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Cover Story: The Shadow of Addiction

When families and friends of sex addicts suffer because of the addict's behavior

By Margo Pierce · July 2nd, 2008 · Cover Story
  The Shadow Of Addiction
Oliver Meinerding

The Shadow Of Addiction

Like the long shadow of a person cast by the late-day sun, the darkness cast by the actions of a sex addict covers his or her family with suspicion and fear.

The person who can't get enough sex will turn to prostitutes, young people who are vulnerable to adult influence, Internet chat rooms and other ways to get their fix. And when caught in the act, harsh judgments and vengeance follow.

By the nature of their proximity, the spouse, children, parents and others who are close to an addict must deal with the consequences of the addiction before and after it's revealed.

The modern-day witch hunt of removing former sex offenders from any community is frequently done out of fear for the safety of children, but for Robin Carlyle of Cincinnati (not her real name) and her children it meant being harassed, driven from their home once and trouble in another neighborhood.

"After he got out of prison we moved to (a new community) to give him a fresh start," Carlyle says of her husband, Richard Meyer (not his real name). "But as soon as he'd been out of prison a couple of weeks, someone found out about him. Starting then it was horrible -- people came and told us they wanted us to leave. Nobody would talk to my kids anymore. They had to go to the bus stop and nobody would even talk to them. People sent us really bad letters. They wanted us to move a certain number of miles away. They were trying to stipulate all of that."

Meyer was convicted in another Midwestern state of attempting to solicit sex with a minor over the Internet in what turned out to be a sting operation with a police officer posing as a 13-year-old girl.

Carlyle, Meyer and their children tried to build a new life in a Cincinnati suburb but were finally forced out when their efforts to be reasonable were met with hatred. Unable to endure the pressure that came with being married to a convicted sex offender, Carlyle separated from and then divorced Meyer before moving to a new neighborhood with their son and daughter.

"When I moved in, the neighborhood planned this big neighborhood meeting to talk about getting me out," she says. "I wasn't invited to it because they thought he was living with us. I found out about it through a friend ... so I went to that meeting and told them he's not living with us. We were divorced, and they thought I was hiding him in the house. It was extremely difficult."

After a "very public" arrest, Meyer participated in an intensive therapy program in an effort to avoid a conviction. He was eventually sent to prison for two years and now is required to register as a sex offender. The family moved to Greater Cincinnati to be near relatives and rebuild their lives after being ostracized by their community in St. Louis.

Not all sex addicts engage in illegal activity -- masturbating 30 times a day is not a crime -- and those who are arrested for a sex crime and seek treatment have a low recidivism rate. Like any addiction, there isn't cure, but treatment does help many addicts learn what healthy sexual activity is, deal with the root cause of the inappropriate behavior and find ways to avoid acting out in the future.

'Take two Prozac and call me back'
Sexual addiction is like a drug or alcohol addiction: The addict uses physical pleasure to fill a void (see "When Lust Takes Over," issue of Feb 8, 2006). In the same way one person begins to drink and can't stop, another person can never get enough sexual pleasure to satisfy his ever-increasing need.

The pursuit of sex becomes an obsession that takes over, and the consequences of pursuing this desire can be just as devastating for the family.

"I came home from work one day," Carlyle remembers. "The computer was gone, he was gone, there was no one in the house and I was frantic. I called the police and found out he was downtown in the jail. He was on suicide watch, then. ... I was completely devastated and in shock. I didn't believe it or even understand it. You don't understand anything about a sex addiction until you start reading about it.

"It had been going on for years. Before we were married, he said he would meet with prostitutes. ... What he told me was that any time that he spent off the computer was a waste of time for him. That's how bad it got."

It's difficult to understand how one person living with another can be so engrossed in an addiction without the partner or spouse knowing about it. How is it possible that this devastating and life-altering addiction remains hidden?

"Someone with an addiction like that can look you in the face, and you don't know that they're lying," Carlyle says. "It's almost like a challenge for them to lie. I just always believed him. He was my world."

Carlyle found a therapist to help her cope with the loss of her world. She continues to participate in group sessions six years later.

"I was totally devastated," she says.

"That's one of the reasons I'm still in the group. I'm trying to work through things."

