Lust Drunk: Understanding Addiction and the LDS View of Agency

2014-05-09 15.08.36For a long time now, I’ve wanted to tackle addiction in the context of the LDS view of agency. Seems kind of important, doesn’t it? I’ve put it off, however, because as foundational as agency is to Mormon theology, Latter-day Saints seem to be all over the board in their understanding of this doctrine. To opine in the blogosphere about agency is to invite controversy–and I’ve had enough controversy to last me for the rest of my life. Oh, well…

First, let me tell you my understanding of the doctrine of agency. It is incredibly simple. God will not compel me to keep His commandments nor will He force me to accept His plan of happiness. He leaves me free to choose. Period.

The doctrine of agency has to do with my relationship with God, not my relationship with myself or anyone or anything else. Back in high school and occasionally since then, I’d hear people say something like this: “My parents can’t make me do that! They’re taking away my agency!” Or “The Church has too many rules! What about my free agency?” When I heard this, I’d scratch my head. Something just didn’t sound right.

Now I know why. Other people can’t take away my agency. Only God can do that and He has said he won’t.

So what does this have to do with addiction? It seems to me that a lot of Mormons have trouble reconciling the reality of addiction with the doctrine of agency. After all, God gave us all moral agency, didn’t He? Wouldn’t addiction be the taking away of our moral agency? As addicts, we lose the ability to choose the right, don’t we? No! I think that’s the wrong way of looking at addiction. As I said above, God has decreed that he will not take away our agency. Addiction, then, must be something other than a loss of agency.

Rather than seeing addiction as completely at odds with agency, I think it’s more helpful to consider two words: impairment and obsession. Addiction doesn’t take away our agency, but it does impair our ability to make good choices and then renders it nearly impossible for us to think about anything but our drug of choice.

Porn and sex addicts in their addiction can’t stop thinking and fantasizing about sexual imagery. They become progressively intoxicated until they can no longer think clearly. The more the addiction is entrenched in the addict’s mind, the more muddled the addict’s thinking becomes. The sex addict becomes lust drunk. And this can happen even without looking at a single pornographic image.

My point, again, is that addiction doesn’t take away my agency. Rather, without recovery, it can impair my mind and cause me to obsess over sex. Like a drunk getting behind the wheel of a car, I can’t perceive the depth of my impairment. I think I can just take a peek at a swimsuit site or just read that little news article about brothels in another country. That’s not that big of a deal, is it? Yes! Yes, it is a big deal. But I’m too lust drunk to see it.

That’s one reason why I think Sexaholics Anonymous meetings and an SA sponsor are so important for Latter-day Saint men and women who battle sex and porn addiction. We Mormons who struggle with “the little problem” desperately want to maintain the secrecy and isolation that we have so carefully cultivated, often for decades. We are so desperate that we lead double lives. But we’re lust drunk. We’re impaired in our thinking–and we can’t see it. We can’t see that we need help.

When other recovering addicts enter the picture, LDS porn addicts can finally find recovery, kick the obsession and step out of the drunken stupor that envelopes them. Recovering addicts have told all the same lies, have done all the same useless, pointless, childish things to try and overcome the “porn problem” in secrecy and isolation. (My favorite remains flicking a rubber band on our wrist whenever we have a “dirty” thought. Addicts in recovery laugh their heads off at that one!) You can’t really lie to a recovering addict. He’s told all the same lies at some point in the past and he knows when you’re lying to yourself, to him, to God and to everyone else. More importantly, recovering addicts have figured out what works, have done what works and can share meaningfully with others about what works.

When I found recovery (i.e., went to lots of SA meetings, got a sponsor and worked the 12 Steps, among other things) and got sober, I was able to finally see the reality of my past. I had truly been living in a drunken stupor, self-medicating on porn and memories of porn, self sex, planning, fantasizing, lying, trying to remember the lies I’d told, promising never again and promising and promising and promising. And that wasn’t all. It was insanity! It was impaired agency.

Having experienced recovery, I now know that life-long sobriety is possible. That means I get to enjoy clear-headed agency instead of muddled thinking. I can make moral decisions without that drunken stupor. And I have friends in the SA who can remind me when my thinking gets mushy. They help me shake off the obsessive thinking. I can’t do it without them.

I’ve been working at recovery for long enough now that I’m willing to say that I don’t think anyone can recover from addiction by himself. I don’t believe that God “cures” people of addiction on their own and in isolation. Rather, I believe that God requires addicts to find help from other addicts who are further up the recovery road. I also believe that God then requires (and enables) addicts to extend a helping hand to those who are still suffering.

