I sat on a log, the warm spring sunshine bathing me and the wind coming up as a storm was approaching from the distance. Normally I love being outside in moments like this, but not this day. I was beyond hope.
“God in heaven,” I remember praying, “I cannot believe after everything I’ve done and all the grace you’ve shown me, I’m here in this place, just cycling and cycling and cycling. I can’t stand this life anymore. I don’t care what you want from me—anything, anything. I don’t care what you do with me, but you have to do something. Please.” No answer.
Engulfed in my self-loathing and shame, I made my way back to my car.
A police cruiser pulled up and after being questioned about what I was doing in the park, I was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor for lewd and lascivious behavior. I spent the next 26 hours in jail.
My life was over.
Addicted and at War
For many years, I used sexual behavior as my “drug.” But my problem wasn’t just sex. Any recovering addict learns that our behavior is not our real problem. Compulsive behaviors are merely the symptoms of something deeper.
I was a husband, father, and pastor. I had served on Young Life staff, earned two degrees from seminary, and twice served as the moderator of our regional church body. I believed what I preached. Never in my journey did I rationalize or excuse my involvement with porn. Never did I think it was okay for me to have this hidden life. I never considered it okay.
Though I knew my sexual behavior was inexcusable, I felt powerless to stop. No matter how hard I tried, no matter what I tried, no matter how much I prayed, I returned to my compulsive behaviors.
The addictive element is that brief sense of euphoria I experienced during the short-term gratification, which offered relief and distraction from my overarching emptiness. This intoxicating combination of relief and exhilaration caused my brain to demand more. To stabilize a sense of well-being in my system, I became dependent on a habit that made me feel guilty and ashamed.
My addiction and my faith went to war, and my soul was the battlefield.
How was it a battlefield? Because I knew my private life was incompatible with what I believed and what I represented. My situation was intolerable to me. Yet I could find no way to change my behavior.
The context I was living in gave me the message that some issues we do not discuss; we handle them on our own.
I felt very guilty. I think it was appropriate, healthy guilt. My faith offered me for-giveness, but I continued to engage in behaviors I could not understand or stop. And my faith context had no help to offer me.
I felt very alone in my struggle, that loneliness fed my compulsive desires, and the guilt increased my shame, and the shame fed the loneliness. It was a constant cycle of self-loathing.
First Efforts to Get Help
The church Pam and I had planted was three years old, we had four children, and I was exhausted, scared, guilty, and ashamed. I told my wife that I thought I should probably go to a counselor for my anger. She readily agreed, which tells you how bad my struggle with anger was.
There wasn’t money in our monthly budget for counseling fees, but I gulped hard and kept an appointment I’d made with a reputable Christian counselor in our city.
I was fully honest with him about my struggles, including my sexual issues. I was terribly anxious about what his reaction would be. But this therapist was just whom I needed, showing no discomfort with or disapproval of what I shared about myself. He was sensitive and he was accepting. He asked a lot of questions, and I did a lot of honest answering.
At the end of the first session, he said that it was clear to him I was struggling with depression, that there was probably a lot about my childhood we needed to discuss, and he suggested I read Out of the Shadows by Patrick Carnes. I began to learn what I was dealing with.
My next step was to tell Pam about my hidden life. I’ll never know how much pain I caused her then, or since, but it was necessary. She was deeply hurt, but instead of rejecting me, she sought to understand what I was struggling with. She saw my counselor and read the Carnes book. And she read two articles from Leadership Journal, “The War Within: An Anatomy of Lust” and “The War Within Continues.” She was grateful for these as they were instrumental in giving her hope.
Over the next few years, I learned a great deal about compulsion, about addiction, about recovery, and all of it in the context of a rigorous and authentic spirituality. For most of us in genuine recovery, we have to confront the daunting, accusing question: how did I ever end up here? I had to go back and learn a lot about myself, my history.
Coping by Dissociation
Given the home I was raised in, I did what a bazillion other kids have done in similarly abusive situations: I learned to dissociate.
I learned how to unplug the pain and craziness in my little world by emotionally separating myself. I learned to break away from insane and mercurial threats by doing four things. I could disappear. Hide. Just be somewhere else. I could deceive. “No, Mommy, I don’t know anything about that.” “No, Mommy, that’s not what they said.”
The third thing I learned was that I could eat to feel better sometimes. Putting things like cookies in my mouth made me feel better inside whenever my external reality made me feel awful. I was now well on my way to a lifestyle of mood alteration. It worked, even if it wasn’t healthy.
What I could not have known or understood then, but have since learned, was that in dissociating, I was set up for becoming a sexually compulsive person.
These three behaviors paled in comparison to what I found next.
When I entered adolescence, I discovered the most intoxicating and destructive dissociative technique of all: lust and masturbation. I didn’t know then what I know now: that sexual arousal begins a dopamine drip in the brain that culminates in a chemical blowout with orgasm.
Since I wasn’t socially secure or popular with other kids, all my sexual acting out was in isolation. I cultivated a fantasy world where I was in charge, where I was always the one desired, the one taken care of. I became dependent on dopamine and adrenaline.
By the time I was leaving adolescence for adulthood, I was an addict. I had no idea I was an addict. But the four skills I’d acquired to handle my life were not left behind in my high-school locker. I headed off to college with next to no ability to handle my emotions in healthy ways, but with excellently honed skills in disappearing, deceiving, using food for mood elevation, and using lust and eventually porn to keep myself moving forward.
