America Anonymous is the unforgettable story of eight men and women from around the country -- including a grandmother, a college student, a bodybuilder, and a housewife -- struggling with addictions. For nearly three years, acclaimed journalist Benoit Denizet-Lewis immersed himself in their lives as they battled drug and alcohol abuse, overeating, and compulsive gambling and sexuality. Alternating with their stories is Denizet-Lewis's candid account of his own recovery from sexual addiction and his compelling examination of our culture of addiction, where we obsessively search for new and innovative ways to escape the reality of the present moment and make ourselves feel "better."
Addiction is arguably this country's biggest public-health crisis, triggering and exacerbating many of our most pressing social problems (crime, poverty, skyrocketing health-care costs, and childhood abuse and neglect). But while cancer and AIDS survivors have taken to the streets -- and to the halls of Congress -- demanding to be counted, millions of addicts with successful long-term recovery talk only to each other in the confines of anonymous Twelve Step meetings. (A notable exception is the addicted celebrity, who often enters and exits rehab with great fanfare.) Through the riveting stories of Americans in various stages of recovery and relapse, Denizet-Lewis shines a spotlight on our most misunderstood health problem (is addiction a brain disease? A spiritual malady? A moral failing?) and breaks through the shame and denial that still shape our cultural understanding of it -- and hamper our ability to treat it.
Are Americans more addicted than people in other countries, or does it just seem that way? Can food or sex be as addictive as alcohol and drugs? And will we ever be able to treat addiction with a pill? These are just a few of the questions Denizet-Lewis explores during his remarkable journey inside the lives of men and women struggling to become, or stay, sober. As the addicts in this book stumble, fall, and try again to make a different and better life, Denizet-Lewis records their struggles -- and his own -- with honesty and empathy.
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Benoit Denizet-Lewis is a writer with The New York Times Magazine and an assistant professor of writing and publishing at Emerson College. He is the author of Travels With Casey, America Anonymous: Eight Addicts in Search of a Life, and has contributed to Sports Illustrated, The New Republic, Details, Slate, Salon, Out, and many others. Denizet-Lewis lives in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Follow him @BenoitDLewis.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I am an addict -- or, as my father prefers it said, I have an addiction. There's no need, he insists, to so thoroughly pigeonhole myself. I think I know what he means. If I have an addiction, then maybe one day I can throw it away, or misplace it, or refuse to be seen with it. But if I am an addict...well, that feels more permanent, more all-defining.
I did not consciously choose my particular manifestation of addiction (sex), nor did I make a concerted effort not to become enslaved to cocaine, or crystal meth, or craps, or any of the myriad ways addicts commit suicide "on the installment plan," as educator Laurence Peter once put it. For whatever reasons, my brain believes that sex is the best way to medicate loneliness, disconnection, shame, anger, and a core belief -- only recently challenged -- that I am inherently unlovable.
Perhaps my sex addiction was foreshadowed many years ago. When I was twelve, my favorite song was George Michael's "I Want Your Sex." In the shower I could be heard happily belting, Sex is natural, sex is good, not everybody does it, but everybody should!
Back then, it would have been inconceivable to me that one could think about sex -- or, better yet, have sex -- too often for one's own good. Sex was definitely not like crack, which I was hearing about with increasing hysteria on the news. Crack seemed very, very bad. Sex seemed like a great idea, especially as it was explained to me in the pages of the Penthouse magazines I found while snooping around my father's bedroom. (My parents divorced when I was six, and I divided my time between their houses.)
If you had told me when I was twelve that I would grow up to be a sex addict, I likely would have prayed you were right. My attitude at the time would have mirrored that of some grown married men whom I've told about my addiction. When I say that sex can "take over my life," I don't get much sympathy.
But lucky I am not. Like any debilitating addiction, sex addiction is about as fun as a self-imposed daily practice of water torture. What does sex addiction look like? It can take many forms, but for me a bad day in my active addiction looked something like this:
9:45 a.m.: Wake up later than intended (resolve to get up earlier the next day).
9:46 a.m.: Feel shame for having blown off my friends (again) in favor of spending five hours the previous night in a chat room on the Internet, followed by an hour of sex with someone I met there. Resolve to see friends that night.
9:47 a.m.: Think about eating breakfast.
10:02 a.m.: Decide that I'll wait until lunch to eat.
10:05 a.m.: Blow off checking my work e-mail. Check my other e-mail, to see who responded to one of my online profiles, some more truthful than others.
10:38 a.m.: Have phone sex.
10:59 a.m.: Remember that I hate phone sex. Resolve to stop having phone sex.
11:03 a.m.: Check my work e-mail -- realize that I missed an appointment.
11:05 a.m.: E-mail said person. Apologize, make excuse.
11:08 a.m.: Call a friend and make plans for that night.
11:20 a.m.: Try to work.
12:09 p.m.: Give up. Resolve to work harder the next day.
12:23 p.m.: Make a sandwich. Watch TV.
1:15 p.m.: Spend five hours online looking for someone attractive to have sex with. Ignore repeated calls from friend with whom I have plans.
6:17 p.m.: Call friend. Lie about why I can't meet.
6:19 p.m.: Feel shame.
6:20 p.m.: Go back online. Eventually find someone attractive to have sex with.
7:10 p.m.: Take first shower of the day.
