‘Hello. My name is Mary Ann Scott and I am a sex addict.’
Eleven months ago, a beautiful young woman named Mary had stood up in front of a crowd of strangers and said those fateful words for the first time. The young woman, who had once taken so much pride in being outgoing, loving and passionate, had spoken those words with such fear and uncertainty. Now a shadow of her former self, Mary sat quietly, listening, as just another misguided soul in the Hartman County Community Center.
“Hello. My name is Susan Michaels and I’m a sex addict,” said a middle-aged woman.
“Hi, Susan,” the crowd of similarly damaged attendees replied.
“I’m proud to say that it’s been exactly one year since I’ve joined this program—a full year since I hit rock bottom. I thought I would never pull myself together after two divorces, five affairs and…I don’t even remember how many one-night stands. But I did it. And it’s all thanks to this great program and to you, my wonderful friends.”
Susan received an extended round of applause. Some stood up and clapped while she beamed with pride. She looked way too happy for someone who had been in this program just a little longer than Mary. She couldn’t possibly be this seemingly content.
Mary still gave her weak applause. A few came up to shake Susan’s hand and give her a hug. Mary remained in her seat, keeping to herself and hoping she could stay invisible for the rest of the meeting. At one point, she had to look away. Susan’s beaming success—however real it might be—only reminded her of her utter lack of progress.
“It’s not fair. It’s just not fair,” Mary said under her breath.
She hugged her shoulders and kept her head down while everyone else congratulated Susan. As Mary looked around the room, she recalled the many lurid stories she’d heard since joining this program. The Chapman Hill Addiction Outreach Program—or CHAOP, as everyone called it—billed itself as the best addiction treatment program in the state. It had resources for every kind of addiction—from substance abuse to gambling and eating disorders. They didn’t advertise the division that specialized in sex addiction, but it made the same bold claims, promising it could help men and women whose unhealthy sexual habits had destroyed their lives.
After nearly a year, however, that promise rang hallow. Sure, the program had helped Mary rebuild her life but only to a point. It might be less destructive than her previous life, but CHAOP didn’t fulfill her in the ways the program had promised.
Susan Michaels might have been a lightweight in terms of her addiction, so maybe she’d had it easier. Affairs and one-night stands barely scratched the surface of what Mary had done. While she could hardly call herself the most decadent person in this program, she still felt stuck while everyone around her seemed to be making progress.
“Thank you. Thank you all,” said Susan, now in tears.
She looked like she had just won the Super Bowl. Everyone in the room kept cheering for her, supporting her for her accomplishment. Mary still questioned just how much praise this woman deserved.
Over the past months, she’d heard about every kind of tragic story caused by sexual addiction. Men talked about how they had bankrupted themselves spending all their money on strip clubs, prostitutes and porn. Women talked about how they’d destroyed their lives by sleeping with their teachers in high school, seducing police officers and attending wild sex parties that had begun in one city and ended in another. Some of those acts had even resulted in prison time. Mary felt lucky in some respects, because she’d never ended up broke or in prison, but that luck only went so far.
Is that how I’m supposed to feel after a year? she wondered. If so, I’m way behind.
Mary tried to remain engaged, if only to avoid unwanted scrutiny. She watched her fellow addicts walk up to Susan to congratulate her. None of them appeared as conflicted as she was. Then again, she had a hard time relating to any of her peers.
It shouldn’t have been a problem. These men and women came from many different walks of life. Some were young and attractive, not unlike the crowd Mary used to run with. Others were older and average-looking, the kind who nobody gave a second glance. From former strippers to retired accountants, they all had their own tragic story to tell. They each seemed to get something out of this, but Mary might as well have been an alien to these people.
What am I doing wrong? Why is Susan freakin’ Michaels making so much progress while I’m stuck after almost a year? Am I missing something here or am I supposed to be this miserable?
No matter how many times she asked herself those questions, she never got an answer. It didn’t make sense. It also frustrated her to no end.
“You’re awfully quiet this evening, Mary—more so than usual,” said a familiar voice.
“Sorry, Sister. It’s been a rough week for the fitness industry, what with droughts and heat waves keeping people indoors,” replied Mary, avoiding eye contact as best she could.
