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That was then, this is now

One year ago today I sent an email to my counsellor. It took me two hours to write it, and as soon as I hit ‘send’ I regretted it because I knew I’d just taken a step I could never take back. The email started like this:

“This is an email I don’t want to write and don’t want you to read. I’m writing it anyway, and asking you to read it.”

I went on to talk about several years of pornography use. I talked about why I decided to tell her about it, finally, after nearly three years of counselling. To be honest I didn’t actually provide much information. And that’s okay. It wasn’t about going into detail; it was about taking the step to tell someone. Part of the power of pornography lies in secrecy and shame, and those things still had a hold on me even though it had been many years since I’d deliberately accessed porn. I still felt the shame, and secrecy was still a heavy, ever-present burden.

Reading back over that email now, what I read most in it is fear. I was afraid that disclosing this terrible secret would make my counsellor view me differently. I wasn’t afraid she would hate me – I’m fairly certain she likes me as a human being anyway, but even if she doesn’t I know she’s professional enough to hide it – but I was very afraid this would change how she sees me and what she thinks about me. Of course the same was true for anyone else I told in those early days, but a year ago it was just my counsellor. And I had five days in between my email and my next session for those fears to get bigger and more overwhelming.

  • I was afraid she would think I’m disgusting and repulsive.
  • I was afraid she would think I’m stupid.
  • I was afraid she would think I’m a failure as a Christian.
  • I was afraid she would think I’m weak.
  • I was afraid she would think I’m pathetic.

They’re interesting, these fears. It seems to me that they’re mostly built around perception. I want to be seen as strong, intelligent, faithful and in control. I want to be seen as someone who doesn’t need to succumb to addictive behaviours – or if I do, I want them to be the ‘nice’ addictive behaviours like having a few too many glasses of classy, expensive wine. I want to be seen as a smart, savvy feminist in control of my choices. In short, I want to be seen as normal, because that’s what ‘normal’ looks like in the world I inhabit.

For the record, my fears were baseless. My counsellor replied to my email as soon as she read it, saying it doesn’t change what she thinks of me or how she views me or who I am as a person. And when I finally had a counselling session, five days later, the first words out of her mouth, even before ‘hello, how are you?’ were a very emphatic “This doesn’t change anything.” (Naturally I didn’t believe that at the time. I do now.)

I wonder if I would have had those fears had I been a man. I’m not saying that men don’t have insecurities, nor that they are all strong, together and in control. Of course not – human is human. But with porn addiction, I doubt that most men view it the way women do. For men it’s almost a rite of passage. Yes, many men acknowledge that porn is unhelpful and that compulsive porn use can be devastating, but it’s still not particularly shocking to discover that men use porn. And so when men are coming clean to counsellors or wives or friends about their struggles with porn use I suspect that their sense of shame is not so tied up with their identity as men. But for me, my shame and my fear were so tied up with my identity as a woman that I couldn’t see a difference between them. It came back to all the same old things – women don’t use porn, feminists would certainly never use porn, women don’t struggle with sexual addictions, women would never be involved in anything that exploits other women, women don’t get addicted to ugly, distasteful things like porn. Women are in control. Women are smart. Women are nice. Women are not like men, and so they don’t do the things that men do.

Those beliefs are awful. They don’t do any favours to women or to men. They’re sexist and limiting… but more than that, they are the kinds of beliefs that are keeping women trapped in a cage of fear, shame and secrecy, thinking that there’s no one in the world like them. We desperately need to change the way we think about this. Yes, porn use is often different for men and women. There are different motivators, different feelings and sometimes a different type of fallout afterwards, and we must acknowledge that. But that doesn’t mean we should reduce it to: “Men are animals. They use porn because they can’t help themselves. Women are nice. They are too nice to use porn.” That is nonsense, and it’s dangerous. We are all people. We all have hurts and struggles, and for some of us that leads to unwise and painful behaviours. Our willingness to share our vulnerabilities and seek help shouldn’t depend on whether we are male or female.

I’m one year on from that awful, painful, humiliating email and I’m finally able to read it without cringing. Now I read it with sadness, because I can see the underlying beliefs that motivated my fear and shame. I still hate my history of porn use. I still feel shame. If I’m honest, there are still many times when I think it proves what a horrible person I really am. But those times are not as frequent as they once were and they’re part of my overall healing journey, not just related to porn. I found comfort in porn because I was hurting. That doesn’t make me a failed woman; it makes me a frail and vulnerable human. Just like everyone else.

