I have no real sense of time right now as it feels like a million lifetimes have occurred since my last post. I had an epic loss of tragic proportions last week, and I was hoping to post something about it, but it feels too private and I have no words.
By chance, last night I saw the movie, “Thanks for Sharing”. I do not read much about movies before seeing them, so I just knew vaguely that it was something about families and maybe some kind of rehab and that Mark Ruffalo, whom I really like as an actor, and Gwyneth Paltrow, whom I’m pretty lukewarm about , were in it.
Anyway I was happy to approach it with an open mind and happy to say that I learned some new things and had other things reinforced by this poignant movie. I have no idea whether it was a good movie or not, but this time I did not care, given the past two weeks, my judgment level was pretty nonexistent. Just give me something meaningful and distracting and I will find something useful in it, was my attitude. In that, it did not disappoint.
I have had mixed feelings about treatment of sex addiction and what actually constitutes sex addiction. I also have feelings about how hard it is for women to find support groups, especially in 12 Step Groups, as they are dominated by males, and I can appreciate that it would probably be better for female identified sex addicts, whatever their sexual orientation, as well as transgendered sex addicts, to have a separate space for recovery. On the other hand, I was happy the film included an important character, a female sex addict who had a pretty important role in the film and was well fleshed out even though she was not the main focus. It was moving to see her bond with the very troubled doctor character and to see how they helped each other and were able to form a relationship that was safe and non sexual, a first for both of them.
I have worked with all kinds of “addicts”, including self identified sex addicts as well as people questioning their use of sex as a coping mechanism. There are many shades of gray here. Almost anyone who has had multiple sex partners in non serious relationships as well as people in serious committed types of relationships has experienced using sex as a kind of numbing out, a relief of emotional pain, a desire to get some kind of high, a way to relate when unable to communicate in some other more helpful way; many people have experienced having consensual sex and then wondering, “What was I thinking? why did I do that?” or not remembering any of the experience. So, I would imagine that many people can understand how confusing the whole concept of sex addiction is.
Masturbation added to the mix makes it even more problematic, as in my view, masturbation is a very positive way of self-exploration, acceptance of your body and caring for you body, a way to decrease any shame you have taken on from some kind of terrible childhood or later experience, a way to take back your body from any traumatic sexual experience, etc. I include every form of masturbation from using porn, books, the internet, sex toys, masturbating in company with a partner, or just masturbating to reduce your stress level and help you get to sleep.
So it is hard to accept that in SA (Sex Addicts Anonymous, a 12 Step Program modelled on the original Alcoholic Anonymous) there is a prescription that to be in recovery and count each day involves a prohibition against any form of masturbation. I knew this was part of their program and always had questions about it, but the movie did effectively demonstrate why it may be helpful at least in the first year of recovery. Maybe it’s comparable to the idea that your first year of recovery from any addiction or eating disorder, etc. it is recommended that you do not date or enter into romantic relationships, as you need to focus on strengthening your self awareness and coping skills and not add challenges that are immediate “triggers” until you are more solid, stable and emotionally and physically and mentally ready for the complexities of dating and relationships. The movie demonstrated well how a person when kind of experiencing “relapse” due to being overwhelmed by triggers, goes to masturbation first for as the simplest most convenient way to zone out and comfort the self, self soothe and feel a kind of escapist “high”. On the other hand, it seemed that having a relapse like that did not mean that the person went into a complete downspiral, so maybe the masturbation prohibition serves to help people wake up to a “warning sign”, like, uh oh, I’m starting down a slippery slope, I can stop before I start doing illegal things on the subway or waking up in some strangers bed having cheated on my partner, etc. So I do see how this rule could actually be useful. Also for people with a lot of sexual trauma, learning to direct all sexual urges and fantasies etc. into eventually a relationship with probably one person and to just experience a more healthy adult form of sexuality could be enhanced by the person not masturbating and only experiencing their sexuality as an exchange of intimacy and connection which would be reparative. Eventually my hope would be that the person could incorporate masturbation into their sex life with their partner and masturbation could be a healthy form of sharing and part of their sexual experience and experienced in a completely new transformative way. Sex addicts and people with eating disorders have similar challenges. You can’t stop eating, you have to completely overhaul your relationship to food and emotions and relearn how to eat and how to experience physical fullness, just to mention the basics. In a similar vein, the sex addict, unless s/he becomes completely celibate, will eventually be challenged to incorporate sex into their lives in some healthy transformative way, which is not easy for anybody and doubly challenging for the sex addict. As one character jokes in the movie, it’s likw being a crack addict with a crack pipe full of crack attached to your genitals!
What I already believe and try to work on in my own life and encourage in my patients is another kind of principle from the 12 Steps Program, called “Clean your own side of the street.” I actually learned it long ago from several patients who were struggling in their recovery to watch their critical judgmental side. Once in recovery an individual can get caught up in some rigidity and even self rightousness, (I know what’s best for that sick person over there as I’ve been throuh it type of thinking.) Many therapists fall into this trap too, thinking they knkow better than their patients. Even as a therapist, the “clean your own side of the street” philosophy is useful to remind you that you may serve as a witness and sometimes guide but you still have to work hard on keeping your street clean or you can get pretty mixed up and very un useful to your patients. There is a great scene in this movie between the woman newly dating the main character talking to his much older sponsor’s wife who has been with her husband since high school, and presumably through some terrible patches of cheating and other awful experiences. The young woman is marvelling at how the older woman had weathered these storms and she tells her she learned long ago to worry about her own side of the street, meaning to keep the focus back on her own self and her own challenges and what she needed to work on, which is a model that does not make the one member of the couple the “identified patient” and create room for a more enlightened relationship where two flawed humans accept each others struggles but do not confuse them or take on the ones that do not belong to that individual.
I think this concept of constantly refocusing to look at your side of the street is really transformational and useful in everyday life. It helps diffuse drama that is not necessary in any situation. You can acknowledge what is happening without playing the blame game or overly analyzing anything. Letting go and moving on to the next moment is a big part of this. Recovery can be seen as a constant state of rebirth where there are no “relapses”, only different challenges and responses to those challenges, and most of all, learning to have compassion infinitely for ourselves and others.