Cross and Co-Occurring Addictions
Individuals who are cross-addicted are people who switch from one addiction to another—for instance, Suzanne stops drinking alcohol, then gains 40 pounds in three months, replacing booze with compulsive eating. People with co-occurring addictions struggle with multiple addictions at the same time—for instance, Eric smokes pot morning, noon, and night, and also plays video games for eight to ten hours each day.
Cross and co-occurring disorders are especially common with sex addicts. In one survey of male sex addicts, 87 percent of respondents reported that they regularly abused either addictive substances or other addictive behaviors. Considerable anecdotal evidence suggests that for a majority of sex addicts with a co-occurring addiction the secondary drug of choice is crystal methamphetamine. Sex addicts also use cocaine, crack cocaine, and almost any other stimulant—but crystal meth is usually cheaper and more readily available.
Consider Brad, a married, 38-year-old lawyer:
I grew up in a painful, empty, abusive middle-class home where work was a much bigger priority than home for my smart, funny, angry, alcoholic father. Whenever my brothers or I got in trouble, Dad would whip off his belt before asking questions, especially when he was drinking. And he drank a lot.
I learned early on how to look good, how to lie and manipulate my way out of trouble, and most of all how to stay under the radar. I left home as soon as I could and got into a good college, followed by law school. Law school is when I first tried meth, initially to help me stay awake and study. It worked, too, because I graduated cum laude. Immediately after law school I married Grace and took a job with a well-regarded firm.
What Grace and my new firm didn’t know (because no one did) was that I was living a double life. In early adolescence I would sneak booze from my Dad’s stash, and I spent most evenings alone in my room getting buzzed while perusing and masturbating to Playboy. This became a pattern I used to relax and sleep, and it continued into adult life.
By my twenties, Internet porn and “dating” websites replaced magazines and videos, and crystal meth became my substance of choice. By the time I made junior partner at 29 (the youngest ever at my firm) I had established an escalating pattern of telling Grace that I was “going out of town for work,” which really meant holing up in some hotel with a big baggie of meth, getting high, and masturbating to porn until the drugs ran out. Eventually I replaced the porn with prostitutes—especially those women willing to come to my room meth in hand.
Our son Jamie was about three years old when a routine medical exam revealed that Grace had a long-standing, undiscovered STD. That’s how she found out about my cheating. I convinced everyone around me that the problem was drugs (related to the past), that the sex only happened when I was high (mostly true), and didn’t happen very often (a total lie).
To appease Grace I entered a high-end drug and alcohol treatment center. In six weeks of intensive (and expensive) treatment no one ever asked about my lifelong pairing of substances and sexual acting out. And I never volunteered that information, either. I left there chemically sober, but without a clue about handling all the sexual problems and related secrets that I continued to keep.
I didn’t realize that I was a drug and sex addict until one of my inevitable meth relapses (all related to sex) landed me (along with my professional license) in jail for doing drugs with prostitutes. It was only when facing the loss of my marriage and career that I became willing to address both of my addictions.
What is Crystal Meth?
Crystal meth (crystalized methamphetamine) is a synthetic version of adrenaline, a naturally occurring hormone the body produces in small amounts when reacting to immediate stress. Adrenaline increases energy and alertness when we need a short burst to escape immediate danger.
The main difference between crystal meth and adrenaline is adrenaline clears out of our systems quickly, whereas methamphetamine sticks around for six to eight hours. Known on the street as meth, crystal, crank, tweak, speed, ice, ice cream, Tina, tweedy, etc., methamphetamine is sold legally (with a prescription) in tablet form as Desoxyn—FDA approved for the treatment of ADHD and obesity.
More often, though, it’s cooked in makeshift labs and sold illegally as a powder or rock. The powder form can be snorted, smoked, eaten, or dissolved and injected; the rock form is usually smoked. Meth binges are known as “tweaking.” When tweaked, addicts stay awake for days or even weeks at a time. Sometimes episodes don’t end until the user is arrested or hospitalized for psychotic behavior, or the user’s body is no longer able to function and “crashes” of its own accord.
Often called “the sex drug,” meth is the preferred “party favor” for anonymous Internet and smart-phone hookups. Like all stimulants, meth use evokes profound feelings of euphoria, intensity, and power in the user, along with the drive to obsessively do whatever activity that person wishes to engage in, including having sex.
In fact, users say the drug allows them to be sexual for an entire day with or without orgasm—even two or three days—without sleeping, eating, or coming down, especially when Viagra or Cialis is along for the ride.
