It was a dry but very overcast spring day, not quite warm enough for a t-shirt, but a hoodie felt a little too heavy. I was lying on the shed roof as I often did on overcast spring days, reviewing in my head the few bits of school I had managed to retain during one of my very rare appearances. I was career truant in junior high and I was generally too preoccupied the days I did attend to really retain much. That day was a little different, though. For the first time in a long time I was beginning to feel like my life had some purpose and starting to buy into an idea that God might have a plan that involved good things, like hope or love, or maybe even a future.
From behind me I smelled a very unusual waft of earthy, spicy smoke. I looked around just in time to find a pale hand grasping at the shingles. A few more thuds and grunting noises brought my friend up, a lit cigar hanging from his lips and a still capped bottle of beer in his hoodie pocket. Without a word he settled himself next to me, heaved a heavy sigh, and then grinned from ear to ear.
J.P. was older than me by about three years, but we’d been friends since his family had moved to Oregon from Illinois five years earlier. He made it a point to never be seen with me (I was 14 at this point) around his other friends, but we were very close. I never had any sort of romantic feelings toward him in any way, but our friendship had twisted in the year and a half prior to such a degree that I pretty much did anything he told me to do. That’s a blog for another day, though.
He took the cigar from his mouth, blew smoke in my face, and boldly asserted that “I stole it from my Pop’s desk, special wrapper and cutter and everything! Probably like a hundred bucks!” then planted it between my lips. I of course choked and gagged my fair share, which brought him further delight. He then coached me through how to smoke it properly. (He also shared that he knew it was the proper way because his father had recently taught him).
I had never smoked anything before. A handful of my friends had started cheap cigarettes in the last few months, one girl thought she was pretty impressive for rolling her own, even pretended to get high off occasionally mixing in Lipton lemon tea bags. To me, the practice was disgusting, and as teen suffering serious asthma, one that could kill me. But I did my best to follow his instructions and managed to get a few puffs in.
JP also took out the bottle of beer in his pocket – not like a cheap, trashy beer, but like a proper higher quality kind, and cursed several times when he realized it wasn’t a twist off and his knife didn’t come equipped with a bottle opener.
I didn’t care for beer. The daughter of an alcoholic, I had sampled my fair share of booze as a kid, and by and large I didn’t like any of it. A sip of wine on holidays, a taste of a cooler at a summer barbecue, even the hard stuff because it was always around. A bottle of tequila lived next to the detergent for years; I didn’t know what it was, but it smelled strong so I always added a capful when I did laundry, you know, for tough stains.
JP took the cigar from my mouth and replaced it with the bottle. At first I reeled back, put off by the smell of the drink. Finally, though, with the bottle against my teeth and my head against the roof, I didn’t have much of a choice.
So I choked and gagged on the beer, too, as he, again, laughed and laughed.
We said practically nothing as we took our time finishing both the drink and the cigar, the latter of which I actually found myself somewhat enjoying. It wasn’t the first time we’d shared moments like this, and it wasn’t likely to be the only vice we explored that day.
You see, JP was an addict. And I got dragged along.
Hands behind our heads, we stared silently into the dark clouds. A few stray drops fell from the sky, the cool splashes refreshed my cheeks which still burned from the alcohol. We took the cue from the heavens and jumped down, and I followed him into the tool shed. I took a seat on the bench, pulled my legs beneath me, and watched as he went digging around an old metal box from which he pulled out an old beat up folder, the kind that probably once housed his homework, thick with pages that still smelled of dot-matrix ink. He handed it to me with a soft grin on his face, then sat down on the floor, legs crossed like a school boy, and clutching a scraggly plaid blanket
“Go back a little so I remember where we left off,” he smiled.
With the wind now blowing outside and rain pattering on the roof for extra effects, I read to him.
JP was a mook who later dropped out of high school and could barely put words together, but he was an attentive listener if the subject interested him. This subject did. In fact, I’d occasionally glance over the top of the pages to see him lick his teeth as he concentrated on the words. The more I read it, the more I felt blood rush to my face with embarrassment as I tripped over sentences, the more it made my heart race, too. I came to like the stories, the characters, and found the thrill in explicit details.
