I Totally Forgot My Anniversary of Sobriety…Maybe That’s a Good Thing

I’m writing this the evening of March 22, 2016. March 20, which is the anniversary of the last time I used pornography (six years and two days ago) and I didn’t realize it. In past years, it’s something I’ve seen coming and celebrate. I know we’ve got a worldwide plague going on, but I don’t know how much that really distracted me this year.

The truth is, I don’t feel any more special than I did on years 4 or 5. I expect to feel the same on year 7, with 100% assumption I’ll get there. Sure, I’m proud of myself, but it’s my new normal. It’s not even my new normal. it’s just my normal. I don’t know if my normal state of being is what is to be praised or if failing my normal state of being is now the bigger story, should it ever happen. I don’t think about the fact on April 1, it will be 6 years since I’ve had a drink because I just don’t drink anymore, much like I don’t about how on April 15 it’ll be 28 years since I got my driver’s license. I’ll only think about how long I’ve been driving when I crash the car.

I think the celebration of milestones is a little piece of what drove me from the 12-step groups. You get chips/coins for certain amounts of days, months or years that you’re sober, like little trophies. Since a pathological need for trophies was part of my sick former life, and I operate better without them now, highlighting moments that I feel should be part of the process seems wrong in my situation. If you feel better about a coin that says you didn’t use in a certain amount of time, please, take one. I just don’t want it.

I have two coins that mean something to me and I got each upon graduating from my two inpatient rehabs, respectively. I see them about once a year when I clean out my desk drawer.

I guess by mentioning the milestone of two days ago, it does still mean something to me, but more than that, I want anybody reading who is short of six years or has absolutely no time behind them to realize that you can get here. If I, who was a porn addict, alcoholic, horrible husband, father and son, self-centered narcissist and egotist who thought you were only put on this earth to serve my needs can change 180 degrees, so can you.

Early recovery is a bitch, but it does get easier. Yes, your life will change. Yes, many of the people around you will change. But those are good, necessary things. I’ve still not met a truly recovered person who is not far happier than when they were using. After a while, you even stop romanticizing the “good times” and see them as what they were, the “sick times.”

We’re in a weird time right now, and I worry about former addicts falling back into old roles and those in early recovery tossing in the towel. If there was any time to say, “screw it” one could make the argument it’s now, but those of us deep into recovery can testify there is no time to say “screw it” ever. Especially if you’re a sex addict. Heh heh heh. We have nothing if we don’t have laughter.

So yeah, six years. Yay me. Go wash your hands.

The Third Addiction was Workaholism and I Must Never Forget It

I don’t know exactly how it happened, but in early recovery, I talked a lot about my workaholism with therapists and in different processing groups I was a part of, but somewhere along the way the porn addiction education/advocacy took over and it has largely remained a silent part of my story.

While I was a moderately well-known guy in Maine’s largest high school, I don’t know if I’d cross the line into the word “popular” and like most of my life, don’t think the word “well-liked” would have been applied by many. I was never able to hide my Machiavellian tendencies, but didn’t care. Unlike many who were experiencing their glory years before my eyes, I saw high school as little more than a legal requirement for whatever was next.

Screen Shot 2019-12-23 at 8.50.25 AMThat changed the day between my junior and senior years of high school when, at 17, I walked into the local newspaper office as an employee for the first time. Unlike working at the baseball card store at the mall or the Burger King on the Maine Turnpike, I didn’t detest going into work. I actually loved it. I started at the bottom rung as a sports clerk and within two years I was handling the beats of writers on the city side when they were on vacation or when the position was vacant. It was somewhat understood they weren’t going to hire a 19-year-old multi-time college dropout for a full-time position.

They walked back that stance when I was 20 and the industry moved to 100% desktop publishing. The software used at the time, QuarkXPress, was not hard for me to pick up, but for those people who had worked decades pasting up columns in the old-school way papers were made, the transition was rough. I was hired full-time to design pages at night while still keeping the technically part-time with full-time hours gig of writing during the day.

Screen Shot 2019-12-23 at 8.51.37 AMI felt important in the newsroom. I wasn’t among people who made poor decisions and now had to make burgers for Canadian tourists on the turnpike. I also didn’t have to deal with 9-year-old boys who wanted to tell me I was wrong about a baseball card that was made 30 years before they were born. These people didn’t see age and it was empowering. I was expected to deliver as good as the person sitting next to be who had been there 20 years and had a college degree.

