Don Q. knows first hand what it’s like to be in recovery for sex addiction. And he’d like to thank the movie “Thanks for Sharing” for getting so much of it right.
For the past year I’ve been in recovery for sex addiction. By definition, this addiction is one that leads to increased risk-taking and powerlessness. In my case, a years-long addiction to Internet porn led over the course of a few years to “sensual” massages and, eventually, sex with prostitutes. These behaviors cost me easily over $10,000, not including the thousands I’ve spent to get better. Sex addiction cost me my marriage—or hastened its demise, anyway.
I’m disclosing all this up front to say that while I’m a frequent movie and book critic, I was hardly a dispassionate viewer of Thanks For Sharing. (The title is a nod to the phrase frequently overheard at 12-step sex addiction meetings.) I may also be one of the movie’s unintended target audiences, which judging from lukewarm reviews and unremarkable box-office receipts is otherwise struggling to connect with viewers.
And that’s a pity. The movie may not be the first onscreen depiction of sex addiction, but it is certainly the first one about sex addiction recovery. That distinction counts. The movie largely foregoes overly cinematic montages of hollowed-out addicts jonesing for a fix. Instead, it presents more mundane—and far fresher—realities. The peculiar intimacy of 12-step meetings, for one, or the sense of being under siege by a culture saturated by sexually-explicit imagery, for another.
In other words, the movie gets right a lot of what I, and fellow addicts, experience in the course of our day-to-day lives. That alone made it worth the price of a ticket.
And if it helps those who still believe sex addiction is just a big excuse for men to cheat and act like jerks—well, that wouldn’t be a bad thing, either.
First-time writer/director Stuart Blumberg previously wrote The Kids Are Alright, a funny, well-observed look at the intricacies of lesbian child-rearing. Like that movie, Thanks For Sharing is clearly the result of a lot of research. It suggests someone well steeped in the look and feel of 12-step recovery.
There’s Mike (Tim Robbins), an old hand on the scene, who dishes out plenty of program platitudes with but hasn’t quite absorbed all their deeper spiritual implications. Mike sponsors Adam (Mark Ruffalo), a handsome environmental consultant. His five years’ worth of sobriety is challenged by a new relationship with Phoebe (Gwyneth Paltrow). Then there’s Neil (Josh Gad), a clownish ER doctor with an unfortunate penchant for videotaping up women’s skirts.
Of the three storylines, Neil’s steals the show. That’s because the movie takes its time developing his budding friendship with another struggling addict, Dede (Alecia Moore—otherwise known as the singer Pink). The pair learn to lean on one another in many of the ways I’ve seen among program friends and have experienced for myself.
Furthermore, a couple of brief scenes between Neil and his emotionally engulfing mom (Carol Kane) help reveal some of the disturbing antecedents of his addiction. In one—Neil has just biked over to his mom’s—his mother appears just a bit too concerned about the sweat that’s seeped through the crotch/rear of his pants.
The scene is nearly played for laughs, thanks to Carol Kane’s zany affect. Yet every single man I know in recovery, including me, has suffered some kind of severe emotional boundary abuse, emotional neglect, and/or physical and sexual abuse in their family of origin. It’s one thing to laugh off a Jewish mamele “harmlessly” stroking her son’s tuches, another to consider how this sort of sexualized shaming must’ve shaped the younger Neil for years if not decades.
The movie gets other aspects of sex addiction just right, too. There’s Neil’s false starts in recovery, the way real abstinence takes many addicts a long time to achieve. (If anything, the movie foreshortens this process, which in my experience takes months if not years).
Indeed, most addicts I know take their abstinence more seriously than nearly anything else in their lives. (How many times has my therapist said to me that “whatever you put ahead of your recovery you’ll lose.”). In Thanks For Sharing, you’ll see plenty of visual references to the “3 second rule” whereby addicts coming across sexually arousing material or people divert their attention within the specified time.
Recovering addicts strictly limit the use of TV and Internet, too. Almost everyone I know in recovery uses some kind of Internet filtering software, and I’ve been known to keep my computer safely in my car overnight if feeling “triggered.” In one of the film’s funnier scenes, a hotel attendant casually removes the giant flat screen from Mike’s hotel room as he and Phoebe are Skyping.
Finally, there’s the camaraderie. In a hokey turn, the movie ends with Billy Bragg’s a cappella “Tender Comrade,” but the song’s lyrics accurately reflect the very particular and intense friendships I’ve developed with program buddies over the past year.
These are the sorts of friendships, I suppose, that develop among friends who have heard your most shameful secrets and who don’t judge you because they’ve been there themselves.
Which, come to think of it, may be the best thing about Thanks For Sharing, a movie short on judgment and long on heart.