I don’t think of myself as a sex or love addict. These days, I’m so happily married it’s a little silly. So when I attended a Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) meeting for work, I expected, as an impartial observer, to take some notes on what these meetings are all about, and that would be that. Instead, I was shocked to find just how strongly I related to what I heard.

Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meetings feel very familiar to anyone who has been to a 12-step meeting. At a women’s meeting last week in New York’s Greenwich Village, the group began by holding hands and reciting the serenity prayer. The attendees were all different ages and came from diverse backgrounds — some introduced themselves as fantasy and romance addicts, some identified as sexually anorexic, and others said simply that they were recovering.

One of the meeting attendees, Laura*, calls herself as a sex addict. “I got clean and sober in my 20s, but sex addiction replaced chemical addiction,” she tells me after the meeting. She describes her ensuing relationships, which included those with much older men and women (even though she identifies as straight), and even sex with her best friend’s husband, as “traumatic, adrenaline-filled, and tragic. It was humiliating.” She elaborates: “I was also a love addict. I was looking for the magical person who could save me, make everything better, and fill up that whole.”

What is sex and love addiction?

Many of us struggle with setting healthy boundaries in relationships, but when it becomes extreme, it may be a sign of sex or love addiction.

The characteristics of sex and love addiction can also include using sex and emotional involvement to manipulate others, and fear of intimacy or commitment. Additionally, there’s the tendency to keep coming back to painful, damaging relationships, even when they leave us burned. Like an alcoholic uses booze to self-destruct, sex and love addicts enter liaisons that end up hurting themselves and others.

“Dating itself can be a challenging endeavor for anyone,” says Sharyn Levine, LCSW, a clinical social worker who specializes in relationships. “But when you start to notice patterns in your dating life — when the same issues come up over and over again in relationships — that is an indicator that there might be an addictive or obsessive pattern.”

“Sex and love addicts confuse romantic and sexual intensity with long-term true emotional intimacy,” Levine adds.

Sex and love addicts often share a chronic preoccupation with romance, intrigue, or fantasy. On the other end of the spectrum, they might identify as a sexual anorexic — someone who avoids giving or receiving social, sexual, or emotional nourishment. “Often there’s a lot of overlap with codependency,” says Levine.

“A sex addict uses sex to avoid having to feel,” Levine says. “They get a neurochemical surge that alleviates any negative or uncomfortable feelings, like drugs or alcohol would — just like the person with an eating disorder might use food, or the compulsive gambler would gamble. Love addicts are looking for those endorphins that are released in the beginning of relationship, but that ultimately isn’t going to last. It’s a gateway to what is going to ultimately develop, which is a deeper, more intimate, more emotional connection.”

So how can we recover?

I’ve had my fair share of ill-fated, rollercoaster-y relationships in the past that were a far cry from healthy. Although they might not have crossed into addict territory, the steps for recovery are ones anyone who has had difficulties in their love and sex life (which I’m pretty sure is everyone) can learn from.

Founded in Boston, Massachusetts in 1976 by a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, SLAA follows many of the same tenets: admitting you have a problem, finding a sponsor, seeking support from the community, and working toward sobriety. But unlike abstaining from alcohol, sex and love addicts must define the terms of their own recovery. Members work with their sponsors to determine bottom-line behaviors — like having unprotected sex or having sex when they don’t want to — and refrain from engaging in them. In contrast, top-line goals replace old patterns with healthy new intentions, like making decisions from a place of freedom rather than compulsion or being honest with partners and friends.

Although our culture often tags women for being love addicted and men for being sex addicted, everyone can struggle with either or both predicaments. They both stem from the same fear of being vulnerable and the negative feelings that come along with that. It’s a truly understandable situation — vulnerability is scary for everyone.

Recovery begins to change that script of hiding at all costs. “Now I’m in relationships with people who actually like me,” explained one SLAA member. “I actually like them, too. I don’t just feel insecure, like I’m doing someone a favor, or like I have no choice.”

The SLAA signs of recovery include honesty, self-acceptance, and trust. “We learn to accept and love ourselves, to take responsibility for our own lives, and to take care of our own needs before involving ourselves with others,” the group’s literature states. Practicing honesty, self-acceptance, and trust sound like good rules for anyone entering into a relationship, whether or not they have a history of addictive behavior.

“We live in a very shame-averse culture,” Levine says. “Twelve-steps programs help break the cycle of shame.” Admitting a problem and asking for help is a vital first step. Joining a group of like-minded people is a powerful experience that can change lives. For some, the community they develop becomes like family. Fellow members can call them out on their character flaws, and also provide support and understanding through great and trying times.

“My story doesn’t go from addiction to recovery,” Laura says. “It’s more like addiction, recovery, addiction, recovery, etc.” Today, she follows bottom lines that include having sex only when in a committed, monogamous relationship, and she is dating in a way that feels entirely new and sane. “What I seek is to be happy with myself as I am, yet to keep growing,” Laura shares. “It’s a journey that never ends. I will never be cured, but I get to learn from my mistakes. I get a reprieve on a daily basis.”

*Name has been changed.