Eileen’s personal story
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To me, and to everyone else, we were the perfect couple. A successful, hard-working, fun-loving couple with a lovely home and two teenage children. I met Paul when he was 22 and I was 21, both doing doctorates at university. We instantly fell for each other and I never wanted anyone else. He was my third boyfriend, I his second girlfriend. We used to joke that we’d had just enough experience with other partners that we knew how lucky we were to have each other.
We went out, we took each other home to meet the parents. Four years after we met, we got married, and a few years later we had our two children. 28 years after we met, he was arrested for going to meet a 13 year old girl for sex. Thankfully it was not a 13 year old, but a police officer. I felt as if the world had ended.
He had always been a wonderful husband and father. As a scientist he would say that he had little skill with flowery words, but wanted to show me by his actions how much he loved me. So each day at 5 am when I had to get up for work, he would get up just before and make me a cup of tea to help wake up. After his doctorate he became a schoolteacher, so he could have slept another hour or so. But he never did. I would come home to a beautiful dinner – every night. Sometimes he had cooked one dinner for the children and another for us. Going out to parties, he always offered to drive so I could have a drink. Every time for 28 years. I loved him very much. When the children were babies, he never tired of carrying them, burping them, changing them. When they were bigger, he taught them to ride their bikes. He took our daughter skating. He took our son sailing. He adored them.
I was at work when I started to realise something was wrong. It was one of the nights I worked late in London – I tended to leave work at about 7 pm to get back at nearly 9. My son and my daughter both called me at about 5. ‘Where is Dad?’ they asked. They’d been at friends and he was going to collect them. But he hadn’t turned up and wasn’t answering his phone. I called our neighbour to see if Paul was in the house and had forgotten for some reason. My neighbour went to check, and came back sounding very worried. ‘Eileen, there are lots of police at your house. I’ve given them your number.’
I managed, from work, talking quietly to try and avoid the attention of my team, to talk to the police. They informed me that they needed to enter our home to take our computers because of strong evidence of a crime. I was frantic. My children were trying to get home, and my son is autistic and passionately attached to his computer. We have a dog, who is friendly but enormous. I had visions of my son trying to fight anyone who took his machine, or my dog being destroyed if he was determined to be a danger. I called my children, telling them to be calm and polite with the police, and took off home as fast as I could. I can’t remember much of the journey, but I had forgotten to renew my monthly ticket and for the first time in my life I tailgated on to the platform.
When I got back, the children had let the police into the house and were behaving superbly. There were five police searching our home. They took my husband’s computer, but fortunately not my son’s. The big stupid dog was still alive, and the police were very kind, as much as they could be. They told me that my husband had been arrested for a sexual offence with a 13 year old girl. I let them tell the children (17 and 16) the same thing, as I was convinced it was a mistake. They said that they would call me if he would be released that night from the police station.
The children couldn’t sleep and I had no intention of trying. About one or two in the morning the police called. I’m not a confident driver and I didn’t know the way. Somehow I found the station and saw a lost looking figure outlined in the light from the door.
Paul got into the car and I wondered if I had picked up the man I loved or a stranger that I didn’t really know. I kept thinking that it looked like him. He explained that he needed me to drive to a car park on the edge of town to pick up my own little car. Apparently he had left it there. I asked him what was happening but he kept saying he would explain at home. We got home in the dark, with both the cars, to find the desperately worried children waiting. ‘Dad, what’s happened?’ they asked. They were utterly confident, as was I, that it was all a mistake.
Paul hadn’t even thought they would be awake. He was white and shaky. He told us that he thought he had gone a bit mad, he’d had some online interaction with a young girl, but she had turned out to be a police officer. He kept telling us he was stressed and thought he was having some kind of breakdown. I couldn’t really understand what he was saying. Somehow we persuaded the children to try and get some sleep and went to our bedroom.
The thing was, this wasn’t in fact the first time we’d had some trouble with the internet. For a few years we had not been quite the perfect couple that everyone thought we were. Three years ago, when our daughter Alice was 13, she had found a set of explicit sexual messages on his phone, indicating pretty clearly that he had been meeting strangers – men, women, and cross-dressers – for sex. I had been away that week and she had taken videos of the messages, which were quite long, on her own phone, and showed her brother James. James, though usually a bit too autistic to be a good friend to her, was very much there for her and they waited out the week until I returned. When I was back, they came up to us. ‘Mum, I need to show you something. Dad’s been cheating on you,’ said my lovely daughter. She showed us both the phone videos.
