Hooked on porn, had to learn to fish.

Hooked on porn, had to Learn to fish.

, originally published by The Washington Post

In the end, it was the girl across the street who understood the situation most clearly, the tiny one who dressed like a middle-aged Realtor and carefully studied my family’s demise. I was approaching 40, and the terms of my second marriage were being renegotiated from soul mates to a joint-custody arrangement. The girl lurked in the front hedge of azaleas to watch our first custody exchange: my wife’s SUV pulling up in the drive, the hug, the seat belt, the school uniforms buttoned up on hangers. When they drove away, she walked up in grown-up shoes and glasses, holding a clipboard. She consulted her notes, then looked me over.

You,” she said with finality, “Alone.”

As an ad guy, I could have campaigned for a thousand words and not nailed the truth like that.

Inside the house, nothing looked the same. A piano with no kids practicing. An expanse of rug and no board game being played on it. The kitchen and no one to torture with new ways to eat kale. The computer sat on a white desk that was the painted-over dining table of my first marriage; its power light glowed off and on, the closest thing to another pulse in the house.

Alone, I’d sit down and scroll through used cars. New cars. A discount cruise. A boat. All of it dull and gray. I’d look around again at the empty house. I hadn’t had this kind of privacy since the advent of high-speed Internet. Then the tiny fiber optics leading into my computer lit a bonfire of skin tones.

The pixelated glow of porn addiction spread over the next eight years, burning my free time and head space until a night came when I believed the only way I could break away from porn was to break away from my body. I was exhausted from juggling three incompatible lives: the hardworking family man who happened to be divorced; the porn addict whose house was lit only by the computer screen; the freewheeling bachelor who was no longer free and was having trouble with the wheeling part.

At first I hadn’t understood that porn, and the escalating levels of dopamine I was hitting with it, was behind the new problems I was having in bed. For a few years I juggled multiple prescriptions for Cialis and Viagra, missing the occasional utility bill or car payment to fund them, and then began mixing in questionable cures bought from beneath the counter at gas stations or at Asian markets — pills with such names as Hard Ten Nights and Mojo Risen.

Every addict hits rock bottom, and my descent had been gradual until the FDA cracked down on the strongest of the gas-station pills. Then I had nothing left. I was addicted to a ridiculousness that had hijacked my libido, and I couldn’t bring myself to explain this to my date in bed that night. I couldn’t bring myself to do anything, in fact, but stare back at her in the ubiquitous Netflix glow of middle-aged dating and begin to get dressed. I’d defined myself as a husband, then a father, then by relationships, and then by just sex; that night, every piece of clothing I put back on was a flag of surrender.

Leaving her house, I ran a stop sign, which is what my first wife did right before she died, at 26. I ran another. The speedometer was one thing I could still make rise at will. A long bridge rose ahead of me, and I was open to its possibilities. Maybe I’d make it across. Maybe I would hit the side and flip off. Maybe I’d just hit the concrete barrier and spin a few times. Then I thought about the envelope I was handed years ago at the hospital, when I was asked to identify a wedding band and one earring. I took my foot off the gas.

At the end of the bridge I pulled over onto the soft oyster-shell shoulder and called a close friend. At 2 in the morning on a weeknight, it went straight to voice mail. Across the bay I could see the lights of the marina and, beyond it, the darkness of normal people sleeping.

The next day at lunch, I told my friend everything: that I was fine at work and with the kids but no time alone with Internet access was safe; that some nights I slept on my porch to try to escape the temptation. That one day while waiting for a takeout pizza, I watched porn on my phone in the parking lot, then plugged it into my car stereo so I could listen on the way home, and that now I was hooked on that, too: listening while I drove, like some all-moaning version of “A Prairie Home Companion.”

When I was finished, he said surely there was a therapist in town who knew how to handle this, that I couldn’t be unique in having the problem. He took off his glasses. The only shame here, he said, would be for a guy to kill himself over an addiction that an entire industry was obviously betting on.

Porn“, he said, “is a Cigarette Without a Warning.”

I eventually made an appointment with someone who I’d heard might be good with this sort of thing. In our first session, I told her I was a porn addict and this was causing me “performance issues,” which I put in polite air quotes because of her advanced age and air of wing-chair propriety.

“Oh, stop focusing on yourself,” she said in a Julia Child pitch, adding that I should instead get creative about satisfying women, then describing in detail some of her favorite techniques.

When I told her I didn’t think this was the right track, she suggested I spend some time reading “50 Shades of Grey.” I suggested that this, also, might be inappropriate for someone trying to quit porn, but she wasn’t convinced.

“Christian was very creative,” she said.

