Keep Your Friends Close, and Your Good Friends Closer

I know I’m writing a bunch lately. Whatever the opposite of writer’s block is, I have it, and you’re the victim. One of the things that my 15-year-old son doesn’t seem at all interested in doing in life is creating or maintaining close friendships with other people. I guess it’s OK, but as somebody 27 years his elder, I worry that he’s going to come to regret it, especially if he finds himself with his back against the wall like I did when my pornography addiction was revealed in a very public way.

For those of you who follow this blog, forgive the next few sentences. You’ve read them too many times, but I’ve got to bring the newbies up to speed.

I was a prominent member of my community six years ago. I was the editor/publisher of a popular regional lifestyle magazine, was co-founder of a film festival that was finally getting national recognition and I’d just finished a term as a City Councilor where I lived.

I also had bipolar disorder, alcoholism and a porn addiction. Through a series of bad choices, I ended up engaging with a teenage girl online, convincing her to perform sexual acts on-screen. This is obviously illegal, I was arrested some months later in early 2014 and within an hour of my arrest it was the top story in Maine media and remained so for a few days. I ended up serving six months in jail for it in early 2016. I’ve been in recovery since April 1, 2014 with no relapses.

I was never the guy who formed deep bonds with people going back to my youth. I didn’t have a large group of friends. I had a large group of acquaintances in school. I had four or five good friends, but nobody rose to the “best friend” status.

I did a year of college in Rhode Island, made some friends, but never stayed in touch with them. Same thing happened at several work places I’ve had. I can be very, very close to you in November, but if you’re laid off in December, there’s a good chance we get together once in January and then never talk again. And for clarity’s sake, liking a photo of a “friend” on Facebook doesn’t count as friendship.

When I was running myself into the ground with the many full-time jobs (not to mention being a husband and father) six years ago, I thought I had more friends than I did. Since I had a big hand in the local media and the local government, I didn’t recognize exactly how many pretended they liked me much more than they ever did just to get my ear.

When I was arrested, about six people from that world of hundreds dropped messages to me on Facebook. When details – many that were incorrect – were in the media, even a few of those dropped by the wayside.

By the time sentencing rolled around in the first couple weeks of January 2016, I was left with two friends. Two. One had been around since 7th grade. The other was the ex-husband of a co-worker I met back in 2000 or 2001. Neither really had anything to do with the fast-paced life I created. They were around well before that time.

These two guys are not high-maintenance. We can go six days, six weeks or six months in between talking. It’s not a lot of effort to stay friends with them. It’s probably a big reason it worked.

I’ve reached out to a handful of other people who I thought I was closer with than most, but have received unanimous silence. When I see somebody in public who I know, I don’t go up to them out of courtesy and say hello. I allow them to come to me. Why create an awkward situation? I think people have said hello to me twice in 4½ years.

I understand there are a lot of things at play here. I was accused of a heinous crime, convicted on lesser charges and most people don’t know the actual details. I am probably more of a bogeyman in their eyes than is factually correct. If I am now just my crime, who wants to be friends with that crime?

I also understand many were never my friends. I do understand how friendships come and go while few stand the test of time. I thought that I had at least a half-dozen others out there that would last through everything.

I believe most people locally don’t actually despise me because of the crime. I think they despise the fact I presented myself as one thing while behind closed doors I was something else. I think there’s a level of betrayal there. If I were truly a monster incapable of change, I don’t think I would have sold any copies of my book or have been invited on so many radio shows and podcasts for interviews.

I have sold around 50 copies of my book locally. I was actually thinking I’d sell more, if for no reason other than people wanting to see if their name was in there. Honestly, I thought I’d sell a few hundred here. Thankfully, the higher-than-expected sales elsewhere made up for it and I’m still further ahead than expected.

I’ve not heard a review from anyone local other than my family. I wonder how many of my former “friends” have even read it.

