I’d like to talk about something that is a little close to home, and it has to do with addiction. While I was growing up, there were a lot of vices at my disposal. Alcohol was a big one, and I partook in my fair share. Marijuana was around, too. Though I never really indulged in weed as I did in alcohol. But there were also others that were even more prevalent. And some that may make a few people a little squeamish. And FYI, this article will be dealing with more adult themes, so if you have a little one around or you are at work, you may want to save this for later.
The addiction I’m referring to is what was my addiction to pornography. I was introduced to porn at a very early age. By the time I was eight, I found the world of sex in a way that was unhealthy to say the least. This also happened to coincide with the time in my life that I experienced a good portion of the trauma I endured. So what made an already confusing experience, aka hitting puberty five to six years early, I also had noone to talk to about what I was experiencing. This made for an extremely confusing environment to grow up in and around.
I think the aspect of growing up in this way, what made it so strange was, asides from how young I was introduced to it, that it was something my caregivers valued. I know this because when I found the magazine they said to me, “don’t make the pages stick together”. And I also grew up surrounded by role models who consistently objectified women (even the women!). But it was also something that was never spoken about after that comment in any way that could be seen as healthy guidance. Except once to tell me that pornography wasn’t real. I imagine they were talking about the content or story line, but that’s what made it so confusing, they never really said. So I was left to figure it out on my own.
But the main issue with this was, I was already isolating from others due to my trauma, and the only direction I was able to glean was from my caregivers habits and the internet. And if you didn’t already know, the internet is filled with pornography for those who are looking. So there I was, isolated from those closest to me by repeating the cycles of my trauma. I mostly insulated myself by drinking alcohol and looking at pornography. Two things that I learned that my caregivers valued.
There were also times where I would go to strip clubs with my friends. Looking back now, it was an awful experience. I remember sitting at the end of the stage where the dancer was preforming. She had a tattoo of Whiney the Pooh on her ankle. I asked what the tattoo was for, and she responded with, “it’s for my dead daughter.” And that’s not to say that the dancer is a bad person, or to pass any judgement on her in any way. But the entire experience was something that was sad, a little depressing and uncomfortable to think back on.
It’s also worth noting that the clubs I went to were not like the ones you see in videos. How they are usually glorified. They may be different in other parts of the country, but here in New England they are divey, dirty and not a place that provokes a sense of revelry. But regardless of where they are, I believe there are better places to connect with people where sex isn’t the focal point of the experience.
And again, that’s not to say that we aren’t able to have healthy relationships with sex. And I’m not here to tell people not to go to strip clubs if that’s their thing. I’m not proselytising abstinence either. I believe that people can connect in healthy ways that involve sex, and it isn’t something that should be feared or used to make a person feel shamed or less than for any reason. This is what I’m advocating for. Not to keep sex a secret, but to talk about it open and honestly, and early on.
But when you are introduced to this world at such a young age, without boundaries and without any sort of guidance from caregivers, it can be a confusing place to try to navigate on your own.
I hadn’t realized how unhealthy my relationship to sex and porn had become. After all I had been doing it for about two decades. It was just something that had become habit. Part of my normal routine and was supported by all my caregivers.
While I was looking at porn, I was ignoring almost all of the other aspects of my life. I wasn’t connecting with my friends and family, I was spending large sums of time by myself, avoiding living my life and all the responsibilities that came with it. I was either playing video games or looking at porn during the day while consuming lots of coffee in the morning and drinking alcohol during the evening to avoid feeling the fear of being disconnected from my family and friends.
All of this isolation directly affected all of my relationships. But the one that it affected the most was with my then wife, ex-wife now. I had spent so much of my time and resources insulating myself from my relationships including my ex-wife, that I had allowed them to devolve into polite cohabitation. My ex-wife while we were married even came to me once and told me that she felt as though we seemed more like roommates to her than husband and wife. This should have been a wake up call, but I kept on using porn to avoid feeling connection in our relationship. Not because I didn’t love her, but because I was scared to love her.
