Jennifer Matesa / Sex in Recovery [excerpt]
Elaine / 28 y.o. / 11 months in recovery
Until nine weeks ago, I had never had sex while sober. I mean, ever.
And I’ve been having sex for as long as I’ve been drinking and having my period, basically. So stack up nine weeks of sober sex against fourteen years of sex on drugs and alcohol, and there’s a lot I have to learn.
The first time in my life that I had sex, I was dating a senior from St. Joe’s. I was fourteen. We were drinking vodka in my parents’ basement.
He wasn’t kind to me. It wasn’t anything special. It was like, “Whatever—let’s have sex.”
At a Jesus summer camp when I was twelve, a girl kissed me in my bunk bed, and I felt like I fell in love with her. I was so enamored. No one had ever paid that much attention to me before. But I was also flipped out. I thought that I didn’t know what my sexual orientation even was. Even thinking you liked a girl was just so taboo. And of course, there was no one to talk to about it.
So when I was fourteen and this high-school guy started paying attention to me, I just felt like, “Thank god, I like a guy!—Let me just do what I’m supposed to.” Which meant, basically, “Let me do what he expects me to do.”
Like I said, he wasn’t kind to me, but I don’t remember that night being painful for me. But I mean, nothing about it was right. It was such an unhealthy thing we had. In the first place, no fourteen-year-old should be drinking that much. Or having sex because she thought she was supposed to, because she thought that was what he wanted.
And I thought I was supposed to do what he wanted.
I don’t have any idea of how many people I’ve slept with. I couldn’t even give you a ballpark estimate. I blacked out easily, and I don’t even have an idea of who I slept with. I don’t know how I don’t have some kind of horrible disease. I don’t know how I wasn’t one of those girls who went missing. I was going home with anybody all the time.
I think it started in college. Yeah—five years of sleeping with everybody.
So when I got sober, I didn’t know how to clean up the wreckage of what I didn’t even know about, what I couldn’t even remember.
I talked about it with my sponsor. She never made me feel ashamed. So having those holes in my memory doesn’t eat at me. I’m simply grateful that I’m not doing that anymore. My sponsor helped me see the things inside me that led me to that kind of behavior: never liking myself; never feeling I was important enough to come first; always needing to get some kind of attention. Needing to get someone to care about me—or what I thought was someone caring about me. I always needed someone else to make me feel okay about myself, to make me feel like I was pretty enough to go home with.
That was the extent of the meaning of sex while I was drinking and using: I’m pretty enough to go home with.
As far as actual relationships, I never had an ordinary relationship.
The last ordinary boyfriend I had—before this thing I have now with Caleb—was in high school when I was a senior, and I was also dating a senior. That guy and Caleb are the only two age-appropriate relationships I’ve ever had. I was always the twenty-year-old dating a thirty-three-year-old, or the twenty-one-year-old dating a thirty-five-year-old.
I’ve always dated people who I thought I could save. I have this huge savior complex, as if I’m superhuman and can save these guys. I thought if I saved them, they would stay with me. If I gave them enough money, they would stay with me. They were usually with someone else—they had wives, or long-term girlfriends. They usually had children. There was never anything in it for me.
Whatever I had with any of these guys, it was always less about me and how I was feeling and more about what they were feeling. I liked sex well enough, but it wasn’t something for me. I don’t think I was ever doing it for myself. For example, I never masturbated. Like, I never wanted to feel good. It was like I had to make the other person feel good, and then I was allowed to feel good knowing that he felt good.
On the surface it was about them feeling good. But underneath, it was really about me knowing that I could make somebody feel good. So it was a manipulation.
So when I got clean and sober, I found out that I actually didn’t know what sex was for. I guess I’ve never thought about it that way before, but that’s the truth. I didn’t know why people would even have sex.
I was in a relationship when I got sober, about a year ago. The man I was seeing, Tamir, was younger than I was. He was twenty-three, and he had two daughters with another girl, Tyra.
They weren’t married, and he wasn’t with Tyra anymore. But this was typical. I often picked married guys, or guys who had kids with other women. I always wanted them to leave for me, but I never actually wanted them to—I just wanted to know that I could make them keep coming to me. There was definitely this competition between Tyra and me. I was with Tamir just so I could make him choose me over his daughters’ mother. Another manipulation.
On the last night I ever drank or used, I went over to Tyra’s—she lived in the projects—and I got beaten up. She fractured my skull in two places, and she broke my nose and my tailbone.
I have no idea why I went over there. I was in a blackout. I never knew when I’d black out. I’d often black out after sitting down and having one drink—I just wouldn’t remember anything else. It was the weirdest thing.
That night, I don’t know whether I was drinking really quickly or I was just wasted from the night before. I remember seeing Tamir, and I’m on the ground, and there’s a circle of people around me, kicking me. It had turned into a mass of people beating the shit out of me. And then I remember being handcuffed to a hospital bed. I woke up in jail. The cops had charged me with trespass, which is a felony.
So I couldn’t see Tamir anymore, obviously.
Within the next month, I was out of jail and finally in recovery. Early on, I gave a lead at a women’s meeting at a hospital addiction unit. I was standing there talking to those women, and I realized what had changed for me. I’d had the shit beaten out of me before, I’d been arrested before, I’d been to jail before. I’d gone to jail for public intoxication, and I’d also been arrested for a DUI. So none of that was new.
