Yesterday, after 66 days sober of compulsive porn and masturbation, I relapsed. This post is to allow me to get into writing what happened, why it happened, and what I can do to prevent a future re-occurrence.
Either the day of the relapse or before, when browsing the ‘controversial’ filter of my reddit homepage, a pic of a model appeared. The pic itself wasn’t nude, but the comments section contained plenty of links to nude images (and I knew they would). I was in a state of mind where, with 66 days of sobriety behind me, I was feeling pretty confident about my ability to handle triggering images, but later on I came back to the post and clicked one of the links. It was a bit of excitement, just to see the forbidden fruit and ‘test’ myself. At the time, I remember feeling that it didn’t actually do anything for me – I didn’t really get turned on, in fact I remember feeling the opposite – I felt “this is behind me now, this is an artificial representation of female sexuality and I don’t need it anymore”.
However, clearly there was more going on in my head asI came back to the links a second time later on, and looked at a few more. Then, my wife went to bed and I was up on my own. I clicked another link, which went to a non-porn video website that had associated videos which were softcore porn. I put my phone down to resist, knowing full well the territory I was now entering. But a few minutes later I came back and watched a few of them. Then I put my phone down again. By this point the prospect of watching porn was getting pretty real in my head but I was still resisting. Then something gave way, I opened up my laptop and watched porn – “edging” (where you watch and masturbate to porn but don’t orgasm) for about 45 minutes. Then by chance my wife called me to bed and I closed my laptop and went upstairs.
I was battling in my head about whether what I had done counted as a relapse, as I hadn’t climaxed. Deep down, I knew it did, and that my counter of 66 days needed to be reset, but I was trying to think of a rational way of not resetting my counter and not counting it as a relapse. I knew that I would have felt very differently (both physically and emotionally) had I actually climaxed, but I also knew that whenever I discuss this topic with other addicts, my opinion is consistent: edging is relapsing.
My wife then got up to breastfeed our newborn daughter, and I suggested I go to the spare room to get some sleep (we each take turns to do this so we aren’t both tired at the same time). Probably about 10% of me knew I was suggesting this as way of putting myself back in a position where I could look at porn again, and perhaps finish off what I had started. This is known as a cognitive distortion – justifying putting yourself in a situation where you know you may watch porn.
I went to the spare room and almost instantly started watching porn on my phone again. I quickly decided that I had clearly relapsed and that I needed to get it over and done with. In my experience, edging then stopping leaves me in a weird state of emotions for days (usually leading to more edging and an eventual climax), and I usually only get back on track once I have actually climaxed as there is just too much going on in my head. In the past, I have often just decided to climax once I’ve found myself edging, just to get it out of the way and back to recovery (this has been a valid technique in my experience, not an excuse).
So I watched porn. For hours. Climaxing three times, getting about 2 hours sleep. This is known as binging. The preferable method of relapsing, if there is one, is to watch porn briefly only once then get back to staying sober, but so often when I’ve watched porn once, and I know I’ve failed for that day, I tell myself I may as well watch more until the night is over as it won’t make that day any more ‘failed’ than it already is. Again, a cognitive distortion.
In the morning, I told my wife. I have never lied to her since I started my recovery in earnest, and so I explained briefly why I think I did it (see below) and what I need to do differently. She was very upset, not just because I had relapsed but because she is suffering from extreme tiredness and felt hurt I had been given the gift of a solid 6 hours sleep in the spare room (something she’s not had since the birth) and I just used it to watch porn. She also was hoping since the birth that the addiction was in the past. She had a cry, we talked a bit more, had a hug, and we’re ok now – we’re in this together.
Why did it happen?
I think this one is quite easy to answer. About 1.5 weeks ago I became a dad. Since then, sleep has been a thing of magical fantasy, as has ‘me time’. I’ve been constantly on duty for 10 days – changing nappies, cuddling the baby while my wife sleeps, supporting my wife, cooking etc.
I had started to feel a bit claustrophobic and constricted – ‘cabin fever’. I hadn’t seen any of my friends (the few that I have), but had played host while my wife had plenty of her friends round, and I hadn’t really left the house. I needed to vent; an outlet just to give myself some time to myself. Nothing serious, I don’t want to escape from my responsibilities or anything like that, but I started to feel like I just needed to give myself some time to explore my own mind a bit and relax. My wife recognised this days ago and encouraged me to do so, but I didn’t do it. I think the addict in me knew that if I didn’t give myself some time, I would continue to get more worked up and increase the chances of watching porn, so I resisted doing something ‘wholesome’ for myself (e.g. read a book, go for a cycle, play guitar etc).