And to add even more confusion to what I was going through, the more often I looked at porn, the more varied the types I was looking at became. I won’t go into detail, but I was looking at things that were by no means what I was interested in and makes me uncomfortable to think about it now. I’ve heard that when someone is addicted to something, they will take their addiction to the furthest possible extent. And that’s what it felt like for sure.
And when I stopped looking at porn, my desire to look at the types of porn I was also stopped. But what was left was a large amount of guilt, shame and confusion. I was asking myself, “why did I look at so much?” and feeling tremendous amounts of shame about it. From what I’m able to tell, it was a way of pleasure seeking. The only way I had to feel good about wanting to feel connected. It wasn’t safe for me to connect in person with people, so porn was the next best thing. But I also left a lot of my relationships to whither and die in the process.
And this is where I found myself. After I left my wife, I had almost no one I could call support. And this wasn’t all due to my porn addiction, but it was one of the main and many ways that I chose to disconnect from my relationships. I was left to rebuild my life almost from square one. This was a painful place to be.
But I did it. I had to give up my unhealthy ways of living, but I had to start out fresh, rebuild. It was also comforting to know that I wasn’t alone. According to The Recovery Village, about 40 million Americans visit pornography websites on a regular basis. That’s about 13% of the population! And about a 1/3 of all internet downloads are related to porn in some way. Those are some pretty big numbers. So if this is happening so often with so many people, why aren’t more people talking about it?
From my understanding, there is a lot of shame around the topic of sex at large. Between sex being glorified in the media and ignored at home, no wonder so many people are looking for ways to better understand a world we seldom talk about with those closest to us. The more we are open and honest about the different aspects of our relationship to sex, the easier it will be to find comfort and ease in them as we mature.
If we’re more open about sex as a topic in general, it will also have the added benefit of teaching people from an early age that people aren’t to be objectified. We aren’t things to be treated as different depending on the value we set, or that have been set by others that we then emulate. Because once you adopt a specific set of values, based on looks or appearances, you then judge just about every other person you meet by that criteria. Then it becomes easy to write someone off as not having value or not worth your time because they don’t measure up to your values.
Because there is so much more to life than being attractive to someone else’s standard. And as it’s been said for ages, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Just because someone doesn’t look the part to a popular standard, doesn’t mean that that person is incapable of finding love or even feeling attractive to their own standards or someone else’s idea of what it means to be attractive.
When we don’t talk about sex and pornography, we leave the difficult conversation of what it means to find out who we are and what we’re attracted to, to be dictated by an industry designed to devalue people as individuals. And especially if we’ve developed an unhealthy relationship with porn, we are then consuming a lifestyle that is being dictated to us by an industry that is objectifying, and therefore, devaluing people at large. Our thoughts immediately judge the people we meet on how attractive they may be, instead of who they are as a human being.
I know this to be true for myself. I couldn’t go anywhere without looking to see which woman was the most attractive. I could be somewhere as mundane as a train station, and that part of me would kick in. Scanning my surroundings to find the most attractive person there.
This was something I had learned from my caregivers but it is also something that is valued by most people. Most of what my caregivers spoke about in regards to others was how someone looked, how overweight they were or some aspect about their appearance. Usually it was in a negative refrain. So it was only natural that I picked up right where they left off. This is something I’ve worked very hard to change. This way of being left me feeling as though nobody would ever add up to my standards. Which left me feeling even more isolated from others, more so than I already was thanks largely to the trauma I experienced.
I’ve spoken a lot about the unhealthy relationship I had with pornography and the adverse effects it has had on my relationships. I’d like to talk about how I stopped being so judgemental of others, while giving up the ghost of my old habits.
As I said above, I gave up looking at porn about ten years ago. I had fallen in love with a woman at the time, and from that point on I had started living my life more fully. I had used porn to disconnect from people, so it was only natural that once I felt connected again, I no longer needed the safety net of an artificial relationship.
It was difficult at first. Learning how to navigate relationships again after being so secluded from others. And as I said above, it wasn’t only the porn I was using to isolate. But reconnecting with others without constantly bringing up my, and those of my caregivers past, checklists of standards was something I needed to get used to. Because being in healthy relationship with others is really the ultimate desired outcome of giving up all the ghosts that were keeping me disconnected. What I found helped the most was my meditation practice and being surrounded by supportive people.
