Recovery Workshop: Lesson Thirty-Two
Evolving Your Practical Values
The push to achieve goals starts well before kindergarten and continues throughout your life. To most, goal-setting provides the most efficient way of managing/assessing behavior. Success and failure can be measured by the number of goals achieved, the number of goals remaining and the number of past goals that were never achieved. It is this last area that affects those with addictions the most. To an individual with a long-standing addiction, goals often serve as little more than a reminder of the failures that have plagued their lives. They serve as a 'learned helplessness' reminder of the impassable mountains that lay ahead. People struggling with addictions no longer envision success as something that can be achieved by a slow, steady course (short-term goals); rather, personal success becomes a dream that can only be achieved by an act of fate (e.g. winning the lottery). Such magical thinking leaves the addicted person feeling hopeless and helpless as they believe that they have little or no control over what lays ahead. Paradoxically, although most addicts eventually abandon goal-setting and other achievement-oriented life management methods, they continue to experience a great deal of shame for the inability to manage their lives. On the one hand, they feel as if they are responsible for their past failures; on the other, they continue to believe that they are incapable of taking responsibility for managing their futures. Long-range goals are meaningless to those who struggle with addiction because they represent little more than a failure in waiting. Another goal that they are not prepared to achieve.
This is an example of the 'All or Nothing' principle discussed later in the workshop. "I'll never find someone to love me the way that I want." "I'll always be this way." Nothing matters anymore." Such extreme thinking will not allow the addict to begin taking the small steps that will eventually lead to the long, life-altering journey. It's more immediately satisfying to have an affair, or to engage in some other emotion-altering behavior — and thus temporarily fulfill their need for intimacy or social acceptance; than it would be to take the necessary steps to permanently develop such values. But as the artificial high subsides, and the reality of their life returns, the gap between that person's values and their actions will have grown even larger, making them even more disconnected from those values and ever more reliant on the progressing addiction.
Goal-setting in addiction recovery is the most stable, progressive way of evolving your value system. When done right, it provides you with an objective platform to effect change. Accomplishments, relationships, material accumulations — these are beyond your control. You cannot control whether or not your spouse will someday have an affair. You cannot control whether or not the house you put all of your resources into will get hit by lightning and burn to the ground. You cannot control whether or not you will be recognized as Employee of the Month or Mother of the Year. You can certainly influence their outcomes, but some aspect of each will forever remain beyond your control. The trick then, is to learn to manage those things that you can control. Here, the Serenity Prayer provides us with a wonderful, important message about accepting the things you have no control over and acting upon those things you do. You can control your intentions. You can control your behavior. You can control your values. And, you can control how you use these things to manage your response to any situation.
For every conceivable value, there exists a series of short-term goals that can help you to master that value. Some steps may be more easily recognizable that others; some may be harder to perform-but all can be developed and maintained if the commitment and desire exists. The following discusses some of the steps, specific to sexual addiction recovery, that should be completed to develop depth and meaning relating to specific values.
The following are examples for you to review in developing an understanding of just how deep you will want to go in exploring/strengthening your values.
Evolving the Value of Self-RespectSelf-respect (closely related to integrity) is a value that is decimated by sexual addiction. It is impossible to maintain a strong sense of respect for oneself, when issues such as guilt, shame and secrecy surround your actions of sexual compulsion. The first step then, in rebuilding self-respect is to begin taking responsibility for who you are. This means taking responsibility for the things that you have done (past), the things that you are now doing (present), and everything that you will do in the future (duh...). Let's begin by examining the past.
In Twelve Step programs, this would be known as Making Amends. Making amends is complicated. It is not enough to apologize for what you have done, or turn yourself into police, or banish yourself to a monastery, or even consider suicide. Making amends does not mean punishing yourself. What it does mean is that you do whatever is in your power to help repair the values of those that you have affected. It's not always an easy task to determine who would benefit by an apology, and who would be bothered by one. Even the decision to turn yourself in, or commit suicide has many sides to consider: you could very well end up further victimizing the very people you set out to benefit. Consider the following scenarios and outcomes:
A) Jim is a 55 yo divorced male. He has three daughters and a son, each grown and living independently. Jim began molesting his oldest child, Jamie, when she began puberty. To Jim, it wasn't molestation, but a natural way of sharing the special feelings" they had for each other. He loved his daughter, and though he knew that what they were doing was wrong, he believed that as long as they kept their feelings to themselves, that it was somehow "okay". Jamie thought so, too. She cherished the extra attention her father would share "just with her". She took pride in being able to please her father in ways that others couldn't.
As Jamie turned sixteen, and as her interest in boys flourished, her father became possessive. Jamie was no longer his daughter, but his partner. The thoughts of her having sexual relations with other boys was as repulsive to him as if it were his wife having an affair. The resulting conflicts became so unbearable that, on her seventeenth birthday, she ran away from home to live with a twenty-six year old man she had dated only once.
