(Her name has been omitted to keep her identity anonymous. "A" merely stands for "Answer.")
M: How did this all start? When did you realize that you had an addiction?
A: The first encounter I had was the summer after seventh grade. It was just on YouTube. It wasn’t super explicit or anything, but it was the first time that curiosity was aroused. Like addictions always do, it just kind of escalated. I guess I admitted I had a problem to myself in 9th grade. The first person I told was my older brother at the end of 9th grade. It wasn’t until a few months later that I told my mom and she encouraged me to see my bishop. I saw my bishop when I was sixteen. Then I worked with him, and then we got a new bishop, and I kept working with new bishops and leaders and told more and more people. Then, when I was 18 I went to college. When I got here, that’s when I found out about the addiction recovery group and started going to those meetings.
M: What was your family’s response?
A: They were incredible. My brother was the first person I told. He just sat me down and put his arm around me and kept telling me that it was okay. He told me anything he knew that he thought would help me. He told me he wouldn’t tell anyone until I was ready. When I told my mom, I remember, it was after a young women’s activity. I was really active in young women’s. Everyone got along with me, everyone was my friend and it came really naturally to me. But I always felt really guilty, like a fat liar all the time. Leaders would always tell me how great I was. But I was like, “You don’t even know who I really am.” Everything they said was invalid because of a secret I kept.
I got home from mutual one night. I was sitting in the kitchen, and my mom was just cleaning dishes. I just said, “Mom, there’s something I need to tell you.” And after I told her, she just said, “That makes so much sense.” It was because I had this aversion to being touched. She always asked me if someone had been molesting me, but I said no. She said, “That makes so much sense that you would feel so… you don’t want to be violated, you don’t like being touched.” She sat me down on the couch and straight-out asked me questions, because our computer is in the family room. She said, “Aren’t you afraid that people will come in?” And I said, “Yeah, but I did it anyway.” After that, she put locks on the computer. She started checking up on me. But she always asked me, “Do you think this will help you?” She never acted like disgusted or shocked or anything. I didn’t understand that other people’s reactions would be different. I think my mom kind of understands because she was a convert to the church as a teenager, so she’s more realistic when it comes to things in the world.
While I was in the middle of telling her about my shame, my young women’s leader called me right at that moment. She just called to tell me how awesome she thought I was. She said she knew I wasn’t perfect, but she just really loved me and thought I was amazing. When I hung up the phone, my mom was like, “That was God speaking to you and telling you what He sees in you.” She never negated any other good thing I was doing, even though that was my natural instinct—to feel that any good thing I could do was counteracted by the bad things I did. She encouraged me to see my bishop even though I didn’t want to at all. You technically don’t have to see your bishop, but I would definitely recommend it. She never pushed me, though.
I decided to see my bishop. It was hard because he had been my bishop since I was eight. He was there when I got baptized. It was really hard, but it was good. He said it was a really common problem in the church, even for women. That was the first time it occurred to me that it wasn’t normal for a woman to have this problem. He said, “even women”. He kind of said it in a way that seemed like it was a man’s problem but women can sometimes have it, too. Then I realized I had never had a young women’s lesson on it. There was a lesson on media, talking about how you shouldn’t watch bad media. I remember feeling really guilty. But I remember mostly feeling really guilty because they didn’t even mention it. I felt like, “Oh, my gosh, they don’t even feel like they need to mention it.” I guess it’s just not a thing on most women’s radars… except for me. My bishop gave me an assignment of a few scriptures to read. I read all of them, and I came back and I remember he was so shocked at the work I had put into it. He said, “I’ve never seen someone work so hard.” And I said, “I really, really, really want to be over this.”
I thought that would be it. I just kind of assumed it would go away. But it didn’t. It was really frustrating to me that I had repented so many times, since I was thirteen and I realized what I was doing was wrong, I would pray and repent and read my scriptures—I read my scriptures every single day to try to compensate, because I read that if you read your scriptures you’ll be able to overcome temptation, so I read the whole Book of Mormon when I was thirteen. I read it every single day for six months, and I was convinced that if I would do that I would be able to get over it. But I didn’t. And I felt betrayed that it didn’t work. Satan made me feel like I wouldn’t ever get over it, and that it wasn’t going to work because it wasn’t working right now. But I definitely think that, because said my prayers all the time, read my scriptures, wrote in my journal everyday—I did everything I could do to make up for what I was doing. I definitely think that it helped me. It helped me gain a testimony, like doing those things always will. It also helped prevent me from doing other, worse things I could have done, which I’m grateful for. Even though I have this addiction, I still have a testimony of the Church. If I hadn’t kept being obedient in the other areas, my addiction could have taken me off the deep end.
M: So you went above and beyond what is expected of young women as a way to try to compensate. Would you want to tell the other people who may be struggling with this that their addiction does not negate the good things that they’re doing?
