My Experience with Pornography Recovery
Um, there really isn't any too-long, didn't-read. I thought of writing one due to the oppressive length of this post, but I couldn't think of it. Maybe someone could do so in a comment if they feel this post needs one. Also, feel free to ask me anything. I'll try to respond. If this is too long, just don't read. This is about my experiences with the Pornography Addition Recovery Program provided by LDS Family Services. As you will see, if helped me cope, but it did not ultimately help me feel healthy and whole as a normal human being. Ultimately, losing my faith in the LDS Church and relying upon faith in a universalist deity who probably loved me is what helped most. ;–)
In the Beginning
I don't remember when I first actively sought out porn. I was probably around 12 or 13. I remember getting up late at night to sneak to the basement to watch soft-core pornography on the pay-per-view channels (if you watched the squiggly lines long enough you'd usually get a period of a few minutes where the picture resolved itself enough to be viewable) and over the dial-up Internet (I remember often bringing a pillow down to the family room to muffle the modem handshake). I got found out pretty early on by my parents, who were horrified. To their credit I think they were far more horrified at how the world was attacking their son than at me personally; my dad actually said he was somewhat relieved that I was viewing heterosexual pornography because I was so anti-social around girls that he was worried I was gay! Viewing pornography led to discussions with the Bishop, computer access restrictions and passwords, and increased chores. Over the years I would get found again and again, and each time would get better and better at hiding my tracks as well as getting past the still-laughable protections and walls available to prevent such access.
I'm not certain how much background information is really needed; I'll answer questions if people have them. I did not look at pornography during my mission, which was the longest time I had away from pornography. After returning home it only took two months before I gave in and started viewing it yet again.
I was married in the summer of 2005 (and still am, thank whatever gods may be). I told my wife about my problems while driving off to our honeymoon (this is still a huge regret I have; though I feel differently about porn now than I did then, I was not open and honest while we were courting and engaged; this is never a good idea in any relationship). She was annoyed that I had waited to tell her, but said she had figured I had such a problem while we were dating and that as long as I could refrain from it in the future things would be fine.
Of course, I was found out by her eventually. It nearly destroyed our fragile new marriage; I went into a spiral of depression and came close to killing myself in desperation (and was prevented only because I'm an idiot when it comes to kitchen knives and tried to cut my wrists with a bread knife; it only resulted in some very bloody and painful wrists which mostly healed after a few days and a marriage that became even more strained and desperate). I went to talk to the bishop who, after telling me quite honestly that he was not a trained psychologist and couldn't really help me beyond offering support at any time, recommended that I meet with a psychologist and a support group with LDS Family Services. The ward would pay for the psychologist and I scheduled an appointment. I met with the psychologist a couple times (he was a guy just a few years older than myself and I only recently found out how lucky I was to get a guy with some actual psychological training and a degree; while they hire real psychologists now, there's a lot of non-professionals who continue to be employed by LDSFS as counsellors) but gave up because he could not offer me a quick fix (yes, I have met with therapists since then and understand quite a bit more what I was going through).
LDS Addiction Support Group
When I first attended the support group I was embarrassed at the campiness of it all, but I felt the Spirit telling me it was good to be there (and, if you're wondering about how I describe it I'm using the words I would have used back then; I don't believe in a “sex addiction” or spirituality the way I did back then, but it's easier for me to remember things if I just talk about things using the words I would have used there). The missionary (called by the local stake, I think) made it a point to shake my hand (commence jokes about making sure of washed hands now...) and assured me that attending would be a great benefit to my life and help me to be happier. He was the only person in a suit around. It was crowded (to be fair, this was at BYU) and the men attending filled two separate rooms (there are apparently similar meetings for women, but I can't tell you anything other than they met on a different floor than us and they did a good job keeping the two genders separate; I never saw a single woman who attended that group). There were desks in a wide circle around the room I chose to enter. We signed an attendance roll (first names only; there was no discussion back to our bishops from the meeting, everything was kept quite private) and sat down. It was apparent that some of the people had been attending for a while as they would talk and laugh with each other as others arrived and sat down. I felt embarrassed to be there; it was like giving in to being a pervert. That feeling was only intensified when the meeting began.
