Between a Rock and a Hard place: Relapse Prevention Planning in Sex Addiction

What do Isaac Newton and sex addiction treatment have in common? Linear momentum is related to Newton’s second law, which looks at how things gain speed, or ‘kinetic energy’ (the energy of motion). It is the product of the mass and velocity of an object.

Imagine a boulder starting to roll down a hill. It’s a big rock, and it picks up speed as it rolls down. This means it has a large momentum—it takes a large or prolonged force (the hill, the boulders size) to get the rock up to this speed, and it takes a large or prolonged force to bring it to stop afterwards. If the boulder were lighter or moving more slowly, then it would have less momentum. If it just stays at the top of the hill, it takes very little energy to keep it there—it’s planted solid.

In the treatment of sex addiction, Dr. Patrick Carnes’ analogy of linear momentum as a boulder at the top of a hill is equivalent to personal recovery. In relapse, the more you let things slide, the harder it becomes to stop the boulder from rolling down the hill. The more velocity the boulder picks up, the more difficult it becomes to institute recovery skills that were easy to do at the top of the hill. This concept is described in Dr. Carnes’ seminal workbook, Facing the Shadow, and is used in the treatment at Gentle Path at The Meadows.

Many liken active addiction and relapse to the tried and true 12 Step quote: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” which is the definition of “insanity.” The slippery slope of relapse defined by Dr. Carnes includes obsession and preoccupation, ritualization and sexual compulsion. The only place to land is at your bottom, taking emotional hostages along for the ride.

Relapse planning in sex addiction is a process of education, trigger identification, skills development, and practice. The neural networks involved in addiction are well grooved ruts where that boulder can easily slide down into. The focus on relapse prevention at the very start of treatment allows for new networks to start activating. Practicing recovery skills further strengthens new networks, changing your neurochemistry—the very way you think—as you practice recovery.

The goal of a recovery lifestyle is to practice the art and science of keeping that boulder at the top of the mountain. Although sex addiction is a brain disease and not a “choice,” recovery is a choice. Every day former patients make the choices necessary to remain on top.

Recovery is a learned skill, a practice, a discipline (of self) and requires continued focus and prioritization through action (behaviors). It may be a juggling act at the top of the hill, but at the bottom, it’s a 20-ring circus and you are the grandmaster…of chaos.

Maintaining behavioral momentum is a strategy that entails changing and maintaining behaviors that are easy—before it gets to the more challenging or difficult behaviors. In preventing relapse, behaviors that are easier to change or maintain could include attending an SAA meeting every day, following professional recommendations for therapy, identifying and reducing work stress, finding balance, and learning how to re-court your partner.

Learning to be open to living a recovery lifestyle with spiritual principles keeps you at the top of your recovery. While leaving the position of being your own higher power challenges the extreme spiritual bankruptcy of active sex addiction—the feeling of emptiness from the lies and drama, anger and hurt, and the actions that have nothing to do with your own values and morals.

Treatment and relapse prevention is like lugging that boulder back up the hill and keeping it there; disentangling and disaggregating the data, becoming a scientist of your own life, so your addiction can be viewed in the light of day, understood, and ultimately, relapse prevented. The healing can begin. The goal of relapse prevention is to become accustomed to responding to life and the real world with the skills you have learned and practiced in treatment; thereby, increasing the likelihood that you won’t always be caught between a rock and a hard place. We invite you up here where the winners are—at the top of the mountain. That is what you and yours deserve.

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