7:20 p.m.: Drive an hour to meet the person. Wait. Person doesn't show.
8:40 p.m.: Drive home, angry and hungry.
9:40 p.m.: Get back online -- look for someone new.
10:02 p.m.: Mom calls (later than usual). Let it go to voice mail.
10:05 p.m.: Watch some porn.
10:45 p.m.: Have phone sex.
12:45 a.m.: Remember that I hate phone sex. Resolve to stop having phone sex.
12:46 a.m.: Feel shame.
12:49 a.m.: Finally eat dinner (leftover Chinese food).
1:08 a.m.: Check mom's message. Realize that I forgot her birthday.
1:09 a.m.: Feel like killing myself.
Fortunately, I can take or leave drugs and alcohol. I drink wine often (I'm half French), but I stop after a glass or two. I enjoy marijuana, but not nearly enough to go looking for it. I tried acid once in college, but by the third hour I had convinced myself that my two chess-playing, acid-dropping friends were conspiring against me with every move. I tried mushrooms once, enjoying them very much until I thought I was a character in a television show I was watching and deciding that I would be happier curled up in bed listening to Enya.
I also tried cocaine a few times, felt very good for about forty minutes, and then felt very annoyed. What a stupid drug, I thought. It seemed that the only way to enjoy cocaine -- to avoid the depressing low that followed the short, exhilarating high -- was to essentially be high all the time, and that sounded silly and expensive.
The only drug I've ever used regularly was ecstasy. Over the course of four years in college, I took one or two ecstasy pills every few weekends. For me it was the perfect substance, because it seemed to help facilitate intense emotional connections with other people, something I was not good at achieving while not on ecstasy.
If cocaine is a selfish drug, ecstasy is its spiritual opposite -- a miraculous conduit for human compassion and love. Ecstasy has the astonishing effect of making you see the good in other people, even those you may not otherwise like. As Andrew Solomon writes in The Noonday Demon, on ecstasy you feel like "communicating enormous love to everyone within reach."
But there is some evidence that prolonged ecstasy use damages serotonin responsiveness in the brain, which can lead to long-term memory and mood problems. So on those rare occasions when I'm tempted to take ecstasy again, I simply choose not to. When it comes to drugs, rational thinking wins.
When it comes to sex, though, rational thinking loses in a landslide, and the consequences seem trivial. That's because my brain reacts to sex and pornography as a crack addict's brain responds to crack cocaine -- there's never enough of it, and it's the only thing that matters in the world. Poet Michael Ryan said it best in his memoir, Secret Life: "My primary loyalty was to sex. No human relationship took precedence over it. Not marriage, not friendship, and certainly not ethics."
My sex addiction has cost me many things -- friends, romantic relationships, a job, and, on many days, my self-respect. But it has also given me my recovery, and for that I am grateful. My recovery has been far from perfect (when it comes to relapsing, celebrities have nothing on me), but it has undoubtedly saved my life -- and, on many days, made that life worth living.
I tell you about my addiction not because it pleases me to do so (it doesn't), or because this book is about me (it isn't). America Anonymous is about eight men and women from around the country struggling with different manifestations of addiction. My story is relevant because it inevitably colors the way I conceptualize this topic. As someone in recovery from this disease -- or illness, or disorder, or problem, or bad habit, or moral failing, or whatever you believe it to be -- I came to this project with my fair share of biases.
First, I believe in an expanded understanding of addiction. That is, I believe that gambling, sex, food, spending, and work (to name a few) can, for some people, be as addictive and debilitating as an addiction to drugs. This is not a radical idea -- an increasing number of addiction experts and researchers agree with this -- but it is an important one that shaped the scope of this book.
As I searched for men and women to write about, I chose to define addiction broadly, immersing myself in the lives of a radio DJ addicted to food, a bisexual bodybuilder addicted to crystal meth and steroids, a college student addicted to sex and pornography, an eighty-year-old retiree addicted to alcohol, an unemployed former boxer addicted to heroin, a housewife addicted to shoplifting, a grandmother addicted to crack, and a drug and gambling addiction counselor addicted to -- in his own words -- "virtually everything."
I agree with Howard Shaffer, the director of the Division on Addictions at the Harvard Medical School, when he calls for a "syndrome model" understanding of addiction. Each outwardly unique manifestation of addiction, he believes, is likely part of the same underlying disorder. There is ample anecdotal evidence for this. Many addicts are hooked on more than one thing, and many will switch addictions if they give one up -- witness the scene outside some Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, where recovering alcoholics clutch a cigarette in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. (AA co-founder Bill Wilson smoked until his death from emphysema and pneumonia in 1971.)
Science also backs up the syndrome model. By studying the brain's reward and pleasure systems, researchers -- many of whom used to dismiss an expanded understanding of addiction as just another example of this country's addiction to calling everything an addiction -- are discovering that drugs and behaviors like gambling, sex, and overeating affect the brain in some similar ways as drugs.
The best definition of addiction I've found comes from a pamphlet published by Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous: The use of a substance or activity, for the purpose of lessening pain or augmenting pleasure, by a person who has lost control over the rate, frequency, or duration of its use, and whose life has become progressively unmanageable as a result.
It's not a perfect definition. Cigarette smokers are hooked on one of the world's most addictive substances (nicotine), yet for those smokers who don't contract cigarette-related illnesses, it's a stretch to argue that cigarette...
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