19 June 2007

Addictions - Alcoholism, Sex Addiction

Addictions are an interesting topic in our society. We hear people say they are addicted to chocolate or something and we laugh. We hear someone say they are addicted to coffee and we understand the headaches that come with withdrawal. But when we hear people say they are addicted to alcohol or sex, it is a little tougher. Those are real addictions and they carry a social stigma.

What Is Addiction

Drinking a lot or having a lot of sex does not necessarily make one an addict. They are signs that might be indicative. Most alcoholics drink a lot; not all people who drink a lot are alcoholics. See the Venn diagram, but "Don't get cocky." Even people who do not drink can exhibit behaviors typical of alcoholics. They are sometimes known as "dry drunks."

There are factors beyond sheer quantity that determine addiction. In 12 step programs they talk about powerlessness and unmanageability. Obsession and use of the addiction to relieve or avoid pain are other signs.

A really powerful definition that I have seen is, "Addiction is a form of insanity in which you are deluded about reality." This is from Facing the Shadow: Starting Sexual and Relationship Recovery by Patrick Carnes.

Powerlessness gets back to a previous entry on free will. People who are powerless over their addiction may have tried to stop using, but have not been able to despite negative consequences. They know they should stop, but cannot. This is not a failure of resolve. It is a function of chemical reactions in your body. Nobody can control those reactions in the moment. Many people judge others, saying "Gee why don't they just say no?" The answer is that they cannot do that.

Unmanageability can be thought of as the outward expression of the addiction. Family relationships falter, careers go in the tank, friendships dissolve, and health deteriorates. These are consequences of the addiction. You don't control them. If you drink too much your liver erodes. If you surf porn from work you get fired. If you have sex with prostitutes you may get a disease. Get caught driving drunk and you go into a special circle of hell.

According to M. Scott Peck, "Mental health is a commitment to reality at any cost." Losing touch with reality is a key sign of addiction. Addicts rationalize their behaviors and deny that there is a problem despite the wreckage that they leave in their wakes.

Often, addicts do not accept the reality of their addictions until they hit bottom, losing their spouses, jobs, or health.

Sex Addiction

Most people are familiar with alcoholism, so I want to talk a little about sex addiction (which is not yet recognized in the psychologists handbook, the DSM IV). Sex addiction, like overeating, can be difficult. Unlike with alcohol, going cold turkey is not a healthy thing to do, so the addict needs to find healthy ways to satisfy their needs.

Sexual addiction is defined as any sexually-related, compulsive behavior which interferes with normal living and causes severe stress on family, friends, loved ones, and one's work environment.

There have been a few (fictional) movies recently that dealt with the impact of sex addiction on young women. They are Black Snake Moan and Georgia Rule. I can't say much about Black Snake Moan because I didn't see it. What was notable to me is the press coverage and reviews of the movie. Most of them talked about Christina Ricci as the "town slut" or as a nymphomaniac. One review however, on Netflix starts with "After finding sex-addicted 22-year-old..." It is a more sympathetic and less judgmental view, which I find encouraging.

Georgia Rule is the story of a young lady (Lindsay Lohan)who is out of control in her life, which goes back to sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather. She too becomes seen as a "slut" in a small town. The pattern that she exhibits, starts with a distorted sense of how love is expressed. For her, sex is the way that one shows love. Abuse as a child is a pretty typical pattern in sex addicts.

A third movie "Blades of Glory," cast Will Farrell in the role of a macho figure skater. He was supposedly a sex addict, but it was used in the movie for comic relief. I really enjoyed the movie, but the comic depiction of a sex addict was inaccurate.

Sex addiction can be expressed by viewing pornography, frequenting "gentlemen's" clubs, extra-marital affairs, even masturbation can be an expression. Again, engaging in those behaviors does not make you a sex addict--look for powerlessness and unmanageability.

There is a view that Sex Addiction is a powderkeg with the fuse lit. As internet kids, who have grown up surfing pornography, mature and continue on to more blatant and dangerous forms of sex addiction, some therapists believe that there will be a rash of problems.

Different Levels of Addiction

Some addicts are abusers. Their use of the addictive substance is not the strongest draw, but they use the addiction to avoid other issues in their lives. People get drunk to drown their sorrows, or masturbate to ease the pain of rejection.

Next comes more serious forms. Regular drunkenness and contacting inappropriate live people in sexual ways (affairs, live pornography).

Finally the very serious issues, where laws are being broken or serious boundaries are being breached, e.g. DWI, blackouts, prostitution, exhibitionism, indecent groping and molestation of others.

Many addicts go through a binge-purge cycle, where the do something that they consider shameful, so they completely stop those behaviors for a while, until they go off the wagon again, oftentimes to soothe the shame that they feel about the original behavior...

Where To Go For Help

Several source of help for addictions are available. Twelve step programs have helped millions of people. Individual or group therapy can help.

I believe that these types of help are simply ways of altering the inputs to your body system--increasing positive inputs. See my post on free will.

Some selected twelve step programs
Alcoholics Anonymous AA
Sexaholics Anonymous SA
Sex Addicts Anonymous SAA
Overeaters Anonymous OA
Co-Dependents Anonymous CODA

On to The Importance of Vacations >>>>>


  1. As a recovering alcoholic with over 24 years of continuous sobriety, the only place I've heard of a good definition of compulsion, is in AA. I was a daily blackout drinker who also boosted by addiction with benzodiazepines, stimulants, and pain killers. The one thing I will never forget is the feeling I got 5 to 10 minutes of taking my first drink of the day. It was if a toggle switch in my brain had been flipped. All my resolve; fear of consequences; memory of consequences; or any other consideration was instantly replace by one thought- drink more.

    I've yet to read of a mechanism that explains that phenomena.

    I can also attest to my delusional thinking. I wasn't just in denial. Denial implies some awareness and acknowledgement of reality. I had carefully crafted my own separate reality that allowed me to justify my actions. In fact, every time I studied Goodman and Gillman's "The Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics", the basic text of pharmacists (which I was), I always mentally inserted the clause "except for me" after many of the side effects.

    AA gently introduced me into reality and gave me the gift of self-awareness and albeit slowly, the ability to recognize reality.

    Curiously, the biggest tool I received in my road to recovery was not, from AA, but from my Chemical Engineering professor. He gave me a tool called "critical analysis" and that has allowed me to question all my assumptions in any situation and allows me to ask myself "what do I know?" versus "what do I think I know?"

  2. Thanks very much for sharing your story.