DENVER — Porn addiction is the fastest growing addiction in our country, and one of the most hidden.
"This thing doesn't go away, it's like cancer in the brain, but it's cancer in the thoughts," said a recovering porn addict who asked to be called Joe, as he didn't want to reveal his identity to the public. "You need darker things, harder things, more violent things often."
For this addict, the seed was planted when he was in 6th grade and watched an R-rated movie. Over time, his addiction slowly escalated.
"I know that in our society, it's not understood how detrimental it really is. It destroys the mind, it destroys the ability to function, you can't look at women in the same way," Joe said.
Pornography is often compared to crack-cocaine. Nobody knows that better than certified sex addiction therapist, Chris Simon.
"That's really why I have this treatment center is to help people who have my similar experience," Simon said.
Simon founded Denver's Restorations Therapy Center in 2014 after battling his own pornography addiction. He said most parents don't realize the biggest users are kids between the ages of 12 and 17 with their first exposure averaging around 8-years-old.
"The pornography industry is really out to get kids hooked on it at an early age because they know that's when they're most pliable, they're most easily influenced because of their brain development," Simon said.
That's where it all starts, the brain. Watching internet porn floods your brain with dopamine and opioids, drugs that makes you feel good; and you can keep it high for prolonged periods of time, with the click of a mouse.
"It was intoxicating, it was like all my pain, all of my self-hatred, all of that was muted, was gone as soon as I looked at pornography, it was like it all washed away," Joe described.
Joe said that feeling of relief was always temporary and was always followed with feelings of guilt and shame.
"Shame is the reason the addiction continues and becomes stronger as time goes on because you don’t want anyone to know," Joe described.
"Rather than developing healthy coping skills, they learn to go to pornography and those difficult feelings will go away, they'll numb out," said Simon.
For Joe, that false sense of freedom from his depression, ultimately chained him to his addiction. You see, viewing porn over time, causes your brain to form new neuropathways. The more you view it, the stronger those pathways become. That flood of dopamine in your brain, overloads your receptors and eventually you need harder stuff and more of it to get the same high.
"This is the exact same experience heroin addicts have when they talk about chasing the first high," said Simon.
Simon said the earlier a child starts watching online porn, the worse the consequences. Multiple studies show porn users struggle to keep relationships, are unhappy with their partners, have low libido and often prefer porn over sexual relationships with a person. Experts like Simon, are seeing a new phenomenon; porn induced erectile dysfunction, or PIED and it's skyrocketing for men in their 20's.
"Medications for ED don't actually work that well because it's not about a physical response. The body works fine, it's about an emotional response," said Simon. "Reality just can't compare."
Pornography addiction doesn't just effect men. Simon said more women are watching porn and he's seeing a big increase in women needing treatment for online porn addiction.
There is hope. Therapists like Simon said the first step is quitting porn altogether, something that's known in the recovery world as "rebooting." This allows your brain to form new, healthier neuropathways. It can take anywhere from 3 months to 3 years depending on how often the person was watching internet pornography.
"That is the real power of the pornography addiction. Those neuropathways, get built so strongly and so engrained, it takes months even years to recreate bigger ones, so that those are no longer primary," Simon said.
Simon also recommends getting rid of any visual stimulus that could trigger a relapse, like Facebook, Instagram and dating sites like Tinder and Bumble. Simon said make sure your therapist is a certified sexual addiction therapist and recommends group therapy like sex addicts anonymous.
Simon said parents should begin talking to their kids in an age-appropriate way about sex and intimacy beginning as early as age 6. Parents should talk to older children about what is and isn't appropriate to see online and look into putting parental control software on their kids' electronic devices.
Joe said the addiction isn't something many can beat on their own without help.
"We don’t understand the ramifications of porn on the brain. I know what it feels like but I don’t know how deep it goes, I don’t understand the roots to why it’s so addicting, I don’t understand any of that. A therapist is required to obtain sobriety. A 12-step group, a support group is required to have friends who understand you. These are tools that have to be in place for it to work."
Joe has now been in recovery and clean from internet pornography for 7 months. He said the urges to watch porn are still there, but he's learning new, healthier ways to cope with his depression.
"I stepped into that 12-step group and I stopped falling. It was like that. It saved my life," Joe said.
If you or a loved one is struggling with pornography addiction, here are some resources to get help: