In his book “Self Improvement? — I’m Jewish!” psychologist Rabbi Dr. Avraham Twerski argues against the idea that the problem of addictive behavior is secondary or even peripheral to the observant Jew. “One cannot consider oneself to be truly observant if one neglects mussar,” he writes, referring to learning and application of Jewish teachings regarding moral conduct and personal discipline. For Rabbi Dr. Twerski, this includes grappling with “the psychological mechanism of denial [which] can blind a person to even the most obvious self-destructive behavior.”
International studies have measured consumption rates of online pornographic content among the general population to be 50 percent to 99 percent among men and 30 to 68 percent among women. It is harder to obtain actual measures of this problem within the Jewish world, but I have heard one experienced yeshiva administrator estimate that 80 percent of boys in yeshivas have been exposed to this content.
Much like addiction to a chemical substance, an addict in this context requires increases in the “dose” to have the desired reaction. The availability of this material on the Internet is virtually unlimited, and seeking it can become an all-encompassing preoccupation, eclipsing responsibilities, relationships, learning, communal involvement, and so on. These binges are also followed by disgust with self, depression, and exhaustion, all undermining the sufferer’s ability to develop the self-discipline to resist this activity in the future.
People very frequently will require help to extract themselves from addiction, including this variety. The website guardyoureyes.com is a great resource providing information and help with this problem. This site has been strongly endorsed by Rabbi Twerski.
Individual psychotherapy is a very helpful intervention, because it challenges the patient to directly experience and express his emotions. Powerful anxiety, depression, and anger often fuel the behaviors. Many users can think of no other way to calm themselves except through their addiction, and they need to be explicitly taught self-calming exercises or other strategies to calm their nervous systems. They also must learn ways to communicate their feelings to their significant others, in order to reach out to them, rather than withdrawing and hiding. All these skills can be learned and practiced in individual therapy.
Therapeutic approaches that incorporate a social element are also extremely helpful in influencing the user to change. A common factor among many addicts is isolation; 12-step programs incorporate social support through group meetings and an assigned “sponsor,” who is available during crises to assist the user in maintaining abstinence. Programs like this provide specific behavioral goals to help participants focus on the emotional and relationship growth that is necessary to develop healthier behaviors and coping strategies. It is also helpful that reliance on “a higher power” is incorporated into this work; and, as Rabbi Twerski has said, the higher power referenced in 12-step programs is completely consistent with our Jewish belief system. There are many 12-step programs for this problem in the Greater Washington and Baltimore area, and I am aware of at least one that is frequented by Orthodox Jewish people.
For anyone who struggles with this issue, know that you are not alone. Take your pain and channel it into looking for help. Many people have admitted to themselves that they have this problem and have taken appropriate steps and turned their lives around. I have seen it in my work — taking lives from the brink of destruction to new hope, commitment, and real love. That is something to look forward to. All you have to do is seek help and try.
By Dr. Michael Milgraum
Michael Milgraum, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Kensington, Maryland. He treats a range of mental health problems including sexual addictions. He can be reached at (301) 980 3997.