Erotica fiction wasn’t my first introduction to pornography, nor was this particular piece the first JP and I had shared, written or visual. There were no filters in my home, I’d seen an excessive amount of highly suggestive and sexualized material by the time I hit puberty. My first exposure to actual pornography was around age 10 when another friend and I had stumbled upon it in her parent’s closet while looking for Christmas presents. We found a tape, popped it in, and were both disgusted and fascinated, the way that ten year old girls often are when exposed to the full monty at that age. Nothing was ever really too big of a surprise to me after that.
Over the course of two years, JP and I had watched and read enough pornography to make a Playboy Bunny blush. This kind of thing happened every other day or so. You must understand that I more or less had no choice in the matter, and saying no to JP wasn’t exactly an option. I tried. I generally disliked this particular area of our friendship. You must also understand that this period of my life was marked with severe depression, even passive suicidality, frequent illness and bouts of migraines and pain, truancy at school (I missed at least three or four days a week), loneliness, and a lot of anger. Contrary to what most of my teachers, and quite possibly my parents, believed, drugs and alcohol – other than the beer he just shoved down my throat – were not part of the equation. We recognize a lot of it now as undiagnosed Bipolar symptoms, but there were other factors that, again, are for another blog for another day.
In reality, this… hobby? Game? Extracurricular?… with JP was a sort of way to help me cope with the pain and out of control feelings, and eventually I started to like the feelings it stirred up. On the flip side, they made me feel dirty and yucky and served to further my depression and low self-value.
One thing, though, is for certain: When JP moved away a few weeks before I finished eighth grade, there was a hole left in my life.
On one hand, the move meant I had more freedom – freedom to build some self esteem and worth, confidence and hope. I started to return to school, and I used the time that I had previously lent to indulging in his indulgences for productive things like school work. I started listening more intently in youth group, keen on shaking the feelings of being twisted and dirty. And I started to make new friends, something I hadn’t done in years due to incessant bullying.
On the other hand, I started to crave, desire, and ache for things I knew were wrong – specifically, the adrenaline rush that came with the porn and sexual sin.
Within a relatively short time, JP was more or less erased from my memory. My brain took my interactions with him as ‘traumatic incident’ and shoved it into the far recesses. This meant that I still felt used and dirty, but had no real understanding as to where it came from. And even though he was gone, the insatiable desire for ‘those’ feelings– for release, for adrenaline, for pleasure – wasn’t.
I was addicted.
Hypersexuality, regardless of gender, is a trademark of bipolar disorder. It’s often listed and near the top of the list of symptoms in any books, articles, websites, etc., about the condition. Many women act out by being promiscuous and flirtatious, engaging in ‘risky’ sex with men they don’t even know through hook ups. For reasons that also belong in another blog (and, I realize now, largely due to having a male friend who impressed an awful lot of things on me at a young age), I was rather shy and awkward around boys in person, despite being very attracted to them. I never had a proper boyfriend until I was 18, meaning instead of men satisfying the need, I relied on my own imagination and the fuel of what I could find online and printed X-rated stories from JP’s stash that I had kept all those years. I had a hole in my life, and I filled it with this hollow sense of pleasure that ultimately left me feeling even emptier.
It’s also worth noting that addictive behavior is a classic symptom and product of bipolar disorder as well. It’s not unheard of people with the disorder not only abusing alcohol or drugs, but losing their homes in gambling addiction, hoarding junk in an addiction to collecting, self injury in addiction to pain, even exercising to a point of it being dangerous, all of which are chasing some sort of high. It not only is a quest to reach the natural altitude of a manic episode, it’s often a form of self medication to get through the hard parts of the disorder.
