I am a zebra

A few weeks ago, I presented a chip to a woman in my sex addiction group who had ten years of sexual sobriety.  She said that all her life she felt like a zebra in a field of horses. Even after Twenty-two years in AA, she never felt like she quite fit.  She looked like the people around her, but she knew she wasn’t one of them. When she came to her first twelve-step meeting for sex addiction, she realized almost immediately that she had walked into a room of zebras, people who felt the depth of her pain.  They were other zebras who wanted the best for her. I’m also proud to be a member of a group of zebras.

Rule 3 in Jordan Peterson’s best-selling book 12 Rules for Life is “Make friends with people who want the best for you.”  Many of Peterson’s rules seem like they are written for addicts, although he seldom mentions addiction.  This rule sounds like a great plan for me.

When I was active in my addiction, I didn’t hang out with people who cared about me.  They cared about themselves. When I was acting out with someone else, I was only looking for what I got out of the relationship.  When I took my personal inventory while working step four, I quickly discovered that selfishness and self-centeredness were at the top of my list of character defects.  Now I know I shouldn’t be taking other people’s inventory, but I’m pretty sure the people I was acting out with didn’t care much about me either. They were addicts too, looking out for themselves.

When I first walked into a room of recovering sex addicts, I found 11 people who cared about my recovery, men and women who understood the hurt and desperation that I felt because they had felt it too and wanted me to get better.  In that room were people who wanted the best for me; recovering addicts committed to carrying the recovery message of freedom, healing and spirituality to others who were still suffering. I had joined a group of zebras like me. They led me into recovery.  

Months later, when I self-surrendered to a federal prison, I was told by guards to lie about my offense.  Sex offenders were not well thought of by the other inmates; they were even in danger. I was taken to my room and introduced to my new roommate, who was serving a long sentence for a drug offense.  He asked why I was there. I told him fraud.

A few minutes later I walked into the television room, where I quickly found these inmates were not zebras or even horses; they were mountain lions.  A large, scary man looked up and said, “Here’s the guy we saw on television.” My lie lasted less than fifteen-minutes. For the next four months life was very difficult.  If I sat down at a table in the dining hall, everyone else at the table would get up and leave. Almost everything I owned was stolen. Inmates would not only break into my locker, they would steal the lock.  Articles about me would silently appear on prison bulletin boards. I was terrified.

I was awakened at 5:30 in the morning and told to go to the lieutenant’s office.  He asked if I was afraid. I knew if I said I was afraid I would be put into protective custody and be moved to a prison far from my family and friends.  I lied and went back to my room, terrified.

In time, the zebra’s appeared.  Slowly, one at a time, other inmates would tell me they were also in prison for a sex crime.  Finally, they had someone they could talk to. Sex offenders, looking for a way to stop their addictive behavior, found each other.  

It took several years before, with the help of the chaplain, we zebras started a twelve-step recovery group for sex addiction.  But we were persistent. We knew it takes a recovering sex addict to help a sex addict and we needed a way to do that. Many of us found freedom in prison.

Whether a sex addict is in prison or in the community, if we zebras want recovery we must stick together.  Other recovering addicts want the best for me, and I want the best for them. If you are a sex addict and want help, join a recovery group.  Check out the resources section on this web site.

Coddiwomple

The English have an old slang word for what I was doing when I first entered recovery: coddiwomple.  It’s a verb that means to travel purposefully toward an as-yet-unknown destination. Most of us get into recovery to change our addictive sexual behavior – to stop acting out.  When I began recovery, I knew what I didn’t want. I didn’t want to sexually act out any more, but I had no idea of what I did want.  I was powerless over my compulsive sexual behavior and my life was unmanageable.  I was destroying relationships, breaking the law, and violating my own values. I knew I needed to change, but I had no idea what recovery would look like.  Maybe the English would say I was coddiwompling.

When I first went into treatment, a psychiatrist explained to me that I had been living two lives, and the objective of treatment was to merge those lives into one.  I believed that I had lived two lives – one good and one bad. In time, I came to understand that my supposed “good life” was filled with distorted thinking and character defects.  I was a perfectionist who expected perfection in myself, and often failed to meet my own unrealistic expectations. I was judgmental of everyone who didn’t meet my requirements of them – who could? — and often found myself disappointed and unhappy. I was dishonest, resentful, selfish, self-centered, and inconsiderate.   I judged myself with the same impossible standards I judged others.

My addictive life, on the other hand,  was filled with secrets and shame. I lied to hide my addictive behavior, I lied to make myself look better than I was, and I often kept lying about things that didn’t matter at all.  If others knew about my addictive thinking and behavior, how could they love me? They couldn’t. I couldn’t ask for help without admitting my behavior, and I couldn’t do that. Yet the truth was, much of my addictive thinking and behavior came out of my childhood and my life experiences.  Feelings and behaviors that were necessary for survival as a child became damaging and compulsive as an adult.