The flip side of this is the idea that this is just part of my punishment. I shouldn’t be given a moment of pity over losing any friends I had and it’s all part of the package that comes with doing something as heinous as I did. I hope people recognize how much of the punishment and consequences of a crime don’t come from the legal system, but from society in general.

In the end though, I know it comes down to the fact I just wasn’t the kind of person who valued friendship for a lot of my life. I was content to let people go and I think because I gave off that vibe, others were content to let me go. I’m sure for many, I’m now just a guy they used to know.

I doubt my son is going to do anything as stupid as I did, but I worry that if he does, he’s going to have as little a support system outside of our family as I wound up having. I wouldn’t be this far along if it weren’t for my two friends, but I also wonder if I had four or five friends if I’d be even better off today. It’s one of those questions there is no answer for.

Cultivate friendships and nurture them. You’re going to be thankful they are there when you need them.

 

 

Practicing Empathy Has Been Huge to My Alcohol & Porn Addiction Recovery

Early in recovery, going through the inpatient rehabs, I was told many times I had a history of exhibiting a clear lack of empathy in my life’s decision making. I understood what they meant as I tended to be outwardly cold and indifferent. I would listen to another person’s problems simply to wait for my turn to talk and put on display I had mastery over their issues, which made me superior.

For most of my life, people did not come running to me for emotional support because they knew they’d be met with a logical answer for solving whatever ailed them. I’m sure there are people who are born with a legitimate lack of empathy, but mine was shut off as a defense mechanism.

I was the guy at funeral who would blurt things like “I don’t think he looks peaceful, I don’t think he looks dead” or “You’re right, he’s not suffering anymore. He’s not anything anymore.”

I knew even then how things like that sound, but it was a way for me to ignore not only my feelings, but theirs as well. I could barely deal with my own stuff. I didn’t need theirs cluttering up my head.

In recovery, I came to the recognition that I would need to work on how people perceived me. I wanted the world to know a more authentic Josh, not just the carefully crafted eccentric character I portrayed. I’d done such a good job building up these walls of emotional resiliency, people actually thought nothing was on the other side.

Because of my probation restrictions, I wasn’t able to get on social media for a long time. Lacking an audience for my philosophical or political rants was good for my mental health. I stopped following national and international news and I actively started to practice putting myself into other people’s shoes when they shared their stories.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t that hard to let down my guard and let the world see my more authentic, empathetic self. It was less energy than trying to keep my armor up at all times. While I know many simply can’t believe this, it’s actually easier to find why you’re more alike with someone than why you’re different.

I think the biggest piece of self-realization came when I recognized most people didn’t care what I had to say and that was perfectly OK because almost nobody was ever going to change their opinion based on what I said, nor was changing their opinion going to result in anything different. They just wanted to be heard for reasons that had nothing to do with what they were saying.

There has been a giant change in the social landscape of America in the last five years, probably becoming it’s more outward “authentic” self as I’ve been going through the same process. It’s not like people just got racist and hypocritical and mean in the last few years. They always just hid it, the way I hid who I was. I think it’s politics and social media that have caused this change, but that’s a discussion for another time.

What I see in this world now is so much anger, fear and sadness. I see so many people who have such little sense of self-worth and need for validation. I see people who reach conclusions without even consciously deciding to ignore the facts. I see segmentation into more “tribes” than ever before and an instinct to blame others before looking within. I see who I proudly once was.

Five or six years ago, I wouldn’t have let myself care. I would have played along, making sure I portrayed myself as righteous to those who agreed with everything I said and vilify those who didn’t. I would have used my communicative skills to manipulate to get what I wanted in both my professional and private lives. I would have played the game so many other people were playing, fooling myself that I was two moves ahead of everyone else.

At the end of the day, when there wasn’t anyone around, I’d retreat to my world of alcohol and porn because I knew I wasn’t the guy I was showing the world, but I wasn’t ready to meet that guy either. The pornography and alcohol allowed me to run from myself.

