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Sexual Addiction: Hope for Recovery

Article Contributed By: Ed Bolella, MDiv at South Florida Recovery Center


“Why can’t you change!?”
“If you loved me, you would just stop!”

These and many other statements of pain and frustration are what many have heard or said in dealing with the experience of sexual addiction. Sex addiction causes devastation, pain, and betrayal.


The challenge to understand for sex addicts, and those who love them, is that sexual addiction is a disease of the brain.


My First Experiences with Addiction


Many years ago, I served in Addiction Treatment in New York City. At that time there was a billboard campaign to educate people about mental illness.


The billboard near my office said, “Depression is a problem of chemistry, not character.” What they were trying to say, is that depression, and also addiction, is really about something very powerful happening in the brain.


The Neurons In the Brain


We all have 100 million neurons in our brains. Neurons are the wires that connect everything.


When you have a thought, when you learn something, you actually create new neurons, new wires, and new pathways.


When you start becoming addicted, you had a thought. “I will use or do this because I want to belong.” “I will use or do this because I want to get rid of these feelings.”


Addiction Changes the Brain


The list is long that starts someone on the road to addiction. Once a person starts an addiction, the pathways actually grow, become stronger, and change the brain. It is like a pipe getting larger to carry more water, or a wire getting bigger to carry more electricity.

You have physically changed something in addiction, and this is often scary, but hope and renewal are possible.


Helping Those with Sexual Addiction


One of the most challenging areas of my work is helping those with sexual addiction. Just mentioning sexual addiction is often frightening. Sex is a powerful aspect of human life, full of all types of beliefs and assumptions.


Sexual addiction hides in the shadows, often for years. There all types of images that are funny or even dangerously appealing about drug and alcohol use. We love to watch celebrities as they party, and often move deeper into drug and alcohol abuse.


No Humor In Sexual Addiction


We do not see sexual addiction the same way. There is no humor, no funny jokes, and no shows in primetime that really view sexual addiction in a soft or sympathetic light. Sexual addiction is a real disorder.


Yet the addicted person (and those who love them) are often so filled with shame and fear over the stigma, the condition can go on for decades unspoken and unaddressed. Yet recovery for any addiction is only possible when brought into the light, honestly, lovingly, and with a concrete action plan for recovery.


What Causes Sexual Addiction?


Many ask me, “What is the cause of sexual addiction?” I share with them the work of Dr. Milton Magness. Dr. Magness discusses in his work that sexual addiction is an intimacy disorder. We all want intimacy. We all need a sense of significance. We all want someone to look at us as if we really matter.


Sexual addiction (and other addictions too) fill that need in a way that is false and cannot sustain us.


Sexual addiction may have started due to abuse, sexual or otherwise. It can be caused by early overexposure to sexual images before we are mature enough to fully understand them. That is a challenge for parents today because we are flooded with powerful sexual images everywhere.


Lack of Learning Healthy Intimacy


Adults can interpret and judge these images. For children, that is an entirely different matter. Sometimes we were raised in very rigid families, and sex was never discussed. We never learned about how to deal with our sexuality, or what healthy sexual expression looked like.

In any of these situations, we did not learn about healthy intimacy, so the sex addict seeks it out in false, superficial connections. We may see the behavior as immoral, but there is an addiction that needs to be confronted.


What Makes Someone a Sex Addict?


People will ask, “I had an affair, am I sexually addicted?” or, “I looked at pornography, am I sexually addicted?” When asking if you are an addict, there may be some questions you want to consider.

  • Did you hurt others by your actions?

  • Did you hurt yourself?

  • What have you lost as a result of your behavior?

  • Have you tried to stop and you cannot?

  • Is it progressing and becoming more out of control?

  • Are those around you affected, and you are losing things in your life as a result? Jobs, relationships, money, etc.

  • Did you make promises to stop that you did not keep? Often others see an individual is addicted before they do.


How Can I Help?


So what to do if you or someone you care for is possibly sexually addicted? The message here is that you are not alone. You are as they say, “Only as sick as your secrets.” Recovery is possible.


Resources exist and support is available if you or someone you love is struggling with sexual addiction. The healthy life of intimacy that I suspect you really want, but are unable to find in addiction, is possible for you.

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