Buzzkill: Chapter 5

What if I don’t ascribe to the “god of your understanding” or the spirituality demanded by recovery programs?

Getting sober engenders existential angst almost as surely as drinking leads to hangovers. While detox was marked mostly by patients waking to clearer minds, rehab saw many waking to religious and spiritual literacy. And the program anticipates this, quickly offering solutions to existential questions with God-isms and answers of faith-based clichés. But I don’t buy it.

So where does that leave me? If I’m definitely not religious, am I even spiritual?

I started to lose touch with my inner philosopher while in the throes of alcoholism. It’s not just that I don’t believe in God and am secure in my agnosticism, I had stopped asking questions about what would help me become a more complete person — what would bring me closer to peace so I wasn’t boozing to black out? In what areas do I need deeper understanding to be able to say, in any given moment, ‘I’m OK’?

For many, the path is religious. And for many, it works beautifully. But it never took for me. Growing up in a somewhat Christian environment, hearing things like ‘life is great now that I’ve let Jesus in my heart,’ I felt conflicted. When I think of religion and spirituality, I can’t help but picture the baby Jesus — a fat white baby with bat’s wings and a Cheshire smile flitting around at eye level. Why would I want that thing in my HOUSE, never mind in my heart?

And yet, in some ways, I’m quite envious of religious and spiritual folk who can find such contentment in faith. I feel it even when the spiritual say ‘the Universe has a way of working things out.’ It just doesn’t fit for me.

But now that I’m sober and I’ve reacquainted myself with the philosopher within, the bigger questions do need some attention.

The programs are Christian in tradition but have somewhat grown to accommodate my atheistic and agnostic brethren. Instead of urging participants to find God and connect with Jesus, they use terms like ‘god of your understanding.’ It’s a nice gesture, but it doesn’t cut it for me because the implication is still surrendering to something that exists beyond our senses and influence.

The bit about choosing ‘the god of your understanding’ over religion is a tempting compromise, but it still elides a fundamental problem: choice. The neat thing about agnosticism is that this perspective rests not necessarily on active disbelief, but on accepting that should something as grand as god exist, it is beyond the reach of human conception. So we accept our inability to see something so sublime in scale, and we still continue to function and thrive.

Unless you’re an alcoholic like me.

Us addicts tend to rely on substances in moments of fear — especially fear of the unknown. When things happen to us that are beyond our control, drugs and alcohol can help us forget and help us feel better about how small we can be as individuals.

When religion steps in, it can replace substances and offer answers like ‘it’s God’s plan;’ and the spiritual tend to say ’everything happens for a reason.’ When we don’t have religion or spirituality, the paradox of feeling so unimportant and unable to effect positive change is that we know we’re all there is. So, when the answer is always drugs and alcohol, it’s hard to make any kind of existential progress. Subsequently, hardships and difficulties can feel as though we’ve failed on all fronts. Like the fault is our own.

And sometimes it is. But sometimes it isn’t.

At the risk of sounding solipsistic, a specific kind of psychotherapy has begun to offer some great help in this area. Like a good Millennial, I’ve had several therapists since my teens. The way I see it, therapy is kind of like dating in that we all communicate in different frequencies, so once we find someone who’s frequency is compatible with our own, we can know it’s a relationship worth pursuing.

The very ideas of ‘frequencies’ and ‘energies’ always got under my skin. But getting sober has pushed me to really pay attention to the ways people make me feel, to figure out who in my life is making it more or less difficult to be myself. And having gone through these recovery programs, I pay closer attention to the quality of what people say — that is, how much of what they’re saying is from care and wisdom? And how much of it is simply a regurgitation of something they once heard and thought sounded nice, like a useful soundbite?

My current therapist works with the same organization that saw me through detox, rehab, a dual-diagnosis partial hospitalization program, etc. (Yeah, they’ve been good to me.) Luckily, this organization does not deal exclusively in the Christian programs, so they offer the expertise of educated professionals who can speak to the science behind practices that may be counted as spiritual — yoga, meditation, CBT — without ever needing to use that term. (Also like a good Millennial, I’m pretty label- and ritual-averse, and prefer to look at the quality and benefits of individual practices rather than to any sets of behaviors or beliefs that seem prescribed or even remotely traditional.)

Once we start dealing with abstract ideas like ‘frequencies,’ the world of spirituality is pretty unavoidable — I’ll admit it, begrudgingly. If spirituality is the active belief in and tending to the quality of life that exists beyond the material, the measurable, and the actionable — does it make me spiritual to strive to see beyond someone’s words and actions, and also beyond my own?

In sobriety, I’ve also found in myself a rejuvenated go-getter and the sense-of-self to recognize how annoying this can be. So I preemptively sent her an email, warning of my tendencies to control therapy sessions to quell my anxieties. I think she was impressed.

She also sees through my arch observations and the red herrings I try passing for epiphanies.

So she’s taken those tools away from me in a form of hypnotherapy that deals with Internal Family Systems (IFS). Here, the philosophy is that we develop coping mechanisms — substance abuse, excessive self-blame, avoidant wordplay — to protect the Self that sticks around even after we don’t need them. It’s what fuels my depression and makes me feel alone when I can’t pour myself a drink and feel unable to effect positive change in my life. By addressing these mechanisms through acknowledgment and acceptance, we can retire them and continue to grow.

This growth, I’m learning, is much more than simply physical and mental health. Be it the Freudian Unconscious, the Jungian Shadow, the Soul, whatever, the Me that is more than destructive behavior and automatic response to stimuli needs tending.

And so far, it’s working.

When I find myself asking what I can do to be a more complete person, I can say ‘thank you’ to the parts of me that tell me I’m alone and nothing matters and there’s no God looking out for my wellbeing. And then I can push through that and remind myself that writing and making art and sharing myself with others are the closest things to feeling whole that I’ve ever known. And that it’s enough for now.

But still, the program likes to hear things put in its own terms and parts of me still like to please, despite my better judgment. So as far as church goes, I’ll take Rothko’s Chapel. Prayers and chants? North’s score in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself.’ I’ll take the racing-heart, is-this-the-sublime? feelings over booze.

And the god of my understanding? Recognizing — beyond the frequencies of anxieties that have failed to grow with me in sobriety — that actually, I am ok.

If that makes me spiritual, so be it. But I’m not convinced.

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.