Note: This article was originally published in the Spring 2007 edition of Cutting Edge, the online newsletter of The Meadows.
Understanding Sexual Recovery
By Maureen Canning, MA, LMFT
Sexuality is yoked with one's being - the body, mind and spirit. It is connected with one's identity, or essence. But as a culture, we have conditioned ourselves to experience and express our sexuality with a laser focus on physical gratification, the seeking of pleasure and release.
This is only a small part of what our sexual selves encompass. The totality of sexual expression is experienced through one's passion, creativity and life force energy. When we hear a moving piece of music; create art; connect with nature; lust after our favorite food, engrossed in its consumption; grow passionate about learning a new language or dance step, this is the expression of our sexuality.
This energy taps into the core of who we are. That's what makes sex addiction so powerful
and what sets it apart from other addictions. Our sexuality comes from the depths of our being, as does recovery. Examining and integrating healthy sexuality from this perspective becomes much more than just "mind-blowing sex." It becomes a spectrum of possibilities, a transformation of the whole self.
For several years, Anna has been working on her recovery from alcohol and sex addiction. Like most addicts, Anna had given up her most treasured hobby; it had been sidelined by the tumultuous life of her addiction. Anna had given up riding horses. Once an avid polo player, she had dropped out of the game and sold her animals. After several years of recovery, she was able to reconnect with her passion. Anna recently bought a new horse and is training several others. She rides almost every day.
"Maureen," Anna says in a somber tone, "I was riding my horse the other day, and I think I had a spiritual moment."
"What happened?" I ask.
"I had been rushing around yesterday morning, and, by the time I got to the stable, I was in a bad mood. When I got on my horse, she fought me, wouldn't do anything. She threw her head up and tried to buck me off. A friend watching me suggested that I stand up in the saddle and get myself centered, take a few breaths and feel her rhythm. I did what he suggested, let go of my stress and got in tune with her. When I sat down, she became calm. I rode in that ring and felt so connected to her. It was amazing."
What Anna is creating is connection, first with herself and then with life at large. She has come a long way in her recovery, and she is now reaping its rewards. Of course, it has taken time and a concentrated effort. For sex addicts, recovery can be a long and arduous but rewarding process.
Treatment planning for sexual addiction needs to realistically address the healing of one's personhood. In early treatment, the goals are focused and concrete: breaking through denial, surrendering to the addiction, acknowledging losses, making disclosures to loved ones, working the 12 Steps, getting a sponsor, going to meetings, etc. In this phase of treatment, the client is typically in crisis, emotionally overwhelmed, disoriented and experiencing withdrawal. Inpatient treatment is an intense process that can leave the client feeling inundated and emotionally fragile upon discharge. Patients often feel splintered, their ego state disoriented, their affect-management tenuous and their communication skills poor. The stress of re-entering life is, at best, a challenge and, more realistically, a trigger for relapse.
Extended-care treatment involves giving patients time to identify and integrate ego states, stabilize their emotions, grieve losses, begin trauma resolution, and implement treatment tools for relational development with self and others.
The profound shame that patients feel, and the slow but constant erosion of their personhoods, are the results of sexual addiction. The trauma and subsequent addiction result from a lifetime of ritualized behaviors and deeply embedded coping mechanisms. Patients run from their shame, using anger to act out and destroy any semblance of an authentic self. The recovery of the authentic self and the ability to live in one's truth must be extracted from the wreckage of the addiction.
About the Author
Maureen Canning, MA, LMFT, Clinical Director of Dakota and Clinical Consultant for Sexual Disorder Services at The Meadows, has extensive experience working with sexual disorders. She is a past board member of the Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health, as well as past president of the Arizona Council on Sexual Addiction.