Kelly McDaniel. Therapist, author, speaker.

Kelly McDaniel. Therapist, author, speaker.

RR: Tell us about your book. Why did you write it? What was the process like? What are you working on now?

KM: From the moment of its conception, Ready to Heal took on a life of its own. It possessed me and writing went fast…as if the words were dying to come into visibility. I had always wondered why no one had written this particular book. I suppose it was my job to do it.
For me, writing and publishing Ready to Heal has been another pregnancy. It took me 9 months to complete, but years to prepare for. Like becoming a mother, I had some idea of what I was about to do, but not really. The biggest shock has been the postpartum period. I’ve been so tired. My emotions have been intense and erratic. I have discovered parts of my limitations that I didn’t know I had. Like becoming a new mother, I’ve been euphoric at times, horribly insecure and afraid at times, and periodically I wonder what I’ve done to my life. Like having a child, my soul has been permanently altered by the process of writing this book and its publication. I can no longer “hide” as an author or as an expert. Like a new mother who learns she now has a greater responsibility to her child, I have a new awareness of being responsible to a community who desperately needs this information.
Like most mothers, I worry about not being good enough. Motherhood has a way to key into my unhealed shame places. The spiritual lightness that motherhood has brought to my life has not come without pain. I have known dark moments as a mother. Similarly, there are times I don’t feel adequate as an author or a spokesperson for women struggling with this addiction. The truth is I am learning my way into this process.

RR: What is love, sex, relationship and romance addiction? Do they all appear together? How does that work?

KM: Most importantly, love, sex, relationship, and romance addiction share a common process in the brain; a neurochemical reaction that raises “feel good” hormones. They are each a manifestation of arousal. As humans, we are wired for arousal and pleasure. The origin of the pleasure center in our brain is primarily about survival as it is tied to the drive to procreate. Humans need pleasure. We require it for a fulfilling life. When children do not receive necessary parenting, their brains become altered by fear, anxiety, and loneliness. As a result, the pleasure center in the brain is altered. It’s hungry.
One way a child can learn to “feel” better, to ease this hunger, is to stimulate herself or himself sexually, thereby releasing hormones into the body that soothe pain and fear. This is the beginning of a sexual attachment. Perhaps a fantasy of being rescued, or being a hero, accompanies the masturbation process. This is the beginning of a romance attachment. Maybe, a child is yearning for love and holds a favorite stuffed animal, blanket, or doll while self soothing and if this becomes compulsive (some adults still have their favorite childhood love substitute), a love attachment is born. I use the word attachment in each scenario because attachment is what the child is craving. It’s the primary need. Originally, this is not addictive. It is formative and necessary, and ideally, should have been with the caregiver(s). When caregivers are not safe attachment figures, the child will find something that is. Sadly, this substitute, which proves much more effective and trustworthy than people, becomes fertile territory for adult addiction. Essentially, the child bonds with a process of arousal…either with sex, romance, and/or love to replace the missing hormones in the pleasure center. Healthy, loving relationships are designed to provide these hormones. When they don’t, children and adults find something that will.

RR: What are the hallmarks of addiction? How would someone know they’re an addict?

KM: A person realizes their romantic and sexual patterns are addictive in different ways and at different times. For most of us, we have some form of disordered intimacy patterns. We live in a culture where media teaches us that love is something that it’s not. There are some distinct processes to look for, however, if you are questioning whether or not your intimacy patterns have become addictive. For most women, when their patterns damage important relationships, they begin to question their behavior. For men, many may not examine their patterns until their work or financial status is somehow threatened.
Generally, the following criteria must be met in order for a person to identify their behavior as addictive:
• there is a pattern of increased intensity in order to enjoy the same high
• there is an inability to stop the behavior although repeated efforts to do so
• feelings of irritability, anxiety, anger, fatigue and physical pain accompany efforts to cease the behavior
• there are negative consequences for the behavior (partner complaints, loss of friends, work, joy, increased danger and/or health problems)

RR: Why do you focus on women in your book? Do you also work exclusively with women?

