Category Archives: Recovery

Sexual Harassment, Abuse, and Addiction: the differences, the overlap, and the treatment (part 1)


Reports of celebrities, politicians, and newscasters being ousted because of sexual abuse and harassment charges continue to dominate the news. Good!

Conversations about the problem of unwanted sexual advances — and the abuse of power to exploit people sexually — are uncomfortable but really important. When the #metoo social media posts went viral it was a stark reminder of how widespread this problem is.

For a number of years I worked in the recovery field — specializing in sexual addiction — and I’ve had the occasion to deal with these issues a LOT. Hearing the stories in the news lately has brought up a lot of thoughts. Let me share some of them …

First off, let’s get clear about the terms

SEXUAL HARASSMENT — Webster’s dictionary defines sexual harassment as “uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature especially by a person in authority toward a subordinate, such as an employee or student.” Guidelines of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have formed the basis for most state laws prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace. The guidelines state:

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when:

  • submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment,

  • submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individuals, or

  • such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.

SEXUAL ABUSE — Sexual abuse goes further than harassment in that it involves sexual contact (not just words) with someone unable to give consent (eg. a child, or someone with dementia) and thus involves some form of “forcible compulsion.” When force is immediate, of short duration, or infrequent, it is called sexual assault. The American Psychological Associate (APA) defines sex abuse as “unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent.”

RAPE — According to Wikipedia, “Rape is a type of sexual assault usually involving sexual intercourse or other forms of sexual penetration carried out against a person without that person’s consent. The act may be carried out by physical force, coercion, abuse of authority, or against a person who is incapable of giving valid consent. The term rape is sometimes used interchangeably with the term sexual assault.”

Why these distinctions are important

Distinctions matter because there is overlap between these problems, and these overlaps can be confusing. Sexual harassment is different than sexual abuse and sexual assault. Rape and sexual assault are sometimes used interchangeably, although the term “sexual assault” might best be used to describe unwanted sexual contact that does not involve penetration, reserving the term “rape” for unwanted sexual contact that does involve penetration.

Continue reading Sexual Harassment, Abuse, and Addiction: the differences, the overlap, and the treatment (part 1)

The spiritual word for “hitting bottom” — we hear it less but need it more than ever

In recovery, “hitting bottom” is a core concept. To be willing to do the work required to overcome addiction, a person has to reach a point where they see that their life is not working. This happens when we experience suffering as a result of our addiction.

Hitting bottom happens differently to different people. What might cause someone to hit bottom might not be enough for someone else. In the early days of AA, the only people trusted to really “be in recovery” were those who’d lost everything to alcoholism. It was assumed that, unless someone had lost it all, they hadn’t hit bottom, and wouldn’t be ready to fully participate in the program.

It didn’t take long, however, for them to find that newcomers to the program had “hit bottom” in other ways. They’d experienced enough pain from family relationships, even if they hadn’t lost their family; or they’d experienced enough negative consequences in their work, even if they hadn’t been fired from their job.

“Hitting bottom” happens whenever you decide it happens. Actually there is no “bottom.” You can always lose more. I’ve seen people “hit bottom” when they were confronted by a teary-eyed loved one. I’ve seen others Continue reading The spiritual word for “hitting bottom” — we hear it less but need it more than ever

God is at work … you don’t have to do everything

One of our challenges today is that we are hyper-aware of all the problems and crises going on around us, which creates a heightened sense of anxiety. We are inundated by frightening and negative news stories, which serve as reminders of all the things that can go wrong.

So now young parents are so frightened by the prospect of an inattentive — or predatory — babysitter that they refuse to go out. Young people are so fearful of their relationships falling apart that they hesitate to make long term commitments. In our work or ministry involvements, we are so concerned about potential problems that we over-function, so that “all the bases are covered.” When we lay in our beds trying to get to sleep (or back to sleep when we wake up at 3AM), our minds spin with possible problems and worst case scenarios about our children, our finances, our marriage, our church, our work, and our world.

It’s hard to just relax, and trust that things are going to be okay! And yet, that’s exactly what we need to learn to do.

