One of the fortunate - and sometimes unfortunate - aspects of human biology is that we contain within us the physiology for extraordinary pleasures. When we are psychologically in balance, our capacity to derive enjoyment from our senses and our bodies, whether through eating or exercise or sex, enriches our lives immeasurably. But when we face underlying turmoil or pain or unhappiness, we can use our inborn capacities for pleasure as shields against thinking and feeling our emotions - literally harnessing our brain chemical messengers and neurotransmitters like infusions of drugs.
Sexual addiction is one of the dark roads men and women travel in order to avoid their feelings and the complexities of their life stories. They turn to sex to "drug" themselves and relieve deeper feelings of anxiety or depression or boredom or loneliness. In doing so they not only deprive themselves of journeying toward a true understanding of the roots of their negative feelings, they cause a lot of collateral damage. That damage can include shattered families, a loss of respect in the community, legal problems, financial problems and health problems.
Sexual addiction is also unique in that it can now be "fed" 24/7 through the Internet, which provides countless graphic images and videos that are the equivalent of a constant infusion of alcohol or heroin. Gambling addicts at least have the rate-limiting step of their own finances as a potential brake on their dependency. Drug addicts have to procure their substances. But sex addicts can mainline their drug through magazines, the Web and relationships built only around physical satisfaction.
For these reasons, it can take a long time for sex addicts to come to terms with the fact that their addiction is harming them or others.
Most sex addicts aren't arrested in hotel rooms; they're wasting good years in one emotionally anonymous relationship after another, or wasting hours and hours on the Internet, or wasting the potential for true closeness with their children because they are driven to divorce by their needs or distracted by planning their next binge.
What are the signs and symptoms of sexual addiction? Here are some to consider:
- Underlying anxiety or depression when the activity related to sex is resisted.
- A need for exposure to sexually stimulating material or relationships that overshadows the need for real emotional, interpersonal connections.
- A preoccupation with sexual fulfillment or fantasies that interferes with daily life, one's employment or one's marriage.
If you or someone you love has any of these symptoms, a psychiatrist or psychologist is a good place to turn for help. Remember, the fact that we have the anatomy and physiology for pleasure of many kinds means that we are, as human beings, also at risk for redirecting those healthy pleasures into pathology.
Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatry correspondent for FOX News Channel and a New York Times bestselling author. His book, "Living the Truth: Transform Your Life through the Power of Insight and Honesty" has launched a new self-help movement including www.livingthetruth.com. Dr. Ablow can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.