Sex and Relationships in Sobriety

By Sam Lansky 06/18/11

For many gay men, when it comes to sex and dating, it's often hard to separate fantasy from reality. Drugs and alcohol helped many of us obscure some inconvenient truths about the objects of our affection. But what are you supposed to do when you're suddenly stone cold sober?

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FFantasy Guy-land:: Unfortunarely, lots of times, reality just doesn't measure up.

I can get a little too real in online dating profiles. On one site recently, I wrote, “Looking for an emotionally unavailable older guy who's willing to be dragged into an unhealthy codependent relationship that revolves around placating my feverish need for approval and reenacting my unresolved paternal abandonment issues. No sex, just lots of endless conversations about feelings.” Part of my objective was the admittedly snobbish desire to weed out the candidates who don’t have what I’m looking for—a certain vocabulary, a sense of humor that is as dark and subversive as I like to tell myself mine is—but I also wanted to introduce something blunt and candid into a universe that is driven almost entirely by fantasy and inauthenticity. If you don’t mind 12-step dogma, you could even call it “contrary action."

As a sober alcoholic, fantasy is intoxicating, as powerful as a drug in its own right. Addiction is a disease of fantasy, a disease in which I told myself that everything was fine while I watched my life fall apart.

My natural inclination, of course, is not to be honest; it’s to misrepresent myself whenever possible, and sometimes I still do, in my efforts to cultivate a persona that I imagine would be more palatable to a prospective partner. A digital barrier separates the less glamorous reality of who I actually am from the faceless strangers who might see the real me, and in my fantasies, I am transformed. In one particularly seductive scenario, I am at a casually upscale restaurant, meeting a man for a dinner date. I exude the unpretentious manner of the effortlessly stylish, my hair swept to the side with the wavy luster of someone who has just spent the day on a yacht. I am impossibly witty, radiating charisma. The glass of carbonated water is cool around my hand, although I have to be careful not to go too deep into fantasy, or, in a feat of almost messianic proportion, the water will turn to wine. (This is absurd; I can’t even recall a time when I ever drank a glass of wine; if I bothered with wine at all, it was typically a jug of Carlo Rossi, consumed in the dim light of a shuttered sunrise while I wept softly and listened to “Hands” by Jewel on repeat; then again, I’ve never spent any time on a yacht, nor has anything in my life ever been effortless; even my attempts at effortlessness have been uniformly characterized by tremendous effort.) My date is handsome, older, with kind eyes and large hands and a masculinity that barely cloaks some deep and tragic wound, and his laughter is sonorous and genuine—this guy gets me, he really gets me—and if there were any more electricity in the air, all the other patrons at the restaurant would be dead. These are the things that I make up, that I imagine.

This is not what reality looks like. The reality is that it is almost always too hot in the restaurant, and I am agonizingly aware of the perspiration that is beading on my brow but too cowardly to blot it with a napkin, so instead I try to defuse the situation by drawing attention to it and saying, “God, is it warm in here? I’m schvitzing,” and then I chastise myself for sounding so embarrassingly Jewish, and when the waiter offers me wine I blurt out “No, thank you, I don’t drink,” which really wasn’t what he was asking in the first place, and the bread is hard so I feel like I’m ripping it apart with my teeth like some kind of Neanderthal, and inappropriate disclosures are spilling out of me, anecdotes from rehab and implicitly homophobic comments that betray my contempt for the gay community. While my date is trying to tell me about himself, I’m studying his face trying to figure out whether this is a face that I could someday love, and then in my head, I’m already changing my Facebook status from IT’S COMPLICATED (because being single is complicated) to IN A RELATIONSHIP and telling my parents that I won’t be coming home for the holidays because I’m going on a tropical vacation with my attractive and successful boyfriend, and then I’m remodeling the master bathroom of the house in Sag Harbor where we will summer, selecting a palette of cool hues, slate blue tile and a bamboo bathmat (very “eco,” which I will suddenly and inexplicably care about), and we’re reading the funniest passages from our favorite books to one another and borrowing each other’s sweaters, and then, just as quickly, I’m putting fresh flowers in the kitchen that he isn’t noticing and he’s forgetting our anniversary and I’m hissing “God, you’re twice my age, why don’t you grow up already?” with the practiced passive-aggression I learned in my family of origin, and we’re going to sleep without having sex and I’m having brunch with a gaggle of gays, complaining over a plate of brilliantly bright fruit salad that my needs aren’t being met while privately pitying my single friends and knowing that I’ll never actually leave him. (This will all have taken place in the time that it took my date to answer the question “So, what do you do?” and I will spend the rest of the evening trying to figure out what indeed he does do, since I wasn’t listening to his answer.)

As a sober alcoholic, fantasy is intoxicating, as powerful as a drug in its own right. Addiction is a disease of fantasy, a disease in which I told myself that everything was fine while I watched my life fall apart. When I was drinking and using, fantasy and reality were nearly indistinguishable; fantasy felt very real, a thing that I could reach out my hand and touch, in the condensation misting on the glass or in the finely cut fireworks clotted in my septum. The life I was envisioning for myself was at the base of every drink, just after the soar of the next hit, close but just beyond my grasp. How could I tell fantasy from reality when I believed with such certitude that things would change tomorrow?

Sobriety, though, was a reckoning of my delusional perceptions and distorted self-beliefs with the cold, hard facts of what is empirically true. Without the miasma of intoxicants to muddy experiences that can be ugly, experiences that contrast sharply with what I want or what I think I deserve, reality just plain hurts. In the clarity of sobriety, the fantasy feels incalculably farther away, as vividly distant as stars through a telescope—still close enough to examine in detail, but no longer something that I really believe. Now, when I choose to retreat into fantasy, it is a blanket of encompassing warmth, fantastical and impractical. The cruel joke is that I’m no longer so delusional that I actually believe any of it will ever happen, but the temptation to escape the crippling discomfort of the moment is too great to resist.

And yet, just because I don’t believe in my fantasies as I once did doesn’t mean that they can’t still be useful. Dating—here, I’m tempted to list the various precipitating factors that exacerbate the dating conditions (dating in sobriety, dating other gay men, dating in New York City), but really it’s just dating in general—is a battlefield, an endless source of frustration, disappointment, and disillusionment, much of which, I’ll readily acknowledge, is self-imposed. (I am fortunate that I have friends who will tell me, “Sam, this is why you’re single,” and more fortunate still that they say it affectionately.) When I meet someone I like and begin to retreat into fantasy, a great wellspring of hope bubbles up inside me, and I start to think that maybe I’m not as defective as I’d once believed—that the lover who once told me that being with me was like opening a present on Christmas morning to discover that the thing he had wanted was already broken, that guy was wrong. This hope is dangerous, but it is also a shield that protects me from growing completely cynical, calloused by circumstance. I need my little trips to Fantasyland to remind me of the things that I really do want—the white picket fence, the sexless nights, the mornings that smell like last night’s cologne, fresh linens, and espresso smoldering in the kitchen, the comfortable silence of people in love. 

Sam Lansky is an editor at Wetpaint and a regular contributor to The Fix who also wrote about his sobriety in relation to Britney Spears. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/samlansky

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Sam Lansky is the West Coast Editor at TIME. He has written for Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, The Atlantic, Grantland, Cosmopolitan, Esquire, OutBillboard and more. He is also the author of The Gilded Razor. You can find Sam on Linkedin and Twitter.