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Inspiring Success on the Road to Recovery

Friday, October 4, 2013

Is “Thanks for Sharing” an Accurate Portrayal of Sex and Love Addiction?

By ROBERT WEISS LCSW, CSAT-S


Some readers may remember the film Shame, released in 2011. Shame was a gritty portrayal of an active sex addict (Michael Fassbender). The movie was wonderfully accurate in its depiction of sexual addiction. However, because it only showed an active addict at his nadir, it was somewhat difficult to watch, even for sex addicts. And non-addicted viewers often walked away shocked and appalled by what they’d seen. Now we have a new sex and love addiction themed film, Thanks for Sharing, was recently released. Rather than focusing on active addiction, Thanks for Sharing examines the next step in the process — recovery, sobriety, and the pathway toward sexual/romantic health. Happily, the film is every bit as accurate in its portrayal as Shame was — quite a feat when one considers how generally misunderstood sexual and romantic disorders are — while also being entertaining and easy to watch.
The movie focuses primarily on four recovering addicts. Mike (Tim Robbins) is fifteen years sober in both his “S” program and Alcoholics Anonymous. He is married to his childhood sweetheart, who stuck with him all through his addictions. His adult son, however, has struggled and is now also an addict. Adam (Mark Ruffalo) is five years sober from sex addiction and ready for the next step in his recovery — dating and romance, which arrives in the form of Phoebe (Gwyneth Paltrow), a breast cancer survivor and fitness fanatic. Neil (Josh Gad) is an emergency room doctor addicted to up-skirting (secretly filming up women’s skirts) and frontage (rubbing against women without their permission, usually on the subway). His attendance at 12-step sexual recovery meetings is court-ordered; he attends meetings to meet his legal obligations rather than as a way to find recovery. Finally there is Dede (Pink). Dede has just turned 30 and is new to sexual recovery, attending meetings at the suggestion of her Narcotics Anonymous sponsor, who has realized the only way Dede relates to men is by being sexual, and the inappropriate sexual partners she chooses inevitably lead her into substance abuse relapse.

Love Addiction
All of the characters in Thanks for Sharing are very different people at very different stages of recovery. Each of them is a realistic version of an addict searching for health. Perhaps the most complex character is Dede, whose drug use and sexual acting out might actually be more indicative of love addiction than sex addiction.
For sex and love addicts like Dede, romance, sexuality, and emotional closeness are more about emotional highs and lows than real intimacy. Love addicts spend their lives focused on the search for sexual and romantic partners in every situation. They live in a chaotic, sometimes desperate world of need and emotional despair, fearful of being alone or rejected. They are constantly searching for “the one,” that special person who will complete them and cause them to feel eternal happiness. Unfortunately, they are much more strongly attracted to the intense experience of looking for love, falling in love, fixing the troubled man or woman, and engaging the drama of a problem relationship than peaceful, healthy intimacy. Bored and fearful of being trapped with the wrong person, many will abandon a perfectly acceptable and appropriate situation, opting instead for yet another intense and dramatic “love” experience. Others, because they are desperately afraid of being alone, will remain in or continually rekindle a broken, unmanageable relationship. And, of course, like all addicts, these individuals have tendency to attract and glom onto other damaged people. In other words, they tend to make very bad sexual and romantic choices.
All of the above signs are apparent in Dede. At one point we see her outside her “dishrag” ex-boyfriend’s apartment, desperate to ring his doorbell for sexual and emotional validation. In a moment of clarity, she calls fellow newcomer Neil and he walks her through the situation, helping her to see that yes, the sex might be great, but then her ex will simply ignore her and want her to leave, which will make her feel alone and unworthy of love, which will make her want to use drugs, which she will almost certainly do because that is her long-established pattern. In other words, Neil helps Dede understand that if she wants to stay sober from narcotics, she needs to walk away from the ex-boyfriend. Her love addiction and her drug addiction are intertwined and part of the same addictive cycle.

Cross- and Co-Occurring Addictions
People who are cross-addicted switch from one addiction to another. People with co-occurring addictions engage in more than one addictive behavior at the same time. This sort of co-morbidity is especially common among sex and love addicts. For instance, one study of male sex addicts found that 87 percent regularly abused either another addictive behavior or an addictive substance.
Thanks for Sharing does an excellent job of presenting both cross- and co-occurring addictions. Mike is in recovery for both sex and alcohol, Dede is in recovery for both sex/love and narcotics, and it is very apparent that in addition to being a sex addict Neil has an undiagnosed eating disorder. At one point we see him binge-eating doughnuts (as a way to not act out sexually). Eventually he gets disgusted with himself and tosses that last few doughnuts into the trash. A few minutes later, however, he goes back for them. It is a sad yet eminently relatable moment, and powerfully indicative of the push-pull recovering addicts experience. They want to stay sober, but they “need” to self-medicate their emotional discomfort.
Dede’s co-occurring addiction situation — finding her way into sex and love addiction recovery via substance abuse recovery — is actually quite typical. Very often sex and love addiction in women is recognized only after a woman seeks help for another issue, usually drug and alcohol addiction or an eating disorder. In fact, many women who end up in sex and love addiction inpatient treatment programs arrive there only after they’ve been asked to leave another treatment setting (for chemical dependency, an eating disorder, depression, etc.) because while there they were acting out sexually or romantically. The Center for Relationship and Sexual Recovery at The Ranch, a gender-separate sex and love addiction treatment facility in Tennessee, actually specializes in treating women who have failed in treatment elsewhere because of their problematic sexual and romantic behaviors.

Nailing It
From a clinical standpoint, there are many things to like about Thanks for Sharing. For starters, it’s a much more watchable and enjoyable movie than Shame. As such, the general public is much more likely to see this film, and that is a very good thing. Certainly the movie has a few painful, cringe-inducing moments, but those can’t be avoided if you’re going to show the reality of sexual and romantic addiction. Plus, those “difficult” scenes are tempered with moments of humor and honest recovery. All in all, this is a movie that recovering sex and love addicts can comfortably take their friends and family to see without fear of judgment.
The movie also does an excellent job of presenting the reality of recovery. The simple truth is people don’t walk into 12-step rooms and automatically get sober. Life as a recovering addict is not easy, and it’s filled with ups and downs. In the film we clearly see this, with one terrible relapse, several near relapses, one person lying about sobriety time, and more. We even see that Mike, the group’s elder statesman with fifteen years sobriety, is far from perfect. For instance, he’s still not made amends (step nine of the twelve steps) to his son because his ego and narcissism simply won’t allow it.
The best part of Thanks for Sharing is that is accurately shows the need for social support in recovery. Very few addicts are able to establish or maintain sobriety on their own, regardless of what their addiction is. The film hammers this point home almost relentlessly, though thankfully it never gets preachy on the topic. Overall, Thanks for Sharing is highly recommended for clinicians who work with addicted clients. And what clinician doesn’t? It is also highly recommended for patients struggling with any addiction, or any sexual/romantic disorder. The film is an excellent, enjoyable, non-threatening way to educate troubled individuals (and the general public, too) about the nature of sex and love addiction, and, more importantly, the pathway to recovery.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, he founded The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles in 1995. He has developed clinical programs for The Ranch in Nunnelly, Tennessee, Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, and the aforementioned Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. Visit www.elementsbehavioralhealth.com