HATTIESBURG, Miss. — Imagine getting a call from a 14-year-old seeking treatment for sex addiction. It's happened at the Gratitude program, part of Pine Grove Behavioral Health and Addiction Services in Mississippi.
Deborah Schiller, director of Gratitude — which treats sexual addiction, sexual anorexia and relationship compulsivity — said the program has received requests for help from callers in their early teens.
"There are younger and younger people," she said. "Porn is ever-present in our lifestyle. They report looking at porn at a younger age. We've had people say, 'I've looked at porn since I was 4 years old.' "
Some of the callers are involved with sexting — the texting of sexually explicit photos. This act is what sent Democrat Anthony Weiner, a former New York congressman, to federal prison, where he is currently serving 21 months for sexting a 15-year-old girl.
Headlines about Weiner and alleged sexual misconduct by Oscar-winning producer Harvey Weinstein, actor Kevin Spacey, comedian Louis C.K., Alabama U.S. senatorial candidate Roy Moore and a growing list of others have put sexual addiction in the forefront of the American psyche.
At Gratitude, which only treats patients 18 and older and has accepted patients into their 80s, the process starts with the phone call and an hour-long conversation with a counselor.
Gratitude is probably a good place to turn. It was the first program in the country to focus solely on sex addiction and related behaviors when it started in 2004. Since then, it has treated hundreds of patients, housing up to 20 at a time.
As a leader in treating sex addiction, Pine Grove in Hattiesburg, Miss., frequently is mentioned in the conversation when a celebrity or other notable name seeks treatment.
Tiger Woods was widely reported to have checked into Pine Grove in 2010. Also in 2010, former ESPN baseball analyst Steve Phillips talked about getting treatment for sex addiction in Hattiesburg. In May 2016, a British tabloid reported Sharon Osbourne gave husband Ozzy Osbourne an ultimatum to go to Pine Grove.
Confidentiality laws prevent Pine Grove executives from commenting on the program's patients.
The Gratitude program has been getting more calls lately in part, Schiller said, because the non-profit program decreased its price recently and because sex addiction has been in the news. The cost of the residential program, which was not available Friday, may or may not be covered by insurance.
"Sex addiction is a behavior addiction," Schiller said. "For a long time, we thought it was only chemicals you could get addicted to.
"The more we've studied the brain, we've realized there are behaviors people can do addictively."
Gambling is the only behavior officially listed as being addictive in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but Schiller said other behaviors such as work, exercise, shopping and sex also can be addictive.
"This is not something you go and get fixed," she said. "For the rest of your life, you will be treating this."
The consequences of sex addiction can be enormous, Schiller said.
"No. 1 is the misery and suffering the addict experiences," she said. "They are living a life against their own morals and values, and they can't stop. They're hurting the ones they love."
Other consequences include firing, divorce, estrangement from children and grandchildren, religious censure and loss of professional license or standing.
Schiller said most sex addicts are men, though Gratitude has treated women, who stay in a separate facility. The program gets calls from around the country and even internationally. There is never a waiting list. The program will find people a bed at Pine Grove if necessary, until a private room at Gratitude is available.
The program does not accept people who have committed crimes against children or who are sexually violent, but sex addiction does get people into legal trouble.
"People do awful things in their sex addiction," Schiller said. "They do things against the law, such as see prostitutes, look at child pornography. They may exhibit themselves or voyeur.
"If (someone is) arrested for one of these things, it doesn't mean that person is a sex addict, but it could mean their sex addiction has gone that far."
Certainly, not all sex addicts are criminal offenders, and most sex offenders are not addicts. Unlike an addict, a sex offender may lack a motivation to change or a conscience.
"(Sex addicts) rarely engage in sex without consent or with coercion," said Debra Borys, a Los Angeles psychologist and expert on sexual harassment. "They're using sex as a self-soothing mechanism in the way other people use drugs or binge eat.
"A sexual predator gets aroused from the domination and the power and seeing the fear or humiliation. They're not considered a sex addict."
Treatment in the Gratitude program typically lasts 45-90 days. Patients stay in cottages surrounding a large courtyard, all in a private setting. They meet with therapists and counselors and attend group therapy and 12-step meetings. There's also yoga, meditation, art, music and drama therapy, and spiritual counseling. The idea is for the patients to confront their behavior and identify supports, including a higher power he or she can turn to for help.
A full-time staff of 12, including Schiller, a psychiatrist, a psychologist and around-the-clock counselors are assisted by consultants who work with patients on a regular basis.
All the patient's issues are addressed, including childhood trauma, depression or anxiety, and other addictions.
Schiller said once the patient's stay concludes, work begins to avoid relapse. Therapists recommend 90 12-step meetings in 90 days and continued attendance after that. Abstinence from sex is also urged for 90 days.
"Our goal is for people to have loving, committed, exciting, hot sex with their loved one," Schiller said. "Each couple needs to define their own sobriety."
At Gratitude, there are six times a year when patients can come back for two days free of charge and talk with people affiliated with the program. Those who are struggling can get support and reboot.
"My experience is, if people follow all our recommendations — if they do those things — they stay sober," Schiller said. "You can't stop by yourself. You're powerless over your cravings and urges.
"Once you come to treatment and learn the tools, you're not powerless over picking up that pornography or calling that affair partner anymore."
Contributing: USA TODAY. Follow Ellen Ciurczak on Twitter: @educellen