Stepping Into My First 12-Step Meeting

I went to my first 12 Step meeting in April of 2011 because I realized through psycho-therapy that eroticized rage was a poison in my life, even though I only expressed it through socially acceptable means (such as jokes and role-playing scenarios with girlfriends).

I’d always thought of addicts as dirty people, kinda like the homeless bums who wander around and beg for money and commit grubby knife-wielding crimes.

I grew up a Seventh-Day Adventist with a loathing for nicotine and drugs and alcohol. I saw people who abused such substances as weak and disgusting. I knew there were high functioning addicts who seemed indistinguishable from the rest of the middle class but I still regarded them as dirty and depraved.

I first heard about the term “sex addiction” in the mid-90s along with the rest of the culture. I had a psycho-therapist in 1998 ask me if I was a sex addict and I said no because I never felt out of control and compulsive. I felt like I never betrayed my values and never put off participating in life for sex. Everyone I’ve slept with read books recreationally. They had a lot going on upstairs. I wasn’t just selecting a narrow part of them to play with.

My therapist decided in time that I was not a sex addict.

My hero, Dennis Prager, discussed sex addiction on his March 5, 1998 show. I blogged it at the time:

Is data plural or singular? Media? The words are plural.

Sex addiction article in Los Angeles Times.

There probably are sex addicts. They engage in behavior they know to be self destructive over and over. Generally however, many people love sex, but that does not make them sex addicts.

Prager was touched that many people wait for DP to finish his commentaries before calling in.

Virtually every male and some females are sex addicts. Most however control themselves. Every man that I (DP) have ever spoken to, could be a sex addict, but stops himself because he wants to get married, or for religious reasons, health fears, growth…

I’d rather people be sex addicts than drug addicts. My point is honesty, not the condemnation of these people.

I love shopping. I would get a new computer every week, and more fountain pens, and cars, and build more houses. Who couldn’t be a spending addict? The difference is that I have a sense of responsibility.

The LA TIMES article does not mention the word values. The reason that people act addictively is that they lack self control.

LA TIMES: 3-5-98

Working as a therapist at Del Amo Hospital in Torrance back in the early 1980s, Patrick Carnes had a lot of patients whose sexual behavior reminded him of alcoholism and drug dependency: Though it disrupted or ruined their lives, they just could not control it.

So he came up with a new concept, one that would jolt the staid practice of sex therapy, rock mainstream psychiatry, make Carnes a leader of the burgeoning recovery movement, and splashily enter American slang.

He called it “sex addiction.”

Fifteen years after he popularized the term in a self-help book, groups such as Sexaholics Anonymous and Sex Addicts Anonymous steer thousands through 12-step therapy programs. Advice books on sex addiction sell briskly. The National Council on Sexual Addiction/Compulsivity, an 11-year-old information clearinghouse that publishes a professional journal, promotes “acceptance and diagnosis of sexual addiction.”

Few ideas have leapt from therapeutic circles into popular thinking so quickly. What therapists and patients appreciated was that it removed the shame and stigma from some behaviors long regarded as willful perversions. Classifying them instead as clinical conditions encouraged more people to admit the problem and seek treatment, therapists say.

It was perhaps inevitable that the phrase caught on, given that a lot of people are fairly hooked on the activity to begin with. But its very catchiness has created something of a public-relations crisis, inspiring more snickers than sympathy.

Ironically, a term invented to convey an agonizing, life-destroying compulsion connotes the opposite to non-experts, who cannot really be blamed for thinking that a sex addict–like a “chocolate addict” or a “Jerry Lewis addict” or “golf addict”–suffers from nothing but a naughty and vaguely comical resistance to common sense.

In addition, some psychiatrists and social scientists say that a self-destructive behavior cannot be “addictive” the way a drug can be, no matter how often the behavior happens and how much havoc it causes. Accordingly, to apply the label of addiction to sex–an instinctual drive, after all–is to invite unending debate over where to draw the line between the pathological and the merely excessive.

Nor have researchers established the basis for sex addiction in body and brain chemistry, as they have done for drug addictions. For that reason, the American Society of Addiction Medicine, a group of health professionals that lobbies Congress on drug-dependence and alcoholism issues, staunchly refuses to recognize any compulsive behavior as an addiction.