I seemed to divide into two people. One calmly looked at the phone, laughed a bit and said I thought it must be some kind of hack. Paul swiftly followed my lead, and we convinced the children that some unpleasant person had hacked into his phone. We thought we’d done a good job but it turned out later that they had always had their doubts.
The other person was breathing like she had run a marathon and her heart was racing. When I was alone with Paul, I confronted him. ‘What do you need to tell me?’ I asked. At first he denied everything and said he didn’t know how the messages got there. We got ready for bed, with me asking questions and him returning increasingly impossible answers. Finally I took his hand. ‘Oh Paul,’ I said, ‘I think it is all true’. He broke down and admitted it. Not only that, but it had been going on for years.
My reaction was physical – I couldn’t easily breathe – I felt as if a horse had kicked me in the gut. Floods of tears, questions about what was wrong with me, what was wrong with us. We spoke all night and slowly began to put together a picture of what had been happening. At the time I thought I understood things, and so did he.
We thought that we had been too busy, forgotten each other, neglected our relationship. I made myself consider whether we should separate. I weighed everything up and tried to be very logical. He was absolutely sorry, insisted it was his fault not mine, and wanted to make things right. I realised that I loved him and wanted to give it another go. We threw ourselves into repair. We had a fabulous weekend in Venice, made love in new and exciting ways. I got some sexy underwear and we could hardly keep our hands off each other. It was a lovely, lovely year.
The next two years things slowly faded, and life became pretty stressful. Paul was moved to a new position at his school, which was absolutely unsuited for him – all to do with reaching out to other schools and charities, when what he loved was the challenge of teaching intelligent kids. He grew more and more unhappy but told no-one. He had a bad accident on his motorbike, which he used for his commute. Several operations later, he was physically recovered but afraid of getting on to it again – but told no-one. And our wonderful clever but autistic son began to fail at school – cutting classes, getting into real trouble, refusing to do any work at home. Paul, the teacher parent, felt he was failing to help him. Finally, in his first year of A levels, James stopped going into school and started to sleep in the day and drift round the house like a ghost at night. We were both tired and frantically worried but it was hitting Paul much harder than I realised. He presented the same competent face to everyone but he was getting snappy and distant. Our sex life became infrequent and routine. I tried to talk to him but he blanked me about it.
I still clung to the hope that things were ok, but they weren’t. He had started the online sex chat again, after about a two year break, but this time, as he later told me, it became very extreme very quickly. We now know that it was the chat, the risk of the chat, and the risky excitement of meeting people that he was addicted to. I hadn’t realised that this chat was his escape into other worlds, his relief from stress, his drug of choice. He was determined never to meet anyone for sex again after the effect it had had on me, but his old patterns of chat were not satisfying or risky enough. Finally, about three months before he was arrested, he clicked on a profile on a local social website. It said something like ‘Hello, I’m Mandy, 13, wanna chat?’
He knew he shouldn’t but it was exactly the risky thing which he could not resist. Over the next three months he had various conversations with this persona, which was operated by an experienced police officer. It started with cheeky chat. Twice he told the persona that he didn’t want to do it anymore, and broke off the chat for several weeks. Both times the policeman restarted the chat. Finally in half term his control broke and for a day he engaged in highly sexualised conversations, once mentioning penetrative sex. They arranged to meet on February 14th – irony. He didn’t go to the meeting. The next day the persona angrily asked him where he had been, and asked to re-arrange. He went to meet ‘her’ on the afternoon of February 15th. First he cooked a lovely spaghetti bolognese. Then he got in the car. He was met in the car park on the outskirts of town by the police officers. When the police finally left our home I discovered the bolognese in the oven. It was as good as his cooking always was.
The day after his arrest I was supposed to be working at home. We had a small laptop which belonged to my son which I managed to load with the correct software to at least read emails and respond. I don’t even remember what we said. Paul had been given a card by the police which was from The Lucy Faithfull Foundation. He went onto their website and over the next days and weeks, as we waited to hear what would happen next, we worked through their material. It was a revelation. We realised that his chat addiction, more properly a sex addiction, had been eating at him for years and taking the joy out of life. Many times he had deleted everything and tried not to go back to it. The crazy thing was that meeting strangers for sex had been unsatisfying and sometimes not even worked. But he kept doing it again for the thrill of the chase, the need to take risk.
