Sex addiction is in the news again as is the question: is a addict responsible for his or her actions? If a sex addict does indeed have a disease, does that let him off the hook? Does the diagnosis of addiction excuse any addict of his or her harmful treatment of others?
Sex Addiction: The Disease Model
Before I got into recovery and joined Sexaholics Anonymous, I approached the idea of addiction from what could be called the religious model or sin model. An addict of any kind is sinning, needs to repent, and behave differently. I thought of myself this way. And from this perspective, anyone claiming to have the “disease” of addict was just looking to be excused from his or her sinful behavior and the harm done. It’s akin to the devil-made-me-do-it defense. “Sorry I ruined your life. I couldn’t help it.”
Now that I’ve experienced 12-step recovery and the AA disease model from the inside, I can tell you that this interpretation of the word “disease” is not what the alcoholic has in mind and not what the sexaholic has in mind. That is not to deny that some offenders (considered broadly) won’t use this flawed defense. It is certainly tempting to hang one’s hope on that when one has fallen so very far financially, professionally, reputationally, relationally. An addict might be desperate to regain all that. He might see “I’m addicted” as an opportunity to gain it all back, and have no notion of availing himself of the opportunity to become healthy and whole. That’s unfortunate for the ones that were hurt. And maybe surprisingly, it is unfortunate for the addict.
Recovery of finances, professional esteem, community reputation, and relationships are all possible for the recovering sexaholic, but recovery of these can’t be the motivation, at least not the primary one. Part of the problem is recovering these things can be slow in coming, if they come at all. If this is my sole, or primary reason for working my recovery program, I can become disheartened or resentful and abandon the project.
However, the loss of them can be the 2 x 4 to the head that wakes an addict up, but for recovery to “take”, for recovery to be long-term, there has to be an internal desire for health and wholeness. “My spouse wants me to do it”, “my employer want me to do it”, “the entire nation wants me to do it”, and even “my God wants me to do it” is not enough. As our White Book Sexaholics Anonymous says, “Until we had been driven to the point of despair, until we really wanted to stop but could not, we did not give ourselves to this program of recovery.” (SA p. 202)
Making Amends, NOT Getting a Pass
As I said, getting-a-pass is not the AA or SA way. When the sexaholic says she has “lost the power of choice”, she is saying that her disease, her screwed up brain chemistry, has made it impossible for her to use her willpower to not do the behavior in a way similar to how a diabetic can in all truth say that his body has lost the power to produce insulin and therefore regulate glucose levels. But the diabetic is not saying that he is a lost cause. He might be, but whereas his body doesn’t have the power to regulate glucose on its own, he does have the power to take his medicine, or alter his diet. And if he’s been a cranky bastard “because of his disease”, he needs to make things right.
In a similar way, the sex addict no longer has the power of choice in one area (choosing not to act out), but does in another area: taking her “medicine”. The 12-Steps, administered by a sponsor and 12-Step fellowship group, are the medicine: A way of life that brings health and wholeness. The sexaholic’s medicine is not more willpower. It is not “trying harder” to be sober. It is working the steps and therefore addressing the source of the disease. Keep the diseased thinking under control, and there will be little need to reach for the drug.
The AA Big Book on page xxviii says “They are restless, irritable and discontented, unless they can again experience the sense of ease and comfort which comes at once by taking a few drinks.” There are a number of sources for this feeling of restlessness, etc. Character defects like resentment and fear and selfishness for example. But a major cause is guilt. The AA 12 & 12 speaks of “our terrible burden of guilt”. As long as we bear that guilt, legitimate guilt, we will continue to be restless and irritable.
So what’s the medicine here? How does a person get rid of guilt? It might be tempting to just cover it up with the-devil-made-me-do-it, but that’s not the 12-Step way. The 12-Step way is the way of making amends. Making amends is not saying “I’m sorry.” It’s not even saying “I’m really really really sorry.” It is making right what one has done wrong. It is fixing, as best we can, what we have broken. This looks differently with different persons and situations. The Big Book and our White Book have many good discussions of that. But it is never simply “sorry bout dat”.
One final note for any visitors who know they are sick and know they need help, but are getting a bit nervous about this “making things right” talk. Don’t let this task deter you from getting the help you long for. When you join us for a meeting, don’t imagine that you will start with making amends. When you decide you want to get your body in shape by jogging, you don’t start with a marathon, or even a 5k. You start with the first step, which is really pretty easy. One step at a time, one workout at a time you will get closer to that 5k. The same is true with getting your mind in shape. Amends come when you have been well prepared by doing the other steps. And what an amazing feeling it is once you have worked up to this step (Step 9 BTW)! Here is where you can kick that tormentor guilt to the curb. Can you hear the cheering from your SA friends? I can. Come and join us!
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