Is the nature of lust addiction exactly the same as alcohol addiction (as described in AA)?
Dear Rabbi Twerski,
I received an e-mail from someone who has been working on himself very hard over the past 9 months and made excellent progress. However, with all his progress, he still feels very easily triggered in the street, and he feels that to some extent, he is not much more than a "dry drunk". He posed to me a very fundamental question, on which I would like to ask the Rav's advice. Basically the question is, if he would take his struggle to the next level and join a 12-Step SA group, is there truly hope that through the program he will achieve a point where he no longer wants to lust at all? Can he achieve a level where the "lust sensors" in his brain won't go off like they do now? I know that with alcoholics, this can be achieved with the 12-Steps. As the Alcoholics wrote back in 1939 in AA (p. 101) about how they felt after recovering through the 12-steps:
"Assuming we are spiritually fit, we can do all sorts of things alcoholics are not supposed to do. People have said we must not go where liquor is served; we must not have it in our homes; we must shun friends who drink; we must avoid moving pictures which show drinking scenes; we must not go into bars; our friends must hide their bottles if we go to their houses; we mustn't think or be reminded about alcohol at all.
We meet these conditions every day. An alcoholic who cannot meet them, still has an alcoholic mind; there is something the matter with his spiritual status. His only chance for sobriety would be some place like the Greenland Ice Cap, and even there an Eskimo might turn up with a bottle of scotch and ruin everything!
But is it the same with lust addiction? In our case, there is a hyper-sensitive sensor in the brain, carved out by years of using stimulation. Will the 12-Steps really change that? If the Rav can please read his deeply sincere e-mail below and give him / us guidance. He is reluctant to join 12-Steps groups because it would shake the boat again with his wife. He is, however, willing to take this major step, if he knows that his thinking really will undergo a change.
Here is his beautiful email:
It may seem a bit strange. I’ve been “clean” for 9 months and counting. Yet I’m considering serious measures to combat lust addiction that I haven’t before entertained. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is the very success that I’ve had so far that is prompting me to go further.
To explain, it’s important to understand what “clean for 9 months and counting means”. It means that I have not stepped into an adult bookstore, masturbated or viewed pornography during this time. As these were the clear, easy to identify indicators of lust addiction, stopping these activities was a necessary first step. And it took daily effort. There were 2 components: Sur Merah and Aseh Tov.
For Sur Merah, I made lists of activities and grouped them into 3 categories based on their relative “safety”. There were activities I should do (work, learn, talk to people, spend time with my family), activities I could not do (view pornography, masturbate) and activities that were gray which had led to acting out in the past (“looking around” on the street, being home or on business trips alone). I built fences to ensure that I did not get close to questionable activities (guidelines for myself while online, lists of benefits of staying clean and negative consequences of acting out, steps to follow in “risky situations). I told my Rav and my wife about my struggles and found an “accountability partner” to update on my progress. I “faced the light of day” for the first time and began going to therapy where I began to explore the emotional causes for my actions. I finally connected my outward behavior with internal emotions.
For Aseh Tov, I approached Torah and Hashem with a clean slate and began with the basics of Yiddishkeit – our purpose in this world, and basic Mussar which helped me begin to develop a real, emotional connection to Hashem for the first time in my life. I began to daven with a minyan regularly “of my own accord” (not because it was expected) and developed a sensitivity and a need for a daily dose of ruchniyus, in whatever form.
With Hashem’s help, these steps bore fruit and I did not do the things I did not want to do. However, as time went on, it became clear to me that the problem was not fully resolved. In my mind and on the street, triggers kept coming. Having sensitized myself, I was now aware of a “lust sensor” in my mind and heart, and could feel it lighting up when I saw or thought about certain things. I realized that during the many years when acting out was only a matter of time, the periodic acts ensured that the sensor never turned off and provided a constant stream of pleasurable feelings. Now that I was breaking the circuit, I became aware of just how constant it had been and how deeply rooted the triggers and reactions had become. It was second nature. I began to see, for the first time, how damaging this was to my life and began to understand how it had affected me and thrown me off a path of growth, particularly in Ruchniyus and Avodas Hashem.
Now that the background has been laid, here’s the next chapter. During a 2 day period in April, when temperatures prematurely hit 90 degrees and women on the street were dressed accordingly, the point hit home with unusual clarity – although I had not crossed the line as I’d drawn it, if I wanted to stop feeding the lust sensor and clear the way for continued growth, I needed to redraw the line. As a fellow struggler put it, “lust can be indulged in many ways, whether stimulated by eyesight, physical stimuli or just mental association”. The bombardment of stimuli that I received in those 2 days gave the lust sensor a huge boost; it was like going to the gas station and filling up. The line I had drawn was not being respected by the enemy – he crossed with impunity, as if it wasn’t there. I didn’t immediately recognize this because as long as I stayed “clean” I thought I was doing fine. But gradually I became aware that despite my efforts, I had been ambushed. That’s where I am today. Having realized the need to redefine the line, I need new strategies. The new definition is simple: I don’t want this sensor anymore! I want to uproot it entirely. If it’s there, it will be fed (I don’t know if this is a reasonable goal but it’s where I’d like to start for now). But the fight has been taken to a new level – it’s now internal. It’s a lot harder to control your eyes and your thoughts than to control your feet or your hands. So far, the only approach that claims to success at this level, seems to be treating lust as a full blown addiction and following the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. So do I go there?
If the Rav can offer us guidance, we would be most grateful.
Thank you so much.
Rabbi Twerski Responds:
Lust addiction, in contrast to alcohol and drug addiction, is more like food addiction. One can do without alcohol or drugs, but one cannot do without food. Similarly, there is a need for a healthy sexual drive in marriage.The Talmud relates that the sages "captured" the yetzer hara and imprisoned it. The next day one could not find an egg on the market, so they had to release the yetzer hara. Inasmuch as the yetzer hara is the source for healthy sexual drive, it cannot be eliminated.
The ultimate solution is for a person to work hard on increasing one's yiras shamayim and praying for siyata dishmaya. There are no short cuts.
So if I understand what the Rav is saying correctly, an SA group would not necessarily provide this young man with a "magical solution". And since this man is already working hard on himself and going to therapy, it is probably not worthwhile for him to shake the boat with his wife and join an SA group if he is doing so well (9 months clean) just because he still feels easily triggered and vulnerable when faced with lust in the street. Am I understanding the Rav correctly? In other words, SA won't be able to do the same magic with lust as it does with drugs and alcohol...