Dr. Curt Thompson often states that “We are all born into this world looking for someone looking for us“. I was born two months premature and placed in isolation with wires and tubes attached to my body. I looked and saw doctors, nurses, and an occasional family member.

My mother was also put in isolation, in a struggle for her life. She died when I was nine months old. Her story is one of courageous decisions in the face of death. But for me, it felt like abandonment. What’s interesting is that I’ve only come to realize this in the last couple of years. After she died, my dad received poor but spiritual sounding counsel to get over it and move on, and that’s what he did. He buried his feelings with my mom. Well, most of them. Not anger. His anger surfaced frequently towards me; a rather unwieldy, incredibly curious, very energetic, handful of a child. I crushed a lot of egg shells and paid the price. My dad raised me and my sister (a couple years older than me) by himself for the first 6 years of my life. My mother’s parents stepped in and helped when they could, but otherwise we were in daycare or somebody else’s care quite a lot during those six years.

Then my dad remarried, and as a 6 year-old I gained a stepmom, and a stepbrother who was one grade ahead of me in school, and a good bit taller and stronger than me as well. We were not allowed to use “step” language in our family, though. So from day one, it was always just “mom” and “brother”.

I was diagonosed with ADHD not long after that. And…my new mom was the one who had to wrangle me and make sure I was always doing what I was supposed to do. Our relationship was not easy, to say the least, but she did her best! I also heard “wait til your dad gets home” more times than I care to recount. Those were some long afternoons, let me tell you!

My new brother visited his dad periodically on the weekends, which I really disliked. The coming and going and the uncertainty left me feeling anxious, sad, and lonely. Sometimes his dad would just not show up. But my brother’s sadness and frustration were hard for our entire household! I grew to really dislike his dad. Other times, my brother would come back with cool stuff. I didn’t get cool stuff from my dad, so it’s fair to say I was pretty envious.

When I was about 8 years old, one Sunday afternoon after a visit at his dad’s, my brother brought home something different – a secret. When he was sure no one else was around, he showed me a magazine. It not at all like any magazine I’d ever seen before! He said it was part of his dad’s “private stash” of porn magazines (apparently not really all that private). My brother had slipped the magazine out of his dad’s room when no one was looking. To this day, why or how he even knew it was even there, I don’t know. Just goes to show that as parents we’re not really as good at hiding things from our kids as we often think! But for whatever reason, my brother decided to show that magazine to me. I was at first appalled, not even sure what I was seeing, and then I became quickly captivated!

After that, I began to look forward to my brother’s visitation weekends, always hoping he would bring back a new magazine or two. In a certain twisted sort of way, those magazines bonded us together. Our parents were just glad we got along so well!

When I looked into the faces of those porn models, I saw desire in their faces – as if they were actually looking for me. I felt wanted and as though I belonged – or maybe that they belonged to me? The images were soothing to me and satiated some of my curiosity. They gave me an outlet for unexpressed feelings. But I also knew those images were wrong, bad, and though they made me feel good, they also made me feel terrible. Shame became my constant companion.

In no way do I blame him for this; my brother told me I’d better not ever “get caught”, and I certainly didn’t want to upset him or get him in trouble. No way, he not just bigger and stronger than me, he was my supplier! And, we grew up in a very rigid household. We were expected to behave a certain way. We had a list of unacceptable behaviors – and their consequences – which applied equally to all three of “us kids”. We were constantly reminded that everyone was watching us, as one of the few “good christian step-families” in town. Having a desire for porn was certainly not in line with being good, christian, or family. Not that it made the list or was ever specifically mentioned in our household. What goes unspoken in families is as significant – if not more – than what is spoken.

I learned to hide and lie very quickly. Mostly just hide. But then there were those times when I was almost caught and the inevitable “what were you doing in your room with the door shut?” question would come up. I would definitely lie then! There was one occasion when my (step) mom walked in and almost caught me “in the act”. She didn’t see the magazine, but she did see evidence that something was up. I was mortified! For the most part, I tend to remember ideas and concepts more than specifics, but that shameful experience is etched into my mind in fairly brilliant detail. But she never knew I had a porn magazine – certainly not one given to me by her son. She did march me to my dad, who seemed very unsure what to do, and said something like “boys will be boys”. And that was the extent of it.

There were seasons when there was no porn in the house. Basketball seasons, specifically. My brother was good at basketball, and the games were on the weekends. So…the trips to his dad’s house were infrequent during those seasons. And hey, I didn’t fall apart or anything like that. I mean, I didn’t need porn.

