The great Western novelist Louis L’Amour opens Lonely on the Mountain with this line: “There will come a time when you believe everything is over. That will be the beginning.” As a writer, I thought it was a wonderful way to begin a book. Today, I have a deeper perspective, because I’ve been blessed to live through what those words really mean.
The “over” state in my life and marriage came in the winter of 1990, when I received the diagnosis of early-stage cervical cancer caused by HPV (human papillomavirus). As I hung up the phone after the nurse’s call, my mind raced with images of medical treatments, of figuring out how to care for my young children while I was ill, and especially of telling my husband. Because of the cause-effect connection between sex, HPV, and cervical cancer, I knew that my secret life was about to be exposed.
At that point I didn’t yet understand my situation or my own story. I did know that I was confused, afraid, sick at heart, ashamed, and hopeless. The completely broken and suicidal piece would come a year later, after three surgeries and total failure at fixing what I thought was wrong with me, which was my inability to end a long-term affair with the man next door.
My name is Marnie, and I am a grateful recovering sex and love addict. It took me a long time to admit that truth about my life, though I had thought of myself as a “whore” from the time I was a promiscuous teenager. That identity was confirmed when I had affairs in both my marriages, which, of course, I knew was wrong, but I lacked understanding of how or why I kept repeating that pattern.
I thought the right man would heal my shame, but when I married during college, I discovered that my husband couldn’t possibly fill the gaping black hole inside, which was what I expected from marriage. Disillusioned, I started looking for someone else to “love” me, and I had several affairs. When I lost my marriage, the divorce was a huge blow in my family and church, where divorce was the unpardonable sin. I experienced what I now view as spiritual abuse when little gray-haired church ladies visited to shame me into conviction that I was going to hell for getting a divorce, and my pastor-father said much the same. At that point my attitude was, “God save me from the Christians!” How had my religion ever helped me? My parents were both Christians, and my husband and I were, too, yet that belief system hadn’t translated into any helpful tools for navigating relationships. I left the church and forged ahead alone.
Within nine months I had met and married David, who is kind, generous, and servant-hearted. He was stable and settled, which was very appealing after all the chaos. Our early marriage was the healthiest period of my life until I entered recovery and gained the tools to live in integrity and authenticity. I was completely faithful, and that choice wasn’t difficult at all. We did life together extremely well, and I thought this time for sure I had found the right person. We soon had two children, I returned to my faith and was active in a mainstream church, and I thought any problematic sexual behavior was behind me.
But in time David and I experienced significant stresses, like the deaths of three family members in a year, and a major career change and move across the country. Much harder, my father’s sexual addiction and sexual offending–because for years he had been sexual with male college students under his authority–became front-page news, and he had to resign in disgrace from his college and the large church he was pastoring. This event triggered confusing memories and tremendous shame, and I wanted David to help manage my reaction. Based on his own woundedness, he was incapable of fulfilling that desire and retreated into an impenetrable shell. Angry at the illuminated emotional distance in our marriage and at what I perceived as David’s refusal to connect with me, I sought solace with a male friend, and soon we were in an affair. Once again, I had multiple affairs and finally settled on an intense relationship with the man who was next door, with whom I had been involved for three years at the time of my cervical cancer diagnosis. By that point, although he was dear to me, I wanted to end the affair because it caused so much shame. And I did end it–probably 87 times at least. I couldn’t stop my behavior, and when I did (briefly), I couldn’t stop starting again. For the first time, long before I entered the healing rooms of recovery, I realized, “My life is unmanageable.” A year passed before I dared consider walking away from that affair partner, but finally the pain of remaining the same was greater than the pain of change.
Eventually, a near-suicide attempt prompted me to seek counseling, where I came to understand myself and my story. That process brought many puzzle pieces together and explained so much of my pain, shame, and sexual addiction, as I ultimately came to understand and name my dis-ease. The roots of my addiction began with the death of my mother from cancer when I was three years old, which I had always believed was somehow my fault, since our family’s life seemed normal until I was born. My father was a beloved, charismatic pastor and Christian educator who was widely known in his conservative denomination. He was a loving, generous, and brilliant man who affected thousands for good. He was also a deeply troubled man, and I was influenced by his stashes of pornography and his unhealthy relationships, including sexually, with multiple men whom he brought into our family. Further, he was a workaholic, who poured himself out for his churches and the college where he served for over 40 years at the expense of attending to his family. Although he loved us dearly, he had no idea how to be present with or nurture his children’s hearts or how to help them grieve the loss of their mother.
