I met a Parisian woman in London in my early 20s who looked every inch the French film star. She told me she had a boyfriend back home and a lover on the side. She was perfect. There was no doubt in my mind that I would get her into bed. My confidence with women had moved seamlessly from awkwardness to arrogance in a few short, promiscuous years. While lying next to her after sex I went through the well-worn routine of amazement, emptiness and dread. This toxic combination of emotions always led to the eject button.
I watched her walk down the street in the blazing sunshine feeling proud at yet another conquest, bemused that I was letting such an amazing woman walk away and fully committed to the next encounter. I'm sensitive; to people, places, sounds, everything. Discovering how to use this sensitivity to my advantage was key to getting what I wanted with women. I'd walk up to the best-looking woman in the street and nervously start talking. I'd be exactly how I felt: fundamentally shy, sweet and honest. The threat of humiliation and rejection was intoxicating. What truly disturbed me was my ability to use my honesty to get so many women into bed under the guise that I was interested in them long term. Back then it was never going to be anything other than sex.
I got blamed for my behaviour. Blacklisted as a "typical bloke". "You're all the bloody same." I was confronted, shouted at, slapped, punched, threatened with a shotgun, a handgun and an oversized knife. All it did was make the hit of success that much sweeter. I was always clear at the beginning of each encounter: "I'm not available for a relationship, I like you, think you're gorgeous, smart and I want to sleep with you." It never ceased to amaze me how often this worked.
I had a limited number of nights with each woman in which to get commitment-free, adrenalin-fuelled sex without reprisal. After the second night a bond would form. If we were greedy enough to pursue a third, trouble would follow. I'd brace myself for the wrath of the woman who'd entered the affair eyes wide open who nearly always flipped to bitter anger when I chose to stick to our "deal".
There was little or no culpability from the women I slept with. We were consenting adults who'd made a choice. They seemed set on being the innocent victim, marking me the predatory abuser. As long I could keep my emotions shut down I could deal with the fall-out.
Living in Ireland in my early 30s I finally met my match in the guise of a beautiful 19-year-old whose emotional damage and alcoholic Jekyll-and-Hyde personality beat mine hands down. It was the best sex I'd ever had. And with it came more grief and stress than I'd ever experienced. I went insane with lust and obsession. I fled the country lovesick, empty and distraught.
Soon after arriving back in England I met a woman on a train. I watched her sashay down the carriage aisle with her coffee in her hand displaying a dress code that said quite simply, "I'm game". Within five hours she was at my flat. We were together a year. I was convinced I loved her. The foundation of the relationship was good sex. When my initial passion began to wane I found it hard to say no to her advances. When I did she reacted badly and I ended the relationship within a week. I could do this; open up very quickly, an unusual and appealing trait, but I'd also learnt to shut down at the slightest hint of trouble. I realised in retrospect that as long as the sex was regular, my train lover felt loved. I couldn't face the pressure of having to carry on performing like a sex monkey so she could feel that kind of love. The simple and sad fact was at the end of this relationship we both felt the same, unloved.
I re-entered the world of the single man looking for sex at every turn. I objectified women in bed, in magazines and on the screen. There was a lurking sense of the absence of morality and human decency in my behaviour but as long as I kept a constant stream of women in my life, the potentials, actuals and the fantasies, I could keep the creeping demons of guilt and shame at bay.
One evening I was on the phone to a former sex partner whom I'd dumped three months before. She lured me into a bizarre sex texting game that I thought was private. She'd decided to teach me a lesson in front of a group of female friends who were following and advising her every response. When she told me what she'd been doing, how much she detested me and what her friends thought of me, the humiliation burnt deep enough to break through my denial about the effects of my behaviour. Freaked out and desperate, I sought help. I went to therapy and joined a recovery group for people trying to stop addictive sexual behaviours. It was a powerful place to be. Although clearly on my knees with pain and shame, I spent the first few months trying to convince myself there must be some mistake; surely I was in the wrong place? As I listened to the other people talking honestly about their behaviours and got myself some support, I began to gradually thaw out from decades of the emotional anaesthesia brought on by my addiction to sex. I was horrified at how painful the process was. I remember thinking "I can't do this". I was unable to walk to the shops without melting down into an anxiety attack. Behind the white noise of doubt something quieter and stronger told me I could do it.
Over months, I began to discover ways to forgive myself. It began by looking at my face in the mirror every day for two years. I would look into my eyes and tell myself I was OK; I deserved to be alive. I held the daily gaze despite the voice that beamed doubt and hatred back at me. Then the grinding, repetitive affirmations about being a decent, loving human being with something to give back to the world. I grew to believe it.
I then began the slow, painful process of making amends to the women I'd harmed. This was a scary part of my recovery involving hard, broken-glass honesty. I was screamed at to 'fuck off' by one woman. Approaching a former sex partner with an apology had to be clean and free from any childish desire to let her know "I was good, now better". It had to be about her, not me. If there was any doubt about my motivation or that they didn't want to have anything more to do with me, I wouldn't approach them. The times I was able to make clear and real amends were powerful healing experiences I cherish.
I carried on going to the support groups; made friends with people I would normally cross the road to avoid and began to look deeper into why I'd been running so hard for so long. My addiction to sex was, in part, my way of dealing with the abuse I experienced when I was 12 by a man old enough to be my father when my real father was in prison. I'd buried this under the sincere belief that because I was consenting I had no justifiable complaint – another barrier of denial. I contacted the police and went through excruciating interviews in a bid to track down my abuser. We never found him. The process was enough to lay the ghost to rest.
I write and run writing workshops for a living. I've found a way to use my experiences in sex addiction and ongoing recovery to work with others in the same situation. Three years after I got into recovery meetings I was approached to run a writing workshop in a sex offender prison. I wondered if I'd see my abuser. Standing in the main wing waiting to be taken to the classroom was a turning point in my life. I realised something had come full circle; something had healed. If I could do that, I could do anything.
My slow sexual healing led to genuine confidence and self-esteem. I began to feel brave enough to start looking for a long-term relationship. I got into progressively healthier, much more honest sexual relationships with women. In my sixth year of sex addiction recovery I met the woman who would become my wife. It was no fairy-tale ending. I'd learnt to stop my sexual acting out but embarking on a long term relationship was a terrifying prospect. This straight-talking northern lass was able to spot and deal with the remaining fragments of my old ways. There was no way I was going to get her into bed until it was clear to her, and me, that I genuinely loved her. Normally I'd have been off in search of greener, easier pastures. With my new-found sexual sobriety I decided to stick with this street-smart, blindingly honest woman.
What my wife helped me realise was that the women I'd been with had chosen to accept my passionate advances as a sign of love, as a sign they were loveable. When I cut the affairs short it said they weren't. My wife understood this, held a firm boundary and loved me clean and clear. It was the making of our relationship.
I read that women seek sex through intimacy and men seek intimacy through sex. We're looking for the same thing, but have different ways of finding it. Myself and the women I'd slept with had settled for a lot less than we were worth.
Today, I put as much energy into my recovery as I did my addictive sexual behaviour. I go to my recovery meetings weekly. I attend a men's group, have mentors and mentor others. I work with sex offenders and help lead the recovery meetings that, in a nutshell, saved my life. It is still very hard work at times. But most of the time, I love it.
Sex was a separate, dark and destructive part of me, set up as a child to keep me safe and separate from a world I saw as dangerous. At last, I'm integrating my sexuality into my life in a way that is boundaried, healthy and genuinely loving.
Caspar Walsh's memoir "Criminal" is published by Headline. www.casparwalsh.co.uk
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