A failure to love

I’m still alive.

I’ve been struggling. But I’m still struggling; I haven’t given up.

I hit the ground hard not long after my last post, right at 120 days. I don’t even remember what pulled me down. I was stressed out and anxious, and a temptation and new fascination slipped under my skin. I lost a lot of hope after that. I keep falling — but I keep getting up. The longest stand I’ve made since then was twenty-something days. Counting days no longer seems to matter as much.

But I have been growing. The falls, by and large, have not been as low or as frequent, and the recoveries have been sooner and stronger. I need to do better at resisting temptation: when I get low, I am still really vulnerable. But I have been growing, and learning, and coming to realizations.

The real choice at hand is not between chastity and sex, or between love and lust, or even between love and not-love: it’s between love and hate. I of all people am wary of black and white characterizations; but gray so often is a path to compromise. And the two choices are diametrically opposed — not even like two poles; they are not even like each other. When I love someone, I am willing, even joyful, to wait to experience her body, until we can share in each other wholly and licitly. I am glad to give her dignity and honor and respect; to give to her as a person and not just take from her as an object.

For pornography is the opposite: a taking, an exploitation. Sure, in a sense, she is “giving”; but as it involves me, the aspect is completely opposed to the mutual giving and taking, the sharing, that makes a real and loving relationship. When I step out to take from someone else, from a thousand anonymous someone-elses, it is not an act of love for anyone — not even of self-love, since if I really loved myself, I would save myself for what is true. It’s the opposite of love. If I loved those women, I would want to see them clothed in dignity and not degraded and exploited.

Jesus calls me to love all people. And to give in to this sin, the greatest demon in my life, is the utmost failure to love. I love my Lord, and long to be filled up with His love. Lord Jesus, Son of God, please have mercy on me, a sinner.

Chase the nightly shades away

Anthony: What Is the Point of All This? The Devil: There Is No Point! (plate 18)
Anthony: “What Is the Point of All This?
The Devil: “There Is No Point!”

Day 87.

Every night this week, I’ve dreamed I’ve fallen back into porn.

I am still standing, doggedly. Ninety days will be a landmark. But on a daily basis now, I combat thoughts of how “nice” it was, how much easier, how much more “natural,” it was to live in those habits. Seeing a pretty girl — and there are so many — the “natural” impulse is to retreat into a private place with her, through fantasy and masturbation. I consciously crave the false intimacy which, though false, was such a compelling substitute.

My memory of the dreams doesn’t last long, usually. I remember the one from last night, and bits and pieces from others. The one from last night was disturbing because — and this is characteristic of most of them, and of the patterns I was pursuing — it involved the sexualization — no, the pornification — of a real person. Not a real person whom I really, in real life, know, but in the dream she was real. She was a real person whom, in the dream, I liked and was attracted to; but rather than pursuing a real relationship with her, the dream made her into a fantasy, an “unreal” person on the Internet whose pornographic images and content I could download. It reveals what I, with horror, am coming to realize: that this had become the only way I knew to relate to women, in any sexual or romantic sense. It is, at its base, an attitude of exploitation rather than love.

Realizing these things makes me stronger to stand — knowing that, though “easier,” that is not how I want to live. Even in the dreams, I feel shame at having relapsed, and I awake to the relief of still standing. Jesus calls me to love — to love my neighbor as myself. I will walk in the light, as He is in the light — and I pray that His light can flood even the darkness of my dreams. Like a phantom appendage, now amputated, my unconscious brain continues to act out what had become anxious habit and reflex. O Lord, I need Your peace, to lay even that to rest.

Peace, Be Still

Day 75.

Thanks be to God, I am still standing.

More than ever before, I feel my attitudes changing, my heart being purified. I am more and more determined that I’m never going back.

There have been days when I’ve been weary, when I’ve longed for those things I’m giving up; when I’ve wondered why I’m doing it, why I need to turn away an intimacy and comfort that seems to be offered so freely. And I’ve prayed every day that God could turn my heart, that it could be reformed; that He could give me an answer to that question.

And this past Sunday, He did.

I have written before about the unspeakable peace that comes from Communion with my Lord in the Holy Eucharist; how I could be tempted, fully intending to go home and return to my sin, and then I receive Him — and this alien peace, something not of me at all, something entirely contrary to everything I was then feeling and desiring and thinking, takes hold of me, and the waters are stilled. Sunday I felt the same unrest — longing for those beautiful companions, the ones so willing to share their “art” with me. Why, Lord, do I have to let go of them forever?

