S2 E3: Irene Jacobs on Rebuilding Intimacy After Trauma

As the clinical director at Willow House, Irene Jacobs sees first-hand how women’s lives can be damaged by sexual assault and toxic relationships. So how does she help them recover from this trauma and develop healthy views of what intimacy should be?

Podcast Transcript

Irene: Hello, I’m Irene Jacobs and I am the clinical director at Willow House at the Meadows.

David: Thank you so much for being with us today, Irene.

Irene: Thank you.

David: Let’s start by just introducing yourself, looking at your story, the journey you took to doing the work you’re doing, being in this world of recovery.

Irene: Well, I started off in 2005 working for Catholic charities and Valley, and that was really where I was exposed to a lot of individuals that had experienced trauma. I was the trauma therapist for a program that helped victims of domestic sex trafficking. It was a one year basically a safe house, and that’s where I first sort of fell in love with working with women that struggle with relationship issues, that struggle with toxic relationships, self-harm, disordered eating. Before I was aware of the Meadows, I used to say, it’s almost like they’re addicted to love, but without realizing there was–

David: You were seeing it without really knowing?

Irene: Yes, I didn’t really know until later on, and I started attending conferences to just increase my knowledge about Love Addictionby Pia Mellody. I worked there for about six years and then the Meadows was hiring, and by then I had already visited several conferences and thought if I am going to go anywhere else, it’s going to be the Meadows. I started off in Survivors for my first two years, and I facilitated workshops. From there, after those two years, I became a family therapist, and then I became the primary therapist for the population that we work with today, which back then they used to call it Turquoise Group, and it was the only female-only group at the main campus.

David: That was before Willow House existed?

Irene: Yes. We basically took this population and built a facility for them so that they could really work deeply in their issues without being distracted by being on a coed campus. Since this population is so easily dysregulated, the program is built in a very unique and flexible way so that we can work with them and meet them where they’re at. Willow House has been open for a little over two and a half years now. It’s my passion. I love working there as a clinical director.

David: Diving into the Willow House specifically with the patients that you see there describe their population. How are you seeing specifically sex addiction and some of these other intimacy issues manifest with them?

Irene: That’s such a great question because I think people automatically assume that we only treat sex addiction as an intimacy issue. We really do have quite an interesting range and it starts off with, we see individuals that experienced sexual anorexia and love avoidance. They like to stay isolated. They’re afraid of having sex, they’re afraid of closeness, intimacy. They tend to keep people at arm’s length.

David: Trying to control the situation by avoiding?

Irene: Yes. Oftentimes, if those individuals are in a relationship, they’ll go to extreme measures to not have sex, even though they might want to have sex, they’re afraid of it, and they might smoke two packs of cigarettes before bedtime if their partner detests cigarette smoke. They do whatever they can to do it minimally. They prefer to be isolated. They have a pseudo sense of safety being alone, and it’s typically because they’ve been hurt enough in the past where they feel like they can’t get close and be vulnerable. It’s very fear-based as all intimacy issues are.

Then we have our love addiction individuals and are more insecure attachment type of women. Those women tend to need people in their life. They fear being alone and so they want to attach to others in order to feel okay about themselves internally. We were actually surprised by how many domestic violence cases were coming into Willow House when we first opened. e didn’t realize it would be that high, and there’s almost always a theme of domestic violence, toxic relationships like predatory victim type of relationships, where these women are involved with the sex that they prefer, male and/or female or both, and there’s an element of more than just power and control.

It’s a little deeper and more insidious than what we might see with the regular domestic violence cycle. Then we have domestic sex trafficking victims, human trafficking victims, or women that just want to leave that lifestyle. Sexual acting out behavior is another thing we see, which can range, but what we’re noticing with our younger population is that there’s a lot of sexual social media addiction, and also with our women, porn and masturbation and full-blown sex addiction behaviors. Then we also get a little bit more outside of that, and occasionally we have women that have offending thoughts and/or offending behaviors.

David: That offending, meaning like sex offender or something different?

Irene: That’s a great question. Not necessarily sex offender and we’re not– Our women aren’t struggling with offending minors, but it could be by sexual professional boundary violations, could look like inappropriate interactions with coworkers, with clients, with a supervisor.

David: Kind of like crossing some social norms in that way?

Irene: Right, yes.

David: That’s a pretty wide spectrum?

Irene: It is.

David: We’ll dive into some of those a little bit deeper now starting with the sex addiction itself. How do you define that as a distinct item within that spectrum?

Irene: Sure. There’s several factors that we consider. First we have an assessment, the sexual dependency inventory that gives us a nice look at what exactly our patients are addicted to sexually. Then also we see some of your typical signs that you would see across any addiction, whether it’s behavioral or substance, for example, like continuance, tolerance, some withdrawal, powerlessness, and manageability.

