Using porn after 580 days sober

As a coach, I’ve worked with hundreds of people recovering from porn addiction and porn-induced problems, and I’ve heard from quite a few people who used porn again after a year or more pornfree, either as a conscious choice or because of complacency. Spoiler: that’s usually a big mistake. I’m featuring a recent letter from a subscriber who exemplifies this pattern, so that you can learn from his experiences.

The full text of Anon’s letter is below in italics. My comments are in bold.

Hi Noah,

I have a question about telling my mother, but I will tell you some background first.

I began my journey in 2016. After 4 years and 9 failed attempts I managed to abstain long enough to really heal myself and rewire, restoring my sexuality to a ”normal” state for me.

Congratulations! It took you years to become pornfree and heal, but you didn’t give up. You didn’t believe that you were hopeless. You kept going and you healed.

I developed some good habits and managed to keep them going for a while (exercise, cooking, having a daily planner).

If you’re addicted and struggling with sobriety, this sort of thing is essential. We need structure and healthy endeavors to keep us grounded, focused, and fulfilled. If we allow ourselves just to wander aimlessly through life, our inner addict is going to steer us right back where we came from.

But then, a few months ago I decided that I wanted to push myself harder and start having tougher workouts and be even more healthy and disciplined with myself. But I pushed myself a bit too hard and sadly It had the opposite effect. I became more lazy and lost all my good habits. I didn’t watch porn. But I didn’t have the same motivation for improving my life as before and I became a bit depressed.

Burnout is definitely a danger. I like to hold to the principle of “doing my best” every day. If I put my head down on my pillow at night knowing that I’ve done my best, I’m happy. This “best” is holistic and sustainable. It doesn’t mean sacrificing sleep, exercise, relationships, or self-care in order to accomplish more in the short term. It does mean living in accord with my values and striving to grow and accomplish while still having fun and being kind to myself.

When the corona virus came it didn’t help the situation. I was depressed. Staying at home all day, worrying about the future. Trying to keep contact with friend via the internet.

Be sure to read/watch my recent piece on how to stay the course in quarantine.

I began to masturbate more often to relax (escape) in the recommended way with lube. It became tempting to try porn again. It was more thought-based than an urge.

Pornfree masturbation can be a healthy part of your life post-recovery, but you have to watch for red flags and make sure it doesn’t get out of control. Two things to watch out for are:

  • Masturbating as a way to escape difficult emotions instead of just because you’re horny.
  • Escalating porn-like fantasies and increased urges for porn.

Read/watch my piece on pornfree masturbation to learn more about how to do so healthfully.

But the urge was there and I kept thinking about it for a week; I felt that maybe porn could ease my troubles a bit.

I knew that I could keep abstaining if I wanted to but I was a bit tired of the nofap community and I didn’t have the motivation right then and somehow it didn’t feel like a big deal. So at day 580 I masturbated to pornography again.

Sounds like a lot of bullshit.

Don’t worry, I’m not insulting you. All of us are vulnerable to our own bullshit. The inner addict will toss up any lie or excuse they can in order to get us to use. Often, relapse is a helpful part of recovery because it can teach us to recognize these rationalizations for what they are.

Journal exercise: Write down every lie or rationalization that you have told yourself in the past in order to convince yourself to use porn. Leave a few blank lines between each one, then go back and write the corresponding truth in each of these blanks. The next time you try to feed yourself BS, it will be easier to recognize.

It did not feel like a big rush of dopamine but it didn’t feel completely foreign to me either. It felt sort of casual. I allowed myself to do it four times in a row so it did something for me.

But I realized that I had changed a lot. My brain had learned what sex really was and was a bit disappointed. I found myself thinking about the actors and what kind of people they where and how they felt and I found myself trying to imagine myself being there and feeling the sensations instead of just watching. It felt weird that they were strangers and even though I could get off on it I felt it was sort of pointless compared to real sex with someone I would care about.

Also It became very clear to me that the women in the videos where being treated like objects. It was more clear now to me than ever before. And that didn’t feel good.

These sorts of realizations are one benefit that can come from looking at porn again after a long time sober–this time with a more objective and unclouded eye. Since you’ve already done it, be sure to remember these lessons so this isn’t a waste.

Still, two days later I had another urge and I allowed myself to PMO again, I did it twice in a row. After this though, I was very annoyed with myself and I felt I was going against my principles.

I decided that I really didn’t want to go back down that path again so I shut of the computer and I haven’t watched porn or felt an urge since.

At that moment I felt truly free from my addiction. And I have a strong sense that I’m never going to go back to porn. Somehow this gave me some of my motivation back. And slowly I can feel myself getting better and being more motivated to improve my life.

For the readers, don’t rejoice just yet.

