Breaking Free from Pornography: How Exodus 90 Helps
From the perspective of a Clinical Psychologist
“It is useless to subdue the flesh by abstinence, unless one gives up his irregular life, and abandons vices which defile his soul.”
St. Benedict of Nursia
Late one evening, I was working with a client of mine who had been struggling with a longstanding pornography addiction. He came into my office, sat down, and told me with great excitement that he joined an Exodus 90 group. The name was new to me, so I asked him to explain. Like any man, he focused on the intensity of the challenge and the rigorous disciplines of fasting. We had spoken before in our sessions about how he needed a radical lifestyle change – because sobriety is just that, a dramatic lifestyle change. Exodus 90 gave him that and more; it invited him on the Hero’s Journey.
The Hero’s Journey is one of the most classic, well-loved stories. Whether it’s Frodo in middle earth, Simba in Priderock, or Luke in a faraway galaxy, they all center on the following: the character is called to adventure, he drags his feet but ultimately agrees, crossing into an unexplored world where he meets a mentor. He is tested, almost defeated, then granted some special token or tool to overcome his enemy. He then returns home a changed man.
So how does the Hero’s Journey of Exodus 90 – fasting, prayer, and fraternity – grant us the tools needed to battle addiction? Working daily with those struggling with pornography and sexual addictions, and having since gone through Exodus 90 myself, I hope to offer both a psychological and personal lens on what makes this program so fruitful as a step in breaking through addiction cycles.
Fake it till you make it.
Thoughts and feelings follow our activity, and dispositions for a certain behavior follow from habit formation, i.e., if you want to feel like working out, work out. If you want to feel like waking up early, wake up early. Rarely in our lives do we feel like doing something for which we do not have a disposition – and dispositions come from repeated actions. What’s worse is that we often wait until we feel like doing the activity before doing it. This creates nothing but stagnation in our lives.
Behavioral activation is the therapeutic treatment modality aimed at changing behavior in order to change our thoughts and feelings. By engaging in disciplines of fasting and aesthetics, we actually change our interior life; it calibrates to our activity. Acting disciplined creates self-discipline, leading to an interior life more conducive for recovery and building self-efficacy i.e., believing in oneself to accomplish a difficult task.
Maturation in affective regulation
We all have to sail through the storms of life, but where is our port? Whether we are irritable at work, tired from family responsibilities, bored with life, or experiencing emptiness, we all become unraveled. But when this happens, where do we go for regulation? For my client, and so many other men and women, it has become pornography, food, technology, alcohol; modern day sirens in the storm, luring us with their glamor, only to shipwreck us we become dependent on them.
Our brain is wired for rewarding experiences and unfortunately, we have rewired it for supranormal stimuli (fast food, internet, pornography, video games, etc.). Our modern day “advancements” have created what is called reward deficiency syndrome. This results from dopamine receptors in the brain being conditioned for supranormal stimuli. The simple things in life are no longer exciting and worth pursuing, making one feel apathetic and depressed.
The good news is: neural plasticity. Our brain can rewire itself. By denying ourselves supranormal stimuli for the next 90 days, our brain can relearn to find healthy, normal, and more workable rewards for emotional regulation, e.g., reading a novel by the fire instead of scrolling through social media or viewing pornography. Exodus 90 is not about weathering storms and denying ourselves a harbor, but finding more mature ways to regulate.
Isolation and anonymity are common themes in addiction. We need fraternity. Giving up our comforts makes us vulnerable – after all, it is our comforts that lie to us, making us feel self-sufficient. But by stripping them away, we are brought back to a more natural state – a state of dependence. Unfortunately, dependence carries a negative stigma. But in all actuality, all of us are dependent – the question is, what are we dependent on?
We enter into Exodus 90 to strip away our independence, and become dependent on God, to rely on Him for all things. We also do this through our Exodus 90 brothers and community. If one wishes to have a sober life, one must be interpersonally connected. Only by turning outward in our struggles, to regulate our suffering with another person, can we hope to ever have peace.
As I saw my client’s transformation through Exodus 90, he went through the Hero’s Journey. He was challenged, he was reluctant at times, he met wise friends, he lived a life he had never experienced before, and he gained some spiritual tokens to help him fight his addiction. In fact, it was the longest stretch of sobriety he had up until that time. But the most significant part of his story was day 91; returning home a changed man.
Dr. Kevin Kilcawley is a Clinical Psychologist and founder of Integrative Psychology Services. He offers online coaching services and specializes in anxiety, depression, problematic substance use, pornography and sex addiction, relationship enhancement, and stress management.