A friend of mine recently became a bishop (think pastor/priest) and he told me that he was shocked at how many people are struggling with pornography. He doesn’t know where to start when they tell him their problems. This includes adults and youth. I’ve wanted to help create an easy to use program for youth leaders and parents. I think it’s time to put that plan into action.
First, let me say that I am not a qualified addiction counseling professional. However, I am a recovering addict who has had lots of ups and downs and has found what works for me and I’m finding it helps other people as well. I believe that by writing it all down even more people can benefit from what I’ve learned. Hopefully by sharing this plan with you instead of having to stumble around for 20-30 years trying to figure it all out on your own you can do it in months or a year or two. Trust me, that would have been much, much better for me.
What I am about to share should help you have a strong conversation around understanding each individual’s struggle(s) and helping them begin to address their problem with self discipline, knowledge, encouragement, fellowship, and ultimately help them connect to a higher power that will be the ultimate healer for the illness they have. I also recommend you partner with a program that does this professionally. I encourage you to thoroughly investigate any potential professional group — not all groups are created equally. You want a group motivated by helping others and not motivated by profit (referrals from previous attendees will be helpful). This includes professional 1:1 counseling, group programs like Sons of Helaman, and when they become an adult (or if they already are one) I absolutely recommend they attend and work a legitimate 12 step program like SAA Primary Purpose (my personal preference) or the LDS Addiction Recovery Program (ARP) — be sure to work with a sponsor early and throughout.
I really and truly hope this is helpful — especially when it comes to working with youth. If you have any feedback at all, please share it with me. You can comment below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will keep everything confidential. I wish you the best in your recovery and hope that the time frame of your recovery is much, much shorter than mine was 🙂
Here is an outline of what I think a pornography/masturbation/sex addict needs to recover:
First step: Discuss the problem
- For now, do not identify the individual as an addict unless they already know. Not all who struggle are true addicts — some strong self discipline may be all they need to stop.
- When did usage begin (age, media type, location)?
- Understand the patterns of behavior (NOTE: This should be done in general terms, you are not looking for a detailed history, but rather a sense of patterns to understand the depth of the problem):
- What types of pornography (images, videos) and how often
- Has it gotten worse?
- Masturbation, how often, and how long has it been going on (when did you first start)? NOTE: 99.999% of pornography addicts masturbate.
- Fantasizing. Do they have sexual fantasies in their mind? Do they understand that they need to learn to stop doing that? A good question to ask is, “Does the person you are fantasizing about know that you’re doing that? Do you have their permission?” That can clarify things pretty quickly.
- How many times have you tried to stop?
- What have you done in the past to stop (what helps, what doesn’t)?
- Average time between acting out?
Next step: Show the person the addiction cycle (this should be very familiar to someone fighting this problem)
- Some sort of outside influence. Also known as a trigger. Triggers come in all shapes and sizes:
- Physical senses: Sight (images/media), sounds (causing a stored memory to pop up), smells (perfumes), touch
- Emotional senses: Anger, sadness, loneliness, resentment, fear, extreme happiness.
- Events: Your spouse asks you to leave, you lose your job, you get bad news, you go on a great vacation (remember that high ups can trigger as much as downs)
- The untrained individual will not recognize these events and either mentally ignore them (in the thinking part of the brain that is — your chemical system is still actively processing things), or we bottle them up (that was my choice for most of my life).
- Eventually the chemicals build to a point where the central thinking (more primal than logical) starts noticing and that’s when the cravings begin. Because an addict becomes desensitized to dopamine (the happy drug) we crave even more and more of it, usually in the form of extended acting out, or more extreme versions of pornography (images and videos).
- As the cravings build and build we enter the “White Knuckle Zone” — we are holding on by our fingernails. Finally our logic brain kicks back in and says “What is going on here?!” But it’s generally too late. The cravings are out of control and unless the individual knows how to fight against them the ultimate decision tends to be “give up, act out, reset”. (Frankly, if you talk to most addicts you will find that this stage is really the “Point of No Return”. The real fight needs to occur before this point.)
- Finally we act out to make the cravings go away. This may be a 5 minute, 30 minute, multi-hour, multi-day act out. Eventually the high will wear off (which to a long term addict it’s more of a numbing of whatever was causing us distress in the first place).