Although I did go through a phase of taking a dram of gin to wash down valerian tablets every night in college to help me sleep, I swore to never abuse alcohol. I saw how dependent my mother was and I had done enough research to know that I was probably predisposed to alcoholism, so I took precautions. Coming of drinking age in Europe actually helped me avoid the binge drinking so many American college students experiment with, and I learned my limits (and how to balance my cravings with safe boundaries) fairly well. I’ve never been drunk, or even mildly intoxicated for that matter, and I find I prefer to taste what I drink than just slosh cheap, nasty beer or vodka in an effort to just get buzzed.
High on meth, one of my closest friends had attacked me at one point wanting money money. This was a great contrast from her usual high self, stinking of weed and naught more than a lazy blob on a sofa. Neither of these made drugs particularly appealing, so I stayed away from them as well.
Of course, I’ve also heard it says that everybody is addicted to something in some degree, and we often even joke about these ‘addictions.’ Coffee, social media, food, sports – we’ve even invented a new term for movies or TV in the habit of ‘binge watching.’
I’m talking about real addiction. This wasn’t a hobby, this was a habit that had its hooks so deep in me, I couldn’t imagine my life without it. My drug was endorphins released from watching or reading explicit sexual material and replaying it in my mind.
And it had to be a secret. Secrets mean lies, and my life was a web of them.
It’s an understatement to say that I was ashamed. I was imprisoned by the feelings of guilt and humiliation, and this was only exacerbated the more I heard my kind of struggle considered a ‘man’s problem.’ Something was wrong with me, I thought, only deviant women have these feelings, crave these kinds of things. Of course women could get caught up in sexual sin – but not pornography. Girls expressed sexual desires by having zero boundaries, or so that’s how I interpreted it. I mean, they practically preached that virginity was akin to salvation in my high school youth group, warning me not to be the woman caught in adultery by stirring up sexual feelings too early…. If only they knew.
While I was certain God existed, I was pretty sure he didn’t like me very much for breaking my promises to quit every couple of days. I looked for clean break opportunities, and got my chance early in my Freshman year of high school. My parents surprised us kids by moving our family to rural Montana. I told God that this would be my fresh start, but it almost backfired. It was a move from a high school of almost 2,000 students to one of barely 350; I was the new kid for three and a half years. Making friends was hard, so I poured myself into online relationships that I had developed over the years, and the physical separation from peers on our country road created the perfect soil for cultivating some old habits, like secret addictions, that further isolated me. The secrets, again, brought lies, which made me feel even more alone. In the summers it was very possible for me to go days without any peer interaction, and so I poured myself even more into the computer. Home long hours while relatively alone, locking myself away with the Internet as my friend, I could surf the web and feed my addiction.
And it wasn’t just pornography – as I got older and bored with just fiction and my imagination, I stepped into the world of chat rooms. Social media wasn’t a thing yet, but it wasn’t long before I met older boys and grown men who were perfectly happy to indulge a teenage girl’s curiosity. I made a somewhat personal connection with a boy slightly older but on the other side of the planet; we were a good fit and it became a virtual friendship that usually escalated to a sexual one relatively quickly. I found my interests in the porn I did engage with changed over time – medium, content, style, and all that – but what haunted me most was my imagination. I reached a point at which didn’t even need to view illicit material because it could just replay it on its own, most were clips from my days with JP. In some ways the rush was distraction from my boring life, was a comfort to me, something that dulled the inner pain I often felt for no apparent reason. But also forming was a dangerous self loathing.
Secrets do that.
For as much as I liked the feelings and adrenaline, they came at a terrible cost and I knew it. Deep in my soul I wanted to be free, but I had no idea what to do or where to turn. I prayed that God would take away the twisted part of me that enjoyed such sick and perverted things, and I might every so often give it up for a day or two, but ultimately my prayers were just sobs for forgiveness after I messed up yet again.
I realized how bad the problem was during the end of my junior year of high school. I had been selected to represent my high school at a week long mock government program in Helena, staying in college dorms with three hundred other girls. I was honoured by the nomination, excited for the challenge, and thankful for the scholarship potential, but absolutely mortified at the same time. A whole week…. Seven days without my stories. Seven days without Internet or chat rooms or email from my standing digital hookup. Seven days of sharing a room with two other girls who might learn my secret. I almost declined because I didn’t think I could handle being unable to feed the monster in me for such a long time.
