Resolutions

5-realistic-fitness-new-years-resolutions

I long ago stopped making New Year’s resolutions. My resolve never held for long. A good deal of it is attributable to insufficient willpower, but there’s something in the very nature of these resolutions that undermines the intentions behind them. Nearly half of all Americans make New Year’s resolutions. 88% of them go unfulfilled. The director of behavioral health and wellness at Pritikin Longevity Center and Spa, Dr. Coral Arvon, distinguishes between making resolutions and changing habits. Luke Gilkerson from Covenant Eyes provides six insights from behavioral science and the Bible on how to succeed in breaking free from porn in 2017.

1. “Start with small, measurable goals”

Dr. Arvon says, “To successfully achieve these resolutions, understanding that small, short-term goals are the most effective and taking resolutions one step at a time is the best way to succeed.” Jesus said, “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish’” (Lk 14:28-30).

2. “Focus on the rewards”

Dr. Richard Wiseman discovered that a distinguishing characteristic of the 10% of people who kept their New Year’s resolutions was that they were keenly aware of the desired benefits of their new habits. Scripture is replete with promises for those who seek sexual purity (i.e. 1 Thess 4:3; Phil 4:8-9; Gal 5:13; Eph 5:8-9).

3. “Establish built-in reminders”

“Set your smartphone calendar to give you positive messages or reminders about your goals a few times per day,” suggests Dr. Arvon.

4. “Be accountable for your goals”

Dr. Wiseman observed that those who stuck to their resolutions told others about them, creating a support network and providing an incentive not to fail.

5. “Have the right attitude about slips”

“Expect to revert to your old habits from time to time. Treat any failure as a temporary setback rather than a reason to give up altogether,” Dr. Wiseman advises. Dr. Mark Laaser notes that SLIPis an acronym for ‘Short Lapse In Progress.’”

6. “Fight from a new identity”

“False hope syndrome” is psychology professor Peter Herman’s term for expectations that are undermined by the conviction that they are unrealistic or incongruent with one’s makeup. According to Christian counselor Brad Hambrick, we are simultaneously sinners, sufferers, and saints. We know well about sin and suffering. But as saints, we are empowered by the Spirit of the Risen Christ who can do all things. It is in this reality that we locate our identity.

May we strengthen our resolve in this new year to resist the lure of pornography.

(Source: Luke Gilkerson, “Why Your Resolution to Quit Porn Will Fail Miserably (and how to succeed instead)”)

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The Nativity of the Lord

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This, then, was the plight of men. God had not only made them out of nothing, but had also graciously bestowed on them His own life by the grace of the Word. Then, turning from eternal things to things corruptible, by counsel of the devil, they had become the cause of their own corruption in death….

For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are. But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us…. All this He saw and, pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery, rather than that His creatures should perish and the work of His Father for us men come to nought, He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own. Nor did He will merely to become embodied or merely to appear; had that been so, He could have revealed His divine majesty in some other and better way. No, He took our body, and not only so, but He took it directly from a spotless, stainless virgin, without the agency of human father — a pure body, untainted by intercourse with man. He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt. Thus, taking a body like our own, because all bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death in place of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die.

– St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation

Thorn in the Flesh

My addiction has very much been “a thorn in my flesh.” It has caused me a great deal of pain and anguish. I wish that I could be rid of it. My addiction has tormented me in many ways. It has brought me immense shame. It has prompted me to act in ways that contradict my beliefs. It has warped my ability to develop healthy relationships, especially with women. I’ve wasted an obscene amount of time and money on it. It has led me to lie to people I love. It has created a good deal of self-loathing.

“My grace is sufficient for you.” God’s grace, God’s saving help, overcomes all that torments me. It does so not by necessarily removing the “thorn in the flesh” but by enabling me to be transformed, by God’s power, through it. My own strength, as I’ve learned through bitter experience, avails me nothing. I need to learn to trust in God’s promise.

“For when I am weak, then I am strong.” When I am weak, when I acknowledge my powerlessness over my addiction and my inability to manage my life, I can allow “a power greater than ourselves” to heal me. My own strength avails me nothing.

