Monday, July 02, 2007

Overcoming Addiction to Masturbation and Pornography

From Father James R. Searby, parochial vicar at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Annandale, Va.

In all of our lives we desire, more than anything, to be loved and to love. As we grow up we learn how to do that more and more, or at least we hope we do. During early adolescence and adolescence a young man learns how to give himself to others by watching his parents, family and friends. During this period in life, however, new circumstances and temptations enter into life and many, dare I say most, young men are unprepared to handle these. You go to school (or at least get involved in new activities with people your own age), your body changes and sexual desires become strong because of hormonal changes and you begin to see yourself not only as the only person in the world but as part of the whole, as part of a larger world. During this time, due to technology, images and thoughts are more easily acquired from the internet. One of the biggest sources of images that satiate a young man’s curiosity of the opposite sex is pornography. Once this becomes part of the images in the mind it becomes increasingly difficult to see women, and yourself, in a healthy sexual way. With all of this comes the temptation to masturbate and act out the fantasies that are artificially created in the mind. When the desire to give yourself and get to know others mixes with increased sexual desires and pornography, masturbation can quickly become a habit that is really hard to break. At this point it is really easy to turn in on oneself rather than outward toward self- giving to people.
On a physiological level the mind becomes easily hooked on the release of epinephrine (Adrenaline) and serotonin that is released during sexual arousal and orgasm. The more this happens the more hooked your mind and body become to it and the harder it is to stop. It is as addictive, if not more so, than heroine. After a while you crave it, looking forward to that release, that feeling. After a while it can become not only a way to find sexual satisfaction and satisfy sexual curiosity but it can become an outlet for other emotions. Suddenly boredom, loneliness, anxiety, stress, etc. can be transferred to masturbation as an outlet. This is where the habit begins to really take control and you can get to the point where you begin the cycle without even realizing it.

This is by no means an intensive study or explanation of the problem of Masturbation but I hope, by writing some things down, it might help you in understanding it and help you to conquer it.

Masturbation, you could say, is the “lonely problem.” At its core it seems to fulfill a desire but it ends up leaving a man lonely, dulled and unable to really love himself properly and therefore, anyone else. If sexuality is made to unite a man and woman in love and self gift, then masturbation is the opposite. When we take self giving to another and make it a solo act where there is no self giving then the action has the trappings of something good but it is used wrongly. It is a turning in on oneself rather than a giving out of oneself. That is why there is such a let down and so much guilt after the act is completed. When it becomes a habit it can be safe to assume that the problem is not the actual masturbating but a need for love. This need for love, for meaning, and for wholeness is a deeper problem and requires a deeper answer. As with so many other problems, the choice comes before you when the temptations arise- “Am I going to do what is right and good for me that takes work and effort, or am I going to do what is quick and easy?” The quick and easy of masturbation gives immediate pleasure, a sense of love (since you use the tools for it) and an escape, but once finished you feel lonely, numb, dull and more alone than before. The pleasure glosses over the deeper need for love, friendship and a hunger for God. It is an easy, predictable way to find what you long for on a deeper level but it always comes up short. That is why, when it is all said and done, there is usually a vow of some sort where one says, “That’s it! That is the last time! I’m tired of this!” and that lasts for a little while until the temptation arises again and the cycle starts again. I will discuss this cycle later on.