“Your lying skills haven’t improved much, either. I thought we agreed you would at least try harder to not brush off my concerns.”
“Guess I forgot,” muttered Mary.
“I’m sure you’ll remember next time. Until then, why don’t we save ourselves the trouble and discuss them? We don’t have to share them with the group. This can be another one of those conversations that stays between us.”
Mary shook her head and groaned. Sister Angela had a heart of gold, but she could be downright annoying when it came to having uncomfortable conversations. She claimed to be a former sex addict, calling her younger self an unrepentant sinner of the worst kind.
She told very personal—and very graphic—stories about her descent from being a talented actress to becoming a drug-addicted prostitute in Los Angeles. Some of her experiences made Mary’s problems seem like child’s play, especially the ones that involved oil wrestling and rooftop orgies. Mary sometimes questioned their validity. But even if only half of those stories were true, it made her uniquely qualified for this program.
Now a middle-aged woman working closely with the Hartman Catholic Church, Angela Murphy said she’d found God after surviving a drug overdose. She claimed to be living proof that anyone could overcome their addiction. Having since taken a vow of chastity, she claimed her life had become so much richer. She made it seem so appealing. However, Mary found it difficult to get excited.
“Come on, Mary. You know you can tell me anything. I won’t judge,” the nun chided as she sat down in the chair next to Mary’s.
“You never do,” Mary conceded.
“Then say what you need to say. You don’t have to tell me everything—just whatever makes you feel most comfortable.”
“Funny, I remember a number of guys telling me that exact same thing before we took our clothes off.”
“You’re not laughing, so it can’t be that funny. You’re not known for your sense of humor, either, so I assume something is really bothering you.”
“You know me too well, Sister,” Mary said.
“I know you like to avoid your problems until they blow up in your face,” Sister Angela said. “You’ve been hurt before because of that.”
“You don’t need to remind me.”
“Then I also don’t need to remind you how much worse it could’ve been if you’d kept avoiding your problems. So why take a chance?”
Sister Angela reached over and consoled Mary with a gentle pat on her shoulder. This made it next to impossible for her to brush the nun off again. She was just too damn kind. It annoyed Mary no end, but it didn’t make the older woman’s words less valid.
“Look at her. Look at how happy she is,” Mary said, now gazing back toward Susan.
“She should be. She’s come a long way,” Sister Angela said.
“I still remember all the times she came to meetings looking like a wreck. I remember how she broke down in tears, talking about how she’d once banged every guy on her block while her husband was traveling. It wasn’t that long ago that she’d claimed she couldn’t control her urges—that she was always going to be an addict.”
“She’s not the first person to say that. She’s not even the hundredth.”
“I don’t doubt that, but it doesn’t even matter in the end because some way, somehow, she turned herself around and became this ray of virgin sunshine. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it doesn’t always happen over a lifetime, either,” Mary said.
“It’s a process. It can’t be rushed or forced, but when it works…it’s the healing power of God at its best,” Sister Angela replied.
“And I’ve seen that healing power find so many others since I’ve been here. It’s like every other week, someone has this epiphany—this realization that allows them to cure their addiction.”
“Addiction can’t be cured. It can only be treated.”
“I know, damn it. And no, I’m not going to apologize for cursing.”
“You rarely do. I’ve stopped expecting you to,” Sister Angela said.
“And why should I?” scoffed Mary. “Because no matter what I do—no matter how hard I try—that healing power never finds me.”
Mary’s frustration got the better of her. That tended to happen whenever she talked to Sister Angela about her progress in the program or lack thereof. She didn’t like arguing with a nun, but eleven months of inner turmoil made it difficult to stay calm.
Sister Angela still didn’t hold it against her, although it might have been easier if she had. Mary kept hugging her shoulders, avoiding eye-contact, even while Sister Angela consoled her. The nun was so patient and understanding, making it very difficult to stay mad at her. She always let Mary vent when she needed to. On a day like today, she needed to do more than that.
“I just…don’t know how much longer I can feel like this,” Mary continued. “I’ve already uprooted my old life. I’ve put as much distance as I can between myself and everything that fueled my addiction.”
“Do you regret that decision?” Sister Angela asked.