 

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Speaking out

I’ve been pondering the idea of disclosure about porn addiction. When is it appropriate? When is it helpful? When is it necessary?

I read many blogs and forums that focus on porn addiction and other forms of sexual brokenness. Many of them claim that full disclosure, as soon as possible, is vital to healing. I can certainly see the benefits to this approach. The secrecy of porn is part of its attraction and part of its trap. If everyone knows about it then you can no longer believe the lie that “one time won’t hurt… no one will know” – because there’s a good chance someone WILL know. In fact there’s a very good chance someone will ask about it, and unless you’re really good at a blatant lie your face will give you away. Don’t kid yourself about this; you will give yourself away. Being open about porn gives you accountability that you may not appreciate at the time, but will be thankful for later.

Disclosing your struggle with porn also gives you freedom to ask for help and to be honest about how you’re going. It means those who care about you will probably be more sensitive to things that might be a trigger and hopefully they’ll think twice before suggesting an outing to an R-rated film, for example. There are many advantages to full disclosure, and yet it’s not something I have chosen. I still have too many reservations and concerns about disclosure and I’m not sure I’ll ever go fully public with my story. Here are some of my reasons:

1. Identity
I’ve written about this before, and it’s still a concern for me. I see a lot of blogs and websites where people label themselves as sex addicts or porn addicts. The biggest problem with this for me is that “addict” becomes the person’s sole identity, not a part. Identity and behaviour are not the same thing, and separating my behaviour from my identity has been an important part of my healing. I spent years believing that my porn use proved I was disgusting and perverted, and until I was able to put ‘me’ and ‘my choices and behaviour’ in separate boxes I couldn’t get past that belief. Making that mental separation was key and enabled me to move forward in healing, to understand why porn worked as pain relief, and to forgive myself. If I’d gone public straight away with my struggle I would be forever identified as a porn addict. There’s no taking it back once you’ve said it. And in those early days of healing, I would have believed it. Now I’m much further down the road and I know my identity is not “addict”. I am a hurt and broken person who made terrible and unwise choices from a place of pain, and those choices became an addiction. I will always have the scars of porn addiction and it will always have to be a factor in some everyday things but even so, porn use is something I did. It’s not who I am, and I don’t want it to be who I am publicly.

2. Safety
My counsellor was the first person I turned to for help when starting to deal with my porn addiction. Disclosing the truth to her, even without going into any real detail about it, was a huge risk. Despite the three years of trust I’d built in our counselling relationship I still had no idea how she would react. Thankfully her response was compassionate and reassuring, and that alone was the beginning of my healing. In fact her response was vital, because if I’d had any hint from her of revulsion or condemnation I would have refused to talk about it ever again and my healing would have stopped before it began. I needed to know that she understood and I needed my disclosure to be safe. If I tell everyone about my history with porn I can’t predict the outcome and it becomes very unsafe. I have no way of controlling what people think, what they will say and how they will treat me. And when I feel unsafe, my instinct is to turn to behaviours that make me feel better… like porn. I can’t put myself at risk like that. Honesty is important, but my healing must come first.

3. It’s not just my story
Although my porn use happened solo and no one else ever participated, it’s not just about me. There is trauma in my past that is directly related to other people, and the pain of the trauma is part of what led me to porn. When I talk with people about my porn history they almost always ask what led me there. Most people understand that porn addiction is not just about sexual gratification, and it usually goes far deeper and further back than the time spent on porn. This is true for me too. My story is not about four years of porn use; it is about decades of pain, grief and denial that led to a number of self destructive behaviours, of which porn was just one. I can’t talk about porn as though it happened in isolation because that’s not how it works. There is a story, and if I went public with my porn use, the rest of my story would come out too. But there are people intimately involved in the chapters of my story, and I do not have their permission to share their part in it.

There are times when I wish everyone knew about my history with porn. It feels like it would be easier, even a relief. But in truth, I think it would do me more harm than good. Limited disclosure is controversial, but it’s right for me. Staying silent, and disclosing only to those I trust, keeps me safe. It helps me protect my heart. It helps me heal.

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