(If you have not read Act 1, click the link.)
The summer before my senior year of high school I had the opportunity to attend the first Alabama Governor’s School which was being held at Samford University. The only thing I knew about Samford at that point was the little bit I had read in The Alabama Baptist newspaper growing up. I did find out that they played Division 1 basketball and received a number of recruiting letters from them during my junior year. I felt God was working everything out perfectly…I would go to Samford and continue to prepare for the ministry AND play D1 basketball while I was at it. Yay God, this is cool.
I had an absolute blast at Governor’s School. Having grown up in a small, rural town, it was my first opportunity to experience life in the city and to interact with students from all over Alabama. I was very nervous going in, but quickly made friends and soaked in the experience. I had the privilege of preaching at the Sunday service and was ultimately named “Best All-Around Male” by my peers and the AGS faculty. It was not only a huge honor, but knowing that I could hang with Alabama’s best was a huge boost to my self-esteem.
After the two week AGS experience, I was certain that Samford was where I wanted to spend my four years of college. I had it all worked out in my mind. I would be a Religion major and prepare for the ministry and play four years of Division 1 basketball while I was at it. Perfect! Unfortunately, I did not hear much from Samford concerning basketball after my junior year. Right before I graduated, I received two letters inviting me to join the team as a walk-on. This was not quite what I had in mind, but by that time I had acquired a Presidential scholarship to Samford, so my dream was still alive.
When I arrived on campus as a freshman in the fall of 1989, it seemed that every guy I met was going to walk-on and play basketball. I had been told that they were only taking 3 walk-ons and that I was one of them, so I didn’t think much of it. After two weeks of preseason conditioning and a week of practice, it was obvious that they did not have a spot for me on the team. I was crushed because my lifelong dream of playing college basketball had come to an end. I questioned God because I felt like we had everything worked out. This was not part of the plan.
Not long after walking away from basketball, the Baptist Association from my hometown called and told me that they were starting a new, contemporary church on Lake Wedowee and wanted me to consider being the first pastor. I agreed and felt like I began to understand why God had closed the door on basketball. If I was on the basketball team, I reasoned, there is no way that I could pastor this church. I jumped into this opportunity with both feet, although it would present many challenges.
When I first arrived on Samford’s campus in the fall of 1989, I was so excited to be in Birmingham and away from the small town where I grew up. I had the opportunity to be authentic and to share myself openly and honestly with other Christian guys that I began to meet, but the word quickly spread around campus about my preaching experience while in high school. Once again I fell into the trap of trying to uphold a reputation at all costs. I didn’t want to let these folks down, so I continued to stuff my secret struggle with pornography and kept it in the shadows.
I met Melody during my first semester at Samford. A group of guys from the Fraternity that I had pledged put together a spelunking expedition to a cave in downtown Birmingham. I was up for any adventure and new experience, so I went along. I met Melody about two hours deep in this cave when she threw mud at someone else in the group. Her aim was slightly off and the clump of slimy wet mud hit me in the middle of my right ear. I got her back later by planting a big pile of the slimy stuff into her curly hair. Not sure I could say it was love at first sight, but I definitely took notice of this beautiful, fun-loving, adventurous girl whose smile and laughter brightened even that dark, damp cave.
As luck would have it, Melody and I both took Art Appreciation during Jan Term the following January. I don’t know if I learned to appreciate much about art, but I was soaking in all of the details about Melody…her passion for Jesus, her love of worship, her commitment to family, and her selfless care for others. I was falling in love and even told my brother during a weekend trip home that I knew I had met my future wife. I proposed during my sophomore year and we married in January of 1992. I was a junior and Melody had just graduated with a degree in Music Education that December. Living off of her teaching income and the small salary that the church was paying me, we didn’t have much. We were full of dreams and ambition and were excited about ministering together for the rest of our lives.
