“One of the paradoxical bedrock truths of the Twelve-Step program is that we can stay spiritually alive only by giving away what we are receiving.”
J. Keith Miller, A Hunger For Healing
When I read this quote I had a mental picture of a deep well and a bucket being lowered into the well, filling, and being pulled back up. The water in the well only stayed fresh and drinkable if it was (paradoxically) constantly stirred up by the lowering and raising of the bucket. Left alone the water would become stagnant and poisoned.
I am the well; we all are. The water inside me is the water of life Jesus promised to the Samaritan woman at the well in the Gospel of John, Chapter 4. It wells up inside of me, but only if I stir up the water by giving it away. Jesus gave away more than anyone else in history and he was the most spiritually alive person in history. Conversely, consider some of the religious people among us who become the worst of tyrants: They forget that to stay alive they must constantly give away the water of life which they were given. Their ‘bucket’ does not descend and ascend; their water becomes stagnant and poisonous, and they poison everyone around them with hate, bitterness and judgment.
This spiritual principle is real; it’s not a metaphor. If I give away what I’ve learned in the Twelve Steps, I will live. If I keep the information to myself and fail to love those who suffer around me, I will die inside.
Are you stirring up the water of life inside yourself? Have you even received this water yet?
A majority of American men access pornography on a daily or weekly basis. For the lucky few who recognize this habitual usage as the addiction it is, five stages of recovery from pornography addiction ensue:
- The “I Don’t Know What Else To Do” Stage: Like all addicts, pornography users eventually hit bottom. Maybe a man’s wife leaves him or he gets fired for using at pornography at work. Regardless of what it looks like, “bottom” is a place no one ever wants to be. And no one just plummets straight to the “bottom”; it is a long, slow, steady decline that destroys lives and leaves people looking for a way out. They try prayer and meditation, reading books, maybe even counseling, but eventually every pornography addict realizes the only way to recover is to enter a recovery program. At this stage, guys don’t want to be at meetings and they do the bare minimum of whatever is required. Nothing else has worked for them, and they secretly doubt (and hope) the program will help either.
- The “Huh…It’s Working…” Stage: Anywhere from a few days to a few months after joining a recovery group, the pornography addict starts to realize that somehow the program is working. Maybe he’s still using pornography, but it is getting easier to say “no”. Or maybe he was able to stop using pornography immediately and he has noticed a growing sense of peace in his life. At this stage the recovering addict will become more open with other members of the group and will participate more during group sharing. He completes assignments, not because nothing else has worked, but because it appears it may be working. The addict is still ‘learning the ropes’ of recovery, however, and has to take many cues from his mentor and other men in the group. He frequently slips up and may relapse.
- The “OMG…It’s working!” Stage: Six to nine months into his recovery program, the pornography addict is now certain that the program is working in his life. His relationships with others are improving, he is afraid and angry less often than he used to be, and he even has some significant sobriety built up. The recovering addict in this stage eagerly follows any advice his mentor and other men give him; the program is working and he wants to keep that ball rolling! The addict is highly involved in group sharing and other group activities, and may even volunteer for group support positions. He resembles a recently converted Christian who loves his new sense of freedom and can’t wait to share that feeling with others.
- The “Yeah, yeah, it’s working…” Stage: Disillusionment sets in for the recovering addict. Whether he relapsed after 9+ months of sobriety or had a few close calls, the addict in this stage realizes that he’s not bulletproof after all. “Yeah, the program works,” he would tell you, “If you work it.” And if he were honest, the addict in this stage isn’t altogether sure that he wants to keep working his program. It is a LOT of work! The addict has probably forgotten how bad life was before recovery. Compared to his faded memory of lustful bliss coupled with agonizing psychological pain, the recovery program begins to seem like a burden too heavy to lift. “Is this worth it?” he asks himself, “Isn’t there an easier way? Would going back to pornography be all that bad? I don’t remember things being as tough as they are now. It seems like I’m worse off now than I was before!” If he were to ask his recovery group, however, they would tell him from experience that it is never worth it to go back to pornography. The addict in this stage experiences ambivalence about recovery in general, and his program of recovery specifically. He may resent the homework given to him, the phone calls he is supposed to make, and the tasks he is required to perform during group meetings. Much like the man in the first stage, the addict in this stage works the program because he has to, not because he wants to, and he may frequently bend or break boundaries.
