“I remember being on the plane and thinking, ‘Just crash. Just take my life’.”
At 36, Dave* should have had the world at his feet. He was a successful management consultant and co-owned his own firm. His warm smile and slight, athletic build had no trouble attracting a partner in Sydney’s party scene.
To the outsider, it would seem he was living the high life. Instead, just a few months ago he found himself at absolute rock-bottom.
“I’d be in the lift and hope that the rope would snap and the lift would go smashing to the bottom. I reached that point where I didn’t want to live anymore.”
"When it comes to sex addiction, on the other hand, therapists and researchers remain split on whether it even exists..."
I meet Dave at The Cabin in Edgecliff, the famed global rehab clinic’s local centre, and in less than a week, Dave will return to Chiang Mai, Thailand to continue treatment for drug and sex addiction.
“At 15 and 16, I was cruising for sex and I’d do that most weekends,” he tells me. “The night before my final exam at school, I went off to have sex with a stranger, and it’s always been something that happened my entire life.”
Society has no trouble accepting the reality and agony of substance abuse. When it comes to sex addiction, on the other hand, therapists and researchers remain split on whether it even exists, and there is no diagnosis of sex addiction or Hypersexual Disorder in the DSM-5.
While a private study funded by The Cabin Addiction Services indicates public attitudes are changing – about 70 percent of respondents agree it is a genuine condition – there remains a perception that sex addiction is a euphemism for promiscuity or sexual preferences outside the norm.
It probably doesn’t help that it seems the go-to excuse for many male celebrities accused of either infidelity or sexual harassment; Charlie Sheen, Tiger Woods, and Anthony Weiner all claimed to be addicted to sex. Just this week, mega-producer Harvey Weinstein fled the US amidst allegations of sexual assault and harassment. He has reportedly checked himself into rehab in Europe for, you guessed it, sex addiction.
While it may appear to be used as a “get out of jail free” card for rich and famous sexual abusers and “womanisers”, according to psychologist Fiona Markham, one of Dave’s therapists in Chiang Mai, it is a bona-fide illness and, like all addictions, “the disease is in the consequences.”
The difference between a high but healthy sex drive and addiction, Markham tells me by phone, is the presence of obsessive thoughts and behaviours that become progressively more compulsive and detrimental until they overtake a person’s life.
“Needing the fix becomes so strong that everything else becomes secondary.”
“It started with food as a kid and then I had consensual sex for the first time when I was 15 and since then, I have used sex as a way to try and change my feelings and emotions.”
Like other addictions, it is accompanied by feelings of shame and guilt that come after the act, meaning the depression and anxiety associated with withdrawal is not far behind.
“I’m an addict, I’ll latch on to anything,” says Dave. “It started with food as a kid and then I had consensual sex for the first time when I was 15 and since then, I have used sex as a way to try and change my feelings and emotions.”
But, he admits he also has trouble holding down a relationship.
“I always managed to get myself into these really toxic relationships and they’d always end in massive dramas. I would get obsessed about the relationship, it would stop me from working, I would disconnect from my friends,” he continues.
“I didn’t understand it at the time…I’d just think to myself, I am the unluckiest person in the world, why do I keep on getting into these destructive relationships?"
Dave’s repisodes – or repeat episodes – of the same kind of relationship drama is a feature not only of addiction but a range of mood disorders and personality disorders. “Addiction is also a disorder of the self,” Markham explains. “And it is often rooted in trauma.”
This can be the hard trauma of sexual or physical abuse, or soft trauma such as emotional neglect. “It is this that we see playing out later in life,” Markham continues, “But the tragedy is, they don’t see it as trauma. They don’t see it as pain; they see it as making a connection.”
Dave has always had difficulty with intimacy and expressing his emotions. “In the past it’s been so much easier to deal with it through my addiction. If I’m not feeling good about myself I’ll just go online and find a guy, but I find one and then I’m still feeling shit. So I find another one and I’m still feeling shit. And then it’s another one.”
When sex was no longer enough, Dave turned to drugs. And once he discovered crystal meth, things really escalated. “The combination of the two of those just made me completely lose control of everything and after that I just started going off the rails.”
Dave finally knew he “had to do something” when on a days- long bender, he’d only managed three hours sleep in nine days. “I was just doing drugs and having sex and finally fell asleep. But I woke up to about 50 missed calls and messages.”
When sex was no longer enough, Dave turned to drugs. And once he discovered crystal meth, things really escalated.
One of those was from his boss who, worried that Dave hadn’t been to work in three days, called Dave to let him know he was sending the police around to check up on him. “I was shit scared they were going to find the drugs and that’s when I called my brother and told him everything.”
Dave made the decision himself to check into The Cabin, initially for the meth addiction. It was there that he realised he was also addicted to sex – and that both of these addictions were linked to traumatic childhood experiences he had spent his life trying to forget.
"It was my way of coping with it," he confides. "It's being very hard going back there and remembering it all, it kinda felt like a Tetris puzzle in my brain, putting it all together."
On the day we meet, Dave has been clean from both drugs and sex for 92 days. But what does being clean from sex addiction look like? While total abstinence is the goal for substances, that doesn’t really work for sex, which for most people is a primary need.
Markham says the key for treatment is to foster a healthy attitude to sex. This involves “setting bottom lines,” which will be different for different people depending on their problem behaviour. This can include deleting apps like Tinder and Grindr, or no longer engaging in unsafe sex.
Markham says the key for treatment is to foster a healthy attitude to sex.
For Dave, the bottom line is to stop having anonymous sex. “I’ve made the decision not have sex again outside a healthy, loving relationship.”
He understands he may always be an addict; that addiction is chronic and can be managed but not cured. He also knows when he returns to Sydney for good early next year his old life will be here to tempt him back to his old ways.
“But I won’t – ” he says, then catches himself. He smiles and claps his hands together in a short gesture of gratitude, “Or I hope – I hope – that I won’t go back.”
*Not his real name.