Avoiding Common Pitfalls on the Road of Recovery
Our sexual compulsion continues to be cunning, baffling and powerful, even as we walk the road of recovery. Though we may have joined Sexual Compulsives Anonymous with tremendous enthusiasm, and begun to enjoy sexual sobriety, most of us encountered certain pitfalls on that road.
Below we describe some of the common diversions that can cause us to veer off the path of recovery. We have grouped them based on our collective experience of when they are most likely to be found, but you may run into any of them at any time in recovery. We also offer suggested courses of action to take when you encounter them.
Keep in mind that SCA is a spiritual program, offering a spiritual solution for the problem of sexual compulsion. We do not speak of being “cured” of sexual compulsion. Instead, as the book Alcoholics Anonymous tells us, “What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.”
We can’t guarantee that taking any of these actions alone will keep you sober, but we can say that many sexual compulsives have found them to be helpful. In our experience, being willing to take suggested courses of action proves that we want recovery, and demonstrates our willingness to allow our Higher Power to help us. Many recovering sexual compulsives can vouch that in difficult times, “God does for us what we could not do for ourselves.”
To use the example of a driver on the road, it’s a good idea to take driver training courses, and to make sure there is a spare tire in the trunk of your car. Taking a driving course can help you recognize dangerous conditions, and know how to change your driving accordingly if you encounter them. Likewise, having a spare tire ensures that you can get back on the road sooner if you get a flat tire. But even the most experienced driver could have an accident, or run over something on the road and get a flat tire. In other words, you can’t know in advance exactly what you’ll encounter on the road you are driving on. But, by being forewarned, you can recognize hazards when they arise and be prepared to face them – by using the Twelve Steps of SCA and relying on your Higher Power.
Common Pitfalls for Newcomers
Comparing Out: As newcomers, we often have trouble identifying with people in the rooms. Some of us have thoughts like, “I’m not like those people. They’re so much older (or younger) than me. Their sexuality or specific patterns of acting out are different than mine. Their socioeconomic backgrounds make it hard to relate to their story. They are cliquish and reluctant to accept a newcomer into the ‘in crowd.’ Their Sexual Recovery Plans are too strict (or not strict enough).”
Suggested courses of action: We remember the slogans, “Keep Coming Back,” “Principles Before Personalities,” and “Take What You Like and Leave the Rest.” We try to attend at least six meetings before deciding whether the SCA Fellowship is for us. If our area has many meetings, we try to attend several different ones. This gives us the opportunity to meet a variety of members, and to hear different members’ histories and experiences in recovery. Also, we look for the similarities, rather than differences – to identify with the feelings, not the facts, of what we hear. With the passage of time, and by keeping an open mind, we may come to recognize that, while the demographics of other SCA members, or the way they act out, may be different from our own, what binds us together in recovery is the powerlessness and unmanageability of compulsive sexual behaviors, and the thinking behind them, rather than the details of those behaviors.
Terminal Uniqueness: A corollary to Comparing Out is “terminal uniqueness” – taking the attitude that no one else understands us; that our experiences are unique; that no one in the program has ever faced the challenges we face. Members who fall into this trap tend to close their minds (and often their ears) to any evidence that other SCA members have problems much like theirs.
Suggested courses of action: One of the most effective ways of dispelling terminal uniqueness is by reading SCA and other Twelve Step programs’ literature. These contain descriptions of the attitudes and thinking processes of people with compulsive behaviors, as well as compelling personal stories of people in recovery from all walks of life. Reading recovery literature can open the eyes of even the sexual compulsive who is determined to use his or her terminal uniqueness to reject the SCA program. Also, we keep listening to others’ shares at meetings. We keep sharing as much of our own stories at meetings as we are willing. Many of us have felt “terminally unique” at least to some degree – until the day that we heard someone else tell “our” story, and recognized that we do indeed have things in common with other SCA members.