- The “It’s my program” Stage: If the addict works hard and pushes through Stage 4, he will arrive in a marvelous place. God will open his eyes to see that the choice to stay sober and gain progressive victory over lust really is his choice to make. No one is going to force him to work the program, and no one will judge him if he fails. This is the stage when recovering addicts start to take ownership and responsibility for their recovery programs. They work when things go well, but not because things are going well. They work when things go badly, but they don’t give up because things are tough. They work; not because of circumstances, feelings, spouses, bosses, or mentors, but because they are choosing to be a certain kind of man. God brings them to a place where they can finally choose to ‘grow up’. A recovery program at this stage is like a marriage that has sailed through its giddy early days, fought its way through the ‘seven year itch’, and one day finds that joy and peace come through the hard work involved, not in spite of it.
What stage are you in?
“The joy of living is the theme of A.A.’s Twelfth Step…”
Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions
Thanks to my recent brushes with losing my sobriety I can more easily remember life before recovery. I used to live from one ‘lust hit’ to the next, always calculating when I would get to act out again. Life was a series of these ‘lust hits’, and anything that got in the way was a distraction. The women in pornographic movies were ‘hot’ and they did whatever they wanted to. There were no limits; it was thrilling. The purpose of my life focused on finding opportunities to act out. There wasn’t much joy in this purpose; I mostly felt hopeless and resigned to my fate. I knew what I was doing wasn’t right or good for me, but I didn’t think there were any alternatives. I assumed the way I was living was the best I could do. I confused getting high off pornography with true, God-filled joy.
Today I am celebrating 21 months of sobriety, and my definition for joy is very different from what it used to be.
I don’t live life one ‘lust hit’ at a time, but rather one day at a time (at least, that is what I do on my good days…there are still days I project into the future and live in fear of what might happen someday). I am blessed with the realization that I have more than I ought to: There is no reason why I should still be in a wonderful marriage, raising three beautiful children. I have taken enough financial risks and squandered enough money to know there is no reason I should be as financially blessed as I am today.
At the root of it all, there is no reason why I should have ever come into existence, no inherent reason why I deserved life, but that God blessed me this way as well. One sect of Christianity (unfortunately I forget which) claims a great proof of God’s love for us is that the universe continues from moment to moment. There is no reason why it should, but for His will that it should.
I often take this life for granted; I take for granted that the sun will come up tomorrow, and that I will be there to see it. But there is no inherent reason why either of these things should be true, except that it is His will they should be true.
I think true joy in living can come from acknowledging these things and being thankful that God’s will for today included me.
“Here is an irony that shows the power of God. We have taken the problem – whatever it was we were powerless over, whatever was destroying our self-worth, destroying our lives, giving us guilt and fear and shame, and making us feel like a zero – and finally become willing to let go of it.”
Joe McQ, The Steps We Took
I hold to many things I am powerless over. They destroy my self-worth. They destroy my personal and professional life. They give me guilt, fear and shame. They make me feel like a zero, a nothing. And through the power of God, I become willing to let go of these things that hurt me so.
What are these things? Anger, lust, pornography, the need for approval, fear, and selfishness, to name a few. When I list them like this it’s easy to see how they destroy my self-worth and my life, and cause me to feel guilt and shame. Why is it, then, than in the moment when lust strikes I can’t win a simple argument in my own mind? How do I come to believe that the thing I identify so easily on paper as self-destructive could actually be beneficial?
Whose voice is in my head telling me, “It will be OK, just take a quick look?” I know that’s not true; one ‘quick look’ will turn into a lustful stare, which will develop into a full-blown crusade to fill the emptiness inside me with pornography. Yet despite this knowledge stored in my frontal lobe, the primitive part of my brain refuses to listen.
It’s like arguing with a toddler:
“Daddy, what’s that?”
“It’s a cookie, son.”
“No son, it’s almost dinner time, you can have a cookie after dinner.”
“Son, please don’t shout at me. I told you, no cookie before dinner, but you may have one after dinner.”
“COOKIE!!! COOKIE, COOKIE, COOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOKIE!!!!!”
“Son, stop shouting. If you eat the cookie now, on an empty stomach, you might feel sick and you probably won’t eat any dinner. If you don’t eat your dinner, you won’t have any energy to play or grow. You want to grow up to be a big boy like daddy, don’t you?”
Somehow God is able to overcome the toddler in me. Somehow He helps me let go of the thing I’m killing myself with. I don’t know why I need God to do this for me; maybe other people don’t. But there is something inside that makes me love and hate myself at the same time, and that ‘something’ drives me to self-destruction more often than I care to admit.
I want that damn cookie, even if it kills me.
The movie is only PG-13…it should be OK…
Uh-oh, cheerleaders. We’ll just skip this scene.
Now they’re shopping at the mall, and…what? They’re trying on bikinis? Crap, where’s the remote?!?
I went to bed with this in my head and had terrible dreams. Triggers everywhere, the constant temptation to act out, then acting out in my dream and feeling shame and guilt. I woke up feeling triggered and dejected, and I knew it was going to be a tough day.
