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Sex Addiction Addictions Family, Friends and Partners Seeking Help

 

For most people, sex addiction is not actually driven by sexual desire but by issues related to intimacy, the need to numb emotional pain, assert control, avoid emotional connection, balance moods or reduce anxiety. It’s a very real and rarely discussed disorder which can have a devastating impact on individuals, relationships and families.

For those of us grappling with sex addiction, it can feel like an overwhelming and unstoppable impulse, and because sex addiction is often hidden from family and friends in a shroud of shame or denial, it has the capacity to endure and escalate over time. 

“People who present for treatment because their lives are in chaos due to problematic sexual behaviours, are suffering in similar ways to an alcoholic or gambling addict who seeks treatment after a ‘rock bottom’,” says Jane O’Keeffe, Holistic Psychologist and Consultant with South Pacific Private.  

However, many people who are struggling with sex addiction do not reach out for help due to secrecy, shame, guilt and fear, which can all feel like insurmountable barriers. These feelings can be compounded if the addiction occurs alongside infidelity or confusion over sexuality and/or gender identity. 

“It is the seeking - the suspense, anticipation, obsessive search for sexual stimulation which ignites many different neural pathways, releasing a cascade of emotions that sex addicts can become addicted to prior to the acting out behaviour,” explains O’Keeffe. “Feelings of remorse, despair, shame are often experienced after acting out and so the addict returns to the preoccupation stage again to block these unpleasant feelings,” she adds. “As the addiction progresses, people will become secretive and lie to conceal the extent of their compulsive behaviour.”

Sometimes described as hypersexuality, porn addiction or sexual compulsive disorder, sex addiction – is actually very common.

Sex addiction is a process addiction, which means people are addicted to a mood-altering experience. A person alters their mood by engaging in behaviour which brings about an obsessive, trance-like state because they are in sexual fantasy,” explains O’Keeffe.

“The typologies can include compulsive consumption of porn, fantasy sex, (compulsive masturbation, intrigue, obsession), voyeurism, spending long hours at strip shows, anonymous sex, cruising behaviour, exhibitionism (eg driving a car with pants down waiting for someone to notice), compulsive paying for sex (including phone and cybersex), frotteurism (non-consensual behaviour of rubbing oneself up against an unsuspecting person), inappropriate sexual talk during a conversation, pain exchange- sex where physical pain is involved and or being humiliated (self or others), illegal behaviour and exploitative sex.”

Seeking help for sex addiction

According to O’Keeffe, it’s important to seek treatment because compulsive sexual behaviour is not healthy sexuality. “It is progressive over time, as are the emotional, financial, social, occupational and cognitive consequences that can accompany addiction,” she says. “Untreated, people can stay in the cycle of addiction for decades. Often, other substances may be involved and depression and anxiety can increase.” 

She says if a person is not emotionally available to themselves, they are not emotionally present to others, including their partners, children, friends and colleagues. “This makes it impossible to have emotional intimacy with others.”

South Pacific Private has pioneered the treatment of sex addiction in Australia. Clients are met by trained therapists who understand addiction and have lived experience. “It’s important to take a multi -faceted approach to treatment. For long-term recovery to occur, one must deal with the presenting issue (sex addiction and other co-occuring symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, or other addictions) as well as underlying issues (developmental trauma),” explains O’Keeffe. 

“Clients receive education about the cycle of sex addiction, including the learning about the neural pathways in the brain involved in the addiction,” she adds. “It is important that they identify their arousal template. To identify this, clients need to specify what their ideal fantasy would look like with the purpose of tracing back to the origins of the original arousal experience. For example, a client who only feels aroused when they are engaging in sex that causes them (or others) physical pain may trace the origins back to being a child who grew up with a violent alcoholic father.”

Partners of people with sex addiction

Those of us who have partners battling sex addiction, will understand the feelings of despair, anger, stress and betrayal. “If infidelity occurs, the breach of trust can create deep despair, a lack of safety and impact on the self esteem and sense of the value for the partner as the sex addict lies or manipulates (gaslights) their partner to enable continued compulsive acting out,” says O’Keeffe. 

As a partner of someone with sex addiction, it is perfectly normal to feel angry, fearful, upset and helpless. It’s important to take time out for self-care and seek help if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

If you’re concerned you or your partner may have a problem with sex addiction, you can schedule a free, confidential, professional phone assessment with our team on 1800 063 332.

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Surviving Valentine’s Day

Tips from an expert on love addiction

For those of us experiencing codependency and love addiction, Valentine's Day can be a challenging moment. Luke Jesionkowski, Primary Therapist with Sydney's South Pacific Private and an expert in love addiction, helps us understand why, and offers his advice.

