I'm secretly addicted to porn

My girlfriend thinks I just play computer games a lot!

Published June 13, 2008 10:12AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My girlfriend of three years is pretty patient. When I am not busy with work, school and sports, she gives me plenty of room and time to play computer games. "At least, you are not addicted to porn," she said, jokingly.

That comment almost made me throw up on the spot because little does she know, I have been buying nudie magazines (mostly Playboy) since I was a teenager and I still remember my first time pleasuring myself to some centerfold. I ended up putting together quite a collection over the years -- this "hobby" even continued at college, when I should have been having actual sex far more frequently than I did -- and you can only imagine what happened to my habit with the arrival of the Internet. I sometimes joke that I have been "porn" again. I have tried to "quit" by dumping my collection, only to start it all over again, and I now subscribe to several porn sites, despite some financial difficulties. Why? Sometimes, I use porn to get rid of stress and loneliness. Before my current relationship, I would go for a long big run, then pleasure myself. Sometimes, I truly believe that an imagined sexual relation with a hot, beautiful model is far better than the real thing, and I have rebuffed women because they did not meet my visual standards. I truly believed and hoped all this would change through my current relationship, but it did not. I started using porn again shortly after the "honeymoon" phase of our relationship had ended and I actually dread having real sex because in my mind my partner cannot compete against what is online.

Sometimes, I will get up early to surf porn, then greet her with a cheery sentiment. I know what I am doing is wrong, dishonest and shameful. It is killing me. But I just do not have the heart to share this secret with her. We are both in our mid- to early 30s, own a house and are going back to school for graduate work. (I am doing a Ph.D., she is going for her M.A.) We have also talked about marriage -- she is openly wondering when I will ask her -- and having children. Sometimes, I wish she would catch me, but she is such a good person, it would break her heart. Am I just living a lie here? Should I tell her? Should I seek some outside help without telling her? Please help me.

Guilty as Suspected

Dear Guilty as Suspected,

The tricky thing about talking about porn is that it is so intimately tied up (no pun intended) with issues of feminism and free speech. I would like to put those issues aside, if I could, and talk about the phenomenology of it, and about the phenomena of anxiety and addiction and the keeping of secrets, to talk about this as a way of managing psychic phenomena, of managing anxiety, of self-medicating, in the same way that one self-medicates in a variety of other ways. In putting aside for the moment the issues of free speech and feminism, I do not mean to say that I believe that these issues are not important. I put them aside in order to talk with you about your particular problem, and ask what is causing you to suffer? I think what is causing you to suffer is your dishonesty, your lack of power over your impulses, your feeling that you are compelled to engage in these activities and your secretiveness. Now, those things are very familiar to an alcoholic such as myself. I drank compulsively and in secret, and I felt shame about the amount of alcohol I was consuming, and about the effect it had on my relationships and on the rest of my life. I snorted speed in bathroom stalls. I drank alone in darkened rooms in the middle of the day. The manner in which this compulsion would arrive was terrifying and heartbreaking. It would arrive seemingly out of nowhere.

It did not arrive out of nowhere. It only seemed to.

It arrived, in fact, out of somewhere. It arrived out of certain fleeting moments of barely conscious anxiety. It arose out of buried feelings that I rejected before I even knew I was rejecting them. The feelings were so deeply buried I could not even know them as feelings. I could only know them as the compulsion to drink. By the time I became conscious of the urge to drink the translation had occurred -- the way a computer system will do a redirect, or create an alias so quickly that we are never aware of the coded transactions that precede the appearance of the alias. The manifestations of our compulsions are the visible and knowable forms of an earlier coded transaction.

In this way, our compulsions take the form of metaphors, and those metaphors take on social meaning that we concentrate in futility, applying value to them in one way or another. By the time our compulsion has led us to its metaphor, we are already unaware of what has just happened. The code has run. We have to somehow slow down the code so we can see it. So we turn to the various technologies of human consciousness, of meditation and psychotherapy and 12-step work, of religion and so forth. All these technologies involve learning new adaptations to stress, discomfort, addiction and the like; and they involve interpreting metaphors and code, moving backward into the mechanism that preceded our awareness, stripping the metaphors of their presumed meaning, seeing how the code does its work.

In that way, the process of therapy can be seen as a literary endeavor. Or it can be seen as the learning of a new language. Or it can be seen as a process of deconstruction, of stripping down the language we are using to see what precedes it.

So let's be idiots for a moment and lump it all together -- cocaine, tits and ass, belts, whips, chains, methamphetamine, Courvoisier, ice cream, lace curtains, lace panties, push-up bras and popsicles, Chivas Regal sitting on a shelf behind a shiny bartender's head, the creamy foam on a pint of Guinness, the tang of a gin and tonic, the deeply satisfying blur of a quick second cocktail, the heat of a woman's hips, a glimpse of cleavage, the smell of fresh bud -- let's lump them all together as things to which we turn as we turn away from anxiety. We turn to them as we turn away from pain. We turn to them as we turn away from what we are feeling and facing and knowing.

