A Philly woman cleans up her fucking act.
“There’s a tremendous amount of shame and guilt being a slut,” confesses Patricia (not her real name). “It takes a lot to say that,” she sighs, looking out on the scenery beyond the kitchen window of a suburban nook so leafy that realtors would highlight “Serene Views of Natural Beauty Just 20 Minutes From Philadelphia!” The place is cozy. Any woman juggling marriage, motherhood and a high-end career would find comfort and security inside.
Patricia is a middle-aged, shoulder-length blond who wears glasses and a friendly smile. There’s nothing exceptional about her, nothing seems unusual, though she’s embarrassed that she gained, and subsequently lost, close to 100 pounds in recent years.
As she wraps her hands delicately around a teacup, Patricia uses socially acceptable jargon to explain how discomfort and insecurity snuck inside her world. “I was two different people,” she says, “I was a soccer mom with a secret life as a sex addict.”
That declaration is not as Lifetime- movie-ready as you’d think. Patricia’s told this story plenty of times, but not openly. She’s being candid about experiences she’s only shared with fellow sex addicts, but hopes that by telling her story publicly it will help people see sexual addiction as a legitimate disorder that should be recognized.
More than that, though, she thinks it will resonate with other sex addicts who’ve known there was something wrong with them, but just didn’t know what to call, or how to handle, it.
Patricia got hooked on sex after her marriage ended in 2001. Her husband had been having an affair for a while. She knew about it, but being co-dependent, decided not to do anything. Co-dependence is a word that comes up often in the burgeoning field of sex addiction; it explains why people shoulder incredible burdens as long as they feel loved, even when they aren’t.
Life was too good to make waves, so other than withholding sex for a few years; Patricia chose to ignore her husband’s transgression. That worked for a while, but the couple eventually went their separate ways when their son turned 12. “That gave me the opportunity to date for the first time in 21 years,” recounts Patricia. “And I did it very, very well.”
She started out frequenting a dating website. That quickly became four dating websites. She got a buzz from the attention, and was swept up in “the addictive hit” that searching for partners gives you. “Dopamine, that’s our drug,” says Patricia. “We’ll drive over bodies to find some.”
That rush—when it comes to sex-and-love addiction, easy Internet access to prurient interests have made a sideshow issue mainstream—turned mainline when she opened responses from men who wanted to get to know her better, so to speak.
“Someone likes me!” she’d think when emails arrived.
“Nobody loves me,” she’d lament when the inbox was empty.
At first, there were rules to her newly rediscovered—and heartily embraced—sexual freedom. She only went out on dates when her son was with his father. She always met the men in public places, and never brought any of them back to her house until the third date.
Soon, all those rules were broken.
“There were men I don’t even know their last names,” she admits. “Man after man after man after man.”
Asked for a consummation tally, she laughs, but immediately discloses a number: 30 in four years. Most didn’t get to the third date, instead those now-faceless conquests were treated to sex on the first date, and condoms weren’t necessarily required.
“I thought this was just how dating was done these days,” she says. “I had no idea I was caught in an addictive cycle. I just couldn’t control it.”
The addiction took over four years of her life.
“I was literally having phone sex upstairs while my son was downstairs. I never even thought to lower my voice. It’s such a high that the way you avoid the crash is going out and getting another one.”
“I was fighting with my son to use the computer. You don’t ask a drunk to share his drink; you don’t ask a sex addict to share his computer.”
Patricia admits she’d drive past partners’ homes just to get a mental fix: “Stalking never manifested itself. Just looking for a hit, like drugs on a street corner.”
Sometimes, she would sneak out of the house for a sunrise booty call while her child was still sleeping. “I was emotionally absent from my son,” she admits.
She’d log on to dating sites while working at a “very prestigious firm.” Eventually, she was fired. “They didn’t say it was because of that,” she says, “but I was told in no uncertain terms that spending six hours a day on dating websites was not acceptable.”
In addiction parlance, Patricia hit rock-bottom in 2004 and was steered toward Greater Delaware Valley Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) by a therapist. SLAA hosts regular beginners meetings in Center City and monthly meetings near Northern Liberties’ southern edge. There, Patricia read a pamphlet called “40 Questions for Self-Diagnosis.”
1. Have you ever tried to control how much sex to have or how often you would see someone?
4. Do you get “high” from sex and/or romance?
5. Have you had sex at inappropriate times, in inappropriate places, and/or with inappropriate people?
37. Do you feel like you lack dignity and wholeness?
“I aced it. I answered yes to most of them,” recalls Patricia. “I immediately started crying, just broke down.”
That’s when she started to reclaim her broken life three weekly meetings (with a therapy session mixed in) at a time.
In theory and practice, sex addiction treatment is fashioned as a 12-step recovery program to get on “a pathway to sexual and emotional sobriety.” (Step One: “We admitted we were powerless over sex and love addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.”) The only qualification for membership is “a desire to stop living out a pattern of sex and love addiction.”
As the number of Americans suffering from sex addiction continues to rise, so does the demand for treatment. In 2009, SLAA’s local intergroup received roughly 300 requests for local meeting lists. Their retreats get filled to capacity. “This is about finding a safe place to share this stuff you’re feeling, or what you’ve been going through,” says John, a gay man who occasionally attends the same meeting as Patricia. “When someone talks about this pain, they finally understand they’re not the only sick one,” says John who cites an instance of a relative’s unwanted sexual attention in his youth as the first damage. “Things started to make sense about why I was doing the things I was doing. I had to get it out rather than deny it. If you bury your sexuality, it’ll come out sideways.”
Ironically, the rest of Patricia’s story involves Tiger Woods, world-class golfer, world-classless philanderer. Should the Tiger-in-sex-rehab gossip hold true, and the newly identified stud come out talking about how sex-and-love addiction tore his seemingly idyllic life to slivers of confetti, perhaps more people will not only know what afflicts them, but will seek help like Patricia.
Because the American Psychiatric Association has yet to officially deem “sexual addiction” a distinct classification–critics lean toward a “compulsive disorder” classification in which people can’t stop seeking random sex and what they perceive as love–those private rehabs remain the lair of the rich sex addict. Current-day street-level sex-addiction therapy is eight to 20 people sitting around a downtown conference-room table. They’re wealthy professionals, young female escorts and a whole spectrum of people who’d rather not be outted as sex addicts or compulsive masturbators or weirdo pervs.
What they need is a Magic Johnson/HIV moment. They need Tiger to take the issue of sex and love addiction mainstream. It might tamp down the shame that addicts can’t control their sexual impulses. It might prevent stories like the BBC’s “Does sex addiction exist?” which posits that people may be “just making excuses for being unfaithful.” It might answer the questions of whether a dopamine release in the brain can be construed as an illness or disease.
As with any other addiction, there is no cure for sex junkies, but Patricia says she’s changed. She dusted herself off, went back to school and got an advanced degree in an “entirely different field.”
Patricia’s still battling her urges and avoids the dating sites that led her to this point. “You never get fully cured. You always want that hit. We’re always worried about relapsing.” But so far, the one-time sex fiend is sticking to her sobriety. She’s been in a monogamous relationship for nearly a year now. “He was number 31,” she says. “I never know how something like this will work out, but I am behaving differently, and approaching life and conflict differently, so I anticipate, I hope, this will last a long time.”
Next up on her healing agenda: sitting down with her son to synopsize her journey. Patricia says he realized something was up when he saw SLAA written on her calendar. When he asked what that meant, she answered, “When your father left, I suppose I went a little overboard.” ■
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