Somehow I had pictured the musky smell of a downtown church’s basement or metal folding chairs lined across the free throw line in a YMCA gym, but the meeting was held in a corporate conference room around a giant rectangular table so that everyone faced each other. There was an elaborate rhombus-shaped speakerphone plugged through a hole in the table’s center, and a flip chart with business jargon so much like hieroglyphic text, green marker across the pages: “operationalize,” “change agent,” and “learnings” (with an s), which was perhaps the most bewildering.
I felt confused by the unexpected surroundings and dwarfed by what I would say after everyone trickled in.
“My name is Julie and I am a sex addict.”
After the initial rush of words that felt so dicey and secret and, let’s face it, weird, I didn’t feel any of the supposed relief from having finally spoken those words aloud. I didn’t feel free from my psychological burden or otherwise heard or seen or finally known by others like me. What I felt was awkward and uncertain and migraine-ish under the synthetic glare of florescent office lights. But for weeks that turned to months I showed up to sit in a chair that was more comfortable than it looked for a meeting that began promptly at 7:30 p.m. and lasted unofficially until around midnight.
On the outside, I was very different from everyone else around that big official seeming table—they were mostly men. And although my specifics might have seemed pretty different from theirs at the outset—there were porn addicts and exhibitionists and moon-hearted relationship junkies—somewhere underneath the details, the deep-down sullen source of our problems looked the same. Imagine a paper chain of tiny people each with a wounded heart it couldn’t face, and so carefully, with precision and judiciousness, it had cut it right out and folded it up long ago. But oh, the prick at its mention!
In the beginning, my meetings were a lifeline. I heard stories that widened my understanding, that cracked open my seeing. I met people whose details—their voices and experiences and particular way of making friendship—will remain with me. And perhaps because of this illumined glow around an otherwise ordinary conference-room table, I was able to begin the hard work of looking at what is most important in the process of any kind of recovery—be it from a near fatal wound or the potentially lethal habits of heroin or sex. I began to search for why my paper self had cut out her own heart.
I wasn’t surprised to discover that for me, the issue of security was a kind of interwoven nexus of self-destruction. This didn’t manifest through my searching for security in sexual partners but in the obliteration of the need for them, such as through extreme sexual risks like the night I had a stranger bind me in tight rope and sharply cane the bottom of my feet and back (an act I didn’t enjoy at all, in fact, I feared and hated it but believed it necessary to make me stronger). It further took shape in the way I felt terrified of my own vulnerability around the issue of security (due largely to childhood trauma) and the way I sought to sabotage any growing sense of emotional security before it ever even got off the ground; so that I wouldn’t have to experience a real loss later. I used the high of sex or sexual risk to keep me from feeling anything real, and subsequently, to blunt the potential loss of anything real.
My meeting consisted mostly of men, and why was that? Is it that women with this issue don’t exist in real numbers? Was I somehow an anomaly, some accident of nature? Or were there other women like me, terrified and angry about the incredible social stigma of having the words “sex” and “female” conjoined with addiction. And were they unwilling or unable to bring themselves to places in which they felt outnumbered by the beings who still held sway over their compulsive urges?
New research in the last two decades into women’s sexuality has revealed that what we previously believed about women and desire was misguided. As Daniel Bergner discussed in his 2013 book, What Women Want: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire, gender and sexual desire are largely shaped by cultural ideals, stereotypes, and the incredible pressures that exist as to what is acceptable for each sex. Women’s sexuality, in particular, has been repressed. It has been shaped and molded and pushed underground and when a woman dares to answer her own very evolutionary bodily instincts, she is punished, even while men are so often rewarded for the same behaviors. It is no wonder that within such conditions, both men and women can become the victim of their own base urges; what is forced underground will emerge eventually, and always through the most vulnerable opening it can find.
My urges found their way out of the earthiness of my body through the tiny fissures, the cracks left by childhood suffering—every kind of abuse the textbooks chart and graph and list and order and attempt to clean up. I found drugs. Then I found diet pills. Then I turned to shopping. I left that and developed OCD; I cleaned and organized and was a workaholic. There was no one more suited, more capable than me; I had to be certain. But I grew exhausted. I collapsed into the bittersweet, ecstatic horrors of punishing myself through sex.
There is no bottom like the bottom of having already tried everything. Jesus, Buddha, Xanax, Lortab 10s. And ten thousand dissociative moments with lovers and strangers in which rubbing and touching and hitting are never enough to evoke the feelings I didn’t feel when I was 2, 5, 10: Acceptance. Compassion. Love.
And so, maybe like you, I made the once unsteady commitment to lay down what wasn’t working, a commitment which grows every day more solid, and with growing clarity and focus and trust in my flawed yet good-enough self, I do what I can.