I was a terribly lonely little girl, but emotions were never identified or discussed in my home. When I was age five, a dear family friend–who was also one of my father’s inappropriate partners–stepped into my life to fill the parental void. He spent time with me, listened to me, comforted, and encouraged me. In many ways, his influence was helpful. He fostered my fledgling writing, which was already very important to me. He also, though, groomed me through pornography, nudity, and escalating sexual conversation and activity. We first had intercourse (my only definition of “sex”) around my 16th birthday, and by that point, I adored him. Since childhood, he told me our connection was “love,” and I believed him for 25 years until I learned the truth. I also thought I was choosing to be sexual with him and didn’t consider that he was 15 years older than me and began grooming me when I was five. It never crossed my mind that I was a sexual abuse victim, because he was loving and tender with me and a valued friend in my family.
On the outside I was an overachiever and a leader in the church youth group, but with the influence of sexual abuse, along with poor supervision, I was an easy target for exploitation. Beginning when I was in high school, plenty of college guys were happy to provide attention (which felt like love) in exchange for sex, and I was very willing to be sexual if they would just offer affirmation. I lived a double life of perfection and promiscuity, shrouded by a weighted blanket of shame. I believed the lies typical of abandoned and traumatized children: I am a horrible, terrible person and no one will love me as I am. If people knew the real me, they would leave me. No one will meet my needs, and sex or an intense relationship is my most important need (a belief fueled by the “sex equals love” message of abuse). As part of an appearance-driven, perfectionistic, rigidly disengaged family, I vowed I would never expose my secret self.
And I didn’t, until the secrets were literally about to kill me. I was struggling with depression, severe panic attacks, and self-loathing. One morning in desperation, I called a dear friend and vomited out the truth about my affairs and the intention for the pills I held in my hand. I think I expected her to shame me or helpfully suggest, “You know having affairs is wrong! Why don’t you just stop?” Instead, she immediately came to sit with me in the kitchen floor, where I had remained unmoving, and she listened to my story. Instead of condemning me, she said earnestly with tears streaming down her face, “I’m so very sorry for your pain!” I couldn’t believe her words, and they were life-changing: one of the earliest times I had ever felt grace. That conversation was the beginning of healing for my addiction, my trauma, my view of myself, and my view of God.
My friend encouraged me to see a counselor, and within a week, I was sitting with a woman who at that point was one of only a handful of people who had trained with Dr. Patrick Carnes, the founder and guru in the field of treating sexual addiction and its roots of sexual trauma. The first months of recovery were terrifying and wonderful, excruciatingly painful, yet freeing. Although I did some good work around my sexual abuse, I had no idea how to navigate life without the coping mechanism of my addiction and no other way to soothe my pain. I spent almost a year without sobriety because I refused to let anyone into my life except for my counselor. I thought I could conquer my sexual addiction alone with only her help, and I failed miserably. I didn’t yet believe that other people could be safe or understand how much my attachment-wounded-self needed community. Finally, I went to a Twelve Step group for sex and love addicts and experienced acceptance and support. I found that the antidote to the intimacy disorder that defines sexual addiction is healthy, intimate relationships. I built those relationships in the group, first with other women and eventually with safe men.
A lifelong writer, in 1993, I authored a five-part series on sexual abuse in The Tennessean, which was likely the first time that survivors, including me, told their stories in a major publication on the record. I returned to school to earn a master’s degree in counseling and began treating sexual trauma survivors and sex and love addicts at the same counseling center where I had received help. In 1997, I started the country’s first gender-specific intensive workshop for women struggling with sex and love addiction. By 2001, that beginning grew into a comprehensive treatment program called Bethesda Workshops, which today serves all populations affected by sexual addiction. In 2002 I published No Stones – Women Redeemed from Sexual Addiction, which was one of the earliest books on female sex and love addicts. It was followed in 2012 by a clinical textbook about treating them that I was privileged to edit and partially write. I’ve published dozens of clinical and mainstream articles and am regularly interviewed in various media, as well as speaking and teaching.
