I have been in and out of 12-step programs for the last 20 years. My road to any lasting sobriety has been rough and unpaved, to say the least: six rehabs, four psych wards, four suicide attempts, multiple ER visits, endless therapy, a slew of sponsors.
Much of these adventures as a "relapse queen" I used as material on stage as stand-up comedian (as the saying goes "tragedy plus time equals comedy"). However, when I really bottomed out in 2011, I began chronicling my trials and tribulations in real time as an irreverent addiction journalist for The Fix. Looking back over my career as a struggling sober person, I began to notice a pattern: Once I put down the drugs and alcohol, I'd become fixated on sex and love.
The first two years of this last sobriety, starting in 2013, proved to be no different. I really went down a sexual rabbit hole in a compulsive and terrifying way I never had before. I had been arrested while high for felony domestic violence and the aftermath of that delightful event was a really messy divorce and a criminal trial (thanks a lot, OxyContin!).
While I was going through all of that, (enter nervous breakdown number three), the feelings and desires that once had me drinking Four Lokos or smoking meth now had me boning random 20-somethings in the backseat of my Passat. I hoped it was just divorce backlash or the steroid version of that classic "seeking love and validation," but I could feel in my junkie heart that it was that old primal desire to "get out."
My lifelong operating system of checking out and muting my feelings didn't suddenly go away because I got sober. Without my "medicine," I quickly found new ways to avoid myself and muzzle the inner voices that told me I was a loser, unlovable, a fuck-up. To somebody who's accustomed to high highs and low lows, new sobriety can feel well, boring and uneventful, and more than that, extremely uncomfortable. Feelings I'd ducked or anesthetized for decades with substances suddenly started to surface with an overwhelming ferocity. Sex was my go-to but I certainly didn't hesitate to use/abuse caffeine, nicotine, shopping, or food. In my new memoir, My Fair Junkie, I write, "All my addictions have the same formula: I put something in my body, and I change my feelings. It doesn't matter if it's a donut or a Xanax or a cock."
I was so ill at ease in my own skin and so horrified at the charred remnants of my life, I sought solace in the arms of strangers on Tinder as well as B, C, and even D-list actors. If that didn't work, I always hit the jackpot with fellow horny AA'ers who were more than willing to bang the crazy new chick. A lot of them had the same void after putting down the needle or bottle. I desperately missed the rush of the scheming and sneaking, the lying and hiding, the buzz of scoring the drugs or ingesting the booze. Being sober felt bland, and moreover it allowed me no exciting distraction from, well, everything.
I rationalized all of my incredibly promiscuous behavior with "at least I'm not using." But as my lecherous ass soon landed me in Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous and even Sex Addicts Anonymous (yay, me and 12 guys in a church basement!), I began to understand why they referred to other people as "2-legged dope." The fleeting high of sexting with a new potential beau and the breathless trembling anticipation of driving to a rendezvous felt awfully similar to that high I'd get when on my way to meet the dealer. And of course, the day after, just like with drugs and booze, there was the comedown, filled with shame and remorse and confusion.
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I'm not the only one I've seen try to fill the gaping hole left by active substance abuse with sex and love (um, hello rehab romances). I asked Howard Wetsman, chief medical officer at Townsend Addiction Treatment Centers in Louisiana, whether there might be a biological component to this substitution behavior—or, as it's known in the program, "whack-a-mole syndrome."
"Since the 1930's when Dr. Silkworth included his opinion in Alcoholics Anonymous, we've known that people with addiction have a base state characterized by the words 'restless, irritable, and discontented,'" Wetsman says. What we've only discovered more recently is that those symptoms map to lower levels of dopamine-receiving cells of the brain's reward center, he explains.
"Whatever raises dopamine—drugs, alcohol, food, a hard job finished, sex, gambling, power over others—can be called on to fill the void when we stop using a drug," Wetsman says. "At some point in recovery, because we no longer feel isolated or less than others, we gain enough dopamine receptors that many can avoid falling into this trap. But until that time, everyone is at risk for finding something else to take the place of the drug we just put down. But in addiction, there's no safe drug."
That feeling I talked about getting on my way to the dealer has a biological explanation as well, Wetsman says. "When we get any reminder of a reward, the amygdala—the part of the brain that remembers emotions—sends a signal to the reward center that [releases] dopamine," he says. "We usually call that euphoric recall, but it's a real euphoria followed by a real crash that increases craving, just how everyone with addiction feels as they approach their high."
I was heartened to hear that there was a real biological component behind my substitutive behavior and not just a half-assed attempt at sobriety (or worse, some gruesome childhood wound of neediness). Now at four and a half years sober, I try to move myself toward the "healthier" highs: service, laughter, writing, exercise. And if I just can't muster the strength to do any of those and need an escape, I nap. But then again, I could be pathologizing: Maybe napping is just part of being in your 40s.
So while there are an abundance of 12-step programs focused on your problem of choice, they all stem from the same source: addiction. As I've worked on myself and stayed sober, many—dare I say most—of my compulsive behaviors have fallen away on their own. Except for binge-watching Ozark or The Handmaid's Tale. That's still a problem.
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