I don’t use those things anymore and I don’t play that game anymore. I’m so much happier and healthier for it. Years ago, my life was about fooling myself into thinking I was successful. Now, if I give an interview and someone calls me a “pornography addiction expert” I kind of laugh inside my head….of all things to finally be successful at.

Today, I can clearly see all of the people who I acted like still living in the world around me. I couldn’t back then. I see the people with all of the negative emotion and non-constructive ways of dealing with it. I read the words of those who are so blinded by resentment and greed that they can’t fathom how resentful and greedy they are. I witness people pointing fingers at others and wonder if they could do that in a mirror for any length of time.

I see a world that appears to be on the verge of throwing punches or collapsing in tears. Who wouldn’t want to have the kind of defense mechanisms I used for all those years? Isn’t it obvious why addiction rates are sky high? Isn’t it clear why so many young people choose pornography over real life? And in a very sad way, isn’t it somewhat understandable why a person might confuse suicide with a positive conclusion?

I’ve read 101 definitions of empathy in the last few years. I’ve come to believe it’s about recognizing the character flaws in others, yet not letting those flaws disqualify you from caring. I think it’s also about recognizing what you see as flaws, other see as virtues, and debating which-is-which is a waste of energy. Empathy is about not letting your own baggage get in the way of someone else’s. It’s about understanding, even if they can’t, and especially when they can’t.

What did it feel like to be a porn addict?

As I was reconfiguring my home page yesterday, feeling it was time to freshen things up by giving the book promotion a less prominent place, while still feeding my ego by listing all of the podcasts and radio shows I’ve done, I recognized that unlike Playboy magazine, people actually do come here for the articles and one I’ve never written about is what it felt like to be a pornography addict. Yes, that run-on sentence was 71 words.

It was shameful and lonely.

During most of my recovery, I’ve operated under the idea that I got some very mixed messages about sex and sexuality when I was a kid, and while that’s true, all of the messages were received in a negative way. Whether it was the conservative Catholic attitude of my parents or the inappropriate actions of my caregiver, I was left feeling like sexuality was a bad thing at about the age of 5.

Knowing that, on the surface it seems odd that I would have had such a visceral positive reaction to seeing pornography for the first time as a 10-year-old. You’d almost think I should recoil in disgust. Instead, for the first time, I found a “safe” outlet for my sexuality and although it would be many years before I regularly had my hands on the stuff, but I was an addict the first time I saw it.

Once I had the resources and ability to regularly consume porn, I knew it was an activity that you don’t talk about, pretend you’ve never heard of it, and talk down about the people who do use it or treat it all as a big joke. In essence, you’re denying who you really are.

Why? Because of the shame. Because you desperately don’t want to feel the humiliation or distress that comes from being judged not just by others, but by yourself. You know you’re doing something society has deemed as abnormal and wrong that’s rotting your soul, but you can’t stop. You can’t stop because you’re weak and that weakness is another reason to be ashamed.

It’s also a solitary addiction. My alcoholism was much more of a social addiction. It’s OK to drink. It’s even OK to drink too much from time to time. How many stories in this world have started with, “There was this one time that I was totally wasted…” I think a real argument can be made that my alcoholism was more critical for a longer time than the porn. I don’t feel nearly the shame about that. Maybe I should, or maybe the porn has vacuumed it all up, but I think it’s about how society views alcohol vs. porn.

While the very end result of indulging a porn addiction, a three-second orgasm, obviously feels good, there is nothing to enjoy about being a pornography addict. It’s a search for something that you can connect with because you can’t connect in usual ways to the outside world. It’s a search for intimacy and it’s a way to just block out all of those things that have happened to you that were out of your control when you were younger. It’s a lonely, lonely path.

I think one of the biggest reasons for writing my book, maintaining this website and offering advisement/support is simply because I wish somebody would have told me, “You’re not a freak. You’re not a bad person. You’re not the only one. It’s OK, you’re just ill and need to deal with some painful things and there are people who will help you in a safe, non-judgmental environment out there. It’s going to be OK.”

