Step One: We admitted we were powerless of pornography – that our lives had become unmanageable.
Coupled with individual and group therapy, 12-step sexual recovery programs – including Sexaholics Anonymous (SA), Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA), Sexual Compulsives Anonymous (SCA), Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) and Sexual Recovery Anonymous (SRA) – are, for many porn addicts, the backbone of long-term recovery. This is where porn addicts meet others with similar problems and learn to work through their issues in a healthy way. There are many facets to this process, one of which is working the 12 steps of recovery (adapted from the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous).
As is the case with any undertaking, the first step in the 12-step recovery journey is by far the most important. If it is not properly taken, the odds of reaching the desired destination – in this case, long-term healing from pornography addiction – are significantly decreased. If you are addicted to pornography, this means admitting that you are powerless over pornography and that your life has become unmanageable as a result.
You may find that simply walking into a treatment center, a therapist’s office or a 12-step sexual recovery meeting is the equivalent of working Step One. Realizing that you have a problem and humbly seeking help is, in and of itself, a frank admission of powerlessness and unmanageability. Just by showing up, you are basically saying, “I have a problem, it’s destroying my life and I can’t control it on my own.” Otherwise, why would you bother with such an extreme step?
That said, there is quite a bit more to effectively working Step One than just showing up and asking for help. The bulk of this effort is designed to uncover your complete history of porn use and abuse, including the problems it has caused for you and those around you. For many porn addicts, this work is initially done in either an inpatient treatment setting or an outpatient therapist’s office. For others, it is undertaken with the assistance and guidance of a 12-step sexual recovery sponsor. At times, the process is most effective when it occurs in a combination of settings – what one mentor misses, another will likely catch. Plus, the more people who give you feedback on your Step One, the better you will understand your disease.
Wherever and with whomever you choose to do your Step One work, there are several basic assignments that you will likely be asked to complete, including a porn use history (perhaps as part of a full sex and relationship history), a consequences inventory, a powerlessness inventory and an unmanageability inventory. When completed, these assignments will help you to see – perhaps for the first time – the totality of your addiction and its directly related negative life consequences.
Porn Use History
As stated above, this may be done as part of a larger sex and relationship history. Either way, you should write down when, where, how and why you first encountered porn, and how you felt when you first encountered it. Other questions to answer include:
- How many hours per day/week do you spend looking at porn (with or without masturbation)?
- How has your porn use escalated (increased time spent with porn, looking at more intense forms of porn, etc.)?
- When do you think your porn use became an addiction?
- Are there life factors that influence your porn use, causing it to increase and/or decrease?
- Do you feel as if pornography is your most important form of recreation/escape/coping?
Most porn addicts are able to divorce their actions from their consequences, either not seeing or simply ignoring the connection. Usually this occurs gradually, with the addiction building slowly over time, which makes it even more difficult to spot the ways in which life has changed for the worse thanks to porn use. In this way, the insanity of porn addiction can sometimes look perfectly normal to the addict – at least until he or she creates a listing of consequences related to porn use.
In writing your consequences inventory, you should list as many items as possible, considering the following categories:
- Family and Relationship Consequences – relationship discord, actual or potential breakup/divorce, actual or potential loss of parental rights, loss of respect, alienation from loved ones, actually or potentially being disowned, etc.
- Educational and/or Career Consequences – diminished grades and/or performance, underemployment, not being promoted, being demoted, getting fired or dismissed, loss of licensure, issues with background checks, etc.
- Emotional Consequences – shame, guilt, remorse, depression, despair, hopelessness, loneliness, anxiety, paranoia, loss of self-esteem, emotional exhaustion, feeling “split” (living a double life), fear of going insane, suicidal/homicidal thoughts, etc.
- Spiritual Consequences – loss of faith, anger at God (however you view that entity), feelings of emptiness and disconnection, trampled and/or lost values and morals, feeling abandoned, loss of interest in the health and emotional wellbeing of others, etc.
- Physical Consequences – high blood pressure, weight gain/loss, issues with sleep, exhaustion, ulcers, self-abuse (cutting, burning and the like), abuse from others, unintentional injuries (including injuries to genitalia from excessive masturbation), STDs if you also act out in-person, attempted suicide, etc.
- Other Consequences – financial problems, legal problems (including arrests and near-arrests), loss of friendships, loss of standing in the community, loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities and other forms of self-care, etc.
With the powerlessness inventory, you should write down at least 25 examples of your powerlessness over pornography. This list may be hundreds of items long by the time it is complete – and even then it will not be entirely complete. In fact, most porn addicts add to their list throughout their recovery, as old instances are recalled or new examples arise. With this inventory, you list examples of your inability to stop using porn despite consequences, potential consequences and/or a desire to not do so. For instance:
- I was warned verbally and then in writing by my employer that if I continued using company equipment to look at porn I could and eventually would be fired, but I still used both my work-issued smartphone and laptop to search for porn.
- The morning after my wife threatened to leave me I swore off porn forever, but by lunchtime I was looking at videos on my iPhone.
You should be as specific as you can with this inventory, starting with your earliest examples and ending with the most recent; this allows you to see how the frequency and severity of your powerlessness have increased over time. If you are struggling to list examples of powerlessness, use your consequences inventory as a guide.
With the unmanageability inventory, you should write down at least 25 examples of how your life has become unmanageable. As with your powerlessness inventory, this list may be hundreds of items long by the time you finish it, and you will likely add to it as your recovery progresses. With this inventory, you list the ways in which your addiction has created problems in your life (and the lives of others). For instance:
- My out-of-control porn use has cost me my last two jobs, and now I am broke and unemployed and neither of my former bosses will give me a decent recommendation.
- After my wife caught me masturbating to pornography yet again, even after she’d warned me that she was through with this behavior, she took our kids and left me. Now my kids are living in a strange town and going to a new school they don’t like. Plus, I’m stuck here all alone.
If you are struggling to list examples of unmanageability, use your consequences inventory and your powerlessness inventory as a guide.
Sharing Your Inventories
An important part of Step One – and often the hardest part of this step – is sharing your inventories with another person or people. Oftentimes porn addicts share their inventories with their therapist or their therapy group. Other times addicts share their inventories with their 12-step sexual recovery sponsor and/or their primary 12-step sexual recovery group. (Each 12-step group is different, even within the same recovery program. Some groups actively encourage the sharing of each new member’s first step, while others are more circumspect in this regard.)
Regardless of where and with whom you choose to share your Step One inventories, you need to do it, and the sooner this occurs, the better. If you’re like most porn addicts, you are probably filled with shame, remorse, guilt and self-loathing – with the bulk of those ill feelings caused by your addiction. Plus, by this time you’re probably quite used to keeping secrets from loved ones, your employer and anyone else that’s important in your life. Openly discussing (in the presence of empathetic and supportive others, especially if they too are porn addicts) the nature and extent of your addiction is a great way to counteract both your emotional and psychological despair and your ongoing pattern of secretiveness.
Admittedly, talking about your problems is anathema to the way you’ve been doing things, and you probably would rather not do it. However, you will likely find that talking about your history, your consequences, your powerlessness and your unmanageability is an incredibly freeing experience. In short, sharing about your porn addiction lifts the burden of compartmentalizing, living a double life and keeping dark and painful secrets. Without these weights dragging you down, you can move forward with the long-term process of healing. Many porn addicts say their lives started to get better the instant they shared their Step One inventories!