Emotional Needs

Almost Persuaded— Everyday Struggles in the Life of a Sex Addict

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Today is both different and not so different. For you, there are no verbal fights just a lot of distance between you and your partner. The two of you have learned to duck and dive major issues with work, busyness at home, activities with the kids, and a lot of impression management with everyone else. 

The truth is that you are resentful, empty, bored, a little depressed, and very lonely deep inside. These have been feelings that you have marinated with for a long time. You are not alone during this Christmas season. There are millions of men and women stuck in the same place throughout the world. Your challenge is that you are a recovering sex addict with a monkey mind that tells you any reason is a good reason to act out and what better time than now! 

There’s the woman at work that you have befriended. She’s a colleague and you work side by side with her. She is not particularly attractive to you but she is nice and you can tell she is vulnerable. She has told you enough about her struggles and demands of life that you feel buoyed and confident to do a little flirting—not too much, but, enough to trigger a dopamine rush that fills the emptiness. Without realizing it for the past few months, you have relied on the occasional hit of flirtation to take the edge off the disconnect from the emptiness that is growing inside. 

Now, you long for a connection inside that you don’t consciously think or talk about. You want to flirt more, not less. You tell yourself the conversations with your female colleague are innocent because there is no sexual content to them. You don’t bring them up with support people and the 12-step meetings that you attend. You certainly don’t tell your partner about them. You notice that you avoid talking to anyone about what is going on inside. The secret adrenaline rush is something you nurse and enjoy. Gradually, it becomes a hit that covers over the loneliness and emptiness, without admitting you are having an emotional affair, and you haven’t even talked about sex! 

You realize that the conversations with her are giving you an emotional connection that you have not had with your partner at home for a long time. Then, it happens! After work, she tells you that she took her car to the repair shop and they promised to bring it to her before her work day was over but they just called saying they could not and would make arrangements for her to come by and pick it up. Sheepishly, she asks if you would be willing to drop her off to pick her car up after work. Immediately, you say yes.

For the next 2 hours before work is over, your heart is racing with excitement and optimism. The adrenaline is flowing and it seems like the time is just evaporating quickly. You wonder if she is drawn to you like you are drawn to her. You know she is married and you haven’t heard her say anything about her partner. The recovery side of you sets off an alarm that says “Be careful!” There are warning signs that say “Danger, this is not a good idea!” However, you quickly minimize the warning as your mind craves for more rush and secret titillation. You tell yourself she is not all that attractive, so why are you getting so ramped up? Your mind goes back and forth like a pinball between bumpers thinking “Maybe something can happen” and “Don’t be stupid”.

On the way over to the repair shop, you find yourself going out of the way to compliment her in as many ways you can think without appearing over the top. She tells you she enjoys your friendship and when she gets out of the car, you help her find the keys to her car which the repair shop left at a designated place before closing for the day. Before leaving, she gives you a full-bodied hug and tells you that she really appreciates you helping her out.

On the way home, your mind is full of arousing thoughts. You know that the thoughts are not sustainable with recovery and fidelity with your partner. That’s the reason you don’t tell anyone about them. You garner the thoughts and hang on to them like a teenager who just received his first kiss! Logical sober reasoning gives way to fantasy. Later, after the same routine of clearing the table and putting the dirty dishes in the dishwasher, and watching a little TV, your partner retires to bed for the evening. You are left thinking about your thoughts about your colleague. Sitting alone the desire for porn begins to grow and overshadows every thought! You begin to long for connection with your colleague and the desire to masturbate to porn becomes overwhelming. 

If this experience is similar to what shows up in your recovery journal, you are not alone! These experiences represent the everyday struggles that face many sex addicts! You are at the edge of acting out. Some would say you already began the journey down the slippery slide of relapse a long time ago! What would you do to stop the slide?

Here are a few considerations.

1. Get radical: At the apex of desiring to masturbate to porn, get out of your chair, pick up your cell phone, and call recovery members for help. It will be inconvenient for you and likely for the one who answers the phone. Yet, if someone were drowning would you watch the person drown thinking that it would be inconvenient to get your clothes wet? Rather, your recovery friend would like to know they supported you saving yourself from a moment of recovery demise! Then put your laptop/phone etc in a place that would make it difficult to act out after the call, like locking it in the trunk of your car and putting the keys on the nightstand on your partner’s side of the bed. What this radical behavior does is break the spell of build-up toward using!

