life would change.

I threw my “skinny clothes” and scale in a dumpster and removed the size tags from clothes that fit. I told myself that for one year, I would not diet, starve or make any other attempts at weight loss. If I gained weight during that year, so be it. The next morning, with trembling hands and tears flooding my cheeks, I ate breakfast.

Though I wanted to forego my commitments frequently over the subsequent weeks, I held fast. The bingeing continued at first, as did my weight gain, until I nearly doubled my lowest weight. If I have to start over every day, I will, I wrote. And start over again and again I did. I had nothing to lose by trying and everything to lose by not.

Months later, I was no longer dieting, starving or bingeing and my life was beginning to feel like a life. I was in college, making friends, writing songs and even, on occasion, laughing. But my recovery had reached a plateau. I felt awkward eating around others, anxious about eating too much or too little. The slightest pangs of hunger or fullness put me on edge. I saw plates of calories and felt guilty when I indulged. And though I resisted, I longed to diet. ED hadn’t left. He’d only grown quieter.

One day over steaming cups of Indian tea, my mom handed me a CD with a song she and my dad wanted me to hear: Lee Ann Womack’s, “I Hope You Dance.”

“It’s time to find joy,” she said. (And here I’d thought I had everyone fooled…)

The song’s message about “dancing,” which I took to mean many joyful things, hit me with profound force.

That evening I sat at a park watching a group of friends picnicking, captivated by a woman around my age. After a bite of her hearty sandwich, she closed her eyes, tipped her head back and said, “This is so good!” I longed for an ounce of her joy.

I’d been eating because I was “supposed” to, promised others I would and never wanted to go off the bingeing/starving deep end again. In order to fully recover, I had to manifest joy around eating.

I knew it was possible because I’d experienced it. My childhood love affair with food seemed insatiable. Family photographs portray a bubbly, smiling girl holding an ice cream cone, sitting before a luminous birthday cake or about to take a chomp out of a fresh red apple from our backyard tree. Before bed, I often asked my parents what the next day’s breakfast would entail, “so I could dream about it.”

Food for my family meant togetherness. Birthday celebrations, picnics by the lake, nightly home cooked meals—a special bond and a clay we used to build memories. Until fear and ED had creeped in. No more, I decided.

I began studying food with a velocity I’d only previously applied to treadmills. I wanted to discover its goodness and stop dreaming of ways to avoid it. What did particular foods do for me? If not for managing weight, why did people eat them? How could I eat healthfully, and not by diet book standards of what that was?

I began addressing a self-compiled “I’m afraid of” list. Eat in public. Eat at a restaurant, alone. Eat a meal prepared by others without demanding particulars. Eat the ice cream that triggered my first binge—one serving at a time.

I traded my diet books for medical and dietetic texts that defined food as fuel, a necessary means of nutrients, and obtained my certification in nutrition. I cooked, experimented with foods I’d never tried and volunteered at soup kitchens. I stopped aiming for dietary perfection. Multiple studies had convinced me that such increased my risk for bingeing, obesity, anxiety, depression and sleep problems—pretty much everything on my “No, thank you” list.

It took numerous attempts of arriving at an upscale restaurant alone before I dined there and several more before I enjoyed the food without heavy perspiration or heart palpitations. I wept over a homemade candlelit dinner for one, served on my grandmother’s china. I stocked my kitchen with food until it felt warm, loved and lived-in. Rather than cold and frightening, it felt like home. I took a Buddhist philosophy course and applied its principles to my meals. Eating slowly and without distraction soon went from mortifying to pacifying. On difficult days, I asked myself what I’d feed a dear friend then treated myself to just that.

*****

On a cool spring evening, I sat at my kitchen table with a bowl of spicy chili and fresh-baked corn bread. An unexpected breeze blew through my apartment window, carrying a flower from outside into my bowl. Plunk! As the pink petals swam amongst the diced tomatoes and cannelloni beans, I laughed. Struck my own amusement, I realized that nothing but goodness sat at my table. All anxiety, shame and feelings of inadequacy had dissipated, leaving me with a palpable sense of peace.

I returned to Paris that summer to celebrate my recovery. Near the grassy patch I’d fallen in I buried a capsule filled with cards from loved ones, photographs, under-sized clothes and copies of my songs and journal entries. ED’s funeral, I called it. A memorial service for my SELF. I ran along the Seine, this time grateful for the strong legs that carried me, the absence of pain and my second chance at a happy, healthy life.

*****

What does ‘beauty’ mean to you?
One of the BEST parts of my recovery was the growing ability to use my brain and energy for pursuits unrelated to diet or exercise—writing, reading, singing… Sam Levinson’s poem, Beauty of A Woman, inspired me on numerous difficult days. In honor of all the poem stands for, I invite you to join me in a beauty-FULL celebration on Friday, February 10th. To learn how you can participate as a blogger or prize sponsor, visit Beauty of a Woman BlogFest.

LSR #3: Laying off the Smokes (And Other Toxic Crutches)

Contrary to popular belief, addictions do not fuel artistic capability. Smoking, drinking, overeating, dieting, gambling and excessive spending can serve as a form of writers block, keeping us from trusting or accessing our full potential. At their worst, these toxic crutches can nuke our creativity and wellbeing for good.

Stephen King lost all pleasure in writing when his battle with alcoholism peaked. Karen Carpenter died from her addictive behaviors. (Imagine what more the musical world might contain had she healed and survived…) And although it seems glamourous it films, TV and photography, smoking—one of the most common crutches—can monopolize our time, energy and financial resources. It’s also responsible for 1 in 5 deaths in the U.S. each year.

Most smokers, when told to quit, want to know not why, but how, says the American Cancer Association. Most understand the financial burden the habit creates ($3,600.00 per year for pack-a-day smokers in the U.S.) and the associated health risks. But largely because quitting ain’t easy physically or emotionally, 1 in 4 men and 1 in 5 women smoke on.

