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Jay is a married father of four, in his early fifties, and he works as a sales manager for a medical device manufacturing company. Pornography was an addiction that had haunted him for most of his life. Over the final five years of his involvement in porn, his acting out behavior deteriorated into involvement with prostitutes. He was arrested two years ago in a sting operation. He agreed to complete therapy as a condition of his probation.
Now, two years later, Jay had a ready answer to my question about how therapy had helped: "I got rid of all that baggage. The root causes of my low self-esteem. It was in therapy that I finally worked through the way I'd been treated by my dad."
I remembered all those hours Jay spent processing experiences from his childhood. His dad was a rigidly moralistic man who held extremely high standards for everyone else, especially his children. He would lecture Jay endlessly whenever he thought he'd stepped out of line. "That music is of the devil," "You're not raking those leaves right," "The Sabbath is not for your enjoyment," "You're not holding that golf club right," "You're letting your schoolwork slide."
Ironically, this same man allowed himself all kinds of leeway. He call in sick from work whenever he felt like he deserved a break. He blatantly ogled the bodies of Jay's step-sister's friends. The ugliest part of family life was how dismissive and disrespectful he was of Jay's mother. Everyone dreaded family dinners, where his misogyny was on full display. "Dear, please tell us you got more done around here today than what we can see." "Someone get me a jackhammer, I'll need it to cut through this roast!" She'd often end up in tears, but remained in her chair rather than risking more derision for leaving the table.
Once he was living on his own, Jay had moved two states away from his dad, in part to diminish the ugly influence of the man. It was in therapy that Jay discovered just how much his father's criticisms were still eroding his sense of self worth. "My dad was no longer there, but I was equally hard on myself. His voice stayed alive inside of me and never let up." At a young age Jay discovered that he could use sex to escape all that negativity. "It was a coping mechanism I kept using into adulthood. If I was fantasizing or planning or seeking or gratifying myself, I didn't have to think. And thinking was the sucking whirlpool for me, because it always seemed to go negative. Instead of staying stuck in that, I'd just go into this other world where there was only pleasure."
Looking back Jay could see why porn and sex were his drugs of choice. "The sweet spot they hit was just what I seemed to need. With pornography, you're accepted. The feelings are the opposite of what you were just experiencing. There's the fantasy that you are the one this attractive person wants to be with. With the prostitutes, I was trying to feel that same thing in person. Of course you know that none of it is real, but the feeling makes it seem real. There's the part of you that knows you'll be dealing with the negative effects later: the guilt and shame, more blows to your sense of value as a person. But at the time you just need the fix, the escape."
So how did therapy help Jay give that up? "In therapy I finally got answers to questions like 'Why was my relationship with Dad so traumatic for me?' 'Why was he like that?' Those old traumas were still alive inside of me. I talked about it in individual therapy and with the other men in group. They were all supportive. It meant a lot to have other people acknowledge that it really was as painful as I remembered it being. It was forty years after the fact, but they stood with me as witnesses of what I'd gone through.
"I also started to see that I was repeating in my marriage some of those unhealthy patterns I learned growing up. Just as I tried to stay at the opposite end of the house from my dad because I didn't want to be criticized, I also walked on eggshells with Elise, hoping to avoid her displeasure. I put my best foot forward--emptying the dishwasher and doing the laundry--while at the same time hiding from her all of my ups and downs, any weaknesses, and especially my sexual acting out.
"Well, of course, this pile of raunchy stuff that I thought I had to hide from her kept growing and growing. I felt worse and worse about myself all the time. I became more and more convinced that if she really knew me, she would see me as this disgusting creature I thought I was. I had no doubt that she would leave me if she discovered what I was doing. And I knew that I was already going to @#!*% . That was a given. So the best I could hope for was just to keep pretending I was a decent person, keep living the lie. Then at least she and my kids wouldn't have to suffer for my failings.
"I got pretty good at faking. And I had convinced myself on some level that I was handling it as best I could. I wanted out, sure, but since there wasn't an apparent way out, you just persevere best you can. You find a way to live in @#!*% and yet keep getting up every day and going through the motions."
Jay shook his head in dismay as he thought back on the torture of living a double life for so long. But then his face seemed to lighten. "Going back, remembering what it was like to be a kid, I could more easily see that I wasn't a bad kid. I didn't fail. In fact, I was a good kid. I did a lot right. I had a kind heart. All of that crap I dealt with was my dad's struggle. Sometimes adults handle things wrong, and he was dead wrong in the way he raised me, in the way he lived, in the way he treated women. I accepted that I couldn't have made it any different or better. The longings I'd had to connect with him and to please him, they were normal. But I had to give up the fantasy that we could have had this great relationship. No. It takes two people who are willing and able to have that.
"I came to terms with the fact that I was never good enough to please him and I never could have been. If I'd have become a seminary teacher like him or made millions on the PGA, there still would've been something he needed to correct me about. I finally accepted that as inevitable. It's just part of who he is. That enabled me to get off the little gerbil wheel of thinking I needed to please him. I don't have to dread displeasing him, I can just accept it as a part of my life that stinks, but it's beyond my control.
"I still have negative experiences. They're a part of life. But I don't get caught up in the negativity anymore. It's not worth hanging onto. I'm in the driver's seat and I let go of trying to control people's impressions of me. The hard experiences don't have to linger and affect every other situation in my life."
As I listened to Jay, I thought back on all of the therapy sessions focused on acceptance, surrendering control, and accepting life on it's own terms. I could see the look of serenity in his face that is a hallmark of solid, long term recovery. Jay felt the difference, too. "There had been times before when I've abstained from acting out sometimes for a year or two, but I hadn't really healed.
"Now," he said with a smile, "I'm not just two years since my last relapse, I'm two years stronger."