Facing cross addictions

I recently led a teleseminar on cross addictions. It was interesting and helpful for me to do the research for it, and deal with the many helpful and insightful comments and questions.

Few people are addicted to just one thing. The achilles heel of recovery is often that by putting out the fire of addiction in one area, we simply ignite a bigger fire in another area. So the person who gets into recovery for alcoholism gets sober from alcohol, but gets deeper into his or her sex addiction. Or the person in recovery from sex addiction gains 20 pounds because his or her food addiction starts getting out of control.

In her wonderful book “Desire,” Susan Cheever quotes Pat Carnes as saying that “the mono drug user in our society is a vanishing species.” Carnes refers to cross addictions as a form of “bargaining with chaos.” That’s where we tell ourselves that we’re going to stop sexually acting out, but give ourselves permission to smoke/drink/eat more instead.

Here are some statistics, from a speech by Stephanie Carnes, a leading addiction expert in her own right, on cross addictions:

  • 83% of sex addicts also meet the diagnostic criteria for one or more other addictions. Another way of saying that is that only 17% of sex addicts have just their sex addiction to worry about! The other 83% need to be aware that recovery from sex addiction will put additional pressure on their other potential addictions. So what are those other addiction possibilities? Here are the top contenders:
  • 42% of sex addicts also meet the diagnostic criteria for chemical dependency
  • 38% of sex addicts also meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder (including compulsive overeating)
  • 28% of sex addicts also meet the diagnostic criteria for compulsive working
  • 26% of sex addicts also meet the diagnostic criteria for compulsive spending
  • 5% of sex addicts also meet the diagnostic criteria for compulsive gambling

Looking it from another perspective, I wonder how many people dealing with other addictions are also sex addicts? I have heard a number of therapists and addiction experts state that 70% of cocaine addicts also meet the diagnostic criteria for sex addiction. Carnes also reports in her speech that 40% of chemically dependent clients also meet the diagnostic criteria for sex addiction.

Susan Cheever puts her finger on the core issue here: “Addicts are not addicted to substances; addicts are addicted to the feelings they get from their substances, and if they are denied a substance and they can get that feeling from another substance, they will.”

This might seem to be pretty depressing news. Does this mean that our efforts of recovery from one addiction simply doom us to struggle instead with some other addiction? Not necessarily. This is where I believe we need to focus our work on true recovery — moving to a deeper level of emotional and spiritual health — and not just establishing more rigid boundaries and “accountability” to better manage our behavior.

You can find out more about how to do that by reading other articles on this blog. The focus of recovery that I believe is essential is deep change from the inside out. We recover by becoming different people — people who are in such a good place emotionally and spiritually that they don’t need something external to make them feel validated or soothed.

5 thoughts on “Facing cross addictions”

  1. Thanks for the post. I have found that recovery has involved facing other things besides just sex stuff too. It’s funny and sad how we wind up turning to whatever we can to try to find comfort, or whatever it is we’re looking for. Can’t find it in sex, can’t find it in a bottle.

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  3. My take on my heavily cross addicted, sex addicted husband: addictions in order they were acquired (most likely) – lying (hiding true self, due to emotional incest at very young age) > sex (women as objects even before he knew what women were about, due to early pornography exposure, sexual abuse, emotional incest continuing) > stress eating (filling the emptiness with food, from combined affects of previous issues and hiding his true self) > fantasy (reading, movies, comics, sex, as emotional escape from mounting issues, social isolation and also serves to increase social isolation) > spending (filling himself with things, once he was financially independent) > smoking (instant gratification of nicotine rush) – overall, an addiction to being miserable and discovering new ways to make sure he stays miserable and trying to fill the hole in his personhood the misery creates. Misery, self doubt, self hatred, guilt, avoidance, supression, instant gratification at the expense of self esteem, health, and long term contentment – those are the physical, neurological and chemical pathways in his brain he most reinforces all his life, so he is miserable and impulsive about everything. His quick fix addictions medicate his misery so it always festers in the background and remains his guiding star in life, desparate to be washed away, never formally acknowledged and brought into the light to be addressed so that his brain might be rewired, his misery released, his patience rewarded. Finding ways to combat an addiction to misery (and instant gratification to bury it) may be the hardest hurdle of all.

  4. AM – wow that’s a long list … lots of stuff going on there. How are you doing, in the midst of a relationship with someone who is struggling like that? It seems like you have a sense that he is not doing what is needed to address these things. It’s hard when your partner is not doing what they need to do to get help (or maybe they’re doing things, but the change is not happening very fast). Hang in there.

    – Mark

  5. I thank you for your words of support. Today was one of those days I appreciate them the most.

    It has been six months since D-Day, three months into celibacy between us (he would say he has been sober for six months, but I would disagree and I have no way to know if he relapsed during any of this time.) I think cross addiction is probably the norm, and from observation within my limited experience, a pervasive misery about life and feeding that misery is the baseline for many addictive behaviors.

    He is trying to overcome his compulsion to lie and communicate more openly. He is trying to stop smoking but we will see if that lasts longer than previous attempts. He is trying to spend more carefully but failed miserably in September. The food addiction is proving more difficult.

    The ever present misery addiction is being fed by the rollercoaster of shame and pain that he and I go round and round about – my deep pain and emotional cycling maintains his emotional highs and lows and transfers his obsessions to my emotional state rather than focusing on his own issues. I’ve read that being in a supportive relationship increases the chances for a sex addict to recover, but I’ve also read that addicts should wait a year of sobriety before being in a relationship, and I’m not sure a devastated wife and crumbled marriage counts as a supportive relationship.

    As for the work of recovery, he does all the outward passive things: attends SA group and meetings every week, therapy every other week, meditates and walks for exercise somewhat regularly, reads and reads and reads. He has done the New Warrior weekend, which seemed to help alot, but that was still participatory rather than he initation his own recovery work.

    He, so far, has not done the difficult work of applying the activities in those books he reads, hasn’t actually started on the steps, doesn’t journal like his therapist requested, doesn’t do strenuous exercise or keep a regular schedule or carefully watch his sleep and diet and activity or call his sponsor every week or have a written plan for long term recovery or even a written plan for if he feels a lapse coming on. So, he is maybe a quarter of the way moving forward.

    I have seen some positive changes, but not enough to qualify as a life overhaul needed to rewire the brain and really recover. At least not to the level which would provide me more comfort and hope. There are days I want to reach out to him with love and compassion, and other days that I shiver with disgust and overwhelming need to run away, and other days I just cry.

    I am doing some of my work to recover from the trauma: therapy, family or origin exercises, trying to sleep and eat better (lost 30 lbs and my doctor is concerned), maintaining my support group, trying to keep myself together to minimize the cycling, lots of journaling, lots of reading, learning better communication skills, trying to fend off depression and despair.

    This post got really long.

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