These days, I feel like a pornography addiction expert. I can quote stats all day long, have met dozens of people in real life and hundreds online with the issue, I read about it like there’s no tomorrow and of course, what porn addict expert isn’t complete without his own tale. But just because I may be a pornography addiction expert doesn’t mean I don’t still think about that dark place I was many years before I knew porn addiction was a thing or anybody else was dealing with the same thing.

You don’t have to live with the shame and the isolation of pornography addiction. Yes, it’s going to take society a long time to come around to treating pornography as an addiction, but you can do the research on alcohol and see how they treated alcoholics in the early 1900s. You’d rather be a porn addict now than an alcoholic then. It may not be in our lifetime, but society will come around. But you can’t wait for that.

You’re OK, and you can be much better. You’re not alone. Just reach out for help.

Addict or Not, Therapy is Something All People Should Consider

I’m starting this about an hour before I head to my biweekly therapy session and it occurred to me that I’ve never really written at any length about the role it has played in my life during my addictive phase or the major piece it has been on my journey in recovery.

I first went to a therapist when I was 20. In late August that year, my close friend Mark was killed by a drunk driver and it sent me into a tail spin I had never experienced. After two months of barely being able to get off the couch, I finally went to therapy. While the therapist and I didn’t click, the five or six sessions I had helped me get things back on track.

A couple of years later, when I was (I think) 24, the first long-term relationship of my life ended with my live-in girlfriend. I was not mature enough to be in the kind of grown-up relationship she wanted, but her leaving was much like a death and I spiraled again.

I sought help again and finally clicked with a therapist, but it was when I created my first major misconception about therapy. I was waiting for a magic bullet statement that would put life into perspective. I was waiting for the one directive, the one instruction that would suddenly make sense of everything.

After about 18 months, we stopped with the sessions. I felt like I’d evolved to a good point mentally. Over the next 12 years or so, as I got married, built a family and career, I’d periodically check back in with him and eventually saw a couple of other therapists for small 4-6 week chunks for a tune-up, but never clicked with any of them.

The reality was that I was never 100% honest with them. I downplayed my alcoholism and never mentioned my porn addiction. I was just waiting for the secret and thought it was taking a very long time and an awful lot of therapists and I still had nothing. Talking to someone always helped, but they weren’t FIXING me.

 

Going into therapy for real

Then, the police showed up at my door and life as I knew it came to a grinding halt. I hadn’t seen a therapist in probably five years at that point. I was riding too high on my own BS to notice what was happening and dearly paid the price.

One of the first things I did was to go see my doctor and get a referral to a new therapist. This was within 48 hours of being arrested and while I was a little uncomfortable with the fact I was being referred to a woman for the first time, beggars couldn’t be choosers at that point.

I don’t remember much of our first two sessions prior to leaving for 10 weeks for alcohol rehab on the other side of the country. The one thing I do remember she said was, “Don’t just play along. Give it a chance and see if you can get something out of it.”

Thankfully, after about a week, I heeded her advice and came to accept I was as textbook alcoholic as they make them.

When I returned, I continued our sessions, usually twice a week, for about nine months. We talked a lot about my anxiety concerning the legal situation swirling around me, but we also about things I had begun uncovering at rehab including abuse from a babysitter, how I viewed sexuality, what drove me to drink, and how someone like me who defined himself based on his professional endeavors was going to exist in a world where I’d never have another white-collar job.

Maybe the rehab helped jumpstart the process, maybe I was just sick and tired of the life I led for so long or maybe it was the fact that it was a woman in my age bracket, but therapy was different this time around. She understood my strange sense of humor. She actually gave me advice. She helped me understand I wasn’t a monster, a pedophile, a scourge on society…but that I did have issues when it came to pornography. If not for her, I never would have attended my second rehab for porn addiction.

