I have been hearing from more and more people lately who are sharing their terrible battle with withdrawals as they begin their recovery from sexual addiction. Unfortunately, many of these individuals have bought into the mainstream cultural view of sexual addiction as something that shouldn't be classified as an addiction at all. Our society at large is becoming so oversexualized that a type of normalcy is being attached to unhealthy sexual compulsions. And all these individuals experiencing headaches, cold sweats, inability to concentrate, and panic attacks in the early days of their recovery are left wondering what is wrong with them.
I'm not going to make a long argument for the validity of sexual addiction as a compulsive disorder. That's for other people smarter than I am to hash out. But I'm not going to ignore the real physical symptoms of people trying to break free from sexually addictive patterns; partly because there are a substantial number of these individuals out there, but also because I suffered the same symptoms.
When I started my recovery in 1999 from a life of porn, masturbation, illicit affairs, and prostitution, I never expected the physical difficulties I would have in the early stages of the recovery process. The first three weeks were hell on earth, and not just because I was now trying to not act out sexually for the first time in 13 years. I was in physical pain during those weeks. My body had become so "conditioned" to my sexual behaviors that my "putting on the brakes" felt like the equivalent of driving a car going 100mph into a brick wall. It was agonizing.
The worst for me was the headaches and chills, which would occur most regularly in the evenings (not coincidentally, most of my acting out was done at night). Around 4 pm I would start feeling a headache and mild dizziness. Oftentimes, by 9 pm I would be curled up on my bed freezing, yet sweating - and with no fever. And though these symptoms didn't last extremely long when they came on (usually a couple of hours), they were very uncomfortable and confused me greatly. I wondered why it "just so happened" that I started "feeling sick" at the same time I started pursuing recovery.
Thankfully, I had some good counselors who helped me through that season and assured my I wasn't crazy, and that these symptoms were normal for someone who was seeking to so drastically change how they lived their life. Over time the symptoms lessened and clarity began to replace confusion. The cloud lifted, both physically and emotionally. But I don't know if I would have made it without the encouragement and support of counselors and group. Through them, I learned what it would take to press on and not give up.
If you, or someone you love, is struggling with the detox process, let me encourage you to focus on the following guidelines for making it through.
1. Withdrawals are normal.
It might feel shocking and overwhelming when you experience that first headache or emotional outburst or cold sweat. It's okay. This is normal. You aren't crazy, you are just experiencing the effects of what happens when a body that has been operating one way makes a 180-degree turn. Take a deep breath and be careful of letting the lies of shame drown you. You are still a priceless child of God who is worth recovery.
2. Withdrawals are temporary.
I remember the first couple of days in recovery and the painful headaches and dizziness. I doubted whether I made the right choice to quit. Pain has a way of making everything seem urgent (just ask a mother in labor!). But it also has a way of clouding our vision of the bigger picture. Withdrawal symptoms are not permanent, they will pass in time. Take another deep breath and remind yourself that this will pass.
3. Withdrawals are deceptive.
When you experience withdrawal symptoms you will be tempted to return to your old ways of coping with pain: sexual lust. But that's not the answer! It may provide immediate relief for your physical pain, but it will drown your soul to a deeper level of sorrow and darkness. Be careful of making decisions based on the momentary pain of your symptoms. Remember, it is the truth that sets us free! (John 8:32)
4. Withdrawals are opportunities to receive help.
No one recovers from sexual addiction without help. No one! And while the addiction teaches a person to isolate and disconnect from others, withdrawal symptoms can be a great (and powerful!) reminder that help is needed. Plug into a support group, connect with a counselor, and just start reaching out for help. You have been drowning too long; let others help you to the surface.