Where Compulsion Leads
Those who are not addicted to sex understandably assume that the addict experiences enjoyment from the sexual activity, but this is not the case. There is excitement, but as the compulsive life progresses, there is hardly any good feeling for the addict—only a mind-numbing, compulsive urge to seek relief and escape.
The demand for enough stimuli to satisfy escalates. What once sufficed no longer does. Lust always demands more from the person who uses it and never delivers the desired joy.
Unless you’ve been caught in this sort of compulsive vise, it’s hard to understand why a person can’t simply see how self-destructive this behavior is and just change it.
But the nature of addiction is that the chemicals released in the brain during addictive behavior reinforce the patterns of the addictive cycle. The chemically nurtured, feeling part of the brain is repeatedly strengthened and quickly develops the ability to overrule the reasoning part of the brain.
Sexual addiction is a person’s use of sex to alter moods that progresses to the point where they are unable to control their use of sex, suffer consequences, and are behaving contrary to their will and desire. It becomes a substitute for healthy relating, it takes over a person’s will, and it’s pathological—that is, it’s destructive.
Add to this the inward shame and dissonance a person feels, with the intuited message, “If anyone knew who I really was, they would despise me,” and you can see why compulsive people hide. They don’t like who they are, they’ve lost control, they’re ashamed, and they’re afraid.
So, what does the addict need? Something greater than reasoning, something stronger than self-will, and something more interventive than messages to make different choices. The addict needs truth and community, support and love, and the healthy reintegration of their life. And I say this with all humility and love: way too often, the church is the last place an addict can find those things.
Long Road to Recovery
Later, as I worked through therapy, I began to recognize several predictable triggers that made me much more vulnerable to obsessive searching for escape through sex. High stress was one trigger that caused me vulnerability. Another was boredom. A third was opportunity: did my life circumstances provide opportunities where it would be easy to find porn and engage in sexualized thinking?
Whenever I used sexual images and behaving, a period of deep despair, self-recrimination, and disgust invariably followed, then a sincere prayer of begging God for forgiveness and help. It was legitimate guilt and searing shame. Half my life went to secret behaviors, the other half to public living. That’s why I was so tired. I needed my “drugs” to prop me up to perform. It’s a sure way to destroy a life slowly.
This sort of life requires a person to learn to compartmentalize his beliefs and behaviors. Otherwise, the hypocrisy of repeatedly engaging in such behavior is intolerable.
Most compulsives begin building walls early in life and usually for very good reasons. Early on we become aware of the threat of pain and damage others will do to us—we know this is true because they already have done us damage and caused us pain—and the only way to protect ourselves is to learn to put our vulnerability out of their reach. So we build walls.
Slowly and unevenly, I began to tear down my walls. I confided in a good friend. I told my wife about my struggle. I began to reach out to others in recovery. I began to learn about the addiction cycle. I took responsibility for the choices I had made, the consequences I had earned. I learned how shame, self-condemnation, and hiding increased my misery, deepening my need for relief and reinforcing the cycle.
Change Requires More than Insight
For me, understanding was never enough to break the strength of this self-reinforcing cycle. I desperately wanted to change, but simply understanding my enemy within was not enough.
I worked long and hard at my recovery before experiencing the sustained sobriety and growing serenity I longed for. To overcome my intimacy woundedness, I focused on my interpersonal relationships. I had two sponsors and worked with two therapists. I attended sex-addiction recovery groups, and I began a confidential group for clergy.
I discovered how important being part of a healthy community is for genuine life change.
Further, I saw that recovery from addiction—or any of the compulsions we struggle with—is a subcategory of spiritual transformation. Recovery is spiritual in nature. Christian spiritual practices are necessary tools for recovery.
The goal isn’t a stunning turnaround in behavior or to attain the approval of others. The goal is the genuine integration of God’s presence and ways with a person’s values and behaviors. That integration results in the healing of our soul and life, so that we are increasingly able to reconnect with our self, with our Creator, and with others.
It happened for me only after being arrested and resigning from the church Pam and I planted and love. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
God is bigger than our hearts, more holy and merciful than we could ever know. No matter how far down we’ve gone, recovery is possible. No matter how bleak and alone we feel, there is hope. Today I’m living a life that I had lost hope could ever be mine.
As I’ve ardently pursued this life of dropping shame and cultivating serenity, of partnering with the Spirit and practicing mindfulness, of growing my commitment to being in healthy community and dealing with my difficulties as they are, my progress has not been even. But it’s been noticeable. My life in my head is much different today than it was six years ago. My possibilities for usefulness to others are greater than ever before. My relationships are richer and my marriage healthier and more satisfying than ever.
Above all, my experience of the presence of God in worship and in daily life is keener, sharper, and more gratifying. The depth of passion and the wonder of presence I experience now are considerable. He is more. He requires more. And he gives more.
One of the most important things I’ve learned is that I was not and I am not alone. There are thousands of other clergy with this struggle, and hundreds of thousands of well-intentioned Christians who struggle with guilt, shame, and fear—all hiding their secret lives.
I know they can find healing and freedom. In most cases they do not have to leave ministry to do so. But we cannot possibly do this alone, hiding in isolation. We need help. We need community.
T.C. Ryan author of Ashamed No More (IVP, 2012) is a speaker, pastor, and retreat leader.