I also came to recognize that a therapist is not there the way a doctor who prescribes medication is there. She can’t tell me some magic statement to change everything. It’s called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for a reason. I had to train myself to stop my thought processes dead in their tracks and analyze why I made certain decisions or held certain beliefs. It’s a bit grueling, but it provided more insight into who I was than anything else in the recovery process.

Once you understand who you are, that’s when you can start making changes. Too many people – including me for years – just wanted to skip to the changes part. Therapy doesn’t work that way.

 

A lifelong journey in therapy

I continued to see her after the second rehab and she testified at my sentencing, which I think helped give me reduced time. She visited me in jail and I resumed seeing her regular when I got out six months later and continue to see her to this day, more than four years after I first met her.

We got through the porn and alcohol stuff a while ago, although we do revisit it. Those are really symptoms and we talk about causes.

Now, we’re getting into some of the primordial ooze that is at my deep, deep core. It’s the stuff that is the building blocks of my mind and wired into my DNA. It’s why we’ve gone from weekly one-hour appointments to biweekly two-hour ones. Sometimes I just need to babble for 75 minutes before making some massive breakthrough that I needed four years and (when including the other therapy and rehabs) thousands of hours to get at. Some days, it’s absolutely exhausting and takes so much out of me, but it’s a necessary thing to evolve as a person.

I spend a lot of time on message boards and answering email from addicts and their loved ones. As many of you know, I actually started my own little advising side gig because of the time I spend doing this. While it’s far from professional therapy, I can at least ask a few new questions and raise a couple of issues that the person I’m working with hasn’t considered before. Then, I try to steer them toward professional therapy.

I don’t think it really matters who you are or what your story is. Having somebody who is rooting for you and on your side, yet detached from the ongoing saga of your life, is extremely helpful. I’ve learned that you have to click with the person and they aren’t going to reveal the secret to life to you, but they can guide you to the far reaches of your mind.

That’s a scary place for some people. It was for me and if you told me in the beginning how much work it would be, I wouldn’t be able to fathom the mountain I was going to have to climb. At some point, we may go to monthly one-hour sessions for check-in purposes, but I know therapy will always have a role in my life.

Even if you think you’re the healthiest person in the world, I urge, urge, urge you to consider seeing a therapist. I’m proof that they work and can exponentially make your life a better experience.

 

The Day I Went to Jail

I usually talk about something to do with porn addiction, but this is a bit about what happens when it comes time to face your (well-deserved) punishment. Nobody told me about porn addiction, but nobody also told me what it would be like going to jail and that weighed heavy on my mind the 22 months between arrest and sentencing. So I thought I’d go a little off-topic and share what my first day in jail was like.

The judge granted me one week between my sentencing and the day I was supposed to report to “get my affairs in order.” I think years ago if you’d have ever told me that I was in a situation where I’d have a week before I knew I was going to jail, I would have told you that I was going to form a plan to flee and live as a fugitive. When you find yourself actually in that situation, the bravado disappears. I knew doing my time would bring me that much quicker to returning to whatever normal life I could cultivate.

The truth also is, I did the crime. While I was battling mental illness and addiction, I was well aware I had both and did not take proper care of myself. That led me to eventually convincing a teenage girl to perform a sex act in a video chatroom. I didn’t know her age at the time, but that is not an excuse for my behavior. I got what was coming to me.

My wife and I stopped off at the pharmacy at 8:15 a.m. on the morning of January 22, 2014. I needed to pick up my mental health medication. The whole thing seemed routine, yet I knew that would be the end of routine. I was surprisingly calm.

Heading up the walkway into the building was surreal after my wife dropped me off. I knew I’d be stuck in the building for seven or eight months, but what that meant wasn’t registering. I think part of me started detaching from reality at that point at as a coping mechanism.

