It’s deeply traumatic to discover that your spouse is hiding an addiction, but here’s how I found healing.

I was living my dream life. My husband and I and our two children were homesteading in Vermont; we raised our own huge organic garden, had horses, raised turkeys and chickens, had a cow, and I was homeschooling our kids. It was what many would view as an idyllic existence. And yet something was wrong in our marriage; I just didn’t know what it was. Nineteen years in, I could have never imagined my husband had a secret wreaking havoc on his personal life that was about to wreak havoc on our marriage.

My husband wasn't the type you'd think would have a secret life. I had met my husband when he was working in the White House where he had security clearance for his job. He was raised by parents who were career missionaries. He and I taught Sunday school together when we were dating. In other words, by all appearances, he was living an honest and squeaky clean life. I thought I had chosen an amazing man to be my husband and father of my children. But something felt wrong, and I couldn't figure out what it is was.

It wasn't necessarily that my husband was absent a lot in the marriage, I thought; he would work very long hours, but since my own father had done that, I didn't see any red flags. He was very busy building his career so I grew up thinking my job is to support a husband while he builds his career; my job is to take care of the home.

But for the moments when he was there, he wasn’t really there. He would stare into the distance. Nothing I did could make him engage.

My suspicions turned into nightmares that my husband was cheating on me. I asked him point blank, and he denied it. Ultimately, I decided I couldn't ignore my intuition any longer. I decided to assume he was lying to me and move forward with my life based on that.

Then one day, I got a call from a credit card company notifying me of a past-due balance. I didn't even know my husband had this credit card. When I confronted him about it, my worst fears were confirmed. He said, “I don't have a problem with money; I have a problem with lust.”

It turns out, my husband was addicted to porn; despite his efforts to stop, he couldn't. He told me the truth that day. What had been bubbling under the surface for years was finally out. I thought this would be the turning point to saving our marriage, but I didn’t realize how hard this addiction would be to overcome, even for two people who wanted to have sexual fidelity with each other.

I have compassion for how my husband became addicted to porn. Having grown up mostly in Africa where his parents were missionaries, he found himself a young high-school grad back in the United States—a foreign country to him and his family was on another continent far, far away. The summer before college, he worked installing Harvestore silos. He found a porn magazine in one of the company pickup trucks he was driving. Years later, when he confessed his addiction, he told me he felt like the girl in the magazine was smiling right at him—a feeling of connection at an otherwise lonely time. When he dropped out of college because he didn’t have enough money for tuition, he got drafted to serve in the infantry during the height of the Vietnam War. He was required to get frequent haircuts and his base's barbershop was plastered with centerfolds. Looking at pictures of beautiful women helped him forget his fear and loneliness. If you understand the way porn works—that looking at porn gives you an initial “feel good” rush of endorphins and enkephalins that can be just as addicting as drugs like cocaine—his story makes sense. But, this addiction escalates because watching porn releases dopamine in the brain in such great amounts that the brain shuts down dopamine receptors, desensitizing them to prior content and causing users to need more extreme content to release more dopamine for the same effect.

Norman Doidge, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, described in his best-selling book The Brain That Changes Itself, "The addictiveness of Internet pornography is not a metaphor. Not all addictions are to drugs or alcohol. People can be seriously addicted to gambling, even to running. All addicts show a loss of control of the activity, compulsively seek it out despite negative consequences, develop tolerance so that they need higher and higher levels of stimulation for satisfaction, and experience withdrawal if they can’t consummate the addictive act.” A 2011 article on the neuroscience of pornography in the journal of Surgical Neurology International summarized the research and concluded, "Just as we consider food addiction as having a biologic basis, with no moral overlay or value-laden terminology, it is time we looked at pornography and other forms of sexual addiction with the same objective eye." Knowing this, it was clear to me: porn had become my husband's way of coping.

My husband told me he had an inner sense that his behavior wasn’t consistent with his beliefs as a Christian, so he kept it all hidden, even from his Army buddies. He told himself once he got married he wouldn't need it anymore, but by then he was severely addicted. What started with magazines and visits to strip clubs progressed to him hiring prostitutes—behavior characteristic of many who have addictions to porn. Over time, he needed more and a lot stronger stimuli for his brain to reach the same dopamine levels, to feel good for just a little while. To get that fix.

Once his job required him to travel, and he got a credit card for expenses, he had an opportunity to support this addiction in secret.

When I discovered my husband's secret, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, it was a giant relief to know that I was not crazy—there truly was something wrong. But on the other hand, my worst nightmare had come true, and it was worse than I would ever have imagined. I could hardly relate to my husband anymore. Who are you? I thought. I have lived with you all of these years, and I don’t even know you! The things he was doing were so inconsistent with who I thought he was.

It broke my heart.

I felt all the energy drain out of my body. Within days of discovering his secret life, I came down with pneumonia and was sick for several months. In addition to my body telling me it didn’t know how to process the pain I felt, my brain was having a hard time with this new reality. I had always been a voracious reader, but I could not absorb a book anymore. I began to have panic attacks. I couldn’t catch my breath. I’d get lost driving in my car going to places I'd gone many times. I felt utterly undone.