The timescales involved in a case like this are always huge unknowns. The police said 4-6 weeks many times. It turned out to be seven months from his arrest to his sentence, which is quite short; some folk we came across had it take two years. During that time, I never knew if I wanted to go forward or stay in limbo; at least with limbo, he wasn’t in prison.
I know that in many cases like this, the partner of the offender hasn’t been able to stay in the relationship. In many cases the practical pressures are too great. If the offender isn’t allowed to stay in the same home as his children then a period of separation is unavoidable. Sometimes the job of the partner means they can’t stay, or they’ll be unemployed. I had none of these issues; it was much easier for me to stay than for many other people. A social worker came to our home a few days after Paul’s arrest and judged I was a ‘protective parent’ and so Paul was allowed to be in the house. It helped that our children are articulate and older teens. Nevertheless, the social worker would clearly have preferred it if I’d thrown Paul out. She dropped dark hints about what he had done but refused to enlarge upon them. I was in a kind of shock, acting very calmly and conversing with her very reasonably. I emphasised my commitment to the safety of my children and asked her advice about how to handle the situation. She wrote a positive report and at least that situation was dealt with.
The children were horrified at their father. James, who is autistic, went into a sort of frozen state, and dropped out of school. Alice, who was fortunately at boarding school, wouldn’t speak to her father or stay in the same room as him. She became very protective of me and absolutely enraged with him. She’s still the same; she stays with my sister when there are long school holidays. She and I have evenings together in London and look after each other, and we love each other dearly, but there are things we just can’t talk about. I had very little sleep in that period and I still sleep very poorly. James also has always had trouble sleeping and we used to find each other wandering round the house or garden at 2am, and sit and talk, and comfort each other.
Why did I stay with Paul? The short answer is that I love him and I think he’s worth it. But I don’t think it would have been possible without a number of things. There is a really excellent book by Paula Hall, specifically for the partners of men with sex addictions, which has a list of ‘reasons to stay’:.
- You understand what recovery means
- You are willing to accept your partner’s recovery needs
- You both still love each other
- Your partner has acknowledged responsibility and wants to change
- You’re still able to talk to each other and enjoy each other’s company
- You continue to share many happy memories
- You both share the same goals for the future
- You would lose something really special if you weren’t together
There are very few helpful books out there, so it was very good to have things like this list, which was compiled by a therapist with experience of hundreds of sex addicts and their partners. Paul and I ticked off every one of these ‘reasons to stay’ list items, and none of the ‘reasons to leave’ list, which is also in the book. I started to understand that I could make my own decisions. I had felt that I must be weird, some kind of pervert, to want to stay with him. Reading the books, and talking to the wonderful counsellor at The Lucy Faithfull Foundation, made me realise that this was not the case.
Paul completely threw himself into treatment and recovery. He started going to Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA), and found a therapist who specialised in his area. He joined the local Ground Force volunteers. After a while he discovered SMART Recovery, a group which treats different types of addictions. He and I talked and talked of many things, of how things had gradually turned bad for him as his addiction began to take him over. We said, and still say, that we are grateful that he was caught. I can’t bear the thought that he might still be spiralling down the black hole he was in.
We had to realise that he had been normalising worse and worse behaviour, and that it was incredibly fortunate that he was stopped when he was. I had several evenings when after a glass too many of wine I became tearful and furious. His steady repentance never wavered though; he was, and is, determined to recover and be the husband I love.
We had plenty to worry about. In law if one can prove ‘intent’ then the person who had the ‘intent’ can be charged and sentenced as if they have committed the crime. So he was looking at a sentence for sex with a 13 year old after online interaction. That’s 5-14 years in prison.
We tried to face up to it. We had an excellent lawyer who told us to get plenty of letters of character reference from friends and family. We told each other over and over that we would be ok. I felt that I was going to lose him just after I had got the real him back.