Fear of Letting Go of Friends and Lifestyle: Our patterns of acting out put us in contact with people who may share our sexual compulsion – both those with whom we have acted out, and those with whom we’ve shared euphoric recall of our sexual “adventures.” Often, these people do not share our desire for a new way of life, and may not understand or support our desire to stop having compulsive sex. Also, certain neighborhoods, business establishments, publications, and types of parties seemed to beckon us to return to old behaviors. Some of us found that certain articles of clothing or other objects triggered obsessive fantasies. If we do not take action, we may find ourselves running back to these people, places, and things, and our old ways of behaving.
Suggested courses of action: We try to accept that being around certain people, places, and things that trigger us can jeopardize our sobriety, and we avoid them. We seek the company of people in recovery – not just at fellowship after meetings, but between meetings, too. We invite other members to participate in sober activities, such as going to see films, concerts, shows, or museum exhibits; going to restaurants, even if it’s just for coffee or dessert; hosting (or helping others host) game or movie nights. In doing so, we may come to agree with the simple wisdom of SCA members who say, ‘If you want to avoid a slip, you have to avoid slippery places.”
Having Sex with Another Member of the Fellowship: There’s good reason for the wording in our closing statement: “…we suggest that sex between members not be treated lightly. Sex between people new to the Fellowship and other members is discouraged.” We may find ourselves attracted to people at SCA meetings. This attraction is natural, but what do we do with those feelings? Having sex with another SCA member can derail our program by distracting us from our primary purpose: to stop having compulsive sex, and to help others achieve sexual sobriety. Having sex with other SCA members can create awkwardness when we see the other person in the rooms, and can foster gossip and uncomfortable feelings for either (or both) of us.
Suggested courses of action: For the sake of our recovery, we may need to avoid contact with SCA members were strongly attracted to. Or, we may find that by starting a conversation with the person we’re attracted to, we break the “mystique” we find in that person and our obsession diminishes. We seek our sponsors’ input as to whether it would be better to avoid these people, or to cautiously engage with them to “humanize” rather than “idolize” them. This is an important choice, and we seek guidance from a fellow recovering sexual compulsive who has experience and objectivity, rather than making the decision by ourselves.
Common Pitfalls Further Down the Road of Recovery
Illusion That Recovery Is Making Things Worse: In much the same way that renovating a house can be a messy process, when working the SCA program of recovery, it can seem for a while that things in our lives are actually getting worse. Even if we are abstaining from sexually compulsive behaviors, other addictive behaviors may sprout up in their place. This can be expected. It can be temporarily uncomfortable when we let go of old behaviors before we have established new ways of thinking and acting. This is a critical time in our recovery process. Before recovery, we could often escape unpleasant and unfamiliar feelings by numbing out with compulsive sex. When we abstain from addictive behaviors, we may begin to experience painful symptoms of withdrawal.
Suggested courses of action: We remember that the only way out is through. We keep our perspective. We recognize that “This Too Shall Pass.” The SCA pamphlet titled “Moving Through Withdrawal” helps remind us that others have gone through what we’re experiencing, and have come out the other side the better for it. Also, we share at meetings about how we are feeling and what we are experiencing. We reach out to other members and ask for help and support. We may be surprised at the response we get by showing our vulnerability. We may well find that it is during times like this that we forge friendships with other recovering sexual compulsives who will become close friends in recovery. We realize that a healing process is taking place, although it may not be progressing according to our preferred timetable.
Frustration at Slow Progress: As sexual compulsives, we are accustomed to instant gratification. Accordingly, we tend to seek a “quick fix” to our problems. We hear about the Promises as described in the book Alcoholics Anonymous, and when we don’t see them materializing right away, we may become discouraged and return to compulsive sex. We must remember that the Promises appear in the context of working the Ninth Step – although many of us have found some of them begin to come true for us even before we have fully completed this step.
Suggested courses of action: First, we remind ourselves that our progress in SCA follows our Higher Power’s schedule, not our own. We work the Twelve Steps and use The Tools That Help Us Get Better, then let go of the outcome. Another helpful exercise is to write about our life before joining SCA, versus now. We consider how we used to spend our time, versus how we spend it now. We consider the negative consequences we suffered when acting out, and ask ourselves if we are experiencing them at the moment, or if we are free of them. We consider whether we had any hope for changing our life patterns before we joined SCA, versus whether that hope seems realistic now. We think about whether we had people in our lives who understood what we were going through then, versus now. Answering even some of these questions through a few pages of writing can provide us with a fresh perspective. Often we are the last ones to notice our own improvement.