After the opening prayer the meeting was led by a middle-aged guy who shared his experiences going through AA to treat alcoholism when he was younger and also had gone two years without “acting out” through the LDSFS Addiction Recovery program (I soon found that the group had its own lingo to talk about certain things without having to constantly mention painful words like “porn” or “masturbation”; included in this was the phrase “acting out” which was almost always used in place of “watched porn”, “masturbated”, or both). His success at avoiding porn had helped to soften his relationship with his now ex-wife and children. He had been invited by LDSFS to continue to attend the group to aid us by being someone who understood us (while the missionaries I've seen in these groups either develop empathy quickly or leave, few of them ever admit to having ever “acted out” before; they never claimed to understand what we were going through, which I think most of us appreciated).
We then read, in unison, the step of the week (there are twelve steps; they are the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous “Mormonized”, mentioning “Heavenly Father” instead of a “Power”, etc) and somebody who had previously been invited to do so bore their testimony about their experiences with that particular step. We then started going around the group. Each person was expected to adhere to the following script:
“Hi, my name is Tom, and I am a sex addict.”
(Everyone: Hello, Tom.)
“It has been two days since I last acted out.”
(Everyone claps; the most enthusiastic clapping is reserved for long periods of time, such as over three months, and extremely short periods of time, such as days or even sometimes hours.)
“I'm working on the fifth step, but I haven't yet worked up the courage to talk with someone about my addiction yet.”
After that, you are expected to share how the past week had been for you. You're expected to discuss how difficult it had been but also to focus on any successes, even temporary ones (“even though I acted out almost every day last week I actually had luck keeping myself under control for all of Thursday. It was hard, but I gave a phone call to Brett when I was feeling weak and he helped talk me through it.” Clapping probably ensues.) Details of porn or masturbation were generally frowned upon and it was not uncommon for an uncomfortable individual to raise his hand while someone was describing their week to ask them to not give so many details. While you could decline to discuss the week, it was expected that everyone who was there would share how long it had been since they last “acted out”. The missionary would keep track of anyone who had asked to go later and the evening wasn't over until everyone had spoken (nobody pushed very hard for people to speak, but by the end of the evening everyone else in the room had spoken about the same thing so it was rare to have someone leave without deciding to speak; we were a band of brothers).
Nothing was defined for us. Some men who were there would say that they had only acted out the previous day and would share that they had merely had imagined an attractive woman nude or imagined having sex with her and that was why they were resetting their day count. Some, as I've shared elsewhere, would consider masturbation to be “acting out” on their addiction and might mention that they were addicted to both porn and masturbating. Others would just keep things vague behind a simple admission to being a sexual “addict”. We were not allowed to critique anyone else's approach to their problem, although we could share being inspired by what individuals had said during the evening. The missionary would quietly speak up to defuse problems and things rarely got out of control.
There were plenty of odd things that were shared: revelations people had received that had helped them, miracles people had experienced through their struggles, sources of spiritual strength that had led to a day without porn (ranging from hunting to classical music), people's discussion of the power and influence of Satan in their lives in regards to their “triggers” (actions, sometimes as benign as a particular kind of smell or food, that would psychologically set them off to “act out”), and once or twice I heard men announce that God had told them they were cured and would not be coming back (they came back). While some people rolled their eyes at the more bizarre statements, respect for each other was the overarching rule and that was enough to prevent problems. The shared cross that we all shared was enough to keep that respect in place. In fact, the only people who I ever saw be openly mocked were the rare visitors we had who came to observe. One was a visiting reporter for the Daily Universe who, when it was his turn to share his problems, shared his testimony of how dangerous of a problem pornography was to feeling the Spirit; he was taken apart in later people's testimonies as almost everyone tearfully described how their relationship with God had grown stronger even in the midst of their addiction. Another, and the only one I personally joined with others in verbally attacking, was a father who came with his son (it was very apparent that if he had not come with him his son would have been anywhere but there; he walked in the room with his hand tightly gripping his son's wrist and the hand rarely left that wrist through the evening as though he somehow needed to physically keep his son in the room). He actually spoke against our sharing of temporary successes as being counter-productive to solving our addictions because we were being too accepting of our problems. He indicated that the only way to avoid the “filth” of pornography was to treat it like a “plague” that would “destroy our lives” and to avoid it and never go back; God would help us do so if we simply had enough faith. The missionary actually asked him to shut up and let the group move on; almost all of us spoke harshly against him and warmly to his son about hope, the Atonement of Christ, and the love of Christ. These meetings celebrated a gospel of grace, not a church of works (although there was plenty of bargaining with God that went on). I still love that about them to be very honest. If you want to find Mormons who preach grace just go to an addiction recovery meeting; they may not believe deep inside that such grace applies to them, but they're open to the idea theologically as it applies to their fellow men in the room.
