The Rewards of Patience – Bob’s story
Part I – Getting Sober from Lust
I came to SA first when I was around 23 years old. I had known for some time that I had a problem but I did not have a solution – I could not stop acting out sexually in self-destructive ways. My addiction to lust had started when I was a child and progressed over the years through increasingly intense and compulsive use of pornographic images, masturbation, unhealthy relationships, and more latterly internet pornography and sex with a prostitute. I am very grateful to say that I am now 36 and have been sober for 9 years. So what happened?
I had made a beginning at the 12 step program in Alcoholics Anonymous and thankfully through that was able to stop my addiction to drugs and alcohol. This was a good foundation, but I felt deeply conflicted – I was trying to live a new sober way of life but still engaging in addictive and compulsive sexual behaviour. I had known there were also programs for people who suffered form sexual addiction, and I had even attended a few meetings, but I never really committed myself to any one of them.
One day at an AA meeting a man told his story but also mentioned his struggles with sexual behaviour. I approached him after the meeting and told him how much I could relate to his problems from my own experience. He told me that he was going to an SA meeting that weekend and asked if I would like to go. I said yes. I will be forever grateful to him for taking me along to that meeting.
I had reached a desperate place at that time because I had recently become connected to the internet and this increased the progression of my addiction. I have heard internet pornography described as the ‘crack cocaine’ of sex addiction and I agree with that. Before long, I found myself ‘innocently’ going onto the internet to look at something like a wildlife site, and then several hours later staring at a screen full of pornographic images and wondering how I got there. I felt deeply ashamed of what I was doing but could not stop. I also engaged in an internet ‘chat room’ and this was a whole new dimension involving other people.
The desperation came partly from the feeling of being out of control and doing things which I believed were wrong, and partly from the fact that although I couldn’t stop doing it, it was not ‘filling the hole’ inside. I could not even masturbate towards the end. I searched for the perfect image and could not find it. I just felt empty.
After that first SA meeting, I did get involved in SA as much as I was prepared to, but was still not really giving it everything. I had been making progress but was travelling back from Australia and had a stop over in the Far East. Over the years I had fantasised about sex with a prostitute but never acted on it. I detested men who did ‘that’. I had seen my mother treated badly by my father, and had always been sensitive to women’s suffering. But I crossed this boundary – the compulsion was too much.
The situation was horrible and sordid and I felt disgusting. This young prostitute was around my age – she could have been my sister. Although technically I had not done this, I felt as though I had raped her. It was a spiritual rock bottom. I felt as though I had taken something spiritual from her which I should not have. When I arrived home from the trip I wept. At that point I just knew I had to take SA more seriously, that I could not go on like this.
I should mention too that I had reservations about the SA sobriety definition – no sex with myself or anyone outside of marriage! Well I did not come from any religious background, I did not value marriage, and I had come from a street culture where this sort of thing just wasn’t cool! But I was in enough pain to put my reservations on the shelf and get involved in the program. This is why I think it is so important that people are given time to come to terms with our approach to sobriety. It took me years, but I can truly say now that I really treasure our sobriety definition. It has become a very positive thing in my life.
After a while of travelling to this same SA meeting, which was some distance from my hometown, myself and another member started a meeting together nearer to where we lived. Like the chap who introduced me to SA, I will be forever grateful to this man too because the idea to start a meeting came from him.
So we started a meeting. People came and went. One chap who was already in SA for sometime came down from the north of England. He was quite a stern character and scared most of the existing people away. I guess I was desperate enough to stick with it! That ‘scary’ man is another to whom I am very grateful.
After nearly four years of sobriety I had a one night relapse with masturbation. I had been up late doing university work and was ‘wired’. I was in a vulnerable state. In a half-awake state in the middle of the night lust began to work on me. I woke up and felt the compulsion to act out very strongly. I thought about going downstairs to get the phone and call someone but it seemed too much hassle. The compulsion was too strong and I acted out. Since then I have understood much more how important using the telephone is as a tool for recovery, and I usually have my phone beside my bed and I stay in regular phone contact with other members.
After this experience, I knew I needed to be even more deeply involved in SA recovery. So I asked the ‘scary’ chap in my group to sponsor me (a kind of mentor in recovery – see below). I think God saw that I was lacking something and that, even though he was a stern character, this man had the things I needed at that time to progress and stay sober. Those things were faith in a loving God and self-discipline for working the 12 step program. I have been sober since then. I really believe that God brings the right people into my life at the right time to help me.
I came to realise that although I had made some progress in recovery, I did not have the most important fruit of the 12 step program – a personal relationship with a Higher Power. My emotional problems were so complex, my self-hatred so deep that I simply had to find the love of God. I had to come to believe in a God who loved me and wanted me to be sober and well. This has now happened and I am very grateful. Although I am still a troubled person with many character defects, I have a way of dealing with my chaotic interior life now. Again, this took me time, and for this reason I believe it is my job to be very patient with other people coming into the program. God has been patient with me, so I have to show this to others.
It has also been a great joy and privilege to have the opportunity to sponsor other people and help them to work the 12 steps. Some have stayed sober, and some not, but I know now that my job is only to pass on the experience I have of what has worked for me. It is God who effects a change in someone’s life, with their co-operation. Some sponsees have grasped the program with such passion that I have felt greatly inspired and helped by their example.