We’re “Fixed”: Sometimes in recovery, our outer circumstances change for the better. We may get the job we’ve always wanted, go back to school, or get involved in a wonderful new relationship. The job, school, or relationship then starts to take up time we previously devoted to attending meetings and working our program. Our new significant other can become our new Higher Power. We may forget that recovery in SCA is what made it possible to have a stable job or relationship. We may even conclude that the positive developments in our lives are evidence that we are “cured” and no longer need to work the SCA program. We have seen many members stop attending SCA meetings at this point. Unfortunately, for members who make this choice, everything may seem fine for a while, but when problems arise in their new circumstances, they may be genuinely surprised to find themselves returning to acting out behavior.
Suggested courses of action: We keep this slogan in mind: “Once an addict, always an addict.” That may seem like a harsh verdict, but it is the bitter experience of many people who have turned to Twelve Step programs, and found relief from their compulsive behavior, one day at a time. It is also based on a sincere and heartfelt acceptance of the First Step. It’s not an admission of hopelessness, either; on the contrary, it reminds us that “there is One who has all power – that One is God.” Our lives may have gotten better as a result of working the SCA program, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t need it anymore. Besides, we consider this thought: if our lives got better from working the program, doesn’t it make sense that they would keep getting better if we keep working it? Another slogan we remember is, “First Things First.” A truism is, “When you put your recovery first, everything that comes second becomes first class.” We have faith that working our SCA program will give us clarity to make better choices, and serenity to accept “life on life’s terms” when things don’t go the way we had planned or hoped.
Feeling Entitled to a “Reward”: After a period of sexual sobriety, we may feel we are entitled to “reward” ourselves with compulsive sex. In recovery, it’s important to realize that the negative consequences of acting out are greater than any short-term pleasure we may derive from these behaviors. Choosing sober behavior instead gives us the long-term satisfaction that we were seeking (but never found) by acting out.
Suggested courses of action: We review our Sexual Recovery Plans with our sponsors, paying particular attention to the list of positive things that we want to do instead of acting out. Are our rewards things that we can actually get excited about doing, or are they merely a “should” list? If we are used to the adrenaline rush of compulsive sex, we are unlikely to get very enthusiastic about rewards limited to things like “eating more vegetables,” “losing weight,” and “trying harder to keep my living space clean and tidy.” We ask ourselves what we would really like to be doing. We try listing some items that are within easy reach, and commit to actually doing them. But we also include some longer-term “goal” items, such as earning or saving up money to spend on a vacation in our favorite city or country, beautifying our home, or starting a garden. We think of things that we always wanted to do, but could never get around to doing because we were spending so much time or money (or both) on compulsive sex, and we add those to our list.
The “Geographic Cure”: For sober or unsober reasons, some of us decided to move to a new locale. We felt that our problems were “caused” by the people and situations around us, and the idea of starting a fresh new life in another city was attractive to us. Unfortunately, those of us who have tried this approach soon found that our problems were within us, and we brought them with us no matter where we went. If we haven’t made recovery our first priority, the stress of moving can quickly lead us to compulsive sex in our new location. If SCA has meetings in this new city, we may tell ourselves that we’re too busy with the details of moving, and that we’ll get around to the meetings when things “settle down.” Or that we’re not ready to face a whole new group of SCA members, and we’ll just maintain our contacts from our previous location (if we can find the time). If no SCA meetings exist in our new location, we may resist the idea of starting a new meeting, not knowing where to begin. If we use these justifications to avoid meetings in our new city, it won’t be long before we locate new acting out places and partners. Ironically, our sexual addiction often found it easier to acclimate to a new city than our recovering selves did!