God leaves me free to choose recovery–but I do not get to dictate the terms of my recovery. No one does. We don’t get to pick and choose. We have to do what works. Isolation does not work. As a matter of fact, it’s a massive part of the problem! Anyone who says he’s recovered from sex and porn addiction on his own (usually citing prayer, scripture study and lots of will power) is a liar. Strong words, I know. I’m sticking to them.

My agency is much clearer these days. The obsession has abated. The impairment is gone. It’s nice to see the difference between right and wrong and be able to choose the right. Recovery from addiction allows me to enjoy agency as God intended.


Lust Drunk: Understanding Addiction and the LDS View of Agency — 11 Comments

  1. Andrew — Good see you posting again.

    When my mission president would get frustrated with disobedient missionaries he would throw up his hands and say: “Would you please, just once, choose to exercise your faith instead of your agency!”

    Agency is confusing, especially to guys like me that wanted nothing more than to quit the pornography and couldn’t. Contributing to the confusion is that the qualifier “free” in front of agency doesn’t appear in the scriptures, but does in our language. Go figure.

    The false idea that I had been given the ability to choose right and wrong in any situation kept me stuck for a long time. It kept me isolated, thinking that I should just be able to fix this because I had my agency.

    I thought if only I could exercise my agency correctly then I’d be OK. It was still all about me and my choice, my strength, me, me, me, me. Christ was never part of the equation.

    I didn’t get sober until I realized that the choice wasn’t as much about choosing between right and wrong as it was about choosing to allow Christ to bear my burden.

    That was not an easy choice and it prompted me to think about why so many of our brothers and sisters rejected the idea of agency in the pre-mortal life. I wrote about it here

  2. Andrew, thank you for putting yourself out there again. Especially with something as tricky to deal with as agency. My recovery has led me to feel an increase in my agency in a way that I cannot put fully into words. I no longer feel trapped by my emotions, my surroundings or my circumstances with only one avenue, acting out, to escape the feeling of being trapped. I have options now. Those options include calling my sponsor or friend in my 12 step SA program, talking to my wife, going for a run, working on a project, prayer, fasting, and on and on.
    I had no idea what was happening to my agency when I was active in my sex addiction. I couldn’t see that I was trading my moral agency for a mess of pottage. But I see it now. I believed the lie that I told myself, that freedom meant doing whatever I wanted whenever I wanted it. I couldn’t see that this “freedom” came with a cost that was more dear than anything that I could imagine. I was giving my agency away, little by little, and getting nothing but a temporary respite from the reality of my life in return.
    Unfortunately, it is still too hard for so many of our brothers to admit that they are addicts. They just have a little problem. This attitude is unfortunately unintentionally reinforced by well-meaning but misinformed lay leaders of the LDS church, who still counsel so many to “read more, pray more, and fast more” in order to become pure. The problem is that without an honest self assessment, admitting addiction and the wreckage of life that it has brought about, the atonement remains largely inaccessible. As an addict who was hidden in my addiction, I had only limited access to the redemptive and enabling power of the atonement, because I was limited in my honesty with myself and others. It was only when I decided to become truly honest (a lifelong journey for me that is still ongoing), that I could truly begin to feel the power of the atonement working in my life.
    We are hung up on the label “sex addict”. We have made progress in the culture of the LDS church, we now celebrate reclaimed alcoholics, smokers, drug users, and speak about those addictions freely from the pulpit. If you’ve ever been in a fireside or sacrament meeting where a recovering addict (from anything other than sex) tells his story, there is a palpable feeling of love, hope and rejoicing at the lost sheep that has returned to the fold. But the topic of sexual addiction is still a scary thing for us as a church and people.
    I fear that until we experience a shift in culture, until we can talk openly and freely about sex addiction like we do about other addictions, too many of our brothers will wither and die in silent suffering. Their spouses and children will also suffer with hearts pierced with deep wounds, and none of them will be able to experience the true freedom that comes from the exercise of agency in choosing the path of the Savior and His atonement.


    I completely agree with your comment that anyone saying they got sober on their own is a liar!!!! So true!!! I thank you for “keeping it real” and telling it how it is. I too have been their and done that, got the t-shirt to go with it all. I didn’t know how much I was lying to myself until I got to an SA meeting where their were no walls. Everyone said it how it was and is. SA is really were my true recovery started, I had attended PASAG for years and still felt their was a fake feeling to the sharing. If only “we” didn’t care about our image to others and what others thought about. I now understand the 12 steps so much better, I understand free agency and I now know the core of being a sex addict is “LUST”!! I have been educated through personal experience (which really sucks) how the brain works and how much I hurt so many people around me. It literally took me being excommunicated to “WAKE UP”. I am truly one of God’s children who has to learn the hard way, its been that way all my life!