Stuart Bassman deals with the consequences of addiction in his role as associate professor at the University of Cincinnati and in his private practice as a therapist. He guides a number of groups that include former sex offenders and people who were hurt by offenders, victims as well as family members.

Bassman is quick to point out that this isn't a clear-cut problem with an obvious or one-size-fits-all solution. The highly charged nature of sex and sexual abuse in our culture, along with the irrational fears and responses related to any deviation from a narrowly defined norm, make it difficult for people to seek help.

"There is no simple answer to this," Bassman says. "There's no, 'Take a Prozac and call me back in the morning.' The person who's acting out is acting out a need to find some comfort outside of themselves because they're unwilling to face certain defects within themselves.

"What happens with the person who has a relationship with a person with a sexual addiction, or any addiction, is a sense of blaming themselves: 'What am I doing? What am I not doing? How is it my fault?' Before they became cognizant or conscious of the sexual addiction, they had cues, they had clues, there were signs: catching them on the Internet, being aware of certain furtive behavior, the lying, the deceitfulness -- but you just can't put it all together."

People in a co-dependent relationship must learn which person is responsible for what in order to develop a healthy relationship with the addict.

"They can follow the Rule of C's and the Rule of G's," Bassman says. "They need to ask themselves whether they cause the problem, whether they control the problem, whether they can change the problem or whether they can cure the problem. As a parent or significant other, usually they say yes for one of those. If they say yes to any one of those, they have the fifth C: They go crazy."

What follows are feelings of anger, remorse and depression because a spouse or parents blame themselves for the problem.

"So what do they do? They progress to the Rule of G's," Bassman says. "They get off the person's back. They get out of the person's way. They get on with their life. Letting that person deal with their stuff is helping them.

"All of the people I see struggle with the Rule of C's. They feel like they caused it: 'I should have known my son was doing this. I should have known my husband was... I should have known my wife was...' Should have, should have, should have. People 'should' all over themselves."

It's about emptiness, not sex
The people related to sex addicts often don't know about the sex addiction before it enters their lives, so they have no idea how to cope. Because most people are oblivious to the fact that sex can be an addiction, the intolerance, ridicule and judgmentalism that are applied to an addict's behaviors spill onto those nearest to them.

Bassman makes this point via the latest high-profile case of a public official brought down by a sex scandal: Eliot Spitzer. He resigned as New York Governor after being named as a "John" in a federal investigation of a high-priced prostitution ring, where he was one of several long-time customers. His wife, Silda Wall Spitzer, stood with him as he resigned with what many call an expression of shock on her face.

"Why are people afraid to speak up?" Bassman asks. "Why are people so embarrassed, ashamed? You need to look at Eliot Spitzer's wife. Sexual addiction is an addiction of lying, of deceit. Lying to oneself and lying to others -- it's leading a double life.

"The point is that the person is responding to a profound sense of emptiness, like the alcoholic. The person is responding to a pronounced sense of emptiness, depression, loneliness and it's not because there's no one else there. It's because they're not there."

The conservative radio talk show host Laura Schlessinger publicly blamed Silda Wall Spitzer for her husband's behavior, assuming an inability to satisfy her man and more effort on her part would have prevented his illegal behavior.

"If Laura Schlessinger said, 'He wasn't getting what he needed at home,' it's because he wasn't at home," Bassman says. "He needed to be at home. He needed to be real, authentic, sincere, grounded, centered -- then he would have not in a very desperate, compulsive and addictive manner gone out there."

The secret life of an adult-aged child can also have a devastating impact on his parents. Bill Henderson of Cincinnati (not his real name) experienced this firsthand when just over a year ago his thirtysomething son Brian (not his real name) stopped by to talk.

"It was on the day that he was first questioned by the FBI," Henderson says. "Following that interrogation he was very shaken by the whole thing and he came to our house. Our son has a range of psychological difficulties that go back quite some time. Just how far back isn't clear to us or to him. But those problems are ones of anxiety, low self-esteem and things of that nature. These underlying problems, which were triggered by who knows what, contributed to his behaviors in a number of dimensions, of which the use of pornography is one. He also uses alcohol and some drugs.

"It was some sort of coping mechanism for his underlying problems. As part of his use of pornography, at some point in time he ran into child porn on the Internet and added that to the repertoire of things he was looking at."

