By Debbie Allen
I run an online prodependence group for female partners of sex addicts. Every session, I have a particular subject that we talk about. During one of my recent sessions, I decided to have an open discussion and let the ladies determine what they would like to discuss. One of the women posed this question: “Have any of you become ill or had any major symptoms before or after discovery due to stress?” That sparked a flurry of conversation that spilled over into our next session a week later. It made me think about all the therapists and partners out there dealing with this same issue.
With my medical background, it became very apparent to me early on that intense and immense emotional stress causes illness. There were the common ones like insomnia and anxiety, and then there were more intense, unexplainable illnesses that showed up. Often they would show up before discovery. It was like the body was breaking down from constant stress, even though the partner didn’t really know why they were stressed, they couldn’t put their finger on it.
One of the most striking stories occurred a number of years back when I had a 32-year-old woman (I will call her Jessica) come to me for severe food allergies. The description of her is important to the story. She was 5’4” tall, 60 pounds overweight, dressed in clothes that she’d owned for years. She was highly intelligent and owned her own company, but she had very little vitality, like life was a lot of work. Her demeanor was similar to Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh.
Jessica explained that she was allergic to any food that was ‘alive,’ meaning not cooked. All fruits, raw vegetables, nuts, and seeds. If ingested any of these foods, she would get ulcers down her esophagus that lasted weeks. One blueberry would be enough to trigger this response. So her diet consisted of cooked meat, fast food, cooked vegetables, and soda.
During Jessica’s second visit, I asked her when this all started. She explained that she was healthy until she got engaged and her health started to decline. She went on to say that she was very happy dating her boyfriend and living on her own. But, because both of them come from strong Christian families, there was pressure to get married. So she planned a wedding and got married.
Jessica said she loved her husband very much but there was one problem. They had been married for eight years and she was still a virgin. Wait? What? I sure didn’t see that coming. She had tried everything to connect with her husband emotionally and physically but he was not connecting to her and avoided her physical advances.
Jessica explained that they had tried to be sexual a number of times but due to their inexperience it just didn’t happen. I explored this from many different angles but she couldn’t really understand why. She just accepted that they were great friends and lived like roommates.
Early on in the sessions, Jessica wanted to focus on her physical health, but as time passed, she started to recognize how incredibly lonely she was, and she described herself as feeling dead inside. I found it interesting how she felt dead inside and her body could not tolerate anything that was fresh and alive.
I encouraged Jessica to find some safe support from someone other than me. She was reluctant but was able to tell her sister. That started a cascade of support from family and close friends.
Despite Jessica’s efforts to try to connect and communicate with her husband, the marriage ended. She could never understand why.
We continued to work together for the next year and I watched her heal, flourish, and feel alive again. By the end of that year she had lost 60 pounds, bought a new wardrobe, and was able to eat all the raw fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds she wanted. She was happy and full of health and vitality.
I ran into Jessica years later at a local store. She was still thriving. She explained to me that she finally found out the story. Her husband was a sex addict, acting out since his early twenties with prostitutes and pornography. She said, “Debbie, he looked me straight in the eyes and apologized for shipwrecking our marriage due to his addiction.”
Jessica may not have known the story all those years, but her body certainly did. I find that it always does.
If you would like to learn more about this, there are some great books that describe how our bodies exhibit physical illness due to emotional trauma. Two of the best are:
- The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk M.D.
- Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology by Donna Jackson Nakazawa