Resurrection from Pornography

After the years of a supportive seminary environment, parish life was lonely. I found solace in sexual fantasy. My love of reading led me to dawdle on certain pages of romantic novels. An honest person would have called it soft porn. My rationalization was that the library books were not trashy books. I argued with my conscience, saying, “What was the harm in a little fantasy?”

A guilty conscience drove me to pray more and take it to confession frequently. I resolved again and again to be a good priest, guard my eyes, and not read those books.

When my will grew weak and stress pushed for relief, I would give in. I reasoned that masturbation was natural. I thought that, when I was assigned to a parish closer to family and friends, I would grow out of this phase and it would run its course.

But the course ran deeper. Nothing changed. Cycling between trying harder and giving up, I lived in guilt and shame.

Five years after ordination, I accidentally saw my first porn movie. I had been channel surfing on the TV in my conference hotel room. The scenes hooked me. Back home, I started renting R-rated movies and watching them for their sex scenes. On one occasion I rented an X-rated video. Afterwards I felt so dirty that I vowed never to do it again.

The feeling of disgust did not keep me from soon crossing that line. Free porn through the Internet changed my world. In the moment, it made me feel good. In my sane moments, I recognized that the Internet was a portal to hell.

I sank more. I found ways to get around self-imposed Internet filters. The line that I swore I would not cross kept moving deeper into the sewer.

The secret Internet life, while never discovered, affected my judgment. For example, I encouraged an attractive woman in the parish to become a leader of a parish group even though she was not a good fit for the position. In hindsight, my encouragement of her greater involvement was driven by my desire to spend more time with her. It was all about me.

The pattern repeated. My female friends and parish volunteers tended to be easy on the eyes. Blind to my bias, I surrounded myself with what I needed and not necessarily with what the parish needed. My addiction compromised my judgment. Thanks only to the grace of God, nothing illicit or scandalous ever happened.

While I preached God’s love, I believed I was unlovable. I certainly did not love myself. On one occasion, a seminarian related to me how much he was enjoying his pastoral year in the parish. I listened and smiled, but I felt miserable. Even though I had many friends and a close family, I discounted their love. I believed that if they only knew what went on in my head and what I did when I was alone, they would despise me.

Every night was a struggle. My dreams were full of snakes, alligators, and swamps. My sleep was interrupted, and insomnia became the norm. During the day, I was with people but not fully present. A conversation with an attractive woman competed with static in my head like a bad connection. I had forgotten what joy felt like. Once when someone told me a story so funny that I laughed aloud, I realized that I had not laughed so hard in a long, long time. My feelings had become numb.

Despite my desire to make real connections with others, I was powerless to change. My shame kept me from asking for help from the bishop. I felt more dead than alive. There was a gap between my inner person and my outer role. The voices in my head called me a fraud. I was losing my priesthood.

The turning point was a 30-day retreat. In the blessed category of “there are no coincidences,” the spiritual director who was assigned to me was a recovering alcoholic with decades of sobriety. With wisdom and gentleness, he connected me to a local Sexaholics Anonymous group. My routine during the retreat started at dawn with a daily meeting at a local Protestant church. For the first two meetings, I could not say my first name during the introductions. It was all that I could do to sit in the circle and not break down.

In another blessed coincidence, the retreat house just happened to be hosting its first ever weekend retreat for Sexaholics Anonymous. Suddenly, I was just another guy among dozens of first-name-only guys going to meetings and listening to their experiences, strengths and hopes. I was stunned to find out that I was not the only one.

They had done it all — strip clubs, massage parlors, voyeurism, prostitutes and adultery. They had suffered the consequences of divorce, unemployment, bankruptcy, jail and homelessness. Even more amazingly, many of the guys had been free for years from acting out. Given their example, I could finally say, “Hi, my name is N. and I am a sexaholic.” For the first time in years, I had hope.

Returning home, I found a local SA meeting. I changed my day off so that I could be at the meeting every week. I met for several months with a seasoned Lutheran pastor who was a licensed counselor. The weekly SA meeting, a sponsor, and phone calls during the week to members in the SA group gave my recovery traction. Like church, there was strength in numbers. The group was a place to be honest and accountable.

Working the twelve-step program meant taking action. The program was called Twelve Steps, not Twelve Thoughts or Twelve Good Intentions. I had to pick up the phone and connect with someone. I had to make a plan to deal with lonely evenings. Knowing all about addiction and the Twelve Steps was not enough. I could not think myself sober or pray myself chaste. I had to take action every day.

Four years have passed since my 30-day retreat. I live one day at a time. As a diabetic lives every day conscious of what he eats and how he exercises, I live every day aware that I am a recovering sexaholic.

HALT — hungry, angry, lonely, tired — is a checklist for those moments when my inner engine “check light” blinks red. How was my sleep? Did I eat regularly today? Have I let resentments rage in my head? Have I called a friend or family member today just to say hi?

I avoid caffeine and alcohol. Late night Web surfing and R-rated movies are off limits. I keep a journal and pray more than ever. Daily pastoral care of parishioners gets me out of myself. I go to SA meetings and listen to podcasts.

Despite these changes, my desire to feel better through porn and masturbation still daily tempts me. When I feel lonely, frustrated, disappointed, or just bored, resentment and self-pity rush in. The difference is that I can now name it, claim it, and surrender it to God. The craziness passes, and I feel wonderfully normal again.

By God’s grace, I am a better priest. While I am not yet ready to thank God for my addiction, it has made me a more humble and compassionate priest. I preach with new conviction. Confessions are a joy.

Every day I wake up and say with all my heart, “Thank you Lord for life today. Thank you for letting me share in your priesthood.” I know what it is to be spiritually dead. I know what redemption means. More than in recovery, I am resurrected.

I live in grace.

As sobriety is a gift, there is no guarantee what tomorrow will bring. I can’t control the outcome. All I can do is to work the program. The rest is a gift from God. All is grace. And I am deeply, deeply loved.

ANONYMOUS is a pastor and a member of Sexaholics Anonymous (SA), who lives (and ministers) one day at a time.

Resources for Recovery from Lust
Bishop’s Statements On the Effects of Pornography