The American Medical Assn. and the American Psychiatric Assn. also do not accept the concept of sex addiction as a distinct entity.

Reflecting the controversy, the current, 886-page diagnostic manual of psychiatry does not include an entry on “sex addiction,” despite efforts by Carnes and others over the years to get the concept included.

Joan called in to talk about her ex’s porn and sex addiction.

Prager said he had no problem with a couple using porn as a tool, as a variation. But Joan says her ex needed to use porn in almost all their sexmaking. He’d be boinking a woman in another room, come into another room and coo to Joan over the phone…saying sweet things. Then he went back into the other room.

Prager: What if we raised one million dollars for him to be faithful for one years?

JOAN: I think he enjoyed lying…A little boy wanting to get away with something.

Prager: At 45 he will wake up and realize what he has been missing. At 29, this is too exciting. And a pathology and values are not mutually exclusive.

And he may not even be pathologic. Men have drives in the direction that he is acting out.

DP: I have come to the belief that it verges on the impossible for the sexes to understand each other. Women should visit porn shops so they know what men want. The porn shop represents what even healthy men want. If I knew there was a shop about female sexuality, I would go there… Victoria Secrets?

Men are sex addicts by nature. We are all addicted to pleasure. The more you get, the more you want. Whether it be fame, cake, love, money, sex, fame…

Prager mentioned a personal phone call he received from a friend on a business trip to Texas. Friend said that the reason he did not fool around was that he wouldn’t stop.

Lisa recommended the book AFFAIR OF THE MIND by Laurie Hall…a woman’s struggle to get her husband back from sex addiction. She said that men who struggle with this issue are intimacy deficient…

DP: There are guys who are faithful to their wives who are not overly attracted to them, who need the stimulus of porn to get excited.

Lisa: Do you think that God intend us to fantasize about others’ while making love?

DP: Did God intend people to become frigid?

The male sex urge is stimulated by the female. And many women have lost their visual appeal. So what does the man now do? He loves her as a human, but not sexually. Should he divorce her and get a younger woman? Is it ok for him to fantasize?

LISA: He should work on loving her soul. Instead of feeding his dissatisfaction.

DP: Male sexuality is such a big problem, that many folks want to deny what a problem it is. Many religious believe that if you just get right with God, the problem disappears. Many on the secular left, thinking that we are just animals, just genes and environment, believe there is no individual responsibility for behavior.

Psychiatry and Psychology have rejected diagnosing sex addiction as a disease.

Rob is a sex addiction counselor. He runs a center.

Prager sees the gambler and the sex addict as analogous. But not with the heroin addict.

Rob noted that Psychiatrists regard Gambling Addiction as a disease. Then why not sex?

Rob says there are many female sex addicts out there. If so, please E-mail me, Luke Ford.

The Professor who wrote the story which formed the basis for DANGEROUS BEAUTY will be Prager’s guest tomorrow. Robert DuVall, actor, next Wednesday.

Prager got a call from a sex addict who has been sexually sober for three years. He used to masturbate and watch pornography for three hours a day.

Caller said being with 20-30 other guys who had similar problems helped. And seeking a higher power. He said that one of Prager’s tapes helped him convert to Judaism ten years ago.

A female caller said women had a responsibility to stay attractive and sexy for their husbands. I am 37, and he is 49, I want to stay attractive. I don’t rest on my laurels.

DP said that if she said this at Stanford, she would be picketed.

And the very act of a woman trying to remain sexy, evokes a loving response from a husband.

Caller said couples should wait to have sex. Sex makes lose perspective. You become a horse with blinders on.

She said her first husband was a sex addict.

I remember that around 1999, when I became notorious for writing on the porn industry at lukeford.com, my father emailed that it was hard to imagine that the sweet boy they all remembered was now immersed in the filth.

I wasn’t eager for my dad to find out what I was doing but I steeled myself against it. I was going to lead my own life. After six years on the sick bed and then carrying around afterward the omnipresent fear that my illness could return at any time, I wanted to do everything I could in life right now.