In addition to not devoting time to myself, since the birth I had stopped doing all the recovery activities that I had put in place. This included:
- Writing my journal each night, including listing 5 things I am grateful for or have achieved
- Reading my pillars
- Going to SAA meetings and therapy
- Healthy activities (cycling, guitar, reading etc)
These are all activities that I have added to my life in order to counteract specific aspects of my addiction. Since the birth, I’ve completely stopped doing all of them. Why? Well, a mixture of being too tired and distracted by new routines, and also a bit of hope that I’m over porn and I don’t need to anymore. Clearly that isn’t true.
So, the combination of not having enough sleep, feeling mentally constricted by not giving myself any space, and not performing any of my recovery activities, led to an unmanageable build up of stress and anxiety, leading me to watch porn to self-soothe. I did it as I needed an escape, and porn is the most efficient escape I know. Funnily enough, I wasn’t really feeling ‘triggered’ in the usual sense – I wasn’t full of urges to watch porn. I just wanted to have some time to myself. This is something I have identified a while back as part of my addiction, hence the need to introduce healthy activities to replace porn, but as these were not being done, porn became the go-to solution.
What does this mean?
I asked myself how significant this relapse was. There are those on the internet that think that a sober ‘streak’ is all that matters, and totally berate themselves for slipping up. I am not in that camp. Statistically speaking, my measure of success has so far been monthly trends of % clean. I started at 68% sober in July 2014, slowly rising until I got to 100% in January and February 2015.
It is really easy to lose faith and motivation from a relapse, but it is very important to avoid this. There is an inner voice of desperation that I hear when I relapse, which tells me to give up and stop trying to quit because I never will be able to. I have to silence this voice with determination and positivity. Therefore, my stance on this relapse is that I did amazingly well to get to day 67 and have made so much progress not only in abstinence but in understanding who I am and how to reconnect with my life. Having assessed why I slipped up, I feel I can accept this relapse on the basis that a) it is understandable given the change my life is going through becoming a dad and b) I am going to learn from it and commit to putting in place steps to try and avoid a recurrence in similar situations.
If anyone reading this is now thinking that I’m giving myself an easy ride, you may be falling into the shame trap. Addictions are fuelled by shame, self-doubt and negativity. Dwelling on a relapse, kicking myself, telling myself how much I’ve failed, are all logical reactions but entirely counter-productive to recovery, so I will not be doing any of these things. But, make no mistake, inside I am saddened by my relapse and it is not easy to re-motivate. But I will.
What will I do differently / what can I learn from this?
So, now what? Based on the reasons for my relapse, what I will do now is:
- Re-instate a program of healthy recovery activities that I had unwittingly abandoned, at a level of regularity that fits in with my increased levels of responsibility and duties as a father. I haven’t yet defined this specifically, but something along the lines of:
- Perhaps a nightly journal is too ambitious and I should reduce this to weekly.
- Re-dedicate 10 minutes a day (or every other day?) to meditation (I started using www.headspace.com – “meditation for dummies”)
- Try harder to replace my unhealthy time-filling activities (mindlessly browsing reddit etc) with healthy ones like reading, playing guitar or exercise. Going back to work from paternity leave will re-introduce the exercise as I commute on a bicycle.
- Learn to identify when I’m feeling too constricted and need time to myself. I’ve identified that sometimes, due to feelings of urges, I may not be pro-active enough to make myself do an activity, and so I’ve asked my wife to remind me of this and essentially force me to go and do something productive.
- Learn to reach out for help. When I’m struggling, there are so many people I can call upon, but I don’t do it. I’m not quite sure why not, but I need to try.
What am I not going to do differently?
Whenever abstinence from porn is discussed, the topic of content restrictions and blocks must always be considered, but it is something I’m not yet prepared to go back to. My wife and I tried it for one month last year and it was the worst month of my entire recovery – trying to break the blocks became more of a game than actually watching porn, and I felt that I was training my brain to rely on blocks rather than self-control. So for now I’m going to continue to use reddit etc, as I believe the risk of stumbling across NSFW content is worth it compared to the myriad of troubles (and lack of success) I experienced with a content blocking approach.
So there we go. There’s my account of my relapse, what it means to me and what I’m going to do to try and avoid a further relapse under similar situations next time. Maybe this will be interesting to others, but it at least serves as a reminder and documentation to myself.
As they say in the 12 step program, “we seek progress not perfection“.