(See 2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

Powerless to Save Ourselves

It is a basic claim of the various twelve step programs for combating addiction that the addict must first admit that he has a problem and that he is powerless to save himself.

What postpones treatment is either denial—I don’t have a problem—or the conviction that one can solve this on his own. I can stop drinking any time I want; I can stop gambling whenever I decide.

Usually, it is only when someone hits bottom, when things just get out of control, that he admits that he is wrestling with something he can’t solve.

Once admitting that he is powerless over the addiction, he turns his life over to a higher power. This move is of great significance. I realize that I have to de-center my ego, re-orient my life, surrender, become passive in the presence of a power greater than I.

Is this difficult? Yes. Which is precisely why so few people can manage it. The Advent term for this re-orientation of the self is “waiting.”

Bishop Robert Barron

Objectification

“Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.”

– Immanuel Kant

I accidentally stumbled across the “Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show” last night. I admit to being captivated for a couple of minutes. I found myself drawn to the bodies of scantily clad supermodels. Given the context, it was easy to objectify them. It took me a while before I realized what I was doing.

Objectification is a part of sex addiction. Women get reduced to an amalgamation of enticing body parts that exist solely for my pleasure. Their innate human dignity is lost in an erotic haze.

The American Psychological Association defines “objectification” in the following way:

A person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics.

I’ve developed a filter that screens out these other characteristics — intelligence, moral character, abilities — and focuses my attention only on her sexual desirability. I’ll cast furtive glances at particular body parts. I’ll fantasize about engaging with her sexually without concern for her personality. Christian belief holds that human beings are “embodied souls” and “ensouled bodies.” We are not reducible to our material makeup, and attempts to do so violate the imago Dei each person bears. Moreover, the objectification of women as expressed culturally, particularly in media, contributes to systematic sexism. Naomi Wolf writes, “To live in a culture in which women are routinely naked where men aren’t is to learn inequality in little ways all day long.”

Kant believed that sexual desire itself was objectifying. The body of another person is sought primarily for sexual satisfaction. “[S]exuality is not an inclination which one human being has for another as such, but is an inclination for the sex of another. . . . [O]nly her sex is the object of his desires.” Kant went so far as to portray the sexual act not only in terms of the objectification of another but also as the objectification of the self. The power of the sexual impulse overrides one’s rational faculties and erodes self-control, distinguishing marks of what it means to be human. “For the natural use that one sex makes of the other’s sexual organs is enjoyment, for which one gives oneself up to the other. In this act a human being makes himself into a thing.” This reduces the participants to the status of mere animals.

I don’t agree with the severity of Kant’s conclusions. As a Christian, I believe sex is a God-given gift which enables a husband and wife to express their mutual love, a love that bears fruit in children. But Kant, I think, captures the essence of a sexuality bereft of these noble ends. It certainly captures the mindset of a sex addict, for whom sex is reduced to a mechanism for the obtainment of selfish pleasure.

Recognizing that I reduce other women to “things” is the beginning of a process of reversing my habit of objectification. A practical application is to institute a “3 second rule” in which one consciously redirects one’s objectifying thoughts. It consists of three steps:

  1. Alert: Realize that I am sexualizing someone else, whether I encounter her in real life or virtually
  2. Avert: Close my eyes or look away
  3. Affirm: Remind myself why I’m performing this action (“I don’t want objectify women any longer”)

Healing the Brain

I’ve really been struggling with cravings to act out recently. The feeling is almost overwhelming, and I’ve admittedly succumbed to it. It turns out there is a neurological explanation for this.

