My Personal Journey: 5 Lesser-known Aspects of Recovery
Our Addiction Recovery Series last month addressed many forms of addiction, one of which was addiction to pornography and how that addiction can affect a marriage. Here is a closer look at a couple who has traveled the road of recovery. It’s a kind of His and Hers discussion about the difficult realities of addiction, recovery, and how their marriage has survived. We are so grateful for their courage and faith in sharing their stories. Today we feature His story and tomorrow we will share Hers. (Please note: *names have been changed)
I’m Todd,* and I’ve been a recovering pornography addict for over 13 years. I’d like to share some of my personal journey of recovery with the hope that I can help others gain a better understanding of pornography/sex addictions and why openness in dealing with this difficult issue is so vital. In doing so, I will also try to correct some common misconceptions.
First, sex addicts are not inherently bad people, do not possess less self-control than an average person, and are not sex-craved.
I am the oldest child in a large family. My family was Mormon, and on the outside appeared to be everything one might expect to find from a typical Mormon family. Unfortunately, my family was often in deep turmoil. My mom was molested as a child and never seriously sought help in overcoming the trauma she experienced. She was abusive to us kids, and my dad did little to protect us. When my youngest siblings were born, I was their primary caretaker, which I thought was completely normal. Don’t all 11- and 13-year-olds take care of infants during the night? By the time I was 12, I watched my younger siblings and cooked dinner while my parents worked late. I learned at a young age that I could protect my siblings by redirecting my mother’s full anger to me. And yet because my dad was emotionally absent, I was also brought into their marriage as an emotional confidant, which is called emotional incest. It was very harmful to me.
My experiences with my parents led me to believe that I could not trust anyone. I protected myself by refusing to be completely genuine, or vulnerable, in all my relationships. This included protecting my darkest secret: I began masturbating when I was only about 9-years-old. An older neighbor boy explained to me what it was. Almost instantly, I was addicted. At the time, I did not even know that what I was doing was sinful. What I did understand, however, is that it provided a fast, albeit temporary, escape from the pain that was my life. I was a child just trying to survive and feel better. Pornography did not come until later.
One of the reasons I share this part of my story is to demonstrate that my addiction came about because I was suffering. I am the first to admit there are better ways I could have handled my childhood pain. However, there was no one to teach me, and the very people who should have taught me were the same people hurting me. I have heard the stories of dozens of addicts, and I can tell you that my story is not extraordinary in any way. My experiences as a child are actually less severe than many of the stories I have heard. Most addicts I know became addicts as children when they were exposed to pornography and/or masturbation. In reality, this addiction has nothing to do with sex – its quantity or quality – and has everything to do with escaping pain.
Second, the addict is always responsible for her/his actions.
The Internet still did not exist when I was growing up. As a teenager, I would occasionally look at department store catalogs, sports magazines, and the like. Few people would consider what I saw pornographic. By this point, I knew that what I was doing was wrong, but I could not stop. I made promises to God over and over. I tried praying more. Reading my scriptures more. I tried fasting multiple times a week, every week. Nothing seemed to help, and no one knew of my struggles.
I graduated from high school a year early and immediately left home for college. After a couple years of college, I left to serve a mission. Being a missionary required living by certain standards, including not masturbating or looking at pornography. By some miracle, I was able to stay worthy throughout my mission. However, immediately following my mission the addiction returned and escalated.
Within the first year of returning home, I was accidentally exposed to pornography twice. I felt disgusted by it, almost to the point of vomiting. After another year, however, I eventually sought it out on my own. Regardless of what the addiction cost me, I could not force myself away from it. Before viewing pornography, I had close to a 4.0 GPA. After pornography entered my life, my GPA fell by more than a full point. I simply could not focus on anyone or anything. I was either fighting not to act out, which destroyed my focus, or I looked, and the shame destroyed my ability to focus. I was never at peace, and the loneliness and shame were killing me.
On a number of occasions, I had distinct impressions that if I looked, I knew exactly what the cost would be to me. Initially, I would fight. Eventually, the cost did not matter. I wanted to be free, but I could not imagine my life without the pornography and masturbation.