It’s been quite the journey between 1990 and now. I wouldn’t have chosen it–I’m not nearly that courageous–but I’m certain that this journey chose me. Daily, the work I’m privileged to do redeems my pain. In fact, I’m astounded when I match my life today with the various pieces of my trauma. My mistaken identity as a whore has been redeemed as a missionary to people struggling with sexual addiction or the aftermath of sexual abuse. I felt God’s invitation to that calling after my first counseling appointment, when I sat in my car for close to an hour before I could drive home, and God has faithfully provided hundreds of opportunities to answer it. Each time I tell the story I’m sure that I’m the one who is blessed far beyond any who hear me speak or read what I write.
The pain of the abandoned child, left without a mother and with an impaired, unavailable father, is now a mom to two amazing adults and a GrandMarnie to four precious grandchildren. They are the light of my life and being with them somehow heals the little girl inside me. I also got to be my father’s primary caregiver in the last years of his life, as this brilliant, articulate man succumbed to Alzheimer’s. That connection was healing for both of us, as I was blessed by the gift of forgiving him, and he was blessed by receiving the love that he could not give to himself. I have reconciled the “both/and” of his life and influence: The vast good he did and positive impact he had on thousands of people is just as true about him as the dark side that caused me pain. I pray the same is true for my own life.
The sexual abuse victim has been redeemed into what Henri Nouwen calls a wounded healer. Ironically, it was my primary perpetrator, a Ph.D. in theater, who taught me to speak and to have presence in front of an audience. Those are skills I use routinely at Bethesda Workshops and as I speak and teach across the country. That abuser also fostered my early and young adult writing, and today I embrace “writer” as a primary professional identity. I regularly hear from people, especially female sex addicts, who have read something or heard me speak and respond gratefully, “I thought I was the only one.” What this perpetrator intended for ill, God has used for good.
The unfaithful wife became a committed spouse, and we remained married a total of 40 years. While my marriage was peaceful and marked by great compatibility in every practical way, there were long-term challenges that proved intractable. Sadly, my husband never embraced personal recovery, and the relationship was more like one between congenial roommates. As my own emotional state became increasingly more distressed by the unresolved issues, I eventually (in year 39 of our marriage) decided to separate, although I had no plans to divorce. I found great solace in solitude and was committed to the covenant we established in 1981. I gave myself three to six months to decide my future path, and I quickly grew certain that remaining married, but permanently separated, was right for me. Nine months alone brought great relief and a continued vow to remain married for the rest of our lives.
That commitment changed when I discovered that I am on the partner side of the sexual addiction coin: that my husband had been acting out sexually for years. I was blindsided by that accidental revelation and its long-term implications for our history, and I was also relieved to make sense of our marital story. (I know every partner of an addict understands this feeling. I certainly understand partners more deeply now.) After so many years of unidentified distress, along with no signs that my husband was taking responsibility or any steps toward health, I made the choice to divorce, and that process concluded a few weeks shy of our 40th wedding anniversary.
My now ex-husband and I didn’t “fail” at marriage. We created a safe, productive home and raised two splendid children together. We supported each other in every practical way. Although a part of me wishes I had known much earlier what I know now, I am equally convinced that the timing was right. I wrestled with God about this relationship for at least 15 years, and I worked harder to save it than I worked at anything in my life. While being divorced was not the outcome I hoped and prayed for, the years of challenged disengagement were not wasted. One of my dear brothers reminded me that it’s never a bad thing to re-up with God, and I am a better person for this lengthy struggle.
My former spouse is a good man: kind, servant-hearted, dependable, and present at every event for our children. I, too, am a good person: self-aware, compassionate, persevering, and 100 percent committed to personal and relational healing. As two wounded people with varying degrees of recovery, I believe we each did the very best we could, and I am grateful to stand on that solid truth. We remain cooperative and cordial and continue to enjoy our children and grandchildren.
At the point in 1990 when I thought everything was over, I was sure that God was through with me. Instead, I received a new beginning. And 30 years later, during another ending time, I received a second restart. Today I am joyful and unspeakably grateful. That’s redemption!
Marnie C. Ferree, M.A., LMFT, CSAT
Founder & Director, Bethesda Workshops