Lets really look at what is underneath our sexual desires and consequently, the temptation to lust. When the temptations come on they can come on for a variety of reasons:
  1. They occur because of unmet needs in growing up: Perhaps there was a time in your past where your emotional needs were not met. Perhaps, even for a short time, you did not get the loving embrace of a parent, joy in the home, etc. Perhaps you were ignored or pushed too hard or there was no tenderness in an important relationship (like from father or mother).
  2. It can come from your spiritual needs not being met: Perhaps you never learned to really have a relationship with God or that one is even possible. Maybe you cannot comprehend that you are loved by God and therefore never feel it. Perhaps you just don’t pray or try to have that relationship to God yet you have a desire to give yourself to him but cannot figure out how. Perhaps you have a vocation and do not fully get it and with that call you have a strong desire to give yourself but do not know how to or which outlet to take so you find an easier one that glosses over it.
  3. There is healthy sexual desire: Perhaps you have the normal, healthy sexual desires that a male has but never learned to deal with them properly or perhaps you learned that they were dirty desires to have (rather than beautiful and amazing) so you repressed them rather than deal with them in a healthy way. As you repressed them more and more eventually they just burst out uncontrollably.
  4. Habit- perhaps from an early age you developed a habit of masturbating before you even really knew what it was or what your sexual powers were and you are simply physically addicted to the act and the pleasure and as you have grown that has influenced other areas of your life beyond the physical.
  5. Then there is true lust: this is simply where you put yourself into temptation by purposely not caring about another person or their dignity and you simply desire them as an object. This can come from simply not caring or from something in your past which made you look at people that way and you consciously decided to subjectify people to your own pleasure. This is the hardest one to overcome since it is a real deficiency in the soul.
These five areas are important to understand and to meditate on in order to attempt to figure out where you are in your habit and in how you view yourself and the world.

Finally we can look at the cycle of habit (or you could say, the cycle of addiction). This cycle comes and goes over and over and over again. It is strengthened (as is a virtue as well as a vice) by repetition. Something becomes a habit through repetition and only can be broken through repetition. So this is the basic cycle and can be applied to many things but we will look at it here specifically regarding the habit of masturbation (and pornography):
  1. There is a visual or emotional trigger: this is what begins the cycle again. In this first stage something triggers the habit cycle back into action. It could be an image on a wall, a TV show, someone making a comment, a scantily clad woman on campus, a memory of a past sexual encounter, etc. It can also be stress, anxiety, hunger, a feeling of loneliness. It sets off the interior desire for relief from these. Ultimately it is the desire to be with another person and have meaning in that relationship- be it with a friend or with someone you can give yourself totally to in marriage.
  2. Repression of pain with immediate sexual longings: As the habit has grown it has become an outlet for dealing with the first stage. As you begin to long for greater meaning, deeper relationship, etc. you repress that feeling- stuff it deep inside, and begin to desire the easier fix- the more predictable outcome- you begin to long for sexual fulfillment and gratification.
  3. As that happens you begin to fantasize. The images start to come back. The memories of past sexual encounters with someone else or with yourself come back and you begin to plan (and it might even not be fully conscious planning) to masturbate or look at porn. Here is where you resign yourself to the fact that a fall will most likely happen. This is also where you begin to rationalize it. It might be a struggle but it is often a halfhearted one that leads to resignation.
  4. The hunt is on: it might be on for finding good porn, a good site. It might even be a hunt for someone to hook up with at a party since you still have that inward desire to unite with someone and you might even be convinced that, “well, at least it would be with someone else”. This hunt could last for days, hours and even minutes.
  5. The connection is made: you have found the porn, the memory or image you want to conjure up. Perhaps it is a memory of an image or a person, either way- you have the fantasy now in full swing and it is arousing you and preparing you.
  6. The act: you masturbate. It is as though you eyes have rolled back into your head and you are on auto-pilot. You are no longer thinking or morally deliberating. This is where you feel, in some way, like your needs are being fulfilled and you feel good. The endorphins are flowing and the hormones are doing their job.
  7. Then you reach fulfillment: you have an orgasm. You might hope and wish for a great one, the best you have had and you wish it could last forever. In a few seconds all of your desires meet in a bang and you are fulfilled.
  8. But it does not last forever and you experience the Letdown: At that moment, once the orgasm is complete, almost immediately you experience the crash, the letdown. All of the promises of fulfillment you hoped for are out the window and you feel empty, lonely, tired, exhausted, morally empty and guilty. Then one of two things happen:
  • You have become numb to it and you don’t care that it happened. You still feel guilty but you say, “well, I already sinned, I might as well keep going for a while until I can get to confession”
  • Or, you make the vow: you ask God for forgiveness and promise that this was the last time- you’ve had enough, no more!” And you move on and get to confession quickly.
Then, unless the cycle is broken- it all eventually begins again.