Thankfully, I rose to the occasion and tried to work as many hours as possible. I took to design like I took to writing and felt completely in control of my life when I was part of the team putting together the Lewiston Sun Journal. There was no porn addict within those walls. Despite approaching legal drinking age, I didn’t have a beer before my shift, which I can’t say about every shift at Burger King. It’s one of the few jobs I’ve ever had when the boss announced someone could go home early, I’d shoot my hand in the air like Horshack on Welcome Back Kotter.

As the years went by and I grew my resume and climbed up the editing ranks to a point I rarely wrote anymore and was learning the administrative side of things, I always loved the news/publishing industries. Forget no two days being the same. No two hours were the same. I met amazing, sometimes famous people. I experienced things I could have only dreamed about as a kid, I saw government work from the inside and made decisions to help shape how the public received its news. It always felt like I was doing something that mattered.

I launched my magazine in 2009, 16 years after I’d entered the journalism business, despite only being 33 at the time. I had literally spent half my life working at newspaper and magazines and finally had my own.

Screen Shot 2019-12-23 at 8.52.56 AMI won’t go through the highlights or lowlights of the next four years, but for everything my professional life had provided prior, it was now exponential. I had responsibility like never before, but I loved devoting my life to the professional cause. Over the five years the business existed, we launched another magazine and a film festival. Work became just about the only thing that I defined myself on, which was a shame, because I had the world’s greatest wife and two terrific kids that I didn’t spend enough time with. If they wanted to do something with me, it was usually tagging along to one of my professional commitments.

When things took their real turn for the worse and I full-on began to neglect my mental health, it felt like work betrayed me more than anything. When the magazine was collapsing under its own weight and my lack of business skill, it felt like my world was imploding. Instead of medicating properly with my bipolar medication, I abandoned that and used alcohol and porn to soothe the wounds. Yeah, that sounds stupid in retrospect to me, too.

I think I talked so much about work in early recovery because I was still very fresh from losing my professional life. I knew no matter the outcome of any legal matters, my time creating a product for a local audience was over. One of the first “a-ha!” moments of recovery was recognizing that the only place I ever felt I had control, work, had in fact been an illusion for quite some time. I was a flight attendant on a plane plunging to the ground giving passengers comforting glances while they looked back at me saying, “You genuinely don’t recognize we’re going down, do you?”

Screen Shot 2019-12-23 at 8.54.41 AMOne of the biggest moments in early recovery was when a friend, a former Hells Angel member who had been kicked out for illegal activity and was essentially hiding from the law at rehab while his pregnant girlfriend half his age tried to kick heroin, brought up the fact I wasn’t the successful businessperson I portrayed myself to be.

It was a bit of a kick in the groin hearing it, but he was right. Had things not turned out the way they did, I would have driven that magazine straight into the ground within about six months. That’s not success and that’s not control. I had both of those for a while, but began lying to myself when they had disappeared.

In the moment, my workaholism probably did more to hurt my family than either of my addictions. I think when it comes to family, one of the most important things is simply showing up and being there. I rarely did this and missed some key moments.

I do have to add that part of my ongoing recovery has been not torching everything to the ground that was connected to my magazine. We did a lot of good work and shared many important stories. We gave awareness to good causes and worked hard to make our community a better place. None of that should be tainted by the horrible way it all ended, although I’m sure for many, it is. Despite that, I’ve shared a few of my favorite covers with you as I don’t think anybody has seen this magazine I often write about.

These days, I don’t define myself on my work, whether it’s the mindless ghostwriting I do for corporate clients or the pornography addiction education route. But I don’t define myself based on the family now either. I try not to define myself at all beyond a man constantly searching for balance.

Assuming this is the last thing I write before Christmas, I wish those who celebrate a Merry Christmas. If you’re in the midst of Hanukkah, enjoy that. Or Kwanza. Or whatever you’re into. Don’t let differences between people define us. There’s enough of that going in the world.

It Was Harder Growing Up With Religion Than Recovering Without It

When a new book comes out, I generally get a lot of messages and while it’s happening again, I’ve had several this week that had deeply religious connotations and I don’t know if they don’t read the site or I haven’t explained it well in a long time, but I figure since it’s Sunday, it would be a great day to get into the whole spirituality/religion thing with you.

I apologize up front as I know this is going to be all over the place, long and I’m sure unintentionally offensive to some.

I was raised by a devout Catholic father and a hugely, hugely devout Catholic mother. They were raised by largely absentee, alcoholic parents. Their faith was something they pursued as they both went to parochial school. They didn’t meet until college, but I think the fact their religious upbringing was so similar helped things.