2. Pop the bubble of secrecy: Practice telling on yourself. The last thing you want your 12-step group or therapist to know about you becomes the first thing you say. Unpack the energy around the relationship with the colleague and the desire to masturbate to porn. Tell your sponsor, the 12-step group, and the therapist about the adrenaline rush around both. When you eliminate the secret, you will be able to best see perspective and return to operating from a position of strength and not weakness in managing your junkie worm. 

3. Practice playback by identifying the footprints of your addictive cycle: You may need help with this from a seasoned therapist. However, you can train yourself to do this work with a sponsor or other recovery colleague. Wade through each build-up thought, mistaken belief, and disconnect in a life situation that accelerated your addiction cycle. Only then will you be able to thoroughly shift away from intimacy-disabling to healthy intimacy-engaging behavior.

4. Build boundaries that don’t blow people away: The colleague at work is not the devil. Your addiction is not her challenge. Simply avoid the flirtation. Keep the conversation on business only. Utilize the 3-second rule in your head, so that when an adrenaline rush of excitement descends upon your thoughts, you actively change your focus. Be accountable with specific thoughts with recovery support people and not your partner. Be responsible with your partner with clear communication that if you act out you will disclose within 24 hours what you did and how you will address the issue. Sharing that you have been challenged with your recovery is appropriate minus the lurid details. Leave that with your 12-step group and sponsor. Boundaries require follow-through and accountability. 

5. Transform the curse into a blessing. Address the unmet emotional need that triggers your desire to act out with “Old Faithful.” You can pinpoint unmet needs by paying attention to feelings and affect. Addicts disconnect from feelings mostly because they never learned to connect with their emotions and address them in a healthy way. Recovery colleagues, dear friends, sponsors, and therapists can help you learn how to parent yourself and fulfill your emotional needs in ways that will change cravings from a curse to be numbed into a blessing of intimate connection. 

For most of us who are addicts, the junkie worm never goes away. Paradoxically, the very “worm” that can destroy you can also be that which deepens your relational connection when you take the initiative to transform it from a curse to a blessing of relational connection. 

Facing Abandonment

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Addicts have many anxieties and fears. They grew up with holes in their souls with unmet childhood developmental needs from parents who failed to provide the fundamental emotional needs necessary. Some addicts suffered woeful negligence from physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. For many their parents failed to provide necessary support because they didn’t know how. Their parents loved them but were unable to give to their children that which was not given to them.  

Children learn that their parents loved them when they provide clothing, food, shelter, education, and other material possessions. However, children comprehend that they matter when a parent spends sufficient amounts of time with them on their terms, not the parents. Children develop a hole in their soul when this doesn’t happen. Subconsciously they conclude they don’t matter. They don’t consider that something is wrong with their parents. Instead, they embrace the misbelief that they must not be worthy or important enough for the attention desired.  

Developmentally they become like a chunk of Swiss cheese with holes. Each hole represents an unmet childhood need. Kids learn to compensate by trying to fill the hole from the outside with a cocktail of relational experience. They learn to please and gain approval through performance or get attention with negative social behavior. It doesn’t work because the depth of emotional need that must be met will ultimately only be fulfilled from within. They become like the little kid who can’t get enough sugar. Their emotional neediness becomes insatiable. Eventually, they organize a dependency upon an addictive substance or process that delivers what it promises. For many, it involves a collection of addictions that are depended upon to assuage their fears and anxieties and to numb out what hurts. 

One of the greatest fears that an addict faces is that of abandonment, physically, emotionally, or both. Abandonment is like the metaphor of a pack of wolves that chase you through the woods. The pack pursues you relentlessly even though you create diversionary tactics of avoidance. Eventually, the pack corners you. Either the pack wins and consumes you with addictive behavior or you turn around and face the gnashing teeth of abandonment.  In doing so you begin to realize that it is not the terrorizing force that its growl suggests. 

