Las Vegas is a counterintuitive place to hold a conference of substance abuse counselors in the first place. Choosing St. Patrick’s Day weekend to do it is total cognitive dissonance. Still, if it weren’t for the lingering pall of cigarette smoke — the entire state smells like a stale ashtray — and the lingering sting of nasty comments directed toward me on the Huffington Post, I’d say the trip was a hoot and a half.
There was a lot of interest in my workshop on love addiction, if only because there’s a big mushy overlap between people in the “helping professions” and people in the “codependency addictions.” Plenty of card-carrying (or, in this case, badge-wearing) therapists are themselves romance junkies. There were also plenty of attendees interested in the workshops on sex addiction, because so many more people are being identified as sex addicts these days… and not all of them self-identified, either. Parents nationwide are throwing their hands in the air and throwing their teenage boys into sex rehab.
From the Fall of Rome until the Rise of the Internet, anyone desirous of a sexual encounter had to first raise cash money, then leave the house, and risk embarrassment, exposure and even arrest to meet his or her fleshly needs. Those barriers to entry no longer exist. In the digital age, all anyone needs is a smartphone and, voila, hot and cold running sexual fantasies 24/7. For many teenage boys, this often translate as, well, hot and cold running sexual fantasies 24/7.
You can’t fault the parents for freaking out. In their workaday world, someone who spends all day every day beating off to porn probably would be a sex addict. In their kids’ virtual world, there’s a 94% chance it’s just a combination of curiosity, hormones, and habit. It’s the 6% with the genetically addictive brains that I deal with, and those brains don’t usually even resolve themselves until about the age of 25.
Here’s an example. One of the things that traditional mental health centers do that drives me crazy is what they call “harm reduction.” Get the patient to do less of the bad behavior. But anyone from the 12-step recovery world knows that telling an alcoholic to drink less, or a cocaine addict to just use on weekends, is useless. Addiction is, sorry to report, an all-or-nothing proposition.
And yet the counselors at the conference did have some success getting kids to cut down their hours of internet porn. My favorite story was about the kid who was persuaded to switch from porn sites to Angry Birds. He really just wanted to zone out on the internet; the digital content was less an issue than the digital delivery.
Harm reduction works great if you’ve picked up a bad habit. Therapy works great if you’ve developed self-destructive behavior patterns. But if you’re an addict, one of the lucky 6% with a chronic and relapsing brain disease characterized by the compulsive use of a mind-altering substance or behavior with negative life consequences, the most you can hope for is that you’ll switch to a different addiction and get your parents off your back.
Hardly anyone ever nags an exercise addict.