Like other addictions, paired substance/sex addiction creates consequences that are far beyond the imagination of users when they first experiment with these behaviors. People are initially pulled into these behaviors by the powerful and immediate psychological rewards they provide, along with the numbing and distraction from uncomfortable emotions. Unfortunately, things can quickly begin to fall apart, affecting the individual’s physical, psychological, interpersonal, and spiritual life. Physical and psychological impacts were covered in last week’s post. Interpersonal and spiritual impacts are covered in this week’s post.
Combining drug use and sex inevitably results in complications between two or more individuals, whether they have an intimate relationship, a social relationship, or a broader group of acquaintances.
One of the most profound effects impacting interpersonal relationships is the loss of the ability to correctly read and interpret social cues. Several studies have documented reduced recognition of facial expressions in chronic stimulant users.[i][ii][iii] These studies typically display images of various facial expressions to stimulant users. These faces convey a variety of emotions, such as happiness, sadness, disappointment, and anger. The meth users in these studies were unable to correctly interpret the emotion being conveyed, and they nearly always incorrectly interpreted any emotion as anger or hostility.
Another interpersonal consequence is the objectification (the sexualization) of other people. This means that others are viewed simply as sexual objects, sometimes with great specificity (such as to a particular body part). This becomes so automatic that when an addict sees a stranger on the street, the stranger will be quickly objectified by the addict – turned into a sexual object – basically reducing the stranger’s humanity. In treatment at Seeking Integrity, we teach our clients to quickly catch themselves when this happens and to remind themselves that the person they have just objectified is a son or daughter, a wife or husband, a mother or father. In other words, we teach our clients to remind themselves of other people’s humanity, rather than just viewing them as sexual objects.
A third interpersonal consequence is related to both the misreading of social cues and the tendency toward objectification described above. This consequence is a decrease in empathy.[iv],[v] Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and experience what they are feeling. Empathy is an essential human quality that allows us to collaborate and cooperate, to love and feel loved, and ultimately to share a sense of connection. Happily, humans are hardwired for empathy, thanks to built-in parts of our brains called mirror neurons, which truly give us the power to feel what other people are feeling.
However, substance/sex addicts, when they finally enter treatment, almost universally discover that they lack empathy for the hurtful and often traumatizing effects of their actions. Because of this, one of the essential early tasks of recovery is to begin to understand the impact one’s behavior has had on others – a repair process that begins with restoring one’s ability to feel empathy.
This inability to feel emotionally connected to others doesn’t just impact adult partners of addicts. It can also impact how children are treated by addicted parents. For example, studies indicate that nearly one-quarter of child abuse in certain parts of the US is directly linked to parents who are chronic methamphetamine users. These parents gradually lose their ability to see their children as human beings and, without empathy, they begin to disconnect from their children and their children’s wellbeing.
A final interpersonal consequence of paired drug use and sexual behavior is that the addiction becomes the primary relationship for the addict. The addict may have a spouse or children, but ultimately it is the addiction that takes emotional and physical priority. Manipulation, deceit, and rationalization are utilized to protect the addiction – no matter the impact of those behaviors on others. It is the primacy of this addictive relationship that must be challenged in recovery.
Paired substance/sex behaviors take a toll on spiritual connections as well. I am not referring to religious beliefs here, though such beliefs may indeed take a hit. Instead, I am referring more to a sense of connectedness with the world, and a loss of connection with self and loves ones.
Most addicts are adrift and searching for connection. There is an epidemic of loneliness in our society, and many addictive behaviors (especially those with an element of sex or romance) are maladaptive attempts to fill “the hole in the soul” that is so often described in 12 step programs. However, most addicts ultimately discover that there are not enough drugs or acting out behaviors in the world to create a sense of wholeness. So perhaps the most profound healing experience of recovery is discovering, as Johann Hari states in his TED Talk and elsewhere, that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety but connection.
Another devastating spiritual consequence is that many addicts lose their sense of purpose in life. In active addiction, they direct most of their daily energy toward preserving the addiction and behaviors that support it, so gradually everything else becomes less important. This can be present challenges for people in early recovery as they search for meaning and for a sense of accomplishment that results from living with purpose.
Another spiritual consequence of substance/sex addiction is the loss of any sense of wellbeing and joy derived from life. The stress of protecting the addictive behavior, compartmentalizing one’s life, losing touch with needs, and simply experiencing the ravages of an addictive life will inevitably fray any sense of continuity and satisfaction. Fortunately, the ability to feel joy and hope isn’t permanently lost or destroyed by addiction, though it does take time and effort to reclaim it.
[i] Miller, M. A., Bershad, A. K., & de Wit, H. (2015). Drug effects on responses to emotional facial expressions: recent findings. Behavioural pharmacology, 26(6), 571–579. https://doi.org/10.1097/FBP.0000000000000164
[ii] Kemmis L, Hall JK, Kingston R, Morgan MJ. (2007). Impaired fear recognition in regular recreational cocaine users. Psychopharmacology, 194:151–159.
[iii] Kim YT, Song HJ, Seo JH, Lee JJ, Lee J, Kwon DH, et al. (2011). The differences in neural network activity between methamphetamine abusers and healthy subjects performing an emotion-matching task: functional MRI study. NMR in Biomedicine, 24:1392–1400.
[iv] Preller, K. H., Hulka, L. M., Vonmoos, M., Jenni, D., Baumgartner, M. R., Seifritz, E., … Quednow, B. B. (2013). Impaired emotional empathy and related social network deficits in cocaine users. Addiction Biology, 19(3), 452–466. doi: 10.1111/adb.12070.
[v] Kim, Y.-T., Lee, J.-J., Song, H.-J., Kim, J.-H., Kwon, D.-H., Kim, M.-N., … Chang, Y. (2010). Alterations in cortical activity of male methamphetamine abusers performing an empathy task: fMRI study. Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental, 25(1), 63–70. doi: 10.1002/hup.1083.