Pornography addiction - can it be overcome?

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With access to the Internet and a computer in almost every Singaporean home, the plague of pornography has infected many families. Unlike an addiction to smoking, alcohol, drugs or gambling, an addiction to pornography is not so evident. Kicking the addiction is tough but not impossible.

John Tan*, a former addict to pornography, shares with CatholicNews the story of his journey through the dark side of the Internet and into the light of Christ.

I DISCOVERED PORNOGRAPHY only when I was 20. My National Service camp mates frequently discussed and shared links to pornographic websites. Out of curiosity, I visited some of them and, almost immediately, I was hooked. Each website contained links to other websites. Some of them shocked and disgusted me, others excited me and lured me in deeper. But the fall into pornography addiction doesn't always start with the Internet.

For me, it began with what I saw in the real world. Everywhere I went in Singapore, I saw young women in revealing clothing, even in church, and this always created a rush of excitement in me. I wanted more, more than what I was seeing around me, and I knew that I could find it on the Internet.

Bit by bit, I began to view more and more graphic displays of the human body on the websites. The initial ones that enticed me no longer satisfied me, and I went deeper and deeper until I was feasting my eyes on the very images that once shocked and disgusted me. By then, it was usually too late for me to turn back, for the sexual energies in my body seemed to overcome my ability to reason. Almost every time I viewed pornography, I turned to masturbation to release the sexual energy that had been built up in me.

Knowing that the Catholic Church teaches that masturbation is sinful, I would feel extremely guilty afterwards and vow not to fall into the trap again. But barely a few days later, I would again be masturbating to the same images that disgusted yet excited me. Then, not only guilt but despair would come over me - despair, because I could not resist the temptation.

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I did all this in secret, locked up in my own room with my eyes glued to the computer screen as my fingers clicked on link after link, hour after hour. Sometimes I would download the images and keep them in my computer for easy access.

However, this did not give me peace of mind, as I would be afraid that my parents and friends, who also used the computer, would stumble on the images. Sometimes, I would burn the images into a CD and lock them in a drawer. But no matter how well I covered my tracks there was always the fear that my dirty secret would be exposed.

I grew quick-tempered and would snap at my parents whenever they used the computer for too long a time. I grew irritable whenever I was disturbed in the midst of looking for more pornography on the Internet. So, I took to staying awake into the wee hours of the morning, when everyone else in the family was asleep, so that I would not be disturbed. Even so, my heart would skip a beat whenever my parents knocked on my room door to ask me to go to sleep. And, of course, I would snap at them.

Apart from this dirty secret, I was "a good Catholic". I went for daily Mass, received the sacraments frequently although not confessing my sins of viewing pornography and that of masturbation at times because of the shame of confessing them too often, especially if it was to the same priest. I was active in church ministry and in my Catholic society in university. Among my friends, I was respected and looked up to. They would come to me for advice on spiritual matters and such. But always, there would be the side of me that realized what a hypocrite I was.

This hypocritical behaviour seemed to increase my desire to further indulge in pornography, perhaps as a way to lose my sense of reality in a fantasy world that was pleasurable. Of course this led to a greater sense of despair and hypocrisy, which resulted in more frequent visits to pornographic websites. It was a vicious cycle.

There were good periods and bad periods. Sometimes I could go for several days, or even a week, without sexually indulging myself. At other times, I would masturbate more than once a day. I pretended that this was the only way I could get rid of temptation - by succumbing to it. I lied to myself, by convincing myself that this would allow me to concentrate better on my work.

I struggled with this addiction for several years. At times, I told myself that perhaps it was something I would grow out of in a matter of years. I was, at that time, journeying towards the priesthood, but even so, my addiction to pornography was something I kept from my spiritual director, because I felt too ashamed to tell him about it. I had hoped that once I joined the seminary, I would be able to rid myself of the addiction.

However, as each year passed, I began to despair more and more, thinking that I should have gotten rid of the addiction in the past year. Yet here was I with the same stupid addiction and not being able to free myself from it. It finally came to a point where I promised myself to try every possible means of resisting the temptation to masturbate and if I failed I would just go through life accepting it as "a thorn in my side to keep me humble" as St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12, another lie that I told myself.

Finally, I gave in to the temptation each time it came because I knew that there was nothing I could do to resist it successfully. I gave up.

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Asking and receiving help

It was only when I stopped depending on my own strength that God was free to act. Until then, I always believed that it was possible for me to overcome the temptation through sheer will, but that was not true. Only when I gave up on myself was I finally open to God's healing action.