After the meeting was over a number of men came up to welcome me as a new guy. We shared telephone numbers so we could call each other when we needed help (I took a few calls from guys sitting in front of their computers but never made any calls that I can remember).
Time Goes On
While I couldn't stick with it with the psychologist, I kept attending the meetings. I had varying degrees of “success”: at one point I was up to nearly six months without “acting out” on pornography. Meanwhile, my wife studied the dynamics of men (and women) and pornography more on the Internet and found, to her surprise, just how nuanced of a problem it is. While almost all psychologists worth their degrees do not accept the possibility of being “addicted” to pornography, they do understand that individuals can be addicted to things like deceptive behavior, secrecy, and subversive actions. Also, it can be quite common for people who are depressed to attempt to prove to themselves why they deserve to be unhappy; you can actually become addicted to hating yourself as a person and to making choices that reinforce this self-hatred. As I became somewhat more open with her about my pornography habits she became more understanding of what I was going through and how to help support me; she was also able to convince herself that my viewing pornography was separate from our sexual relationship (i.e., she read and learned that my continued viewing of pornography was not related to how much I loved her nor how satisfied I was with her sexually). Our relationship began to improve and grow stronger. While pornography is still not something she would view as normal or acceptable, it is not something against which she feels she must compare herself.
What Worked For Me
Few people lose faith in the Church for simple reasons. I know that admitting I viewed pornography and felt horrible about it is reason enough for some people for why I lost my faith, but to claim that I lost my faith because of pornography is way too overly simplistic. Even so, I'm sure it plays part of the role. I prayed and fasted often; my successes sometimes lasted longer and longer, but would always end and I'd start over. The cycle was endless: two weeks, one week, four weeks, one day, two days, one week, one month, two days, four days, one day, one day, one day, one day, two weeks, four weeks, two months, one day, one day, one day. It didn't matter how much I prayed or fasted nothing worked. Every failure pushed me back into the darkness of self-loathing. While I never attempted to take my life again my thoughts were often suicidal. Some days I thought I could feel God, and others I couldn't. For those who would claim that I let myself drift from God during this time, I would argue back: how could I be the one drifting from God? I was beating my arms and legs (figuratively) in a desperate attempt to swim towards him to gain my needed miracle of healing from him! I read scriptures, I prayed, I tried. I plead with God, I bargained with God. Each week I went to my recovery meeting and felt buoyed up far more by my association with my fellow brothers than I ever felt on my knees. The weekly meeting became a bizarre highlight of my week; it was the only time when I didn't feel subnormal and perverted. I knew these men who attended with me and shared in their troubles; we weren't bizarre, we were simply natural men trying to be godly men. There wasn't anything unnatural about our addiction, but we were striving to be more than mere natural men. There wasn't anything different between us and those who didn't struggle except that we had wandered into the trap of porn and they hadn't; it wasn't that they were better than us, they were simply luckier than we had been. At least, that's how it felt when I was at the meetings. The next day, however, it was easier to look at my problems as being my own fault again. I tried to humble myself enough to be worthy of God's healing touch.