I went to the conference, and I not only survived without porn or even my rich fantasy life, I thrived! Maybe it was a cure! The constant activity, the thrill of campaigns and speeches and competition fueled by my charisma and manic energy, all of it was a rush unlike any I’d ever experienced. I even won myself a spot at the national event that would take place a month later in D.C. I was on top of the world.
Then I wasn’t. The Bipolar Express took over. My first night home I fell right back into the trap of my addiction, and the guilt was more than I could bear. Coupled with fear of failure, deep, deep shame from years of lies and giving myself away, the pervasive depression became too much. On a hot afternoon I rounded up my mother’s pills, grabbed a bottle of vodka, and tried to end my life.
Jesus caught me that afternoon. I can’t explain it. It’s also a blog for another day.
After that I wanted, more than ever, to live right. For awhile I did! As long as I was busy with speech and debate, kept up going to youth group, and avoided certain friends and websites, I did okay. I’d slip, but my heart was in a new place. I made some serious changes – tried to rid myself of all the triggers, untangled myself from chat rooms, changed email accounts, even burned all of the fiction I had collected over the years.
I wish I could say that was the end of it. College again gave me a clean break, and I found that I didn’t want to surf the web for anything illicit while sharing a ten by ten room with a roommate. Moving overseas for the first time helped even more, as I not only had no regular web access, I had no access to printed materials. While overseas, too, I devoted myself to really getting my life right with God, learning what it meant to be in community and have supportive friends. When I returned, I found friends who could keep me accountable (although I never openly shared from what until much later), and found that I no longer had any down time during which my imagination could take over because I was too busy writing two 50 page theses, serving as an editor for the school paper, working at the library, attending campus ministry events, and even going to the gym twice a day.
One of the more helpful things for me was being diagnosed with Bipolar in 2006 – medication greatly curbed my drive and made surviving manic episodes without indulging in porn much easier. Moreover, for the first time in my life I had friends who I actually believed would love me no matter what I walked through. (Of course, that didn’t mean I told them everything). And I got to know myself, know when I was particularly at risk, able to identify triggers, able to preoccupy myself with other things, healthier things, and generally much better at granting myself grace and understanding God’s forgiveness.
Progress, but not a cure.
I wanted to be cured.
I’d wanted help breaking the chains of this addiction for longer than I can remember. But who do you turn to? There were no books, no manuals. I certainly couldn’t tell my parents, and I had no on in my life I truly trusted. And you don’t just walk up to women in church leadership, announce you have an addiction to something like pornography, and hope they’re going to respond with a step by step program for you. I had also thought about attending something like an Addicts Anonymous program for sexual issues, but I couldn’t find any programs near me or any that served the needs of women. The internet provided some information, but most of the the content for actual addiction was almost exclusively for guys.
Ultimately freedom started in two ways:
First, I had to recognize that God didn’t see me as a sinner, as a failure, as an addict. He saw me as His precious child who was hurting and alone, that He didn’t want me to fight on my own. I had to stop beating myself up, I had to stop trying so hard with my own feeble strength, and I had to stop hiding. Jesus wasn’t going to throw any stones at me, He wasn’t going to break me, He wasn’t going to disown me. He just wanted me for Himself, He wanted to fill the voids in my life and to help me find real healing.
Second, in an attempt to step out of shadows, I one day just casually mentioned to a dear friend that I had struggled with pornography at one point. I sort of left out the part where my brain had its own bank of memories to pull from that served the same purpose, but general “porn” felt like the easiest term to encapsulate all of my other problems with the addiction in a way someone else could unpack.
It was no longer a secret, and the weight of that alone was almost life changing.
C.S. Lewis once said that friendship begins when one person listens to another and then says “What, you too? I thought I was the only one!” I’ve heard it called the gift of going second – the idea that someone does the hard part by going first, making it a little easier to share your story. That’s basically what happened. She said “Actually, me as well.” And I no longer felt like I was alone or the only female on the planet that had these kinds of feelings or skeletons in her closet or monsters under her bed. In fact, the more I opened up about my struggles, the more women I found who shared both the same battle but the same skewed perception that it was for men only.