David: Some of the markers they follow all addictions.

Irene: That’s right. Yes.

David: It was interesting when I was talking with Stefanie Carnes who’s the architect of the Willow House, one of the things she mentioned was how oftentimes women are hesitant to attach themselves to that label of sex addict. Why is that? What do you think that is?

Irene: Yes. Most of our women and I would say even male sex addicts, they don’t like to call themselves sex addicts because they think there’s this stigma around it where when someone says, “Oh, they’re a sex addict,” right away we think of an offender, we think of a child molester, a predator. That’s not always the case. Of course, there can be some offending-like behaviors, but typically, generally, when we’re looking at sex addiction, we’re actually looking at an addiction just like with alcohol and/or drugs, except it’s a behavior. They all want to be love addicts because that sounds a little safer. We don’t slap that label right away, and of course, we only use that label when it’s appropriate and when it’s applicable. Really what we’re looking at

is that this individual has had pain in their life. They’re struggling with an issue that’s interfering with them being authentic with themselves and with others.

David: Yes. You mentioned earlier about how there are some victims of domestic violence, predatory relationships. I imagine that a question that a lot of people have when looking at that is, why do they stay in those relationships? Why is that?

Irene: It is a common question. I think even sometimes professionals have a hard time working with that population, like the number one, I would say, treatment advice that is out there that’s consistent is zero contact.

David: What does that mean?

Irene: Zero contact means terminating the relationship and never contacting that person again, which is great if you don’t have kids, you don’t rely on this person for insurance and maybe you’re going through breast cancer treatments. There are real-life factors that might influence a female to stay in a relationship. Not only do we have that, but in these domestic violence, predatory-victim, toxic relationships, we’re also looking at a level of traumatic bonding, of betrayal bonding, it’s an attachment that is based off of survival.

Even if none of those external elements exist to stay in a relationship, what we find is that a predator has typically zeroed in on the woman’s vulnerability. They have baited her and hooked her, and/or him, because women can be predators as well into this trap of, “I’m the source of all your needs. Along the way, my mask is going to slip and some of my narcissism, some of my selfish behaviors and toxic behaviors, maybe some antisocial behaviors or personality disorders might start to come through in a way that’s harmful for you.” Because the victim feels so dependent on this relationship, she will not be able to leave without help.

David: A big part of the healing process for this is looking at couples when somebody is in a relationship. Could you kind of describe how that dynamic is different when you’re looking at a couple and it’s a female who’s experienced some betrayal trauma for having a male partner or vice versa?

Irene: Sure. Right away, that was an area where we notice some differences as well. We see two extremes. We have men that come in that are very angry. We know that this partner has been abusive to our patient in the past. In those situations, we’re very careful, we tread very lightly. We try to focus on strength-based recovery in order to move forward, healthy attachment. We will work with the couple on what doesn’t work in their relationship and what is working. That way, both partners can clearly see the problem, and then how to move through it.

David: These men, are they angry because their partner’s getting help?

Irene: They’re angry that their partner has cheated on them. There’s so much anger there that sometimes when they come in for a family week, it’s hard for them to let go. Of course, we see that they behave and they’re very compliant, but verbally, sometimes they will indicate how upset they are. Now, if a male partner was too violent, we will not invite them to family week because we want to protect our patients. That’s not safe. Then we see this other extreme where we have partners that are just really, really understanding of the addiction process and willing to be supportive. They, overall, I think, do a little bit better in family week.

David: Yes. It sounds like the ideal situation, yes.

Irene: Right. Not that they have a perfect relationship, but they seem to be more open and willing to look at stuff. It’s rare that we get this in the middle, whereas with female partners, female partners, I think, can be very dysregulated not only prior to family week, but also during family week in a way to where it’s disruptive to the family week process. Of course, I want to preface this by saying that, of course, when someone has been betrayed, their world’s been knocked upside down, what they thought they knew is gone. There’s zero-trust there. Everything becomes a threat.

We have noticed that there’s more of hyper-vigilance around female-betrayed partners versus male-betrayed partners. They might be more likely to question and wonder, “Well, why are there so many female counselors here or why are your family counselors women?” Whereas, Willow House with our male partners– Yes, they don’t really get into some of that behavior that we might see with female partners. There is a difference.

David: Like with any Meadows program, trauma is going to be a big part of it. How do you see trauma show up in this world, with sex addiction and then how do you help them heal? What’s that recovery process look like?

