A woman escapes into an obsessive cycle of sexual fantasy to numb the pain of a traumatic childhood experience. Lydia had been seeing her therapist, Ellen, for two years and was in recovery for relationship and sex addiction, the main component of which was sexual fantasy. She had lost hours, weeks and possibly months to obsessive fantasies about everyone from celebrities to her boss. Her fantasies were so intense that she sometimes believed them and had periodically acted in ways that left her feeling ashamed. She’d sent lengthy and suggestive emails to the husbands of friends, worn inappropriate clothing to the office and had shown up at the home of a famous actor, refusing to leave until the police were called. Her sexual fantasies were frequently violent in nature, and this disturbed her, not because she thought it was abnormal but because she believed she might put herself in danger as a result of her obsessions. Recently she’d begun talking to Ellen about a strange “vision” she kept having. While fantasizing about her violent sexual experiences, something she did more and more frequently, she would begin to feel a tightness at the back of her throat, as though she were choking. She couldn’t breathe. As she struggled to catch her breath, she’d begin to “see” little fairies dancing around her head. She was afraid she might be going crazy. Ellen asked Lydia to describe the fairies and asked if she remembered ever seeing images like them before. Lydia thought for a long time until it occurred to her that she had a book of fairies as a little girl, a book that was kept at her grandparents’ house. She liked to imagine being in the world of those fairies. But as Lydia talked, she began to cry. In more than 20 years, it was the first time she had remembered something incredibly painful about her grandfather. Ellen helped her make sense of what her body was remembering with the choking sensation, and why her young brain had chosen to see happy, dancing fairies rather than a terrible betrayal. Ellen also showed Lydia how her brain’s young survival skill, an escape into fantasy, had become a habitual pattern, and although it had saved her as a child, it was harming her as an adult because she could no longer be present in her life in ways that were healthy.
Obsessive Fantasy in the Cycle of Sex Addiction
As with any other addiction, the cycle of sexual addiction begins when the brain and body experience cravings for the object of addictive supply. The sex addict becomes not only preoccupied but obsessed with achieving his or her high. Once the particular sexual behavior has been achieved, a period of satiety is experienced—one which becomes briefer and briefer as the addiction continues. Then withdrawal sets in and the cravings and obsessions start in again in earnest. Sexual fantasies play a key role in this cycle for many sex addicts, particularly for women. Fantasies can be part of the obsessive cycle as well as the sexual behavior component. Sexual fantasies are used by sex addicts, just like any other sexual behavior, to self-sooth through periods of stress, discomfort or boredom; to numb pain; and to generate feelings of excitement—the all-important dopamine trigger addicts experience when achieving their “high.”
Dissociative Fantasy as a Coping Strategy
Approximately 80 percent of women with sexual addiction experienced sexual abuse in their past, often in childhood. The creation of dissociative fantasies may have originally developed as a survival tool. Dissociative fantasy is a psychological escape—disconnecting from the present by imagining an alternate reality, one that has the power to feel more real. A child who begins to dissociate often does so to handle intense pain and trauma, and in this way, dissociative fantasy can be a positive coping strategy. But when it is used habitually, no matter the degree of life discomfort, it can become dysfunctional, and the individual may need help to undo the cognitive pattern established in the brain and find new ways to cope with stress. Seeking recovery for sexual acting out behaviors without placing habitual sexual fantasy as bottom line behavior is self-defeating. It’s important to determine when sexual fantasy crosses over into addictive, self-soothing behavior and when it is a natural part of sexuality. Is it being used repeatedly to disconnect from the person you are with or from the person you are? If so, it may be wise to address sexual fantasy as a part of your recovery process through sexual addiction.