“No. It was hard but it was the right decision at the time,” answered Mary. “It just left me feeling so…so broken. I thought coming back to my hometown and being part of this program would help me heal, but…”
She still couldn’t articulate all the ways she had struggled since coming to terms with her addiction. She had given up trying. She honestly didn’t think she could’ve felt this pathetic with her clothes on.
“A part of you still misses it,” said Sister Angela, finishing the thought Mary didn’t dare to complete.
“Misses what? The reckless sex? The endless indulgence? All the connections I used to enjoy, both personally and physically? The success, recognition and adulation of everyone around me? Why would anyone miss that?” Mary said, her every word dripping with sarcasm.
“It was a big part of your life. An addiction always is. That’s what makes it an addiction. Your ability to walk away from it is a testament to your strength. But no matter how strong you are…walking away from something like that is going to leave a void.”
Only Sister Angela could make an act of strength seem so weak. Mary sure didn’t feel stronger after leaving her former sex-addicted ways. In many respects, getting away from a life of decadence and recklessness was an act of fear rather than strength. The fear had plagued her since she’d entered this program and she hadn’t found the strength to overcome it, despite all her genuine effort.
“Is this the part where you tell me I should fill that void with the loving light of Jesus and become a chaste nun like you?” Mary said, her sarcasm not waning.
“Only if I were a less pious nun who didn’t listen to the plight of sinners,” said Sister Angela in a humorous tone. “Except I have listened and I understand that what works for one addict doesn’t always work for another. My faith and my piety helped me fill that void. You might need something different.”
“Like what? What could I possibly find that’ll make me feel less…unsatisfied, if that’s the right word?”
“I don’t know, Mary. The program never claims to give addicts the solution. It only offers to guide them.”
“Then I guess some addicts are just slower than others,” Mary said.
“It’s not about being slow. Some just need to find a different path,” said Sister Angela. “For what it’s worth, I think you’re still on the right one. You will overcome this. You will find what you’re looking for. You just need to have faith.”
She makes it sound so easy.
That was what everybody in this program said in some form or another—have faith that it’ll all work out. The advice may have helped them, but for some reason, it did her little good.
“When you say it like that, you remind me why I’d make a lousy nun,” Mary said, with much less sarcasm this time.
“You and most other women, regardless of addiction,” said Sister Angela in good humor.
“I just don’t know how much more faith I can have at this point…or how much longer I can have it. Is it even possible that I’ll figure it out by the end of the month? Believe me when I say I’d love to stand up there like Susan and proclaim I’ve turned a corner.”
“I do believe it’s possible. You’re a beautiful young woman, Mary. You’ve got a great head on your shoulders. A lot can happen in a month. You just have to have faith and be ready when the time comes.”
Mary remained skeptical, but still took comfort in Sister Angela’s kind words. She didn’t brush the nun off when she patted her shoulder again. Sister didn’t even ask her to congratulate Susan. Sister was okay with Mary keeping to herself and staying on her own path, even though it left her so conflicted.
Sister Angela gave Mary one more reassuring smile before getting up to lend Susan her support. The nun’s understanding came as a relief, but it only went so far. It still didn’t feel like any part of her—body or soul—had been healed by this program. Mary was still so empty. Even after all this time, she still hadn’t gotten used to the feeling.
She watched Sister Angela give Susan a hug while others continued to offer their support and congratulations. It went on way too long, but much to Mary’s relief, the meeting was almost over. Susan may not have been a former model who’d once stopped traffic while crossing the street in a bikini, but she definitely looked more radiant now than Mary had in years.
Mary ended up looking away again, turning her attention to the glossy floor of the community center. In her reflection, she couldn’t see the beautiful young woman Sister Angela had just mentioned.
“You have a great head on your shoulders and a beautiful body. How can you possibly be this miserable?” she asked herself.
Mary had once taken so much pride in her body. Whenever she looked in the mirror, she didn’t see some girl next door or some silicone-laden porn star. She saw someone who had worked long and hard to refine the natural beauty she’d been blessed with.
The woman she’d been had spent hours a day in front of that same mirror, smothering herself with overpriced makeup and fixing her hair so that it had a perfect, wavy sheen. And after she’d finished refining her complexion, she would have scoured her vast wardrobe for the perfect attire to complement her looks.