- Now comes the regret. I don’t even like writing about this. This is a horrible place to be. I would just rail on myself internally. I hated myself. Why couldn’t I stop? Why did I give in? Why am I such a weakling? I’m not worth anything. Why don’t I just end it all (that was rare, but I did feel that way sometimes). This is not a pretty state. If you or someone you’re working with is in recovery try to get out of that state as quick as possible, it’s not healthy. If the person is not working recovery, hopefully this state will motivate the individual to try a recovery program (have I mentioned I really like SAA Primary Purpose groups? 🙂
- Eventually the individual will come back to sanity and normalize again. This may include making amends, repentance, committing to never do it again, analysis of what happened and how to stop it next time (which for an addict is a constant process that leads to the hopeless state of recognizing we need help as we cannot solve the problem ourselves). It may also include hiding it, lying about it, denying anything wrong happened (to themselves as well) which becomes a more difficult path to unwind from.
- Some sort of outside influence. Also known as a trigger. Triggers come in all shapes and sizes:
Discuss how you plan to work with them:
This will be a multi-week plan effort for each of these items. Plan to meet with them once a week to go over each of these (the brain can only learn so much at a time). KEY: Be sure to follow up at the beginning of each week on how the individual did with their work the previous week.
- Week1 (background + set goals) – remember, this is NOT an in depth interview:
- Find out what they’ve done so far to try and stop. This would include, books, counseling, 12-step groups, etc. Invite them to let go of all preconceived notions of what their new treatment will look like. Encourage them to be open to new experiences, even if it’s doing something they’ve tried before — sometimes you’ve got to do something more than once to really figure it out.
- Have them write down a goal for how long they will go without a slip. Usually 1 day longer than their current average time between slips. Focus on that goal. If they hit it, praise them. Even if they slip up the next day after reaching the goal, that’s still a victory for having achieved the goal. You will set a longer one with them next time. If they fall short and you’re just starting out, set a lower goal (they may not have been as honest about their time between acting out).
- Have them set a goal for when they will tell their parents, spouse, or other loved one/friend. If they are a youth, telling their parents will be very difficult but super helpful and necessary if done the right way. I recommend reading the “To Parents” section of “Like Dragons Did They Fight” by Maurice Harker. It’s in the appendix and you can request a free PDF.
- Week2 (triggers + journal writing):
- Talk to them about their triggers. Ask them about the last several times they acted out. What was going on within 24-48 hours of their acting out? Help them identify emotional triggers as well as sensory triggers.
- Invite them to write their triggers down. Writing is a great source of help during recovery.
- Encourage them to write in a journal on a daily basis. Things to include should be: what they are grateful for, acts of service for others, emotional states through the day (here are some sites with different emotion words to help someone new to the practice: recognizing emotions and 100 words to describe emotions).
- Week3 (bottom lines):
- Discuss bottom lines. Where are the generally acting out? What are their danger zones? Bottom lines are buffers to prevent us from getting too close to the point of no return. You can read more about bottom lines in an article I posted.
- Have them write these out as homework. Have them email a copy to you. Encourage them to post them on their mirror to read out loud each day. Encourage them to share them with their parents or other loved one.
- Week4 (discipline = drill, drill, drill!):
- Invite the person to read “Like Dragons Did They Fight” by Maurice Harker. You can request a free PDF copy of the book. You can also purchase the book at many book stores.
- Discuss daily morning prep work (like meditation, prayer, study). Are they already doing it. Is it EVERY SINGLE DAY? Have them create a chart to track their daily morning prep.
- Talk about developing strategies to fight the early trigger stages (like strong emotions or hormonal reactions). I like to use exercise like running or pushups (here’s a great example from my personal history). They key is to do it EVERY SINGLE DAY. Even when the person doesn’t need it, they need to practice it. Have them visualize a trigger (not a real one, but a pretend one) and then practice the drill they’ve chosen. A good time to practice this would be during the most susceptible time of the day for them. For me that would be after 10pm for example.
- Week5 (mind control = more drilling):
- Learning to stop fantasizing about sexual activities and past pornographic incidents can be very difficult, but with time and practice it can happen.
- This is a good step to take after learning to really master the Week4 drills of morning prep and fighting triggers. If the individual has not been committed to the previous stages they will find the next stages difficult and frustrating, or they will simply be ignoring you at this point. Tracking and following up is very important.
- Extend your “fighting triggers” to include a series of activities that you perform EVERY SINGLE TIME you are tempted to fantasize.