As I told someone the other day, words like “God,” “sin,” “Bible” etc. are a little bit triggering for me and I think I know why. I have started to draw a lot of parallels to my need for control that was borne out of the environment where my abuse took case. Let me stress I was not abused in the church, but being in a place where I felt completely helpless and lost was not good for my mental health.

I was the inquisitive little kid who had questions at Sunday School or for my mother. The answer was usually the same, “Don’t ask questions” or “It’s God’s Law.” That’s not an environment for somebody like me, who already had power and control issues, was going to thrive.

The rare answers I got didn’t make any sense and attending church was a miserable experience, only second to Sunday school. I would say that other kids around me were having a better time, but based on the exodus from the Catholic Church in America, they just weren’t marketing it to kids in the ’80s very well. They did not communicate what God was supposed to be in a way that we understood. Like chemistry or physics in high school, eventually one gives up trying to understand.

Back then, you went through Confirmation at 15 or 16 and I made a deal with my parents that I’d agree to be confirmed, but at that point, I was going to stop going to Church. They did their job getting me that far, but I was done. I think they recognized I wasn’t joking. I didn’t hate their faith, but I didn’t have it.

My Higher Power, The Afterlife and Mom Gets Mad

Keep in mind that while I attempt to be respectful of people’s religious beliefs, I think the biggest thing missing from the religious (not necessarily spiritual) is the ability to put themselves in the shoes of someone who doesn’t subscribe to the exact same doctrine that they do. I mean, you only have to look at history’s great wars; almost all have a religious angle to them. One of the reasons that 12 Step Groups were not my ultimate answer was (aside from the fact that they don’t really mean “higher power of your choosing” because they end every meeting with a Christian prayer) there is no room to talk about what not having a higher power means.

I have never felt powerless over alcohol or porn because despite my lowest points, I was the only who actually had the power. I just chose not to use it. Today, I have a concept of a higher power that I simply call “the universe” and it doesn’t really have a set of rules, dogma or doctrine you have to follow. It doesn’t care if you get a midnight abortion or if gay people marry. It isn’t about raising a dime, nor about any particular book. I don’t pray to it, nor does it threaten to smite me when I don’t. My concept of it is vague, but I don’t need to have all the details. It’s a balancing energy in the universe and that’s all I really need to know. I have a Higher Power and that’s that. It just doesn’t have a name tag or handbook.

People get awkward fast when I tell them that I don’t really care if there’s an afterlife. I don’t think there is, there has never been a single piece of proof there is, and while it’s a pleasant story, I believe that you get your years on Earth and then you’re done. And I’m far more OK with that than the people who hear me say it, because they can’t believe I’d have such a view. It’s fine because it doesn’t have to be your belief, and vice versa.

This is clearly turning into a ramble, but here’s a quick story for you. As I mentioned, I was raised Catholic by two very devout, wonderful people. I was baptized, did the first communion and confirmation all in the same church. Saw many of my relatives married and memorialized there as well, and midnight mass on Christmas was a regular stop for me even long after I left my parents’ home. There was a purge here of Catholic churches in Maine about 10-12 years ago. The numbers of parishoners had dropped so dramatically, the diocese said they couldn’t afford to keep the churches open. My family’s church ended up on this list of closures, like 5 of the 7 churches in our town. With our particular church, the reason given was that it was too expensive to heat the church between September and May. It’s a valid argument. The place was huge and old members were dying off like 8-to-1 against bringing in new members and tithing just wasn’t what it used to be.

My mom asked me to come on that last day and being a sometimes sentimental, nostalgic person, I said OK. I didn’t enjoy the thousands of hours I spent there, but knowing it would be my last hour was a little sad. When the service was over – ironically to a packed house like they hadn’t seen in years – there was an organization in the back that was collecting money to try and overturn one of Maine’s gay rights laws. It didn’t bother me because it’s an issue that’s been decided and the right side won. When we got to the car, my mother let loose on the Church, I think for the first time in her life and I wouldn’t have believed it unless I was there. I’ll spare the long diatribe, but she thankfully saw the complete hypocrisy and overall wrongness of a Church that couldn’t stay open because of lack of funds collecting funds for a group that wants to discriminate. I pointed out how well the UU church was doing in town in terms of both attendance and funding. They, of course, were gay-friendly. Since that day, my mother still goes to church elsewhere, but it’s with far, far less devotion than she did in the past. She’ll even skip Sundays if the mood strikes her. She’s finally come around to what I recognized a long time ago – you need neither a book, nor a building to have a relationship with a Higher Power.

In losing a giant chunk of my mom, the church lost one of its staunchest advocates.

Religion is Not The Only Road to Recovery

I promise I’m about to wrap this up.