Without an internal sense of peace, a deep awareness that no matter what happens, we are going to be okay, our anxiety will create all kinds of problems. It will drive all kinds of bad behaviors, like trying to micromanage situations, not trusting people, refusing to take risks, and turning to addictive substances or behaviors to try to sooth ourselves.

For many addicts, it was precisely this issue — trying to soothe anxiety — that started us down the path. It’s also well-known that stress and anxiety are significant and common triggers for relapse.

This is precisely where the beliefs we profess — about a God who will care for and protect us, who will work all things together for our good — need to be internalized. Continue reading God is at work … you don’t have to do everything

The epidemic of our time that leads to alienation and fuels addiction

Carl Hammerschlag is a psychiatrist who worked with Native Americans in the Southwest, and taught psychiatry at the University of Arizona School of Medicine for 20 years. He wrote a book called “The Theft of the Spirit,” which is mostly a memoir about his experiences during those years, and the things he learned.

One chapter was especially interesting and challenging, with the intriguing, but unfortunate title: “On BS.” (He spells the word out, but I’m going to refrain. If you need a hint, it’s something bulls do.) He says he can’t think of a better word to describe this phenomenon, which has taken over in our world today: the epidemic of spin, denial, image, and half-truth, which not only keeps us alienated from each other, but also from ourselves. Listen:

“BS has become a prominent ritual in our culture. It’s when people say things they don’t mean; it’s also when people mean things they don’t say. BS is the basic problem that keeps us from being emotionally healthy. Most of us pride ourselves on our ability to recognize it and therefore avoid being taken in by it, which is why we’re so surprised when we become captivated by our own. …

“What we say is often not what we believe and vice versa — and this goes for presidents, judges, NASA engineers, doctors, and religious leaders. All of the institutions that once sustained us have become less credible. We are being deluged by BS and growing so used to it that we choose not to see that the Emperor has no clothes.

“In public and private life, we’ve become more expert at denying what we really feel to be true than in acknowledging it. If we do it long enough it becomes difficult to distinguish what’s real from what’s make-believe. Then the BS becomes a Belief System and that’s how we get into trouble.

“In such an overwhelming barrage of stories told to make the teller look good, the search for truth easily gets lost. In a world obsessed with public relations and image, BS can run our lives.

“So what is the truth? The truth is always closer to what we feel in our hearts than what we know in our heads. The body knows more than the mind chooses to acknowledge. If you ignore what you feel long enough it’ll kill you.”

Continue reading The epidemic of our time that leads to alienation and fuels addiction

Why being “normal” is a ticket to depression, disease, and addiction

Every day I am becoming more aware that our cultural environment is damaging to our well-being. “Going with the flow” — being “normal” — in our world today will take us to a place where we are physically unhealthy, massively stressed-out, spiritually cynical and disengaged, depressed, and addicted to something or other.

I was reminded of this when I came across an editorial in The Guardian (a UK Newspaper). Author George Monbiot takes a look at what’s happening in our world, and points to the system itself — our way of living — as the heart of the problem:

“What greater indictment of a system could there be than an epidemic of mental illness? Yet plagues of anxiety, stress, depression, social phobia, eating disorders, self-harm and loneliness now strike people down all over the world…

“There are plenty of secondary reasons for this distress, but it seems to me that the underlying cause is everywhere the same: human beings, the ultrasocial mammals, whose brains are wired to respond to other people, are being peeled apart. Economic and technological change play a major role, but so does ideology. Though our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the lives of others, everywhere we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism.”

This social isolation is built into the systems we’ve created. So many things in our society emphasize competition, rather than collaboration and community:

“The education system becomes more brutally competitive by the year. Employment is a fight to the near-death with a multitude of other desperate people chasing ever fewer jobs. The modern overseers of the poor ascribe individual blame to economic circumstance. Endless competitions on television feed impossible aspirations as real opportunities contract.

“Consumerism fills the social void. But far from curing the disease of isolation, it intensifies social comparison to the point at which, having consumed all else, we start to prey upon ourselves. Social media brings us together and drives us apart, allowing us precisely to quantify our social standing, and to see that other people have more friends and followers than we do.”