I would love to say that I had come clean with my struggle with pornography before we got married, but I did not. I wanted to, but chose not to, believing the lie that I would eventually overcome this struggle on my own and that she would never know the difference. I knew that Melody loved the Tray that I had presented so well during our courtship and engagement, but I was not sure that she would love me if she knew about my shameful addiction. I was too much of a coward to find out and continued to live with my secret while pretending everything was ok. I was ashamed of my dirty secret and went to the altar over and over again asking God to forgive me and to take it away. I pledged on numerous occasions that I would never look at pornography again, only to fail each time. Each failure brought more shame and I felt God was pretty disgusted with my behavior.
Less than a year into our marriage, we started a business that we hoped would help support us on the mission field one day. Although we did not have much when we got married, we had absolutely zero debt. Zero. After 5 years of pouring our lives into this business, we had over $75,000 in debt. I had dug a financial hole as deep as I could dig. There simply was no more money.
This was the first time in my life that I had really failed at anything. School and sports had always come easy and without much effort. The business was not working out and I immediately began to interpret that as punishment from God for my struggle with pornography. The more I failed, the more I checked-out. Every week Melody and I were spending so much time and energy just figuring out how to keep our accounts from being overdrawn. I felt less than a man and the guilt and shame of not providing for my family drove me deeper into my addiction. I became a shell of a man, desperately trying to keep up the façade that I had it all together on the outside, but I was literally dying on the inside.
At some point during 1993, I discovered Internet chat rooms. At first I spent time in chat rooms that dealt with sports, but I soon migrated to those with adult topics. For most people, chat rooms allow them opportunity to be someone that they are not. For me, unfortunately, I had the opportunity to be myself for the first time in my life. No one in these rooms knew who I was or even cared for that matter. No one knew my family or anything about the reputation I was so carefully managing. I was hooked immediately and these chat rooms became my escape from the pain of “real” life.
This began a vicious cycle. I was struggling to make our business work and would run to chat rooms and pornography to medicate the pain of that reality. My escapism and unwillingness to face the reality of my situation led to very unproductive days that led to more business failure. I was my own worst enemy and would always seem to sabotage any hint of success along the way. Of course I felt that God was highly pissed off at me and I carried the constant shame of “not being able to make better choices.” In my mind, to know better equaled doing better and I was failing miserably at doing better. Also firmly believing that I was the only Christian man caught up in this struggle, I retreated deeper and deeper into the shadows, vowing to overcome this struggle on my own.
Needless to say, all of this had a profound impact on my marriage. Melody could not put her finger on what was going on, but she knew I had lost the spark in my eye that I had when she first met me. My zeal and passion for life was gone and I was trying to simply survive as best I could. Because I was unwilling to be open and honest about my struggle with pornography and my overwhelming sense of failure, I killed any hope for emotional intimacy. She longed for it and would often come to me in tears bearing her heart, trying to figure out what was going on with me. It was so intensely painful for me to see her pain and only served to remind me how much of a miserable failure I was as a husband and provider. Rather than risk being vulnerable I took the path of cowardice and built more walls of protection.
I crossed the line in 1998. A woman that I had been chatting with from Kentucky met me in Birmingham and I slept with her. I didn’t even know her last name or really anything about her. My addiction to pornography and chat rooms had taken me to a place I vowed I would never go. I had committed adultery and had broken my marriage vows. I was spiraling downward fast and felt God was a million miles away. Wherever God was, I believed He was absolutely disgusted with who I had become. Over the next two years, I would have 7 one-night stands before Melody finally found out.
My secret life finally came crashing into my real life.
Melody was crushed and we immediately separated. I started seeing a counselor and one of his first recommendations was to do a week-long intensive with Dr. Mark Laaser in St. Paul, Minnesota. I agreed and went to St. Paul in January of 2001. At the intensive, I met guys from all over the country who all had a story very similar to my own. I uncovered my own childhood woundedness and learned about shame. I also realized that I was not the only Christian man who struggled with pornography, lust, and sex.
