“It is important for the newcomer to accept that sexual performance is not a primary objective at this time. In the struggle for self-esteem and dignity, the recovering woman can give herself permission to take sexual control of her life and body.”
~Dr. Ann D. Clark, Ph.D., Women & Recovery: Sex, Sobriety, & Stepping Up
The goal of drug and alcohol rehab is learning how to return to a “normal” life. At the same time, we’re told to avoid romance and sex during early recovery. As a single 26-year-old woman who is otherwise healthy, I had a hard time wrapping my head around that.
Sex is supposed to be a natural, healthy activity. I mean, I was already denying myself booze and pills, so why did I have to be sexually abstinent, too?
How Sex Can Sabotage Recovery
Early on during my inpatient drug rehab, our counselors strongly discouraged us from any kind of romantic involvements—including sex—for at least the first ninety days of sobriety, because:
- Focusing on romantic relationships during drug rehab can mean missing out on the message of recovery.
- Addiction disrupts brain chemistry—and until it returns to normal, infatuation is more likely than real love.
- The lowered self-esteem caused by addiction can leave someone newly-sober vulnerable to the wrong sort of person—another addict, or someone who is abusive, for example.
- A breakup can lead straight to old ways of coping—drugs and alcohol.
I Was Terrified of “Sober Sex”
At first, it wasn’t that hard. I was focusing so much on my own recovery and all of the things I had to do that I didn’t really give much thought to the opposite sex. But as I began to progress in my recovery, I naturally started to warm up to the idea.
After all, it wasn’t like I didn’t have plenty of offers. I was usually able to deflect most interest just by the way I carried myself, and I never had much respect for the 13th Steppers who attended my Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
So…cautiously…carefully… I started saying “yes” a few times when someone who seemed legitimately nice would ask me out. None of my attempts at dating were very successful. Whenever we would get to the point where sex was even a possibility, I would find a way to pull back – most times, I just stopped answering their calls and texts. That usually got the message across.
Here’s the truth that I could never say to their faces – I was scared. I wasn’t a prude, and I was far from a virgin, but this was different:
- It had been years since I had had sex without being drunk or high.
- I had always used drugs to lower my inhibitions.
- What if sex isn’t as good as sober as it was on drugs?
- I was ashamed of some of the things that I had done – I thought I was damaged goods.
- I didn’t know how to approach sex in a “normal” way – dating, getting to know each other, etc.
Up to that point, I had never really considered just how much negative impact my addiction had had on every single aspect of my life – including my social and sex life.
Maybe I wasn’t as ready for dating and the rest of it as I thought. So I put myself back on the shelf.
Taking It Easy and Talking It Out
Obviously, I didn’t have all the answers, like I thought I did. But by this point in my recovery, I knew that MY way of thinking is what has usually gotten me into trouble in the past.
So, I brought it up to my primary therapist the next time I went in for addiction counseling. I told her all of my fears, frustrations, and confusion. I was pretty embarrassed, even though she knew much worse things about me.
She surprised me – evidently what I was going through is pretty common among women in recovery. It seems that over the course of my active addiction, issues having to do with sexuality (self-esteem, confidence, trust, intimacy, communication, acceptance) have gotten mixed up with issues resulting from my addicted behaviors (shame, guilt, remorse, regret, distrust, dishonesty, promiscuity).
What this meant was that as part of my healthy recovery, I was going to have to reevaluate my views on sex and intimacy. Maybe sex was more than something I just HAD.
She actually brought up the topic of regaining intimacy during a group session not long afterward. As we talked about, I heard stories that were sad, and some that were hilarious in an after-the-fact kind of way. But best of all, it was somehow encouraging to realize that I was not the only one who was mixed up about something that I used to take for granted.
How’s My Sex Life Today? Thanks for Asking!
Without going into detail, I eventually got my groove back. And I have to make a confession – sober sex IS different.
For one thing, I’m more “there” or “in the moment” than I was before. Now, when I have sex, it’s because I am consciously choosing to make a connection with the other person – not because it’s expected, or I’m bored, or because I’m too blitzed to really care.
And in a surprisingly-happy way, I feel more empowered than ever by my ability to make that choice.
Just another positive change in my life that I can chalk up to sobriety.