Up to that point in my life, I had always been very focused—able to get incredible amounts of work done—but all of the sudden I couldn't do it anymore. I couldn't figure out how to get that energy back; I didn’t know how to get me back. And it was terrifying.

I was experiencing what experts now call betrayal trauma. Unfortunately in the nineties there was little understanding of the condition, and where my husband and I turned for help, I often got bad advice—from both my church and therapists who didn't understand the complexity of porn addiction.

Meanwhile, my husband’s addiction continued. There were periods of time when he was sober, and times when I thought we were going to make it, but then he would relapse. Then his behavior got very scary, and I could hardly recognize him. We'd been married for twenty-eight years at this point, but I saw facial expressions I had never seen—enraged looks would just come up spontaneously. We’d go to church and he’d have his arm around me; then in the car, he’d give me an absolutely hateful, enraged look. It got to a point where I was frightened of my own spouse. All the while, I saw signs his addiction was continuing in full swing.

Ultimately things escalated to the point of making me fear for my physical safety—one accidental hit here, another accidental bump there—and I had to remove myself. I didn’t know until later how much physical aggression is portrayed in porn. One study revealed that 90 percent of imagery in porn portrays aggression against women. His addiction was definitely affecting him and his treatment toward me.

After thirty-three years of marriage, with the last nine years desperately trying to find a way to help him recover, we had come to a point where the only way for me to be safe was to remove myself. This was the most difficult decision I’ve ever made and I've never doubted that it was the right thing to do. The nightmare was finally over.

Over the course of this ordeal, I got into writing to help me cope with my pain. I had never written before but suddenly, and I think providentially, I found an outlet. Several months before my husband disclosed his addiction, I read an ad in Writer’s Digest for a course on writing. I took the admissions test and sent it off.

The day I had to get my AIDS test was the worst day of my life. It felt like I was going to my death sentence. I sat by myself with the car running and just cried. I felt my life was over. I felt everything I trusted was based on a lie. While I was sitting there trying to find the will to put the car into drive, the mailman came.

In the mail that day were the results of my Writer’s Digest writing test. When I read the letter inviting me to into the writer’s program, I had an epiphany. While I was coming to terms with the fact that I'd lost something I thought I had (a faithful marriage and love of my husband), I was learning I had something I didn't know I had (a talent for writing). In that moment, in my heart I heard God speak to me and say: you are going to write a book about what you’re going through and it's going to help many, many people. There’s reason to live on.

I enrolled in the writing course and four years later, I wrote my book An Affair of the Mind. This was the first book of its kind written by a spouse of a porn addict, and it came out in 1996.

After my book was published, numerous women and men wrote me letters saying they related to my story. Their feedback reminded me I was not alone. While I was sad, I felt reassured. My husband’s behavior was normal for someone who was addicted to pornography, and I was having a normal reaction to what it was like to live with an addicted spouse. Coming to this realization helped me immensely. As did getting the real help I needed—help that had eluded me previously. Eight years after first seeking counseling, I finally went to a Harvard-trained psychologist who recognized my symptoms and diagnosed me with post traumatic stress disorder.

Writing my book connected with great communities of women who've also had to come to terms with what it means to live with a porn addict. On my healing journey I have learned to think about life differently, to understand more about what it means to go beyond being a victim, to take control of my recovery from betrayal trauma, and to start a new life for myself.

The women I’ve met on this journey who are or were also wives of sex addicts are really incredible people. Their hearts are so sweet; they want to be loving people. They’re devastated, and they deserve support. But given how porn is largely embraced as a mainstream norm today, many are ill-equipped to give support. Too many don’t understand how pornography actually changes the brain. How porn desensitizes viewers to violence against women. In my husband, I saw porn impact how he was able to think and respond to life situations. I saw it alter his daily life in ways that had nothing to do with sex. I saw it destroy trust and love in our relationship.

Too often, when women feel uncomfortable about their spouses using porn, they're told to partake in it. Even Oprah says so; in the July 2007 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, for instance, readers find an article listing porn videos women should watch. Why can't you make room for porn in your life or marriage? these seem to suggest. To which I say: You cannot allow in your life things that are designed to attack and destroy your emotional, physical, and spiritual health. I can say from personal experience that pornography attacks all of these areas.

I was not alone. My book sold more than a 120,000 copies and was translated into several different languages, because those who read it felt understood and told others about it. In late spring of 2017, after eight years of being out of print, an updated version of An Affair of the Mind, will be released.

When I think about all the letters I’ve received from readers and the wonderful people I've met, including women who were suicidal when they got my book and found hope that they too can move forward from this, I’m so grateful for my journey.

This experience has changed me in profound ways. There isn’t one aspect of my life that was left untouched. I wouldn’t have chosen this to be my story, but once it chose me, it gave me the opportunity to grow past limited understandings of how life works and to find within myself talents I didn’t know I had. I didn’t just survive this, I found ways to make all the pain count. The pain has counted. And it’s created beautiful things for me and ways to be of service to others that I could never have imagined.

Resources for Spouses of Porn Addicts:

Photo Credit: The Kitcheners