Escape From a Nightmare
The darkest shame finds the brightest light of God's healing power.
by Pete Riley as told to Carol McGalliard
I lived in a nightmare. I was studying to become a minister but knew I was being hypocritical: I was a sex addict. It was depressing and horrible knowing what was right and being powerless to do it. I could articulate the answer to my struggle from the Bible, but I couldn’t carry it out myself. I hated myself, cursed myself, even hit myself. Once while I was cruising, I said to myself, I don’t want to be doing this. But I couldn’t stop.
I had to tell my fiancée, Lynn, about my addiction. To not tell her would be unfair. More important, my relationship with God required honesty.
Telling Lynn the truth was the turning point for me — the first step in my recovery. I accepted that I was an addict, that I was walking in sin and couldn’t stop. Though at first I shunned counseling, I eventually realized how much I needed help. While preparing for ministry and trying to maintain everything on an even keel, I was still dealing with addiction. I had to lay everything else aside, deal with my addiction, and focus on healing.
In retrospect, being honest with Lynn wasn’t just a turning point for me; it was a gift. Ten years into my recovery and our marriage, I realize now that I couldn’t have made it without my wife’s support.
I was sexually abused as a child, and my father was rigid and demanding — two major issues for sex addicts. I had suppressed a lot of anger toward my dad, so I had to deal with a lot of emotions. During a counseling session one day as I vented some of this anger, the counselor asked me, “If your dad were here right now, what would you want from him?”
“A hug,” I stammered.
The counselor walked over and hugged me. Amazingly, so much of my rage dissipated with that hug. I looked at him and sobbed, “I’ve been acting like this for 20 years just to get a hug.”
Shame of addiction
It’s impossible to describe the shameful nightmare of sex addiction in wholesome language. Suffice it to say that I was several years into recovery before Lynn could send me on a simple errand, like going to the store to buy milk, and both of us be confident I would return within the hour. For a long time, it was easy for me to disappear for hours, even days, while acting out my addiction.
I wanted so desperately to stop the sinful behaviors of these degrading episodes. I prayed and begged God to help me. I had brief periods of sobriety but always lapsed into the same conduct.
Then one day God gave me a vivid picture of my problem while a friend and I were trying to move a large boulder. He pried the rock upward, and I attempted to push it out of the hole. But it just kept falling back in. Finally, my friend realized that we needed to put something in the hole to replace the small empty space left when he pried the boulder upward. Otherwise, it would continue to roll back into the hole.
From that experience, I realized I had been trying to rid my life of addiction without finding anything to fill its place. I needed to take positive steps to restructure my life.
Filling the emptiness
To get proactive about dealing with my addiction, I joined Sexaholics Anonymous (SA), a twelve-step program for sex addicts. These steps work because they’re biblical. The relationships I formed in this program were essential for recovery. I learned that the men who do not succeed in recovering do not have good male relationships; they are isolated. In forming this network of supportive friends and family, I learned to fill the emptiness with godly relationships.
Prayer and Bible study also played a major part in my recovery. From the Bible I learned truth, learned to think differently. Counseling and the accountability at SA equipped me with practical ways to apply biblical principles to overcoming my addiction. I also started listening exclusively to Christian music.
I went for inpatient treatment as well. Medication helped me think better. I still take an anti-depressant to help me maintain a clear perspective.
I saw firsthand that an addict needs a mix of godly confrontation and encouragement. He needs someone to teach him how to take action, even how to become willing to take the action. An addict needs to bring his problem into the light with a trustworthy person and have that person accept him as he is in the pig pen. My church accepted me and didn’t expect me to clean myself up before coming to God for help. Because I wanted to become a minister, I asked my church for discipline. I submitted to the authority of my pastor for strict accountability.
Progress and setbacks
Recovery is a process, not an arrival. I have enjoyed several years of consistent progress, but not without setbacks.
I recently had a slip up — a real eye-opening experience for me and the guys in my group. Many of them are Christians who are struggling and admit it. I slipped because I wasn’t staying in close contact with them. I wasn’t attending group often enough, not having phone conversations, not staying accountable. Some of my accountability partners stopped asking about me because they assumed I was doing OK. I have served as elder in my church, and other elders knew I was walking in sobriety. But they started taking my sobriety for granted, and so did I.
I enjoyed the initial success of staying sober, because I depended on these men and on God. After a long period of success, I started deciding on my own whether to go to a meeting or stay home with my family. I prayed less. These mistakes taught me not to take my sobriety for granted. I cannot stay sober unless I stay connected with God and with godly men who hold me accountable.
Key to success
Because of my struggles with sex addiction, I have not pursued a pastoral position in a church. Lynn and I have an active ministry counseling others who are struggling to recover from sex addiction. Maybe someday I will take that step to ordination, but for now God is using my experiences to help others who are trapped in the nightmare of sex addiction.
Recovering from this addiction would be impossible without having Christ in my life. Staying sober is not my success; it’s God’s. I’m powerless over this problem. God’s power has enabled me to get sober and stay sober. God gives me the strength to remain faithful to my wife and family. My part of the process is to respond to His love by choosing to be obedient to Him one day, one hour, one minute at a time. It’s the only way to escape the nightmare of sex addiction.
Pete Riley is a pseudonym.
Cruising – lusting, making eye contact with women sometimes for purposes of initiating sexual relations
Acting out – actively engaging in the addictive behavior – i.e. pornography, fantasies, sexual encounters, voyeurism, etc.