Katy Willis lived many years with stress and betrayal trauma. She found hope and healing through Jesus Christ for her and her family from pornography.
How to Be Still amidst trauma
Katy Willis lives in Brigham City, Utah with her husband Mark. She earned degrees in nursing and music from BYU Idaho and is always in the middle of a good book or two as a passionate lifetime learner. She shares that love for learning as a full time homeschooling mom with her four young, energetic children. And when she isn’t with the kids, she’s probably helping to lead and serve the women of her church congregation, teaching one of her yoga therapy courses, or working with one of her brain wellness clients as a certified practitioner for a protocol called quantum neuro reset therapy. She feels it is her mission to help people heal from trauma, increase their awareness and consciousness, and guide others to find Jesus Christ personally.
Katy has used her medical training in lots of unique instances. Once she was at a meeting in a facility similar to a food pantry. There was a man there who started sweating profusely and his hands were shaking. Katy took notice, but thought maybe it was just too hot in the room. After a few more minutes, he slumped over. Katy went over to him and asked if he was ok and he told her that he was a diabetic and hadn’t eaten dinner. There was nothing in the food pantry that was high enough sugar to help this man. But luckily, Katy only lived a few blocks away. She called her husband, Mark, and told him that she needed him to put some orange juice concentrate out on the porch with a spoon. Katy quickly drove to her home, picked up the orange juice concentrate, brought it back, and helped this man eat some to get his blood sugar under control. Katy is thankful for all the times that God has helped her to recall knowledge she has or just whispered answers to her.
Deciding to Marry Mark
Katy met Mark on a blind date. It was probably the most awkward date she had ever been on, but eventually they figured it out. During their engagement, Mark told Katy that he had struggled his entire youth with pornography, sex addiction, and masturbation. Right after he told Katy, his mom walked into the room so Katy didn’t have the chance to ask him any questions or even discuss it with him. The rest of the night was a blur, and she couldn’t sleep.
As a Christian, Katy had made the choice at a young age to intentionally live a virtuous life. To find out that the man she wanted to marry had not made those same choices was very disorienting for her. After a long night of agonizing over what she had learned, as the sun was rising, God had something to say. He told Katy, “This does not change what I’ve known. Every time that you have come to me and asked if marrying Mark was the right choice, I’ve told you yes. Every time you’ve asked, I have known. This is changing what you know, Katy, but it’s not changing what I know.”
Get Help, Don’t Wait
Katy’s biggest regret at that point was that they didn’t seek professional help right away. Mark had been “sober” for about two years, but Katy says there is a difference between sobriety and white knuckling, or just holding on and not acting on the addiction. While there may be some who are able to white knuckle through the rest of their lives, most can’t and will relapse at some point if they haven’t done recovery work.
Mark hadn’t truly recovered at that point. You have to dig the problem up by the roots and look at the patterns and allow Jesus Christ to change your heart. Just because someone has addiction in their past doesn’t mean that’s their future. But the smartest thing to do is get professional help to explore how far the entanglements of addiction are reaching in to their life. Katy says it’s important for both the addict and their spouse or future spouse to receive counseling as well.
Find the Right Kind of Help
Katy says it’s important to get the right kind of counseling though. She recommends seeing a therapist who specializes in sex addiction. She likens it to breaking your arm. If you have a serious, compound fracture where the bone is sticking out of your skin, you wouldn’t show up at your family doctor’s office. It’s not that they aren’t a good doctor. But it’s not really in their scope of practice. They’ll refer you to an orthopedic surgeon.
Going to someone with the right speciality is going to be more effective in your healing. Turning to people, even therapists, who don’t offer the right kind of support can invalidate your feelings and cause another layer of trauma to form on top of your original trauma. This secondary trauma can be especially detrimental for someone already in the throes of addiction as they can start to believe that they are bad or wrong and will prevent them from seeking help in the future.
Finishing School and Starting a Family
So while they didn’t begin their work with a counselor right away, Mark and Katy moved forward and got married. They were full time students at that point in time, and Katy remembers those couple of years as being full of amazing teamwork. Katy passed her boards to become a nurse and started working night shifts. Mark would drive Katy to work and then stay at his parent’s for the night.
