Getting Off

Even in retirement, Ted liked to work. He had not had an idle day since flinging newspapers onto front lawns in middle school. His efforts eventually landed him in senior management at a Fortune 500 company. And after 40 years of marriage and sending four kids through college, he and his wife were set for life. But even at 66, he was restless. So he started a part-time consulting business, which kept him sharp and got him out of the house.

But it didn't keep him out of the Bubble.

And that's where he was on that Tuesday four years ago, the day when everything changed.

His wife had already left for the day when Ted woke up, leaned over and pulled out the pornography stash hidden in his nightstand. He always preferred prose over pictures -- it let him use his imagination. His fantasies were about women only, no kids.

The high kicked in and he grew hard. But he didn't masturbate. Instead, he went to the kitchen and fixed a sandwich.

He was now trapped in the Bubble. Sex addicts weren't kidding when they gave it that name. You can see the outside world, but you're not a part of it. You're on cruise control. Adrenaline gets you in, climax gets you out.

His heart beating faster, he drove to his favorite spot at Airline and I-45. He had cruised neighborhoods like this for decades, his eyes trained to find the rough-edged women who were good for a trick. Three or four times a month, often fueled by alcohol, he'd pick up a pro or a woman in a bar.

But after driving around for an hour, Ted had found only empty streets. He pointed the car home, where he methodically made another sandwich.

Ted was a leader, gregarious, the kind of guy who threw himself into whatever he did. He drank hard, but he worked harder, so this urge was never a problem -- or at least no one thought it was.

In reality, he was now powerless. The Bubble's a bitch. It makes you feel safe even while it traps you. He couldn't just masturbate now. He needed the payoff of a cruise -- and a quick one.

Soon he was back, turning off Airline onto a side street, spotting her and figuring almost immediately that she had to be a cop. Late twenties, black, with dyed blond hair, she looked too clean -- not like the typical hollow-eyed zombies. Her clothes fit, her shoes weren't scuffed, she had some bulk to her.

He stopped beside her.

"Are you going to arrest me?" he asked.

Her voice, loud and distinct: "Oh, no --you're going to arrest me."

There are cops in the neighborhood, she said, advising Ted to meet her around the corner where it was safer.

Now he knew she was a cop -- the shined shoes, the clear voice, the meeting place. He could turn right and head to her, or swing left and get the hell home. Maybe his wife would be back. Maybe they could go for a walk.

Ted turned right.

The undercover cop spoke into her hidden mike; the cops in the camera car met Ted. He was busted. He'd have to call his wife to bail him out, and this poor woman would learn the truth.

His life as he knew it was over. And his recovery was just beginning.

The redheaded stepchild of obsessions, sex addiction is silent torture for its victims and a punch line for the public. Disregarded by the American Psychiatric Association, ignored or exploited by the media, often misunderstood by even those who suffer from it, sex addiction hasn't achieved the tolerance and sympathy afforded its big brothers, alcoholism and gambling addiction.

The myths are myriad, and even the name is misleading.

"Sex addiction is not about sex," says Houston sex therapist Barbara Levinson, who has treated Ted and many other addicts. (The recovering addicts consented to be interviewed only if the Press did not use their real names or give personal information that would identify them.)

For many, the term might conjure an image of a swaggering lothario bedding every woman he sees. But Levinson and other experts say sex addicts don't necessarily have more sex than the average person. Some aren't even into actual intercourse; not one of them feels good about their sexual behavior. Their core belief is that they are unworthy human beings; the preoccupation with sex is a coping mechanism that, like drugs, pays off with one hell of a high followed by a lonely, pathetic crash.

The affliction affects from 3 to 6 percent of American adults, according to Patrick Carnes, informally known as the father of the study of sexual addiction. Carnes, the Arizona-based author of Out of the Shadows, the sex addict's bible, defines the addiction as "any sexually related compulsive behavior that interferes with normal living and causes severe stress on family, friends, loved ones and one's work environment."

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Contributor Craig Malisow covers crooks, quacks, animal abusers, elected officials, and other assorted people for the Houston Press.
Contact: Craig Malisow