Valentine’s Day has become an increasingly prominent and increasingly commercialised holiday, but the messages and pressures it throws up – which can be unwittingly reinforced by our friends and family – can be extremely unhelpful for those of us experiencing the end of a relationship, withdrawal, loneliness or the pangs of desire for a relationship. 

On Valentine’s Day, we may find ourselves confronted with the idea that to be seen as successful, we must find and experience romantic love. Love appears to be all around us as others celebrate and businesses cash in. Being alone could be seen as a failure. We may feel that we are alone on Valentine’s Day because we are not ‘worthy’, there is something wrong with us, or we are simply unlovable.

For anyone who’s sought treatment for love addiction, been to rehab or attended a Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meeting (SLAA), you’ll immediately recognise these as the very worst thoughts we tell ourselves. The need to define and validate ourselves by either saving another, or being adored by another, is a key driver of the problems we experience. The amplification of those thoughts on February 14 is deeply unwelcome. 

On a day which is supposed to celebrate love, we can instead find ourselves feeling old, painful wounds. These are the types of statements we tell ourselves (usually beliefs developed in childhood if we have grown up with dysfunctional family relationships):

  • I’m unlovable
  • I’m going to be alone forever / there is something wrong with me
  • I am better off alone
  • Being in a relationship is too painful
  • I can’t live without this person
  • My partner isn’t good enough for me / my partner doesn’t love me like that 

Surviving ‘V Day’

Below are some of the top tips and tricks for self-care which I share with clients and groups.

If you’re in relationship:

  • Manage your expectations – Don’t live in the fantasy, live in reality.
  • Have a conversation with your partner about how you honestly feel about the day – Be sure to include fears and concerns.
  • Set internal & external boundaries – Declare what is acceptable/healthy for you and/or your partner and hold to the boundaries you set. 
  • Practice healthy forms of self-regulation – Mindfulness, meditation, connecting with nature.
  • Self-affirmations – Whether in the mirror, in a journal, or in your mind, affirm yourself that you are enough just the way you are.

If you’re single:

  • Practice healthy forms of self-regulation – Mindfulness, meditation, connecting with nature.
  • Self-affirmations – Whether in the mirror, in a journal, or in your mind, affirm yourself that you are enough just the way you areDo something loving for yourself – Have a nice bath, a walk-in nature, order your favourite meal. 
  • Connect with family, friends and social circles – To ensure you don’t feel alone and trapped with your thoughts.
  • Have some fun – Spend the day/time doing what you actually enjoy and don’t take the day or yourself so seriously. 
  • Attend a support group – There are hundreds of support groups out there in various forms; AA, NA, SLAA, group therapy etc.
  • Speak to a therapist or support line – Don’t be afraid to reach out and speak to a professional (Our supportive team at South Pacific Private is available every day on 1800 063 332).  

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Love Addiction Q&A

Freedom From Toxic Relationships

Luke Jesionkowski is a counsellor and psychotherapist at Sydney's South Pacific Private who specialises in eating disorders, trauma, substance addiction and relational disorders, including sex addiction, love addiction and love avoidance. 

Like many of the experts and community leaders at South Pacific Luke has personal experience with the pain, shame and confusion of addiction and recovery.

“Sex and love addiction can be especially personal and challenging to talk about,” he says. “But when someone knows that their therapist and others at their rehab have been in the same situation, when they know they’re speaking from experience and know recovery is possible, it creates an instant bond of trust and understanding.”

This Valentine's Day, we asked Luke to share his expertise and experience in recognizing, treating and recovering from love addiction.

 

What Is Love Addiction?

As defined by sex and love addicts anonymous (SLAA), love addiction is an obsession broadly defined as “an unhealthy fixation on another person with whom we may or may not have a relationship or even have met.”

A person experiencing love addiction might identify with:

  • Low self-esteem and self-worth
  • A fear of abandonment or being alone
  • Difficulty with internal and external boundaries
  • Confusing love and neediness
  • Patterns of staying in, and returning to, painful or unhealthy relationships 
  • Emotional or sexual manipulation and dependency
  • Romantic or sexual intrigue, obsession and fantasies
  • Assigning somewhat magical qualities to others in hopes of them fulfilling our fantasies

 

Like any other addiction, love addiction tends to follow a pretty harrowing cycle of chaos including:

  • Preoccupation: Obsessions (thoughts) and fantasies of the perfect lover, ideal relationship or sexual experience.
  • Ritualisation: Including things such as messaging and contacting people we have identified as being triggers or targets of our ‘addiction’,  repeatedly visiting their social media pages, objectifying strangers in public, overuse of dating apps, excessive reading and watching of fantasy-based romance novels/movies etc.
  • Acting Out: Compulsions (actions) and behaviours such as going to meet with the person despite consequences, infidelity, pursuing multiple partners, emotional intrigue, excessive pornography, prostitution etc.
  • Shame and Despair: A self-realisation of the actions taken and being faced with the consequences of the unhealthy decision i.e. Partner finding out, being broken up with again, divorce and so on.