We’ve heard this before: life in western society today is stressful and competitive. The word that keeps coming up, as a summary of the source of so much of what ails us, is isolation. Continue reading Why being “normal” is a ticket to depression, disease, and addiction

Dealing With Emotions and Recovery from Sexual Addiction

emotionsOne core insight in my recovery — and spiritual renewal — was this: It’s essential to acknowledge and deal with our emotions. Denying them (by telling yourself “I shouldn’t feel that”) or stuffing them is a recipe for depression, hidden resentment, spiritual bypassing, and burnout. An important part of the recovery experience for me was developing a deeper awareness of what is happening in my heart, and acknowledging what I’m feeling, instead of trying to make myself feel something else.

In the past few years, I’ve come to view emotions with an added nuance. While still valuing them, and finding it important to deal with them, I have come to recognize how fleeting they are. They are like waves that wash over the shore, and then dissipate, only to be followed up by another wave. Like the writer of Psalms says: “Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). They are important, we must tend to them, but we are not at their mercy.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard people say — when struggling to come to terms with something painful — “I don’t want to think/talk about it (because) I’m afraid if I open up that door I’m going to start crying and never stop.” But doing this work — of looking within and dealing with what is there — is essential for their recovery and ongoing emotional and spiritual well-being. It can be done safely and helpfully with the guidance of a skilled counselor.

For most of us, the struggle with our emotions from day to day is more mundane. It has to do with anxiety, sadness, insecurity, shame, or fear that we don’t want to deal with. So instead, we distract ourselves with busyness and frenetic activity, or numb ourselves out with chemicals or addictive behaviors.

Jesus once said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). I often think that addictive substances and behaviors are ways we try to escape from having to mourn. And of course the problem is that if we don’t mourn, we don’t find comfort. We find distraction, and often, addiction.

One of the skills learned in long term recovery is the ability to ride the waves of emotion, and live with a sense of inner peace, even amidst the swirls of elation, fear, anger, sadness, etc. This takes time, and part of the spiritual journey is cooperating with God to bring healing, wisdom, and inner resources to enable me to do this.

The celebrated Sufi poet Rumi has a famous poem about the importance of welcoming this variety of experiences into our lives. There’s great wisdom in this, because often these emotions have something important to teach us. Even the negative ones. Listen to what Rumi has to say:

Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every day a new arrival

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight. …

Be grateful for whatever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from Beyond.

– Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks)






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Ending Denial and Facing the Grind of Addiction

aa-wreckedlifeEveryone agrees that whatever addiction you have, it starts out fun. Whether it’s the great taste and comfort of food, the mellowness or rush from a drug, or the excitement and stimulation of something like gambling or sex … there’s a reason we turn to it, and come back to it again and again. It’s exciting, it satiates a desire, and it feels good.

But at some point — usually much earlier than we realize — it turns on us.

Instead of controlling it, it controls us. We find ourselves going back to it even though we promised ourselves we wouldn’t, and the limits we set keep getting violated.

One of my favorite books this year is “Out of the Wreck I Rise,” by Niel Steinberg and Sara Bader. It is essentially a compendium of quotations by literary figures about addiction and recovery. Some are long, some are short … almost all of them are really really good. Not only that, Steinberg and Bader’s writing — which comes in the form of extended introductions for each topical chapter — is interesting and helpful too. Listen to what they have to say about our denial in addiction, and the crucial step of realizing it’s out of control and no longer “fun”:

Fierce denial is common, and so a jarring incident, or, more likely a series of escalating incidents, is usually required before change is contemplated. Those confronting their addiction begin by addressing the crisis and, only then, are forced to understand the routine that led to it. The beginning of a new life is the gradual realization — the honesty emphasized in AA — that there is a sameness to addiction, a dreariness, a drudgery. It is the identical thing happening over and over again, every day, with only one avenue of escape, one possibility of change, an option that, viewed by a person sunk in the routine of dependence, at first seems incredible, unimaginable, ridiculous.