Irene: What we typically see with our patients is that there’s almost always attachment disruption from really early on. When we dig into their family of origin, there’s typically some events during the early childhood developmental years with our female patients, that there’s a disconnection with attachment with mom and dad. It starts there. Then what we typically see is some type of abuse. It could happen at school, it could happen at home, and then there’s typically sexual abuse or sexual assault that occurs. Then by the time our patients are 14 to 17, they are already using substances to cope with the pain and then what we see is a repetition. These women, by the time they come to us, will have multiple sexual assaults, multiple rapes from their teenage years on into adulthood.

David: This just creates this cycle?

Irene: Yes, absolutely. Oftentimes, what we see, even sometimes with our women that struggle with sex addiction, is that they’ve been perpetrated against and they’ve been that powerless victim for most of their life. Sometimes, the sex addiction flares up and shows itself as, “I’m the one in charge, I’m the one in control, I will use you, you will not use me.” It’s almost they’re trying to undo the damage that was done to them almost by over-exaggerating, and it just becomes an addictive process.

David: Yes. Speaking of trauma, I know you mentioned earlier that you’ve done some work with like human trafficking, sex trafficking victims. That seems like a very specific high-level extreme trauma. How do you go about that healing process when somebody has been through what they’ve been through?

Irene: A lot of our women that have that background come in, actually interestingly enough, they start off by like, “I don’t really want to give up my job because I make a lot of money doing what I do.” We’re very careful with them. Once they see that usually their domestic sex trafficking is connected with drugs and alcohol, it’s connected with toxic relationships, and we do the trauma work around what set them up to go down that path, once they gain some healing from that, there’s the switch that starts to occur, and the light bulbs go off, and they’re like, “Oh, maybe I can’t do this job, and stay sober from drugs and alcohol.”

David: Because they’re so interconnected?

Irene: That’s right, yes. Oftentimes, our women will come in from that lifestyle and we have to help them to make a cognitive shift around what they even label assault as or rape as.

David: Because that’s become normal in their world?

Irene: That’s right. There’s normalization of sexual assault and rape. When we tell them, “Oh, that’s rape, you’ve been raped,” or “Oh, you didn’t consent to that,” it’s so mind-blowing for them because they’re like, “Oh, I never thought about it like that.” Sometimes it’s really super overwhelming. We have to remember, when you’re in human trafficking or domestic sex trafficking, you’re putting on a mask for the people that are hiring you. That mask keeps you completely disconnected from who you are, and you have to, to some degree, be someone else to get through those actions.

Also, what happens is that because they feel they have to do that in order to survive or make as much money to live, their threshold for what they will tolerate sexually completely expands and gets normalized. We really work hard with them on scene that it’s not okay, it’s not normal. Can they really have sobriety in that line of work? I’m really happy to say that most of our patients leave our program and decide not to reengage in that lifestyle.

David: That’s really interesting. I feel like I wouldn’t have even expected that the people who come for treatment are still working in that lifestyle. That’s interesting.

Irene: It really is. They think no, this is all I can do. We want to make sure that they know what healthy looks like so that when they leave our program, they leave having transformed their trauma into their own truth.

David: Let’s wrap up by looking at a couple of bigger picture questions. First of all, I think, especially when you’re dealing with anything sexual, I think there’s a lot of misconceptions or misunderstandings or people just don’t want to talk about it. What would be something that you wish the general public understood better about the reality of sex addiction and intimacy issues, all this?

Irene: First of all, just the range of what intimacy issues look like. I think a lot of people have stereotypes and maybe preconceived notions of what sex addiction is and sometimes our minds tend to go to the worst things. It’s not always like that. I would love to educate our society and have them be aware that everyone struggles with relationship issues to some degree. Some just are more conflicted than others.

David: It’s a spectrum.

Irene: That’s right.

David: For someone listening who wants to learn a little bit more about this a little bit deeper, what would be one book or resource, something that you would recommend they turn to?

Irene: One of my favorite books, and we actually use it at Willow House is Ready To Healby Kelly McDaniel. It’s a great book because she doesn’t use labels, she gives definitions, and there are some actual personal stories in there. Then she talks about how to heal from that. It’s a really excellent resource. I think the other one, I would suggest too, that’s our main one. The second one too is Bessel van der Kolk book on trauma, the Body-

David: Keeps the Score.

Irene: Keeps the Score. That way they understand how trauma is impacting their nervous system and how it keeps them dysregulated.

David: All right. Well, just to leave our listeners with one last thing, what’s a favorite piece of advice that you’ve been giving that meant a lot to you or something that you keep passing on to others?

Irene: Sure. I would say that my favorite piece of advice, it’s actually a quote, and ‘it’s beyond fear is freedom’. Just take that chance to get the help that you need and your life will become yours again.


David: Irene Jacobs is the clinical director with Willow House, a program in Wickenburg, Arizona, that helps women heal from relationship and intimacy issues. Find out more about Irene and the rest of the Willow House team at willowhouseforwomen.com.