Even though there is a loss of agency, addicts are still responsible and accountable for their actions. It is real and true that a person is sometimes actually incapable of not looking, but it is never true they should be given a pass. This is a tricky dichotomy to understand. Full agency returns as an addict learns that acting out does not begin when they sit down at the computer or buy a magazine. In recovery, addicts learn their acting out template (or timeline). Early in the template, an addict has more power to reach out for help. Using this power is how recovery happens. It is recognizing the first steps that lead to acting out and stopping a mile before you get there, learning to keep a healthy balance in one’s life so that life becomes more manageable, and learning to be open with trusted individuals and especially the Savior.
Third, shame gives addiction its power.
I always carefully hide the fact that I am a pornography addict. Although there are multiple reasons for secrecy, all of the reasons are tied to shame. Before proceeding, I think it is important to distinguish guilt from shame. Guilt is sorrow for having done something inconsistent with my standards and boundaries. It is feeling bad that I made a poor choice, but not feeling bad about myself. Guilt is the Godly sorrow referenced in the scriptures. It motivates a person to do and be better, to seek God, and to repent. In contrast, shame is a belief that there is something wrong with me, that somehow, I am inherently flawed. Where guilt motivates, shame has the opposite effect. Shame is the most powerful force for keeping an addict from sobriety and recovery. Many 12 Step and other similar programs involve turning to God and reducing shame.
After my mission, I began meeting with therapists and bishops. Occasionally, I was completely honest with them. Often, because of shame, I would only share small pieces. Nevertheless, the therapists were helpful, and I could go an extended period of time not acting out. I do not refer to this time as sobriety because I was not sober. I was simply using intense support to white-knuckle my way through life.
It was about this time that I got married, believing that the addiction was gone. Being married brought a host of new challenges. I still had not resolved any of the trauma from my childhood, and I was still incapable of being completely open or vulnerable with another person. This created all sorts of problems in my relationship and increased the shame I felt. Within several months, I had begun acting out again. The shame, however, was more intense this time because I could clearly see how I was harming another person. Our relationship went from strained to difficult, to non-functional, to non-existent. I am lucky that my wife did not leave me. Who could have blamed her, given my inability to be the partner she expected to have?
After five years of marriage, we moved to Utah, where there are especially good resources for recovery. I found specially-trained therapists and programs. It was the first time since my recovery process began where I felt like someone understood what I was feeling and that the skills I was being taught were actually helpful. It was also the first time in many years I felt hopeful that anything would ever change.
Part of recovery is sharing with trusted members of a 12 Step group every single thing you feel shame for. The purpose of this sharing is to allow the addict to be completely known by a group who can validate the experiences for the addict without rejection or judgment. This experience helps remove the power that shame holds over an addict.
Unfortunately, the LDS culture can be very shaming, in particular to pornography and sex addicts. Pornography addicts are largely viewed as perverted, dangerous, and gross. For example, I had two friends in college who made a passing comment when I babysat their kids for them. Not knowing my secret, they casually said, “Normally, we would never hire a man because he might be a closet pornography addict, and who knows what he might do to our children!” Not only did I feel intense shame, but I was shocked that they believed such a thing. Hearkening back to my first point, pornography addicts are not pedophiles, nor are they more likely to become pedophiles. Eliminating the shame surrounding this type of addiction cannot happen without changing these common but misinformed attitudes and beliefs. Where shame thrives in secrecy and darkness, the antidote to shame is lightness and openness.
We often think and talk about protecting families and children from the harmful effects of pornography. With that goal in mind, I believe changing our attitudes is one of the most powerful things we can do.
Fourth, spouses and family members of addicts should not try to compel recovery or judge spiritual worthiness.