I received the tools that week to begin the recovery process. Melody was also seeing a counselor and was still getting over the shock of her world being turned completely upside down. Knowing that I had the “God-talk” down pat, she wondered how she would ever know if I was genuine and how she would ever trust me again. She made a deal with God and decided to put out a fleece of sorts. She told God that if I did a certain thing that I had never done before, she would know my repentance was real.
When she first told me about this deal she had made with God, I was a bit frustrated. We were both learning to be honest and open in counseling and now she had a secret. Rather than dwell on trying to figure out her fleece, I simply gave it to God and continued to work on my recovery.
Melody’s counselor suggested that she go to her own intensive for a week. At first she balked, wondering why she needed an intensive when the problem was obviously mine. She went to Nashville for a week and discovered a lot about herself and her own woundedness while she was there. I picked her up at the airport and could tell immediately that something was different. She was not the angry woman that had gotten on the plane a week before. I now saw brokenness.
Melody and the kids had moved into a gated apartment community after we separated, so I headed that way as we left the airport. For some reason, she invited me inside to talk. We put the kids to bed and sat down on the sofa. I prayed and afterwards she began to share some of her experiences from the week. She was emotionally and physically exhausted and I asked her if she wanted me to rub her feet. Melody was wearing jeans and thick-soled shoes with no socks. Concerning her feet, she has this thing that she doesn’t like them touched unless she has just showered. At my request to rub her feet, she simply said, “I haven’t showered.” I replied, “Would you like me to wash your feet?” She nodded yes and we got up and walked into the bathroom. She hopped up on the counter and put her feet in the sink. I took the soap and began to wash her feet with the warm water. At some point during the process I looked up and saw tears streaming down her beautiful face. I asked her what was wrong. What she said next rocked me…
“This is what I asked God for you to do,” she said through her tears.
I broke down. In my prayer just 20 minutes before, I had prayed that God would direct us and help us both sense His presence in a very real way. We both knew that God had just answered my prayer and had also led me to do the very activity that Melody had put before God as a fleece. We cried for at least an hour. For me, to have God so vividly answer my simple prayer in spite of all that I had done was overwhelming. I was beginning to understand the scandalous truth of the Gospel that I had somehow missed all along…He really did love me in spite of my sin!
Soon after that experience, Melody and I started counseling together. A month or so after that, I moved back in. At the suggestion of our counselor, we enacted a contract where we both committed to total abstinence from all sexual activity for three months. The results of this contract were amazing and helped us to begin to connect again at an emotional level. Our communication during this time improved greatly as we were learning to share our true feelings and to be honest with our emotions.
I so wish that this was the end of our story, but in many ways, it was only the beginning. We continued counseling as a couple over the next year. I tried out a few of the recovery groups in town, but never found one that I really felt comfortable with. Looking back on this time, I think my reluctance to get in a group and stick with recovery hinged on the fact that I didn’t like wearing the “addict” label and wanted to put my past in the past for good. I made the mistake of thinking that because I had uncovered my childhood wounds and discovered a large source of the shame in my life that I would never act out again. I was still clinging to the idea of “to know better is to do better” but that simply doesn’t work with addiction.
A little over a year after I moved back in, I took a business trip to Tulsa, OK. Before I left, Melody knew that I was not in a good place and pleaded with me to reconsider going. In typical addict behavior, I made it about her and assured her that I was fine. I wasn’t.
I had yet another one-night stand on that business trip.
Melody soon discovered the truth and asked me to move out. She was devastated. We sat the kids down and told them that because Daddy had lied to Mommy he was going to be moving out. I stayed the first few nights with my brother and then lived a month or so with one of my Religion professor’s at Samford and his wife. Our church that had been so gracious now concluded that this was obviously the lifestyle that I wanted all along and honestly did not know what to do with me.
Our divorce was final two days before Christmas 2002…one month shy of our eleventh anniversary. The struggle that started when I was eight years old when I was first exposed to pornography had now consumed me to the point that I would choose a one-night stand with a woman I didn’t know over my precious wife and four beautiful children. I thought I could overcome my addiction on my own, but instead, it took me places that I never thought I would go.
I had lost what was most precious to me, my wife and children.