I’m Still Stereotyping Addicts…Are You?

I had a terrific discussion last night with a mental health professional and we talked about the stigmatizing stereotypes around not just pornography addiction, but addiction in general. I recognized that for some addictions, I probably still have a bit of “smartening up” to do.

One of the things I preach whenever I talk to a group or do an interview is that there is no stereotypical porn addict. I was a white-collar, married, father-of-two who was seen as a pillar of the community. Heck, when you think “porn addict,” you probably don’t think of a guy who was awarded the Key to the City. But I know people also don’t think 50-year-old female nurse, or high school art teacher or well-respected dentist, but I met these people and dozens if not hundreds more during my journey.

Do you know who I didn’t meet? The pimply-faced, 19-year-old who is living in mother’s basement who is socially awkward and has never kissed a girl in real life, but I think this is most people’s image of who a porn addict is. I’m sure he’s out there, but I’ve never met him.

We talked about my belief that this kind of stereotyping helped contribute to the opiate/opioid crisis. The drug problem we face today shouldn’t come as a surprise. There are episodes of Dragnet from the late 1970s where they are talking about the dangers of heroin. You can go back to rap music from the late 1980s and early 1990s where they are talking about abusing Vicodin. It’s not like we didn’t see it coming. Opiates/opioids were not invented in 2009, yet it only seems like we’ve cared about it for 10 years or so.

Why? I think it’s because we put such a stigma on drug users in the 1980s through many of the anti-drug campaigns. “Just Say No to Drugs” is a good message, but I think my 8-year-old mind also heard, “…because those who say yes to drugs are dangerous and/or bad people.” I believe as a society, we looked down on drug users as being from the wrong side of the tracks. We may have had a distant cousin or a friend-of-a-friend who had a cocaine issue, never imaging how close to home the opiate/opioid epidemic would eventually hit for most people only a couple decades later.

That same decade, we gave a lot of attention to AIDS. It was really the cause of the 1980s, and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Thankfully, a ton of money went into research to create drugs like AZT and societal standards, like how donated blood is handled or needle exchanges for IV drug users, changed. Earlier this month, it was the anniversary of Magic Johnson announcing he was HIV positive. Remember when that happened? Many of you are probably too young because it took place November 1991. Everyone thought he’d be dead in a year because up until that point, people died that quickly. Twenty-eight years later, he’s still here. I bring up AIDS because it shows what we can do as a society when we heap attention, money and research on a problem: We can solve it.

It wasn’t until I went to my first inpatient rehab that I actually met heroin users. I met meth users and pill poppers and people whose alcohol addiction made mine seem like a walk in the park. Essentially, I met people who I would have crossed the street to avoid before I got there.

What I recognized was that these were some of the most real people in the world. They didn’t judge me and they helped create a safe space where I could be myself and share my truth. Unlike the people who I dealt with every day in my professional life, they were open and honest and made me feel OK for being who I really was. Luckily, I adapted quickly and changed my attitude about who drug users really were. I needed to meet these people before I could change my mind.

The same is true about those with eating disorders. At the second rehab I was at there were probably 8 women and 1 man in their eating disorder program. Sex/porn addicts have a lot in common with people who suffer with eating disorders. I’ve only had this proven further to me in the fact that this blog about it is the most read entry in the history of this site.

In getting to know several of these women very well, I can tell you that not all of them were stick thin. I don’t think anything they ever saw on TV or in a fashion magazine led them to become the way they were. Some of them could be quite complimentary toward certain parts of their appearance. Getting to know them one-on-one blew apart 95% of the stereotypes I had about women with eating disorders.

I’ve not met any people who need a 12-step group like Codependents Anonymous, but I don’t have the greatest stereotype of codependent people in my head, nor do I about people who end up with video game addiction or a few other maladies out there. The conversation I had last night made me recognize that I still classify certain people a certain way because I just haven’t had the personal interaction with them, yet I’ve had enough interaction with other kinds of people that I should know better by now.

I’m not going to wait until January 1 to start. My November 22 resolution is to stop stereotyping people who suffer from any addiction or behavioral disorder.

Goodbye, Carla

Last night I needed to find an old photo, so I briefly reactivated my personal Facebook account to track it down. I only have about 15 people as “friends” and they are all from my rehab days. I haven’t talked to any of them in at least three years. One, a young woman who was in the eating disorder program, wrote that another (who I’ll call Carla), died late last week of a heart attack. While the odds seem to have favored someone going sooner, this is the first person I knew from rehab who has been confirmed dead.

Carla wasn’t well when I knew her. Probably around 30, she mostly kept to herself and in the morning meeting where everybody at the rehab has to say a couple of things, she never seemed comfortable. Even those who don’t like public speaking eventually got comfortable around the group of 30. She arrived sometime before I got there, was there for the entire 7 weeks I attended, and remained after I left. I have no idea how long her stay was, but based on talking to some of the other women in the eating disorder program, it sounded like Carla had among the most severe trauma and her mental health was not solid.