And yet, I ventured forward, traveling purposefully toward that as-yet-unknown destination.  It was a difficult, frightening, and painful trip. The great reality is that human stories involve suffering, and they involve the development of character as the result of that suffering.  The story of every recovered addict is a story of good and evil, pain and suffering, fear and courage, and eventually peace and serenity.

Men and women in recovery from addiction have become my heroes.  Agreeing to go to any length, recovering addicts intentionally venture into the unknown to change their lives.  They are unaware of where the journey will leave them, yet willing to face fear and uncertainty because they desperately know they need to change their lives.  

In his 2003 novel, The Kite Runner, Khaled Husseini describes the situation of a young boy being brought from war-torn Afghanistan to America as “lifting him from the certainty of turmoil to the turmoil of uncertainty.”  Likewise, the addict in recovery moves from the certain turmoil of sex addiction to the turmoil of uncertainty.

Our great mythical heroes venture into the unknown, and at great risk to life and limb take on dangerous challenges.  The addict similarly ventures into the unknown, and at great risk to emotions and relationships, he takes on the difficult challenge of changing his entire way of thinking.  As he does this, his old life must die. In a very painful process, with the help of his Higher Power, he gives up those thoughts, feelings and behaviors on which he relied to take away the pain in his life, and replaces them with new thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that he does not yet understand.  He must be reborn. In being reborn meets – and with God’s help defeats – the addiction that has been controlling his life. He finally regains the power of choice.

Recovering addicts are the most courageous people I know.  Eventually, we are no longer “coddiwompling,” we can see the destination.  We become God-centered and focused on helping others. The desire to act out has left us.  Serenity has arrived. We have had the spiritual awakening.

Let God In

I have had a long relationship with God.  From the time I was 5 or 6 years old, my parents dropped me off at our local church every Sunday morning for Sunday school.  I was proud of my 5-year perfect attendance pin.  I developed friendships at church and was accepted there.  Church was a comfortable place to be.  I thought I made a commitment to God.  I discovered later, I had learned about God, but I didn’t get to know God.

I was married in church, and over the years Ellyn and I were always active participants in church life.  I believe I have served in almost every leadership position in our local churches except pastor and Sunday school superintendent.  On the outside, I looked like a virtuous Christian man.

On the inside, I shamefully knew I was something else.  I was a sex addict.  As my addiction involved more and more deviant behavior, I became more uncomfortable because my actions were in direct conflict with my values.  I tried to stop acting out but discovered that I could not.

I prayed, over and over again, for God to take away my addiction, then became angry and resentful when the cravings for sex and pornography did not go away.  Where was God?  Hadn’t I earned His help?

Early one morning in March 2004, there was pounding on the door of my house.   “Police! Open up!” they screamed.  The police had a search warrant. I knew why they were there.  In that second I knew my life was about to be completely different.

Four hours later, after the police had completed their search and found what they needed, Ellyn called our pastor.  He came to the house and we prayed together.  For the next four weeks life went on.  I hired an attorney and prepared my defense, but we kept our problems secret, and went to church each Sunday as usual.

Then one Monday morning the telephone rang.  It was NBC.  By the end of the day the news of my arrest had spread throughout the world.  My behavior was secret no more.

Ellyn and I went to church the next Sunday, but the tension in the air was very apparent.  I was an outcast among my church family.  Ellyn was too.  She had nothing to do with my criminal activity but would not attend church without me.  There were no visits, no phone calls, no offers to help.  This was church?  Where was God!  I felt deserted, and I was angry.

The pastor called a meeting so I could talk to the congregation.  The sanctuary was full that afternoon.  I admitted my very non-Christian behavior to a room full of Christian men and women, uncomfortable with a known sinner in their midst, and asked for their forgiveness.  Everyone sins, and God treats all sins equally.  People do not.  The next week I was asked not to return to church.  At the time we most needed support, Ellyn and I were isolated and left alone.

And so, at the time I began seeking recovery from compulsive sexual behavior, I was angry at God.  By working the twelve-steps with a sponsor, I learned that I had been treating God as my codependent.  I had been telling God what I wanted, not asking him what I needed.

One of the first lessons I learned was not to tell God how to answer my prayers.  I told God what I wanted.  Sending the police to my house was not what I wanted.  God knew what I needed.