This basic cycle is how it normally goes. The key in winning, the key in really achieving freedom from this habit is to break the cycle and learn that you do not have to be a victim to it. There are two things to do.

The first is to always remember, when the temptation comes on, to remind yourself that it is the habit speaking- not you. Sometimes it feels as though there are two of you in your head. Sometimes it can feel like you’re Gollum, arguing with yourself over and over- always deliberating whether or not to give in. The key is to remind yourself that your habit will speak to you but you do not have to give into it.

When you begin in the cycle your adrenaline will kick in and you will climb more and more up the ladder of anxiety until you hit a peak. This peak will be the point where you feel like you are going to explode if you don’t act on the temptation. This is where you are super sensitive to touch and to thought. As the ladder of anxiety rises remind yourself that you can get over that hump. Once you do your body will naturally kick in and stop the anxiety and the major temptations. Know then that you will be calmed down and you do not have to masturbate to stop the anxiety and major physical temptations. The more you do this the more you train your body to not get as anxious (and aroused) and the easier it becomes to say no to the physical need to masturbate.

Where the first is more physical the second is not. Secondly, you must break the cycle. The more you break up the cycle the more the habit will decrease and you can find freedom, joy and happiness and, above all, self worth and proper pride in yourself. Breaking the cycle must happen in the beginning stages (stages 1-2). Any further along and it will take amazing willpower to overcome. In stage one you must do EVERYTHING in your power to avoid the things that trigger you. Desperate times call for desperate measures. This will not be easy but if we are radical in our efforts and in your love, God will be equally so in his grace and help. I suggest some of these measures:
  • Get rid of the internet in rooms where you are, or can be, in private for long periods of time. This will cut down on internet usage. At least get a blocker and have a good friend code you out. Get one that cannot be hacked easily.
  • Stop watching all TV. I know, I know, radical but if you watch TV with a discerning eye you will see the millions of ideas and images of a sexual nature that they show- ALL of these get stored in our mind for conscious or subconscious access later on whether you know it or not.
  • Change your conversations with friends if they are of a sexual nature. Don’t become a big prude or anything or be unnatural but just try to steer conversations away from that area. You will feel more dignified as well.
  • Make it a game or competition with yourself to see if you can not sit and stare at the beautiful girl that walks by you all the time. Notice and then turn away or better yet, thank God for them and then say a little short prayer for them.
  • Have a plan, a schedule and hold yourself to it. Never let boredom be an option- even on breaks. Resting does not mean doing nothing, it means doing something different and interesting. The more you live this the more of a habit it becomes and the more you get done as well.
  • Spend plenty of time with friends. Become good friends with them, challenge them in good ways to really think about life’s big questions and to delve into them with you. Study in groups. Even if you are all silent you are not in a semi-lit room alone with a computer in front of you. Study in the library or find a place where you can study quietly but around people.
  • Be accountable to someone, perhaps a priest who can hear your confession regularly. Have someone you can call or talk to about this. Someone you can always rely on to keep it secret and who can help you talk through it. Regular confession and spiritual direction is absolutely key as well.
  • Most importantly, mediate and pray on what emotional, spiritual and social needs you have that were not, have not and are not being met. Ask God to fill your lack with his love and to show you where the root of it all is. He will. This is where you face the need rather than repress it. Think rationally, explore your soul, your past and present. Remind yourself that it is the habit speaking, not you and then engage the need in yourself as you- not as the habit. Try to begin to go to Mass more often. Try to find a close daily Mass in the morning. This is the most powerful way to overcome any vice. At least make visits to the blessed Sacrament somewhere and spend silent time with him. Even there you might have temptations (since being alone is hard in silence) but do it anyway and offer the temptations to him as acts of love. You are overcoming the temptations then with his help.
  • Go to Our Lady. She is most pure, most chaste and is totally in love with you, her little son.
These are just a few thoughts and recommendations. Ultimately, purity and true freedom from this takes time, patience, great humility and the constant grace of the sacraments, especially confession and the Eucharist. Go to them a lot. As much as you can. Without a strong, radical prayer life it is not possible to over come anything, let alone this temptation. Remember this, you want to stop, and God wants to help you because he loves you, has a plan for you and wants you to be truly free.