My journey to recovery began when a total stranger introduced me to Pope John Paul II's "Theology of the Body". This stranger gave me two books on the subject, both by Christopher West, whose work has greatly simplified the late pope's teaching. As I devoured the books, I came to realize that what "Theology of the Body" provided was an understanding on how my addiction to pornography and masturbation was harming me as a person, and my ability to relate to other people.

It helped me to realize that my addiction created in me a mindset that other people, especially women, are there for me to use to satisfy my sexual desires. Realizing the harm that I was doing to myself, yet powerless to resist the temptation, I finally opened up to a close friend who I knew was also struggling with the same addiction. Together, we discussed our experiences and promised to help each other.

We set up a simple system whereby whenever temptation came we would send an SMS text message to the other person, asking him to pray. This was because we learnt that it was extremely difficult for us to pray for ourselves when we were undergoing severe sexual temptation as the temptation clouded our thinking.

Prayer was, and still is, a very important part of our continuing battle against sexual temptation, because we recognized that it was not only our physical tendencies we were fighting against, but we were also aware of the presence of an evil spirit of lust that created in us such an obsession with sex. Thus, we had to realize that the battle was being fought also on a spiritual plane, in which case, we had to rely on God's strength.

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As with any battle, there were times when we lost and succumbed to temptation. We were always accountable to each other. Knowing the times that we ourselves had failed and the despair that went through our minds when it happened, we helped the other person to realize the big picture, that there would be other battles in future, and to learn from the mistakes we made in this one. Almost every time we failed to resist temptation, it had been because we were too overconfident of our own ability to resist the temptation.

It has now been about a year since the both of us embarked on this journey to overcome our pornography addiction. We have successfully overcome it although we are still occasionally tempted. We continue to keep alert of the many ways we can be tempted, and we still continue to pray for each other when temptation beckons, which normally happens in periods of stress at work, in school, or in the family.

My relationships with my family members have improved, especially after being able to openly discuss  my addiction with them, and having received their support and encouragement.

Once I found it difficult to relate to members of the opposite sex. I am now able to relate to them better and an open and honest communication with one particular lady, especially on my addiction to pornography and masturbation, has made her a significant part of my life. I am now able to realize that she is there for me to love, not to be used for my own sexual gratification.

My addiction to pornography and masturbation caused me plenty of harm, and because it hurt my ability to relate to people properly. It also harmed my relationships with family members and friends, and consequently deprived them of all of my love that they deserved, but which I was selfishly directing towards myself.

Pope John Paul II's "Theology of the Body" was instrumental in helping me to discover the real purpose of sex, marriage and love (presented in a radically different way from that I was used to) and I was able to enter into a loving relationship with my present girlfriend.

The presence of an accountability partner who was able to pray for me in periods of great temptation, and to whom I could return the favour, was also very important in my battle against the addiction to pornography.

Without his constant support and encouragement, I doubt I could have overcome the temptations which used to be so frequent. Finally and most importantly, it was God who helped me to realize that without his strength, I was powerless to resist the temptation, especially since it was not all physical in nature. Indeed I know that prayer works, because it worked for us both.

Indeed the spirit of lust is very real and present in our world today. The spirit of lust makes us desire to use other people for our own sexual gratification. The plague of pornography has infected our households through the Internet, through television, through the magazines easily available at shops, and through the advertisements all over the country. The media industry knows that sex sells, and does not hesitate to use it.

As a result, sexual temptation is present almost everywhere we turn, and all these helped to trigger in me the desire for sexual pleasure which I found in Internet pornography and had me hooked for six years.

Only by understanding the threat of pornography to the person, to Christianity, to the family, and to society, can we begin to fight it successfully.

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Where you can get help

Family Life Society

Website: www.familylife.sg

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Tel: 6488 0278

Family Life Society offers counselling and care services, educational programmes and resources to families and individuals. Family Life Society strives to promote understanding and respect for marriage, family and human life. Family Life Society counsellors are qualified to advise on addiction problems.

Centre for Ignatian Spirituality and Counselling

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Tel: 6467 6072

The Centre for Ignatian Spirituality and Counselling offers general spiritual guidance and accompaniment. Jesuit Father Paul Goh, the director of the centre, also offers psychological help to recover from various addictions, including addiction to pornography.

Morning Star Community Services

Website: www.morningstar.org.sg

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Tel: Hougang Centre (6285 1377); Sengkang Centre (6315 8812)

Morning Star Community Services counsellors help addicts, including pornography addicts, to understand more about their addiction and the options for recovery.

Community Addiction Management Programme (CAMP) @ Institute of Mental Health

Website: www.camp.org.sg

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Tel: 6389 2200

CAMP has a multidisciplinary team of doctors, nurses, psychologists, and counsellors who provide treatment for individuals with various addictions. CAMP also works with numerous government and community-based agencies to provide consultation and referral services.

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