Addicts become pleasers, workaholics, and deniers to avoid conflict. Behind their behavior is a pernicious fear of abandonment. They will do anything to avoid feeling deserted. Addiction becomes a lifelong affair to avoid abandonment. Some addicts have described their relationship to their drug of choice as a warm blanket that offers consistent comfort from fear and anxiety. What lurks behind every addictive high is the fear of abandonment. How to address abandonment is critical to the long-term sobriety from addiction. Here are a few steps to consider:

1. Embrace the fact that the fear of abandonment is universal. Abandonment is not just a fear that afflicts addicts. It impacts partners of addicts and the world at large. It is a common thread of life experience. Recognizing that everyone experiences this fear helps to avoid isolation or the conclusion that you are particularly flawed and different from those around you. You are not! We all must face our fear of abandonment. 

2. Others may desert you but the key is to learn not to desert yourself. This may seem obvious. Yet, simple things are not easy. It’s an automatic response for a child to subconsciously attempt to capture a parents’ attention when neglected.  When children lack recognition for who they are, they try to compensate with what they can do. If the inattentiveness is chronic the child will participate in behaviors that will get their parent’s recognition in order to avoid abandonment. Over time they learn that who they are matters less than how they act or what they do. Essentially, they learn to abandon themselves. Overcoming the fear of abandonment requires that you learn to reclaim the importance of being and parent yourself in healthy ways. You must learn to pay attention to your genuine needs and not abandon yourself through pleasing others.

3. Listen to your triggers, don’t just run from them.  Triggered with fear or lust for your drug of choice can be a gift! This is true for both addicts and partners. When triggered, put yourself out of harm’s way and take time to let the trigger talk to you about your unmet needs that must be met in a healthy way. Some addicts spend much of their recovery reporting about triggers and chronic high risk behaviors, thinking that telling another addict when they have been tempted is enough. However, it is a beginning. When tempted think about the legitimate need that is represented in the trigger and then endeavor to self-parent by meeting the need in a healthy way through adult choice and interaction. Rather than abandon yourself by only running away from the trigger, allow the trigger to speak its truth and transform the trigger from a curse to a blessing. Practicing this skill set which takes a lot of hard work is a major step that avoids abandonment of self.

4. Take the people with you who abandon you. People hurt each other and abandon one another. People die. Relationships end through the passage of time, betrayal, and a myriad of other reasons. It sucks to feel abandoned. Yet, it is a broken experience that is common to all. It requires skills to grieve the loss of what once was. Some people live life longing for yesterday’s experiences in order to avoid feeling abandoned. The end result is that they wallow in the abandonment.  I suggest that you take the lost person or experience with you. Keep it with you in your heart. It is not necessary to live in the past. Yet, you can bring those experiences with others with you in the here and now through treasured memory. Even in the face of betrayal, you can embrace your truth and the closeness that once was, and the pure intent you generated when others were invested in ulterior motives. Precious memories need not be abandoned. Loved ones who are now deceased can be alive in your heart. We all live in a nanosecond of present time and then it too becomes historical. So we hold precious experience by treasuring its memory in our hearts. Learn to address abandonment by taking your precious personal intents and initiatives with you in your heart. The good in all the relationships you have ever experienced can dwell inside of you no matter what others choose to do. When you consider the power and potential that exists within, you never need to be dominated by abandonment again.

Entitlement and the Special Worm

There is a story about the subtle snag of grandiosity in The Spirituality of Imperfection by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketchum: A past president of the Hazledon Foundation, a leading treatment resource for alcohol and drug addiction, was approached by a young researcher asking, “Why is it that even intelligent alcoholics can get so trapped in denial of their alcoholism? Is it because of grandiosity—they think that they can do anything to their bodies and survive, they think that they are ‘too smart’ to be alcoholic? Or is it because of self-loathing—they despise themselves and feel they deserve to die, if they are alcoholics?” The past president sighed and replied, “The alcoholic’s problem is not that he thinks he is very special. Nor is the alcoholic’s problem that he thinks he is a worm. The alcoholic’s problem is that he is convinced “I am a very special worm!”

