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At 30 Years Old, I Finally Admitted I Was a Sex and Porn Addict

Health logoHealth 2018-02-08 Erica Garza
a person posing for the camera © Rachael Lee Stroud

I sat cross-legged and topless in a humid hall with a thatched roof, surrounded by 30 other women in Koh Phangan, Thailand. We all smiled and stared at each other.

“Today’s workshop is about connecting to your fellow sisters,” said the beaming woman with the microphone. I tried to focus on her kind eyes, the tiny wrinkles that formed as she smiled, the beads of sweat that glistened between her brows. Focus had become a mantra for me. Having spent two decades as distractible and destructive, especially when it came to naked bodies, focusing on something other than the pull I felt between my legs had become my mission.

At 30 years old, I had finally admitted to myself and to a few trusted others that I was a sex and porn addict. The realization had led me to a study of yoga and meditation in Bali, a few twelve-step meetings in a Los Angeles church basement, and eventually to this Thailand tantra retreat at a place fittingly called The Sanctuary. Nestled between jungle and beach on the Gulf of Thailand and only accessible by boat, The Sanctuary is a place of yogis and wanderers, many of them willing to do things like strip down to nakedness and eye-gaze with a stranger if it meant accessing even a sliver of enlightenment.

My brand new boyfriend, who I’d met at a yoga class in Bali and who was the first person I confessed my addiction to, also signed up for the retreat, but he wasn’t welcome in the humid room of sisterhood. Though I didn’t know it at the time, he was out in the jungle doing his best to focus on male bonding—standing alongside longhaired men as they beat their chests and yelled up into the palm trees.

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We both thought the whole thing was a little silly. There were a lot of sweaty hugs, impromptu dance parties, and kirtan sing-alongs and we weren’t sure if we felt as moved as many of the other participants. Maybe we were jaded, we thought.

But I wanted to try. Starting a new decade and a new relationship seemed reason enough to do better. To be better. I’d spent too long holed up in dark bedrooms with either my laptop or a strange man, too afraid of feeling anything but sexual release. Love, intimacy, friendship, commitment—what were these things? I didn’t want to live my whole life not knowing. Terrified of people finding out the real me, I sabotaged relationships whenever I felt myself caring too much, flaked on potential friendships, obsessed about my appearance, and moved from city to city and bed to bed hoping to outrun the loneliness. It always caught up with me.

The woman with the microphone talked about the tragedy of most budding female friendships. Her smile softened. She said that many of us were quick to knock each other down in order to be the best, the most beautiful, the most desirable, the winner.

“This kind of competition keeps us from helping each other,” she said sadly. I couldn’t argue with any of that.

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My first real heartbreak in life happened in middle school when my best friend betrayed me. Socially awkward and in a back brace for scoliosis, I thought the other kids would like me more if I looked and talked like her. Suddenly I was wearing grunge flannels and saying “dude” a lot. But when I copied her haircut, she couldn’t have been more insulted. Not only did she stop hanging out with me, she turned all the other kids against me, too. The only refuge available at the time was late night softcore porn and my hand down my pants.

Later, in high school, I sought another kind of refuge—sex appeal. Winning my hometown beauty pageant gave me the proof I needed to feel like I’d left that pitiful back-braced girl behind. I was better than her and all the other contestants, and I found I could keep this feeling alive every time I smiled my way into another man’s arms and he made me feel pretty and wanted. But nobody ever saw the true me and I performed as I thought I should—porn helping me to be both adventurous in bed and emotionally detached. I never fully invested in non-romantic relationships and the romantic relationships I did invest in were riddled with secrets and lies. Solitude always felt safer.

“Now we’ll take turns speaking about our bodies,” the woman said, gesturing to all the naked bodies around the room. “Speak openly. What don’t you like? What are you proud of?”

Though I’d only felt mildly uncomfortable in the other workshops, I now panicked. Not only was I already revealing my body for these women, now I would have to articulate the complex relationship I had with it? There was nowhere to hide.

We divided into small groups, sitting in circles. Each woman took her turn entering the circle and telling her story, pointing out the muscles that made her feel strong, the marks that symbolized her motherhood. One woman cried, admitting shame for how she’d mistreated her body. Another woman raised her arms up like a champion for she was finally comfortable in her skin for the first time in her life. She was in her sixties.

When it was my turn, I took a deep breath before I told them all my secrets. That underneath my big smile, my talk of spiritual awakening through travel, and my happy new life, I still hated things about myself. I wasn’t perfect yet. And I probably never would be. Each secret I told felt like a sigh of relief, and a step closer to them. Nobody laughed or ran away. I left the room feeling lighter for having been seen.

Though the experience had been uplifting, my boyfriend and I left the retreat before it ended. After one workshop entailed grunting like a baboon to remember our innate wildness, we decided it wasn’t the right fit. This was the nature of being new to recovery. I was determined to try as many unique experiences as possible to keep me from straying back to my old destructive habits. One day I’d find the magic solution, I told myself.

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So we moved from one side of the island to the other and I committed to rigorous yoga classes and not-so-rigorous Biodanza classes. Then we moved to another island where I trained Muay Thai kickboxing. And while I lessened the porn I watched and tried my best to be open and honest with my boyfriend, there were painful stumbles along the way and I was sure it was because I hadn’t found the answer yet. I needed to keep searching. Unlike other addictions, where sobriety is paramount, when it comes to sex, recovery can be trickier, especially when you’re in the lusty throes of a new relationship in a setting as tantalizing as Thailand.

So we left Southeast Asia for my native California where I enrolled in the Hoffman Process—a weeklong residential retreat where participants can identify negative behaviors that were conditioned in childhood. Using Gestalt therapy, guided meditation, writing, and group work that reminded me of that hot room in Thailand, Hoffman is said to condense a lifetime of psychotherapy into one week. The effects were profound. I realized that my addiction had much less to do with sex and much more to do with trying to heal the back-braced girl that was so scared of being seen, to bring her out into the open, imperfections and all.

When the week ended and I moved on, I kept trying new things—Myofascial yoga, traditional talk therapy, more twelve-step meetings, self-help books, writing—all the while searching for the perfect solution while not realizing how much I was changing along the way. Slowly, habits loosened, my mind quieted, and I began to feel more connected with those around me. I became a better friend, a loving wife, a devoted mother. I still loved to travel. I still allowed myself to experiment sexually. But I no longer felt the need to run away, to destroy, or to give up. In simply focusing on finding the answer, I’d somehow already found it. My magic solution was the search and the stumble, the not knowing but trying it anyway, the naked truth of being scared but being seen. Even though life never looked perfect at any one moment, I realized it didn’t have to be perfect. Neither did I.

Erica Garza is the author of Getting Off: One Woman’s Journey Through Sex and Porn Addiction, which was just published by Simon & Schuster.

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