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Colorado patients, therapists share dark side of sex addiction

Statistics are vague, but the increasing problem still keeps groups and counselors busy



Since his first sexual encounter at age 16, Andrew, who is now in his 40s, has had more than 3,000 anonymous partners.

This month, however, he will have an anniversary to celebrate. It will mark his ninth year in sex addiction therapy.

He describes his experience as a "progression of compulsive sexual behaviors," from pornography and masturbation to cruising and using chat rooms to find random partners.

Even when his behavior made him feel terrible, he says, he couldn't control his compulsion. He couldn't stop.

Another guy, who asks to be called Roger, first discovered pornography at a young age. It was at the time, however, when magazines and videotapes — not the Internet — were the main sources. Back then, he says, it was "a hassle" to get a hold of erotic material, since it involved a trip to adult bookstores or video stores and all of the possible embarrassments that could occur.

The availability of the Internet, though, took away that hassle and brought affordable, anonymous smut right into his home. For Roger, that accessibility changed an occasional pastime into a compulsive obsession, one that began to interfere with his job and take time away from his relationship with his family.

While his significant other was out of town, Tim (also a pseudonym) spent a week on a "sexual bender," spending night after night visiting adult video chat rooms and using the Internet to try to find women to sleep with. He would engage in this behavior well into the following morning.

"I would try to work," he says, "and find myself checking out online personals for someone to casually hook up with.

"I couldn't stop."

Coping mechanism

Each of these men belongs to an anonymous support group for sexual addiction modeled on the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, like Colorado Sex Addicts Anonymous or Sexaholics Anonymous. And while each man describes his addiction as "isolating," they are far from alone in numbers. According to some estimates, as much as 8 percent of the population suffers from some form of compulsive sexual behavior, and the true figure could be much higher due to underreporting.

Sex addiction, as it's commonly called, can take many forms: compulsive masturbation, excessive use of pornography, high-risk anonymous sex, prostitution, voyeurism, exhibitionism, multiple affairs. Yet defining it can be difficult, especially when the media and popular focus is more on the "sex" than on the "addiction." Golfer Tiger Woods followed his admission of infidelity with an allusion to weeks of "therapy," but that hasn't stopped most media from focusing on the infidelity itself.

Dr. Doug Weiss, executive director of Heart to Heart Counseling Center in Colorado Springs and a nationally prominent expert on sex addiction, says he was inundated by media after the Woods story broke. But to Weiss it was just another in a long line of stories about famous sex addicts, including, in his opinion, President Bill Clinton.

"It happens every two or three months," Weiss says, mentioning such newsmakers as South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, New York Gov. David Paterson and actor Charlie Sheen. "Because of Tiger, we're in so many magazines and on so many TV shows now, it has helped as far as awareness. Tiger's unique in that he was so admired and beloved. He's the new face of sex addiction, though it would help even more if he would just come out at some point and openly admit it. But there will be somebody else in another six months."

How bad is the problem? There are no solid statistics, no Census data. Just estimates in the millions, not to mention the fact that pornography is a $13 billion annual industry.

"And they're not making it off Bill Gates," Weiss says. "It's usually the guys making $20,000 a year. When I moved here about 10 years ago, there was not much happening — no support groups, no therapists. Now we have about seven or eight groups and lots of therapists, and they're all busy."

Pam Kohll, a therapist in Boulder, defined sex addiction as "continued and escalating sexual behavior." She says that "escalating" means taking greater and greater risks, such as unprotected casual sex, jeopardizing relationships or even risking an entire career because of sex or pornography.

While most people would complain about not enough sex long before they'd complain about too much, addicts don't enjoy their addiction any more than an alcoholic does. For them, the passion, intimacy and satisfaction of sex have been stripped away, replaced by feelings of shame, loneliness and helplessness.

"Sex addiction is really not about sex," Tim says. "It's a symptom of a larger problem."

For most addicts, their behavior is a coping mechanism to manage painful emotions.