I needed a power greater than I.  God is that power.  I needed to get down on my knees to God, not tell God what to do.  I needed to look deep inside myself, and with help to discover those character defects that led me to addiction.  I needed to humble myself to God.  I did not need to ask God to cure my addiction.  I needed to recognize the fears, resentments, and harmful behaviors that separated me from God, and from those I had harmed, and admit them to God.  Then I needed to ask Him to take away those defects in my character.

Finally, I needed to not just know about God.  I needed to know God.  I needed to let God in.

This was not a quick process for me.  Much of it happened in prison.  That will be a topic for a future post.

Dancing in the Rain

Vivian Green said, “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass.  It’s about learning to dance in the rain.”  Step Eleven is about dancing in the rain.

I wish that after 12 years in the program and 8 years sobriety I didn’t have any problems.  No such luck for me.  I wish I always acted responsibly, or in a way that I could be proud.  That doesn’t always happen either.  Just ask my wife.

But today I have help.  I have help from my program friends, from my sponsor, and from God.  The eleventh step says, “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.”  Each night when I review the previous day, I honestly look at whether I have been resentful, selfish, dishonest, or afraid.  Is there someone to whom I owe an apology?  Am I keeping secrets that need to be shared?  Was I kind and loving that day, particularly toward my wife Ellyn?  Are there things that I could have done better?  Did I spend much of the day thinking of myself?  What did I do to help someone else today?  I do this review in writing to not omit anything.

That list gives me things to pray about.  So, then I discuss my list with God, asking His forgiveness and listening for any sense of His instructions.  I don’t always get immediate answers.  Ok, I usually don’t get immediate answers.  God has never sent me a burning bush.  He sent the police instead.  Before I came into recovery, when I was acting out and couldn’t stop, I asked God to take away my addiction.  I didn’t see anything happen.  Then one morning He sent a dozen cops with a search warrant.  I didn’t see Him standing there at the time, but today I know He was.

Sometimes God provides the answers from within.  Bill W called that the breath of God.  Now I know that I’m not God, but once in a while I find Him within me.   More often, I find God in others, often members of my recovery group.  The key is, I have to be receptive to hearing God through other people.

When I get up in the morning, my spiritual practice begins.  I read from a daily meditation book.  I look at my plans for the day.  I pray and ask God what he wants me to do, and then listen quietly.  If I find a conflict between what God wants me to do and what I want to do, I do my best to follow God’s will rather than my own.  I am not perfect at this; I am not cured of my addiction.  My addiction remains in remission as long as I stay in fit spiritual condition, and this work helps me to do this.  As the day goes on, I try to review what God wants of me and make sure I’m staying on track.  I trust what God tells me.  When I do that, I am much less likely to do something foolish, and more likely to remain sober.

In my old life, I prayed regularly.  But I did not have the confidence that good things would happen because of my prayers.  Now I have seen good things happen, miracles that did not happen before.  In the scope of the larger world, they are little miracles.  But in my life those miracles have been huge things: Ellyn staying with me, my sexual addiction becoming dormant, my living a life with honesty and integrity.  Today I have faith that God hears my prayers and answers them.

I didn’t know that could happen to me until it did.  I’ve seen it happen to many others, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly.  I know for me it didn’t happen quickly, I had to work for it.  You probably will too.  That’s ok.  The results are worth it.  Now, go dance in the rain.

Acceptance

Recovery looks different for each person.  Some recover, some don’t.  I only know what worked for me to become sexually sober and free of addictive behavior, and I will share that with you.

I’ve believed in God all my life.  I was taught to pray as a child and went to Sunday school regularly.  Even at that point in my life when I thought I was too busy to go to church, I believed in God.  After Ellyn and I were married, we attended church regularly and quickly became leaders in our church.  Despite that, I got so far off track that society chose to incarcerate me for seven years in federal prison.  For me, believing in God was not enough.  I knew of God, but I needed to know God up close and personal.  I needed to experience God helping me.

The book Alcoholics Anonymous contains many stories of men and women who have recovered from alcoholism.  My favorite is titled “Acceptance was the Answer.”  The author speaks about serenity and trust in God.  He writes:

Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today.  When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situation – some fact of my life – unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it’s supposed to be at this moment.  Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in God’s world by mistake.

In my old life, I thought that I was always right; whether the discussion was politics, my job, or when to take out the trash, I wanted everyone else to believe in my way or act in my way.  I have learned that I don’t always know what’s best for me, let alone what’s best for everyone else.  My job today is to do the best I can, the next right thing, leave the results to God, and accept whatever happens.

I am very fortunate.  So many men and women leaving prison have no family who cares about them; they have little education, no money, no place to live, no church community to return to, and very little hope for the future.  On April 13, 2012, I was released from prison.  My wife and three sons greeted me at the door and drove me home.