I developed other ways to be seen and feel known. I would ride my bike, my skateboard, or just walk around the neighborhood for hours – searching for neighbor girls that might give me just a look, a glance, or a smile. If they would engage me in conversation, I would try my best to charm them into giving me more time, more attention, or maybe even a peek under the hood. But more than anything, I craved the attention. I knew one girl, a year younger than me, who would go for an afternoon run in our neighborhood almost every day. I made it a point to be seen by her. Sometimes I would ride my bike alongside as she ran, babbling on about anything I could think of, just to get her attention. When she would actually talk with me, it felt so good!

This pattern continued as I grew older. Always looking for someone looking for me. In high school, I always had a girlfriend. Sometimes more than one. I found my love for running after literally chasing a girl onto the cross country team! Not that I actually knew what to do with a girlfriend, because I wasn’t actually allowed to date. After all, we were a good christian family. Good christians don’t need to learn how to socialize with the opposite gender. I guess it’s better to just read about it or watch others doing it. So, all my girlfriends were secret – until my parents found out. We lived in a small enough town that they always found out. And then I was required to break up with them. Usually, additional punishment such as loss of privileges or grounding would be added. Because isolation is what’s best for a hormone-addled, hyperactive teenage boy. Or at least, much easier than teaching him how to co-regulate, integrate or connect appropriately with others. To be fair, my parents were doing their best, and just didn’t know what they didn’t know.

The last time my dad ever took a swing at me, I was a senior in high school. I’d always been kinda small for my age, but by then I was at least wiry and fast! He was much bigger but slow, so he couldn’t land his punch. He then had the audacity to tell me that if I ever made him do that again, I would have to leave home.

It never happened again, but I still left home as soon as I could – choosing to attend a college that was out of state. My academic record and extracurricular abilities got me enough scholarships to make it as far as one state away – a three hour drive from home. For this small town kid, that felt like another planet! I was elated to at last be out from under the rules and regulations! I was free! But I didn’t feel very free. Being a college kid away from home might’ve been fun, if I were not so systematized. I was by this time a very judgmental young man, most of all towards myself. I had “high moral standards” which definitely applied more externally than internally. I was highly afraid of being a screw-up, and I really disliked myself. I was very disintegrated, while putting on the façade that I had it all together. I had a good christian girlfriend back home, and also found a good christian girlfriend at college. We didn’t necessarily do good christian things together.

My eyes were quickly drawn to another girl. She had some church background, but didn’t claim to be a good christian. She was artsy, a gifted dancer and actress. Energetic! I tried to get her attention every chance I could – which meant spending as much time as possible with both her and her roommate. The roommate was quieter, easygoing, and seemed a bit tortured and unsure of herself. She said she was christian, but she did things I deemed not-so christian-like. I mean, she drank, smoked, and listened to rock & roll! How could any of those things be christian? I decided she needed help, and I was the person who could rescue her (I guess from herself). Besides, her roommate and I had by then decided we were just not compatible. She was too confident, too spunky! Too independent!

I married that other girl – the roommate. We were nineteen year-old sophomores – and quite sophomoric, too! But we were in love, and love would get us through anything! I mean, that’s the advice we got from our pastor – the only premarital “counseling” we received, in fact.

She knew I had been dating two other girls before her. She had to break up with a boyfriend, too. We were perfect for each other. I had nothing to hide!

Well, not nothing. She didn’t know I’d ever struggled with porn use. There were some things I didn’t know about her, either.

My college buddies used porn. It was no big deal. They were more open about it. I pretended like I was too good for it. One of my closest friends hosted what was called a virtual “bulletin board”. The internet didn’t exist yet. But he built this “super-powerful” computer that had a modem connection with two phone lines! He could upload data at up to 33.6 kilobytes per second! Blazing fast back in the day! And one at a time, his buddies could “dial in”, exchange password info, and get access to his computer remotely. He had some cool multiplayer role playing games on his computer. I felt so included – part of something! The game I liked best would’ve been something like a very early precursor to Clash of Clans, but played individually. It was a lot of fun! I “had” to dial in every day to take my turn and make my moves – and I was pretty good at it. My friend also had a “secret back door” of his bulletin board for only his closest friends. Through another password exchange, I could get access to his digital porn collection. A whole new world of porn! This also made me feel very connected and part of something ultra secret, ultra private – much like when my brother would share magazines with me. Of course, I never talked about it with my wife, either.

Soon, the internet became a thing. Dial-up modems became faster, and before long were replaced altogether, and the world had instant access to anything!

