Going into a relapse is not like accidentally stepping in a hole in the ground. A recovering porn user doesn’t suddenly, without reason, drop back into a state of being sexually re-involved with porn. Like other events in life, a relapse occurs in stages and is really not a single event, but a process that happens over time and has many different levels of experience. You shift from a state of being uninvolved with porn, that we refer to as being in the “Porn-Free Zone,” to being vulnerable to relapse in the “Trigger Territory.” From there you can enter the “Relapse Zone” in which you can become progressively more involved with porn again. As Diagram 1, “Getting into a Relapse,” shows, porn relapses actually start well before a person physically renews his involvement with porn materials.

What Is the Progression of a Relapse?
The ultimate goal of porn recovery is to be in and stay in the Porn – Free Zone. This is where you have absolutely no involvement with porn, mentally or physically, and are not troubled by porn in any way. Diligently working the basic action steps described in the last chapter will enable you to spend increasing amounts of time in the Porn-Free Zone.

When you are in the Porn-Free Zone, something external in your environment or internal with the way you feel, emotionally or physically, can suddenly send you into the Trigger Territory. This is the level where you are more vulnerable to using porn again, even though you haven’t taken any concrete steps toward using. External triggers include acciden­tal exposure to sexually explicit material and ideas, being around sexu­ally provocative people, and having contact with porn delivery systems such as the Internet and cable TV. Common internal triggers include feeling stressed, upset, lonely, angry, depressed, anxious, run down, sex­ually-frustrated, or being under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Rich­
ard said, “I know I’m in Trigger Territory and in danger of entering the Relapse Zone when I’m doing something like watching MTV or reading the personals in the newspaper, and I start rationalizing by telling myself, This isn’t as bad as looking at porn"

Triggers differ from individual to individual. For example, seeing an R-rated movie with an intense sex scene might trigger some former users into thoughts about wanting to access porn, while the same sex scene might have absolutely no triggering effects on other former porn users.

It is quite common for many people attempting to heal from a rela­tionship with porn to enter the Trigger Territory without even knowing they are there. Many triggers occur outside of our conscious awareness. You may not even be thinking about using porn, but you may in fact be in a state of mind where you are much more susceptible to a relapse than you were days, even moments before. “I didn’t understand that I was being set up for relapse,” Brad said. “I’d feel a certain way and then something would trigger me. Before I knew it I was just reeling with desire to get off on porn. Then I was either white-knuckling it—holding on for dear life and trying my best not to do it—or I’d plunge in head first and just land right on my face. The trigger could be something as simple as driving by a beer advertisement on a billboard with busty women on it.”

Trigger Territory holds the key to relapse prevention. If you know what your triggers are, you can take steps to deactivate them when they come up, and therefore prevent yourself from sliding into the Relapse Zone. And, it can be a lot easier to pull yourself out of a potential relapse from the Trigger Territory, than try to make your way back to the Porn – Free Zone once you have slid further down into the Relapse Zone.

The first level of the Relapse Zone, Level One, involves thinking about using porn. Memories of past porn use may surface. You may start contemplating how pleasurable it would be to use porn, or begin plan­ning how you could use it again. “A sexual thought would enter my mind, and I’d entertain it and begin to play with it,” Nick explained about his past relapses. “When I did that even for a microsecond, I was a goner. The fantasies of porn were so pleasurable and I didn’t have a mechanism to shift out of that thinking. When you’re in the middle of a relapse, the harmful consequences of using porn are in the distant future. I thought I could toy with pleasurable thoughts of porn, but that was dangerous. It was just like touching two wires together. I couldn’t pull them apart fast enough to keep them from setting off a spark. And once the spark ignited, I felt driven to seek out and use porn again.”

When thoughts of using porn go unchecked, and there is a reigniting of a sexual desire for porn material, it is often just a matter of time before a person moves to the next level of the Relapse Zone, Level Two, and makes actual contact with porn. Then, whether thumbing through a magazine, renting a DVD, or logging onto an online porn site, for most recover­ing users this return to accessing porn often drops them further into the Relapse Zone, Level Three, where they use porn as a sexual outlet. When a person is in Level Three, he or she is using porn to experience sexual arousal, masturbation, and/or orgasm. This intense re-involvement with porn is extremely dangerous, because the pleasurable sensations of sexual arousal and release that porn facilitates reinforce a person’s desire to have contact with porn again in the future. Repeated Level Three relapses can easily stymie a person’s long-term efforts to recover from porn.

The further a person slides down in the Relapse Zone, the more dif­ficult it becomes to turn around and get out. Like sinking into quicksand, the forces pulling you down intensify the deeper you slip. The drive to return to porn on an ongoing basis increases as sex with porn is first en­tertained, then anticipated, pursued, and finally carried out.