One of the first casualties for people who abuse substances will be relational intimacy. Those of us who have abused mind altering substances know firsthand that we were unable to maintain healthy relationships with our partners, families, friends, and co-workers in active addiction. This is because these substances became our obsession, and there was no room for anyone or anything else in our lives. Due to the progressive nature of addiction, this obsession often takes over our lives and we can become unable to participate in healthy relationships. In active addiction many of us lost all contact with those we loved and found ourselves alone and in the depths of despair. For those of us who could stay clean for short lengths of time, we often found ourselves relapsing over a new or continuing dysfunctional relationship, wondering “why does this keep happening to me.” Simply removing substances from our lives does not necessarily mean we will be successful in intimate relationships. In recovery, it is often recommended we stay out of relationship for up to a year, to allow us time to grow emotionally. Often when individuals in early recovery start new relationships it is to feel better or mood alter. Starting a relationship for the wrong reasons often means that the relationship will fail and without a strong program of recovery the pain and despair of a failing relationship can lead us back to using!
Understanding the problem starts with understanding what intimacy really is. The word intimacy comes from a Latin word meaning ‘inner’ and can be defined as particularly close interpersonal relationships that usually involves both emotional and sometimes physical intimacy. In recovery, we also learn that we can have emotional intimate relationships with our peers, often sharing our deepest darkest secrets, and we find strength in each other. Physical intimacy most often refers to sexual and romantic contact.
An intimate relationship is said to include several elements such as:
- Each individual having extensive knowledge about the other person.
- Those in an intimate relationship will feel affection and care for each other.
- There will be an expectation that the relationship will continue long term.
- An intimate relationship may mean that those involved think in terms of us rather than me.
- Those involved in such a relationship will be committed to each other.
- There is an expectation that the other partner will treat them fairly.
- They share many beliefs, experiences, and opinions – this is referred to as mutuality.
The Importance of Intimacy
As human beings, and individuals in recovery from addiction, we are aware that intimacy is an important part of our daily lives and it is through intimacy that we more fully understand who we are. One of the most common reasons reported for the breakup of relationships is lack of intimacy, a vital component of a spiritual journey and program of recovery from substance abuse. Relationships can often feel stale and unfulfilling when there is a lack of intimacy, and it may not be possible to progress very far in spiritual terms if people feel closed off from others. Many of us who suffer with addiction are self-absorbed which often leads to a great deal of suffering, however by becoming emotionally intimate with another person we can begin to break down some of our own personal barriers and learn to focus on others instead of ourselves. If we lack intimacy in our lives it can leave us feeling incomplete. When we suffer from this type of loneliness we are at risk of the symptoms of depression, and we may turn to maladaptive behaviors, such as abusing alcohol or drugs, engaging in process addictions such as codependency or gambling addiction, or disordered eating, for solace.
Substance Abuse and Intimacy
For those of us abusing alcohol and drugs, it can be almost impossible for us to maintain intimate relationships. As our addiction progresses, we may even lose all interest in sex completely, this may manifest itself as sexual anorexia. Addiction drives us into a world of delusion and selfish action and we often go to great lengths to push our partners away to protect our disease. It will often become impossible for our partner to trust us fully, and this will prove to be a barrier to intimacy. We are still likely to have people who love us, but there will be a sense of wariness mixed in with the affection.
Many of us suffering from addiction do not necessarily have a committed partner and we may engage in promiscuous sex which lacks intimacy and typically involves multiple partners. Some of us may regularly wake up in bed with a stranger with little recollection of the night before. Deep down we may realize that this is a poor substitute for true intimacy, but it becomes a habit and then possibly an addiction which we can continue despite the negative consequences of our behaviour. When we are inebriated we are liable to make impulsive and poor decisions, and this often applies to the people we end up being physically intimate with. Such behavior increases the risk of picking up a sexually transmitted disease. It can also lead to unplanned pregnancy. The consequences are often grave and add a new layer of pain and despair.
So, What Do We Do?
At Cedars at Cobble Hill, we have introduced an Intimacy Recovery Program. We believe education, self-exploration, and self-reflection is the key to gaining a better quality of life. The Intimacy Recovery Program (IRP) is a holistic approach to treatment. The IRP includes examining sexual behaviors and intimate relationships. Intimacy disorders come in many forms, including relationship breakdown, relationship addiction/compulsion, sex addiction/compulsion, codependency, and sexual anorexia. Men and women who experienced early life abuse such as physical or sexual trauma or emotional neglect often struggle with underlying emotional or psychological problems. Most of these individuals appear to have various forms of early trauma and attachment challenges over which drugs mixed with non-intimate sexuality provide a sense of emotional control.
At Cedars at Cobble Hill, we have developed a unique and intensive intimacy recovery program that begins with identifying and addressing co-occurring mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, addiction or personality disorders, all of which typically need to be stabilized before underlying trauma can be effectively addressed. This stage can include exploration and education about early life attachment trauma and its relationship to later mental and emotional struggles, processes to establishing context, helping the individual develop insight into the roots of the behavior, and reducing the intense shame that people with intimacy disorders often feel.
Subsequent sessions often focus on helping the patient develop skills for identifying and managing anxiety and the desire to flee intimacy and attachment. This enables our patients to heal damaged relationships and to remove any secrets that contribute to shame and dysfunctional behaviors. During this process, patients can gain insight into emotional issues that drive these behaviors and are invited to eliminate self-defeating patterns that contribute to shame. This enables our patients to establish a foundation from which to have healthy, connected and satisfying intimate relationships, improving their quality of life.
JACKIE ARMOUR, PHD (C), SEXOLOGIST (C), MA, ICADC, CCAC, CSAT, CSAT-S, CCTP, CARC, MSLC
Jacqueline is a certified addictions counsellor at Cedars at Cobble Hill specializing in sexual compulsion and relationship/love addiction. After her graduate studies at Royal Roads University, Jacqueline completed her intensive training at the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals (IITAP) and is a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (CSAT). Currently Jacqueline is completing a doctoral program in clinical sexology at The International Institute of Clinical Sexology (IICS) and was a presenter at the May 2017 IITAP Symposium. Utilizing her own personal experience and journey of recovery from addiction, Jacqueline weaves her stories and personal experience of working and living the twelve steps into her practice. Read more about Jackie here.