In 2005, I dated a high functioning alcoholic for a few months. It only increased my loathing of alcoholics and addicts.

I wrote about the sex industry from 1995 to 2007. Many of the people in it were degenerates. I started to be able to spot a degenerate from a 100 paces. They have more lines on their faces and a shifty look to their eyes. By the time you’re 40, the life you’ve led is written across your face. Everything you do leaves a mark on your face and on your bearing. If you live in truth, you can see the truth in others, but if you live a lie, you’ll be blind to others.

My step-mom warned me that I was headed for the fate of the Jack Nicholson character in Carnal Knowledge. I knew she was right. I sometimes looked in the mirror and saw a budding degenerate looking back at me.

I feared that the people in my program would be icky. When I first stepped through the door that Sunday afternoon, the first person I saw was a young woman who was an obvious sex worker. If you do drugs, if you sell your body for money, it gets written across your face fast and forever.

I was afraid that my program would be really gay filled with really gay guys talking about the really gay things they wanted to do with other guys. I have no problem with gays just like I have no problem with defecation, but I don’t like to hear the details about defecation and I don’t like to hear about gay male sex or any sex (unless I’m in a particular mood).

I had this girlfriend who’d tell me about her struggles with constipation and the ups and downs of her menstrual cycle and it was just too much information. She destroyed my fantasy. After our chess life burned out after six months, we were done.

When I was young, I thought that no knowledge was forbidden. It was all good, all delicious. I’d press my girlfriends to tell me all about their love lives prior to meeting me. Then, in a relationship in 1993 that included a few months of living together, I realized I had learned more than was good for me and that the knowledge was eating me up. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss. Now I no longer want to know intimate details of my love’s past.

I was a nice polite middle-class sex addict (middle class in my values, not in my income). I was not a rapist nor a flasher nor a child molester nor a sex worker. I hadn’t sunk so low. I just had some cyclical problems in my relationships. I wasn’t a dirty addict.

I’d long known I had an addictive personality but never thought it through. I didn’t see clearly that I had the fundamental beliefs of the addict — that I was irretrievably bad, that normal interactions with other people couldn’t make me feel whole, but that there was a process (romance) that made me feel whole and I could use it to medicate pain.

In an away stage of my relationship with an alcoholic in 2005, she told me that she was a “love addict.” I immediately Googled the term and saw that many of its characteristics applied to me. I checked out a couple of books on the topic from the library. I thought, hmm.

In September of 2008, I interviewed Rachel Resnick about her memoir Love Junkie. I saw similarities in her story with my story. I found myself discussing “love addiction” with friends. But I didn’t think I had a problem that necessitated a 12-step program and a spiritual transformation.

In January 2010, I interviewed a sex addiction therapist. Following that, I had an increasing sense that this problem might have my name on it.

Still, my main belief on this topic was that every guy was a sex addict. Every guy had an insatiable desire for sex with more and more attractive women. We just have to control ourselves. I can control myself. I’m not acting out in this regard. I’m ok.

And now here I was at my first 12-step meeting. The main speaker shared his story of regular cyclical problems in his relationships. I immediately identified with him and with many of the shorter shares in the room. I opened up and spoke to the group for my three minutes about my journey and why I had come to the room.

Afterward, a guy with a similar story to mine came up to me. He seemed like a great guy. A group of us, including the main speaker, then stood around the parking lot and talked.

“I’m a sucker for self-help,” I confessed. “I’m always looking for transformation. I keep taking up things to change myself and it never works.”

“Twelve step work isn’t self help,” said the speaker. “It’s about transcending the self. The answer is in service.”

I felt like I had found a new community. And so I kept coming to meetings.

I quickly felt commonality with others in the program, even if they were drunks or drug addicts or flashers or sexually compulsive gay men. We all had the same underlying intimacy disorder. The ways we wanted to act out were different. Many of us, including myself, didn’t act out. I’d quit looking at porn months before I came to my first meeting. I was doing no acting out beyond solitary masturbation. But I was a dry drunk. The craving remained to fill the hole in my soul through romantic and sexual escapades, a craving so strong that it overwhelmed my every day, taking over my thinking and wasting my times in unproductive fantasies that did me no favors in the day to day task of ordinary human connection.