- If you are in a public place like a classroom, immediately begin reciting a memorized poem, song, or speech (“I am a Child of God” is my personal one, a friend recites the Gettysburg Address).
- If you are alone (bedroom, bathroom), immediately stop whatever you were doing, stand up and take action. For example, I will pop out of bed at night, do as many pushups as possible, and then do some yoga to clear my mind.
- Keep repeating this. In fact, you will need to drill this activity just like you do in Step4. Lay down at night and say “I’m fantasizing” to yourself. Get mad. Get up. Repeat your memorized piece. Do a physical activity. Go back to bed. Do this several times to teach your brain that you mean business.
- Be prepared to go the extra mile. Every now and again you’re going to be triggered harder than normal. So do more than you normally do. Recite something extra. Do situps along with your pushups. Go for a run!
- This was a hard one for me to overcome and took a LOT of practice. I recommend keeping a log of how many times you fought each day and look for the frequency to start winding down after a period of time (it might be months). That will be a sign that your efforts are starting to work. You might get results right away, it might take longer.
- Week6: 12 Step Work
- Now that you’ve developed a decent toolkit to use in emergencies along with daily living I highly recommend that you engage in a 12-step program. Honestly, if you really struggle with stopping you probably have a problem that can only be treated by a higher power. You will need everything in your toolkit but it will not be enough. The good news is that it has worked for millions of people and it can work for you.
- If you are an adult I recommend participating in the SAA Primary Purpose group. Visit the website to look for the closest meeting in your area. If there isn’t one you can do it virtually via phone conference meetings. If there is one locally — I 100% recommend that you go in person. Even if it’s scary to do so, I speak from experience as I was terrified to go to my first meeting but it was SO worth it!
- If you are a youth and working with your parents or a trusted bishop/pastor I recommend the Addiction Recovery Program handbook. It is a good study guide with some incredible questions that really help you delve deep into your recovery by answering the questions in the book. Because you’ve been journaling for some time now it should be comfortable for you to write in this handbook as well. The book costs $1 plus $3 shipping. You can also download it for free (on the same page) but I HIGHLY recommend you get the hard copy so you can underline passages, write your thoughts, and write out your answers.
- Additionally I recommend reading the AA 12-step Big Book. This is the original text from the 1930s. It is nothing short of miraculous. I also recommend purchasing a copy to underline and write in. But they also give you online access to the book if you want.
- GET A SPONSOR!
- Let me say that one more time: Get a sponsor.
- If you are a youth and have a Bishop or Pastor that can do this role for you, I recommend it. If not, perhaps a counselor. You could try a parent but I don’t know if you’d be able to really do this with a parent. It’s hard enough with a non-family member.
- If you are an adult, after you’ve been to a few meetings and have met a few people, find out who is available to sponsor and then ask one of them to be your sponsor. Do not wait until you have some sort of miraculous revelation or transformation by attending meetings (because you won’t), do it soon and work with them throughout the rest of your steps starting with Step 1.
Some extra thoughts:
- If they fail to follow the plan 2-3 times having exerted real effort, then they are probably addicted and will need professional help. Continue to work with them but recommend they work with professionals as well. The more avenues they seek the better. Not each avenue works for each person either.
- This is a first attempt at capturing my thoughts on working with youth. I intend to work closely with my bishop friend to see if any of this information is helpful. What needs more information or clarification and if something doesn’t quite work. I’ll be updating it as I learn new things.
- I also plan to create a few pages to break this up into smaller chunks on my main homepage. But step one is to get it out there and in use. We can modify it as we go.
Some operational definitions
- “Acting out” includes: viewing pornographic images, videos, masturbation, sexual activity outside of marriage, inappropriate sexual activity inside of marriage, etc.
- A “slip” is when an individual is working on stopping and breaks a commitment (usually involved in acting out, but it could also refer to breaking a bottom line)
- “Bottom line”: Critical lines we are drawing in behavior that we will not cross. They are the boundaries of our safe zones. An example might be, “When I travel for business I will not turn on the TV in the hotel room.”
- “Chemical reaction” is when the brain is being flooded with hormones and other chemicals that can agitate, cause cravings, and tend to shut down our “thinking” part of our brain.
- “Numbing” is the process whereby an addict uses their drug of choice to take the edge off of normal human emotions (both high and low).