Jim, of course, sought comfort in the next in line — Julie, age fourteen. The cycle continued for ten years, destroying the lives and values of everyone involved. One spring, after ten years of emotional isolation, Jamie brought charges against her father for molestation and statutory rape. The other children followed. He was then sentenced to twelve years in prison. While incarcerated, Jim did something wonderful: he took responsibility for what he had done and committed himself to changing. He learned about sexual addiction and eliminated it from his life. He then did the same with his compulsive need to be involved in a relationship. He then set out to rebuild his life, and to help his children do the same with theirs. But how?
To Jamie, he approached her with insight and sincere regret-offering the sincerest of apologies and an offer to attend therapy sessions as a family to take full responsibility for his actions. She accepted. He then went to Julie, and attempted the same approach. She initially rejected his apology, but he was determined to win back his family and so he persisted. She eventually decompensated to the point where she attempted suicide and was hospitalized. With Jessie, the third daughter caught in the molestation cycle, he again used the same initial approach for forgiveness, and again, she wanted nothing to do with him. He respected her decision and withdrew. She contacted him several years later asking if he would attend one of her therapy sessions. They have since rebuilt much of their relationship. To his son, Jim Jr., he sent a letter of apology with an open invitation for reconciliation. It's been fifteen years and he has yet to receive a response.
Taking responsibility for issues involving past rape, incest and molestation are among the most sensitive. The victim's values are more thoroughly disrupted, and thus provide a greater risk for re-violation. It is not by accident that many victims of such value-destroying acts then turn to addictions themselves to manage their emotions. They have been robbed of the ability to fully develop their own foundation of values. One key to taking responsibility for your actions, and thus begin to rebuild your self-respect, is to always keep the victim's values in mind. If you can somehow strengthen those values, then do so. If your involvement would further weaken them, or weaken other values that the victim has come to rely on for stability (like a foster family), then don't. The key is to always remember, it is the victim's needs that should be used as a guide — never your own.
B) Denise began masturbating at the age of fourteen. To most, she seemed not only normal, but extremely well-adjusted. She was an exceptional athlete, a superb student, and was beautiful by anyone's standards. Anyone, that is, but Denise. To Denise, the more success she encountered, the more pressure she assumed to maintain that illusion of perfection. The pressure came to a hilt her very first week at the University.
Being at a new school so far away from home, she was no longer recognized for her previous accomplishments. She now had to prove herself all over again. When classes began, her anxiety level was extremely high. The amount of stress she was under was more than at any other time in her life, and she no longer felt like she could turn to her family and friends for support, as they might be disappointed in her apparent "weakness". She focused instead on balancing her stress by achieving the highest scores on all of her exams, and by answering aloud the questions the professor would share that no one else seemed to know. In band, she earned first chair. In student government, she had to be elected student president. Everything she did, she did with an enormous amount of pressure to be the best. Everything, that is, except when she would masturbate. Then, and only then, would she feel at peace.
It began after the end of her first day, as she returned to her dorm, got ready for bed, and slid her hand down the sheets to unwind. In the past, this was all it would take, but the increased stress involved in having to quickly prove herself in so many ways led to the need for more frequent and intensive masturbation, for longer periods of time [the three filters of the sexually compulsive wheel at work: time, frequency (or habituation) and intensity]. She began masturbating before class to get her through the day. Then she needed relief between classes as well. She would slip into the bathroom, or an abandoned classroom and let go of the stress...temporarily. Eventually, the need to masturbate began to interfere with her other activities, and so the other activities began to be replaced. By the end of her Junior year, she had made the dean's list each semester, and was respected by her peers as well as her instructors. But at what cost? She had withdrawn from the student government, withdrawn from the band. She had no real friends, no hobbies and no self-respect. Although everyone else might have thought her a success, she knew the truth. That all of her time was now spent either studying or masturbating. While contemplating another year of the same, or worse, possibly being discovered by others to be not what she appears, Denise unsuccessfully attempted suicide. While hospitalized, she learned about sexual addiction.
You may wonder who she has to make amends to. Whose values, other than her own, she might have jeopardized. Because all of her masturbation sessions were held in private, and because she had no established partner with which intimacy could be effected, Denise has no one to make amends to, save for herself. At least directly. But indirectly, her behaviors did have an effect on others — the relationships that she never had time to develop; the family with whom she isolated herself from; the roommate who found her unconscious on the floor after her suicide attempt. Certainly, she has no need to profess to the world that she has a problem with masturbation, but what can she do to make amends and begin regaining her self-respect?
For Denise, her sincerity to make amends can be found in the simple decision to recover. By reestablishing her values, the relatively minor consequences of her addiction should balance rather quickly. Friendships can be rebuilt. Families can be repaired. True self-respect can be achieved.