The attraction of these things is real. But you are not turning to these pictures because of their attractiveness. You are turning to them because of the repulsiveness of what precedes them -- the anxiety, the loneliness, the sadness at feeling that your life is slipping away, the feelings of failure and insecurity and not being good enough.

That is such a downer! But the value of the thing you are compelled to engage in is not the point. The point is what you are running from. It is the thing we are running from that matters. If you can gaze calmly upon the thing you are running from, you can make some headway.

And what might you be running from? Well, take your pick. For starters, how about just the unbearable anxiety of existence? And many people would say, well, life is shit so why not jerk off to porn all day? Yes, why not? Because you feel bad about it, that's why. And why do you feel bad about it? Because you are being dishonest about it, but more important, because saying that life is shit so why not jerk off all day is not the true journey. The true journey involves the phenomenon that precedes the porn -- the existential loneliness and despair. Encountering our bare, unadorned condition of divine mortality -- that is the true journey.

All you have to do to go on that journey is sit and breathe. All you have to do is begin encountering the moments that precede the turning to porn. What is in those moments?

And of course you can't really do that by yourself. It is too painful. It is too tempting to go directly from the phenomenon of anxiety to the pictures. So that is why you need the outside help -- to encounter this phenomenon in the presence of someone strong and trustworthy with whom you can encounter the existential nightmare that is our anxious present. (And that is where also enters the practice of confession, or talking honestly with someone. And, as one is advised in 12-step work not to hurt anyone in the process of confession, that is why you do not want to first talk to your girlfriend. That would hurt her. You need to take this journey on your own. Later when you have made some progress, you may find you want to heal parts of the relationship that have suffered.)

As you sit there, trying to feel what you feel, what you encounter is both nightmarish and not nightmarish. It is on the one hand true that we live with the nightmare of the Holocaust and Stalin's murders and Bush's dark slapstick and the knowledge that we humans are like a planet-killing virus and the death of God and America's appalling civic ugliness; these are indeed our current nightmares and we live with them. And yet they are in a sense truly nightmares -- that is, bad dreams from which we will awake to our divine mortality. These nightmarish phenomena of contemporary life are not excuses for our anxiety, or causes of our anxiety; they are only the screens onto which we project our anxiety, and the puppets with which we act it out. Our true anxiety is more fundamental. It is our mortal condition. It is our alienation from the calm, all-knowing fire we have within us.

Because here is the thing. I did acid at age 16. So now you know. I don't recommend it. It left me crippled in certain ways. But I saw the whole damn thing in a flash. I knew then how it's all connected and buzzing. That never left me. I am in no doubt about the fundamentals: This thing we are living in is indeed an engine of massively complex figurations and energy, and we are indeed simply flashes, moments, and we are indeed hooked up to the big machine. There's no doubt of this in my mind: I have glimpsed this. I have glimpsed this thing that yogis glimpse and Huxley glimpsed. Did it fix me? No. Glimpsing it didn't fix me. I still went on to feel the full complement of human anxiety and pride and secretiveness and addiction and compulsion. But when I was ready, I had this reservoir of early mystical experience to fall back on. I knew that if I could work backward from the manifestations of my anxiety, backward from my many compulsions, backward from booze and speed and cruelty and ego and cocaine and power and secretiveness, backward from pride, if I could sit on the knife edge of the moment and not move forward into more distractions but stay with the phenomenon, if I could sit in that raging fire long enough just breathing and letting the chaos wash over me, if I could stay in the buzzing of hornets and the disintegration of the ego, if I could just sit there long enough, I could get to know all my fears and I could stop reaching for relief and distraction. I could just sit with it.

Over many years things have gotten gradually better and I have become less compulsive and broader in my ability to feel the phenomena of consciousness. My hope for you is that you come to regard pornography as I regard alcohol. I can sit and regard a bottle of wine. It has no power over me. This at one point was unimaginable. Of course, already, now that we are talking about wine and pornography, we risk being sidetracked; the minute we talk about the objects of our compulsions rather the nature of compulsion itself, we are sidetracked. Wine is good. Sex is good. Female beauty is good. That is not the point. These things, for some of us, have unimaginable, terrifying power. They are not harmless indulgences. They have the power to destroy us.

So my hope for you is that you can undertake a journey into the phenomenology of your cravings, with the help of 12-step programs and/or a knowledgeable therapist. My hope is that you can move backward into the phenomena of your compulsions and make friends with your fears. My hope for all of us is that we can one day emerge from all our dark obsessions, astounded that we had once been so powerless over these things, and see them for what they are -- a bottle of wine, a picture of a beautiful woman, a lit cigarette, a whip, a chain, a shoe, a pill, a glass of beer, a hypodermic needle, a dollar bill. My hope is that we can one day regard all these things as simply what they are.

Obsessed? Addicted? Compulsive? Try this!

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