Entitlement is an overlooked component in the life of a recovering addict. Clearly, it is a major contribution to the demise and derail of many addicts dominated by their narcissistic wound. It can show up in recovery like a blind spot undetected or can be as obvious as a swollen black eye. It is fueled by deprivation, usually a deficit from emotional needs not being met. Most addicts have never learned how to meet their emotional needs in a healthy way.

Too impatient to learn, many addicts ignore deprivation and try to will their way into stopping the acting out. It is common for an addict to vacillate between feeling like a piece of shit for their behavior to overconfidence that they have this thing called recovery down! Whenever I do an autopsy on relapse, I always discover grandiose entitlement that traces back to underestimated deprivation. Twelve step shares around relapse are replete with addicts who share the mentality of thinking of themselves as a “special worm”. It’s a dynamic that all too often destroys sobriety and defeats attempts toward recovery.

The following recovery interventions should be understood in managing the “special worm” syndrome:

1. Condition yourself to recognize unmet emotional needs. Craving is a conditioned response to a legitimate emotional or physical need. The rut of response that leads to acting out must be redirected. It is helpful to slow things down and reflect about the emotional/physical need that can be met in a healthy way without acting out. As an addict, you can figure that you can blow right past your emotional needs and focus on whatever pursuit that is in front of you in the moment. That’s usually a fatal mistake and a contribution to chronic relapse. Recognition of emotional needs requires that you pay attention to what you feel. Sounds simple and it is. Yet, simple in recovery is difficult. Sitting with your feelings can be unbelievably uncomfortable. Yet, the secret is to recognize what you feel and to determine what need the emotion is identifying that must be met in a healthy way. Then it requires that you creatively brainstorm how you might meet that need in a non-destructive self-affirming way. This represents self-parenting. With addiction, the goal like so many other aspects in life is to emotionally grow yourself up. This strategy can all sound good and clear. Yet, these actions toward sobriety require step by step conditioning and daily practice. One day at a time is never more true than learning this skill set in recovery. In the presence of intense impatience and the temptation to yield to an “I don’t get it mentality”, slow your thoughts down in order to recognize unmet emotional needs and work toward meeting them in a healthy way. Don’t be harsh with yourself if you botch it up or find this strategy difficult and awkward.

2. Go the distance in recovery. I recall reading in M. Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled a metaphor described by Peck that the journey in life for many is likened to traveling through the desert. In their journey, many people make it to the first or second oasis and then stop rather than using the oasis for renewal of strength for the travel to the other side of the desert to lush green terrain of personal and relational intimacy. This can be true in recovery. For many addicts, the goal of achieved sobriety is enough. The remainder of life hovers around appreciation and celebration of overcoming being dominated by addiction. Twelve step meetings can become a kind of oasis in the desert where recovering addicts appreciate one another for their recovery. Many times their intimacy and recovery becomes confined to group members and experiences with other addicts who understand and walked through the desert with them to find the oasis of 12-step recovery. Yet, for many the journey stops at a 12-step meeting. Personal growth in relationship intimacy with partners, family, and other relationships is stymied because of the temptation to hover around the oasis at a 12-step meeting. Some addicts are more emotionally intimate with fellow addicts than they are with their romantic partners. It can be tempting to rest on the laurels of sobriety in the secure confines of a 12-step fellowship. It has been my experience that this dynamic is a subtle lure to a “special worm” mentality. The need to push forward and deepen relational intimacy in everyday relationships can be substituted by the acceptance and comfort of the cocoon found in 12-step fellowship. Yet, those who utilize the support from a 12-step fellowship as a launching pad to dive into the vulnerability of opening their heart and becoming emotionally naked in their relationship journey with their world will avoid the perils of becoming a “special worm”. In recovery, sobriety is establishing a ground zero for personal growth. Living with an open heart and pushing for relational intimacy will require moving beyond the oasis into the depths of vulnerability in order to make it through the desert to the other side.