Public perception of sex addiction is mixed, with some people joking that it's the "best addiction" and others dismissing it as just an excuse for infidelity. People often wonder how a man with a beautiful wife could possibly choose to be unfaithful, forgetting that addiction isn't really about choice.

Part of the reason is that "process addictions" — addictions such as compulsive gambling and overeating, which are based in behavior rather than substances — aren't very well understood by the public.

Chemical addictions such as alcoholism rely on an outside chemical to produce a high or relieve a craving. Process addictions, on the other hand, are all about the brain's response to specific behaviors.

"The feel-good chemicals, the dopamine, are released as you're doing the behavior," therapist Mark Miller explains, and that behavior can be looking at porn, masturbating or visiting a prostitute. The rush that comes with those chemicals becomes the goal, and the sex act merely a means to that end. With compulsive use of sex, Miller says, the very structure and operation of the brain changes, cementing the compulsive nature of the behavior.

Michael Barta, founder and executive director of the Boulder Sexual Addiction Recovery Center, has been treating sexual addictions for more than 18 years. He explains that the brain of a sex addict is "hijacked" by the need for that rush.

"You're addicted to your own chemicals," he says. "You can't stop because you're addicted to your brain chemicals. It's really like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."

And like any addiction, achieving that high becomes more and more difficult with time. Both Miller and Barta emphasize the escalating nature of sex addiction; behavior becomes riskier and more reckless.

Intensity, not intimacy

While almost everyone enjoys having sex, addicts are so intently focused on achieving the "high" that all enjoyment is leeched away. For the majority of people, the typical progression of sexual feelings goes from interest to arousal to stimulation and finally to satisfaction. For sex addicts, the progression is compressed to immediate arousal and climax. The satisfaction phase — the time after an orgasm when partners are relaxed and intimate — is almost nonexistent, as the addict's brain immediately begins craving its next rush.

"Sex addicts substitute intensity for intimacy," Kohll says.

Miller, who works with the Denver-based Redimere Group, has been treating various addictions for more than a decade. About eight or 10 years ago, he says, he noticed fewer people coming into his office to talk about their drinking problem and more people talking about their sex addiction. Now, roughly half of his practice is related to sex addiction, and that proportion isn't likely to go down.

"By all indications," he says, "it's growing."

Just because the problem is growing, however, doesn't mean public understanding of the issue has followed.

"Sex addiction is like alcoholism in 1935," Barta says.

Most people see sex addiction as a moral issue, he says, similar to the bygone view that alcoholism was something that could be overcome with willpower and self-discipline. And addicts themselves often feel the same way.

"I saw the problem as a moral failing," Tim says. "I thought that if I merely deepened my own spiritual practice, or took to exercise, that I could solve the problem on my own."

Roger says that such a view is common among addicts.

"A thousand, five thousand, ten thousand times we've vowed, 'Never again,'" he says, adding that each lapse only increases the addicts' feelings of guilt and hopelessness.

For many of the men — and about 75 percent of those attending anonymous support groups around Boulder are male — their addiction is layered with other issues, from substance abuse to mental difficulties, such as depression and suicidal thoughts.

It also affects a broader range of people than most would imagine.

Roger says that anywhere from 40 to 50 people attend each session of weekly meetings of sex addiction support groups, and there are several sessions each week. Included in the numbers are men and women from all backgrounds and upbringings, and even some well-known figures.

"It's an equal-opportunity addiction," Roger says. "And it wants you."

What most people want to know, however, is who's got it.

Defining the addiction

According to the Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health, what separates addicts from non-addicts isn't necessarily how often people look at porn or the number of partners they have had or whether they've had an affair. The difference is in control, in being able to stop the behavior before they spend thousands of dollars, or contract a sexually transmitted disease, or get arrested.

So while sex addiction might sound like a lesser burden to most people, those struggling with their addiction tell a different story, one not only of pain, loneliness and despair, but also one of simple physical danger.

"In my [anonymous support] group," Roger says, "many have gone to jail. Many have been hospitalized with mental illness. And many are dead or dying. Many are HIV-positive, for example. Some people suddenly stop coming to meetings — are they dead? No one knows."

