I’ve been working on Steps 8 and 9 recently, which include forgiving others and seeking forgiveness for all the wrongs I’ve done throughout my addiction. It’s been very difficult for me… much more difficult than I had anticipated. Working these steps and recalling so many painful memories has directed my thoughts towards a question that I think both addicts seeking recovery and their loved ones have contemplated at least once: “How could an honest addict ever relapse?”
I can only share what I’ve learned and am learning, so I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I think there’s more to this question than what I’m about to discuss; but I think the following still merits consideration. It’s helped me, at least.
This is from an article written by the folks over at the Sexual Recovery Institute. It’s titled, “Sex Addiction: An Imperfect Path to Recovery“:
“While recovering alcoholics do the work to avoid taking a drink, and recovering drug addicts do the work to avoid using their substance of choice, the work a sex addict must do is different and possibly more complicated. [Sex] is a part of our lives simply by virtue of being human….
Working with oneself around sexual feelings, urges, and triggers is an important part of recovery and may well take a lifetime. In fact, it is not unheard of for people to continue to have patterns of addiction even after libido diminishes or sexual function fails; the root of sexual addiction is almost never about sex…” (emphasis added).
The article contains a few incongruities with the gospel of Jesus Christ (which I attempted to filter from the above excerpt), but I like the key points it makes. I think this sentence especially deserves attention: “…the root of sexual addiction is almost never about sex.”
From what I’ve learned about addiction, the aforementioned principle applies to any type of addiction. “The root of eating addiction/disorders is almost never about food.” “The root of drug addiction is almost never about drugs.” “The root of alcohol addiction is almost never about alcohol.”
The LDS Addiction Recovery Guide shares the following insight:
“Your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs are actually the roots of your addictive behaviors. Unless you examine all your tendencies toward fear, pride, resentment, anger, self-will, and self-pity, your abstinence will be shaky at best. You will continue with your original addiction or switch to another one. Your addiction is a symptom of other ’causes and conditions’ (Alcoholics Anonymous , 64)” (Step 4, p. 21, emphasis added).
What are the “causes and conditions” that hide behind addiction? I think they vary and depend on the addict. No two persons’ lives are the same, and neither are their challenges or weaknesses. For myself (based on what I’ve learned so far), my weaknesses of anger, lust, self-will, fear of rejection and abandonment, a warped sense of self-worth, and a genuine craving for acceptance and love all combined to make me a prime candidate for sexual addiction. To be honest with myself, my past decisions to view pornography and indulge in inappropriate physical relationships also led to my addiction.
But why did I ever attempt to use pornography to numb my ill thought patterns, nurse my depression and anguish, or distract myself from misguided beliefs about myself and others? Why would anyone ever think to use alcohol or drugs or sex to self-medicate in order to handle life’s real problems and pains?
My experience has been this: My recovery from addiction began when I started working the 12 Steps. Why? Because the 12 Steps help me discover, examine, and cope with my real problems… the ones that lurk underneath my addictive thoughts and behaviors; and most importantly, they help me do so while wholly relying on a Power greater than myself. Those real problems—my thoughts, feelings, and beliefs—were conceived in the fog of sin, the despair of depression, and the pains of a mortal life impacted by imperfect people, including myself.
Facing these underlying problems is painful for me. It involves digging up memories that I purposefully buried with my addiction. It involves recalling hurts and pain and horrible experiences that I would much rather try to forget with distance and distraction. I can only speak for myself, but I think this is one reason why recovery can be so difficult for an addict, and why an addict who is honestly seeking recovery can still be susceptible to temptation and prone to relapsing. It’s not that the addict isn’t sincere. It’s not that the addict doesn’t want it badly enough, or hasn’t considered the consequences, or isn’t trying hard enough. It’s because recovery is painful. It can be a grueling, bitter, even traumatic process, and it isn’t the same for every addict. That’s why I’m learning that I simply cannot do it alone. I am incapable, in fact. I need my “Higher Power,” to quote the original AA 12 Steps. I need my Savior, Jesus Christ.
Being an addict in recovery also has its rewards. Today I’m more free of my addiction than I’ve ever been. I can feel it. I enjoy life more. I feel more. I have better relationships with my wife, my daughter, and my God. I understand the Atonement of Jesus Christ better. And the scriptures! I feel like they were written just for me… just for an addict seeking recovery and salvation from addiction. Thanks to my Heavenly Father and His Son, I now have hope.
Jesus Christ himself explains and promises:
“And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them” (Ether 12:27, Book of Mormon).