“You really are going to need a hobby,” my new therapist, Beverly, told me. She’s a sex-addiction specialist, and since I’d resisted the topic before, she took her glasses off to make the point. The quest to rid myself of porn had been long on solitary failures and short on good advice, and I’d learned along the way to pay attention whenever glasses were removed.

We were making final preparations for one of the mainstays of her approach to pornography addiction: 90 days of abstinence from anything remotely sexual.

“The goal here is a paradigm shift,” she said, to which point I’d agreed to also abstain from alcohol, attend 12-step meetings and get a sponsor. On this hobby business, however, I drew a blank. “Don’t come to your next session without being able to tell me something you did just for fun this weekend,” she said. “And not the kind of fun that includes sex or bourbon.”

That Saturday morning, I paced the house trying to think of a suitable pastime, which is a concept I had never understood. Having a hobby, going to a hobby store, attending a hobby fair, Holly Hobbie and her floppy hat — I couldn’t relate to any of it. Yet I had become the guy who couldn’t stay in the house another minute thinking about hobbies without losing the day to porn. I drove to the beach.

Every few hundred yards or so, walking along the water, I had to duck under someone’s surf-fishing line gone slack. There were variations to their gear: all had beach chairs, some had aluminum carts to carry their cooler and tackle. Some read, others just watched their line dance into invisibility over the surf. I began to take mental notes: Beach chair with a slight recline and drink holder. Sand-friendly, wide wheels on the cart. It would take me a while to pull it all together and longer to figure out what to do with it — and that, Beverly said during our next session, was exactly what I needed to get started with my 90 days.

My 90 Days

Day 1

On my nightstand are copies of “Baits, Rigs and Tackle” and “Fishing the Local Waters.” This would seem like a respectable start to my new life, except I’m not reading them. I’m lying on my side and vomiting toward dawn, a rhythmic purging of my last night with bourbon. It seems an appropriate transition.

Day 4

I can’t believe that I have gone this long without looking at porn.

After work, I’ve hit the gym and my books about fishing; I’ve taken a long walk down by the water; I’ve texted and called my sponsor; I’ve written notes about each day, sometimes on the Mac but mostly on much safer legal pads.

Twelve-steppers — both the recovering drunks and the recovering sex drunks — call what I’m doing “counting days.” Years ago, in graduate school, I was corresponding with a writing mentor while my second marriage was deteriorating, and told her that I had figured out I was really good at handling disasters and crises — the big unthinkables of life — but that I wasn’t so great at the “just days.”

“Let me save you a few decades,” she wrote back. “They’re all just days.”

Day 9

Someone I am seeing off and on texts to say the smoke detector on her garage ceiling is chirping and asks whether I can come over and fix it. This involves walking through her laundry room and seeing what kind of dryer sheets she uses. At this point in my life, that constitutes intimacy. She holds the ladder as I climb to the next-to-last step. I glance down. Her arms are very tan.

Before I leave, we talk about this whole business of hobbies. She knows about the therapy I’m in and why I’ve been hands-down the strangest person she has dated. She’s not an addict, but she’s never been able to hold down a pastime, either.

She tried once, but all she could come up with was to collect pie birds, those little ceramic beaks that gasp up fruit steam through the crust.

It’s the worst hobby I’ve ever heard of.

Day 13

When I find myself making bedroom eyes at my laptop, which is still roughly 100 times a day, I remind myself that I already know where that takes me. Beverly has instructed me to “play the tape forward” and remember what it was like all the times I tried to quit, that I already know what it’s like to be in a relapse, that the real adventure is in seeing where days of sobriety will take me.

Day 20

I’m on Smoke Detector’s couch, watching “The Notebook.” That’s where days of sobriety take you: front-row seats in Platonic Hell. Almost everyone I’ve ever dated has asked me to watch this movie about true love, dementia and Ryan Gosling’s abs, and I’ve always refused, but Smoke Detector made it a challenge. She bet me I couldn’t watch it start to finish without crying. My dopamine levels are so jacked up, I could watch a basket of kittens get shot and feel nothing. I win.

Day 22

I wake up, make some coffee and then spend the next 45 minutes in a standoff with my laptop. It’s like two cats arching their backs at each other. At this point, I just want to look at a picture. Not even a video. Not even a Tumblr page or a GIF. Just a picture.

“Just to feel connected and alive,” I say later in the folding-chair circle of my group meeting. And then I hear myself in their eyes: Connected and alive. From a picture. Nods of recognition. Even one of the guys’ support dogs — there are usually one or two in the meetings — looks at me with something resembling a dark-eyed empathy.

The group — all men, gay and straight, a noticeably high propensity for wearing Dockers — has strict rules against cross-talk when it’s someone’s time to share. No advice is to be given and no corrections made. I doubt there’s anywhere in the world you’d find a room full of men with better listening skills.

