My Dad walked two miles home from work each day. When he crested the hill around 5pm, we would call out to our Mom, who was often at the kitchen stove. Mom would turn off the stove and walk out to meet him. There they shared a front yard embrace, complete with an apron and on-looking neighbors.
I still catch them smooching. Often.
I knew then, and have always known, that my parents loved each other. It’s obvious.
What is less obvious is the difficult journey that they have made to preserve and strengthen their marriage. On Saturday, July 9th, 2011, my Dad confessed to my Mom that he had an addiction to pornography. It was the hardest thing he’d ever done, and the worst thing she’d ever heard.
Recently, I sat with my parents for an interview. They want to share their recovery story, and I am blessed to be the author. During our discussion, they sat in the corner of a large couch, with Mom nestled into Dad’s open arm. It was a fitting token of their healing journey.
This is their story.
Dad was first exposed to pornography in second grade. It was print media. At that age, he didn’t understand that it was wrong; he felt a thrill at what he saw. As the years went by he realized that it wasn’t right, but the stimulating feeling was still there.
For a long time, Dad’s exposure to pornography was merely occasional. That changed when the internet became readily available. He described it as “a slow descent.” There were feelings of denial and justification. Eventually he couldn’t get on the internet without feeling the tug to view. This continued for many years, with increasing regularity. Thus the accidental became incidental, and the incidental became the goal.
“I often wished that someone would catch on that it was going on, wanting almost to be helped against myself,” he explained. “I just felt powerless to break free. I would try, and be successful for a little time, and then get drawn back to it, and it was really discouraging.”
Finally he knew that he needed help. For years he had privately thought of pornography as his “problem,” but his inability to break free led him to redefine the situation. “In my mind if you can’t control something, then it’s more than just a problem,” he said. “That’s when I began to think of it as an addiction.”
He knew that he had to do something. “I was so distraught . . . I was willing to do anything.” It wasn’t just about breaking free of pornography anymore. Something was missing in his life. He wanted to be right with his wife and with his children. But more than anything, he wanted to be right with God.
That is when his journey to recovery began.
The first step was to tell Mom.
Mom was, in her own words, “devastated.” That may be an understatement.
“As I look back at it I’m glad I didn’t yell and scream and fall apart in that moment. But I felt like my insides did for weeks and months afterwards,” she said. “I was always mad and sad. How could this happen to me? How could this happen to us? We’d always done the right things. We were going to church, I had filters on the computer. This shouldn’t have happened to us.”
Mom did a lot of reading, probably too much. She became hyper-vigilant about learning about pornography addiction. In time she learned that she was experiencing something akin to Post-Traumatic Stress syndrome. The physical and emotional symptoms were overwhelming, unlike anything she had experienced before.
For dad, confession was the first step to healing. But for mom, it was a new wound.
They both needed to heal, but in different ways.
For Mom, there was a gratitude journal, professional therapy, symbolic renewal, and the gift of helping others.
At first, Mom’s gratitude journal was a means of keeping her head above water. She was overwhelmed by anger and hurt, and it took considerable effort to see life in positive ways.
“I didn’t want to do it, but I knew that I needed it because I couldn’t see anything positive for myself in that moment,” she explained. “And so I started with just a little notebook. I made some rules for myself: I had to write down five things. It could be five words, and that was all, but I had to write down five things and they had to be different than the day before.” For months she recorded five things that she was grateful for, and eventually her entries transformed. “My thought process changed,” she said. She now looked forward to writing, and her one-word expressions were stretching into sentences and paragraphs. She could see light again.
Mom still felt like she needed help, so she sought out a therapist. “It didn’t take a lot,” she said, “but I needed some extra help that I couldn’t get for myself.” Dad was emotionally and financially supportive of the decision, and he attended therapy with her. Both of them needed to talk. During the critical period of trauma, Mom also had a friend who unknowingly helped. They went walking together several mornings each week, and Mom said that it saved her life. “She didn’t know about my struggles… but I don’t know if I could have gotten out of bed, let alone out of the house, if it had not been for her,” she said. “She didn’t do anything in particular; she was just there, caring for me, walking with me, talking about nothing in particular.”
They also found support at Addiction Recovery Program. There was local ARP chapter that utilized the 12-step program for pornography addicts and their spouses. The faith-based curriculum provided a safe springboard for Mom and Dad to have needful conversations. “When we attended group, although we were in different places, we would come together afterwards and we would talk about really hard things,” Mom explained. “And sometimes I didn’t want to, but we did. And I think that’s one of the reasons why we can talk about it now.” Talking about it—with each other and with others—were important steps to healing.
As a symbol of her grief, Mom couldn’t bear to see family pictures. They had recently moved to a new home, and she didn’t put family photos on the wall for months. “It had been such a loss to me and when I first found out about Scott’s addiction. I really wasn’t sure which direction he was going to choose to go. It was a possibility that I could lose him, I could lose my family . . . I could lose everything that we’d been working for.” They had been married for 27 years. It was a long time before Mom put pictures on the wall, but when she did, she knew that she was in recovery.