A: For sure. That’s still something I’m working on every single day, something I have to tell myself over and over again. Some days there’s just a really strong... like Satan has a really good strategy. “You’ve already messed up today, so why read your scriptures? What do you think—that you’re going to be a good person because you read your scriptures?” I am a firm believer that there’s not some chalk board in heaven where they’re saying, “Good thing, bad thing, good thing…” It’s a way of life. Failure in one area of your life isn’t going to take away from all the good things that you’re doing.
M: I know we read and hear a lot about how a man’s addiction to pornography affects the women in his life and the way he sees them—because you are a woman, how do you think that affects you?
A: It’s definitely been hard. A lot of times in General Conference they’ll say this is a problem for men and women, but somehow our culture doesn’t catch up to that idea. It’s talked about all the time in priesthood. Even culturally, not in the church, there’s this idea that women are not as much sexually driven, and that it’s women’s job to fight men off. You try to make sure that you’re not a temptation for men.
M: I was recently watching a TED talk about the difference between guilt and shame—guilt is “I did a bad thing”, shame is “I am a bad person", and I think in a religion that emphasizes good works it can be hard to differentiate between the two, which sometimes makes it hard for us to truly accept the Atonement. It’s difficult for us to realize that God’s love never wavers and our divine nature never changes.
A: The difference between guilt and shame, I think, is a huge thing. I remember one experience I had. It was my sophomore year in college. I remember I messed up again for the millionth time, and I was so frustrated with myself. I was praying, but I was yelling at anything that would listen, “Heavenly Father, how can you forgive me? I keep doing it, then I keep apologizing, but I keep doing it and then apologizing. Why do you keep buying it? I’m not even buying it anymore!”
But then I got this overwhelming impression saying, “Stop pretending you understand how much I love you or how I can forgive you, because you never will be able to. Just trust that I can. That’s all you need to know.”
It just hit me that we try to project our own understanding on God. We think that because we keep messing up He should stop trusting us, but that’s not how God sees it. He sees our potential and our desires. He sees everything about us, things we don’t even know about ourselves yet. So obviously, he has a different perspective on our mistakes than we do, because He’s God. We need to stop projecting our human, our tiny, tiny perspectives on Him. I feel like when we look around at the world for understanding, it often doesn’t come. That’s been really hard for me since coming to school. I go to one addiction recovery meeting a week because there’s only one I’m allowed to go to. It’s a men and women, general addiction, drugs and alcohol, eating disorders, everything like that. And it’s awesome! I love it! But it gets hard being with the people there who have normal meetings specifically for their addiction.
I’ve called the administrative offices for addiction recovery and asked, “Are there any meetings for women?” And they say, “Yes, we have meetings for women—women who are affected by their husbands’ addictions.” But I say, “No… do you have any for women who have addictions?” And they say, “Yes, but they’re in Springville or Draper, not here at BYU. Sorry!”
I went ahead and went to a women’s meeting, but it was all about helping women whose husbands keep messing up all the time, that they should be patient with them, don’t take it personally. It helped a little, because I thought, “I should be patient with myself.” It didn’t help very much, though, because it was this attitude of “boys will be boys.” There’s just this idea that a woman having this problem would be appalling. Every time I go to a meeting, it’s the same: “I have an eating disorder.” Or maybe it’s self-harm, because that’s what college girls struggle with. College boys struggle with pornography addictions. They have a men’s pornography addiction meeting literally every day of the week, two, three, four times a day. And I can’t go because it says, “Men only.” It’s just so frustrating to me because I feel like for guys it’s like, “It happens a lot. Just repent.” But I know that there are girls out there who struggle with this addiction!
You wouldn’t guess by looking at me that I have an addiction. I was on the seminary council, I went to church and mutual and the temple every week. I read my scriptures and say my prayers every day. You look at me and you think, “She has it all together.” Every time I tell people, they’re completely shocked. I know that there are other people like me that exist. I know that they’re there. It just makes me sad that they can’t come forward. I had to claw my way out to find help, I had to force people to help me. I have the kind of personality where I can do that, but some people can’t. Some people don’t have parents or a support group like I do, who will help them to not have that shame. So they’ll stay in that little shell. I went through personal counseling with a sex addiction counselor. I went online and I found an online women’s support group. For people who don’t have help like that, I honestly don’t know how they deal with the shame. Things my counselor has told me are, “Don’t be ashamed, because shame is not productive. Shame only makes addictions worse because it leads to despair, not hope.”