That first step — whether taken on your own or pushed to it by somebody else — is recognizing that you aren’t doing this of your own will. It’s a compulsion. You don’t think using your substance is fun because it’s fun to be constantly scourged with the need for drink or drugs (or sex). You think it’s fun because it’s what you do all the time and you’re secretly terrified at the thought of not doing it, of enduring the awful hunger you suffer when you stop even briefly. It’s like a bad job that you keep telling yourself you must like, because you go there every day and it’s all you’ve got.

Addiction is not a bad choice. It’s an obsession: grinding, dictatorial, relentless. The great thing about recovery is that you don’t have to succumb to your addiction every day. You don’t have to spend your life doing this.

Signs You Might be Rushing into a Relationship

An important part of recovery from any addiction — and especially sexual addiction — is the establishment of healthy relationships. Sometimes this means healing and/or strengthening existing relationships. But sometimes our addiction has cost us relationships, and we need to establish new ones.

Today’s article, by guest writer Anne Loy, has some important wisdom for people in the process of establishing romantic relationships: don’t rush. Here’s Anne …

Sexual addiction interferes with our relationships, friendships and sometimes, even our profession. Those who have managed to start their journey to recovery by attending workshops and seminars and taken part in therapy, however, soon begin to feel more confident about pursuing something they may have always wanted deep in their hearts: a relationship based on trust, commitment and honesty.

While this is undoubtedly a laudable aim, it’s important people in recovery to ensure that they don’t rush into it. It’s difficult for relationships to flourish when we seek them out because of fear, insecurity or the need to evade loneliness. Without a healthy foundation, these relationships can soon become co-dependent. If you have met someone who attracts you physically, mentally and emotionally but you are afraid that you may be moving too fast, be on the lookout for the following signs that you may be replacing your addiction to sex, with an addiction to romance or romantic intrigue:

  • You are rushing in to ‘seal the deal’. If you find that it is very important to establish that your new interest is your ‘girlfriend’ or ‘boyfriend’, that it is vital to make it official when you have only been on a few dates, be wary. You could risk entering into a co-dependent relationship, especially if your love interest is also a little too keen on establishing the existence of a relationship. Try to take a more mindful approach to dating, simply enjoying spending significant moments together and trying not to plan out the future of your relationship it is not yet necessary. Try to avoiding using special occasions such as Valentine’s Day or a birthday, for instance, to propose marriage or to officially declare that you are a couple.
  • Your significant other quickly becomes the center of your life, despite the fact you may not know them well. To what extent do your core values and those of your love interest overlap? What interests do you share? What significant events, people and experiences have shaped them into who they are today? Before embarking on a big commitment, you need to be able to answer these questions with confidence. In the first few weeks (and even months) of getting to know someone, they may not have felt confident enough to share vital information and experiences with you. Give them time to do so at their pace.
  • You find that you are allowing your partner to cross boundaries. An important indicator that your relationship may be a co-dependent one is when your love interest or partner constantly crosses boundaries of respect or your personal limits, yet you allow them to continue to do so because you are scared of losing them. This type of relationship eventually burns both parties, so make sure that you assert yourself in a calm but secure way.
  • You’re starting to ignore family and friends. In the beginning stages of a relationship, it is normal to let other relationships slide ‘just a little bit’. In healthy relationships, however, this neglect is not prolonged and it does not seriously affect the quality of your other relationships. Try to think of life as comprising many ‘glasses’ – friends, family, relationships, hobbies, work, exercise – and make sure that none of these glasses are ever empty.
  • Your partner sees your relationship differently. If your love interest is not co-dependent, their opinion on the pace at which you are moving is of great value. If you find that you are not on the same page or they ask you take it a little slower, this does not mean that you cannot move forward. However, it is vital to give them the space they need, as well as the freedom to decide whether or not they see the future of your relationship in the same light.

If you do find that your fear of being alone is propelling you into a relationship and you decide to take some steps back, start working on making yourself happy, supporting yourself and being self-compassionate. Being single does mean being lonely; on the contrary, it can be an excellent time to work on your health and wellness, and on fostering meaningful friendships which do not necessarily revolve around romance or sex.