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.