I’d like to address something that I once used as an excuse for indulging in my addiction. It’s an important topic to me, and I have formed very strong opinions on it. Because I feel so strongly about it, I’m concerned that I’ll come off as “preachy.” I hope I don’t. I only mean to convey the truths I’ve learned in a clear, unmistakable manner.
“For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world” (the Apostle John, 1 John 2:16).
There was a time in my addiction recovery when I got frustrated and angry with women who dress immodestly. I thought, “My recovery would be a lot easier if women would cover themselves more.” Perhaps others have had or heard similar thoughts. Here are a few that I’ve heard:
“Women (men) should dress modestly because it helps men (women) keep their thoughts clean.”
“It’s not a man’s fault that he has so many sexual urges. Women are just more virtuous than men.”
“Men naturally think about sex more than women do. They can’t help it.”
“I couldn’t help looking at her (him) because of what she (he) was wearing.”
“If women (men) would dress more modestly then I wouldn’t have such a hard time controlling my eyes.”
And the list goes on…
Here’s what I’ve learned: These statements are all lies.
Women are not responsible for a man’s thoughts or behaviors. Men are not responsible for a woman’s thoughts or behaviors. Women are not inherently more virtuous than or superior to men (and vice versa). Men are not inherently less virtuous or inferior to women (and vice versa).
I am responsible for my own thoughts and behavior.
I came to learn this after much thought, struggle, prayer, and study. I think it took me a while to reach these conclusions because their opposites (see the list of lies above) are much easier to believe. They encouraged and enabled my addictive behavior and thoughts. Subscribing to them made me a victim. “It’s not my fault that some women choose to dress that way. And because I’m a male, it’s so much harder for me to control my thoughts.”
Yes, being in public can sometimes be extremely difficult for me. Heck, living in this world can be difficult for anyone striving not to be of the world. Billboards, TV and radio commercials, Internet advertisements, music, movies… one doesn’t have to search long before finding inappropriate sexual material. In fact, in today’s world, one doesn’t even have to search for it in order to be exposed to it.
Nevertheless, God doesn’t excuse me from seeking to rid my life, mind, and heart of it:
“But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Jesus Christ, Matthew 5:28).
I also believe that feelings of attraction are not evil. They’re normal, even good, divinely-designed elements of being human. But there’s a distinct line between acknowledging attraction towards a person and coveting a person, between observing beauty and entertaining thoughts.
Instead of looking at other people as objects to satisfy one’s lust, I believe that God wants us to look at each other as His children—beings of infinite worth and potential. There’s a reason lusting after another person isn’t a praiseworthy or shameless thing to do. There’s a reason one feels uncomfortable or guilty doing it, and even tries to hide it. Like any other sin, it’s wrong not because God says it’s wrong; it’s wrong because it’s wrong.
Learning to deal with addiction in the moment of temptation has been very difficult for me. I can’t count the number of times when faced with temptation that my choices have required repentance and re-commitment, only to be almost immediately followed by another choice that requires repentance and re-commitment. My powerlessness over my addiction can become maddening and disheartening if I’m not in the correct frame of mind. But I have learned that God doesn’t expect me to face the difficulties of life on my own, and He certainly doesn’t want or require that I face my addiction on my own. In fact, He wants me to reach out to Him for help. He wants me to independently choose to depend on Him. So when I face temptation, I ask Heavenly Father to give me strength against it. Then I ask Him to take my addiction and give it to His Son to bear, because I am powerless over it. That’s a part of the definition of addiction: the actual loss of ability to abstain. (I’d like to write more about that in a separate post, but I felt I needed to include those nuggets of precious truth here.)
One of my sisters shared with me a very well-written article on this topic of seeing a person for who they really are instead of an object of lust. Some of my thoughts in this post echo those contained in the article, but I think he articulates the principles much better than I do. I highly recommend reading it. You can find it here: http://natepyle.com/seeing-a-woman/
I could choose to define myself using one or some of my many roles or titles. I’m a husband, father, son, brother, uncle, grandson, Priesthood holder, student, employee, runner, addict, musician, etc. But which one truly defines me? Which one defines who I really am… which one defines my self-worth? I have come to believe that although I am all of these things, I am—first and foremost—a son of God. The order of this definition—that is, my being a son of God before I am (or became) anything else—has become a most treasured truth to me in my recovery from addiction.
One of the worst lies the devil persuaded me to believe is that my worth is determined by my behavior. I’m not referring to self-esteem, although depending on its definition I suppose they could be similar. I find it helpful to consider self-esteem and self-perception as similar things, as the lens through which one views him- or herself. While the lens I was using to view myself did not provide an accurate representation of who I am, my real trouble has been how I determine my value as a person.