3. Don’t forget C.S. Lewis who said “A good egg stays ripe for so long—it will either hatch or become rotten.” Life is brief. The opportunity for personal growth in any relationship presents itself with finite time constraints. Relationship recovery is a blend of highs and lows, bitter and sweet. Recovery life is a tapestry that presents opportunities for connection with self and others that you cherish. It doesn’t last forever. The opportunity is a dynamic that will hatch into the richness of relational intimacy or become rotten in neglect and missed chances for closeness. Being seduced into complacency in the present will fuel a “special worm” mentality. Seductively, you can adopt an “I’ve been there, done that, no need to do more” mentality about your recovery work. This is a subtle form of “stinking thinking”. You tell yourself “I’ve done enough time to rest on the laurels of recovery work”. You begin to feel entitled that you now deserve to avoid the “hot seat” of recovery scrutiny now that you are sober. Soon you become the good egg that becomes rotten. It is crucial that you embrace the relational growth opportunities in front of you. To do this you must become hungry for personal growth around the next challenge in relationship and life dynamic. “Rotten eggs” are discarded relationship opportunities that carry wistful thoughts about what might have been had we only overcome the “special worm” syndrome.

Walking Away From Crazy

“We come from fallible parents who were kids once, who decided to have kids and who had to learn how to be parents. Faults are made and damage is done, whether it’s conscious or not. Everyone’s got their own ‘stuff,’ their own issues, and their own anger at Mom and Dad. That is what family is. Family is almost naturally dysfunctional.”  

—Chris Pine 

Family is a powerful dynamic. It’s the place we come home to every day. It’s a place where the fundamental supplies to do life are provided in order to function and thrive. Family is where the emotional, physical and spiritual needs are furnished and developed. Most families do not provide enough for these needs to be met. Essentially, bonding is a critical need that when left unmet without sufficient amounts of mirroring, engagement and attunement to children increases the likelihood of addiction  Addiction most likely occurs when an individual cannot find meaningfulness in everyday experience. This is not addressed by providing more things for the child to do, but rather by participating with the child’s activities with sufficient amounts of time. Connection is critical and ofttimes missing. Without connection the possibility of addiction increases. For certain it contributes to the creation of crazy-making life experience. 

I tell people we had 12 kids in our family. In reality, there were 9, 4 girls and 5 boys, and I was the youngest boy. I say 12 because my parents raised my oldest sister’s 3 kids from school age to teenage. My sister’s kids were dropped off at our front porch and abandoned by their parents, who were unwilling to raise them. I often think about how crazy-making this experience was for them. Including them into our family would be a bare minimum expression of care.

My dad was a World War II vet, a foot soldier for two years. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge. I learned after his death that he was a decorated soldier with 2 Bronze Stars, 2 Oak Leaf Clusters, and a Purple Heart.  He took his World War II combat PTSD out on the boys in our family. Once one of my older brothers, Jimmy, thought he was big enough to take on my dad. He had disobeyed and smarted off to my mom. My dad told him he couldn’t talk to his mom that way and to apologize. Jimmy told him that he would not apologize and wanted to settle the matter, mano a mano with my dad. My dad gave him a beat down. It was awful. He never stopped until my mom begged him to stop. It became pretty clear to me that any kid who received a beat down like my dad gave Jimmy would have a ton of rage inside. This was the type of crazy-making I grew up with. 

Then there was church which doesn’t have to be dysfunctional. Yet, in my experience, it reflected the reality of the home I grew up in—crazy-making. We all had to go to church twice on Sundays, to a midweek prayer meeting, and all the revival meetings which took place twice a year for two weeks straight every night.  

Our preacher’s name was Gravitt. My dad liked to call him “Doc” Gravitt. He was no doctor I would ever choose to visit. He was a rough rogue. He would call people out by name during the worship service and accuse them of not paying their tithe. He was known to stop preaching, walk down from the platform, and spank a kid for misbehaving in church. He would challenge men who he thought were malcontents to meet him in the parking lot outdoors for a fight. He was unpredictable and very abusive. My parents always thought he was God’s anointed and that you had to tolerate the negative in order to get the positive. They would cite some of the antics of characters in the Bible that God used and were satisfied that Gravitt was like one of those. They would say that it took a character like Gravitt to drive out the riffraff so that the church could grow. All my brothers and I  thought that Gravitt was the riffraff. We all used to love it when my one of my older brothers, Dave, would mix it up with Gravitt when he would try to get in Dave’s face and tell him how he should live his life. Dave would not tolerate Gravitt’s bullshit!  He would challenge Gravitt to meet him in the parking lot for a fisticuff.  We all looked forward to these encounters. We thought they were entertaining. In truth it was crazy-making!

