This article will unpack a crucial element hindering many from embarking on a journey of recovery, based on my own readings and client observations. I will begin the discussion however with a remark: we can become addicted to anything. Facebook, internet, friends, news, video games – it’s not all sex and drugs. There are many roads to addiction, one of which is the avoidance of unwanted thoughts and feelings. Instead of studying for an exam for example, we turn to video games to avoid feelings of failure – anxiety. If this occurs long enough, video gaming becomes an addiction. Rather than enjoying a game for its own sake, the hobby serves as a respite from anxious thoughts. Pornography and food share similar distress-relieving qualities. They are exciting and effective tools that help us forget our selves and circumstances. One thing separates sex and food from other addictions however: their inescapability. Unlike playing video games, human beings were created with drives to eat and procreate (if the reader believes humans evolved, it amounts to the same thing). Lust and gluttony are thus persistent and lifelong demons for those wrestling with them.
But there is hope. Most solutions intuitively rely on willpower. People will recommend you give up your computer or cell phone, or distract yourself when you feel the urge. “Go for a walk, call a family member, go to the gym, just leave the house.” Though there are many such solutions, most will likely not stand the test of time. The reason for this is simple: willpower is not in infinite supply. Take for example the true and tried Quranic counsel of lowering one’s gaze. This advice is an excellent preventative measure (i.e. avoid developing an addiction to pornography in the first place). However, a brain acclimated to sexual imagery will desperately return to pornography as a means of quelling anxiety once it carves such a deep neural connection. A habituated brain is a powerful organ. When the impulse towards pornography becomes overwhelming, the willpower needed to lower the gaze will simply not be sufficient. You will need someone you know to help you, to be your safety net. This is the hard price to pay: secrecy. You can’t do this alone. But sharing this secret? For many, the thought of loved ones discovering their shameful secret is the ultimate dread. You must understand however that few options are as effective. We are, after all, social creatures.
Most people are unaware that Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is considered one of the most successful therapy groups for addictions. Jonathan Engel lists four reasons why. First, AA's philosophy requires that you never think of yourself as ‘cured’, encouraging instead a deep humility towards your vulnerabilities. Second, members admit that the acceptance of God (integral to the AA process) is critical in the healing process. The concept of God furthers a sense of humility and inspires hope and forgiveness. Third, alcoholics are forced to engage other alcoholics. This pulls the blinds off processes of rationalization (“I can go to the bar and not drink”) as well as denial (“I’m OK now, I’ve overcome my addiction”). Fourth, and central to this article, AA offers a social framework in which you embed your life. Conventional group therapies rely on sessions where the psychologist facilitates introspection or skill development. Once it’s over, you then leave to continue next week. You may be assigned some cognitive or relaxation exercises but little else fills the therapeutic space between sessions. AA fills that void; a social support system keenly aware of your circumstances and help is available at a moment’s notice. This protects individuals from the pitfalls associated with absolute reliance on willpower between sessions.
The support network is key, ideally lasting forever. In other words, if your mother was your support at home, but now you’re married, you should consider soliciting the help of your wife (awkwardness and potential consequences aside for the sake of discussion). The purpose once again is to enlist others as safety nets in case willpower becomes deficient. How does this translate into practice? It depends on your circumstances. I’ve known brothers who have their family members limit their computer time. Others have their wives control their internet usage via NetNanny (a porn-block software, one I recommend in every household irrespectively). The point is to never convince yourself you’ve overcome the addiction for good. In most cases if you’re addicted, you’re addicted for life. Having others supporting you is crucial in overcoming this hurdle. Even when you feel at your strongest, keep the support system alive – you’ll never know when you might need it. In time, you’ll develop a substantial set of logistical firewalls that will protect you from losing control. But it all begins with the confession to a loved one who will support you along the way.
If ever you feel lost or unsure who to speak with or how to begin overcoming your addiction at all, you can contact me as well. It’s not ideal – you need someone you know – but it’s a start. Together we’ll try to figure out the best framework possible inshAllah.
And finally, do not despair. When you feel at your lowest, try to remember Allah’s words: Say, "O My servants who have transgressed against themselves, do not despair of the mercy of Allah . Indeed, Allah forgives all sins. Indeed, it is He who is the Forgiving, the Merciful." [Zumar: 53]
You may suffer, but you may never lose hope.
Gender note: Though the article relates primarily to males, a sizeable number of females are addicted to pornography as well. Unfortunately, I cannot imagine how much more stigmatising it must feel for a Muslim woman to share this affliction with others. It’s socially expected of men to be attracted by pornography, much less of women. Nonetheless, I offer the same encouragement I outlined with sisters as well. Don’t go through this alone; seek help though the stigma may appear at times overwhelming.