Learning to Have Sex in Recovery

By Tracey Helton Mitchell 10/31/19

I had forgotten that I was once again in control of my own life... I needed to take charge of my sexual experiences just like I had taken charge of my recovery.

Image: 
Greyscale close up of a couple kissing
My body is a gift. Not everyone gets to unwrap it. Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

So you used to hang from the chandeliers and now you avoid seeing yourself naked in the mirror? I can relate, friends. When I made the decision to stop using drugs 21 years ago, I was told “the only thing I needed to change was everything.” While this was not entirely true, there was one area that needed a complete overhaul: my relationship to sex. I wondered how I would ever transition from substance-fueled sex to a physical interaction that requires a bit of delicacy, and, dare I suggest, intimacy? 

It wasn’t easy. 

Men Are Pigs

For background, I was raised by two very conservative parents that stopped sleeping in the same room by the time I was 12. The only “talk” my mother had with me was to explain that “men are pigs.” Fairly vague, even for the 1980s. My exposure to “sex” was accidentally finding pornographic magazines in bushes, late night movies on cable tv, and being sexualized by drunk adults. Sex became hardwired in my brain as this thing that men required and to which women begrudgingly submitted. There was little to no information about having sex for fun. Sex was associated with a quiet sense of shame. 

On top of this, I was fat, and that made me feel unfuckable in suburban Ohio. I was okay with this at some level – remember, “men are pigs” — but I still wanted to try it. 

The summer of my 17th year, my world got turned upside down. I lost 30 pounds, and suddenly the neighbor boy wanted to show me his dick, which I found entirely confusing. He’d never even given me as much as a sideways glance. I frequently got teased for being a virgin until finally my first real boyfriend “took” what I never felt like I had in the first place. Was I supposed to be feeling something? Anything? I mostly felt indifferent. 

Alcohol and drugs arrived on the scene at the same time I was trying to figure out the machinery of an adult woman. After a few drinks, I would feel this rush of male attention that suddenly made sense. I felt “sexy.” My sexuality was a lure to pull in a person I thought liked me. Sex became a way of gaining what I wanted, a way of garnering much needed attention. Sex suddenly became more interesting. 

The first time I had sex with a woman, I woke up from a blackout with her underneath me. Oh hey. Sex was this jumble of things, many of which made no sense to me. I had no idea how to make this thing work. Where was the owner’s manual?

A Sense of Urgency

Imagine my surprise ten years later when, 24 hours into my last detox, my crotch suddenly sprung to life without notice. There was a sense of urgency to explore the areas I had so frequently ignored while steeped in a nod. Unfortunately, all this was taking place in a jail cell. My bunkmate complained to deputies I was keeping her up at night with my vigorous activities. For the first time in my adult life, my sexual experiences didn’t revolve around what I could convince someone to do to me or with me. I would have to figure things out for myself. 

When the first 20 pounds of jail house grits and potatoes hit my thighs, I wasn’t particularly worried. I had become so thin after years of heavy use, I vaguely fit the stereotype of a woman. As I was flat chested with the collarbones sunken in, a bit of padding was a welcome addition on my bony ass…until it went from a folding chair to a whole loveseat. My reignited passion for life was matched by my love of food. 

Slowly, incrementally, the increasing pounds began stripping away my self-esteem. The idea of fucking anyone seemed like an effort. I fell into a state of sadness. I would not consider letting anyone touch me, outside of a few random pats on ass from my “brothers” in the rehab. 

This was in stark contrast to my life six months earlier. I had spent many years in a community of sex workers, thirsty bottoms, and quid pro quo relationships with the dopeman. There were no boundaries, and even less consent. In those days, my body was open for business, while my mind was frequently sedated and broken into tiny pieces. 

What was the solution? My first sponsor insisted that I look at myself in the mirror every night while proclaiming “I love myself.” The intention was good but the reality felt forced. What was it I loved? My face-- with a distinct scar across my forehead from a drunken car crash? My smile-- which was marred by chipped teeth from grinding on meth benders? The insecure person inside? 

My First Time...Sober

Despite my fears, I had a growing interest to road-test the plumper machine. My first sober sexual encounter in recovery was clumsy. I was on a four-hour pass from rehab but I returned in less than 45 minutes. I don’t know why I had even bothered to take my pants off. I stuck my head against the wall in the shower, soaking in the regret. I was disappointed he didn’t even notice that my bra and panties matched. The nerve! 

The second was much more extravagant. We went to a cheap hotel because he did not have the proper ID to visit my sober living. I barely knew him. I just knew he wanted me. He left me a gift: a ring of hickeys around my neck that made it look as if someone had choked me. This skin memento provided uncomfortable material for my next women’s support group. 

“What are you getting out of this?” one of the group members asked me. 

Was I supposed to be getting something? I had forgotten that I was once again in control of my own life. It had been so long since anyone had taken my feelings and my pleasure into consideration. I needed to take charge of my sexual experiences just like I had taken charge of my recovery.

After bumping my head one more time in the early days-- literally and figuratively as the person was quite acrobatic-- I made a conscious decision to give my body the rest it deserved. Until I could unravel sex from the need for validation, I would be just fine exploring my own body without the bitter aftertaste. I had confused attention with affection. I presumed that desire meant connection. For me, none of these turned out to be the case. It wasn’t bad sex, per se. It was the fact that my expectations were far exceeding the actual experiences. I had done none of the work to heal my wounded soul and had greedily assumed my equally recovering body would be able to catch up. 

My Body Is a Gift

My story has a happy ending. It took many years of unraveling my emotional and physical baggage and eventually creating a filter, a boundary, and a screening process. I began to realize that it was 100% necessary to communicate my needs. I had to discover what I liked, create my list of dos and don’ts. 

For the first time, I began to enjoy my sexual self with no shame. My body is a gift. Not everyone gets to unwrap it. 

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Tracey Helton Mitchell is a harm reduction advocate living in the SF Bay Area. She is author of The Big Fix: Hope After Heroin and presents nationally on issues related to the opioid crisis. You can find her on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.

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