Lessons from the Captain: for wives of sex addicts

There’s a scene in the movie “Captain Phillips” wherein the Captain, played by Tom Hanks, is rescued from a horrific situation at sea. As he staggers into the medical bay, it is clear that he is not only traumatized, but exhibiting speech terror. The physician repeatedly re-grounds him in reality by telling him to look at her and breathe, and at the end, she helps him lie down on the exam table and tells him he is safe. The pirate who terrorized the Captain? He’s in handcuffs, and appropriately no one is wringing their hands over how he feels in the aftermath of the hell he created.

No, our trauma isn’t comparable to that of Captain Phillips. Nonetheless, our trauma is enormous and complex and our bodies react in similar fashion because there are only so many ways a body can cry out. Because the one person we trusted to have our backs is the same person that cut us to the core, there is often no one to assure us that we are safe. Sadly, I don’t believe we actually are safe at that point and our bodies know it. Thus we often cry and shake alone in the dark.

Our treatment in the aftermath of D-day is even more critical than we’ve previously imagined. We now know the genes making up our DNA are not always our destiny. Our genes are a framework, and they can be altered by a process called epigenetics.

Epigenetics is the reason it matters what we eat, how we sleep, how we manage stress, and what toxins we put into our bodies. With “clean” lives, free of overwhelming stressors, and a dash of good luck, our genes hum smoothly along, repairing themselves to maintain health. When our environment is threatening, and/or the threat goes on long enough, harmful epigenetic changes can occur and become permanent – all of which makes me think that the unrelenting stress of life with a sexual deviant causes damage far beyond what is currently being recognized.

While there have been no formal studies (yet), it’s not hard to understand why illnesses are reported more frequently by those of us who’ve withstood numerous D-days.  Spend any time with survivors, and you’ll hear tales of bodies in turmoil. You’ll hear of autoimmunity, thyroid and adrenal failures, cancers,  newly developed ADD’s, loss of IQ and problem-solving capabilities, pain, migraines, and more. You’ll hear of CEOs and scientists who, in the aftermath, can’t even decide on a brand of peanut butter.

As if that’s not enough, the link between PTSD and early mortality is well established. While the majority of subjects in nearly all research on this matter were military veterans, the lessons to be learned are sobering and must be considered in the treatment of partners of “sex addicts”. Our lives may literally depend on it.

Like acid poured on glass, our sexually compulsive partners etch us. Sure, we will rise and become a different kind of beautiful, but never the same clear, innocent glass we were before. Our very cells have been changed because they have endured the incomprehensible: the realization that someone we love and trust can intentionally, repeatedly, and cavalierly damage us so profoundly.

If this was murder, it would be classified as first degree which involves elements of deliberate planning, premeditation, and/or malice. Deliberate because our partners make clear-headed decisions. Premeditation because they actually think about their crimes before they act. And malice? Well, I don’t know how you betray someone for decades without it. But we’re only talking about women’s lives here, and most of those women wear rings that enable their partners to commit horrific abuses, walk away unscathed, and launch their charms on a new victim.

When my own D-Day struck, every single cell in my body cried out in pain. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was undergoing massive permanent change, which did not come easily. My hair fell out in clumps. I was unable to eat and lost 20 pounds. I began having migraines. My thoughts were scattered, and if not scattered they were intrusive and compulsive, like a hamster on a wheel. I either slept too much or not at all. I shook. I was in a daze.

My experience is not unusual; in fact, it’s quite typical for those of us whose partners didn’t “have an affair”, but instead lived secret lives involving hundreds of nameless strangers and/or legendary secret porn habits, both of which burn through family money and time like a blast furnace. Affairs are heinous; our partners took heinous to whole new level and threw in side orders of all manners of abuse. 

In this broken state I was thrown into an appalling treatment model that called me a co-addict, turned the inquisition light on me, told me my pathologically lying, abusive husband was now miraculously safe and honest, and compounded my pain. There’s a name for that: treatment induced trauma.  What a trauma survivor needs is safety; what many programs offer is decidedly not safe, particularly if the safety they are concerned with is that of the “sex addict”.

Our trauma is complex, and deserves to be put first in any treatment program. Nothing divulged on D-day is a surprise to the perpetrators, except maybe the level of our anger at their revelations. They knew every single thing they did in secret, often for decades, and they had to know at some level that this day would come. This makes their needs absolutely secondary to ours as we learn of their hideous double lives and struggle to regain our grasp on reality versus the gaslit version they fed us. To wring our hands over our perpetrator and his surprise and hurt at our anger is incomprehensible to me, considering the magnitude of the abuse we withstand in the hell he created.

Can you imagine Captain Phillips being told to face the pirate, hold hands, and work on his trust issues with the very man that nearly killed him? Yet that is exactly what we are asked to do long before we are stabilized, safe, or ready;  and because doing so will surely take us to the promised land of “happier marriage than ever”….  we do it. Let me be clear about one thing – should you be naive enough think our lives were not at risk, you never had your spouse admit to “going bareback” with men he picked up on the streets.

Regardless of our choice to stay or leave a relationship, we deserve treatment that focuses on our healing from trauma and abuse. Anything less is negligence at the very least. When we get appropriate care, we can move forward with the facts necessary to make crucial decisions for our future. Inappropriate addict-centered “therapy”, when it compounds your trauma and fails to recognize deep patterns of abuse, can cost you everything, including your very self, right down to the cellular level.

The care we need isn’t one-size fits all; it is found in the stillness of peace and safety.  Where is your safe place? What do you need so your cells can rest and recover? Where can you focus on your own needs and simply breathe? My safe space was in my locked car, in the locked garage, under the cover of darkness. I might recommend someplace more uplifting, but in my desperation I didn’t realize my car was becoming my safe spot. When I finally found appropriate trauma counsel, it came as great relief that I no longer needed to sit in that dark car in order to feel safe.

I wish you an abundance of safety and peace as you weather this pandemic storm.  You don’t have to do it perfectly, you just have to keep breathing and take care of yourself. It gets better, and it gets better faster if we name the problem. It’s not sex addiction, it’s abuse. And we are not co-anythings, we are trauma survivors.

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