    But, what I really, truly know now is how AMAZING the Atonement is. How patient and loving my Savior has been, just waiting for me to call to him and ask for help. I am now re-baptized and waiting for the day to have my blessings restored. I know it will be a long process and I also now know it will so be worth it. My wife has been by my side through all of it. We now say we’ve been to hell what could be worse? haha… The Lord has blessed us in so many ways but one true blessing is being a facilitator and sponsor. Having a sponsor saved me in so many ways and I am forever grateful for his kindness and his bluntness at times. I only hope the Lord will bless me as he has blessed you Andrew in reaching out to so many. I thank you.

    • Be persistent, Chad, and keep working the steps. I’ve been where you are. It is possible. I have been” sober” for 16 years.

      • I thank you for your encouragement and feel very blessed to have a support group around me with the Savior and my wife next to me. Cant wait to say 16 years!! Congrats

  4. Thank you Andrew!
    The prophet Lehi said we are “free to choose liberty and eternal life through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to captivity and power of the devil” (2Ne2:27). How do we choose? We act for ourselves.(2Ne2:16) SA has taught me that I must live my life by acting in accordance with spiritual principles the same principles that Christ persuades me to obey through His ever present Light. I exercise agency when I act. There is a great difference between saying I am willing and doing the will of God. As an addict I have become a slave to the will of lust and only choosing to take the actions outlined in the 12 steps have proven effective in relieving the obsession.It has been my experience that fellowship in a recovery group and working the steps with a sponsor has brought relief. I lied to myself for years that I could do this alone.The only thing I accomplished alone was to ensure I remained in captivity. In the unity of a fellowship I have been supported as I haltingly struggle to take right actions everyday. Act in faith, receive hope and give grace to others as you trudge the road of happy destiny.


  5. I really liked this. For awhile now I’ve been trying to describe this very thing, how addiction doesn’t take away our agency, but it sometimes might FEEL that way. What you’ve said is a perfect example. Love the example about the drunk behind the wheel and because he’s drunk he doesn’t have the correct perception but can still choose to drive. That’s also how I feel when people say, “Satan made me do it…” or things like that, blaming satan for their relapses or whatever. Because he can’t really do anything to me unless I let him, yeah he can throw out lines and whisper, but I’m the one that CHOOSES to bite the hook or listen. Or even when someone says, “and of course, Satan put this right in my path. He knows I’m an addict and knows how to get to me.” And maybe I’m wrong in assuming this, but I don’t know if, once I’m an addict, Satan really has to do much but check in from time to time. I mean, I’m the addict and my brain (from my own repitition and participation as well as early life experiences) is programed to seek it out anyway. I don’t think I’m necessarily “tempted” to look at porn anymore because I’ve already been there done that and hooked. Its more like a reflex now, if that makes sense. Maybe I’m wrong but it seems to make sense to me.

  6. Your posts are very informative. Thank you for sharing your experience. My husband is very sincere and says he would do “anything” to give up his addiction every time after he acts out. He is honest and tells me openly when he acted out. He even tells me to warn me that he feels like his tension in building up and he needs to be careful. He started recognizing warning signs, which is a big progress, and tells me after each day how he objectified women he encountered and tried to redirect thinking and etc. But his sobriety only lasts for a few months. After every acting out, he is very sorry and we talk about how we want to move forward. Then I encourage him to do at least the 12 steps daily and find a sponsor remotely because there is no 12 group sessions nearby where we live. But he tells me that he cannot commit to the program until he is convinced that it will work for him. He knows that his pride is stopping him but he does not want to let that go partly because he has started realizing that it is a big commient and he has never committed to anything in his life and pride has become who he is. I tell him this might be the only way but he is very resistant. I’m not sure what would take him to stop trying on his own. He says I need to slow down and stop thinking about it for a while to relax. He says he needs a break because it’s really hard thing to deal with and don’t want it to feel that way everyday. The idea of doing the 12 steps seems to him very agonizing. But I’m certain that he will fall again until he becomes willing to do the steps and do what’s necessary. I’m sure you have seen many people just like us. Do you have any advice?

    • You’re exactly right. He won’t be able to do it on his own. No one ever has. Addiction is a disease of secrecy and isolation and he wants to treat it with–secrecy and isolation. The only thing that really seems to work is associating with other addicts further along in recovery. That’s it. If he’s unwilling to do that, he won’t overcome this problem.