My parents had little time to spend with their kids. Geez, if they were paid full time to only raise kids, there still wouldn’t be enough time to spend with each kid. As it was, my dad worked 2-3 jobs at a time and my mom was a domestic worker. In our home, everything was rationed.  Baths, the amount of milk for breakfast, food, and electricity were all rationed in order to cover the expenses of 14 people. There wasn’t any personal time for affection, attunement of spirit, and emotional support from parents. 

Martin Luther King once said that “violence is the language of the unheard”.  In the family I grew up in there was little experience of being heard. My parents tacitly agreed to not fight about disagreements they had. The anger that was avoided between them was played out between my siblings and me. I was the youngest boy so I had experienced a shitload of hell from my older brothers. To say the least, it was crazy-making.

The lack of touch, attachment and bonding that my parents missed in their childhood was passed along to me and my siblings. It became a mainspring to the years of intimacy disabled-ness, struggle, and addiction that would later develop and come to fruition in my life and that of some of my family members. There was little touch and affection and nurture was scarce. It was crazy-making.

How do you walk away from crazy-making? Addicts experience dysfunctional dynamics within their families of origin to one extent or another. There are many effective suggestions for addressing the crazy-making. Here are a few to consider.

Tell your story. Make your rags into a tapestry. It is a worn-out metaphor, yet many addicts continue to want to walk around the elephant in the living room. Our families of origin have taught us well how to compartmentalize dysfunctional pain and pretend it does not exist. We embrace the impossible and ignore the obvious. Shame is passed from one generation to the next and the conduit is secrecy. We create secrecy by hiding what we don’t want others or self to see and thus avoiding what is painful. Addicts are great with knowing how to compartmentalize. 

Show your family rags in 12-step groups. Let this sharing be a stepping stone to open your heart and share with your family, your partner, and your kids. They will truly benefit. Through your sharing, your kids will be able to stand on your shoulders and make a better way for their future. It is an excellent beginning in unraveling the crazy-making from your family of origin. It is a way of making a tapestry from the rags of dysfunction.

Scrub the wound. So much in recovery is counterintuitive. When hurt we want to roar with anger, whereas healing requires us to embrace our anger, fear and sadness with vulnerability. Overcoming the crazy-making that exists in our family of origin insists that we lean into our fear, fragility, and frozen emotional experiences. 

Like scrubbing a laceration on your knee, the last thing you want to do is what is demanded. Scrubbing emotional wounds is painful. It is automatic that you would want to shy away and procrastinate scrubbing the wound. When we don’t, the infection spreads throughout our relational lives and appears every time anxiety and threat surface in our lives. Crazy-making family dysfunction must be scrubbed. You must drain the pool of pain that exists through identification of hurt, grieving the losses, and validating your experience.  

Anchor to your true self.  Tolerating the crazy-making in your family of origin required you to create a false sense of self. Survival in your dysfunctional family called for people-pleasing, caretaking and approval-seeking behaviors. Often your inherent value was not nurtured and was forced into hiding in your family of origin. You may have learned to seek identity and validation through the services you rendered to others. This can set you up to do more to keep from being less. As an addict, this is a common place where you lose your sense of self. This becomes a perfect place to escape emotional pain with your drug of choice.  Ending the crazy-making handed to you from your family of origin requires that you anchor to your true self. Crazy-making experiences in life come to an end when you anchor to your own sense of worthiness. It demands that you embrace your own feelings whatever they are. Rather than being dominated by what others feel about you, your true self will give birth to authentic congruence.  Your feelings begin to line up with your values which are expressed by what you say and how you live. It’s being anchored to your true self that separates you from the crazy-making in dysfunctional family living.