Just a few hours later I was on the verge of losing my sobriety; I had entered the Internet search term: “cheerleaders”. What started last night as a seemingly innocent PG-13 high-school comedy almost cost me two years of sobriety from pornography.
How did I so quickly fall into that trap? What was it about the movie that triggered the addictive cycle in me? I have some guesses:
- Through years of pornography use I deeply ingrained the cheerleader genre of pornography into my brain. Seeing the cheerleaders on TV triggered a stimulus/response reaction in my mind
- I felt resentment when I remembered I wasn’t cool enough in high school to date a cheerleader
- The primitive part of my brain was triggered by sensual images; this part of the brain was nearly impervious to the logical arguments of my frontal lobe that tried desperately to save me from disaster this morning
- Despite being surrounded by a loving family there was a part of me that felt desperately lonely. This part of me believed that by ‘connecting’ with pornographic images of cheerleaders and acting out I would be freed of my loneliness
- I almost believed the lie that I could act out without consequence
- An extremely deep need rose up inside me for connection and nurture at the most basic sexual level
What internal processes are you aware of when you watch triggering television shows or movies?
If there was one paragraph I would want all evangelical Christians to read, it would be this one:
“A lot of times we try to get people to believe who are not willing yet. This is something the individual has to do on his own; he has to go through his own suffering to become willing to change.”
Christianity is not just a set of beliefs, it is a way of life. It is a complete re-orientation of your universe. I did not understand that as a child in a Christian home, and I took Christianity for granted most of my adult life. I bought into the falsehood that Jesus taught a belief system, a religion, but that’s not right. Jesus did not teach a belief system, He taught a way of life. That way of life ends up shaping our belief systems.
I approached recovery incorrectly as well. When I came into the program I was expecting a re-orientation of my thinking. Well, recovery changed my beliefs, but only indirectly, and those changed beliefs are not responsible for my sobriety or spiritual growth. My beliefs changed because my way of life changed, and my way of life changed only because I reached a point in my life when I had suffered so greatly, for so long, that I was desperate for relief. With that desperation came the willingness to change.
Trying to change one’s behavior without a willingness to change as a person is like making a New Year’s resolution. You recognize you need to quit smoking, so you make a resolution to do just that. But inside you are the same old person, and if you were honest with yourself you would admit that you are not willing to change. Guess what? New Year’s resolutions rarely last because of this fundamental flaw.
On the flip side, trying to change your beliefs without changing yourself just turns you into a hypocrite. Don’t believe me? Take a look around any church; you will see a room full of people who profess one belief system but behave in an entirely different way. They tried to change their beliefs before (or without) changing themselves. I suspect the primary reason for this unfortunate fact is that they never truly came face-to-face with their own sin; they have not yet suffered enough. In their denial they still believe they can change on their own.
Are you trying to change yourself, or just your beliefs?
“Just as with faith, love, we discovered, was not a feeling, but attitude in action. We took the actions we knew we should be taking toward others because we did not feel like it. The feelings followed. Love for us is doing – doing what does not come naturally.”
SA White Book, Step 12
We know that faith without works is dead, not because doing work proves us faithful, but because a person who claims to have faith but does nothing is lying to themselves. In the same vein, claiming I love God and others but doing nothing about it makes me a liar. Doing things for other people does not prove I love them, and it certainly does not earn me love. But as this quote says, I must force myself to take action despite my feelings because my natural state is to NOT take action:
- My natural state is to claim I love my wife and lie to her about my pornography use
- My natural state is to claim I love my children and blow up at them in a rage because of the inner turmoil I feel regarding my own sins
- My natural state is to claim I love God and use the financial resources He has blessed me with on pornography
What comes natural to me is sin and addiction, so to love God and others I must do what does not come naturally: Confessing my sins, making amends when I harm others, and admitting I am powerless. As they say, “What’s feels right ain’t been working…it’s time to try some wrong.”
And the feelings do follow:
- When I confess my sins I feel strong and free, not ashamed any longer. I love God when I confess my sins because then I feel forgiven
- When I make amends to others I feel strong and free, not afraid any longer. I love God when I make amends to others because He frees me from the prison of my own guilt and remorse
- When I admit I am powerless I feel strong and free, not desperate and confused. I love God when I admit my powerlessness because He proves to me that His strength is made perfect in my weakness
Is it time for you to do what don’t come natural?
“If (a suspected addict) does not want to see you, never force yourself upon him.”
The Big Book, Step 12
This is great advice. If more Christians followed this simple rule of thumb I suspect the church would have a better reputation, and would-be evangelists might become far more effective.