      You nailed it when you said his pride gets in the way. That’s the way it is for most addicts. We call it “terminal uniqueness.” Each addict thinks he’s a special exception to rules that apply to the rest of humanity. “I can do this on my own because I’m really not as sick as those real addicts out there, I’m more spiritual than everyone else, I’m smarter than everyone else or I’ve got more to lose than everyone else.” There’s always something in the addict’s head that makes him think he can fix his little problem on his own–if only everyone would just leave him alone. More secrecy and isolation.

      Sexaholics Anonymous works for everyone willing to work it. Period. It doesn’t work, however, for guys who just dip their big toe in. If there’s no SA meeting nearby, he should order a White Book, read it and then start his own meeting. That’s what the truly desperate do.

      If he’s not yet truly desperate, unfortunately, you may have to wait until things get worse and he gets truly desperate. Addiction is a progressive and degenerative disease. Without real recovery, it always gets worse, never better. Even for the terminally unique. In contrast, with recovery, the addict acquires the emotional and spiritual tools that keep him out of the disease and allow him to be a wonderful person living a happy life rather than secretly feeling like a fraud and a failure.

      You might want to talk to him about terminal uniqueness and suggest that he read everything on my website. The great news is that recovery is possible. The bad news is that the terminally unique desperately cling to secrecy and isolation even though that course is killing them. If that’s where he insists on remaining, you are going to have to prepare yourself for things getting much, much worse than they are now.

      I wish you all the best.

    • I don’t mean to sound like I’m selling anything of Andrew’s, but in all complete honesty, I’d been “working” the program for a year and not really getting it. I wasn’t “getting better” my behaviors were continuing to be the same, degenerating. But a few things happened that really really REALLY helped me get a better focus. First, my wife kicked me out. It was the right thing to do although it really sucked for me, but that was the benefit, even though I didn’t see it as much. Second, I read Andrew’s blog post, The ABC’s of Porn Addiction and then bought the book and it COMPLETELY changed my view on what was going on with me and what needed to happen. Then I started seeing a certified psychologist that studied in trauma and sex addiction. I’m not in recovery. I’m nowhere close, but I do have 9 months of sobriety without any slip or relapse and A LOT of changes in behavior for the better, and this has been the longest I’ve ever gone without falling back into it, and I can only see that those three things were the major changes for me that helped hit home what needed to be done. Being separated brought on the pain and loss necessary for me to see things as they really are, and then Andrew’s book and a therapist. I’m not saying you need to kick your husband out. I don’t know your circumstance or anything and I don’t feel comfortable enough saying that HAS to happen, but maybe if he’s willing, a psychologist and reading Sitting in a Rowboat Throwing Marbles at a Battleship. Hope the best for you.

      • Thank you, Andrew and Anoni Mouse. Both of your comments are very helpful, it was hard to swallow the truth of addiction. I guess that’s just the reality of the addiction and I needed to know that before I develop unrealistic expectations or hope.

        Anoni Mouse, I hope that my husband and I will not reach the point where we have to separate in order to wake him up. At least now, I don’t think I’m ready to take such a drastic action. Your wife was very brave to make that decision. I can only imagine how difficult it was for her to come to that decision. I’m glad that you have 9 months of sobriety. I hope your wife can see your efforts and your relationship are being healed. I’d love to see therapists and read Andrew’s book, too. Thank you for sharing your experience with me. I wish you the best on your recovery journey!

        Andrew, after you replied to my comment, my husband saw your response to me and read about “terminal uniqueness” that you suggested for his reading. That really opened his eyes. He told me that for the first time in his life that his addiction was something of serious nature and couldn’t fix it by himself. He always thought his case was not so bad because he could go without a problem for a few months. But reading your posts made him feel that he needs proper treatments and the problem will not disappear on its own or with his efforts and prayers only. He actually felt very understood and hopeful. Andrew, thank you for making your experience and knowledge available for everyone.

        As of now, he still does not have a sponsor and have not been able to find a SA meeting nearby. I hope that he can start something on his own before he loses the hope and momentum he has now. Do you have any recommended daily active recovery exercise for him until he can find his sponsor and meetings? When I ask him if he did something for his recovery at the end of each day, he usually tells me that he read your posts or thought about it all day. I am not sure what’s the reasonable expectation to have for those who are just beginning to start their recovery efforts. If you have any suggestions for him, I’d love to hear. Thank you!