As he explains in his e-book The Porn CircuitSam Black describes the neuroscience behind cravings. Repeatedly engaging in any addictive behavior will release a flood of neurochemicals and carve neural pathways in the brain. “Neuroplasticity” is the term for the brain’s inherent ability to wire and rewire its neurocircuitry. Synapses grow and shrink depending on usage. Dr. Al Cooper described the availability, affordability, and anonymity of Internet porn consumption as a Triple-A engine that fuels compulsive behavior. Frequent porn use accompanied by masturbation and orgasm will release a considerable amount of neurochemicals that provide pleasure and ease anxiety — dopamine, testosterone, norepinephrine, oxytocin, vasopressin, endogenous opiates, and serotonin. This explosive combination makes it easier for neural pathways to develop that lower the threshold for arousal, eroticizing other persons and even inanimate objects (fetishes). The brain is trained to recognize certain triggers. (For instance, if porn is used to self-medicate unpleasant emotions, the onset of such an emotion will trigger a craving for porn.) Desensitization occurs when the amount of dopamine released no longer provides the same “high,” leading the user to seek out more novel and intense stimuli. (For example, one might grow bored with softcore pictures and seek out more hardcore material.) Willpower atrophies because the number of neural cells in the prefrontal lobes, the part of the brain used for impulse control, decline, what neuroscientists call hypofrontality. Black writes:

Compulsiveness is a good descriptor of hypofrontality. Many porn users feel focused on getting to porn and masturbating even when a big part of them is saying, “Don’t do this.” Even when negative consequences seem imminent, impulse control is too weak to battle the cravings.

The good news is that neuroplasticity works both ways. New neural pathways can be built through abstinence and new habits that weaken the pull of addiction. It’s not an easy process since it took years for the addicted brain to develop as it has. Black recommends crafting a plan, which includes the following:

  • A “Eureka!” moment: That moment when you come to the clear realization that something has to change. This might be a crisis in one’s marriage, a recognition of all the damage addiction has inflicted on one’s life, or a desire to be faithful to one’s religious beliefs.
  • “Goal setting”: Dr. Mark Laaser recommends setting a 90-day goal of abstinence and charting one’s progress on a calendar, celebrating milestones (i.e. 3 days, 7 days, 10 days, 30 days, etc.) along the way. A relapse sets the calendar back to day one. The first 14 days are a time to “detox.” The 90 days allow the brain to begin to rewire itself. As Black writes, “Neurons that fire apart wire apart. When a person refuses to act on a compulsion, like porn and masturbation, it weakens the link between the activity and the idea that it will provide relief.”
  • “Clean house”: Remove temptations to act out. This includes installing filters on one’s computers and mobile devices and becoming accountable.
  • “New habits”: New neural pathways are formed through the steady application of new behaviors. Repetition is important. “Neurons that fire together wire together,” Black writes. “Repeating a pleasurable activity instead of the compulsive activity, such as porn use, forms a new circuit that is gradually reinforced instead of the compulsion.” This might include taking up a hobby or exercising. Habits that could potentially be triggering are to be avoided.
  • “Pure thought“: An inspirational quote can be used to battle an inappropriate thought.
  • “Addressing the pain of the past”: Therapy might be needed to work through traumas or psychological issues that prepared the ground for addiction.
  • “Vigilance”: Remain on alert for triggers (persons, places, things) that could lead to acting out. Be proactive by doing what one can to avoid them.
  • “Positive thinking”: Dr. Robert Brooks encouraged patients to focus on personal strengths, areas of competency, instead of wallowing in feelings of inadequacy. Go so far as to write down these strengths.
  • “Becoming something new”: One has an opportunity to become a new person, freed from the chains of addiction. That opportunity is exciting and provides motivation to change. Black writes, “Today is somebody’s new beginning.”

(Sam Black, The Porn Circuit. Covenant Eyes, 2013)

Addiction and Sin

The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as:

a primary, chronic disease of the brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.  Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.

Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.

St. Paul, 2,000 years ahead of his time, encapsulated the pull of addiction:

For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members (Rom 7:22-23).

Paul goes on to say that the good he wants to do he doesn’t do, and the evil he doesn’t want to do he does.

Deep in my heart, I believe I desire to please God, but my body seems to be held captive to “another law.” That the acts I commit are sinful, I am fully convinced of. What exactly is the relationship between sin and addiction? The two certainly are not synonymous, but Dr Mark Laaser writes:

Sin and addiction have some common characteristics. Like an addiction, sin is uncontrollable and unmanageable. In fact, God had to sacrifice his only Son because we could not manage our own lives.

