My name is Catherine and my sobriety date is 31 March, 2021. Since I was a very young child, I have used my imagination to escape from reality. At a very early point that I can’t remember the impetus for, I began to be fascinated by and create narratives around corporal punishment. These imaginary scenarios were erotic for me, although not sexually explicit, and were always accompanied by masturbation. Masturbating was my pacifier, my comfort, my go-to for self-soothing. As a kid I would do it anywhere and was never found out. I became skilled at deception and hiding, and sometimes wondered how the adults in my life couldn’t tell. I was completely intolerant of uncomfortable situations, especially ones where I was in the wrong. If I was ever caught doing something wrong, I became a stone wall and refused to confess.
All the while, I became ever more addicted to my imaginary scenarios, which all involved someone else (never me) owning up to wrongdoing and facing consequences. If anything remotely related to my fantasies came up in books, movies, conversations, or any public sphere, my physical and mental discomfort was unbearable. I remember sitting trapped in a row of fellow elementary schoolers watching a show of some sort with an unexpected plot point involving corporal punishment – my heart pounding out of my chest and my face on fire, convinced that everyone in the room could see my secret.
Some time around late middle or early high school, two things happened. I became consciously aware of my problem, and I discovered an erotic novel that shattered my assumption that my brain was unique. By this point I had also been pursued by the grace of God and He had made me alive to His beauty, forgiveness and power. So every subsequent choice carried with it the maddening shame that I knew better.
The next 14 years can be summarized as a desperate clawing for control over the monster called Lust which I now know cannot be controlled. I told my Mom; I outed myself to friends; I joined a group at my Christian college specifically designed to create a safe space for women to combat lust. I forced myself to be more vulnerable in each new accountability relationship or small group, always thinking that if I could just be honest enough, my problem would be fixed. I could never stay sober for more than a few weeks at a time, with one longer stretch closer to a year. Each time I relapsed, I changed who I talked to out of shame at my repetitive behavior. At that time, my acting out took the form of compulsive masturbation, always accompanied by the same punishment narratives, sometimes created by myself and sometimes fed by stories printed or online.
After college, I read an article written by a pastor who had confessed his pornography and masturbation habit to a fellow clergyman. A letter he’d written was leaked and soon the whole town knew. He wrote about his humiliating fall and encouraged readers who were struggling to find someone who could have a pulse on where you were at with sexual conduct. I was terrified by the story, and immediately reached out to a friend to ask her to mentor me and be that person who I would consistently confess to. I was convinced that having to talk to the same person over and over would cure me. I was wrong.
I could not keep from masturbating for more than a few weeks, usually no longer than a week. I would slide into isolation during relapse periods, increasingly obsessive and with my acting out reaching more of binge quality. I confessed every time. I could not keep up the lie for more than a month or so before my misery, anxiety, apathy, stress and cognitive dissonance brought me crawling back to the light. But I could not stay there. I discovered vast stores of narratives matching my fetishes online and would read them for hours on end. I put accountability software on my computer and added multiple friends to the alert list. It didn’t block much of my content, which didn’t match “classic” porn profiles. I blocked specific sites but went to them on my phone. I got rid of my smartphone in favor of a small flip phone that only called and texted.
I used my parents’ computer and old smartphones instead. I expanded my accountability software to their devices and my Mom and I smashed the old phones with a literal sledgehammer in the driveway. I moved to an apartment with my best friend and discovered that her computer had an unprotected guest account. I stole it over and over, repeating a cycle of asking her to hide it, finding it, binging, confessing, her hiding it again. I took her old phone and relapsed with it, then in a panic drove it to my mentor’s house for safekeeping. My narrative and fantasy material darkened into violence, crossing lines I’d sworn never to approach, making fictional use of children and other despicable content. I masturbated compulsively while driving.
Over this time period my attempts at getting help became more desperate. I talked to pastors. I went to Biblical counseling. At the beginning of COVID, I started what would be the final play in my futile fight. I told a woman I’d recently met everything – in more specifics than I ever had. She thought she could help, and launched into an intense study over those first months of the pandemic. I combed through scripture, completing homework assignments she gave me and identifying lies and truths about the narratives that had me in their grasp. I felt like I was seeing amazing new connections; understanding myself at a deeper level and seeing the grace of God in new ways. I tried to dismiss the glaring fact that I was still masturbating. She finally called out the truth in what felt like a punch to the solar plexus of my deepest fears: Why did I know so much about God and still had not changed? Sure, my understanding had deepened, but had my behavior changed at all?
I was devastated. In desperation I reached back out to my biblical counselor. In a move of humility and wisdom which I will forever be grateful for, she broke the hamster wheel of religious repetition I had been on for 14 years and asked me to see a clinical counselor instead. She could see that I had reached the end of my knowledge rope, and needed a different approach. I landed in the office of a 30 years sober alcoholic who promptly diagnosed me as an addict and gave me a meeting to go to. Convinced she could not be right, I walked into my first 12 Step meeting in October of 2020 and wept through the entire thing. By January 2021 I was committed, and started trying to work the Steps. In March 2021 I relapsed again and finally worked up the courage to research sexual addiction groups. I took one glance at the SA sobriety definition and knew I needed to be here. I had been trying unsuccessfully to hold that bottom line for 14 years.
When I walked into my first SA meeting on March 31, 2021, I will never forget that the Chair asked if anyone had 24 hours. I did not, having masturbated that very morning. That cold, hard fact, combined with the overwhelming experience of feeling like my brain was coming out of everyone’s mouths and was written on the White Book pages, was like being doused with ice water. Refreshing, stunning, uncomfortable, and such a relief.
I see now that I am utterly powerless over my lust. Any attempt to “fight” my attraction to the images, words, phrases, sights and sounds of my fantasies will land me flat on my back. If I fight, I will lose. I am also increasingly aware of my utter powerlessness over people-pleasing, my savior complex, my desire to be the exception to the rule, my need to control others’ emotions and to be needed. I am learning to surrender.
God has been overwhelmingly gracious to hold me from the cliff edge over the course of my active addiction. It was only and ever His goodness, patience and relentless pursuit that prevented me from plunging headlong past every boundary. It was only a matter of time. In His grace, He has brought me into these rooms and checked my inevitable path down the cliff. I will never be sufficiently grateful.
Catherine H., Ohio, USA