Life since has been good to me.  I write, play golf, see my family, and spend time with Ellyn.  My family, my neighbors, and my church family all know my story.  I am active in my church.  I no longer keep secrets.  I currently go to several twelve-step meetings every week, sponsor five sex addicts, and help anyway I can.  Ron is my current sponsor.  He’s been in recovery for thirty years.  We meet for an hour every week, and I call him every day.  I stay accountable to him to work my program; he holds my feet to the fire.  My sobriety continues, one day at a time.

I’ve shared with you the first nine of the twelve steps.  Working these steps helped me become sober.  Steps 10, 11, and 12 are the steps I need to stay sober.

Step 10 instructs us, “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”  For most of my life I held my anger and resentments inside.  Through working the twelve steps, I have learned that resentments are deadly for me.  Others may be able to keep resentments, but I cannot.  I have learned that although I continue to have defects in my character (albeit less than I had them before) and I continue to make mistakes, I cannot let them fester.  At the end of each day I review my interactions with other people, my emotions, and my relationship with God.  I talk to my sponsor, or my wife, or my twelve-step group about my failings.  I no longer must be right about everything, but I do need to be aware and accountable.  I think about whether I have harmed anyone, and if I have, I make plans to make amends.  I no longer must wait for years to become accountable; I do it every day and begin the next day with a clean slate.  You can too.

 

A Few Simple Rules

When I first began public speaking I was given a simple formula — tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.  Easy enough, just repeat everything three times.  I wish public speaking was really that easy.  

When I came into recovery from sex addiction I was told all I had to do was follow twelve simple rules.  I quickly learned that the twelve-steps are simple, but not easy.  Let me share simply how the twelve-steps have worked in my life.  As I write more, I’ll add a lot more detail.  Occasionally, I’ll summarize for you.

I engaged in sexually addictive behavior for many years.  At first I thought that I could stop anytime I wanted.  But I recognized that after I threw away all the pornography, it would only be a short time before I began collecting it again.  I had lost the power to stop.  

As I worked the steps with my sponsor, I learned that Step 1 was simply my admission that I was powerless to stop my addictive behavior and that my life had become unmanageable.  

Next, I recognized that if I was powerless to stop acting out I needed to find that power, a power greater than me.  Accepting that simple principle is Step 2.  

Step 3, turning my will and my life over to that higher power, was more difficult for me.  I was angry at God, blaming Him for my own shortcomings. Plus, I had a long history of not asking for help.  So initially, I used the twelve-step group as my higher power.  By using the group, I was no longer trying to recover alone.  Developing a relationship with God came later for me.

Steps 4 and 5 were difficult and emotionally draining.  My sponsor shared a format for outlining a searching and fearless moral inventory of myself.  I identified in detail resentments that I had harbored for years, underlying fears, and people I had hurt because of my addictive sexual behavior.  I accepted my part in each of those as well.  Sharing those with God and with my sponsor helped me to learn that character defects that drove my addiction, and my life.  

With Steps 6 and 7, my relationship with God began to come into focus.  I recognized that only God could remove those defects of character.  I could not do it alone.  Prayer was becoming a more important part of my life.  

Steps 8 and 9 involved making as list of people I had harmed (a list I began in Step 4) and making amends to all of them.  Before I made an amend, I asked God’s help for courage and wisdom. Most of my amends were done in person. I admitted the harm I had done, recognized my character defects (defects like selfishness, dishonesty, and being inconsiderate), and listened to learn of additional harm.  I did lots of listening, no rebuttal, and never used the words sorry or apologize.  My victims had heard those words from me too many times.  

I could not make direct amends to some people.  Some had moved away, some had died, and some would be injured if I contacted them.  The best amend I could make to them would be to change my life.  

Ok, let me summarize.  In Steps 1,2 and 3, I recognized I was powerless and my life was unmanageable; I accepted that if I did not have the power to stop my addictive behavior I needed to find the power somewhere else, somewhere greater than me; and I had to make a decision to turn my will and my life over to that Power.  

Steps 4 through 9 are the growth steps, the steps where the real action begins.  I made a searching and fearless (let me be honest, it wasn’t totally fearless) moral inventory, shared it with my sponsor, and identified the character defects that led me toward addiction.  I brought God into the picture — removing those defects myself was beyond my ability.  And I faced those resentments and fears by making amends to the people I had hurt.  

By this time I was beginning to feel the spiritual awakening that the program told me I was going to receive.  My relationship with God was growing.  The obsession to act out was diminishing and I was establishing friendships with others in the program.  

Please join me next week as I discuss Steps 10, 11, and 12, the maintenance steps that allow me to Live in recovery.