With my meditation, I was able to see the thoughts for what they were without reacting to them in a judgemental way. Just thoughts. After all the basic teachings of meditation is separating judgements from your thoughts, and that you are not the contents of your thoughts as well. This is a difficult lesson for sure, because we take our thoughts so personally.
I wouldn’t do or act on most of the thoughts I have throughout the day. And if I could choose the thoughts I have, I wouldn’t choose to have most of the ones I do have. And as Tara Brach says our thoughts have no shame. This is useful in realizing that your thoughts are not personal, they do not make you who you are as a person.
So when something comes up from your past that you may feel shame about, it’s useful to know that it is only a thought. The feelings that come with the thoughts may be a little more overwhelming. But allowing the feelings to be while being kind to yourself and acknowledging that the thoughts are really happening but not true, not who you are, should help to make the shift from shame to acceptance.
The more I was able to label my judgemental thoughts, the easier it was to let go of them. They still come up, after all we don’t control our thoughts. But they are easier to handle knowing that they aren’t personal and that they are fleeting.
The second was being connected in supportive relationships. Feeling a sense of connection with people who cared about me and whom I cared about helped me to feel part of something larger. I no longer felt the need to isolate from those who were closest to me and who care about me.
This is a difficult process and if you’ve dealt with trauma, this is not something to go alone. The feelings of reconnecting again to feelings that can be overwhelming is a terrifying experience. Tara Brach speaks about the importance of taking medication as a necessary step to establishing safety inside the body. It isn’t always wise to dive right in to the raw emotions of the trauma without using some sort of buffer. I had a lot of help from a professional and the relationships I had established were much healthier than those of my past.
Having healthy relationships as a resource definitely helped me to navigate the raw emotional life I was avoiding by previously using pleasure seeking habits. Knowing that I have a group of people I am able to rely on gave me the confidence I needed to feel through the raw emotional life that was growing unchecked.
I also have other resources to count on as well. Knowing that I am able to take care of myself now, in ways that I wasn’t taught to or was even able to when I needed in the past is one. The healthy ways I’m choosing to connect with my emotions instead of disconnecting from myself. From my yoga practice to my running routine, I’m finally understanding what it means to take care of my physical and emotional body in ways that help me to navigate the difficult emotions that come up in relationships.
For instance if I’m having a difficulty with a relationship at work, I can remember a particularly difficult run I’ve had or tough time on the mat but still found the strength and courage to finish the run or stay in the posture. This courage leads to more awareness and courage in the relationship and helps me to stay more present while navigating the current circumstances.
This, paired with staying present in the emotions as they come up and being kind to myself, especially when they are difficult, has had a huge impact on my emotional resilience. Knowing and trusting that we can weather the storms of our emotions is crucial to making the changes towards healthier choices.
If you’re having difficulty with a similar situation it’s important to know you’re not alone. By nature sex is difficult to talk about and porn is seldom if ever discussed. The link above is to an evidence based research group that deals specifically with addictions. It can just be helpful knowing that you are not alone and there are people out there willing to help if you need it.
Here is a link to Tara Brach’s website and her acronym R.A.I.N., recognize, allow, investigate and nurture. Some of the steps above I speak about are a rendition of this practice and have helped me countless times while dealing with difficult emotions.
And if you have any comments, I’d love to hear them. This is a difficult subject to talk about but it’s one that pretty much everybody deals with. If we could have more open and honest discussions about sex, porn and even gender roles there would most likely be a lot less prejudice.
Having a healthy relationship with sex and even pornography is possible. But it takes communication and skill to talk about it in a non-judgemental way. Hopefully by bringing up the subject, we can shed a light on a corner of our lives that have spent too much time in the dark. I hope you’ve found this article to be useful in some way and maybe if we all bring this topic a little more to the forefront, there will be less stigma attached to it. Peace, and thanks for reading 🙂