Love addiction also often occurs alongside attachment trauma and relational disturbances in childhood. As kids, our parents may have had anxious or avoidant parenting styles that shaped our sense of self worth and relational patterns.

 

Can You Walk Us Through Your Personal Experience Of Love Addiction?

While everyone experiences addiction differently, there are many recognisable features of sex and love addiction and love avoidance that we all tend to share.

In my addiction, I would pursue relationship after relationship. It saw friends and family members perpetually roll their eyes in the disbelief: “Seriously, another girlfriend?”

Caught in romantic and sexual obsessions and compulsions, I would constantly outsource my sense of self to another, either demanding they “save me” or attempt to become the “saviour” myself – swooping in with the pursuit of being the “knight in shining armour” trying to save the damsel in the distress.

The harsh reality though, was that I was being held prisoner or taking hostages myself whilst externally trying to find some sense of self-esteem, which I now know can only be derived from within. Coming not only to know this theoretically, but to actually feel and understand it, is essential to recovery.

This cycle continued for years as I tried to find myself and to find pleasure and joy through other people. I was using them as a way to treat underlying depression until it all came crashing down in a failed engagement that left drowning in debt, almost totally friendless and isolated, and contemplating suicide.

That was my rock bottom, but thankfully it’s also what led me to start my recovery.

 

Walk Us Through Your Recovery Journey, What Steps Did You Take?

Recovery for me has been progressive, but hasn’t been without its ups and downs. I started in the way that any desperate addict does when they needed serious help, I went to rehab. Remaining sober free of drugs and alcohol – and proactively working a 12-step relational recovery program – has been essential in maintaining my recovery.

Post rehab, I continued to attend 12-step meetings in various fellowships. I got home-groups, sponsors, service positions, completed step work, read literature, made outreach calls, prayed, meditated and journaled. Eventually I went on to become a sponsor and to start groups myself, and to carry the message to hundreds of newcomers at hospitals and meetings. 

Alongside this I continued therapy in various forms, studied, built “top line” behaviours which involved finding the things that gave me joy in life, explored my passions and creativity such as music, photography, yoga and connecting with nature.

 

Why Is Love Addiction Something That You Address At South Pacific Private?

Unfortunately, love addiction is an area that gets limited focus in the lens of mental health as it’s a relatively new field. Very few clinicians and treatment centres have the skills and training to identify and treat the condition effectively. 

The frightening truth is that, in reality, love addiction is extremely common and needs on-going and expansive attention in light of cultural developments which have made hook-up sex more common. The more depersonalised and emotionally distant we become due to trauma but also technocracy, the more we desperately seek out and yearn for love and intimacy, hence the growing emergence of the love addict. 

That’s why South Pacific Private prides itself on being one of the few treatment centres in Australia with the training and resources equipped to treat love addiction. We’ve spent decades caring for thousands of clients that have walked through the door.

 

 

Can You Share A Little About Your Experience With Love Addiction Professionally?

Sure. Time and time again we see client after client stuck in the cycle of love addiction which finally does enough damage to land them in our therapy room, where they begin to divulge the torturous ramifications – separations, divorce, loneliness, depression and suicidality. 

It often presents alongside another co-occurring disorder such as drug and alcohol dependence or depression and anxiety. 

It’s quite common for clients to come to us with drug or alcohol addiction, or depression and anxiety, only to realise that their relationship with substances is being driven by this underlying issue. 

I spend a lot of my time in the first phase of the recovery process cultivating awareness of just exactly what's playing out in the client’s lives to identify the patterns and cycles – and then uncovering what's driving that.

In these conversations there are lightbulb moments as you see jaws drop and false realities shatter, as clients become aware of what has been wreaking havoc in their lives for years.

Common childhood themes also regularly emerge like, “my mum gave me everything, but my dad was never really there”, or “my mother was an emotional wreck and my father was aggressive/dismissive.” This often occurs alongside early romantic or sexual experiences that gave an endorphin / dopamine hit that took away the underlying pain, and gave validation to a person’s fragile sense of self-esteem. 

From here, we continue to help by filling up client’s recovery toolkits with techniques and strategies to fortify them for the journey ahead, and instil hope that a new and better life outside of addiction is possible. 

 

What Power And Benefit Is There From Group Therapy And 12-Step Fellowships (SLAA) For This Particular Addiction? Why Is It Important To Speak With People Who Have Been Through The Same Thing? 

Group therapy and 12-step fellowships are invaluable resources for treating love addiction for a variety of reasons – many of which are the same as for other addictions. 

Due to the nature of love addiction – an addiction wrapped in shame, fear and loneliness – the connection, support and community provided by group work is especially important. They show we are alone and we continue to hear a message of hope and empathy as we become better at dealing with it.