An unexpected gift also emerged from Mom’s grief: empathy. She was able to relate with women who had experienced similar anguish. “The first time I was actually grateful for the experience and realized that I could turn it around and help someone else was when a loved one called me,” she recalled. “I was driving down the street in the middle of the day when my cell phone went off. I pulled over—I can tell you the exact street I was on—and how grateful I was that that person knew about what I had been through, and I could just listen and let them talk!” Mom has been able to support other women who have gone through similar experiences. She served for a time as an ARP facilitator and missionary, and she continues to help family members and friends. Her healing path has come full circle.
Dad’s recovery involved significant internal changes. Even though he was committed to change, talking about his addiction still elicited feelings of shame. When Mom wanted to go to a therapist for instance, he felt a little resistant—not because he didn’t want help, but because discussing it was difficult. He described it as a process of letting go of pride, of humbling himself and being willing to “accept all forms of help that were possible.” For him, “all forms of help” included learning new habits, regaining Mom’s trust, and serving others.
Dad had to disassociate himself with the devices that he used to access pornography. For him, that was mostly the computer. They already had filters in place, but they added additional restrictions on internet availability. Mom became the gatekeeper of the internet, and he needed her administrator password to get online. Initially this frustrated him. “It was actually irritating to me,” he explained. “And I think in retrospect that sometimes that drive in the brain was still calling out. You know, if it’s an addiction (which I think it was), the tendency is still there.” Given time, these boundaries became a great boon.
Later, Dad got a cell phone for work and found that he started to slip up again. He solved the problem by resorting to a phone without internet capabilities. “I didn’t trust myself,” he admitted. “And to some degree, although years down the road from there, it continues to be a struggle at times. And so I still keep myself restricted to how much I’m available to devices to use them.”
The relational consequences of Dad’s addiction were most sobering. Although he had never been a bad husband, it became obvious that his actions had undermined his marriage. It was a huge eye-opener to him when Mom stopped wearing her wedding ring. “I think almost more than anything, that helped me to realize how terribly affected she was by what I was doing,” Dad said. “Because when you’re in it, somehow you can justify not doing it, [you think] that it’s really not hurting anyone else, [so] it’s not that big of a deal.” His recovery wasn’t just leaving pornography; it was winning back Mom’s trust.
Dad also accepted opportunities to serve at church, even while he was still fighting the addiction. “That’s helped me to progress,” he reported. “Part of it, obviously, is the prayer and seeking for the power of the spirit in every way: scripture study, reading the words of the prophet in general conference, and my own personal prayers.” Although Dad has always prayed, his prayers used to be silent prayers at the side of the bed each night. Now, he says, “I get up in the morning early so that I have adequate time to be able to go some place alone and have a verbal prayer for as long as it takes. It’s not uncommon that they’ll stretch into many, many minutes. They’ve really drawn [me] closer to the Lord.”
Dad’s recovery was gradual, and successes were punctuated by slip-ups. “I think one of the things to recognize is that it was not all just a straight continuum from darkness to light with no hiccups or difficulties,” he said. He had to exert himself in every possible way. ARP meetings helped Dad focus on what he was doing and what he wanted. And at one point he even left a job because the environment wasn’t conducive to the spiritual healing that he was seeking. Today, he’s doing much better.
“There’s a huge change . . . To say that I’m completely recovered would be to say that there’s no issue anymore, and my suspicion is that it will be an issue for the rest of my life. I have to be careful where I am and how I engage with devices. But my personal ability to feel like I can fight it has greatly increased. There was a time that I felt it was almost inevitable if I were getting on the internet very often that I would be slipping up and viewing. And it doesn’t feel that way anymore.”
When I visit my parents, I can see relics of their battle with pornography. Dad uses an old-school phone (voice and text only), and he still needs an access code to log in to the home internet. Mom also asks on occasion for a report of how Dad is doing. These are the limitations, but there are also notable gains. Their marriage is thriving, and they have become advocates to others.
When I asked after their marriage, Mom and Dad paused the interview for a demonstration. After a hearty kiss, they agreed that it is wonderful.
Dad quipped, “To be quite frank, I have become more concerned about showing Kim appreciation and affection. And that’s been a really good thing. It has made me more aware of her and her feelings. And that has made me (I hope) a better husband. It has certainly made me feel closer to her. The truth remains that we love that which we serve, and I have sought to become more serviceable around her, not only in what I do but in how I act.”
Their efforts to safeguard their relationship have affected their sexual relationship, too. “Breaking free of [my addiction] and reestablishing our trust has led to a level of intimate satisfaction and enjoyment that I don’t think we ever had before,” said Dad. “I’d definitely say that where I am today (in part because of recovering and seeking to get out of pornography) is further ahead than I was before I began the recovery process. I’m more attentive than I was probably at any time in my life—less self-centered.”
Mom agreed. “My marriage today is wonderful! And I’m good. I have family pictures on the wall!” Mom and Dad will celebrate their 33rd year of marriage this month, and, Mom says, “We’re planning on another 33 to go—at least!”
