In my fragile state, I feel bombarded by the rattling of silverware, the clinking of glasses, the squeaking of chairs, the ringing of cell phone, and the clinking of computer keys. I feel faint and distorted.
As Ellen returns with our tea, I feel the beginnings of severe nausea. Ellen, oblivious to my mood, is chatting about the excitement she has found in her recovery. She has invited me to coffee after taking me to my first Twelve-Step meeting. Her face is moving in and out of focus, her voice pounding in my head like a kid jumping on a trampoline.
Abruptly, I stand. "I have to go," I say, surprising even myself at my rudeness.
"Oh, okay," Ellen says, as if she is used to such erratic mood swings.
"How much do I owe you?" I quickly ask.
"Oh, don't worry about it," Ellen replies with a kind smile.
"Get you next time," I say, turning and heading for the door.
I breathe the October night air. Attempting to orient myself, I wonder if this is my fate in recovery. Am I going mad? Have I entered the Twilight Zone and no one has told me?
I would later discover that those feelings, responses, and visceral experiences were all part of the withdrawal phase of sexual recovery. Like any addiction, sexual addiction has a withdrawal period, a process that is just as uncomfortable as chemical addiction. In our addiction, we have literally created an IV drip or chemical cocktail as addictive as heroin.
In choosing to get sober, we pull the plug on our drug, and we must suffer the consequences of our withdrawal. The symptoms include mood swings, fatigue, headaches, disorientation, changes in sleeping and eating patterns, irritability, loss of concentration, and depression.
Ellen and others had assured me there was a better way. And so, like most addicts, when my pain outweighed the reward, I made the leap of faith. I let go of my addiction and fell into the void of my recovery. The big question was: What would fill the void?
I had learned the saying from Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), "Fake it until you make it." I came to understand that you could act your way into good feelings and that proper behavior nurtures healthy emotions. Even if good behavior does not make you feel good at first, the AA saying urges: Do it anyway. Habitual sober behavior will eventually yield self-esteem, intimate relationships, and healthy sexuality, providing you are patient.
In the childhood abuse we sexually addicted people suffered, we were forced to disconnect ourselves. It was the result of sacrificing our authentic emotions in order to serve our immature and needy caretakers. The characteristic perversion resulting from this disconnection is that sex addicts lose the ability to get pleasure from sexual activity, even as they declare their need for sexual pleasure. In fact, they do not know what sexual pleasure is. The abuse they suffered in childhood caused them to fuse fear, shame, lack of power, and intensity with sexuality. Until addicts recover from this abuse, sexual motives will carry the rest of the painful bundle.
Recovering addicts will discover the use of manipulative sex to obliterate or ameliorate the fear, shame, and powerlessness wired into them by childhood sexual abuse. Emotional disconnection has caused a monumental mistranslation in which danger, intensity, fear, anger, shame, and powerlessness have come to mean "sexual pleasure."
Undoing this perversion of the emotional truth and revitalizing the addict's authentic shelf are the aims of recovery. During recovery, we reconnect to our authentic selves, and we recapture and experience the safety that we lacked as children. In this feeling of safety, we begin to build what I call a "congruent" self, wherein, on all levels of our being, we move toward intimacy in relationships.
So the answer to the original question -- "How do I know when I'm expressing myself in a healthy manner?" -- becomes clear. It is when we feel emotionally safe, connected, and affirmed in the act of sexual expression. We create this connection when we act with integrity, our values and beliefs intact.
An effective way to measure whether you have reached this point is to note how you feel after you have been sexual. Is it life-affirming and positive? Or is it the re-creation of what we have known all our lives: the feeling of shame? If your sexual expression elicits safety, love, and a feeling of emotional connection, it is healthy.
In recovery, our sexual experiences slowly become acts of affirmation and right intention, ultimately promoting an overall feeling of well-being. This is a process that takes time and patience; it provides a path into a place of sexual wellness and health.
Crawling into bed, I have feelings of hopelessness and despair. I don't believe I can take this level of pain. I want relief. I want to act out. But then I remember what one of the guys said to me in treatment. Looking into my eyes, he said, in a thoughtful, quite voice, "Maureen, you are worth it; you can do this." I believed, in that moment, that he believed in me. With that thought, that gift from a fellow addict, I was able to believe I could do it and that I was worth it. I knew, if only for that fleeting moment, that I was going to be alright.