I think that there are really three main branches to pornography recovery. Maybe it’s true of all addiction, but since I’m immersed in this culture, it’s what I see. Those three branches are religion, will-power, and science. People can absolutely dabble in more than one, but I find a lot of people who are into things like NoFap (will-power) refuse to see a real therapist and many religious people think you can pray away a medical condition. Obviously, I’m a big believer in the science side of things because that is my experience and it was successful.

Nonetheless, if you go to the WordPress reader and type in “Pornography Addiction” or “Pornography Recovery” you’re going to probably find 75% of the entries have some reference to The Bible. Beyond the whole shaming thing that religious people are so good at doing to others which is an entirely other issue, the overall theme of these entries is that one must follow a religious path to addiction recovery, just like you have to follow their religious path to the afterlife.

It’s just not true. I mean, I can point to plenty of people it worked for, but I can point to plenty of people, myself included, who are happy and healthy without a word of Scripture read in recovery.

I’m OK if you want to use God as a tool for pushing recovery as long as you’re not shaming the addict, but it can’t be the only tool used and it can’t be preached that without God, recovery is impossible. That’s plainly wrong and frankly, a dangerous thing to say for two reasons: a) You wouldn’t encourage a person with cancer or severe hemorrhaging to only pray…you’d get them real medical treatment; b) Somebody believing your attitude may be stopped from recovery if the religious route doesn’t work for them. Is it better they go your way and fail or go their own way and succeed?

I’m sure many of those who actually got this far were offended along the way, and I apologize if my words were ever poorly chosen. There were a few places I debated writing certain things, but went for it anyway. I know that my personal issues with the church and religion are just that – my personal issues – and I know they carry over into my writing, but in a space where I try to be honest to a fault, even when it rankles some feathers, I thought it was time to explain myself.

I don’t know if there was any theme here but I guess sometimes these blogs are just for ranting and working things out.

 

 

Think Addiction and Bipolar Disorder aren’t Connected? Think Again.

Quite often when I’m doing interviews, I’m asked about the connection between my bipolar disorder and my alcoholism and pornography addiction. I’ve always felt like there was some link between the two, but I finally did a little research to confirm it. As it turns out, there’s a huge link.

Bipolar disorder, which has made it onto the list of most self-diagnosed conditions (migraines continues to top that chart), actually only occurs in between 1.5 and 2.5 percent of the population according to one 2018 study. Another said that it was 4.4%, so I guess you have to believe the one you want.

I was diagnosed at age 26, although I can recognize episodes of mania and depression going back to my mid-teens, not-so-coincidentally when my addictions first began to surface. Ironically, the average age for onset of bipolar disorder is 25, but I know I had it long before that.

Unfortunately, there is not a lot of research yet on the likelihood of someone with behavioral addictions like sex/porn addiction, gambling addiction or video game addiction also suffering from bipolar disorder, but based on what we know with substance addictions, I think it’s safe to say there’s a link.

To the unaware, bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic depression) is essentially a psychiatric disorder characterized by unstable moods, depression or mixed manic and depressive episodes that are accompanied by drastic changes in sleep patterns and energy levels. Erratic, irrational decision-making can also be a sign of untreated bipolar disorder.

Back when I went untreated, manic was my norm. It was the bouts of depression that indicated to me something was wrong. I’m not going to give my entire history here, but if you’d like to see an article I wrote for my magazine way back in the day where I essentially confessed to the community I had bipolar disorder, click here. It’s a long read, but a good one.

I’m going to try not to turn this into an academic paper, so if you want sources for my statistics, just let me know and I’ll provide them, but I’d rather these be an easier read.

In the US population, roughly 15% of the population are tobacco smokers. Among those with bipolar disorder, anywhere from 60% to 80% either were or are currently tobacco smokers. I was among those in early 20s, but I quit a two-pack-a-week habit in my mid-20s. I took it up again shortly after I was arrested (ironically in rehab) in 2014 and kept it up for about 9 months before quitting again.

In the US, about 1-in-8 people, or 12.5% or the population can be classified as alcoholics. Among those who have bipolar disorder, it’s closer to 42% to 44%, depending on which study you use. I was firmly in this group as well.

As for drugs, someone with bipolar is 14 times more likely to have a substance use disorder than a person without. In fact, over half the people with bipolar disorder (56%) have a history of illegal drug use. One study I saw said that number could be as high as 70%. Although I experimented a little bit, I never embraced illegal drugs the way I did alcohol or pornography.

There is information out there that also links bipolar disorder to populations who report much higher than average anxiety, ADHD and eating disorders.