As a Latter-day Saint, I have learned that pornography use does not automatically disqualify one from temple or sacrament privileges. Unless a stake president has established a stake-wide policy, bishops have discretion in each case to decide a person’s worthiness to participate in religious functions. I have a strong testimony that bishops are inspired and should be given this discretion. In my journey, I have worked with many different bishops. In one extreme, a bishop encouraged me to attend the temple and not feel shameful or unworthy. In the other extreme, I was not allowed to take the sacrament for a full month. In hindsight, both of these bishops were inspired as they provided exactly what I needed at that time to continue progressing. Particularly as the spouse of an addict, be careful not to assume that you know what the spiritual consequences of acting out should be. We are fortunate to have inspired bishops who get to know each of us individually.
Similarly, recovery only works when addicts are responsible for their own progress. Well-meaning spouses, children, friends, and even church leaders who attempt to control an addict’s recovery are likely to damage their relationship with the addict as well as make recovery less effective. It can be really hard to accept this. One addict I sponsored in a 12 Step Program became a very close friend. It was very difficult to watch him make choices that cost him his engagement and ultimately his membership in the Church, but recovery never works unless the addict is choosing recovery and willing to work without external cajoling.
Fifth, recovery is a demanding, long-term process, but is also incredibly rewarding.
The pull that pornography has is intense. When I first moved into recovery, I had withdrawal symptoms just like I had heard people with chemical addictions experience. Intense headaches. Shakes. Nausea. I could not sleep at night. It is as powerful as we think it is. My experience is not atypical in any way. There were times when I fought the urge to act out for days. I would be shaking and sweating, I fought so hard. Once, as a single student, I laid in bed all night crying as I fought. I knew I would lose my temple recommend. I knew I would feel like garbage. I knew I would offend the Spirit. And yet, I ended up looking. The consequences did not matter. There have been times where I have been almost on autopilot. I do not remember clearly how I got to the computer and started looking. I feel anger when I hear people suggest that pornography is not an addiction and does not have power. It ruled my life, even though my frequency of use was less than most of the addicts I have interacted with.
Despite the withdrawal symptoms, I saw dramatic changes in early recovery. The frequency of acting out dropped as I got really honest with myself, my therapist, and my wife. I was excited with my progress and completely confused about why my wife was so angry and seemingly unhappy. We learned that it is normal for the addict to recover more quickly than her/his spouse. In most cases, spouses have experienced a PTSD-like trauma from their spouse’s addiction.
When we began recovery, my wife and I were under the impression that graduating from recovery would mean I was “healed.” After several years, although the frequency was so much less, and despite my honesty with my wife, we were both confused about why I was still relapsing. We learned that it is not typically until after about five years of recovery work that relapses become very rare (i.e., months and years apart). We also learned that for most addicts, recovery is a lifelong process. That was hard to swallow, as well, but both of these points have proven true in our experience. I still work on recovery multiple times a week, attend a support group a couple of times a month, and have almost daily contact with other recovering addicts. I would prefer not to do this, but I recognize it makes me a better person and is a small price to pay. I am cautiously optimistic that one day I will not need as much recovery work but I have made my peace with it.
Recovery is not about fighting a habit. Rather, recovery requires addressing the trauma that fuels the addiction. It’s about learning how to live a healthy life. When a person lives a well-balanced, healthy life and has addressed trauma, they have the power to choose. Addictions never really go away. Many days I still feel tempted, and I still feel a lot of shame. However, I have been sober for years now and am confident I can stay sober as long as I continue to use the skills I have learned.
I have now been married almost thirteen years and have a great relationship with my wife. I truly believe that our relationship is better than it could have been without having had the addiction and having worked through recovery. I am a better person than I would have been otherwise. Moreover, my recovery work has been the catalyst for change throughout my family. Although neither of my parents nor most of my siblings are aware of my addiction, I have taught them principles of recovery that have improved their lives, some of which have fundamentally changed our family culture. I believe God put me in my early circumstances, knowing what it would do for me personally, and how it would save my family. I also believe that the recovery tools that have been developed are inspired. The Savior is at the center of my recovery. No one and nothing provides more strength. The daily connection I maintain with the Lord is the most important component of my recovery. I am sober today because of inspired programs, revealed by the Lord, and the strength I draw from the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
*Names have been changed
The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the various writers and contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of The Small Seed or its staff.