Katy would sleep on the drive home and get a few more hours of sleep at home and then get up for school. If Mark hadn’t been willing to do the driving, Katy wouldn’t have been able to make it work. In their last semester before graduation, Katy got pregnant with their first child. Mark landed a great job in computer repair. They had two more kids back to back, giving them three beautiful children in three years. Her last two pregnancies were high risk, and Mark took on all the additional work for their family while Katy was on bedrest. Their son was born in August and they were still adjusting to newborn life with two other children.
Job Loss and the Decline
In December of that year, Mark lost his job. At first he was very gung ho about it, insisting that everything would be ok. Looking back, Katy says that time period was full of emotional highs and lows with the stress from the pregnancy and then welcoming their son and adjusting to their new normal. Mark applied to hundreds of jobs all over the country, but he kept coming up as the second choice. He would ask what he could do to be a better candidate and kept being told, “Well nothing, you were our second choice.”
At first, Mark was still getting up and putting on his suit and tie, even if it was just a day of submitting applications on the computer. But eventually he stopped doing that and started spending the day in pajamas and just not taking as good of care of himself. He wasn’t sleeping well. Even if he had gotten a good night’s sleep, he would start to nod off in the middle of the day, even while he was holding the baby. Katy made him go to the doctor and they even did two sleep studies but there was nothing that came up that appeared to be wrong.
Trying to Find a Diagnosis
After a few more months, Mark’s mental health started to show signs of deterioration as well. He would have basically a three day cycle where he would be extremely anxious and stay up all night, then after a few days he would crash so low that he was suicidal. Katy found a therapist for Mark to go to who told them Mark had bipolar disorder.
Another psychiatrist told them he had anxiety and depression and prescribed medications for him, but Mark refused them. Katy says that time was a living hell for her. She felt like the weight of keeping her husband alive was on her shoulder. She reached out to her Bishop in her church and he did the best he could but this was beyond him.
Katy says she did everything she could to bring a good feeling into their home. She never stopped reading her scriptures or praying. But she says that Mark brought a dark cloud into their home every time he walked through the door. She would try to Mark about it but he would insist it wasn’t him, so it must be Katy that was the problem. This is called gaslighting.
Gaslighting is a term that comes from a 1940s film. In the movie, if you could prove that your spouse was incompetent then you could inherit all of their money. So in the movie, the husband tries to convince the young wife that she’s crazy. They would walk down the stairs and he would turn the lights off, but tell his wife that it was as bright as the noon day sun in their home. So the term gaslighting was born. Essentially, when you gaslight someone you try to convince them that what they know isn’t actually the truth. Individuals who are struggling with addiction use this tactic often.
Katy says that she feels the gaslighting she experienced from Mark was genuinely unintentional, but she says she was also gaslighting herself. She knew something was wrong, but kept trying to convince herself she was crazy. She kept reaching out for support and help but everyone kept telling her there was no evidence of something being wrong with Mark.
Katy was able to recognize to what extent she had been gaslighting herself after some intensive work in therapy and when Mark laid everything on the table. He wrote up a 20 page document outlining his addiction, all the way back to his first exposure. Every time that Katy felt in her gut that something was wrong, even without evidence, was when Mark had acted out.
But in those early days, Katy kept everything quiet, even from her family. They got very good at putting up a front of being ok, even though things were awful. Mark would start to call home towards the end of the work day and tell Katy that he was too anxious to come home, he was just going to sleep at his parent’s house that night. Katy would tell him that she felt he should come home but of course it was his choice. He would choose to go anyway.
After a few nights of this, Katy really pleaded with him one night to please come home. He didn’t. The next morning he called Katy and told her that he had gone to a strip club the night before. Katy had been home that night tucking their three children into bed.
Katy doesn’t remember much after that phone call, but she remembers that her first reaction was relief. She realized she wasn’t crazy. But after about ten seconds, she was angry and betrayed. She started wondering what else had been going on. The shock started to set in. Katy says that God has designed our brains to just shut off when we reach our max capacity and that’s what happened to her after a few hours. She just shut down. And she stayed that way for about two years.
Katy says that this type of reaction is pretty typical for women who have experiences like this. It is referred to as betrayal trauma. Some women get stuck in anger, but Katy says that anger is a secondary emotion. There is always something underneath, and it’s often grief or sadness. Many women forget to eat or can’t sleep. Katy started to think that of course her husband had turned to pornography and strip clubs. She had just had three babies. Her body had stretch marks and sagged and she couldn’t even find time to take a shower every day. She started to feel that it was her fault.