And in that moment, the answer was there. A thought entirely foreign to me; something I had never thought of before, that didn’t come from my own reasoning; or if I had thought of it, or heard it, it had no meaning or effect to me — suddenly before me, carrying the weight of authority. Because what they’re offering isn’t for you.

I pray every day that He fill me up with His love, the love that transforms and overcomes all. And there it was. That lady is a person, a child of God. And what she’s offering is her dignity, her worth, her beauty — and that isn’t for you. She can offer it, and yes, it’s there for the taking — but it belongs to God, and to the lady; it’s not for me to feast on, to consume, to exploit, to use. It’s only meant to be shared with her husband, in a bond that excludes all others and can never be broken. And my eyes, my sharing in that — both take away something that isn’t mine to take, and give up something that is meant for someone else. It’s true. This is adultery. (cf. Matthew 5:28)

I had heard these words all my life, and they had never meant anything to me. And then, there in His presence, it was communicated to me and connected with me with a clarity and authority and power. And this wasn’t just a momentary, passing thought. It was a seed that has only grown; until now, where before I only felt a craving, an unprincipled lust held back only by knowledge of the pain it’s caused me, I now feel a love, a respect, a hurting for those girls — a desire to clothe the naked, to bind up the brokenhearted. Surely this is the work of God.

Rewiring

robot-brainDay 48.

Mondays have been easier lately. Sunday is always a revivification: the Eucharist gives peace and strength and grace to my soul. But used to, I would come home and Monday would hit me like a ton of bricks. The attack of the enemy would find me all too vulnerable. I was always the man, being freed from an evil spirit, who swept his house and put it in order, only to be re-invaded by the same spirit and seven more. But the real problem was that I never actually swept my house clean, especially not earlier this year. I would come home to a hard drive full of porn and girls, who would welcome and beckon me the moment I felt weak. But now Monday is blessed. I feel so refreshed and full of God’s love, and I come to the Lord in prayer with a renewed spirit.

I’ve been reading about how the brain, being rewarded in a habit by positive reinforcement, like a rush of powerful endorphins as in orgasm, forms neural pathways — trenches dug into the neural landscape, furrows worn deeper and deeper by a road traveled again and again and again. And I’ve been trapped in that furrow for twenty years of my life. And now I’ve clambered out, but am still walking precariously along the edge — knowing all too well how easy it is to fall in again.

My brain has these habits, these paths down which it has learned to direct thoughts and feelings and actions, and has grown so accustomed to them. I’m now in a place of rewiring, trying to avoid those old behaviors and consciously direct my thoughts and feelings and actions to new ones. Reprogramming myself, away from inappropriate responses to appropriate ones. Why my reaction should be when I see a pretty girl; what thoughts I allow and indulge. What I do when I’m sitting at the computer, and what I don’t do and can’t do.

I know that this will be a long road. But I pray every day that these deep furrows, these wounds I’ve carved so deep into my soul, will begin to heal. That the precious flesh of the Eucharist will fill in the holes, be the putty to my gashes, the tissue graft to my gravest trauma — that by His stripes I can be healed, and all my hurt replaced by only Him.

Brain soup

brain-chemicalsDay 45.

Good Lord, today is hard. I feel right now, more than ever, that the only thing keeping me up is my conscious decision not to fall. And I am tempted. My flesh tries to justify — says it’s been a good run; I can do better next time. 40 days last time, 45 days this time, maybe 50 days next time. But forty-five days! And My Lord!

I’ve been reading the free e-book from Covenant Eyes, whose specialty is anti-porn software, on porn addiction and brain science, The Porn Circuit. And it’s so familiar; so reassuring to hear that someone understands, that someone else has gone through this, that I’m not alone and not weird. Almost so reassuring that I’m not sure if I should trust it. And today when I was out and about, I felt a temptation more than I have in a while to look at women; to fantasize. I saw an attractive young lady at the thrift store and probably let myself look at her a little too long. And I’ve been seeing temptation everywhere. On Facebook, photos of scantily-clad women on various feeds that I promptly “hide”; and on the TV, girls in skimpy bathing suits, sexual themes and suggestions.