Life moved on. We finished college and began a new season of life, involving a few different jobs and several moves. In time, we were blessed with two children, 18 months apart. A son and a daughter. Life was so sweet! Well, most of it. At least, life was manageable. I just needed more self control, or maybe more holiness. I needed more sex from my wife. I needed more focus. But if you’d asked me, I did not have a problem. I was, in a word, unaware.

Around the time our youngest was two years old, our marriage fell apart. I jumped head-first into an affair. I felt seen, wanted, and desired! But also, I felt very despicable and ashamed, alone, and trapped. I began to shut down and isolate from everyone except this other woman – but especially from my wife. I tried amicably breaking things off more than once, to no avail. A few months into the affair, I confessed to my wife what was going on. She was, of course, deeply hurt but also relieved to know what was going on with me. I really did break off contact with the other woman. My wife and I got some counseling help and struggled back to a healthier version of us. Within a few years, we were doing so well that we began helping others with their marriage struggles.

Then we became missionaries. Accepted by an elite missions organization to serve others – specifically, other couples and marriages. For a decade, we poured ourselves into other families and into their marriages. I felt so wanted and included! I was a self-proclaimed “life change junkie”. I also still struggled with porn use, feeling like a fraud, unseen, unknown. But I mean, only occasionally. And missionaries only talk about besetting sins as something in the past. To admit to current struggles would be reason for rejection and dismissal.

Our kids – our fantastic children – grew up and became amazing teenagers, then incredible young adults. Our oldest got married. Our second began dating and was headed toward engagement as well. Life was going great!

Our marriage fell apart – again! It was sudden, and shocking! I was on a work trip and “ended up” in bed with a lady to whom I’d become emotionally attached. Even as it happened, I couldn’t believe my own actions. There must be something horribly wrong with me!

I was quietly “let go” from my work, but still, I wore shame like my birthday suit. I also brandished hurt and anger against my former employer. In my eyes, this missions organization, dedicated to helping marriages and families, turned their backs on us – on our marriage, our family!

For me, it felt like abandonment, again.

We got help. Intensive marriage help. Though they dismissed us, to their credit the missions organization found us the help and even provided partial funding for it. Things quickly got much better! I started over entirely, working in a field I’d never considered before. It turned out I was pretty good at it! Within a couple years, I became part of the management team. Then I was promoted again, which required a move. I was flying high and loving many aspects of our new life. Finally things were coming together!

My wife was not doing so great. Depression set in. She needed help – I told her so! Life was good, but I felt like if she didn’t get help, I would end up making another terrible mistake, and I didn’t want to do that again! I told her as much.

Trauma, a neurodivergent mind, abuse, an insecure attachment style, a rigid upbringing, and early exposure to an addictive substance all led me to this point in my life. They were the hurricane spinning around the pinwheel that was me. And I knew all these things about myself, but I couldn’t connect the dots. And so, at the end of 2021 after almost half a century and nearly three decades of marriage, my wife and I ended up sitting in the therapist’s office together. I was so glad that she would finally get the help she so obviously needed! My thought was that at least it wasn’t my fault this time. And in a sense, it that was true. And yet I hardly knew the full truth. I was dealing with an unwanted sexual brokenness that I didn’t even know how to name yet.

I’ve done some writing over the past few months – on a different blog – about more of this part of my journey. I think it’s time to connect the dots, so to speak. If you’re still reading this and want to know more, you can read about it, I will share that blog site with you. Please know, though, that a lot of what I’ve written so far is in the form of harsh internal dialogue I’ve experienced over the years, and is, in places, very raw. The posts are not sequential, either. But they’re all real, all true. I’ll keep writing on that site, as I’m able, because writing in that way has been cathartic. My story is still being written, of course. I am coming to a place of understanding how so many things I encountered early in life had huge impact on who I became as an adult. And through all the struggles and heartache, I have certainty that I am deeply known and loved.

Why would I share this, risking such vulnerability and even rejection? I think it’s because I’ve learned so much and received such grace and love – throughout my life, but especially in this latest season. I learned even recently from Dr. Anna Lembke’s book Dopamine Nation the incredible power of radical honesty in overcoming addiction. I’ve learned that I need community and connection. I’ve even noticed, from caring for my dad, that redemption takes many forms and comes in varying levels. And through therapy, I’m discovering how my adaptive coping mechanisms became maladaptive over time, yet still served to protect and keep me going. I’m becoming more balanced, more integrated. I hope maybe in sharing a bit of my journey, others will find a pathway to healing – as I have.

6 thoughts on “unaware

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