Now at age 60, Stephen H. is finally able to talk openly about his sexual addiction.
"The courage comes a little at a time," he said. "Every step allows you to deal with it and build more and more courage."
Stephen has all too familiar with his own addictive behavior. He is a recovering drug addict, alcoholic and sex addict. For years he was held hostage by what he describes as a "hijacked mind" - falling into patterns of self-destructive behaviors to cope with deeply-rooted emotional pain.
Raised by alcoholic parents, Stephen said he began masturbating at age four to find comfort amidst neglect and abuse. He said he was exposed to drinking and pornography in his household, and by age eight he was using both as a means of escape.
"It was the way I learned to cope," Stephen said. "My behaviors allowed me to survive and be comforted."
Don Bissett is a licensed professional counselor and certified sexual addiction therapist in the Vail Valley. Bissett said recent research points out how addiction can be related to genetics in your family, and shows that addicts have certain markers within the brain and are present for people with conditions such as alcoholism, eating disorders, compulsive behaviors, attention deficit disorder and turrets syndrome.
"The brain research is revealing that people with those problems have a deficit of dopamine," Bissett said. "So you can see that if you start with an insufficiency of dopamine, you are behind the curve in terms of having a feeling of well-being."
Bissett said that sex and alcohol will raise the presence of dopamine over 100 percent in the brain, which may explain the perpetuation of certain addictions.
"Addicts will turn focus into obsession," Bissett said. "They become preoccupied with whatever they use as rewarding activity, whether that be sex, drugs, alcohol, food or exercise."
He said sexual addiction is the compulsive use of sex and sexual behaviors to promote a better feeling about oneself, even if only temporarily. Well-known sexual addiction expert Dr. Patrick Carnes estimates around 3 to 6 percent of Americans have a sexual addiction.
By his mid-teens Stephen began smoking marijuana on his own, and he said he began taking any drug he could get his hands on. He continued drinking alcohol, and his acts of frequent masturbation and pornographic interest continued as underlying obsessions in his life.
He said that sexual release was always therapeutic for him, providing comfort when he ran away from home at age 17 and lived on the streets, in fields and under bridges.
"There has always been an overwhelming degree of shame and disgust," Stephen said. "It's a constant theme - even though you know you are harming yourself and making yourself feel bad, there is always this compulsion that seeks a release to deal with the internal pain and turmoil."
Stephen's secret sexual impulses continued for years, through his marriage and the birth of two children. But it was his alcoholism that was the ever-present issue in his home - an addiction he addressed after realizing its impact on his family, and he has been sober from alcohol for 26 years.
The sexual addiction was not addressed, however, and in what he calls a "double life," Stephen began intensifying his behaviors - exposing himself and masturbating in public places, as well as seeking more graphic pornography. He said it was the high-risk and criminal behavior that began giving him the high he craved in his addiction.
Bissett said that once an addict no longer finds a preoccupation rewarding, he or she will intensify the preoccupation to find the reward.
Even as he found himself entangled in feelings of hypocrisy and shame, Stephen said spiritual consciousness never allowed him to turn to prostitutes or be unfaithful to his wife.
"I did get to the point where my anger at myself was being directed toward my wife," Stephen said.
Stephen's decision to go to a therapist led him to the well-known book "Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction," by Carnes, Ph.D. Bissett is the only counselor in the western part of Colorado who has gone through Carnes' certified sex addiction therapist training. There are four levels, and Bissett has completed the first level.
"I read the book in three days and I immediately realized that was me, and I knew I needed help," Stephen said.
He sought help at Carnes' treatment center in Hattiesburg, Miss., and has since moved to Longmont, Colorado and is active in his recovery with Pamela Kohll, certified sex addiction therapist at the Boulder Center of Sexual Treatment and Recovery. Stephen volunteered to be interviewed for this story during a group counseling session with Cole at the Boulder Center last week.
"Since I no longer have any lies or any secrets, I have a clean conscious and freeness of speech, and that's a wonderful place to be," Stephen said. "I can now set appropriate boundaries for myself. I am able to let go of the past, and I am actually able to experience life in the moment, and what a gift it truly is.
"My life is absolutely fantastic, I no longer live in the shadows," Stephen said.
Bissett recommends a sexual addiction screening test (SAST) for anyone who may think they have a sexual addiction. He said to visit www.sexhelp.com for more information.
Kim Fuller is a freelance writer based in Eagle County. Send comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.