Katy says that no matter what people experience, as an outsider looking in, it’s important to validate whatever they experience. If you’re on the sidelines, you don’t need to fix them or control their reaction. Just validate their emotions. You don’t have to validate the conclusion, such as your husband is acting out because you’re physically unattractive. But to have someone validate what your feeling is invaluable.
As a Christian woman, Katy had never expected something like this. Katy believes that her marriage isn’t just ’til death do we part. She believes it is eternal, and she says that added a lot of pain. She had dedicated herself to this man for eternity, and he had been unfaithful.
Katy says that it isn’t very common to have the whole addiction come to light at once, though Mark was able to do that eventually. More often, the addict will say, “Well I have this problem but I’m taking care of it,” and then burrow deeper and act out more privately. But eventually, new information trickles out over time.
When we discover an addiction, it’s called D-Day. And any new information is like D-Day all over again. It’s reopening a wound that hasn’t fully healed. It doesn’t even have to be something big, but even the small things can make you spiral all over again. Katy recently had this experience with Mark. He told her about an experience that he had. It wasn’t a new aspect of his addiction or a game changer or anything. But it was still something Katy hadn’t heard before, and she had to process it.
She says that Mark was very loving and safe as she processed the information. She is grateful that he told her, but she still has to check in with herself and make sure she’s doing ok and be sure that he is being honest and that she’s being honest with herself. They were able to have a great conversation. Even if you’ve known about your spouse’s addiction for a long time, that trauma can pop up pretty easily
When that trauma pops up, it’s called a trigger. Our brains are designed to protect us, so when something comes in through any of our five senses that our brain connects to the original trauma, we go into fight, flight, or freeze mode. But we can learn to hover in neutral. You can learn to ground yourself and assess the moment. Ask yourself if you are safe. If you are safe, you’re just launching into old trauma.
If you aren’t safe, move to safety. Take space for yourself to process.
Katy and Mark ended up separating. Mark was disfellowshipped from their church, meaning he couldn’t take the Sacrament or pray in meetings. One night, Katy laid out everything in her journal. Mark hadn’t been working since he’d lost his job, they were getting foreclosure notices for their home and notices that their gas and electricity were going to be shut off.
They got their W-2 back for the tax year and they had only made $14,000 for their family of four. Katy had kept thinking that it couldn’t get any worse and then it would get worse. That night she wrote in her journal that she didn’t think she could fix Mark. She had been trying to have dinner ready and the kids quiet when he would get home so he wouldn’t be so anxious, she had tried lots of things, but she couldn’t fix him.
But she thought maybe God could. It seems silly to her now because she knows how it all worked out, but back then that was a tiny flicker of hope.
At that point, Katy started setting boundaries rather than enabling his addiction. She stopped believing she was responsible for or could fix Mark’s addiction. They separated for a second time and Mark still hadn’t hit his own rock bottom. He was still very justified, very blaming, and very critical. After he left the second time, Katy decided she was done.
She called a divorce lawyer and made an appointment. She called to get an appointment with her Bishop. Her Bishop asked her to get professional help at that point. They weren’t getting the tailored, specific help they needed at that time. Katy told the Bishop that she didn’t feel good about moving forward with divorce, but she didn’t know what else to do. Mark didn’t even want to speak to her. Katy says that her situation was very unique in that her Bishop told her that she didn’t have his blessing to move forward with her divorce. He told her what she did was between her and the Lord. Katy left with a fresh drive to go home and figure out what to do with the Lord.
Asking God What to Do
Katy says she was constantly praying over the next few days, and prayed on her knees as much as she possibly could. She kept having the thought that she should reach out to Mark and see if he would talk to her.
Mark was not himself then. This kind of addiction literally changes the brain. Sex addicts experience the same brain changes as those who are addicted to drugs with regards to connection, inhibition, logic, and reason. Mark simply was not himself.
So Katy texted him but didn’t know what to expect. He said he wanted to talk. In the time that they had been separated, Mark had hit rock bottom. The reality of losing his marriage had finally sunk in. He was about to lose everything. He had started to wish that he had chosen differently when given the chance.
And that’s when Katy’s text came in. They stayed up all night talking. It was the most open their communication had been in a very long time. But Katy says that when you’re in that deep, one conversation does not fix it. But they knew there was still life left in their marriage. They were both willing to try.