The examples above are at the opposite ends of the "consequence" spectrum. Perhaps not for the person struggling with the behavior, as any addictive behavior can produce devastating consequences, but opposite ends of the victim's spectrum — which is where you must look when rebuilding self-respect from a life of addiction. And yes, you may very well be a victim also...and that should never be dismissed. But when looking at the potential consequences of your behavior, don't look alone. This is one area of recovery where you must abandon your self-reliance and turn to others. Putting it bluntly, when you have victimized another, you have given up your right to make further decisions regarding what is best for that relationship. Allow yourself to be guided by those who can offer a more stable, objective view: a therapist, a support group, a friend, etc. Then set out to do what you can to strengthen their values. In return, your own will be strengthened as well.
Taking responsibility for your present involves what will probably be the most difficult task of recovery, and the greatest measuring stick towards your sincerity: ridding yourself of your supply. To this, you must apply absolute honesty, as you are the only one who can know what persons, places, things, times, feelings, etc., stimulate unhealthy sexual feelings. Most of these "cues" will be discussed during the next stage of PRIDE, but for now, you must examine the objects that reinforce your addiction. By "objects", I am referring to the people (e.g. prostitutes, dancers, johns, victims); the places (e.g. bars, schools, hotels, parking lots, parks); and the actual objects (e.g. magazines, videos, vibrators, binoculars) which you now control.
Begin by taking a visual inventory of your life. Walk through every room of your home, removing every item that you have used compulsively for sexual relief. To remove all items would be impossible, as well as impractical — removing the shower, phone, computer or television, for instance — but still, efforts can be made: blocking phone calls to sexually explicit numbers; canceling access to porn sites on the Internet; canceling subscriptions to sexually explicit Cable Channels. None of the objects that you eliminate can be forced, which is why any list provided here will be moot. You know what stimulates you. The difference between a passive recovery and an active recovery is this: a passive recovery includes the game of having someone identify all of the possibilities for you. An active recovery involves taking responsibility for removing all of these obvious triggers in your home. Then do the same with your work. Your car. Any storage areas. You know the places.
If removing these items seems easy to you, then there is something wrong. As sexual addiction has become central to your identity, so too has the need for these objects in your life. Making the decision to remove them-to cut off your supply-should produce an absolutely gut-wrenching anxiety. You should question whether or not it is worth it to give up this sexual empire that you have built. Here is where you can no longer lie to yourself...you must face up to the question, "Do I want to really put this all behind me?" "Do I want to get to the place in my life where I no longer associate my identity with such sexually compulsive behavior?" If the answer is yes, then remove everything that you have the ability of removing-if for nothing more than a symbolic gesture to yourself of your absolute commitment to permanently changing your life.
Now, if this decision came without anxiety, take another look around. Have you truly cutoff your supply? Or have you merely made it harder for others to recognize where your supply is coming from? If it is the latter, then you WILL relapse, and the addiction WILL return. That is why this step is a good place to reevaluate how sincere your desire is to recover. If it is strong, then you are about to turn a corner that you will never come back from. If your sincerity has faded (doubts about your ability to recover at this stage are healthy; doubts about your sincerity to recover are not), then stop the illusion of recovery and allow yourself the option of returning to your compulsions full time. You will do more damage to your chances of a permanent recovery, and more damage to those around you, by going through the motions and then failing...than you would by admitting that you are not yet ready. After making the decision to continue, and after limiting your access to sexual stimulating objects, you must then explore other areas of sexual stimulation and rid those as well. What places stimulate you? What people? Again, nobody can tell you what is and isn't appropriate. Nobody can tell you what relationships are and are not healthy-not when it comes to how they stimulate you. You must be the one who identifies them, and the one to eliminate them. Few aspects of recovery can offer you as big a chunk of self-respect as can taking responsibility for who you are now. Eliminating the objects that for many have become a staple to their existence is a major accomplishment. It is not easy to throw away thousands of dollars of magazines or sell off major surveillance equipment, or end what might be the only ongoing relationship in a person's life, so when this decision is made, celebrate it. Embrace it as a major event in your life, because it is exactly that.
Taking responsibility for your future is a natural extension of your past and your present. It means taking the same commitment you have made to eliminating all known stimuli, and expanding it to cover all future, unknown stimuli. This includes the magazines you might find lying at the bottom of a garbage can, the teenage baby-sitter who doesn't have to get home "right away", and the married coworker who just wants to "have a drink" with you after work. By preparing yourself ahead of time, you are eliminating the role that fate may play in sabotaging your recovery. Things may happen that will have you believing that there are forces at play that are beyond your control-that some things are just "too good to pass up". Coincidence and the weaknesses of others have led to many a relapse. The solution is to take responsibility for your own actions. And your own reactions. Learning to feel good about saying no, when your "immediate gratification" self wants to say yes. As your values strengthen, the decision-making process will become easier and you will take even more pride in each opportunity that crosses your path. Until then, dig down as far as you must to force a pass. The rest will come.
