Recovery from Sex Addiction: A Personal Story

I am a sex addict. By the grace of God I have recovered from a hopeless condition. The following story tells what life was like in my addiction, what happened that changed me, and what life is like now in freedom.

What It Was Like

Many addicts are set up for their addiction by a severely dysfunctional home life―abuse, neglect, parents who are addicts, etc.―but this was not the case with me. Peter Maurin often repeated that the aim of a truly good society is to make it “easy to be good.” No family is perfect, but that is the kind of home that my parents set up. Because of this fact, all the more do I take full responsibility for the choices that led to my addiction.

For reasons I cannot recall or explain now, I was already obsessed with sexual fantasies in grade school. Department store catalogs were my pornography, and lust and fantasy would become my antidote to the feeling that I was inadequate and somehow different from others. I discovered internet pornography in middle school, and my technical savvy usually enabled me to bypass safeguards that my parents put in place. My friends encountered porn also, but most reacted differently than I did. For example, a friend once showed me a porn magazine he took from his dad. A few minutes later he wanted to go out and throw a baseball, but I would have preferred to spend all day with that magazine.

When I discovered masturbation, I was immediately hooked, and every subsequent such experience seemed to be a failed attempt to recapture the pleasure of the first. But the effectiveness of lust and sexual acting out at covering up feelings of fear and inadequacy decreased with time and repetition. Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, writes that at a certain point, “Liquor ceased to be a luxury; it became a necessity.” So it was with lust and sexual acting out. At a certain point I was no longer doing it because I wanted to―I needed to.

Around age 15 or 16, I was spending hours every night downloading pornography and engaging in sex with self far beyond the point of pleasure, even to the point of developing a painful rash. A deep sense of hopelessness set in. Regular prayer, frequent confession, studying and discussing my faith, trying to bring spiritual encouragement to those around me―none of this worked on my own problem.

I never ceased to believe in God, but at this point I thought God had perhaps given up on me. I was a lost sheep, lost even beyond the reach even of the Good Shepherd. I became severely depressed and entertained suicidal thoughts, but brief periods of abstinence brought me encouragement. Family and friends, ignorant of my bondage to lust, worried about me, but I could never bring myself to open up about my problem.

The pattern of my acting out continued into adulthood, along with the double life and my failed attempts to stop. Pride kept me from seeking real help, or even thinking that I needed it. I thought I could think and work myself out of sin by expanding my knowledge of theology and using a myriad of Catholic devotions in superstitious ways. If I could only find the right combination of prayers and say them the right way, God would zap me and take away all my problems.

In practice, I was a Pelagian, depending on my own efforts, not on the grace of God. I had only sought to change external things; I never submitted to a serious interior housecleaning. Praying for healing, I conditioned that healing on the requirement that it not be too hard. I was unwilling to take up my cross, unwilling to surrender “all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and call my own.” I feared that my life in God’s hands would not be as good as my life in my own hands.

In retrospect, this is manifestly absurd. My life in my own hands caused me to lose friends, drop out of graduate school with just a few credits to go, leave jobs, miss entire days of work, waste countless hours driving around to sex shops and video stores, break hearts, have emotional affairs, and cruise hookup sites. Fear of exposure, rather than virtue, kept me from actually seeking sex with strangers, but this would have been inevitable as I saw myself cross one boundary after another. I visited half a dozen therapists, never being completely honest with any of them, interiorly blaming them for my failures. Some episodes of porn and acting out concluded with me finding myself literally kneeling on the floor in front of my computer. So much for acts of consecration to God; now I was worshiping lust. I seemed to stand outside myself watching my body perform actions I detested. I had ceded control to the devil.

What Happened

My powerlessness over sin and the unmanageability of my life took me a long time to recognize. I first sought professional help not because I just wanted some tools to help me stop looking at porn and masturbating, not because I thought I needed a complete spiritual overhaul. “Addict” was not yet a word I applied to myself. But my utter inability to stop by any means I could think of is what ultimately led me to follow my therapist’s suggestion―after a year of him repeating it―that I attend that twelve-step meeting.

Addiction recovery is a rocky road, and it would be over ten years before I found a lasting sense of freedom from my addiction, for I was slow to muster the willingness to be completely honest and to abandon myself completely to God with no expectation of anything in return. For me, a true turning point occurred when, in my first marriage, we found that we were expecting a second child. I had been away from recovery, and a therapist pointed out that I had no hope of being the husband and father I needed to be unless I returned. Something struck me, more than ever before, with terror at the thought of what could become of my unchecked sexual addiction. I did not want to end up on the news―not to mention to spend eternity in hell. A deep sense of responsibility for my family lit a fire in my heart.

I took up recovery activity again with renewed vigor, re-learning and re-working the twelve steps in daily life, relying on the assistance of my fellows in recovery, becoming open-minded enough to accept something other than my way, and for the first time truly acquired the willingness to do anything necessary to recover. It is a long road from vice to acquired moral virtue, and I would still fall again, but this was the beginning of deep change within me.

In the final months of my sexual acting out, although I could not stay sober for very long, I nevertheless learned to turn immediately to God when I had sinned, and to trust, in the darkest moments, when I felt that I had driven him away completely, that “the Lord is near to all who call upon him” (Ps 145:18). My habit of wallowing in shame and self-pity was replaced by trust in God’s mercy. By faith I chose to believe the truth―even if it went against how I felt―that God would not spurn my contrite heart. I went to confession and Mass as often as I could. Superstition and belief in my own efforts was replaced by hope that God would do for me what I could not do for myself.

Since “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20), our present life is characterized by an insatiable desire. I had chased one fantasy after another, one experience after another, one feeling after another, hoping each one would be the end-all-be-all, yet knowing deep down that none would satisfy. God alone will slake this thirst: “For thee my soul hath thirsted; for thee my flesh, O how many ways!” (Ps 63: 2) Twelve-step recovery and spiritual renewal through the sacraments have opened my eyes to God’s revelation of himself to me in all of creation, and has given me the power to respond to his invitation of intimate friendship.

What It’s Like Now

Now, it is essential for me to tell the story of how God has rescued me from sin and raised me up to new life in him. Our Lord’s command to “Go out to the whole world and preach the Gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15) rings daily in my ears. Furthermore, it is a necessary element of twelve-step recovery that, “Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message” to others (Step 12). I rejoice in what I am now by the grace of God, and I boast only in the good he has done in me, perfecting his power in me on the foundation of my weakness (2 Cor 12:9).

What I have related so far is not the end of the story, but the true beginning of a journey of my life in Christ. Working the twelve steps reveals to me the vices that my more obviously troublesome sexual problems were conveniently hiding, so that Christ can wreak havoc on them, as he did on the merchants and moneychangers in the temple, and renew me from within.

I consider my addiction to be a gift, because through it I am driven to complete dependence on God. By His grace I now have the ability I previously lacked to give myself wholly to Him through my vocation and to respond to the Holy Spirit’s call to the apostolate. I have been able to return to the devotions and prayers that I previously abused, finding in them the means to cultivate a friendship with the Holy Trinity. Daily I become more aware of the high calling I have because of my baptism, and pray that when others hear my story, they may overcome their fear and find the courage to repent. “The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy!” (Ps 126:3)

Photo by Aida L on Unsplash

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Jon Laird is a husband and father. He lives with his wife and children in Virginia, where he works as the director of music for a Catholic parish. Jon is also an oblate of St. Benedict attached to Clear Creek Abbey in Hulbert, OK.

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