They found a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (CSAT) who offered a group therapy program that they signed up for. Both Katy and Mark sold plasma in order to afford it. They also started attending private therapy. After a few months, Katy found yoga and started a daily yoga practice.
Research about yoga hadn’t come forward yet, so everyone kind of thought Katy was a weird hippie, but she knew the yoga helped her feel better physically, mentally, and emotionally. She started teaching Mark and her kids yoga as well.
They also started attending a 12 step program through their church, though there are many 12 step programs available. For them, the 12 step program was crucial. It allowed them to access God in a way that they couldn’t have done using only professional therapy. In 12 step they learned how to apply the steps at home between meetings too. Katy says that work is essential to recovery. Meetings alone weren’t enough.
The programs that Katy and Mark attended have evolved over the years. At first, they were based on a model of codependence on the part of the spouse. Codependence is extreme emotional and psychological reliance on a partner. Basically, you’re only bugged as the partner because you need to find something else to do. You’re checking your husband’s phone or have a tracker on their phone because you’re avoiding your own work.
While there are sometimes elements of codependency to consider and address, more often it’s the betrayal trauma that has to be addressed on the part of a spouse. The person doesn’t feel safe and they are trying to create safety for themselves by controlling the addict. Now, the understanding is that the addict has to work on themselves, the spouse has to work on themselves, and then they can come together to work on the marriage.
The Force Behind Her
Katy says that while she had found all these amazing tools and resources to help her, the Savior was the propelling force behind her. He gave her strength. It was through His grace and love that she was able to take those steps.
This was the first time that Katy had realized that she needed the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Up until then, she didn’t have any “black marks” that she felt she needed the Atonement to help clean up.
Now she understands that the Atonement isn’t just for repenting every day, but that there is a breadth and depth to Jesus Christ that she hadn’t known anything about. Without Jesus Christ, she would not have been able to forgive and recognize that her marriage wasn’t over. He is going to hold our hand as we uproot and look at things and examine our patterns and change our heart.
Katy says the only part of the process that God can’t do is to have us turn to Him and ask Him to come into our life. But we don’t have to earn or be worthy of His grace. That is freely available whenever we ask for it. Katy has felt that love many times over as she has shared her story.
She and Mark decided to go public with their story about two and a half years ago. They realized that there were people that they could help, but they couldn’t help them without giving a name to the issues they were facing: pornography, sex addiction, betrayal trauma, etc. These experiences with people in their community and throughout the world have given Katy a new sense of compassion and charity. Having that desire to better the lives of others is an aspect of the Atonement that Katy is incredibly grateful they have been able to experience.
Favorite Bible Verse
Katy loves Psalms 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.” The Hebrew translation for “be still” is one word, “rafa.” Rafa translates to sink or relax. The particular “know” used in this verse is “yada,” which refers to an experiential knowing.
So for Katy, this verse means that as we relax and sink again, that’s how we can face horrendous, heart-wrenching things is by coming to know God. We can sink into our trials rather than kicking and screaming and dragging our feet. As we sink into our experiences through Christ, that’s how we know Him, not just know of Him like how we know of people here on Earth. Katy loves a saying from Yogi Bhajan: “If we cannot see God in all, we cannot see God at all.”
Katy and Mark used the 12 step program through their church. Even if you aren’t a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, you would be welcome to those meetings, and you can find information at addictionrecovery.churchofjesuschrist.org. There are lots of other 12 step programs available online as well. Also, there is an online forum called SAL that’s like Alcoholics Anonymous for sex addicts, but it includes God in the program.
Another Christian-based resource at healingthroughchrist.org, which has resources for both the addict and their spouse.
You can find Katy on her Facebook page, “Be Still with Katy Willis” and Instagram @bestillwithkatywillis. You can find information about Kat’s yoga therapy courses (some are free) by clicking the link or visiting her website, bestillservices.blogspot.com.
There is Hope
Katy wants to remind everyone that you are not alone. Looking at people’s lives through social media, it looks like everyone else is perfect. We don’t see the stack of dirty dishes that they slid out of the way to take a picture of their kids. We don’t hear the arguments behind the mushy posts about their spouse.
You aren’t alone, and you never can be alone because you are God’s child. Reach out to others, find long term resources. Remember that there is hope. There is hope in Jesus Christ and Katy is living proof that people can change. Her husband has become an incredible, faithful, gentle, and loyal person. Use the tools you can find to facilitate that change. There is hope.