I clearly recall the conversation that pointed me in the direction of my pornography addiction recovery program. Several months before I entered the program I asked a friend from my church to be my ‘accountability partner’ for an Internet filtering tool. This gentleman was able to observe my Internet use through weekly notifications of the websites I visited. Though he noticed I broke down and viewed pornography (or try to view pornography; Covenant Eyes was pretty good at stopping me) several times, he never said anything about those failures.
It was not until I tried deleting Covenant Eyes from my computer and reached out to him for help that he finally offered the words, “I think you might be a pornography addict.” Then he told me about his own struggles and said, “You are where I was six years ago.” I learned a number of valuable lessons from that exchange.
First, God will put people in your way to help you, if you will see them…and maybe even if you will not.
Second, you cannot force yourself on other people. When I first approached my friend he could have told me, “If you need help with accountability, you are probably an addict.” In such a case I probably would have found myself another accountability partner. I would not have listened to him and I would not have learned about my recovery program.
Third, I learned that sharing your experience with your own addiction is the most powerful testimony you can give, if you give it at the right time. This has always been modern Christianity’s most powerful evangelical tool: A story of personal salvation delivered in God’s time. However, having the patience for the right moment is tough, especially if you are forced to watch someone destroy their lives in the process. My accountability partner may have felt this way as he watched me violate my own vows to stay clean, but he had to have the patience and wait until I was ready for his help. If he had offered too early, I would not have taken his advice.
The only way we can help others is to have patience and wait until they are ready, regardless of how we feel or when we think they should be ready.
Is there someone in your life you are trying to help? Are you working on God’s timing, or your own?
“To watch people recover, to see them help others, to watch loneliness vanish, to see a fellowship grow up about you, to have a host of friends – this is an experience you must not miss.”
Big Book, Step 12
Entering recovery for pornography addiction was the best thing that ever happened to me.
I love sobriety and the clarity of thought I have now, but that’s not even the best part of the program. Once a week, every week, I get to hang out with a group of 20-30 friends who know the most intimate details of my life and are always willing to listen to my problems. I’ve seen the best of these men fail and lose sobriety – and show up again the following week. I’ve seen men come in the door full of anger and denial, forced to come by pastors and wives, who eventually learn to love our meetings. I’ve seen the haunted look of utter loneliness in the eyes of other men fade with time, as understanding and friendship grow through our program. My own bitter pangs of loneliness come less often than they used to, and do not seem to last as long when they do strike. I see men struggling with the same things I struggled with six months ago and know they have hope if they keep working the program. I see other men who have overcome the challenges I am facing today, and know that I have hope if I keep working the program.
It feels as though we are on an adventure together, growing up in our twenties, thirties, forties, and beyond.
I hate that I am a pornography addict, but I love the fact that I am in recovery. Yes, it bugs me that we never start on time and are forced to sacrifice fellowship and sharing time to compensate. It is true that when I arrive I often feel like I would rather be at home with my family. Sometimes I resent coming to meetings, but these feelings always disappear by the time the meetings draw to a close. Though I’ve been reluctant to go to meetings any number of times, each of those times I left refreshed and thankful for the opportunity to be in recovery.
I need the Twelve Steps and I love the feeling of camaraderie I share with the men in my group. We are all facing the same challenges and we have each bared our souls. There is no hiding left, only truth and peace.
I am so glad I did not miss this experience; I hope I get to enjoy it for the rest of my life.
“When we get up in the morning, we ask God to direct our lives that day…We do this instead to remind ourselves of our commitment each day.”
Joe McQ, The Steps We Took
For a long time I spent my morning prayer time asking for things and asking for God’s help in doing things my way. It’s only recently that I began spending my morning prayer time trying to understand what God wants from me and asking Him to guide me in the ways He wants me to go. By spending my morning prayer time this way I remind myself of my previous promises to God and I recommit myself to Him.
The mornings after a rough day test this resolve. The pornography addict in me does not want to be committed to God; he wants to take a temporary leave of absence from the Room of Grace and look at pornography online. On other mornings a part of me doesn’t think I can go on. I want to throw in the towel. I need a time of commitment in the morning to remind myself that I am sober another day despite the fact that I’ve wanted to quit in the past. I can make it another day, with God’s help, and to get God’s help I must commit myself to Him daily.
It’s not that God won’t help me without this commitment, it’s that He can’t help me because I get in the way without this daily commitment. I get distracted with choosing what to wear to work, what I plan to do at work, what my family expects from me, bills I have to pay, phone calls I need to make, fears about the coming baby and the loss of our house…Before anything else happens in the day I’ve got to remind myself who I belong to and who my Master is. Maybe other people don’t need these daily reminders, but I do. I’ve lived long enough without them to know the danger I risk when I don’t commit myself to God each and every day.