The July Seattle evening was balmy as I made my way to the sexual recovery 12-Step meeting for newcomers. It was 2001, and I was thirty-one years old. Descending the steps to the church basement, the shadowy stairwell gave way to fluorescent lighting and a pale gray-cream linoleum tile floor. Wearing a bright pink tank top and short white shorts, I had on the least clothes of anyone in the room. And it was a big room, full of men, not another woman in sight. At least thirty were already seated, with more arriving. There were men of all ages, though mostly older. And all were sex addicts, like me.
I don’t remember what I was thinking—outside of saying hi to the one man who said hi to me—but my inner dialogue probably went something like this:
Oh my God, I’m dressed wrong.
Oh look, he’s looking at me. Look how quickly he looked away. What IS that? Is that sexual sobriety?
There’s another man looking at me. I look hot. I’m thin and tan. Another. I’m powerful here. I like it. Oh, I am in heaven.
It’s cold in here. I should’ve brought a sweatshirt. Where should I sit?
I said hi, politely, to a man who greeted me.
He’s creepy. I feel like shit. What’s wrong with me? Why am I here? I don’t belong here. I’m the only woman. God, the meeting is about to start. Where do I sit? No one wants to sit by me.
I don’t care, sit down!
This chair is cold. I hate these freezing folding metal chairs. I want out of here!
As I sat in the circle with my eyes down, I placed all my mental focus on my intuitive feelers, as I always did back then in groups.
Who’s looking at me? Who’s tuned in to me being here? Who’s lusting after me?
In the center of my energetic web, I cast invisible tendrils all around the circle. I imagined that I could feel every vibration around me, and that I could control them all. I was the spider in the middle of its lair, the black widow in the pink tank top, ready to spring on my prey and devour it.
The meeting started with the customary introductions, but I tuned out the words. Wrapped in the familiarity of my web, I was getting high off the vibrations I was starting to feel from men in the room.
Then another sensation intruded, a wave of shame that made me feel like a teenager whose mom had just dropped her off at detention. I ignored it, forcing my thoughts back to the men. Per my energy read, I estimated that approximately twelve of the men were reacting to me. My goal was to get 100 percent of them to react, but I didn’t know then that some of the members were gay and not sexually attracted to women. I also didn’t know that some of the straight men were “sexually sober,” and protected from my energetic intrusion by a deep awareness about sexual energy. They knew exactly what I was up to, and ignored it.
And then the sharing started. That was a little more interesting. Like a Quaker meeting, there was silence, then randomly someone spoke up, typical of 12-Step meetings: the first name intro, but with a twist. In here, they said they were sex addicts. Out loud. In front of everyone.
I vaguely recall that several men talked about their lives, but I don’t remember anything that was said. Until I heard six words that have never left me, spoken by an executive type in a tailored suit. He had finely cut, short silver hair and shiny, manicured nails, and I can hear his words like it was yesterday.
He was telling the group about how he couldn’t stop masturbating to porn, even though his wife had caught him multiple times and had given him an ultimatum: quit or else. He said he loved her, but he kept choosing the porn, and then lying about it. My half-hearted attention was suddenly riveted on something he said about the way he wanted to live his life instead, a motto his spiritual teacher had given him.
“My life is an open book.” When I heard them, the six words seared through me, lighting up something deep and real inside, a longing that was so strong it bordered on excruciating, an ache I felt to my core. Whatever that place in me was, it had been dark, dull, and mostly forgotten for as long as I could remember.
“My life is an open book.”
My web vanished, and I began to listen intently.
. . .
Looking back, I know that hearing those words rebooted me, fundamentally reorganized me around their power, and bonded me to them in a way that I’d only been bonded to sex before. They held up a mirror to my own shadowy secrets and ignited a bright light, and the reflection was ugly, but true. This man said his teacher had told him that the key to happiness was the concept of congruency, where what you think, feel, and do are in alignment. He couldn’t do it, couldn’t get his act together, and he was about to lose his marriage over it. He called that powerlessness, but he longed for something different, something better, and though he hadn’t achieved it yet, he wanted to believe it was possible. Suddenly, I did too.
The echoes from that man’s words have whispered to me faithfully ever since that night, despite life’s ups and downs. They’ve prodded me, terrified me, guided me, and haunted me in my recovery. Although I hadn’t formally started working the Twelve Steps, I’d had my first spiritual awakening—promised to those in 12-Step recovery—just by sitting begrudgingly in the room, forcing myself to listen.
Alcoholics talk about hitting bottom, and I knew on some level that I was almost there in my life. But having to go to a support group for sex addicts seemed like the worst thing that had ever happened to me. All my life I’d tried to be the perfect “good Catholic girl”: I was an A student, homecoming princess, the cheerleading captain of my high school squad, and awarded Best Smile by my high school classmates. But the smile hid a slew of secrets. When my clandestine sugar binges and fast driving in high school devolved into more extreme food, alcohol, and sex binges in college, my behavior began to reveal that my polished life wouldn’t stay shiny—like a mirror that begins to show its brown-veined underside instead of reflecting a bright face.
Even though I earned a master’s degree in social work, I never learned that something was terribly wrong with my sexuality. Sex was a toxic landmine, quietly waiting to go off. I didn’t understand that despite how normal my family seemed from the outside, I had been neglected and sexually abused as a child, in a variety of ways, and hadn’t begun to make sense of it. The aftershocks of these chronic, hidden violations made me hyperreactive to certain kinds of sex, at least until after orgasm. Then, feelings of regret would hit me like a flash flood of slimy mud, my thoughts choking me: What have I done? Why have I done this again? This was followed by a hateful onslaught of self-criticism at my weakness for doing things I didn’t want to do. I hastily buried my pain with busy activity, a new outfit, food, or fantasies of another exploit. By age thirty-one, I hadn’t consciously remembered my childhood neglect and abuse, but my lifelong distractions were no longer working. So here I was, joining a fellowship of recovering sex addicts, people I thought must be the dregs of society.
It turns out, I was wrong.
There is a saying in recovery I’ve come to rely on: Tell the truth and tell it faster. Here’s my truth: This 12-Step fellowship was the best society I had ever known, the club to which no one would want to belong. It would introduce me to the finest men I’d ever meet and, eventually, the finest women. In their company I would learn that admitting you’re addicted to sex is proof of bravery, and showing up to become part of a solution is an act of courage. They would help teach me that my sexuality was damaged but not broken; it could be repaired. I would grow to understand why I’d become so barbed and bitter sexually, and learn how to soften into love.
I wish I could tell you I got it that evening, but I didn’t. I didn’t get sexually sober, I didn’t get God, and I certainly didn’t get being honest about sex. But that executive in the fancy suit gave me the one thing I needed to survive what would emerge from the Pandora’s box that is inevitably opened by sexual recovery: he gave me hope.
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