Like other dependencies, quitting smoking requires knowing why you smoke, a genuine desire to quit and a stronghold decision for change. And wouldn’t you know, many of the techniques useful for overcoming tobacco abuse work well for other toxic crutches.

Since many of you don’t smoke (GOOD FOR YOU!), I’ve decided to broaden the scope of this Lifesaving Resolution. The following are excerpts from Stealth Health‘s “Ways to Stop Smoking Cigarettes & Quit Smoking For Good. As you go through the list, replace the 😦 icon with a damaging habit of your own.

Make an honest list of all the things you like about :(. Draw a line down the center of a piece of paper and write them on one side; on the other side make a list of all the things you dislike, such as how it can interfere with your health, work, family, etc., suggests Daniel Z. Lieberman, M.D., director of the Clinical Psychiatric Research Center at George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Make another list of why quitting 😦 won’t be easy. Be thorough, even if the list gets long and discouraging. Here’s the important part: Next to each entry, list one or more options for overcoming that challenge. One item might be: “:( helps me deal with stress.” Your option might be: “Take five-minute walks instead.” The more you anticipate the challenges…and their solutions, the better your chance of success.

Prepare a list of things to do when a 😦 craving hits. Suggestions include: take a walk, drink a glass of water, kiss your partner, throw the ball for the dog, wash the car, clean out a cupboard, have sex, chew gum, wash your face, brush your teeth… Make copies of the list and keep one with you at all times. (**This won’t work for all toxic crutches. If you plan to give up cell phone use while driving, for example, sex won’t work—safely anyway. You could instead breath deeply, turn on the radio or clutch the steering wheel with both hands.)

See an acupuncturist. There’s some evidence that auricular acupuncture (i.e., needles in the ears) curbs cigarette cravings quite successfully, says Ather Ali, N.D., a naturopathic physician completing a National Institutes of Health-sponsored postdoctoral research fellowship at the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center in Derby, Connecticut. (**Acupuncture may also help manage alcoholism, binge eating, depression, insomnia and stress.)

Think of difficult things you have done in the past. Ask people who know you well to remind you of challenges you have successfully overcome, says Dr. Lieberman. This will give you the necessary self-confidence to stick with your pledge not to :(.

To minimize cravings, change your routine. Sit in a different chair at breakfast or take a different route to work. If you usually 😦 after work, change that to a walk.

Tell your friends, coworkers, boss, partner, kids, etc., how you feel about situations instead of bottling up your emotions. If something makes you angry, express it instead of smothering it with :(. If you’re bored, admit to yourself that you’re bored and find something energetic to do instead.

If you relapse, just start again. You haven’t failed.

*****

NOW FOR A SPECIAL TREAT… I’ve asked the talented Jan Harrell, PhD to share her insight on toxic crutches. With 30 years as a clinical psychologist under her belt, she’s a resource worth listening to with an attentive, open heart.

Jan and her husband, Alan

AM: From a psychological standpoint, why do most people rely on “toxic crutches,” such as cigarettes, alcohol and over eating or spending?

JH: All of us, while in large, capable adult bodies with well-developed intellectual left brains are aware, even if it isn’t something we consciously think about, of how vulnerable we each are, how little we can ultimately control. With great courage and determination, we step out into the world and try our best to create the lives we hope for, to find safety and fulfilment, all the while aware of that vulnerability.

Sometimes it makes itself known to us as the feelings of anxiety or depression, sometimes it takes the disguise of self-judgment or anger, but it is always a reflection of our deep awareness about how little control we can count on having. Those “toxic” crutches, whether substance abuse (food, cigarettes, alcohol, food) or addictive behaviors (gambling, spending, TV, video games) are places of refuge, where we can both comfort our feelings of being powerless and overwhelmed, and forget them for a while.

AM: How can a person who wishes to overcome a dependency cultivate desire and motivation (rather quitting because they feel they “should”)?

JH: When we truly understand what emotions and struggles underlie our non-logical behavior, rather than being in judgment or it, rather than trying to force ourselves with will-power and logic, we will be able to kindly and sympathetically, support our sense of vulnerability.

If we can accept that our “maladaptive” behaviors were the best that we were able to come up with, but that there are more loving ways to deal with the challenge of human existence with all the unavoidable vulnerability and lack of control, then we will be able to support ourselves in the same kind way we would guide a child who simply hasn’t learned, yet, how to navigate a difficult situation.

AM: What about for those who lack belief in themselves…feel incapable of giving up there crutch?

JH: Our desire to change and find emotional strength and freedom can be the lifeline we hold onto as we find the knowledge and tools we need to create the life we long for.

AM: How important is a support system? When is professional help necessary?

JH: Imagine Freud had been a teacher, not a doctor. People clearly liked to talk with him, so he probably would have offered classes on understanding human emotion. Instead of this being a question of “mental health” or “mental illness” we would all be thinking about emotional education, and what we feel and how we handle those feelings would simply be a course of study we all would take.

If we look at “professional help” as simply doing a one on one study of ourselves, life and how to handle it, there need be no shame or judgment. It would be no different than deciding to take a trip to France and wanting to learn the language so our trip would be a more rich experience. Just because we decide to travel to France doesn’t make us able to speak French! We aren’t “mentally ill” because we can’t naturally speak French! We all need to be fluent in the understanding and managing of our human emotion. If we aren’t, why wouldn’t we want to learn!

AM: (Isn’t she fabulous??? :)) Thanks again, Jan, for your time and wisdom.

****

What toxic crutches have you, or do you wish to, over come? Have they come between you and your passions? Are you able to view “maladaptive behaviors” as the best you can/could do?