Finally the date approached when he would be charged in the magistrates’ court. A couple of days before, I came downstairs to find him as white as a ghost, but very determined. ‘Eileen,’ he said, ‘The police are going to issue a press statement. It will go out in two hours.’ We had two hours to write to all the family and friends who didn’t know – which was most of them – and explain what had been happening, before they read it in the papers or on the web.
Paul wrote email after email, all incredibly honest and pretty hard on himself. I realised that I was seeing him return to something like the bold decisive person he used to be. We received response after response – and almost all were astonishing. The kindness and understanding, the lack of judgment, on the part of our dear friends and family were overwhelming. Almost all were generous, offering help and companionship. The many genuine offers of help meant that we felt able to ask for more letters of reference for the court – which are hugely important in this kind of case. I think now that there are some silver linings to this cloud – how many people get to realise how much their friends and family really love them? We know now.
The school wasn’t among those who showed compassion. Paul had given nearly 20 years of his life to them, and there was no suggestion of any wrongdoing connected with his work. I suppose they felt they had to protect themselves. They emailed every past and present student family with the grim details of the charges, and spoke of how Paul had ‘betrayed their trust’. It was very hard to read. It was picked up by all the major broadsheets and some of the tabloids. One published an awful photo of Paul together with our home address. The news was really out there.
In a funny way it was a relief. Now all of our good friends knew and still loved us. The strain of not telling was removed. Two of our friends immediately came to stay for the weekend, and the affection and humour we had from them will never be forgotten. One of them doesn’t like Apple products and I showed him the lovely new computer I’d replaced the one which was doing time down at the police station with. ‘Huh,’ he said, ‘you’re the real pervert in this house.’
The next stage in the legal process was the magistrate’s court. We were advised to plead guilty but at the last moment another charge was added to the first, and a stringent set of bail conditions. Our solicitor was amazing, got the conditions amended, and tried to ask about the new charge, but the prosecution wasn’t talking. ‘I want to plead guilty,’ said Paul, ‘I don’t want to mess around. I did what I did.’ We knew also that an early guilty plea is looked on favourably and usually results in a lower sentence. So I watched Paul stand up in the dock and plead guilty to both charges. He was pale but spoke very resolutely.
The whole thing moved a little faster after that. We collected wonderful references from our friends and met with our solicitors, who found a good barrister. The psychologist that Paul had been seeing wrote a detailed report, saying that he was a very low risk for further offences, and that he might well have simply frozen and run away if the person had been a real young girl. The solicitors kept telling me that my support was critical, and I suppose it was. I had immediately set up monitoring software on his computer, so that he couldn’t go on chat sites and so that I could see screenshots of his activity, and this was a big factor in keeping him safe. So, apparently, was my attendance at The Lucy Faithfull Foundation’s five part Inform course, which was an excellent set of meetings for women in similar situations to mine. Paul had a meeting with a probation officer who prepared a pre-sentencing report. She recommended that he be given a community sentence but said that the judge had noted that a custodial sentence was very likely.
Our final meeting with the solicitor and barrister was sombre. We all realised that it was likely that Paul would go to prison. A five year sentence would turn out more like two in terms of time served, with a reduction for his guilty plea and release on license. But that’s two years in prison. We read up on life in prison, how to prepare, what to pack. We told each other that we would be fine, but I think we knew we wouldn’t. The night before the sentencing hearing we slept very little, both waking and holding hands in the dark. I was planning frantically how I might manage without him. How would I look after James? How would I do the cooking when I needed to work? How – oh god – how would I go to sleep on my own, get up on my own?
We went on the train to the crown court and hopefully bought two return tickets. The actual hearing was a rollercoaster. The nature of his offence, with the critical ‘intent’, meant that its severity was not clearly determined, and our barrister was keen to persuade his opposite number that we were in a lower category. Just as this seemed to be happening, the policeman who had been in charge of the case stood up – as far as I know it was not his place to do so – and tried to say that Paul had pleaded guilty to a more severe charge. Thank goodness the judge corrected him – I suppose he wanted his high profile case to end with a heavy sentence. Our barrister was popping in and out of the court – it was confusing and at one point had to be adjourned for the judge to hear a jury decision. I was distressed because from where I was sitting I couldn’t see Paul in the dock. I knew if he was sent to prison that I wouldn’t see him again and that it can take weeks to arrange a visit.