Being a sex addict didn’t mean I’d been out chasing sex. I was way too lazy for that. I had too many other interests and higher concerns. Being a sex and love addict meant that the process of being in a relationship made me feel whole so that I forgot about taking care of myself and focused obsessively on my partner and made her my higher power.

Some 12-step programs for sex addiction legislate bottom line behaviors to avoid (such as no masturbation and no pre-marital sex for members of Sexaholics Anonymous) while other 12-step programs, such as the one I went to, allowed you to set your own bottom lines. My bottom lines were to not violate my ethical standards in the pursuit of sex, and no sex with anyone who’d make me feel disgusted afterward. And no porn and eventually no masturbation. I quit that in April of 2012.

What would happen if I masturbated? Would I spontaneously combust and go up to Heaven?

No, what would happen is that I would fall back into that nightly ritual and because those few minutes would likely be the most pleasurable moments in my schedule, the one thing I’d do that would fire off my endorphins, I’d go through my day seeking out scenarios to play out in my mind at night during this sexy time, and so more and more of my spare thinking would go to contemplating stories of eroticized rage. This would affect the way I looked at people and spoke to them. And it would be a violation of my parole.

So do people get well from sex and love addiction and go on to fulfilling relationships? Yes, but you wouldn’t know it from going to meetings because when people get into relationships, they usually stop going to meetings because they’re so busy. And if they do come to meetings, they don’t talk about their relationship. So 12-step meetings for sex and love addiction and the like are not usually places where people discuss their current relationships.

I feared that without doing 12-step work, I’d repeat my relationships with unavailable women. My hold on life would go more tenuous. Every time you lose an important connection, it hacks away at the wires keeping your balloon tethered to the ground. I don’t have an excess of wires keeping my balloon tethered to reality.

I feared growing more isolated from other people, from God, and from my best self. I feared throwing away my life for delusions of grandeur, for thinking I was a big man on the internet. That’s what my long-time therapist said to me once. “I’d hate to see you throw away your life for delusion.”

I’ve often had this fear I’d destroy myself. I’d make a bad decision on the road and my life would flash before my eyes. I’d allow my peers to encourage me as a teenager to swing from a bridge hundreds of yards from the earth. I’d say something smart and piss off very dangerous people. I felt my grasp on life was tenuous and that it could all end with one mistake.

I noticed that when it came to sex, it was easy to get unhinged and to lose your sanity. I almost lost my mind several times over women who’d cheat on me. I felt myself stretched to psychic breaking. I wanted to die from the pain.

I feared that if I didn’t change, I’d keep isolating myself to the point I floated away from sanity.

When I walk down the street and see mentally ill homeless people muttering to themselves and begging for handouts, I see myself in the not too distant future.

Homeless people already see me as one of them. Some homeless people have seen me walk by in my typical outfits and offered me money. I looked that pathetic. Maybe it was not the clothes and my foot-long beard. Maybe it was the wild glint in my eye.

I remember one day in 2009 I ran across Colorado Blvd in Santa Monica and dropped my phone on the street. I ran back and picked it up and by the time I got to the sidewalk, this homeless man with a full shopping cart of his worldly possessions had stopped. He dug into his trash and came out with a phone holder and gave it to me. “Here you go,” he said.

In the summer of 2009, I was reading a biography of novelist Gabrial Garcia Marquez at the Los Angeles County Library in Norwalk and this older woman sitting next to me dug into her purse and gave me $2. She said she had a special feeling about me. I tried once to refuse but she insisted and I acquiesced. It made me feel cared for.

I’ve walked down Pico Blvd and homeless men have come out of shul after collecting charity and offering me some. I just give off that vibe. I suspect that various women have slept with me out of pity.

When I had the beard for almost three years, why did I look more homeless than pious? I guess you can change your trappings but you can’t change who you are. I have an attenuated relationship to reality. I live in my head much of the time. I live in fantasy. I’m not bonded to people. I feel disposable. That nobody (outside of family and a few friends) would miss me when I die.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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