Eventually my attempts to gain God's help just broke. One night while walking alone with my thoughts home from class I looked up at the sky and wondered how my life would be different if there was no God (this was quite separate from my research into Church history; my doubts about the Church itself were deep by this time, but my doubts about God were not). I was shocked to realize that I would still love my wife and family and, most especially, would still be a good person no matter how you chose to measure “good”. I would, however, not have a need to worry about the porn addiction because the only person I would need to satisfy in trying to be perfect would be myself. It was liberating to be able to say to myself, “I look at porn, but that's not all of who I am, only a minor part.” The feeling went away quickly and I felt horrible for doubting God and trying to give myself license to commit sin without guilt. But I increasingly found a change in my porn-viewing habits. I started mentally distancing myself from the guilt of “acting out” for longer periods of time after doing so; I refused to allow myself to feel guilty for longer and longer. I started telling myself that while I was somebody who looked at pornography I was still a good person even so. Watching porn was only something between me and God, not between me and my fellow humans; when it came to other people I am a good person. I recognized that nearly everyone who attended our meetings was the same: a good person. They didn't believe that they were, it was obvious, but I could see it in them. We were just normal men dealing with normal problems and there wasn't anything horrible about that. For some reason I began to simply accept that I would probably always view porn. Incredibly, once that happened the cycle began to change: one week, two weeks, two weeks, two weeks, three weeks, three weeks. I began to notice when I wanted to view pornography and mentally acknowledged it. By refusing to feel guilty about wanting to view pornography I was able to sit down and simply decide whether or not I would do what I wanted to do. And it was easy to say, “Well, I want to, but right now is not really a good time to do so. Maybe later.” And then I'd forget about it for another few days.
True Believing Mormons will certainly say that I haven't found a real solution: I still look at pornography. But I'd argue back: I have found a solution because I am the one in control of my viewing. Whereas before the thing that drove my pornography viewing was a cycle of guilt (feeling guilty for wanting to watch porn, eventually giving in and watching porn to feel better, then instantly feeling even worse for the next few days which probably leads to wanting to watch porn again not much later), the only thing driving me today is my own brain deciding whether or not I want to be a normal person and explore my natural urges. And the reason I'd say I've succeeded is because I'm happier with myself and I actually view pornography far less than I ever did when I was fighting myself. And since the problem for me now is to keep in control of myself, I'm happy and satisfied with where I am. I do want to lower my consumption of porn but for much the same reasons that I want to lower my consumption of meat, plastics, and Wal-Mart: my usage of all of these can result in a net negative on other people around the world through their production. Do I eat less meat? No, not really, not yet. Do I watch less porn? Well, I'm doing a better job on that than on the meat. Do I plan on eliminating these from my life? Of course not, but I'd feel satisfied with myself for making do with less of each.
I've found since that I have basically given myself a form of therapy known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). A recent study at USU showed that for people who believe themselves to be addicted to Internet pornography ACT was far more effective at reducing viewing than attempts at thought control. I cannot stress enough the importance as well of actually meeting with a therapist as you attempt to mentally remove yourself and your actions from what you might believe is deserved guilt. However, as I started to actually improve in reducing viewing my attendance at the recovery meetings became more problematic.
Leaving the Group
The problem with the group is that, while it is usually called a “recovery” group it isn't about making a full recovery. Maybe for some people it works, but for most people the weekly meetings give you enough oomph to usually make it from one meeting to the next. The twelve steps are organized around solving your problems through numinous spirituality; they provide no alternative solutions to take the addictions out of your life. The first step is to abandon yourself to say that you are powerless, a mere human, a mere mortal. You cannot do it, you cannot solve your own problems; it is not possible. There is no “graduation” from a twelve-step program; you don't ever get a certificate of advancement to a next area with different and simpler steps. You don't ever get to acknowledge yourself as “cured” of your addiction. You just keep going and going. Maybe someday you finally “get it” and leave on your own, but most people, at least in terms of Alcoholics Anonymous, either come back eventually or find a different route to healing themselves of their addiction.