9 comments:

dogheart said...

What an excellent article! I'm a psychologist who struggles with sexual desire. You addressed a process sensitively and intelligently. You are correct and insightful I think insofar as there is something calling beyond that lust. I suspect it is grief for that love which we did not previously experience, as well as current, healthy partnerships, and a sense of connectedness vs. isolation.
No complaints, and: what I yearn for is beyond your devout Christian scope perhaps: how to fulfill the heart of hearts i.e. if you are not a devout Christian?
I am an open minded agnostic who has meditated and prayed daily for years! I'm not giving up, but thus far I don't experience God doing much of anything at the level that lust exists. He may make the sun rise and set, but I hear little personal call despite silent, fasting retreats in monasteries and deserts. So, how to fulfill the cry for what is underneath the lust, if we are not devout Christians?
I'll take any suggestions or comments, please, at
dogheartc@yahoo.com.
Thanks and may we be truly fulfilled, Charles

Catherine Nolan said...

Wow, that is the best summary I've read, ever. My brothers are getting this link.

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Celeste said...

hi dogheart. i appreciate your honesty and searching for God. God sees you and appreciates you. i know you can get hold of the bible. do start reading the bible. try starting with the book of John in the new testament. there is power in that book that changed my life. let Him speak to you there and pray, keep on praying. i am fasting today and i will include you in my prayers.

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Unknown said...

I totally agree with dogheart and Catherine. What an outstanding article. Father Searby knows exactly what I go through repeatedly. I fall into just about all of the variety of reasons listed and I have never read anyone else who can explain this like Father Searby. For me, I am fighting a 46 year old habit, and I am 52. My marriage is a disaster and most couples in our position would have divorced many years ago. Why does no else including professional councillors seem to know these things? There is a great ignorance out there about this subject.

I wish to add that for me the only way to stop the cycle is to go to confession. The only way! Unfortunately after a while, the cycle starts again, 1 to 8. I have often thought that with the sacrament of confession, I would be in a hopeless state with all of this. It is in fact, only confession that brings me any relief from this very unhappy habit.

Thank you for posting this Father James.

sonflowrgirl said...

dogheart,
Two years ago my heart, mind, and soul were radically transformed by a teaching collectively referred to as "Theology of the Body." Through this teaching from Blessed Pope John Paul II, I learned that my desire for love and sexual union is holy. Yes, that's right, I said holy. I learned that lust is the twisted, jacked up version of our desire to connect and unite ourselves to another person. Lust is the counterfeit version. Its been a journey of really opening myself up to God, including my sexuality and allowing Him to show me just how wonderfully He made me. Masturbation is counterfeit. I don't want counterfeit anymore. I encourage you to check out "Introduction to Theology of the Body: A beginners guide" by Christopher West. I think it will give you a positive framework for your purpose, your sexuality, and how it in fact celebrates God. Then you will be given steps to actually live this out in your everyday life.

Lanny said...

I have become more and more determined to break the masturbation addiction over the last couple of years. In my studying of this subject, I have never come across such a potent and accurate depiction of my situation. I'm glad I came across this article. Truly, there is so much truth that speaks to me in this article, and hopefully I can begin working through the more deeply rooted aspects of this addiction.

Lanny said...
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