So I told my mother about my porn-addiction today. But she really didn’t understand at all. That made it very hard for me to talk to her about it. She didn’t think it was a big deal and said things like ”it is normal”, ”everyone does it”. I tried to talk about escalation and desensitization but I think It went completely over her head. She ended up being more annoyed and confused than understanding. It was hard for me to express myself as well. I don’t think she realizes that it’s possible to be addicted to pornography.

I sent her the Gary Wilson TED-talk. But I’m afraid it is too long and too technical. I have been searching for a short video explaining all this in a simple way that she can understand, (also without the superpower angle). Explaining for a mother completely oblivious about porn and how porn is different now from then and what the negative effects are and that you can be addicted to it, and that it would help the addict if the parent is supportive. All told in an easy to understand, calm way. Maybe you would like to do a video like that? Or do you have any tips or a video to text recommend?

In order to have the best conversation possible, I recommend watching any videos on this topic together with your loved one so that you can talk them over immediately and ensure understanding, then maybe leave them with a few more resources they can look over in their own time if they seem receptive.

Here’s a short, easily digestible one that may be good to start with:

After another week, I received an update from Anon.

I would like to say that I now think it was a mistake to try PMO again. I haven’t lost all my progress but PMO suddenly has become an option again and I get more urges now. I PMOed some more times since I wrote to you. That new feeling of motivation that I mentioned was only temporary. All this has left me feeling worse. So I really don’t recommend doing what I did. It feels like I’m walking on thin ice but I think that I can overcome it and get back on track. It’s just a bit harder for me at the moment.

This is what usually happens. When that door to porn is firmly shut, you can rest easy and just focus on living your life, largely unbothered by urges to use. But once you peek past that door even once, the addict sticks his foot against the doorjamb, making it very difficult to get it shut and locked again.

Addiction is lifelong. I don’t say that to deflate anyone’s optimism for recovery, because addiction does NOT forever have to determine your actions, plague you with constant urges, or limit the quality of your life and relationships. With the right support, tools, and commitment, you can become pornfree and live a joyous and satisfying life—without shame. However, addiction to pornography will always be a part of you. If you get complacent, forget the lessons you are learning now, and fall into old traps, then you can quickly regain all of the problems that inspired you to quit using. It can take years to develop porn-induced sexual dysfunction or addiction, but it doesn’t take much at all to bring a dormant addiction back to the surface.

However, you do have agency. Think about what you really need right now in order to stay pornfree. Do NOT just rely on willpower or think that you will make a better decision when presented with the same tempting circumstances in the future. Actually take action to make things different.

Another way to think of recovery is like a steep mountain trail. The higher you go, the more accomplished you feel and the better the views–but also the steeper it gets and the more you have to lose by falling. You don’t fixate on the dangers or let them intimidate you into backing down, but you do have to be aware of those dangers and be careful where you place your feet.

Also, I regret telling my mother at all. She was really disappointed that “I didn’t trust her with my personal problems when I was younger.” She felt betrayed and that I had lied to her almost all my life. And her memories of me changed. Also, both her mental image of addiction and of pornography  is very different from mine so I don’t even know what she thinks about me now. Why did I tell her? For her or for my own sake?

The truth is that telling her hurt her more than It helped me. It actually made it harder for me because she really disliked Gary Wilson’s TED-talk and not having her support really gave me doubts .  I don’t understand why I felt the need to tell her. I guess that It felt like an important step for me at the time. I feel now that it really was unnecessary.

Breaking down our walls a bit and opening up to loved ones can be a powerful step forward in healing. Addiction is a disease of isolation and loneliness. The more you isolate yourself in recovery, the more difficult things become. They more you let people see who you really are and accept support, the easier it gets. Most of the time these conversations go way better than people fear they will.

But of course, sometimes sharing will backfire and create awkwardness, resentment, and misunderstanding. Maybe it had something to do with how you approached the conversation, but more likely your mother’s negative reaction has more to do with her than it does with you. Perhaps this knowledge made her insecure about her parenting of you, and it’s easier to blame you than it is to blame herself. My own mother expressed similar guilt about not protecting me from the influence of Internet porn when I was a child. I can’t really know without speaking with you and your mother, but in time you may resolve this awkwardness and have a stronger relationship. In your situation, here’s what I might say to her in the meantime:

“Hey Mom, it’s felt like there’s been tension between us ever since I opened up to you about what I’ve struggled with. It has seemed like you are angry with me because I didn’t tell you sooner, but this all started when I was a kid and I didn’t know any better. I’m an adult now and I’m trying to live a good life and improve myself, and I thought being honest with you about what’s going on for me might be a good step forward. I didn’t mean to hurt you or burden you, and I don’t expect you to fix any of this for me–I know that that’s my job. If you want, we don’t have to talk about this again. We can even pretend it never happened. But if you do ever want to have a conversation about it, I’m happy to. Love you, Mom.”