I'm not an alcoholic (heck, I haven't even had more than two drinks in my life and that's only within the past couple months) so I have no idea how difficult an alcohol addiction could be. But that's a real addiction with real physical consequences. For all of the claims you usually hear about how pornography can rewire the brain and distort brain chemistry that particular branch of scientific research is controversial and there is nothing close to a consensus against pornography among researchers (besides, it's the brain; it's constantly being rewired, that's how it works). Most people who make negative claims are published in non-peer-reviewed journals or are simply funded by conservative think-tanks like the Heritage Foundation or Focus on the Family. While some of their points might be valid, such as the impact that excessive viewing of pornography might have on an individual's ability to make and maintain intimate relationships with others, few psychologists would agree that porn is the root cause of such real problems and that solving the porn issue doesn't strike at what the underlying problems truly are. Porn is almost always a symptom of problems, and is not a cause of them. To be blunt the connections often made between deviant behavior (and Ted Bundy, don't forget Ted Bundy!) and pornography is equivalent to the nonsense of a hundred years ago about masturbation causing blindness or hairy palms. Humans have been producing and consuming pornography since we've been producing and consuming art: often they're one and the same in human culture. Is the porn industry corrupt? Hell yes, but is that corruption due to the subject matter or due to the vast amount of cash and influence? There are abuses and there are negatives; as I said these negatives are one of the reasons that I still seek towards a minimal pornography habit. But there are similar abuses in many other industries and I rarely hear people who complain about the excesses and abuses of porn complaining about the excesses and abuses of things like Fiji Bottled Water, sweat shops, African mineral and diamond mining, or third-world oil drilling. Should I feel guilty for being an over-consuming American, or should I just accept myself and try to solve the problem individually without being motivated merely by guilt?
Mormonism attaches the stigma of guilt to pornography possibly more strongly than any other activity that an average Mormon could participate in; it is certainly equal to drugs, adultery, and abuse in my own experience listening to the public rhetoric against it. Most of the talks that are given are not given by people who have ever struggled with the problem (either because they somehow never let themselves view it, or because they secretly don't care about feeling guilty for their actions). Every time I hear some moron and bastard in General Conference urge his audience to simply “turn away” and “leave it behind” as though it would be tht easy for their audience to do so I cringe because I know that, in a few hours, a few thousand men are going to retreat to their computers and fap themselves into a very dark frame of mind because they'll feel hopeless and beyond salvation because something must be wrong for them if it's supposed to be that easy to avoid something so evil (and I felt this strongly about it even when I was a TBM; most men I know who still deal with pornography feel this way even about their leaders). People who spend their time talking about the “filth” and the “plague” either have no idea what effect their words are going to have, or they're so miserable with themselves that they're trying to drag everyone else down. I know I've heard that sort of crap from both in many an Elder's Quorum meeting. Imploring men to “think of your wives and your children before you think about clicking that mouse” or sharing an experience of how pornography caused a real divorce is far more effective at getting men to watch pornography than simply telling them the web address of your favorite site to get porn at. The simple fact is that almost nobody in the Church is “addicted” to pornography. They're trapped by guilt in a tragic cycle and think that by not thinking about pornography they'll escape it but its like trying to win “The Game”: as long as you're aware of it, you're losing (although I guess Randall Munroe declared The Game over to free us from it; I hope someday TSCC will declare the game of pornography “addiction” over to free thousands of men and women from it).
And so I've left the recovery group. I did not announce myself cured; I did not receive a revelation. I didn't even tell anyone that I was leaving or why. Why would I? That group is all that some of those men have. When they leave that room they have to re-enter a world where nobody understands their struggles and thinks they're choosing to be wicked each time they “act out”; heck, they probably think it themselves. If they have nothing else for support beyond their brothers what would I have to give them? The sad part is that they are not only trapped by their own cycle of guilt, but they are also trapped because their world outside of the recovery group (the Church and its culture) refuses to let them set their guilt aside.