Finally the prosecutor and our barrister agreed on a lesser charge, and the sentencing began in proper. Our barrister had been very pleased to see that the judge was reading all the references carefully. When she spoke, she was magnificent. She had read every reference, she had read the transcript of the chat, the psychologists’ reports, the pre-sentence report, and she remembered every word. She had also that morning done her own research discovering a recent precedent case in the Court of Appeal which ruled that when, as in this case, there was no victim involved, the sentence should be greatly reduced. All Paul’s efforts to get better, all my efforts to support him, were part of her decision. She said – and oh, how I needed to hear this! – that she had never come across a wife who had done what I had done. She specifically mentioned The Lucy Faithfull Foundation course. Part of the way through her summary I realised that he would get a suspended sentence.
I was sitting at the back of the public gallery. As I realised what would happen, I got an attack of the shakes like I have never had before and couldn’t have stood up. The judge delivered her final statement with a thorough telling off, which Paul couldn’t have agreed more with. He said later that as she was telling him that he had behaved disgracefully, he was nodding from the dock. We left the court I didn’t want to make a scene but I had to hug him, and the barrister too. As we finally left the court, Paul skipped down the steps in front of me. We joyfully used our return train tickets and spent the journey calling our friends and family. I still haven’t lost that feeling – that happiness just to have him safe and home. I hope I never lose it.
It’s not that things are easy or straightforward now. Paul has a community service sentence, a six month rehabilitation course , and he will be closely monitored for the next two years with regular probation meetings. For 10 years he will have to notify the police for many different things like attending a concert where young girls may be. We can’t have an under 18 girl stay the night in our house, apart from our daughter, which means her life with friends is difficult. She still hasn’t forgiven him and hardly speaks to him. Her counsellor says it will take time and we need to give her space. We are not sure what kind of work he can get in the future – perhaps marking or examining. It will all take time. Though I have a good job, we have to get used to less money. I have some lingering problems with nerves and panic attacks – my counsellor says it is basically a type of PTSD. I don’t sleep well and I flip back to my state of worry if I think something may have gone wrong.
But he’s home, and he’s getting better. We have, and are building all the time, the relationship we have always wanted and needed. There’s so much love in our lives. We’re concentrating on doing good things, with each other, with our children, with our family and friends, to whom we owe so much. Keeping him out of prison took everything – a good solicitor, barrister, friends, family, psychologists, and critically, his own efforts to get better and face up to what he had done. And we had a good judge. It was enough.
What could we learn from this? There are so many things. On The Lucy Faithfull Foundation course we learned that there are 400 arrests a month for internet offences. There must be at least this number again of families devastated by internet sex addictions which are legal but still end in misery and separation. What follows are only my personal thoughts but perhaps they will resonate with some folk who have also been through this kind of experience.
- Society’s obsession with the nature of sex is fuelling these disorders. Folk feel they have to keep things secret, then they can develop this awful addiction to the covert thrilling nature of internet sexual activity. The internet is like having free drugs or alcohol lying around, without any of the warnings. My husband and I knew not to smoke, we knew to be careful with drinking. This crept up upon him, until he was hooked. If sex was natural and fun and part of life, I am sure that the majority of these offences would just not occur.
- Justice is helped on its way with money. We were lucky to be able to afford a good solicitor, barrister, therapist, psychologist. Without all of this we would not have known to gather references, to get reports, even what to say to the probation officer. It is not ok that only folk with a good income can access this.
- Paul and I are educated and confident. He was able to do the considerable research – which took weeks and months – to access services like SMART recovery and find a good therapist. If we had been less fluent with the internet, less assertive, it might have made all the difference and he would not be at home today. This is also not ok. This help should be available to all those who commit offences and their families. The period after someone is arrested for this type of offence is when they are most likely to want to change – and this is when they are left very much alone. Many programmes don’t start until the offender is convicted.
- In a situation where there are children, social services will become involved. It’s important to understand that their entire focus will be on potential risks to the children. They need to hear that parents will concentrate on looking after children and keeping them safe. This contact with social services will come very soon after any arrest, just when it is very hard for any partners to understand what is going on. It’s incredibly important to reassure social services that the safety of the children is paramount in your mind. That’s all they are worried about and if they don’t feel reassured then they may feel you are not a protective parent.