I’ve seen enough jail and prison movies to know that intake is a humiliating experience, but it wasn’t as bad as I expected. I was given delousing shampoo and instructed to shower after stripping. Nobody watched me strip or shower and it was in a private stall. Following the shower, I had to show I had nothing in my ears or mouth, lifted my testicles and spread my ass cheeks and cough. The officer who was putting me through the paces seemed uninterested in doing a thorough job, much to my appreciation.

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While this was taken before I got there, this was the exact room that I stayed in during my time at Androscoggin County Jail. Photo ran with a story in the Sun Journal.

I was given a beige shirt, pants and a pair of bright orange slip-on shoes. In all, everything was actually quite comfortable, like pajamas and slippers. I wished I had underwear and socks – and I brought these things with me – but was told it would be a day or two before the officer who could release the property to me would be there.

When I asked about why I wearing tan, they told me it was for minimum security. It was the first time I was told I’d be heading to that part of the jail. He then said because of my conviction and the fact I was known in the jail community because of the media coverage, I’d be put into a protective custody pod. That meant at least one corrections officer would be stationed outside the door at all times and that I would always be accompanied by an officer when I traveled throughout the jail. I was given a plastic duffle bag to hold any possessions I acquired in the pod. Inside it were a couple bars of soap, shampoo, a tooth brush and an orientation booklet.

The first, “Huh…I never knew that” moment was looking at the toiletries. They were all “Bob Barker” brand. I went through my entire jail time thinking it was the game show host and didn’t find out until a few years later it was just some same-named dude from the Carolinas who, like me, was ironically a former publisher and elected official. He went on to make jail toiletries. I went on to use them.

Upon arriving outside the pod, I was given a mattress, a sheet and blanket. The mattress was little more than a worn-out replica of one of those mats from gym class you’d do sit-ups on. It was around 11 a.m. when I walked in for the first time. There were six bunk beds and all except one upper-bunk were full of sleeping people. I tossed my mattress on the metal frame and climbed onto my perch.

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The pod sometimes got so crowded they would bring in “boats” for people to sleep on placed on the floor. To the left you see the door to the mostly private bathroom. Photo by Sun Journal.

I made a promise to myself that I told many people during the 22 months following my arrest and reporting day. I said that the first thing I’d do when I was situated in jail was breathe a sigh of relief because I knew how much time I was doing and I knew when it would be over. Two years of not knowing really wears a person – and his loved ones – down.

So I sat on my bed and looked around at the 11 people asleep around me. This was my new reality. Every second that passed would be one second closer to being out.

Several years have passed since I left, but the jail is only about a two-minute drive my house and I probably pass it 10 times a week. About half of them I see and reflect on the fact there is an entire different culture going on inside of the building I never want to be a part of again. The other half of the time, I drive by without noticing. I’m not sure which is healthier.

Check out my latest article in Recovery Today magazine about inpatient rehab

If you’ve got a couple minutes to take a break from indulging from Resurrection and Looking for Eggs, here is my latest contribution to Recovery Today magazine. If you haven’t checked out this magazine, it’s equally as useful and informative for those with or without addiction/recovery situations in their lives. Subscriptions are free.

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I guess if I’m starting to be featured in magazines, maybe I should embrace that porn addiction expert title they keep throwing at me on podcasts.

The -est day of my life

Today marks exactly four years that a knock at my door changed my life forever. The Maine State Police were there to arrest me for my inappropriate online behavior. It was the scariest, saddest, worst, loneliest day of my life.

Exactly 1,461 days have passed since that day. If you would have told me on that day that four years later, I’d have a better relationship with my family, less stress and anxiety, a job that paid more for less work, rejuvenated mental health and be free of my pornography and alcohol addictions, I would have said, “Where do I sign?”

I couldn’t see it on that day. That day was the fiercest, muddiest, freakiest, emptiest day I’d known.

Yes, I lost everything I worked for professionally and it was my fault. Life ceased to exist as I knew it on that day. It took a little while to recognize it, but that was not a bad thing.

And that is why now, I look at March 20, 2014 as the clearest, luckiest, happiest, best, gladdest and most honest day of my life.