one of the things i’m most passionate about is creating safe spaces for people to be honest about their real stories. church is supposed to be the safest place on earth, the place where we can share the hardest parts of our lives and experience so that shame’s power can be broken and God’s healing can transform. sexual addiction has tried to ruin a lot of men and women i know; what’s so beautiful, though, is that even though it has tried, it hasn’t won. it’s possible to get sober from it. it’s possible to break free from its stranglehold. it’s possible to heal. meet my brave and wonderful friend brian* as he shares his journey toward getting sober from sexual addiction. he has several years of sobriety now; it’s been a bumpy beautiful road and i am so glad he is willing to share a sliver of “what it’s like” with all of us.
* * * * *
describe a little bit about your background, faith experience, and how you began to realize that you were stuck in the cycle of addiction.
As a child, I longed for God. I saw my parents’ vibrant faith and I wanted that. I never told anyone about my doubts and struggles; I was already learning to keep my deepest feelings secret. I loved the Christian message, but I wanted to know God. That longing continued into adulthood. I sought to be faithful, and I came to believe that God was calling me to ministry. So I went, and I served. But it took a massive crisis for me to begin to receive that “blessed assurance.”
As a little boy I felt safe at home and in the church. But outside those settings I was scared, timid, and confused. At the age of five or six, being seen as a sex object by an older, more powerful boy was far preferable to being bullied or ignored. I knew I mustn’t tell anybody; sex was another addition to my growing list of secrets.
By the age of twelve or thirteen I had already been preoccupied with sex for several years. I was so shy that I never asked a girl out unless she asked me first – something that rarely happened. I took refuge in my secret fantasies, often going back to the naughty fun I’d come to idealize from my childhood. Soon I started to use pornography, and quickly I became obsessed with it. By now I was profoundly ashamed, yet I was coming to realize that I could not stop the behavior that both thrilled and disgusted me.
what are some of the feelings you had when you were in hiding?
I felt deep shame, fear, and an increasing sense of powerlessness. I was baffled by my behavior, which violated my deepest moral convictions. I comforted myself in knowing that I had never had an affair, seen a prostitute, or molested a child. Yet that was small comfort when I realized how despicable my actual behavior was. I became a grand master at negative self-talk. I was terrified that my shameful secret would be exposed. Thousands of times I cried out to God for healing. My desperate prayer became, “Cure me or kill me.”
what began to shift inside you as you began to work toward sobriety and bring your addiction out into the open?
My addiction was exposed against my will. It took a long time before I began to see the day my awful shame was exposed as “the best worst day of my life,” as a friend in recovery put it. That shame combined with a blinding fear, and I thought my life was over. I prayed, overcome with remorse at the damage I had done to my wife, to my children and grandchildren, and to the countless victims of behavior such as mine.
I admitted my helplessness. I asked God to take over the controls. It has been hard, unspeakably hard. I’ve tried many times to wrestle back control, only to be reminded how much my addictive self would love me to think I can make it through willpower. When I have stumbled and when I have made progress, God has been with me. Even when I feel deep sadness and regret, I’m able to see the shower of blessings that God has for me every day.
what are some things that friends and family did or said that have really helped you stay the course?
I have cherished the love of family and friends, but I thought, “If you really knew me, you would despise me.” But – thanks be to God! – those beloved people have learned my secret, and they have loved me still. For those I betrayed the most, it is a terrible, painful journey, and they struggle to forgive. Yet they have not turned their back on me. People listen. They affirm. They admit confusion and anger. They hug, smile, and admit they don’t know what to say. I am grateful beyond words.
what are some things that people said or did that hurt, that you’d put in the category of, “this is not a good idea to say to someone struggling with shame?”
Much less hurtful stuff has happened than I feared. Some have turned away, and at times I felt people thought I was toxic to hang around with. Very few have moralized, tried to fix me, or pretended they had the answers to all of my questions. When I know that people really care, that kind of talk doesn’t hurt all that much. What really hurts is when people treat sex addicts as if they were exceptions to the Gospel of God’s wild, inclusive love.
how has your relationship with God, others, yourself changed over these past several years?
In this journey of recovery I have sensed the presence and love of God as never before. Others have taught me that I don’t have to hide the truth in order to be loved and valued. And I am beginning to embrace with joy the reality that I am God’s beloved – and so are you.
what’s one piece of advice you have for “the church” when it comes to addressing these painful issues around sexual addiction?
The world seems to think the church’s main message is “shame on you.” They need to see the gospel in living color through people. Have the courage to talk together about this very uncomfortable issue. Acknowledge that there are sex addicts in your midst, and countless others who are coping with secret shame. Be a community of safety and trust, rooted in the Good News that Jesus came into this world to rescue sinners.
* * * * *
thank you, brian, for sharing a sliver of what it’s like to struggle with this painful addiction and what can happen when it’s brought into the light. shame looks different for people, but one common thread seems to be “if they really knew me, they won’t love me” so we hide and then our addictions and compulsive behaviors get worse. for years I hid my abortion out of that same fear, but when i finally got honest, just the opposite happened. sure, some didn’t understand but i began to meet others who did. shame takes all different forms and there’s no doubt in my mind that the best way to break its power is to begin to tell the truth in safe places, to bring what is in the darkness into the light, to help each other understand that who we are in our worst moments is not who we really are.
ps: the other posts so far in this “what it’s like” series can be found here.
also, i have a post up for sheloves magazine for november. i’ve got a once a month column there centered on down we go. this one is for the november feast series and is called big tables where everyone eats. here’s to putting in more leaves & pulling up more chairs!