The place where Carla and I bonded was before breakfast. She and her only friend (who wrote the Facebook entry) were the first two up in the morning, along with me. The dining room didn’t open until 6:30, so it would usually be the three of us sitting around in a common room adjacent from around 6:15 to 6:30. The two of them would sneak out and go for a walk at 5:45 a.m. to burn calories. Apparently it was a no-no, but I didn’t subscribe to the “rat out your peers” theory until jail.

The women in the eating disorder program had to wait until 6:45 to eat breakfast, when they could be coached on what they chose to eat and then made sure to eat by a monitor. I’m not a big breakfast guy, so some days I’d remain sitting there and in those 15-30 minutes, I got to know Carla probably better than any other person, except her one other friend, and I still feel like I didn’t really know her.

She wore the same ratty, oversized sweater every day. One of the first mornings I was there when she came in from her walk, she sat down and said, “You probably wonder why I wear this every day.”

“It means something special to you, reminds you of someone, makes you feel safe, hides your body or some combination I’d guess,” I said. “Whatever makes you feel good is good with me. You don’t have to explain anything.”

I think that was the initial bonding moment. Later that morning, she told the entire group she didn’t want anyone asking her why she wore that sweater every day because if they didn’t get it, she didn’t want to explain. And then she smiled at me.

We also found that we shared a mutual disdain for the phrase, “How are you?” as a greeting. Sure, it’s just something we say, but it’s not something an unhealthy person wants to hear. We know the person asking doesn’t care and doesn’t want the truth if it’s not “good” so they can move onto the next thing.

Carla and I decided to stop saying that to each other. We thought a more appropriate greeting was, “I see you there” because that’s all “How are you?” means to most people.

I think I was the only male, and certainly the only one in the sex/porn program that she spoke to with any regularity. My guess would be that there was some kind of sexual assault in her past that made her scared of men and sex, but as she slowly heard my story she asked a few questions. Nothing too prying, but I think it was part of her trying to process her own demons.

While we both had alcoholism issues in the past, neither of us were there for that kind of treatment. We often talked about how that was a more clear-cut disease to fight. The goal is to stop drinking. With both porn/sex addiction and eating disorders, the goal is to find a healthy balance. Yes, I needed to stop looking at porn, but I also needed to develop the healthy sexuality that eluded me in life to that point. She needed to figure out how to have a healthy relationship with food.

You can’t stop having a sexual identity and you can’t stop eating if you’re going to be in recovery. These kinds of recovery are very individualized because what is one person’s demon doesn’t bother the person next to them. Healthy eating, or sexuality, can look very different to two people who have the same problem.

I never had any illusion we’d stay in touch after rehab. I talked to her friend a couple times after we were both out and she told me Carla wasn’t doing well, but I even lost track of that woman pretty quickly. It surprised me when I read her announcement of Carla’s death on Facebook, but it didn’t shock me that Carla didn’t make it to old age. It still shocks me more when an addict does. Goodbye, Carla.

 

Revisiting the Connection Between Porn Addicts and Those With Eating Disorders

While the right side of this website highlights the more popular articles are by people clicking “Like”, it isn’t an accurate depiction of what the most read articles are, what the most commented on happen to be or which ones generate the most private messages. Only a few fit into all four categories, and I think if you had some kind of point system, the article I wrote about the connection between pornography addiction and eating disorders would be in the Top 5. This has encouraged me to revisit the topic.

If you haven’t read the first article, I’d urge you to look to the right and find it. I have information in there that I’m not repeating in this one. Can’t find it? Click Here.

Early in life, I never had experience with people who dealt with eating disorders aside from rumors about certain girls in high school or college. I don’t recall anybody ever disclosing to me they were anorexic, bulimic or had any issues with food, but then again, I wasn’t exactly open and sharing about my problems with alcohol or pornography.

In 2015, when I found the Santé Center for Healing in Argyle, Texas, I was just happy to find a facility that would allow me entrance despite my pending legal issues. Most inpatient rehabs in the US are just drugs and alcohol, much like the first place I attended in 2014. I noticed there was an eating disorder program on the website, but I was just scrambling to find a place that would take me and gave it little thought.

With sex and food, it’s healthy to want and need both. You’re taught from a young age to stay away from drugs and get a lesser, but still present message about alcohol. For the most part, that message is abstinence. With food, the message you get is to eat healthy or you’re going to get fat. With sex, it’s to fall within traditional boundaries or you’re a pervert and a freak. Both try to keep you in line with the threat of shame and embarrassment.

Many of the women in the eating disorder program I spoke with began to experience their addiction in their mid-teens, just as I did with porn. I should mention when I arrived, there was one man in the eating disorder program, but he left shortly after my arrival. The rest of my experience, there were only females in that program.

Unfortunately, those ideas of youth about what is healthy become warped and twisted so quickly and society quickly applies the embarrassment and shame that porn addicts and eating disorder patients suffer with silently. I’ve never met a porn addict who was a sex maniac, much like I never met someone with an eating disorder who blamed Barbie or pictures in magazines. I’m sure there are porn addicts who are sex maniacs and there’s got to be some women who developed bad eating habits after looking at magazines…but I’ve never met them, and yet mainstream society continues to use these crazy excuses/reasons for why we are the way we are.