As a result of the FBI investigation, Brian lost his job and fiancé and possibly will lose his freedom when he eventually faces criminal charges.

"There's the natural dimension of being upset when your child, even though he's an adult, is facing the kind of problems that he's facing -- psychologically, socially and legally," Henderson says.

The first thing he and his wife did was seek the help of a therapist. The couple knew they wanted to support their son but didn't know how to do it when still reeling from the revelation.

"The struggle we face is more that it's happening to (us)," Henderson says. "The impact of it is to assault the dreams that I have for my son and for myself and for my wife. (I) dream, for example, of my son being able to experience the joys that I have in being married for decades.

"At the moment, his income is half of what it used to be. Eventually he'll be forced to sell his house. There's a myriad of things people never think of as consequences of this situation."

After therapy sessions with his son and participating in a group, Henderson believes Brian will be OK in spite of all the hurdles.

The only way a spouse, family member or friend can help a sex addict is to get to know who that person is and deal with that person, Bassman says.

"You grieve the loss of an image," he says. "You grieve the loss of an illusion. The people who are in relationships with someone who has a sexual addiction need a place to grieve. Those are the people who come to see me. You need to be aware of your attachment to an illusion."

Bassman describes the Buddhist notion of attachment, from which all suffering comes: By not having something -- or not having it as much as we want -- we become unhappy. If we identify and let go of the desire to have something or someone, then we eliminate the suffering.

"When I work with a sexual addict, what we work on toward recovery is helping them to get honest, and honest means whole," he says. "The treatment for sexual addiction -- for the addict and the co-dependent -- is getting honest. But it's very hard to hear that honesty. It isn't pretty. It's ugly."

Blame is denial
There is a tendency to want to place blame, but that's not coping, according to Bassman.

"It's not accepting what is," he says. "Denial is 'Don't even know I am lying.' So the person's not even aware they're lying -- blaming is a form of denial. It's a form of denying and distorting reality because you don't want to accept (the) reality that people lie to each other even in intimate relationships."

Schlessinger's blame of Silda Wall Spitzer is misplaced and dangerous because it shifts attention away from the truth. A public figure ignoring the ugliness of sex addiction makes it appear as though it's OK for everyone else to ignore it, too.

Carlyle says she understands why people don't want to deal with the truth of sex addiction but now understands it's the wrong approach.

"In the beginning, when you really love someone, you try to find excuses," Carlyle says. "A relationship with my ex-husband is very difficult now. He's extremely controlling, which is one of the characteristics of someone with an addiction. The more I've learned and the less I let him control me, the more difficult it's been. The more he gets angry and intimidates ... he's very controlling with the children."

The eldest, a teenage boy, is angry with his father for what he did and the impact it's had on their lives. The youngest, a girl, still defends her father. The children were small when the arrest happened, but as they've gotten older they learned what their father did and have had to deal with the repercussions.

When they first moved back to the Cincinnati area, Carlyle tried to help the children prepare for being asked about Meyer's prison term.

"My son wanted to say (his dad) was away on a business trip because he was ashamed," she says.

When it was time to go to Kings Island, her kids weren't allowed to offer a carpool ride with their father because Carlyle didn't want to run the risk of a parent being worried about her husband's behavior. Meyer isn't legally required to stay away from children, but Carlyle doesn't want a repeat of the scene made by the parents of a child driven to day camp by her ex-husband who confronted her about why she allowed their child to be put at risk by the encounter. Thus a new parenting skill became "teaching them to manage situations like that."

"Now the kids are older, they know how to manage it," Carlyle says. "None of their friends know anything about it. It's almost like they've had to have a secret life, even though it's not anything about them. They never want to talk about it, hate to talk about it. ...

"You see something on the news about how someone was arrested, so I try to bring it up so I can see how they're doing. But it's something neither one of them want to talk about."

Despite the terrible things she and her children have had to endure, Carlyle says she's a better person because of this experience.

"There were issues with control that I didn't see, so (it's) better for the kids ... that they're not in the environment," she says. "I want them to be aware and not fall into the same pattern. It's very seductive. He was very charming, he still can be ...

"You hope you never have to go through it, but if you have to, positives are possible." ©



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