All Things Unholy: From Sexual Addiction to Merciful Liberation

I remember the moment I came to terms with my addiction: the moment I stepped out of denial and into God’s healing light. I had no idea what would happen. I was scared and overwhelmed with guilt and shame. I had gone almost twenty years without openly acknowledging and admitting my addiction. I would tell people I struggled with lust, pornography, and masturbation, but I never believed I was an addict. 

There was no way I was one of those people.

I was five years old when I was abused sexually. After that moment, I became overwhelmed with sexual thoughts and desires. Five years later, it happened again and then I was exposed to my first pornographic movie (on accident). I was looking for Disney’s The Fox and the Hound and when I found the V.H.S. I popped it in and quickly discovered someone had recorded a porno over the original movie. I knew what I had seen was not something good but something drew me to it.

As time went on, I found new ways to feed my curiosity. The internet was relatively new but there were plenty of places to find seedy videos and foster what would become my addictive habit. At the time, I didn’t think what I was doing was wrong. After all, I told myself, “it’s better to just watch it on the internet than to actively engage in it.” My mind began to be consumed with thoughts of lust and sex. And I had no idea how much this would impact my adult life.

I was constantly teased about my weight and how I looked at school. I had little to no friends. Home wasn’t much better. Between my drug-addicted brother, my emotionally abusive stepdad, and my emotionally distant mother, the only solace I found was from a glowing screen in the middle of the night. My strained family relations as well as my lack of acceptance from peers drew me further away from human connection and deeper into the web of lust and addiction.

Along with my sex addiction, I developed very strong co-dependent tendencies. I would do anything just to feel accepted and loved, even if it meant sacrificing my personal values. While the cognitive dissonance I felt as a teenager was numbed by the fact my peers were usually engaging in the same activities I was, once I joined the Catholic Church it was only a matter of time before my conscience would start to eat away at me.

There are plenty of jokes about “Catholic guilt.” However, I will say that it was this formation of conscience that would—years later—lead me to my “rock bottom” moment. I was confirmed in the Catholic Church in 2010 and took St. John Vianney as my saint. Becoming Catholic was the best decision I had ever made. I absolutely love my faith. I love the Mass, Catholic philosophy and theology, Catholic spirituality, Mary, the Communion of Saints—the list goes on and on. 

However, I was living a double life. On one side was the Ambrose I showed everybody, the zealous convert bent on setting the world on fire with the truths of the Catholic faith. On the other side was the Ambrose obsessed with all things sex- and porn-related, the Ambrose I kept secret until almost a year into my recovery work.

In 2019 I began attending Celebrate Recovery after an argument with my wife got out of hand. I started a “12-step study” with a group there and thought I was good to go. I had a sponsor and people to talk to, but I was sure I was okay and didn’t need help from others. I believed that if I just did what I was supposed to do I would be fine.

I made some progress in the beginning but things didn’t really change. I used my recovery work to try and control my wife as opposed to keeping my side of the fence clean. I kept watching porn and masturbating even though I would try not to. And I was keeping the biggest secret from my wife: an affair I had three years prior that I swore I would never talk about. 

Between the porn, the affair, the gaslighting, and the secrets, things finally all came to a head. My marriage was miserable. I was miserable. And my children began to feel the misery as well. We tried different things to renew our marriage but nothing worked. My wife had mentioned Retrovaille, a program for struggling married couples and when I looked into it I thought there might be hope. However, there was one caveat, if we were really going to work on our marriage it had to be from a place of total honesty. 

I had to tell her about the affair.

I had an appointment with my therapist the day after this revelation. It didn’t even take two minutes before I was bawling my eyes out in his office. He gave me some time and then asked, “What happened?”

I told him about the affair, the porn, the lies, and the secrets. He asked, “Ambrose, why do you think you are struggling with these compulsive behaviors? What would you call it if your life is getting kind of unmanageable?”

I knew what he was getting at. I was shocked at the implication that I was an addict. I felt like I was hit by a semi-truck. How could I have been so blind? I mean, for the love of God, I worked daily with alcoholics and drug addicts! How did I miss this? All the signs were there. I was so steeped in my own denial and selfishness that it wasn’t that I didn’t see it but that I chose not to believe it. As a result of this, I nearly caused irreparable damage to my wife, kids, and family.

The conversation I had with my therapist happened on May 21st, 2020. I confessed to my wife four days later. I was kicked out of the house for two months. The first month was spent at my mother’s house trying to figure out what to do next. The second was at a rehab facility in Tennessee specializing in sex addiction. To pay for rehab, I had to create a GoFundMe page and post it to my Facebook page for everyone to see. There were no secrets anymore. It was both terrifying and liberating.

A lot has happened since. I wish I could tell you that things got easier and everything is perfect. But that wouldn’t be true. My walk with Christ has been steady but there are times I find myself pushing against Him. However, no matter how difficult things may be—and by things I mean, me—Jesus is still willing to open His arms wide and love me just the same. Much like my personal recovery, my marriage is something I continue to take day by day.  Some days are good. Others not so much. However, I try to remind myself that when our wounds are open and we are hurting, compassion and charity are often the best remedies, as well as some space.

God’s grace and the Twelve Steps have saved my life. As time has passed, I have begun to not only understand how my addiction has affected others and myself but I have been given the grace and mercy to begin to make amends and be the man God intended me to be. Making amends isn’t so much about a written or personal apology but a lifestyle change. It is what we would call a “living amends.” It is still a struggle—and probably will be for the rest of my life. Recovery, after all, is a lifelong journey and one that we all must walk, though never alone.

My recovery has opened many doors for me including the opportunity to write for the CIR community. It has also given me the courage to openly share my story and struggles with others and not feel ashamed. God works all things together for the greater good of mankind. I truly believe that. Although addiction is a horrible disease, one I would not wish on my worst enemy, it is also something that God can, through His grace, use to write a beautiful story in our lives.

As St. Francis of Assisi said, “I have been all things unholy; if God can work through me, then he can work through anyone.” It’s the same thing we hear in the Gospel: “If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing” (1 John 1:9).

The first step is always the most difficult, but it’s one well worth taking. Take heart and be not afraid, for the road to recovery is the way to lifelong healing and salvation.

 

Ambrose is a convert to Catholicism and has struggled with sexaholism and mental illness. He has undergraduate degrees in Catholic theology and philosophy and enjoys learning and reading about the lives of the saints.