It’s important to note that it’s just not higher rates of addiction among people with bipolar disorder. You’ll find higher rates of homelessness, violence (both committed by and against), crime and suicide in this population.

There is no known cause for bipolar disorder, addiction, or co-occurrence. It’s just as important to highlight that addiction does not cause bipolar disorder and while the numbers clearly indicate those with bipolar disorder have a much, much higher likelihood of a co-occurring disorder, it is not guaranteed. Researchers believe a combination of factors, such as environment, genetics, biology, etc., are believed to play a role in both bipolar disorder and addiction. Reading between the lines, that seems code for, “We still have no idea.”

When I was at rehab, it felt like two-out-of-three people claimed they had bipolar disorder. I thought they were way overstating it, but as it turns out, maybe those numbers were right on the money.

I hope that the scientists who conduct the kinds of studies and surveys that I referenced above are studying behavioral addictions look to establish a connection between them and bipolar disorder as they’ve done with substance addictions. Anecdotally, based on the sex and porn addicts I’ve known, I think you’ll see very big numbers.

Recovery Included the Surprisingly Therapeutic Task of Simplifying My Life Story

I’ve been a professional writer since I was 17 years old, which means people have been paying me to put words down on paper that others presumably want to read for 26 years now. Oddly enough, it’s a couple of non-paying assignments that I think have helped me the most in recent years.

Despite a few need-to-survive, part-time jobs here and there, writing is all I’ve ever really done in my professional life, yet I know if I never got a cent again, writing would continue to be the cheapest and one of the most crucial parts of my recovery.

When I entered my first rehab for alcoholism in April 2014, one of the first assignments given to me was to write my autobiography to share with the group. Every newbie got this assignment. While telling our overall story, we were asked to focus in on the things that brought us to rehab. I ended up writing 56 pages. When Bob, my caseworker, heard about this, he said that I should not read mine, and just tell the story from memory.

I thought I was doing everyone a favor because most of my fellow residents wrote three or four pages. I wanted to show everybody writing was my strength and delight them with an epic tale of triumph and tragedy. Then, I couldn’t even read it.

Fast-forward a year or so and I’ve entered my second rehab for the porn addiction. Once again, they asked me as a newcomer to share my story. Remembering that I went overboard at the first place, I wrote 30 pages this time. I did get to read it in my daily small group session, but the feedback was still that it was too long. There were many important parts of the story, but they were buried within sections that were just long anecdotes, the group agreed.

After I got out of jail, one of my probation conditions was to participate in group therapy with men who also had sexual offenses. Unsurprisingly, I was told to write my life story. This time, I wrote about eight pages and nobody complained about the length. After three attempts over three years, I was finally able to highlight the important parts of the story. The point of the assignment clicked.

* * *

All three times, I was required to write my story by hand. Maybe that should have been a clue it didn’t need to be a novel. Writing by hand is a bit of an old trick, believed to force the writer to think about their words more carefully. I can type around 75 words per minute, but I know I can’t write that fast.

My story isn’t about funny or interesting events that happened at my jobs. It isn’t about trying to prove I’m a good father or husband. Nobody needs a rundown of places I’ve travelled or sidebars full of opinion. Most of my failures and triumphs have just been run-of-the-mill and had no serious long-term effects on my life.

No, my story is about a kid who was raised by decent parents who made the one mistake of picking the wrong babysitter. The time spent at that babysitter created maladaptive coping skills, which were only enhanced when I developed early addictions to pornography and alcohol. Despite putting together a fairly normal life, those addictions and poor coping skills remained. I was (finally) correctly diagnosed with mental health issues, including bipolar disorder, in my early 20s, but despite therapy and medication, I continued as a functional addict. That stopped in my mid-30s when negative conditions in my life caused a complete breakdown. Part of the breakdown involved an illegal act, but that was my opportunity to seek help. I’ve done well in recovery, never having relapsed, and now have coping skills and tools that were lacking for years. I’m relatively content now as I warn others of the harm of pornography addiction and make up for lost time with my family.

That’s it. That’s my life. Despite the hundreds of thousands of words I’ve written, that’s what it comes down to and I think it’s important I can sum it up in 160 words. It allows me to focus on what’s really important. Yes, details count, but in this case brevity is therapeutic.

I know many of the people reading this have their own blogs, or do a lot of writing as part of their professional endeavors, but if you’ve never done it, I would urge all of you to write your life story in five or six pages and then write a single paragraph summarizing it. If you write long, edit it down when finished. Given those somewhat limiting parameters, it’s surprising what you can learn about yourself.