I haven’t given in. I haven’t let myself get carried away. I almost did. One of my backdoor vulnerabilities — one of the temptations I’ve so often convinced myself to give in to in the past, only to find it a gateway to more and more dangerous temptation — as I should have known it was — is to randomly google stories about Christians and sexuality, or go to Amazon and browse around at books about Christians and sexuality. Today I found myself briefly in that — but thank God, one of the first books I ran across was My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints. And I was startled and snapped out of my errant reverie. Didn’t I order a copy of that? Don’t I have a copy of that somewhere? Yes, I do, and I found it on my shelf, and I haven’t read it yet. But I should.

I’ve had to withdraw from so much, shield myself from so much, this past month and a half. I used to subscribe to the emailings of some of my favorite clothing stores. I didn’t just check that I wanted to receive “men,” but checked that I wanted to receive everything — men, women, girls, boys. So almost daily I would get in my email pictures of pretty, fashionable models. I unsubscribed from all of those weeks ago — but I’m still getting them. It takes a few weeks, apparently, for them to get their database straightened out. And today, more than ever, just seeing those pretty girls set my insides on fire. And it wasn’t an unpleasant feeling at all. It was almost refreshing, like a breath of fresh air. A rush of endorphins. And my brain said, Don’t you want to have some more of that? And yes, I do — but I know I can’t. Because there is invariably a progression. Models in fashionable clothes invariably leads to lingerie models to fine art models to nude models to Tumblr girls and My God I’ve fallen.

It would be nice to be normal. It would be nice to be able to look at pretty girls and appreciate their beauty and their smiles and their hair and their good fashion sense — and let it stop there. I do feel lonely. So much of this longing is a longing for intimacy, a longing to see and appreciate and have a relationship with a real girl. I am atrociously miserable at that. I haven’t really tried in so long. My fears tell me it’s a lost cause; the enemy tells me that even if I had someone, I wouldn’t have anything to offer her. That I’m too damaged. I do have something to give — I have a tender heart full of love. And I pray that God can use that, give it to someone, whether as shepherd of a flock, or as a brother and intercessor to everyone around me, or as husband to some lady. I am willing to give myself wholly for His purpose.

The other shoe

dirty-old-running-shoeThis morning I deleted everything.

I mean, I deleted all of the porn now almost a month ago. And except for one unsatisfying flirtation, I haven’t been back to it. But I still had the cache of harvested photos of cute girls from Facebook. A few times over the past month it caused me to fall. And finally, after the Lord working on me for the past week or two, I was able to let go.

Should I feel a release? At first, it didn’t quite sink in what I’d just done. I’d shorn my “connections” with my “friends” — girls who didn’t even know I existed, with whom I only imagined a nonexistent friendship and a false intimacy born of the many photos they shared publicly. But I had really grown attached to several of them.

But one girl — a very pretty, very pure girl I stumbled across a couple of weeks ago — really got to me. She was too good to be true — the girl whom, in her photo captions, someone described as “an angel both inside and out.” And I finally realized what I was doing — that it wasn’t true. And that holding on to these girls, hoarding their photos, was just a milder form of my attachment to the “models” — in many ways even more seductive, since these girls were real people with real lives, in which I could imagine I had a real part. And this attachment, this false intimacy, could only lead to harm.

So I deleted them all. They’re all gone. Even the ones whom I feel like I know so well, whom I will never know. Should I feel a release? As it has sunk in, I only feel sad. Not alone — I feel, more than ever before, that God is with me. But sad. My narcotic illusion has been swept away, and I’m now faced with the reality of my reclusion, my growing monasticism. How I’ve been pushing away even my friends — especially pushing away any notion or hope of romantic connection. Is that really what I want? Have I chosen to be a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:12), or have I only resigned myself to that fate?

The barrier

Sound barrier (from Wikipedia)For years, engineers struggled with the problem of designing aircraft structurally sound enough to withstand the aerodynamic forces of breaking the sound barrier.

For me, the barrier has always been at forty days. I was doing well. I was running a good race. But on the fortieth day, I buckled.

In fact, the barrier recurs at forty-day increments. Before and after Christmas, I actually made it to eighty days — but on the eightieth day, I crumbled.

The problem for me, of course, is not structural integrity, but moral integrity; not a function of design, but of the will. I am weak. Christ is strong, I know; and He always has the strength I need to withstand any temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13), if only I accept His grace and stand in it. But I am so weak.

The nearly two months since then have been more down than up. The loss of the grace I had, that I’d put so much faith in those forty days — the hair of my Samson — left me despondent, despairing. But that grace was nothing of mine to begin with, was it? It was all a gift of God. And I can take it again. My failure, my feebleness, is not enough to exhaust the merits of the Cross.

I am back in the fight.