When Substance Abuse and Sex Addiction Are Linked

Substance Abuse And Sex Addiction Connections

Addicts of all types have ongoing issues with healthy emotional and sexual intimacy. This is hardly surprising when one understands that addicts engage in their addictive behaviors not to have a good time (even if that’s how their use began), but to self-soothe and avoid the pain of life. In other words, addicts drink, use, and act out not because they want to feel better, but because they want to feel less. Their ultimate goal is not to party, but to escape and dissociate from life stressors, emotional discomfort, and the pain of unresolved childhood or severe adult trauma. For the most part, people who are dealing with psychological issues caused by early-life trauma (neglect, inconsistent parenting, emotional and psychological abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, etc.) typically begin the process of self-medicating their emotional discomfort relatively early in life, most often during adolescence. Usually they rely on addictive substances, but escapist behaviors like masturbation, binging and purging, and other potentially compulsive activities are also common.

Addiction Stalls Emotional Growth

Interestingly, when self-medicating starts, the process of emotional growth stops. In fact, most addicts will tell you that when they enter recovery they feel like they are the emotional age of however old they were when they first started drinking, using, or acting out with an addictive behavior. So if a person starts drinking at age 14, that individual will continue relating to people emotionally as a 14-year-old kid would—at least until the process of recovery is well underway and the emotional maturation process can begin anew. Basically, this person is unable to relate to other adults in a healthy, appropriate way because his or her addiction started in adolescence and stunted his or her emotional growth. Of course, plenty of addicts have intimacy disorders even before the emotional maturation process halts, especially those who are dealing with childhood sexual abuse. Either way, for a surprisingly large number of addicts, substance abuse issues and intimacy disorders travel hand-in-hand.

The Intersection of Drugs and Sex Addiction

Unfortunately, the link between substance abuse and sexual acting out is drastically under-researched. Nevertheless, it is clear that many addicts fuse their substance abuse with an intimacy disorder such as sexual addiction, with each behavior reinforcing the other, creating over time a surefire “paired trigger” for relapse. Very often, for people with this dual disorder, the substance of choice is a stimulant like meth or cocaine, primarily because these drugs both lower inhibitions and enable marathon sex. Men will add Viagra, Cialis, Levitra, and other erection-enhancing drugs to the mix, for obvious reasons. And both genders may abuse benzodiazepines, cold remedies, and other depressants as a way to “come down” when the party finally (albeit temporarily) ends. Often these addicts have extensive histories of substance abuse relapse, nearly always tied to their non-intimate sexual behaviors (porn, casual sex, anonymous sex, prostitutes, and the like). In the past, these individuals have gone into substance abuse treatment centers, but the facilities have not addressed the ways in which sex plays into their drug use. Then, post-treatment, uneducated about the full nature of their addiction, they look for the same type of sexual encounters they’re used to, and before they know it they’ve relapsed with drugs. This is because, for them, drugs and non-intimate sexuality are intricately linked. For these men and women, drugs and sex are not separate issues. Instead, they are a single, fused addiction. If they’re doing one, they’re almost certainly doing the other.

Treating Addiction and Related Intimacy Disorders

Recognizing that substance abuse and intimacy issues can be linked, and that treating one without treating the other rarely leads to any sort of lasting sobriety, a number of Substance Abuse and Intimacy Disorders (SAID) programs have been opened across the U.S. The main difference between what the SAID programs offer and what you’ll find at other rehab facilities is a conscious recognition of the ways in which substance abuse issues and intimacy disorders are often interrelated. Elsewhere, men and women with this dual addiction issue typically have their sexual behavior minimized or written off as something to be dealt with in their fourth and ninth steps (in a 12-step recovery program). So these individuals, despite their extensive histories of linking drug use with non-intimate sexuality, leave treatment having dealt with only half their problem. Their shame and secrets regarding past and present sexual behaviors are unaddressed, as is education about how they might be able to handle sex in sobriety without relapsing. The SAID programs take a more holistic view, recognizing and fully treating the drugs/sex connection, giving these addicts the best possible chance at lasting sobriety and a happier, healthier life.  

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