Buzzkill: Chapter 4

Pursuing sex for the first time after rehab is a lot to navigate.

Photo by João Jesus from Pexels

Recovery from substance abuse is devastatingly personal. Its branches curl and tangle in all facets of our lives, leaving few nooks untouched. While much can be said about the benefits of touch — of physical human contact — in any kind of recovery, when it’s sexual, it’s much more complicated. It’s easy enough to put it off. But eventually, we want to get off with some company. And I was getting close to that point.

The programs and professionals tend to recommend we abstain from physical and romantic intimacy for about a year. The reasoning falls mostly in the realm of ‘you’re learning how to love yourself again, and how can you love someone else if you’re not happy with yourself yet?’ It’s pretty solid logic.

Admittedly, I flirted with the appeal of jumping into a serious relationship as fast as possible. I felt good about sobriety but had to take a step back and look at the larger picture. I’ve been living in a sober house with 11 guys in recovery for four months. I’m in the process of not just changing jobs, but working in a different industry altogether. I still need to get a place of my own. And I need to get on my feet financially. Nothing about my circumstances suggests I’m ready for a relationship. So that settled it.

But what about having sex for the fun of it?

As a gay man, there’s a rich and diverse culture of NSA hookups out there waiting for me to jump back in — and I’m certainly eager to get back in. I hadn’t gotten laid in 18 months (maybe?), I’m free from a mess of a relationship with another alcoholic, and I’m sober now so that’s cool. But that’s also the problem. My sex life has been so saturated by booze and other substances, that I can’t remember the last time I had sex without chemical aid. And that’s if it ever even happened.

Almost by default, sex for gay men is a trove of undiscovered and often un-confronted anxieties and insecurities. Whether it be the shame and self-loathing inherited from a history steeped with hatred, persecution, invisibility, and silence, heteronormative notions of masculinity and social value, or the caricatures mistook for beauty — we struggle to occupy our own bodies while simultaneously accepting those of others. Perhaps that’s why gay men abuse substances at a rate higher than any other demographic ( I’m certainly no exception.

My ideal sex situation is probably common. A VERY thorough shower. Lights off with maybe the tv on to cast enough light to find our way around. Booze to give me the courage to speak up for what I do and don’t want. Poppers to elevate the highlights. And more booze to reference if I sense anxieties threatening my buzz. I’d be so worried about everything that it’s hard to remember just how much I enjoyed the experiences. No matter how much I wanted to be a part of it, something inside me wanted me removed altogether. So the idea of sober sex without me hiding in shame in some way just wasn’t an option.

Now, it seems to be the only option.

Having sex after rehab was not just about getting off. It was about pushing myself to grow. As someone with a relatively colorful sexual history (albeit drunk and messy), I’m eager to rediscover those passions and play my favorite sport again. Having just gone through rehab and survived a less-than-civil breakup, I’m emotionally fragile and not very confident in my ability to navigate the trenches of insecurity. Not just the physical insecurities — it’s the ‘will I ever be wanted again?’ kind that worry me.

Some of the guys I lived with were enjoying sex again and spoke about it candidly. I listened, intent on figuring out how they could do it. How were they able to put themselves out there like that? After an awkward date with a really smart, nice, handsome guy, we kissed in his car. For a while. All of my limbs locked and my muscles tensed as if my body were preventing itself from shattering. I couldn’t tell if it was because I really liked him, or if I was subconsciously resisting the vulnerability it takes to engage in physical intimacy. Realistically, it was probably both. Ultimately, I was worried about confusing sexual arousal for romantic flourish.

I tend to be an all-in kind of guy once I have my mind set on something. With sex, I knew that I had to put myself in a position without my usual lifelines. I also knew there was a chance I’d have an unpredictable emotional reaction. Since getting sober, depressive episodes (although briefer and not nearly as intense) would come from nowhere. I’d feel confident and sexy one moment, and then the tide would come in and wipe it all away. What if that happened during sex? I was already embarrassed, what the hell would THAT feel like?

I considered dating and holding off until I was sure it was about more than just sex, to take the pressure off. I considered reaching out to an old hookup buddy, to lean on the familiarity. I considered hiring a professional sex worker (one who would ideally have done post-doc work in applied psychoanalysis), to not feel judged (and then to process). I even considered asking a friend who was also in recovery, to have camaraderie.

What I did do was probably a bit out of fear and shame, and certainly on impulse: a stranger reached out to me on a hookup app. We established a mutual interest. He informed me that he was with another gentleman and they both wanted me to come over. And they waited until I was done with work.

A threesome with strangers in a hotel was not the way I planned my first sober-life sex experience. But I impressed myself. I was sober. I pushed myself to be more present and confident by not requesting the lights be turned off. And I was able to focus on what felt right for me at the moment. Admittedly, it did help that their English was not much better than my Spanish, so conversation wasn’t really an option. And it did help to have two bodies to focus on, to distract further from my own insecurities. It was transactional and pleasant.

So although it was precipitated by impulse rather than by logic or plan, sex for the first time since getting sober was a step in the right direction — toward being comfortable enough in my sobriety to enjoy something that I never really permitted myself to enjoy without the employment of alcohol and chemical aid.

As a sexual experience? I give it 4/10. It got the job done and everyone smiled at the end. As a moment of growth in my sobriety? I give it 8/10. Interpersonally, the stakes were low. But internally? I’m no longer worried about sober sex because I know it’s possible and I know it can be better. In fact, I look forward to having more of it.

Buzzkill: Chapter 3

Feeling stuck helped turn me into an alcoholic — and it was happening again while I lived in a sober house.