That attire had often included undersized tank tops, shorts that barely qualified as shorts and every kind of thong underwear in existence. If it hadn’t shown an obscene amount of skin, then she hadn’t bothered wearing it. No matter how revealing it had been, that version of Mary Ann Scott had worn it with pride. Because of this confidence, she’d seemed destined to be the hottest thing to ever come out of Hartman County. However, that woman didn’t exist anymore.
“Maybe a better question is…how the hell did I let my problems ruin me so completely?” Mary said, still talking to her reflection.
She gazed at herself with bitter disappointment. Mary no longer saw the sexy, stunning woman once destined to grace the cover of every fitness magazine. She saw a woman who’d lied to herself about her problems and had come dangerously close to letting them destroy her.
Being an aspiring fitness model had come with a long list of perks. The world went out of its way to cater to the whims of a beautiful young woman. Men had lined up to impress her, buying her drinks and offering her every comfort imaginable. Sure, it was shallow and unfair, but Mary hadn’t cared. She’d taken advantage of it at every turn and made damn sure she’d enjoyed it. She’d just taken it way further than she should have.
Now the woman she saw in the mirror bore all the burdens that Mary had ignored for too long. This version of Mary Ann Scott didn’t spend hours getting ready for her day. She didn’t spend a good chunk of her paycheck on overpriced makeup and hair conditioner. Instead, she only used eye-liner and lipstick that she bought from Walmart. On top of that, her clothes might as well have come from a second-hand store.
Nothing about her was overt anymore. Everything that had once made her so passionate and outgoing had collapsed under the weight of her reckless indulgences. Sex addict or not, she had to live with those choices.
Unable to bear the sight any longer, Mary closed her eyes and turned away from her reflection. She didn’t come to these meetings to lament how far she had fallen. She came here in hopes of overcoming the addiction that had consumed her life. Those hopes were fragile, but she’d hung in for nearly a year now. She promised herself she would remain dedicated. She even believed on some level that she could find a way to fill the emptiness inside her, although that seemed increasingly unlikely with each miserable day that passed.
Accepting that she wouldn’t find what she sought tonight, Mary stopped talking to herself and focused on the meeting. She might as well try to make something of it, even if it meant envying those who had.
“Thank you, Susan. And a special thanks to everybody who stood by her. Never forget that this is a collective effort. Addiction can overwhelm an individual, but it can never overwhelm a community bound by faith and emboldened by our Lord,” said Sister Angela, who had returned to the front of the room.
“Amen, Sister!” said Susan, still basking in her accomplishment.
“It’s also important to remember that you’re never alone. We’re here to support each other—to help one another. Addiction leaves many scars and addiction to sex, in particular, tends to leave unseen scars. Some don’t always heal, but everyone can find the strength to endure. That is the power of faith.”
“Amen!” said several other addicts who had been supporting Susan.
This was the part of the meeting where Sister Angela reaffirmed the values and philosophy of CHAOP. She did it near the end of every meeting, so much so that Mary had memorized these mini-sermons to the letter. She still listened, but these moral lectures still didn’t strike her as much as they’d obviously struck the Susan Michaels of the program. Mary began to wonder if the power of faith was enough for her.
“Now, before we leave for tonight, I want to open the floor to newcomers,” said Sister Angela, continuing with the usual formalities. “We have a few new entrants to CHAOP, and it’s still my policy to not require them to speak. I understand that the first meeting can be difficult, but for those who wish to share their story or just introduce themselves, this is your time to speak.”
Sister Angela stepped aside and sat down, allowing anyone else to stand who dared to confess their addiction to a group of strangers. This was the part of the meeting where awkward silence slowed things down. Sometimes nobody did, ending the meeting on a mixed note. Mary would’ve preferred that. Then, much to her dismay, a tall man wearing a sweatshirt and a baseball cap stood and spoke.
“Hello. My name is Peter Robert Rogers,” said the man.
“Hi, Peter,” replied the crowd in perfect unison.
Mary immediately perked up at hearing that name. She rarely took an interest in newcomers to the program, but this name sparked one that went beyond her many problems.
“No. It can’t be!” Mary said in disbelief.