Day 25

I am finally ready to face my fears and set foot inside a fishing superstore. I get a bucket with a Bass Pro logo, glaring as new tennis shoes in high school. I begin filling it up with tackle. I add lead weights in various shapes: egg, pyramid and Sputnik. I pick up two surf-casting rod-and-reel combos, some Cajun Red line, 20-pound test — very proud I know to buy this in particular — and then proceed to knock over every display in the store because I have no idea how to carry a nine-foot rod.

Day 26

At 4:30 a.m., I’m out on the porch getting my fishing gear together, attempting to spool line on my new rods but mostly creating nests of it on the floor. This is why people with hobbies don’t have addictions; they’re too broke and tired.

Having a line in the water before sunrise has a pleasant self-righteousness to it. My first tries at casting out to the sandbar aren’t as bad as I expected; no bites, but, as they say in the meetings, it’s all about progressive victory.

Day 30

I have earned a 30-day chip, which gets applause and is then passed around to receive each fellow addict’s prayers, good vibes or best wishes. It’s a huge accomplishment but also akin to having an entire restaurant sing “Happy Birthday” while you smile at your complimentary slice of cheesecake. For some reason, this chip — a dollar-size aluminum coin, really — is a particularly engorged shade of pink, with a nubby-textured center. It’s like walking around with Susan B. Anthony’s nipple in your pocket.

Day 40-something

Finally, after two weeks of bad weather, I get down to the beach to go fishing again, early enough to be alone, except there’s this woman. Why is there always a woman? This one has a limp, and the kind of yellow slicker the guy in the fish-sticks commercial wears, and a terrier that is all jaw and quadriceps and eyebrows.

“Finally, a fisherman!” she says. “We haven’t seen one all week,” she adds, looking over all my gear, “because obviously the conditions aren’t very good.” I follow her stare out to what I now realize is a ridiculously rough surf and unpromising sky. So I just tell her: I have no clue what I’m doing. I’ve never caught a fish in my whole life.

“Then why start now?” she asks. “It’s a 12-step thing,” I say, leaving off the sex part.

“I’ve been clean 25 years,” she says, and then I realize she’s kind of radiant, something I hadn’t seen earlier, due possibly to the slicker and my resentment of her existence on my fishing day. She asks whether her dog can hang out with me for a little while, and due to the radiance and all, I tell her that’s fine. She then picks out a dune behind me, kicks back as if it’s her personal recliner, and watches. The scene is now officially everything I never wanted it to be.

But then comes the bite. This, at 46, is my first bite, the first time I’ve ever felt a fish’s frenetic telegraphing through the line. I reel it in and then have the paralyzing realization that I have no clue what to do with this fish or the terrier trying to pull it off my line. I kick my cooler open and land it in there. Crouching down, I have a moment with this fish, its silver scales scrimshawed onto my day. “Not exactly huge,” I say as the 12-stepper in the slicker walks up. The thing is, she says, we all have to start somewhere.

Day 50-something

I dream I am in a bourbon bar where all the big screens play my favorite porn memories. I wake up as I used to — patting down the bed to see whether there’s someone to be with, then patting down my nightstand for the laptop. And then I realize I actually don’t want that anymore.

“Just a Day”

When I first started journaling about these 90 days, I thought I’d get in the best shape of my life, become an angler, get my life in order and rush through all 12 steps, because Day 91 was the only one that mattered. Now, most days, I find myself not wanting the 90 days to end.

Day 89

After almost three months of clean living, I wake up feeling just a little like a 19-year-old. I check my phone — a few minutes past 5. The birds are already up; I’m picturing cardinals. I pick up my phone again to look up their songs and calls, but there’s no guarantee this will work.

A few months ago, since my laptop wasn’t up-to-date enough to install a porn blocker, I handed my phone to the friend I had confided in earlier and asked him to put one on it. He swears he doesn’t remember the password. I’m surprised the article on cardinals makes it through censorship, with language like “brown females” and “sweet whistle.”

I spend my extra hour and a half out on the front porch, watching the sun come up. It’s gotten a little crowded out here, with my beach cart and tackle. I have a project planned to resolve this. In the living room, there’s an unused built-in media cabinet from the days when media meant deep TVs and stacks of VHS tapes. Just a few months ago, my plan was to retrofit it as a concealed wet bar. I was going to trick it out with dim lights and mirrored shelves. Now I’m going to gut it floor-to-ceiling so it will hold even a nine-foot rod. I’ll line it with cypress and build compartments for line, for lures, for whatever I need next.

(Illustration by The Washington Post; fish by iStockphoto)

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