Suggested courses of action: We resist the urge to relocate if that urge is driven by a desire to escape problems, rather than by sober reasons, like family obligations, a new job or business opportunity, or a healthy relationship. If we find ourselves wanting to run away from our present circumstances, we talk about it in meetings. We may be surprised how many members will relate, and share with us what happened when they tried to move away and leave their addiction behind. If we’ve already made such a “geographic,” the SCA website and SCA: A Program of Recovery (a.k.a., the Little Blue Book) provide suggestions and guidelines that can help us start a new meeting. Once in a while, we find that, even though we may have run away to get a “fresh start,” our Higher Power followed along, and led us to establish meetings in a city that didn’t have them before. Reliance on our Higher Power can help us bloom where we are planted – or transplanted!
Half Measures: We may be going through the motions – not attending meetings for weeks at a time, calling our sponsor only sporadically, or avoiding working the Steps. We treat the program as something useful but optional, failing to make a commitment to recovery. We may ease off our “rigorous honesty” and begin telling half-truths – or refrain from sharing at meetings at all, because the truth is not pretty, and we don’t want to lie or look bad. Rationalization starts to set in. Or, we may take a legalistic approach, looking for a “loophole” in our Sexual Recovery Plan that would allow us to act out without it technically being a slip. The result? At best, our progress in the program slows (or stops altogether); at worst, we return to acting-out behaviors. Working a program halfheartedly (and getting little recovery as a result) can cause us to conclude, erroneously, that the program doesn’t work for us.
Suggested courses of action: The book Alcoholics Anonymous tells us, “Half measures availed us nothing.” We remember the fundamental slogan of Twelve Step recovery, “It works if you work it.” We ask ourselves, “Am I really working a program of recovery, or just dabbling in it?” Preparing a daily program checklist that lists actions such as prayer, attending meetings, making outreach calls, reading program literature, journaling, or writing our Step 1 work, can be an effective way to see, on a daily basis, whether we are truly “going to any lengths” for recovery, and if not, where we need to ramp up our efforts.
Complacency: At some point, we may become comfortable in our recovery, and decide to “coast” by cutting back on working the Twelve Steps or reducing our use of Tools such as meetings, the phone, and service work. We may decide that attending a meeting that gets us home at 9 p.m. is too late – conveniently forgetting that while acting out, we often stayed up past dawn. We may tell ourselves that we’re “taking care of ourselves” by going home early and skipping a meeting – then going online to look for compulsive sex “just for a little while.”
Suggested courses of action: The best way we can take care of ourselves is by working the SCA program, and connecting with our Higher Power and other recovering sexual compulsives. In our experience, recovery is either on an upward spiral, or a downward spiral. As an example of the downward spiral, acting out may cause us to miss a meeting, putting our recovery on even shakier ground. We remember that each seemingly minor decision we make can bring us closer to sexual sobriety, or closer to a slip. Some of us say that the letters in the word “slip” stand for “Sobriety Losing Its Priority.” Our recovery can get a boost when we attend meetings regularly, use the Tools That Help Us Get Better, and work the Twelve Steps with the same honesty, openness, and willingness we had as a newcomer. If we fill our days with those activities, rather than with compulsive sex, we feel better.
Putting Personalities Before Principles: The Twelfth Tradition reminds us to place “Principles Before Personalities.” Unfortunately, it is easy to do the contrary, and develop resentments toward people in SCA (or the program as a whole). We might look at a program phone list and say, “I’m not going to call this person; he’s not taking the program seriously enough!” In the next breath, we can look at another name, and think, “She is taking it way too seriously.” One by one, we eliminate SCA members from our recovery circle, until there is no one left to turn to. It’s easy to become discouraged by seeing others in SCA having slips, and sometimes, relapses. Also, we can decide that we don’t like the format (or the time, or the day, or the location) of a meeting and use that as an excuse not to go. We can eliminate each meeting one by one, until none that suit our capricious standards are left. We’re still secretly drawn to acting out. We want to be able to blame a slip or a relapse on other people in the Fellowship, or on meetings that we have decided don’t meet our own arbitrary “needs.”
Suggested courses of action: We recognize that any attitude we hold that gets in the way of attending meetings, interacting with fellow sufferers, reaching out to our Higher Power, using the Tools, or working the Steps endangers our sexual sobriety. Instead of finding fault with others, we recognize how their character defects may closely resemble our own. When we find ourselves criticizing some aspect of a meeting, we ask ourselves, “How important is it?” We make a decision that the most important thing is our recovery, not whether we like every single member of the program, or whether a particular meeting suits our own preferences.