I’m proof there is hope.
Through prayer, through lifestyle changes, and through accountability – in time I sort of lost interest in actual pornography. Videos, pictures, even live chat, none of that really did anything for me anymore. My web history and book cases were clean.
I’m proud to say I’ve been free of pornography, visual and written, including things like 50 Shades, for several years. Of course, I’ve slipped a few times, but overall pornography itself is no longer a real craving of mine. With it no longer a secret, I felt like I could more openly start to focus on the problem, find real accountability, and work through some of the feelings – even work through why I have the problem in the first place. Over time, as I’ve shared my story, I’ve become accountability for other women who said “I thought I was the only one!”
I wish I could say I’ve been free of the images that still replay in my mind regularly. I wish I could say I don’t revisit conversations with digital hookups when I’m trying to fall asleep. I wish I could say my brain doesn’t light up when I hear certain songs or see certain images. I wish, and want so deeply, to not desire the rush and thrill and high that took over so much of my life, starting at such a young age. And I wish I could say I always cope with these desires in healthy ways, with safe alternatives.
But I’m an addict. Sober and clean from that particular vice (in its published written, image/video, digital form) for almost eight years, but still an addict. And a Bipolar addict at that. I have to be vigilant because I know it wouldn’t take a whole lot to slip up. I don’t want to relapse. I want to be free.
Even though my imagination is my only illicit library at this point, I still make it a point to work through where these feelings came from. As I stated earlier, I all but erased JP from my brain up until about two years ago, when my brain suddenly and uncontrollably presented me with the things it had kept shut into the folds of my memory all at once. I’ve worked through counseling to deal with the way this addiction has shaped my life, and how still, from time to time, reminds me it still has some hooks of a sort in my heart. I participate in support groups and I keep myself on guard. (In the last few years, some wonderful resources for women, including support ministries, have cropped up). And I’ve let God do some radical work in my heart – drastic measures, because complete transformation requires it.
You may be wondering why I’ve elected to share such a personal, raw part of my life. People don’t just announce they’re addicts of any type, especially on forums in which people can respond, or, worse, share with the world.
I’ve done so for a few reasons.
To begin with, I have a story to tell. I have wrestled with a monster for twenty years and I have come out of it even stronger. Over the last year I’ve worked very hard to focus on and do some serious healing and processing of trauma in my life, including the events that form the root of my addiction. This addiction is inextricably linked with my depression over the years, with how I’ve managed my disorder, how I relate to men, and how I now fear anything becoming a dark, scary secret. I’m now moving from focusing on the trauma itself and into working through the effects of it, including the other parts of the addictive tendencies. And what’s more, I’ve moved to a point in my life in forgiveness is natural and even in love – forgiving my parents for not protecting me, forgiving JP for getting me hooked, and forgiving myself for how I’ve treated the precious girl Jesus died for. Part of healing is sharing my story, my struggle, and ultimately my hope.
Also, I want that hope shared with the purpose of helping others. I know for a fact there are women like me – even devout Christians with careers and busy lives, even married women – who have struggled with the monster that is porn and all that comes with it. I sincerely hope others with the same story have courage to reach out and seek help, accountability, and healing.
Addiction is about satisfying a need. I believe that the need, at the end of the day, is the knowledge that we are deeply, passionately, enthusiastically, and eternally loved. My prayer, for me and for anyone else reading this who says “What, you too?” is that we’ll feel this overwhelming truth, let it fill the holes in our life, and let the other attempts at satisfaction – whether it’s sex, porn, alcohol, drugs, or pride – crumble away like the hollow and destructive vices they are.
Now that the monster is out from under my bed, it’s time to replace it with good things: peace, hope, joy, love, and forgiveness. And God gives such good things abundantly, regardless of how many scars we have or what monsters we’ve battled.