One of the least discussed and most personal aspects of recovery is intimacy. There are many different kinds of intimacy and I’m talking about them all. For recovering addicts, there will be challenges with respect to nearly every type of relationship. Intellectual, emotional, romantic, and sexual. Alcoholism pervades our whole beings, saturates all of our relations when we drink. And like everything else we do, it poisons the way we interact intimately.
I drank for about 12 years. And I came to intimacy late in life. I was already a drinker when I started having intimate relationships. As my drinking progressed, it overwhelmed all my attempts to establish deeply intimate relationships. My ex-wife used to tell me that I was choosing alcohol over her. It made me furious. Because it was true. But I didn’t understand why she couldn’t let me have both. I didn’t understand that she was a real person with real needs and desires and that having a drunk, petulant husband wasn’t on either list.
When we finally enter recovery, and start doing the 12 steps, one of the things we address in the fourth step is a sex-conduct list. We lay out who we’ve wronged sexually and what we’ve done, so as to establish what amends we need to make, and what resentments we need to process. I’ll venture to say that most alcoholics have been less than sterling examples of healthy sexual conduct in their drinking careers. And that process is crucial to our recovery. But it doesn’t prepare us for what comes next.
Intimate relationships can be incredibly painful for me, in the midst of all of their wonder. Feeling deeply connected to someone and sharing with them brings with it a deep pain. A pain that reflects, I think, all of the times when I longed for – needed! – intimate support when I was young and didn’t get it. Sometimes, the most painful words a person can ever say to me, the words that cut closest to the bone and provoke the greatest hurt, are “I love you.” Learning how to be loved is an astonishingly difficult process for most of the alcoholics I know. We are deeply ashamed of ourselves, and do not believe we have the right to happiness or joy or love or intimacy.
Sex brings with it a whole host of other problems. When you spend a number of years only having sex drunk, it can be difficult to have sex sober. Some alcoholics suffer from erectile dysfunction, or premature ejaculation (I’m sure the list of female sexual dysfunction in sobriety is long, but I know little about it.). Shame can compound these problems. I was very fortunate. My ex-wife and I stayed together for about two years, and managed to have a pretty healthy sex life during that time. So I learned to have sober sex while I was with a partner who was devoted to getting it right.
But now that I’m divorced, new sexual relationships are often nerve-wracking. Frightening. And that’s compounded by the pain and shame and hurt that I feel when someone actually cares about me. But the excitement of new relationships is the same, I think, for us recovering alcoholics as it is for others. It can take time to get intimacy right. It can take time to shed the baggage of past relationships, past sexual traumas, past betrayed intimacies. And I think it’s important to talk about how sex changes. One of my first confidants in sobriety was a 70 year old man with 30 years, and he told me: “Sex is going to be different.” He was right.
But you know what? I am capable of flights of intimacy now that I never was before. Because I’ve learned how to be vulnerable, open, honest. I’ve learned how to recognize that trust takes time, and that missteps are surmountable. And now, when I am intimate with someone, it’s better than it ever was before. Because I know how to be me, within an intimate relationship. And by being comfortable with me, I am more open to the discovery of another person. By being sober, and healthy, I can share in new ways. Better ways than I ever knew before.