Mom explained the transformation: “I believe in families, and this was something that compromised our family. It compromised our relationship. Although Scott didn’t recognize all the changes at the time, I thought that something was going on for him. As he’s recovered from this pornography addiction, I have noticed so many changes in him: in his actions, in his behaviors, in his kindness, in his tenderness. He’s always been an incredible man and a wonderful husband. But oooh, it’s A-plus now!”
Mom and Dad know from experience that pornography hurts individuals and families. They also know that it is culturally ubiquitous, and so they worry for their family members and friends. But far from idle worry, they are engaging in the battle.
Mom expressed, “I think it’s worthwhile for people to know that this is changing their brains, and it’s changing their behaviors. They can be so much more without it! It is compromising us as a people and as a society—not in good ways. I think the more education we have about it, the more we can understand and take action to change those things.”
So they seek to be educated. There’s a lot of research about pornography and about the nature of addiction. Mom and Dad are serious about reading articles, attending conferences, and sharing what they learn with others. You can see a list of their favorite resources here.
More importantly, they are beginning to share their story. Sharing is Step 12 of the ARP program: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, share this message with others and practice these principles in all you do.” It’s still hard to talk about, but they have had a spiritual awakening, and they want to share.
Dad supplied, “I’m trying to make more effort to move beyond the stigma [so] I can talk about it more readily—not only to share my story, but to share tools of recovery that I’ve learned, and to encourage other people to bring it out of the shadows so they can conquer it.” Dad is in a particularly salient position to help others. He serves in a ministerial capacity with young single adults, many of whom deal with unwanted pornography habits or addictions. In this setting he is able to relate and to provide them with tried-and-true tools of recovery.
Change the Dialogue
Mom said that they want to “change the dialogue and open it up so that other people who may be suffering from those same issues [will] know that they are not alone, and that there is hope.”
Dad added, “You’ve got to get it out in the open. Pornography thrives on secrecy and darkness, and in our culture there’s such a strong stigma that seems to be attached to it when we think about it or talk about it. I think part of that is imaginary.” Though it is natural to fear the judgment of others, Dad’s experience actually opened up a support network rather than the mocking crowd that he expected. “I have not had any one come up and condemn me because I had an addiction,” he said. “Everyone has been supportive about breaking free from it. So I would say you’ve got to be able to get it out in the open. You’ve got to be able to talk to someone about it. You have to be able to include others in your team to break free of this. [Sharing] brings the opponent down to a size we can fight. When you’re in the midst of it, at times it feels like you’re facing a Goliath, but you don’t even know how to use the sling shot you’ve got! So I cannot say enough that just beginning by being honest and open and sharing and getting it out so that you can begin to address it.”
My interview with them is part of this sharing process.
Mom apologized to me when she read the first draft of this story. “I’m sorry if this is especially difficult because these are your parents … please forgive me,” she wrote.
You should know—and they should know—that this is not difficult. My parents deserve my thanks. Their healing journey has paved a clear path for me.
When my fiancé confessed that he was struggling with a pornography addiction, I knew what to do, and I was not afraid. I had seen my parent’s recovery, and I knew that grace was the answer.
Grace: (noun) Undeserved favor of God to those who are under condemnation.
Grace. It used to be something abstract. A lovely, poetic word. The focal point of song lyrics and sermons, but not terribly applicable. But then there was an evening during courtship when Andy rested his head on my shoulder and thanked me for giving him the gift of grace. We were sitting at a gas station, and in that dingy setting I saw for the first time that we had received a gift from God. In spite of Andy’s weakness, I loved him. I forgave him, and I asked him to be better. And in reflected form of my own feelings, I knew that Andy loved me despite my weaknesses. He would forgive me, and he would ask me to be better.
This instance evoked scriptures not a few (John 8:11; Isaiah 1:16-19). We have a Savior who loves us in spite of our weaknesses. He forgives us. He asks us to be better. Shouldn’t we treat each other the same?
Now Andy and I are married and we have a beautiful little girl. He’s doing better than ever. Our daughter Lucy is safe because she is surrounded by honest men who fight for virtue. We speak about our weaknesses openly with each other because we know that we can be better. For our family, grace is the answer.
We believe that grace is the answer for all of us. Pornographic messages and images are everywhere. And because we’re all touched, we all need to help and be helped. As my dad recently told a church group, “If pornography [use] was like chicken pox, you’d see an awful lot of spots in the room.” Let’s help each other out.
Grace is simple: Love. Forgive. Be better. Expect better.
Start by talking. If you need to confess, find a safe friend who will hear you and love you. Ask your kids, your roommates, or your spouse when they last viewed. Ask how you can support them. Ask these things of yourself. Become intentional about how you use the internet. Hold yourself to a higher standard of virtue. Pray aloud. Serve others. Find a support network. BE a support network.
Love. Forgive. Be Better. Expect better.
Oh and hey, count us in as part of your cheering squad. You can call, text, or write. We get it, and we love you.
Know someone who needs this story? Please share!