Substance use addictions became intricately interwoven with sex at an early age for Lewis, a man who was starved for attention by his parents. Such co-occurring addictions do complicate recovery, but they can be overcome. Lewis grew up in large, spacious homes—his family owned more than one—with hired caregivers and tutors, but without much in the way of care and attention from his parents. His father was an executive for a multinational corporation and his mother was a lawyer with a career in politics. These things felt normal to Lewis who, as a child, was unaware of his family’s wealth and status. Eager to be noticed by his parents, Lewis could only stand at the edges of their worlds. When his parents threw parties, which they frequently did, he would come down from his room and linger on the outskirts, watching as the guests drank champagne; his father’s favorite bourbon. He desperately wanted to feel like one of their VIPs, caught up in his parent’s all-important gaze. To take his mind off these unmet needs, Lewis began taking bottles from behind the bar up to his room. Once, at the age of 16, Lewis sneaked a group of friends to his parents’ Hamptons beach house for a weekend of partying. They arrived late at night and Lewis let himself in first only to walk in on his father engaged in sex with a couple of much younger women. There was alcohol and white powder spread around the room—likely cocaine. Everyone had been laughing until the moment Lewis had entered the room. His father had flown into a rage and what happened was never discussed, but an unconscious message had been delivered. As soon as he could, Lewis began seducing girls with alcohol and sex. By the time he was a college freshman, he’d discovered stimulants like his father’s cocaine. He began using Adderall in order to stay awake for studying, and soon he was introduced to meth. Meth allowed Lewis to stay awake for days at a time and to feel like he was on top of the world, important to everyone he met. Meth made him feel invincible, and just like with the alcohol, he paired it with sex. In his group of tenacious and wealthy young friends, there were always girls eager to party, and Lewis felt like a god when he was with any of them, having sex for hours, sometimes days at a time. Alcohol, meth and sex blended together in a powerful combination of stimulation that served to keep him detached from the things he’d rather not consider, and too roiling in the storm of altered brain chemistry to care.
About the time researchers and mental health experts began to take the threat of cross-addiction seriously, a new understanding of addiction arrived on the scene. Cross-addiction occurs when an addict trades one addiction for another, and frequently occurs inside and outside recovery settings. The alcoholic who stops drinking only to pick up chain smoking and compulsive overeating is a common example. Another is the fellow from NA who becomes wrapped up in chaotic relationship after chaotic relationship—drawn in by romantic intrigue and new sex but living a life nearly as toxic as the one he’d lived while using. Now that researchers and care providers have begun to better understand crossover addictions, another pattern of addiction has made its way into public consciousness: co-occurring addiction. Co-occurring addictions are two or more addictions that occur together, one feeding and influencing the other and vice versa. For Lewis, substance use addictions became intricately interwoven with sex at an early age until his use of stimulants and sex, something unwittingly modeled for him by his father, became impossible to separate.
Methamphetamine is a synthetic form of adrenaline, a stress hormone secreted by the adrenal glands in order to prepare the body for fight, flight or freeze. Naturally occurring adrenaline boosts strength, alertness and heart rate and can lower inhibitions (in order to take on a fight, for example), but only lasts a short time. Meth (crystal, crank, speed, ice, Tina, etc.) lasts several hours. Meth users who binge are said to be “tweaking,” and frequently stay up for days at a time. It is known as the “sex drug” because it increases feelings of intensity and euphoria. Initially, meth increases dopamine in the brains of users, an experience sex generates as well, and this is a powerful combo for users. Because meth can lead to impotence, users frequently combine it with Viagra or Cialis and may spend hours or days having sex—often with multiple partners, and commonly unprotected. Again, meth lowers inhibitions dramatically, disengaging users from a sense of the need for safety. Substance users who used stimulants like meth or alcohol in their pursuit of sex find it difficult to recover from substance abuse when their sexual behaviors are not addressed concurrently. This is because, for the meth-sex user, sex becomes dramatically less exciting for a period of time post-recovery. The same drug that was increasing dopamine in the brains of users has stripped its ability to produce normal levels, so users begin to experience something called anhedonia—an inability to experience pleasure. Anhedonia doesn’t last forever, and for many may last about eight months to a year before normal functioning returns. Approaching sex without substances can feel incredibly difficult to the point that sex itself becomes a relapse trigger for the addict. For these users, both sex and substances need some healing and this is best done together. A treatment facility and/or trained professionals who understand co-occurring addictions and their complex interplay are advised. Co-occurring addictions do complicate recovery but they can be overcome. The first step, as always, is to become aware of the problems.