Note: This article was originally published in the Summer 2005 issue of MeadowLark, the magazine for alumni of The Meadows.
Healthy Sexuality One Step at a Time
By Maureen Canning
There is a saying in AA that reminds newcomers “to fake it until you make it.” The belief behind this advice is that you can act your way into good feelings – that proper behavior nurtures healthy emotions.
Boundary practice, which is the practice of sober behavior, relies on this insight. As Pia Mellody has said, ”Boundary practice re-creates the conditions under which truth and respect are possible.” During the “re-creation” stage, sober behavior is consciously practiced and may seem unnatural, since we still are feeling the uncomfortable emotions associated with our disease. But despite our discomfort, we notice that the results of our acting sober are all positive. Positive builds upon positive and, at last, boundary practice yields a satisfactory (healthy) portion of inner peace.
In therapy, recovering sex addicts discover that what they think of as sexual pleasure is, in fact, the reduction of anxiety they feel when they use manipulative sex to obliterate or ameliorate the fear, shame and powerlessness wired into them by childhood sexual abuse. Disconnection from the authentic self has caused them to make a monumental mistranslation in which danger, intensity, fear, shame and powerlessness have come to mean “sexual pleasure.” Undoing this perversion of emotional truth and recovering for addicts their Authentic Selves are the aims of recovery. When in recovery, we reconnect to our Authentic Selves, we feel the safety that we lacked as children. In this feeling of safety, we begin to build what I call “congruent” selves, in which, on all levels of our being, we move toward living in the truth and taking the first steps toward healthy intimacy in relationships.
One Step at a Time
Sex addicts had to disconnect with their feelings as children, because to acknowledge the betrayal of their parents' role of caregivers would have been overwhelmingly threatening. So they adapted, stuffed their feelings, and lost contact with the care and nurturing they genuinely wanted and needed. Since sexual urge is the energy source of our selfhood, sexual abuse caused them to lose contact with their creative identity. In order to get back in touch with their healthy needs and wants, they have to rediscover what it feels like to be authentic - free of traumatic intimidation - and vulnerable. This reconnection will be a careful and specific process of reflection and practical exercise. It is a step-by-step process. The goal is to rediscover, in the everyday events of our lives, the healthy bond between pleasure and sexuality. Only then will it be possible to see how spiritual truths and sexual energies are connected at the highest level of our being.
For example, music is one thing that can provoke the awareness of such positive bonds between bodily sensation and pleasure. When you connect with music that seems to speak to you, that is the kind of restorative reconnecting between pleasure and self-esteem that I speak of. The music and who we really are seem to be congruent; we fit together as part of a force greater than ourselves.
Another example of an activity, which, like music, reconnects us and makes us feel whole, is sensuous dining. You go into your favorite restaurant and order your favourite food, and, in that moment, you are so present and connected with the experience of taste, smell, texture and comfort that you feel complete. You feel that pleasure is what you deserve. Pleasure loses its connection to danger.
People damaged in this way must be coached in the techniques of self-care and pleasure if they are to recover from sexual addiction. I coach recovering sex addicts to identify the everyday things that give them pleasure. It might be burning incense, the sound of a fountain they listen to as they sleep, or bedroom walls, newly painted in a color that is soothing. As they act practically and habitually to cater to their sense of pleasure, they reawaken their sensitivity to pleasure and learn that it does not have to come with fear, intensity, powerlessness and shame. They learn that pleasure is not the reward of manipulation and control; it is something they deserve, in and of itself, and only because they are precious. They learn that the experience of pleasure exposes them to no danger. But it can be terrifying for sexually addicted persons to open up to such restorative activities. Their original fusion of pleasure with abuse makes the opening of oneself to pleasures as innocent as music, eating or decorating the house in favourite colors, a traumatic pathway back to pain and shame.
This is where the maxim "to fake it until you make i" is put to work. Overcoming the reluctance to listen to our favorite music, to linger over our favorite foods, to decorate our rooms in our favorite colors, soon bears fruit. We learn that pleasure does not need to plunge us back into memories of abuse. We may feel anxiety when we pleasure ourselves in these healthy ways. But we do it anyway, with a little help from our recovering, healthy, like-minded friends – friends with whom we can share our fears and our reluctance to let go and become vulnerable.
The goal of sexual recovery is not to make music, food or interior decorating healthfully available to the recovering addict. The goal is to liberate the sexual energy at the core of our being. When I talk about sexuality, I am not just talking about genital contact. I believe that sexual energy is the core of who we are; it is our life force, our passion and our creativity. From this sexual core of our being resonates our unique selfhood.