I often say, “in order to heal it, you need to feel it” and these safe containers of group therapy allow for just that. It’s an opportunity to look inwards at what’s been happening underneath the surface and express the pain and discomfort we’ve been feeling the whole time. 

Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous is often described as a “black and white program that deals with the grey areas of living,” meaning that what was once murky and unclear is doused with awareness to create clarity and order with the guidance of mentors and community members.

It is crucial that people who suffer from sex and love addiction, share their experience with others who are going through it in order to cultivate acceptance and identification, along with being held accountable to those that have done what the person has likely have done themselves. As addiction is “cunning, baffling and powerful”, deception and denial are usually allusive barriers that stop people from their recovery, hence being held accountable by therapists, sponsors and others addicts that know the pitfalls are a must for recovery. 

As the saying goes, “the opposite of addiction, is connection,” and SLAA and group therapy provide the perfect antidote to this dilemma. 

 

What Has Changed For You Now? What Are The Gifts Of Recovery? 

These days the general underlying hum of depression and existential angst has vastly cleared with only ripples remaining as I continue to give back to people and being of service to the community. My mental health and wellbeing have drastically improved not that I’m not caught in the endless cycle of torture that perpetuated the pain.

I’m now able to form healthier relationships, set boundaries and have become more disciplined. I’m more independent and derive my own sense of self-esteem internally. I’ve regained self-respect, healed extensive amounts of the pain of previous lovers, forgiven those who have hurt me and have learned to love myself.

As a byproduct of these internal shifts, my recovery has given me the stability and confidence to make much desired life alterations including career changes, new social groups, more travel. I’ve been able to move to the beach and built a new, healthier, happier lifestyle and have been able to pursue lifelong hobbies and dreams, such as comedy and videography. 

Freedom is possible. Healthy relationships are possible. My life is unimaginably better.

 

Luke’s Recommended Reading:  

Facing Love Addiction: Giving Yourself the Power to Change the Way You Love, Pia Mellody, Andrea Wells Miller & J. Keith Miller.

Sex & Love Addicts Anonymous Basic Text, The Augustine Fellowship

Luke is a registered counsellor and psychotherapist at South Pacific private. Luke has run hundreds of trauma-focused recovery groups and lectures across vast areas of the program. Due to his personal and professional experience, he has spent significant time specialising in the treating of men and women with sex and love addiction. 

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12-Step Programs Work

The evidence is in

In 2006, a headline-grabbing report which collated data from eight studies emerged suggesting the 12-step model for addiction recovery – advanced by groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous – was no more effective than other recovery approaches. The report concluded with a call for more evidence and further study. Those results are now in. 

Released in 2020, a more recent, comprehensive study which collated over 27 studies involving more 10,565 participants has corrected those original findings, concluding that 12-step programs do actually provide a measurable superior chance at recovery. 

“Clinically‐delivered 12‐step facilitation interventions designed to increase AA participation usually lead to better outcomes over the subsequent months to years in terms of producing higher rates of continuous abstinence,” the report concluded. “This effect is achieved largely by fostering increased AA participation beyond the end of the Twelve‐Step Facilitation intervention.”

Studies show that addiction treatments tend to result in 15% to 25% of individuals remaining abstinent, though with Alcoholics Anonymous between 22% and 37% of people studied remain abstinent. 

“For people already in treatment, if they add AA to it, their outcomes are superior than those who just get treatment without AA,” Keith Humphreys, a Stanford University professor and co-author of the study, told the New York Times.

 

 

For Alyssa Lalor, Clinical Program Director at Sydney's South Pacific Private, the research is confirmation of the program’s framework and the focus on group therapy and ongoing group participation past the point of discharge. South Pacific incorporates participation with external AA groups into its inpatient rehab program, and encourages continued attendance longer-term. This group-work can bind participants to their recovery, providing social validation, reducing feelings of isolation and encouraging improved relational skills.

“We’re constantly monitoring research and refining our program based on the latest findings, so it’s welcome news to have the 12-step approach backed up by such a prominent study,” Lalor says. “Our experience tells us that maintaining a connection with the recovery community, working through a long-term recovery plan, and incorporating group sessions into that plan are key factors in long-term success.”

“That doesn’t mean AA is for everyone,” she says, “but it’s critically important for all treatment centres to help design an long-term support program for everyone who comes through their doors, and to make sure it’s a plan which works for them.”

“Some of the more complex theories might seem debatable, but when you zoom out, the overall concept of intergenerational trauma is rather obvious,” Lalor says. “If a person has been through severe trauma or is struggling with addiction or mental illness, their ability to parent will be compromised. Their children are less likely to see the modelling of healthy adult behaviour, and they’ll be at a higher risk of challenges stemming from that experience as they progress into their own adulthood.”

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