The financial costs can be staggering. At a recent group meeting, Roger says, two men each admitted to spending more than $100,000 satisfying their addiction.

Others have had trouble with the law, their jobs and, most commonly, their personal relationships. Some addicts even lead double lives to keep their addiction hidden, such as Andrew did.

"I had this outside life in which people knew who I was, where I worked and what I did for a living," he says. "Then there was this dark side of my life which was filled with secrets."

While many people would "just stop" such painful behavior, addicts say it's not that simple.

"If you're not an addict yourself," Andrew says, "it might be difficult to understand why I am an addict."

For several sex addicts, it is the crippling silence that surrounds their addiction that makes treatment even more difficult.

"I would be able to confess to a friend, family member or co-worker that I was having trouble with drinking or even drugs," Tim says. "Confessing sexual addiction to these same people would be very difficult."

"The fact that you can't talk about it makes it difficult for people to get help and find resources," Roger says.

Resources are available, and they are growing with the demand. More therapists now offer sex addiction treatment, and several 12-step programs have branches in Colorado, including in Colorado Springs. (See the capsule at the end of this story.)

The road to recovery, however, can be as long as for any other addiction, and often the hardest part is realizing there's a problem. The pervasive belief that "this is just what guys do" plays a big part.

"I didn't think it was abnormal for decades," Roger says of his behavior.

His recovery began with a book: Patrick Carnes' In the Shadows of the Net, one of the first books to discuss Internet pornography addiction. After reading it, he says, he had a feeling: "This is my diary."

Carnes, a nationally known speaker and author on addiction and recovery, first used the term "sex addiction" in the 1980s and has since published several books on the subject.

Spreading the word

Dr. Weiss says the support groups aren't all the same in how they define the basic terminology. Sexaholics Anonymous, he says, defines sobriety as no sex except with your spouse or partner. Sex Addicts Anonymous, he adds, allows the addict to come up with the definition, which usually means more relapses.

"In our structure," Weiss says, "there are consequences for relapse, so that usually means much more success."

The best approach for anyone needing help, Weiss says, is to contact a center such as Heart to Heart and go from there.

"We actually do free assessments," he says. "You meet with a counselor who's very knowledgeable, and it takes about a half-hour. You come away with treatment plans, materials, whatever you need. It provides a really intelligent guide right away. ... Recovery is a lifelong process, the same as with alcoholism, but the more intelligent a start you get to the process, the easier it is for you and your family."

For Tim, recovery began after hitting "rock bottom" during the week that his addiction pushed him to the edge. He has been in recovery for about seven months.

In his nearly nine years with the recovery program, Andrew has mentored — or sponsored, as it is called within the program — men from ages 25 to 62. He also has a sponsor of his own to whom he can turn.

Posted on the Sex Addicts Anonymous Web site are the group's 12 Steps, adapted from and similar to the AA steps. Step 12 encourages members to "carry this message to other sex addicts." Andrew and others have taken this message to heart.

"I have been a speaker at sex addiction conferences, local meetings and even at small gatherings at a person's home," he says. "I am not afraid to answer questions or share about my sex addiction."

A few years ago, he and a female sex addict also addressed a group of about 20 undergraduate students and answered questions after their presentation.

"The students just could not get why we kept doing the same behaviors over and over if we would feel like shit," he says.

Both Tim and Roger say they hope that by sharing their experiences they can help to break some of the silence around sex addiction. Media coverage of the issue, however, seems to be a mixed blessing.

"It's these big-name celebrities that are shedding light on sex addiction," Andrew says. "[But] mainstream media ... just don't understand sex addiction."

And what the media doesn't understand is that sex addiction isn't about the sex.

"This is all about isolating," Roger says. "It's about being alone."

Katherine Creel writes for the Boulder Weekly, where a version of this story first appeared. Ralph Routon contributed local reporting to this story.

Help is here

— Ralph Routon

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