KM: I focus on women in my book primarily because I am a woman. In my practice, I can treat men and I do. It’s fascinating, cross cultural work to be in treatment with a man. The way he learned to be “masculine” in patriarchal society is different in significant ways from how women learn to be “feminine.” While I have a huge appreciation for masculinity and how traumatic it is to grow up thinking you can’t cry, be afraid, or tell the truth about your feelings, as a woman, I know female culture more intimately. For this reason, I think I’m more effective talking about women’s issues. I speak the same language. I know the culture, at least for white, heterosexual women.
In Ready to Heal, I designed four cultural beliefs that most women addicted to love or sex have internalized into their thinking. For women of color and lesbian women, the pressures are different, and I hope to open the field for more voices to talk about this addiction: voices of women who have been silent. There are variations in these cultural beliefs based on sexual orientation and racial identity.

RR: Is it a rich person’s dis-ease, or disorder?

KM: Love and sex addiction is not just for rich people. In fact, many individuals think this disease only affects lower class people, which is part of the shame and stigma attached to anything sexual. In truth, this addiction affects men and women of different socio-economic backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds, and sexual orientations. However, treatment is expensive which begs the question, is recovery only for “rich” people who can afford it?
Fortunately, one of the most successful components of love and sex addiction treatment is 12 step groups. They are free. This is a wonderful resource for recovery. However, treatment and recovery are most successful when a relationship with a trained therapist is also part of the process. Research shows that the therapeutic relationship can be one of the most influential components for a woman healing this addiction.
There is an additional complication regarding the financial piece of treatment. For most addicts, the valid feeling of being victimized seeps into decision making processes. The victimized stance can create the reality that “I can’t pay for therapy…” For professionals, it’s often tricky to determine when an individual legitimately needs financial assistance and when the “addict” is meeting an unhealthy need to feel special or unique by looking for exceptions to treatment procedures, such as a lower fee.

RR: Do women have trouble with internet porn too?

KM: In the past, sexual addiction has been typically a man’s disease. They have more permission to be sexual, of course, so it’s been easier for them to take things to the extreme. For women, the stigma has been a source of too much shame. Historically, women identify more with the concept of “love addiction” or “loving too much.” The internet has drastically changed this paradigm. The internet, or what we call the triple A engine (accessibility, affordability, and anonymity) has made sex more available for women. Where a woman might not have entered into an adult book store to buy porn, she now can watch it (or make it) in the privacy of her own home. In the field, we call the internet the “crack cocaine” of sexual addiction. It’s proving to be so for both genders. Although women still typically act out more in chat rooms than they do watching porn, the numbers of women who find themselves acting “like a man” are growing.

RR: You talk extensively about trauma being at the root of this addiction. It seems to me that hasn’t been addressed in such a direct way in terms of this addiction before your groundbreaking work. How did you come to that conclusion?

KM: The lack of education about trauma and addiction is a cultural misunderstanding of shame and what creates shame. A child does not need to be beaten everyday to be significantly traumatized by caregivers. Understanding shame is to understand loneliness. To truly understand loneliness is to respect isolation and its effects on the brain. The research and work is out there. It just has not necessarily been linked with addiction and women in the way I needed it to be for the clients I treat. My thinking was that if I needed a book to explain the link to my patients, so did others.

RR: Is trauma the missing link for understanding this addiction?

KM: Yes, is some ways it is. However, for women, I think there’s an equally important link missing from the understanding of addiction treatment. That is the cultural double bind that women find themselves navigating as they form a sexual identity. The cultural double bind sets up an impossible standard for women. It’s an impasse, really. This leaves me with a profound respect for love and sex addiction. Essentially, the addiction is a way around the impasse. It’s a way for a woman to claim being sexual. Eventually, yes, it will become horrible, dark, and desperate. But addiction is a true survival mechanism too. It keeps the spirit alive. Each woman I treat has an incredible will to be who she is meant to be, but the energy has been misdirected into keeping the addiction alive, which has felt like her only form of life energy.