Perfectionism: Before recovery, we might have thought that perfectionism was a character asset, rather than a character defect. In recovery, we often demanded too much of ourselves, too fast. Was our Sexual Recovery Plan too restrictive? Did we honestly want to stop doing the things that we defined as a slip? Or were we merely conforming to someone else’s expectations, trying to impress our sponsor, therapist or partner? We began to see that the problem was not our striving for success, but rather using our perfectionism as a way to sabotage ourselves. We are not saints. Our goal is spiritual progress, not spiritual perfection.
Suggested courses of action: We try to recognize the ways in which perfectionism can appear. Do we berate others for not living up to our standards? If so, we aren’t surprised when they pull away from us, leaving us feeling angry and lonely. Do we set impossibly high goals for ourselves, then stop trying when we fail to achieve them – or use this “failure” as permission to have a slip? Some of us tape this message to our bathroom mirror and read it aloud to ourselves every morning: “I am a good person. In fact, I am very good at being a person – I make mistakes.”
Common Pitfalls for “Long-Timers”
Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: People with a long time in the program sometimes feel that they should be further along, considering the amount of time they have been in recovery. It’s easy to “compare and despair,” comparing our insides to someone else’s outsides. “Old Timers” can be reluctant to share their day-to-day struggles in recovery for fear of “setting a bad example” for their sponsees and newcomers.
Suggested courses of action: We remember that recovery does not always progress in a neat, linear fashion. Frustrations and setbacks are to be expected. However, over time, our lives improve as we continue to embrace recovery as a way of life. We remember to be gentle and kind to ourselves. If we do slip, we can be grateful for lessons learned that will help ourselves and others. We read the section of the Little Blue Book titled “Fourteen Ways to Avoid a Slip,” and try some of the ideas described in this helpful guide. Also, we remember that when “Old Timers” share their frustrations and struggles with other members, it doesn’t “set a bad example.” On the contrary; it shows that no matter how long a member has been in SCA, life challenges do not disappear. We make it an opportunity for us to share with other members how we applied the spiritual solutions of the Twelve Steps and The Tools That Help Us Get Better to address life on life’s terms.
Burnout: SCA members with longtime recovery can ‘burn out” by taking on too many service commitments or working with more sponsees than they can handle. They may feel unappreciated, or resent other members who are doing little or no service work. Spending hours talking with sponsees on the telephone or doing face-to-face Step work, carrying out service commitments at regular meetings, plus attendance at Intergroup or ISO business meetings, can leave these long-timers feeling that they need a break. Sometimes, rather than cutting back their service work to a more reasonable level, they make a complete break with the Fellowship.
Suggested courses of action: We keep in mind the slogan, “Easy Does It.” We make a list of the ways that we participate in SCA, both for our own recovery and in service, and review it with our sponsors. In doing so, we may realize that we have clung to certain service commitments to “make sure that they are done right,” rather than allowing for the Twelve Step tradition of rotation of leadership. We may also realize that we did not share with our program friends, or did not emphasize to our sponsees, the value of the tool of service to strengthen their program. For SCA to survive and thrive, it cannot rely on only a few people who are willing to do service. A meeting that closes due to a lack of people willing to do service may be just the wake-up call that other members need to realize the importance of being of service to SCA.
The First Step tells us we are powerless over sexual compulsion, but that doesn’t mean we are helpless. We have found we can recover by taking certain steps – the Twelve Suggested Steps of SCA. You might think of each of the pitfalls as an aspect of the First Step – how powerlessness and unmanageability turn up in our lives. And each of the suggestions is a way to practice the Third Step – turning our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand God. You might wonder how to decide which suggestions to follow. That’s where the Second Step comes in. Give it time, Pray. Meditate. Talk it over with other recovering sexual compulsives, especially your sponsor. A common theme in these pitfalls is trying to recover alone, but SCA is a “we” program, not a “me” program.
Perhaps you have found other pitfalls or want to suggest other courses of action. We welcome any contributions to this literature. And as always, we’re happy to have you with us on the road of recovery.
Copyright © 2011 SCA International Service Organization