“Stop looking at porn!” or “Just eat your dinner!” seem like simple directives when you’re not coping with the kind of problems that we were. I promise you, if you think you have the solution to addiction, you don’t even have an understanding.

I think in the not-too-distant future we’re going to see an increase in the number of people who have an addiction to electronics, be it video games or smartphones. If you want to experience addiction, put your phone on the other side of the room and don’t touch it all day. No matter who calls, or texts or whatever beeps, vibrations and weird Law & Order-like clunking sounds you hear, don’t touch it.

You’ll have excuses/reasons why you can’t keep it up. What if somebody is dead? What if somebody needs you? What if somebody liked your cardio routine or commented on your new shoes? Addicts have a lot of excuses/reasons.

I think electronics addiction will be like eating disorders or sex/porn. Those who aren’t addicted won’t be able to understand it. There’s a healthy and appropriate time to use your phone or play a video game. There’s a healthy and appropriate time to stop. Those people who can’t? Well, I guess I’d say welcome to our little club. We’re the non-drug/alcoholic addicts.

We’re “The Others” and while I have nothing but compassion for drug/alcohol addicts (my addiction to alcohol is fairly well documented on this site) prepare to defend yourself as an addict in a way they never have to because they get the most attention.

Those of us with “fringe” addictions that don’t demand healthy use, not total abstinence, need to stick together and defend one another. I wouldn’t want to play Fortnite Battle Royale for 12 hours, but I get why some do. And I don’t relate, but I understand why some women who were close friends at that rehab couldn’t have a healthy relationship with food.

And addict is an addict is an addict. The brain chemistry is off.  Recognize that we are far more alike than we are different and be kind to one another.

The Bond Between Sex Addicts and Those With Eating Disorders

Spending seven weeks during the summer of 2015 at the Sante Center for Healing in Argyle, Texas, was one of the most rewarding, transformational experiences in my life. Since I had been to rehab for my alcoholism 13 months earlier, and spent 10 weeks in that program, I thought I’d be able to breeze in and out of this place, adding to the resume I was trying to build for the judge in my case, showing I was far more ill than evil.

Much like my first experience in California, it didn’t take long before I recognized that while I wasn’t a sex addict in terms of actual intercourse, my decades-long pornography addiction clearly qualified me to be part of Sante’s program.

Sante dealt with four groups of people. There were the traditional drug and alcohol addicts that most rehabs see as their core clientele, but this rehab also dealt with sex addicts and people with eating disorders. They believed that most addicts were cross-addicted and could benefit by having so many resources in one place.

Upon arriving, I never would have thought that I had anything in connection with a female almost half my age whose relationship with food and body image had become toxic. I, frankly, have never really cared what I looked like, maintained a healthy weight with little-to-no diet or exercise, and haven’t met a meal I didn’t enjoy. Forty-eight days later, when I left the facility, they were some of the hardest people to say goodbye to and it’s their stories that stick with me.

The core issues, both with what causes their problems and where solutions exist, are surprisingly similar with sex addicts and sufferers of eating disorders. Many of the same obsessive compulsive urges and impulse control deficiencies with both conditions mirror each other. Cycles of shame, ritual and fantasy are strikingly similar as well.

I’m not going to get into the science of everything. If you want to read more about it, check out Binge Eating, Bulimia and Sexual AddictionThey explain the connection in far less words and far clearer than I ever could.

Where I think we felt the strongest connection was in looking ahead at our lives after leaving Sante. The goal with drugs and alcohol is simple:  Stop. You can’t do that with food and you can’t do that with sexuality. Nobody is ever told that they need to learn to have a healthy relationship with cocaine or meth.

Eating healthy and maintaining a healthy sex life is the post-rehab goal, not completing abstaining. For me, I was using pornography to mask a lot of feelings of pain and rejection, but I was also using it as a surrogate for the real thing. Healthy for me is not using images to soothe, nor to replace physical interaction.

For the folks in the other program, they had to figure out how to consume calories in a healthy way and hopefully change their attitude about what food meant in their lives.

Sex and food weren’t the real problem…what was buried deep within us was. We just used sex and food as a conduit. Unlike those who used drugs and alcohol, we had to figure out how to continue to use these things, but in a healthy way.

Several of the females in the eating disorder program (there was one male) ended up coming to terms with sexual addictions they didn’t think were big problems when they first arrived. It’s easy to point to your main addiction, and explain everything else away as fallout bad choices. It was both impressive and courageous to see these women tackle additional demons.

I think both groups also learned with as much as we surprisingly had in common, that stereotyping anybody with addiction is a mistake. What kind of woman has anorexia? What kind of guy is a sex addict? It’s easy to make broad generalizations until you meet people and hear their stories first-hand. I feel lucky to have had that opportunity.

Some of us were successful when I followed up, others were not. That’s just the story of the people you’ll meet at rehab. It was eye-opening the people I’d meet who I had the most in common with would be from the eating disorder program. It’s a case of not judging a book by its cover, and when it comes to recovery and new ways of thinking, I’ve found an open mindset is the best tool for success.

IF YOU LIKE THIS POST, THERE IS A FOLLOW-UP, WRITTEN IN JULY 2018. READ IT HERE