Here’s a definition of value: the regard that something is held to deserve; the importance or preciousness of something. Throughout my life—both before and during my addiction—I’ve struggled to feel important. I largely allowed my social standing amongst peers to influence how I view myself. As a child I was socially awkward, which led to some ridicule from my school classmates. As I grew out of adolescence and developed social skills, I constantly retained a fear of rejection. Social acceptance validated my worth. Eventually my poor choices led me to depression and addiction, both of which challenged my incorrect method of self-perception. I reached a point where I felt that I had no source of self-worth or value. I thought, “Sure, it’s nice that people like me and that I have friends; but if they could see who I really am… my darker side, my pornography addiction… then they wouldn’t like me. They would reject and despise me.”
For years I allowed my fear of rejection to prevent me from opening up to anyone. And despite my self-loathing, I got pretty good at putting on a happy face. I was leading two lives. Thus my addiction’s roots grew stronger and deeper, and I learned to hate myself.
I even used scriptures and quotes from Church leaders to convince myself that I wasn’t worth anything. Of course, I know now that I was using them outside of their intended context, and that the devil was behind it. For example: “What you choose to think and do when you are alone and you believe no one is watching is a strong measure of your virtue” (Preach My Gospel, p.115-126). Yes, that is a true statement. In my despair, however, the adversary convinced me that this was about my value as a person instead of a measurement for a desirable attribute. Sadly, I believed his lies. Here’s how I read it: “What I choose to think and do when I’m alone and no one else is watching is a strong measure of my worth.” I knew what I was doing when no one else was watching, and I hated myself for it. “So,” I thought. “I must not be worth very much at all… I’m disgusting. I’m nobody.” I allowed this instance, among many others, to warp how I measured my self-worth.
What a horrible state of being—where the enemy of my soul gained enough power over me to twist the truth against me, to lead me to believe that I was worth nothing to myself or to anyone else, including God!
Thankfully, this warped self-perception and measure of self-worth has been slowly corrected throughout my recovery from addiction. It was a lie that developed into a pattern of thinking. It affected everything in my life, and I held on to it for years. Only within the past year have I finally come to learn and believe that my worth is NOT determined by my behavior. This has required numerous wonderful experiences and moments of illumination from Heavenly Father. One in particular comes to mind.
I was studying Clean Hands, Pure Heart by Phillip A. Harrison (a fellow addict in recovery). I had been struggling to understand how God could and why He would (or even should) still love me despite all my faults and horrible choices. Then I read this:
“God doesn’t love us because we are good. God loves us because he is good” (source).
When I read this, I felt the Holy Spirit speak to my soul in a very personal way that God does love me and that my poor choices (or even my good ones) haven’t affected that. What relief and solace! God’s love for me doesn’t depend on my behavior. God loves me because that’s who He is. I’ve believed that I’m one of His spiritual sons for as long as I can remember. But why does, how can, and why should He love me after all the horrible things I’ve done? He loves me because that’s who He is, and because I am His child.
When I think back to all the times I’ve sinned or come up short, I think of how He responded to me every time I prayed to Him to ask for forgiveness and help. Not once did He ever say, “No, you’re on your own.” He’s never turned me away or told me to come back later once I’d fixed my problems. I knew that His love doesn’t excuse me from obeying His laws, but oh how much more I want to obey Him knowing that He still loves me when I falter. In fact, He wants to help me when I falter! Isn’t that one of the purposes of Jesus Christ’s Atonement: to run to my aid when I need divine assistance the most? He doesn’t yell at me or get impatient with my weaknesses or tell me I’m not worth the effort. Instead He encourages, loves, and helps me change. And when I submit to Him and His will, He actually changes me. I’m so grateful to Him for teaching this to me so gently and patiently.
I still feel tempted occasionally to think that my behavior affects how God views me, what He thinks of me, and that He loves me. But now I have beautiful spiritual experiences to combat the whispered lies that come from the enemy of my soul. My self-perception, or lens through which I view myself, has been corrected; and I now choose to define my self-worth with the knowledge that I am a son of God, and He knows I have an infinite worth. To help myself remember this truth, this is how I introduce myself at addiction recovery meetings (I picked it up from a fellow addict in recovery): “Hi, I’m Mike. I’m a son of God and an addict in recovery.” First and foremost, before anything else, I am a son of God.
God loves me; I know He does. And nothing I do can ever change that. Based on this truth, and on the principle that God is always the same, I can testify—and do testify—that He loves all of His children the same way.
I think the Apostle Paul said it beautifully:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35, 37-39).