Sweaty and thirsty from my newspaper route, I propped my bike against the front of the building and went inside. The neighborhood grocery was air-conditioned, making it one of the only cool places in town. I selected a grape soda from the pop machine and a Baby Ruth from the candy counter, then started wandering the aisles. I was in no hurry to go home.
Delivering papers had become my daily escape, my excuse to leave the house for a few hours every afternoon. The atmosphere at home had changed dramatically after Mom died. She had been my closest confidante and biggest fan. I missed her every day, but there were no photos of her in the house anymore, and I was finding it hard to remember her face. My siblings and I were not allowed to talk about her. We were Christians, so we were not allowed to grieve. We were certainly not allowed to ask about her sudden disappearance, her undisclosed illness, or the mysterious manner of her death.
Dad decided to remarry. The engagement announcement seemed like good news at the time, but things didn’t feel the same at home. For now at least I could escape the tension and dawdle in the dimness of the store, spending as much time as I could out of the house.That’s when I saw her for the very first time, the voluptuous, half-naked woman winking at me from the magazine rack. I stopped, transfixed, as an unfamiliar sensation coursed through my body and brain. The only boys’ magazine I had ever seen was the Boy Scouts’ monthly publication, Boys’ Life, but this was a boys’ magazine of an entirely different kind: Playboy. I didn’t dare touch the magazine—something told me that to do so would be wrong—but I could not tear myself away from the woman on the cover.
I was eleven years old, and this exposure to pornography took me completely by surprise. Nobody had warned me that pornography even existed. I didn’t know that every boy eventually sees porn or that every boy instinctively likes porn because it depicts something we are wired by God to want. I had no clue that my personal vulnerability to porn was being amplified by the ungrieved loss of maternal connection and my attendant yearning for comfort. I knew, somehow, that what I was seeing was wrong, but I didn’t know why it was wrong. I just felt guilty for having seen her and ashamed of having liked her. At the dinner table that night, I acted like nothing had happened. But after dinner I slipped out of the house and ran back to the store for one more look.
I maintained a stash of soft-core porn throughout my teenage years. This behavior, of course, was not unusual. Even before the advent of the internet, it was common for adolescent boys to collect porn. What made my collecting especially fateful was that it was always completely secret. I was tortured by guilt and made countless private resolutions to stop, even purging my collection several times, but I never dared tell anyone about my growing fascination with porn. I never even hinted to anyone that I was tempted by porn because to do so would have ruined my reputation as a Christian and killed my chances for a career in ministry.
I did eventually fall in love with a real live woman who admired my carefully crafted public persona and agreed to marry me. The early days of our marriage were idyllic, but by the time I enrolled in seminary, the honeymoon was over, a child was on the way, my loneliness had returned, and my porn habit had resurfaced. Then it got worse.
My new low came on a trip to New York City, an outing organized by the seminary. The purpose of the trip was to show us how women are exploited by the sex business. This seemed like an excellent educational opportunity to me. Surely a peek behind the curtain would shatter my illusions about pornography and break its spell. I invited my wife to join me on the trip, and when the tour guide ushered us together into a sticky peep-show booth in Times Square, she was the one who put the quarter in. The lights went out, a projector clattered to life in the darkness, flickering figures appeared on the screen, and my world changed.
I did not understand at the time that this grainy movie was far more potent than the still images in the glossy magazines I had been consuming. Movies, after all, are immersive. They are powerful and convincing simulators of human experience, capable of deceiving that primitive part of our brains that cannot distinguish between actual events and virtual ones. My wife was disgusted by this brief exposure to hard-core porn. I mimicked her reaction, careful to conceal my true level of interest, but a few days later, drawn by a longing I could neither explain nor resist, I found myself sneaking away from home and school in search of a source for this new drug.
In the years that followed, I was very, very careful in my pursuit and use of pornography and was never caught. Still, my marriage and family suffered in ways I did not recognize. As my preoccupation with pornography grew, I drifted away from my wife emotionally and missed priceless opportunities for closeness with my kids. I spent hours every day in a dissociated state, disconnected from others and myself, either drowning in despair over my last fix or maneuvering desperately toward the next one. Then it got worse.
I had never imagined that I would be physically unfaithful to my wife. I love my wife. Also, I had become a pastor, and pastors do not commit adultery. My porn use was dangerous, yes, but I now regarded porn as a defense against infidelity. Then, while driving to a candlelight service one Christmas Eve, I pulled over to offer a ride to a woman who was walking in the rain. I had no idea what she was doing until she was in the car and propositioning me. My response was automatic, as though I had been rehearsing it for years. I reached for my wallet.
This first experience with a prostitute was awful but intense, its riskiness triggering a surge of adrenaline. Later that night, awash in regret, I promised God and myself that I would never do that again. I did not pick up another prostitute right away, but eventually I did. And then I did it again, and again, and again.
The months and years that followed were hellish. I despised my own hypocrisy and was terrified of being seen, but despite countless private confessions to God and at least a thousand vows to stop, I could never quit for more than a few days. Finally, when I could no longer cope with the constant anxiety created by my double life, I quit the ministry and went into business, where I had the great misfortune to succeed. Success brought more money than I had ever made in the ministry, with even less accountability, making it possible for my activity to intensify.
My best estimate is that I spent three hundred thousand dollars on pornography and prostitutes during my years of active addiction. More than the money, however, I regret that I spent my children’s childhood, along with decades of my wife’s life and my own, trading my birthright, day after day, for a bowl of beans.
The nightmare finally ended when, after catching me downloading porn on the internet and finding a condom I could not explain, my wife sat me down on the edge of our bed and simply said, “I’m done.” When I tried to explain and apologize, she stopped me. “I still love you,” she said, “but I don’t like you. I don’t trust you, I don’t respect you, and I don’t believe you can ever change.”
I’m told that four out of every five men who seek help for sexually compulsive behavior do so only after receiving an ultimatum from a wife or a girlfriend. I’m one of the four. My wife gave me the gift of desperation. It was only in a last-ditch effort to salvage my only real friendship that I finally became willing to do the unthinkable and reach out for help.
Today, thanks to my addiction, I have been invited out of soul-killing isolation and into honest, life-giving relationships with other perfectly imperfect human beings. After years of dissociated living, I have been taught to cultivate an inner awareness, an attentiveness to my own ongoing experience in the world around me. I have also been allowed to grieve and have found that the very emotions I was denied when I was young are channels to healing and growth.