Evolving the Value of Social Acceptance
Another universal value decimated by sexual addiction is social acceptance. Many people struggling with compulsive behavior begin their addictions by separating their compulsive behavior from the rest of their lives. They can simultaneously be a nurturing, responsible mother; or an exceptionally efficient employee; yet frequent public restrooms while strolling their infant in the park, or make obscene phone calls from their desk at work. To those experiencing it, this concept of duality appears perfectly normal. They believe they are still the "good mother" or the "good employee". As long as they can keep the two worlds separate-which they will do at any cost. As the addiction becomes more and more dependent on sexual stimulation, the "secret world" takes on a more reality-based quality. The real world — the one based on social interaction, meaning, values — takes on the identity of being more and more phony and distant.The "real world" becomes meaningless. The greater the progression of the behaviors, the less meaning found in external interaction (social interaction). Haphazard attempts at social integration are eventually abandoned altogether-unless that socialization can lead to their acting out in some way.
How can this consequence of sexual addiction be reversed? With years of social isolation comes years of deterioration in one's communication skills. These skills need to be redeveloped. There are several Communication Skills lessons later in the workshop, so we won't go further into it here. But do know, the same can be said of any of the universal values that have been affected by your compulsive behavior. They will not just magically reappear, they must be developed, or redeveloped.
Evolving the Value of Survival
Quite simply, survival as a value, is the desire to be alive. Merely being alive does little to afford value to your foundation, but having the desire to be alive — to look forward to waking up in the morning, to seeing another Christmas, or to hearing your favorite song one more time; even having the desire to be alive for the sole purpose of conquering your addiction can be invaluable. It is exactly this thought that propelled me past my thoughts of suicide as an option many years ago.
Though there are several threats to survival in the sexual/love addict, none are more prevalent that that of depression and it's accompanying thoughts of suicide. The first step then in extracting value from survival is to eliminate suicide as one of your options. This can be done by changing your perception about life and by seeking treatment for the depression.
DepressionYou should not only be able to recognize the signs of depression, as it's effects can facilitate relapse and hopelessness, but should come to expect depression as a natural consequence of addiction recovery. It is only natural, given the major changes that must occur in one's psychological base, that feelings of emptiness and hopelessness occasionally emerge. Add to these feelings the associated fears, doubts and ruminations regarding your life and you have the makings of a depression. The ruminations may interfere with your ability to concentrate, your ability to get adequate rest, and your ability to properly care for yourself and your surroundings. Further, the constant thoughts require an enormous amount of energy, the same energy that is used to maintain relationships, establish hobbies, pay your bills, etc.
Depression may also effect you physiologically. Depression is frequently associated with the same neurochemicals which are responsible for maintaining emotional balance. Like the car without a properly functioning engine, it is important to make sure that your "engine" is firing on all cylinders. That includes proper nutrition, adequate sleep, possible medications to control excessive neural firing, and whatever else might be required. While occasional bouts of depression occur in recovery, especially for those who begin to examine the consequences of their behavior, it is not something that should be accepted. Depression will zap you of the energy and the motivation to continue building your foundation. That opens up the door for a more "up and down" recovery process, which usually translates into a relapse/recovery pattern: Depression causes recovery efforts to fade...you then relapse into addictive patterns...this increases your energy level and brings you (temporarily) out of depression...this allows you to recommit to recovery...
Other factors which threaten survival: STD'sWe all know about AIDS, Herpes, Syphilis, etc., but how many understand the true implications of incurring such a disease? It is hard enough to get people to understand that, indeed, it could happen to them, so attempts to develop such an awareness often end in vain. For sexually-compulsive people, this "it probably won't happen to me" is further complicated by the fact that many addicts would continue the sexual activity even if they knew that contraction of the disease was imminent. The immediate need for the relief that accompanies this sexual behavior inhibits their ability to look past the behavior and into it's consequences. Developing your value for survival (as well as others) will mean the development of your ability to look ahead. To consider such risk factors as disease and incarceration as a part of your decision-making process. For now, begin to make the distinction between the permanent, progressive consequences of a behavior that provides only temporary relief.
These are only some of the values with which you might begin developing. And again, these are only examples of how you may start the process of developing them. Remember that the key to emotional balance is not so much the values themselves, but that they all come together to form a foundation that will provide you with strength, comfort and guidance throughout the remainder of your life.
Lesson 32 Exercise:
1. Early in the workshop, you created approximately fifteen 'proactive action plans' that were intended to list specific steps to take to strengthen certain values that are important to you. Return to these action plans and for each, review your progress. Summarize your progress on your recovery thread.
2. Update your Proactive Action Plans as needed.