Dr. Laaser continues by saying addicts are delusional in thinking that they can control their behavior, which prevents them from experiencing healing. Addictions are used to avoid strong emotions, a flight mechanism similar to the behavior of Elijah, Jonah, and the disciples in Gethsemene. Addiction destroys lives; sin brings death (Rom 6:23). The shame addicts feel partakes of the primordial shame experienced by Adam and Eve. Addiction is a disease, akin to the progressively destructive effects of original sin we inherit at birth. The devil, Dr. Laaser says, is at work in addiction, making an addict feel irredeemable and hopeless.

So where is my hope? As Dr. Laaser referred to, God sent his Son to save us from lives that are out of control. Like all of us, I can’t save myself from sin or addiction. Furthermore, we are sanctified as well as justified. We are promised that God “will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit who dwells in you…. [B]y the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body” (Rom 8:11, 13).

God is bigger than my addiction. Just as God vanquished sin, God as my higher power can conquer my addiction and restore me to sanity. I just need to prepare a space where God can work.

The Black Curtain: Secrets and Lies

A functioning sex addict, unless he has absolutely no regard for what others think of him, has to live a double life.

Dr. Leslie Beth Wish describes the feeling: “‘Oh my god, I’m doing this in the dark furtively. I have a part of my behavior that is closed. The black curtain has been drawn on how other people see me and how I present myself to others.’”

“The greater your shame, the more you do the thing that gives you shame.”

My secrets and lies are corrosive. I’ve developed a split personality: there’s the one who is kind and respectable in front of family, friends, parishioners, associates; then there’s the one who’s depraved and seemingly lacking in empathy and self-respect. It’s impossible to lead a life of integrity. I’ve had to develop increasingly labyrinthine lies to obscure my behavior. The pressure to keep up pretenses and appearances is exhausting. I’ve been living parallel lives.

“When you’re an escort, you constantly have to lie,” Samantha once complained to me. Yet I suspect that’s exactly what she finds so exciting about her lifestyle. Leading a double life, with all its stresses and contradictions, can be an adrenaline rush. (Or as she once said, “It’s walking a tightrope, but it’s a blast!”) Samantha told me that when she was younger she seriously thought about working for the CIA, so something about leading a double life obviously entices her. I imagine her clients at her “straight job” would be shocked if they discovered that this sweet young lady worked as an escort.

It all comes at a price, at least for me. Disentangling my two lives is messier than I had anticipated. It’s not so easy taking down the black curtain. Outside of my therapist and those in my 12-step fellowship, nobody knows about my sex addiction. The stigma surrounding sexual addiction is such that I’m hesitant to reveal it to anyone, even family and friends. I sometimes think it would be easier to admit to alcoholism or drug addiction than confessing what I really struggle with.

Integrating my personality is part of recovery. To integrate is to make integral, that is, to give it integrity.

Fear and Sadness

Fear and sadness have been present within me since I’ve recommitted to recovery. Life seems dark and dreary. A heaviness hangs over everything. To be blunt, I feel like shit. I acted out as an anesthetic, numbing anxiety and depression. Without my “drug,” I’m more aware of what is wrong in my life and the emotions that evokes. The temptation to go back is very real, but I know that so many of my problems are attributable to my addiction. The sadness comes in large part from my guilt and the shame I’m working through. I’m overwhelmed by regret. The harm I’ve caused is considerable, and it’s hard to bear of the burden of acknowledging that. The fear comes from uncertainty. My life is in flux right now, and I don’t know how things will turn out. Entrusting my future to God has been harder than I anticipated.

A nun several years ago advised me to approach everything in a spirit of gentleness. That includes myself. Balancing the assumption of responsibility for my actions with self-compassion is tricky. I don’t want to minimize my guilt, but the weight of iniquity is crushing when I’m not gentle with myself. The route of the journey seems so long. Taking it “one day at a time” has metamorphosized from a nifty slogan to a survival mechanism.

I’m struggling with the urge to act out just to escape it all. But another part of me feels sick at the thought of doing so. Literally. I feel nauseous when I think about porn. I assume that’s a good thing.

I’m praying just to get through this day.