RR: How does attachment fit in here? What work are you doing to help with parenting?

KM: It’s ALL about attachment. And as far as helping parents, I’m not doing enough. But Dr. Brene Brown in Houston is doing great work to help parents. Check out her website!

RR: You make so many amazing points throughout this book, which was life-changing for me. One is about how women in early recovery often have intense sexual experiences with other women. Sometimes this means they will continue to be involved with women, sometimes not. But you talk about it being part of healing. Part of learning to love ourselves as women, and other women. Where does this come from?

KM: Women with an addiction to love, sex, relationships, and romance have a profound hunger for mother. The concept of a mother…not necessarily the mother they have or had. Loving women, having friends, becomes a very complicated process. Women have typically been competitors, acting out buddies, or simply boring to most female addicts. There’s no template with mother that allows for women to respect and have room for each other.
So, becoming sexual with women as part of recovery is part of healing for a couple of reasons. Sometimes it’s a necessary discharge of erotic rage that is really meant for mom. She let us down, she led us on, she was there, then gone. We feel betrayed…at a primal, core level. So we act this out with a woman and often, it becomes sexual as a way to unveil the core intensity and pain.
There’s also a part of sexually loving another woman that heals a wounded self image. In loving another woman’s body, learning to appreciate her smells, the feel of her skin, and the sound of her voice, a woman heals her own negative body image. It’s almost impossible to taste another woman and still find one’s own body somehow shameful or distasteful!

RR: When do you think this addiction can start?

KM: As early a relational disruptions start…before we know language.

You cite many of your patients’ experiences in the book. Why did you choose to do this?
Women traditionally learn from stories, gossip, talking and sharing. Yet most women don’t talk about this issue. My desire to include the stories from my patients was to give a reader the feeling that she could connect with a story. She could know she is not alone. She could see parts of herself in another woman. That is how we heal. Together. Through stories.

RR: You have a husband and a son. Do you wish you had a daughter?

KM: I love learning about the world of men. After taking off my own blinders, places where my internalized sexism, fear, and mistrust of men lurked, I discovered a wonder for boys and their development. However, longing for a daughter will be and is one of the greatest places my heart grieves. Luckily, I am spiritually convinced that my creator knew it would not be a good idea for me to have a daughter. I had too many of my own wounds to heal and might have unconsciously used her to do it. I may not have been able to manage the guilt for the ways I would inevitably fail her. With a son, he is so “other” that I have the lovely opportunity to see my own projections, witness where he is his own person, and know my place day to day. With a daughter, I think these lines are much more blurry. The mother/daughter bond is more profound than words can explain, although Dr. Christiane Northrup does a wonderful job in her book Mother Daughter Wisdom.

RR: Do you like living in Texas?

KM: I chuckle reading this question….no, I do not particularly like living in Texas. I grew up in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee. I love four seasons. I adore fall. There is no fall in south Texas. Also, living in Texas has given me a respect for how strong negative images about women and femininity are! It has also taught me to see masculinity in new ways, which could be a whole new book.
With that said, there are things I appreciate about south Texas. The pace is slow which I think has been good for me. I was too fast when I moved here after being educated in Washington DC. I think I would have driven myself crazy staying in the east. Also, I am sitting outside in 75 degree weather in November as I write this. I can’t imagine a more gentle place to be in the winter. I grew up loving the beach, and while there is no coast here equal to the Atlantic, the sultry, south Texas weather somehow lets me live in clothing and air that reminds me of how much I loved summer as a child.

RR: What do you love?

KM: In addition to my family and darling pets, I love the daily rituals I have created in my life…a walk, a cup of my favorite tea or coffee, seeing my clients, being with my friends, and making my bed. I am a nester. I love being home, although I escape when the heat is too much!

RR: What would you suggest to someone who’s struggling currently?

KM: Read Love Junkie and Ready to Heal! Honestly, I think reading stories about this addiction is powerfully helpful. My hope is that if you are addicted, you won’t wait until the addiction has taken everything from you before you begin to heal.