One of the most important things I learned in rehab is that when I get complacent or feel stuck, I can drink a whole lot of vodka. I become a real mess. Getting clean and sober just wasn’t going to be enough for me. I had to learn how to live a life without substances. Luckily, I started this process in a great place. A sober house.

Living in a sober house was not part of my plan. When I thought of what it might be like, I imagined a run-down house with too many people. There would be garbage everywhere. Fights. And, of course, drugs and alcohol.

So when my counselor in rehab suggested I graduate to one, I scoffed. It just wasn’t even on the table for me. But as the weeks went by in treatment and I heard more and more first-hand accounts of life in sober houses from patients who had been through this process, I started to reconsider. I heard horror stories, of course. Overdoses. Scuffles that escalated into rides to emergency rooms. Slum-like living conditions. I also heard stories about laughing. Lifting each other up. And succeeding. Sometimes, I even sensed nostalgia. Besides, I couldn’t go back to where I had come from. Not yet, at least.

And that’s what really stuck with me. In rehab, I wasn’t really nostalgic for anything. I was just anxious about the future, about what my life would be like without booze. My counselor assured me that she would find me a place where I would have the comfort, safety, and support I need to figure out what I want my life to be like.

The sober house I ended up moving to looks like all the other houses in the neighborhood. It’s on a quiet, residential street on Cape Cod devoid of anything that might give it away. One of the chefs I worked with had lived on that street for nearly a decade. As we got to know each other and he learned more about how I ended up in town — turned out, he had no idea the house was full of fuckups. So for however many years, despite the house being full of up to 12 men recovering from arguably the worst times of their lives, it’s likely been regarded as a house full of un-disruptive neighbors with a perplexing number of vehicles. Huh.

Sober house living is, fundamentally, transitional housing; it’s not meant to be permanent. When I signed up, I hadn’t given a thought about when I might leave. I just knew I needed a safe, structured living environment surrounded by people going through a similar transition. Luckily, the guys in charge carefully vet residents and make their selections based on how we’re recommended and how we might get along and benefit from each other’s personalities.

There were relapses. A few came and went. But we were mostly a solid crew.

By the end of my four months there, I had convinced each of my housemates to take an abbreviated version of the MBTI. Although the science is contentious, it was a fun way to explore ourselves, to ask honest truths about who we are as individuals rather than as generic addicts, and to gain perspective on ourselves now that the drug and alcohol clouds were dissipating. Upon reading the results, I watched their faces light up. The ensuing smiles and slight embarrassment brought lightness to the house that was often muddied by anxieties. It was one of those few moments we were able to focus inward and not see an addict.

Some of the hallmarks of sober houses are rules and structures grounded in, you guessed it, sobriety. The biggest ones are regular and/or random urine tests and breathalyzers, and consistent recovery meeting attendance. These were crucial for my own sobriety for the first couple of months.

But after a while, I started resenting the meetings. I had to keep reminding myself that the program warns about this in early sobriety:

  1. If you don’t want to go to a meeting, that means you should.
  2. If you can relate to only one thing said at a meeting, it was a good meeting.
  3. Meetings will remind you that you are powerless to drugs and alcohol.
  4. Keep going to meetings.

For the first months, on the nights when I wasn’t working as a manager in a restaurant and bar, I went to meetings. It was automatic, no questions. I went to meetings for narcotics addicts, alcoholics, and meetings with a Buddhist approach to recovery. I did not discriminate. I wanted all of the recovery I could get.

But it’s that third point that started to crack my adherence to the mandate for regular meeting attendance. Not only was I selling booze at work all the time and not drinking any of it, but I wasn’t experiencing any cravings or dreams about the stuff. Meds were managing cravings. One-on-one therapy was managing my impulsiveness and how I coped with stressors and traumas. I wasn’t isolating as I did in active addiction. I was sober, and I was beginning to feel powerful.

At first, I thought it was arrogance — something I had plenty of before I submitted to recovery. So I went to meetings, but a little less often. And then I remembered: “Powerful” is one of those primary emotions I learned about in the dual diagnosis program after rehab. (Surprisingly, “happy” is not among them.) It’s neither a positive nor a negative emotion, and I began to understand why: I can drink whenever I want, but I don’t have to. And the best part? I can do other things, like things that add to the quality of my life, that benefit my mental and physical health. I can do things that give me joy.

At some point I had started wrestling myself from addiction and started taking responsibility for my behaviors, and I wanted more. Not more booze or drugs, but more from life. I don’t want to just survive as a sober person. I want to thrive.

When I was forcing myself to go to meetings during that period, I often left wanting a drink. It was a bizarre phenomenon, because I can rationalize the ‘want’ away and it simply becomes a limp passing thought. But I had to ask myself, ‘why?’ I don’t know if it’s because I was getting tired of the same stories and the same chants, or because I was getting tired of the same faces, or what. At the very least, I was bored and didn’t feel like I was growing anymore.

So that’s what I realized: I was feeling stuck. And really, I didn’t want to keep hearing about how powerless I am. I learned that lesson — that when I was drinking I lost, surrendered, or forgot about my ability to stop. But now that I had stopped, that I had come to understand what I did and how sick — physically and mentally sick — I got, I didn’t want to revisit that all the fucking time.

I want to learn more about the ways in which I AM powerful.

At the time I’m writing this, I moved out of the sober house four days ago. I’ve also got five months clean and the will to stay clean. So. To rehab, to the sober house, to the meetings, I say this: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. But I’ve had enough for now.