But about what you said before, I remember my sophomore year I had a breakdown. I was curled up in the fetal position on my couch, just crippled by my shame and despair. Not only had I been struggling with this since I was thirteen. I’d been repenting since it started. I had been seeing bishops since I was thirteen. I felt like I had been exercising faith throughout the whole thing. But my roommates came in and I didn’t want to tell them what I was going through because they weren’t the type of people who would understand. One of the girls was just so good at life and it’s so hard for her to understand weakness. She has a very “just do it” personality. The other one was kind of judgmental, someone who would look at another girl and say, “Her skirt is so short.” I didn’t feel like I could tell them, but I had an impression that I should probably tell them what was going on. After telling them, I said, “I know I’m disgusting. I know you may not want to be around me anymore.”
My judgmental roommate said, “No, I don’t feel any differently about you.” I retorted, “I’ve heard you say that you think porn addicts are disgusting, and that you don’t want to be around them. Now you’re telling me you don’t feel any differently about me—you’re lying.” She said, “It’s different when you know them.” I said, “It shouldn’t be, because that’s who I am.”
It’s hard because people say things like, “Porn addicts are so gross, they’re so disgusting. If I’m around them, they’re probably looking at me all weird.” They don’t understand that they are talking about people. That those people exist. That they have other things about them. I mean, yeah… I do think about sex a lot. I try not to. It’s really hard. That’s a big reason why I do have a testimony of modesty. I know how hard it is. I don’t think it’s our responsibility to dress modestly just so others won’t have bad thoughts, but, you know, whatever we can do to help each other out—that’s good. I like it when people do the same for me.
Different people’s addictions stem from different things, there’s different things about it. It’s been a long journey for me to remember that people, if they knew, they wouldn’t say things like that. It’s so hard. Satan tells you, “If people say that they love you, they’re lying to you. You’ve heard your friends say that they would never marry a porn addict. You’ve heard guys say that they want a girl who is virtuous, whose price is above rubies. And you’re not.” But that’s not how God sees it.
M: I think this will be a good thing for people to realize, that the people they’re talking about—if they knew those people they wouldn’t feel that way. I think one thing people may not be able to understand about people who are addicted to pornography is why. For men, they like looking at naked women because it’s sexually stimulating. But for women—what is the why behind that?
A: Honestly, I don’t know. I ask myself why every single day. After a certain point, it’s not that you enjoy it—it’s that you’re crippled without it. At first, I was curious because I didn’t really know anything about sex. It was new. One thing leads to another. There are so many different things to explore. I’m just a curious person by nature. I like knowing things. I wanted to know what this was. They’ve done studies that show that pornography stimulates the same receptors in your brain that crack does. It stimulates the pleasure center in your brain. There are so many different kinds of pornography. Women are frequently addicted to romance novels because that caters to the more emotional side of things. There’s a spectrum of things that appeal to different wants and needs. It goes deeper and deeper down. I've viewed things that appealed to the side of me that likes hot guys. I've also viewed things that dealt with the desire for an emotional connection. But, at a certain point, it’s just addiction. You need something to stimulate that part of you, so you’ll just go to the next step, which makes you need it even more. Honestly, half the time, when I’m done… I’m disgusted. I can see why people would be disgusted, because it is disgusting. But you’re brain gets on that track of, “This is the only thing that will make me happy.” With drug addicts, too, after you’re done you feel horrible, you don’t even feel good. It’s just what your brain tells you you need. A lot of it isn’t even about what you’re seeing, it’s just what it evokes in your brain. Pornography has so many facets. It can get anyone on anything. There are so many ways to get you.
M: If you could give one last message for anyone who might be struggling with this or need a different perspective on this, what would that message be?
A: I have two messages—one for people who are struggling with it and one for people who want to know how to treat people who are struggling with it.
To people with addictions, I would say to remember that your addiction doesn’t define you. We know that God has a plan for our lives. I know that God plans for our mistakes. He knows you so well and He knows what will make you the person you need to become. Your mistakes are part of that plan. Christ can take those mistakes and make them into something positive. He doesn’t just erase them—He takes them and uses them to make you into a stronger person. I wouldn’t trade my addiction for anything. Because of it, I know without a doubt in my mind that Christ lives and that He atoned for my sins and that repentance is real. Because of this, I know Christ. When I’m down on my knees, in the pit of despair, He’s the one that comes to me. Because of this, I’ve developed compassion. Because I’m still not over it, there’s still more things that it can teach me. I don’t know what they are, but I know that I’m a much stronger person than I ever would have been without it. Allow Christ to be there for you. Don’t confuse your mistakes with who you are.
To people who want to understand more about people with addictions: They all say, “Hate the sin, not the sinner.” The Atonement covers all sins. Instead of focusing on sin, we need to focus on how great the Atonement is. Focusing on how bad sin is isn’t going to help anyone—it leads to despair, hopelessness, and isolation. The most important thing is to remember that the Atonement covers all sins. Luckily for us, we don’t have to deal with the darkness of sin if we choose to focus on the light of the Atonement.