One recovering meth and sex addict in treatment at the Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles stated, “When I do crystal meth, the sex just goes on forever.”
Another noted, “There’s no love, no caring, no emotion involved. I don’t care who they are, or even what their names are. I just want sex, sex and more sex.”
Crack May Be Whack, but Meth…
Crystal meth is undoubtedly among the most troublesome illicit drugs currently en vogue, and for sex addicts the dangers extend beyond the usual problems associated with crystal meth abuse. First and foremost, when a user is intoxicated and disinhibited by a stimulant as powerful as meth, safe sex practices are out the window—especially for individuals accustomed to having multiple anonymous partners for hours at a time.
Because of this, the risk of contracting or transmitting HIV, hepatitis, and other STDs increases significantly. Moreover, meth use combined with sex often leads to abuse of other drugs—for instance, to counteract “crystal dick” (meth induced impotence) many men take Viagra, Cialis, or another erectile dysfunction treatment. And meth users of both genders often rely on sleeping pills, nighttime cold medicines, pot, and other “downers” to come off their high and get some sleep because meth can keep users awake for days—long after the enjoyable effects have worn off.
Furthermore, ingesting meth (or any other stimulant) causes the user’s brain to release large amounts of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure. Over time, repeated meth use (especially when that use is bolstered by the “natural” high of sex) both depletes the body’s stores of dopamine and destroys the wiring of dopamine receptors.
Eventually meth addicts are unable to experience any simple human pleasure without being high—a condition known as anhedonia. Not surprisingly, sex-meth addicts often report having a very difficult time enjoying healthy intimacy and healthy sexual activity once sober. For these individuals it can take a year or more for the brain’s dopamine levels to normalize. Occasionally, this sexual/intimacy-related anhedonia can be semi-permanent.
And of course sex-meth addicts also experience the usual problems associated directly with meth addiction. Anhedonia, described above, results in an ever deepening cycle of use and depression, and an increasing unwillingness to participate in life. Relationships disintegrate, jobs are lost. Children of crashing meth addicts are left to fend for themselves for days on end. When tweaking, meth addicts generally exhibit poor judgment and engage in dangerous, hyperactive behavior. Many commit petty or violent crimes.
Long-time users often develop symptoms of psychosis including paranoia, aggression, hallucinations and delusions. Meth addicts may experience serious physical health problems such as anorexia, convulsions, stroke, and cardiac collapse, any of which can be fatal. They may also develop “meth mouth,” a condition of severe tooth decay and tooth loss caused by the constant dry mouth and teeth grinding associated with stimulant drug use.
Meth dries out the skin as well, leading many addicts to believe they are infested with “meth lice,” causing them to frantically scratch their face, arms, and legs with their fingernails—a behavior known as “picking.” Picking sometimes results in serious self-inflicted wounds and infection.
Treatment for Cross or Co-Occurring Meth and Sex Addiction
Drug and alcohol addictions are critical problems which nearly always have to be eliminated before the issues underlying behavioral and fantasy-based addictions such as sex can be addressed. After all, drugs and alcohol are disinhibiting. They weaken a person’s judgment to the point where that person cannot remain committed to other boundaries he or she may have previously set, such as not having certain kinds of sex.
Unless the individual abusing drugs and/or alcohol gets sober from those substances, it is unlikely that he or she will be able to eliminate problematic sexual behavior for very long. It is also important that treatment specialists help sex-meth addicts understand that sex in the future will not be nearly as intense or exciting as what they’re used to. The sex-meth addict will need adjust his or her expectations regarding the “rewards” of sexual activity, otherwise that person is likely to be disappointed and return to the addictive behaviors, both chemical and sexual, in an attempt to recreate past pleasures.
An exception to the rule of “getting chemically sober first” applies to sex-meth addicts who have so fused drug and sex addiction that they cannot remain chemically sober because of their sexual acting out, and they cannot remain sexually sober because of their substance abuse. For these individuals, relapse with one addiction nearly always leads to quick relapse with the other. In such cases, substance abuse and sexual acting out need to be dealt with at the same time in order to stay sober on either front.
Recognizing this, there are now treatment facilities that specialize in addressing cross and co-occurring disorders simultaneously. Chief among these treatment centers are the gender-separate co-occurring disorders programs at The Ranch, located in Tennessee. Numerous residents at The Ranch present with sex and drug problems that are so intricately intertwined there is no hope of lasting sobriety without addressing both issues at once. Through treatment tailored specifically to the needs of each patient, the chances for long-term recovery are greatly increased.