The Rewards of Patience
Part II – Progressive Victory Over Lust
Our sobriety definition in SA is two-fold. I spoke above about the first part – no sex with myself or anyone else outside of marriage – what I would call the ‘bottom line’, the ground zero, without which there can be no beginning. The second part of our approach to sobriety is ‘progressive victory over lust’. I really like this two-fold approach – I make a beginning with a clear bottom line and then I have to keep on ‘cleaning up’ for the rest of my life. So what does this ‘progressive victory’ mean?
Well, at its deepest level it is a commitment to be constantly aware of how lust still affects my life and committed to living free of it. I think there are four key areas where this most affects me:
- The way I dress. I shudder now to think that when I was first in the program I worked in a school and would go to work dressed in very short shorts and a surfer’s sleeveless vest. I really did not realise how inappropriate this was. Over time I have come to dress much more respectfully. Of course, this does not mean I have to become a prude. I still enjoy dressing smartly and in a fashionable way, but I am more aware of what types of clothing can stimulate lust.
- My use of media. Gradually over my time in SA I have come to realise how much use of TV, films, and the internet, can fuel lust. I don’t believe it is in the spirit of the program to completely cut myself off from everything, but I certainly do have boundaries around my use of media. I would describe myself as having a ‘low media’ lifestyle.
- What I do with my eyes. This is an area where I still encounter my illness on a regular basis. Before SA I used to ‘drink in’ lust by looking at women. Now I know this is sick behaviour, but the temptation is still there. On a good day I ‘catch’ the temptation as it is beginning inside me and surrender it, asking for God’s help, and then I’m able to move on with what I’m doing without having to participate in the temptation. On a bad day I still sometimes turn my head to look at someone or something, but usually my alarm bells go off and I surrender at that point and don’t look again. I would say the general trend, and it has been slow progress, has been toward noticing the lust earlier at the level of internal temptation, before acting on it by turning my head.
- The way I relate to women. This is a very important area of recovery for me. I have come to see that certain types of interaction with women can open the door on lust. To take a recent example which has been a threat to my sobriety, I was talking with a female colleague at work and I asked her something personal about her private life. How I wish I had not asked that question. I have come to see that it was stepping over an unhealthy boundary to be so inquisitive. She shared quite intimate details with me about her life, and after this interaction an intense sexual temptation arose in me toward her. I have had to work the program with renewed energy on a daily basis in order to become free of it, and it is still something which can affect me.
I have learned in situations like this, when tempted strongly, to place myself on ‘red alert’. I notify my friends in recovery that I am having a tough time and ask for their extra support during the time of trial. I also have learned to pray more in response to such temptations. So the way in which I interact with women can trigger my lust, especially when it comes to learning intimate details about their lives, or using inappropriate humour. Of course it is difficult to catch things at the time they happen, especially at work when things are moving at a fast pace because that is the nature of business. But again, the trend for me over time has been to notice the temptations at an earlier stage and take the necessary action to avoid disaster.
Something else which I think is very important to clarify is what I mean when I say today that I am experiencing lust. I know one chap in SA who says that he has been sober for a long time and has not lusted in all that time. I, however, often say that I have ‘had’ some lust on a particular day. Am I really doing so badly? Possibly! But actually I know this chap who has ‘no’ lust quite well, and he talks about being tempted often and we experience similar threats to our sobriety.
I think the key thing is that we both use the word lust in a different way but really mean the same thing. I include the temptation to lust when I mention it because I believe in a temptation lust is being ‘born’ inside me, whereas I think my SA friend only speaks of lust as the conscious participation with the temptation. For me, lustful energy will rise inside of me, and my job is to notice it, surrender it to the God of my understanding, and not dwell on it or act upon it. Once again I come back to our sobriety definition which wisely says ‘progressive victory over lust’. That statement tells me that lust will continue to be in my life, but its effects must diminish over time if I am to enjoy sobriety.
Someone reading this may well feel they want this for themselves, but ask the question “How has he done it? How have these changes come about? How can I come to experience recovery from this illness?” Well, if you are that person and are asking this question, it may well be one of the most important questions you ever ask.
I have come to see that I am quite a complicated person, or a person who can complicate things easily! But what being sober for a while has shown me is that although I am complicated, our program is really quite simple, though not easy. My sobriety has come about essentially as a result of doing a number of things which are all central suggestions of our program:
- Attending SA meetings, except for a seven month period whilst living in a remote place in a foreign country, I have always attending SA meetings regularly. This is the most basic thing and the doorway into all the other facets of the program.
- Having a sponsor. Since I decided to take SA seriously, I have always had a sponsor. That may sound like a strange word to someone unfamiliar with 12 step programs. A sponsor is like a mentor – someone who has usually been sober for a longer period than me, and can show me how to work the program and support me as I continue on the journey of recovery.
- Working the 12 step program. Working the steps is central to participating in the program. I certainly haven’t done it perfectly, but I have put considerable effort over the years into practising the 12 steps. My experience has been that working the 12 steps formally with my sponsor is a doorway into living the principles they embody as a way of life.
- Being of service. We sometimes say in our program that “to keep it you have to give itaway”. There are many different types of service work to be done in 12 step programs. These mostly centre around helping other people to stay sober – by sponsoring people and being available on the phone and in person to support others on their recovery journey – and the various organisational and administrative work which enables the groups to operate.
So that is my experience on being sober. I certainly haven’t done things perfectly and consider myself a bit of a slow learner, but I’ve kept coming back and stuck with this. If you are reading this and have found it helpful then perhaps you too will consider joining the road to recovery from this terrible addiction to lust. I wish you well, and perhaps we will meet somewhere along the way.