The reason it was different this last time was that the day I got out of jail, I just knew in my body that something was so wrong. Something inside me was saying, “Being beaten up and arrested is not as bad as it’s gonna get.”
“Nine months of sobriety was very hard for me, because I knew I’d gotten pregnant right around the time I got into recovery.”
Three days out of jail I went shopping and I took a pregnancy test in the bathroom. And I was pregnant.
If I’d tried to keep the baby, I would have had to raise it by myself. Or I would have been with Tamir, the father, and I would have been trying to raise the baby always in fear of Tyra.
So I had an abortion. That was what was different. That was what was too much. Because I wanted a baby so badly. I still do. But standing there speaking to those women, I realized I’d gotten into recovery because I finally saw how low my drinking and drugging had taken me. I finally saw what other people had been seeing for so long: this person who was blacking out, having sex with guys who didn’t care about her, putting herself in situations that were life-threatening, getting pregnant when she wasn’t able to support a baby—that was not who I really was. I was in a pitiful state. I finally saw that recovery had to come first.
It took me about a month to have the abortion. I was in outpatient treatment at the time, which was good because it was a safe place for me to spend the day and cry.
Tyra and I were going to court back and forth. She was pressing charges. I had blocked Tamir’s phone number, so for a long time I didn’t talk to him. And then eventually I told him I’d had the abortion. At that point, I was such a different person. I was sober and didn’t have any interest in talking with him, much less being with him.
Nine months of sobriety was very hard for me, because I knew I’d gotten pregnant right around the time I got into recovery. I knew I would have been having a baby at that moment. That was just two months ago.
How did I deal with that grief? I have a good friend in the program who’s a few years older than I am, and she had been raped. And she just happens to be a trauma counselor. At the same time I was in grief about getting pregnant and having an abortion, she was in grief about being raped. And even though we were grieving about different things, her one-year anniversary of the rape came up, and the nine months came up for me at the same time. We understood each other. There were feelings I couldn’t even describe that she just understood.
Meanwhile, I met Caleb.
He and I waited before we had sex.
I mean we didn’t wait that long, but we waited a few months. Like, two and a half.
We just took walks and hung out. We went on bike rides and on real dates. So by the time we had sex, I knew him, and he knew me. He saw things I don’t like about myself, and he was okay with them. I knew he didn’t judge me. I knew he was planning on sticking around, at least for a little bit. I knew that sex was not the only thing he wanted from me. I knew he wasn’t just going to screw me and then take off.
He kept going on dates with me and talking with me. And he didn’t judge me or leave. Which was definitely weird for me.
When we first had sex, it was scary on a lot of different levels. I’m on birth control, but now I’m always scared that I’ll get pregnant. And at first, I was so scared that it was hard for me to let go, to just be comfortable with him and have pleasure. But that didn’t last for long because he shows me how much he cares about me. I can tell that he appreciates me. So that made it easier to become comfortable with him and his body.
I’m also always scared of whether it’s real or not. I still have a hard time believing he could like me as much as he says he does. He treats me so well, and he’s so kind to me, and honest with me, that the sex—the actual physical part of it—feels sooo amazing. And then later in the day we can go for a bike ride, and get ice cream, and laugh like we’re best friends. So, I mean—is that real? Can you have all of that?
Because I never did before.
It’s so cool that I can be connected so deeply with someone. It’s almost like there are these invisible threads that connect us even when we’re not together.
At first, it was terrifying. I didn’t want him to get me like that. I didn’t want him to know when I was feeling weak, because I didn’t want him to use that against me. And since he knows me really well now, he knows things about me before I tell him, so now I can’t control what he knows.
So all the manipulation is off the table now. It’s gone! And that was so scary.
But now it’s more of a blessing than anything.
I think it scares Caleb a lot more than it scares me, the weird connection we have when we’re not together. It terrifies him. I think he hasn’t been cared about that much or that deeply. I’m just naturally more okay with it. I don’t want to figure it out. I just want to accept it. But I think he wants to figure it out—he wants an explanation.
Sometimes it’s getting to be annoying. Sometimes I just want to be able to be upset, let it pass, and move on without these sensors he has that make him understand that I’m upset.
I didn’t know what sex was for when I first got sober, but I’m starting to get an idea. Right now, it’s a way for me to feel much closer to him. It’s a way for me to show him how much I care about him, and for me to feel that back.
On a very primitive level, it’s just a way to feel so good. Which is such a treat, oh my god!—it’s amazing.
I also think it’s something that we do that nobody else does with us, and that’s cool, because we share a lot, we do things with lots of other people, but sex is something just for us. And I like that! I’ve never felt that before.
I feel like my sexuality and my body are waking up. But it’s a little different for me—I feel like I’ve already been with everyone. So now my body is waking up and it wants to have something special. It wants not to be taken for granted. It wants not to get into fights.
I had never had sex without drugs before I had sex with Caleb. And at first it was scary. But it was special, and it felt right.
Jennifer is author of four nonfiction books about body, mind, and human well-being, including the just-published Sex in Recovery: A Meeting between the Covers, as well as The Recovering Body: Physical and Spiritual Fitness for Living Clean and Sober. She speaks and writes widely, and she teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh. Her long-running site about addiction and recovery, Guinevere Gets Sober, was one of the first blogs of its kind and is dedicated to giving the public reliable information without advertising or fees. Her commitment to removing the stigma from addiction and recovery earned her a fellowship at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).