This is how it begins. He asks me to stand before him in my lace underwear, high heels, hose and bra. He sits in a chair and watches closely as I disrobe, making approving noises, even winking to put me at ease. "Turn around please," he says and then, "Yes, right there. Stop there." Even though we've been married for over three years, I've never done anything like this sober. I don't know what to do, or where to put my hands. Without the buzz and fog of alcohol, I am clumsy and giggly and awkward.
He handcuffs me to the bed, and whispers into my ear, "I'm going to take you now because you're my woman. All mine. Do you understand?"
I nod, at once turned on and slightly uncomfortable. We've played these games before, dirty secretary (me on my knees), inappropriate masseur (him touching my inner thigh and entering me with his oil-covered fingers) and sex slave (submission and punishment) but always with a few drinks sitting warm in my stomach keeping me safely removed from consciousness and with a pleasant numbness. This time, when the game is over, I start crying, full of sensitive tender feelings and fear that I don't really know how to have sex, much less make love, sober.
We eventually divorce and though deeply committed to working the steps and awakening myself to self-deluding behavior, I celebrate my newly single status by reverting to some old patterns of casual sex. Somehow in the safety of being unknown, I am able to let my inhibitions go, to dress in costumes and act out dominatrix or total submission fantasies. Delivered from the shoulds (commitment, matrimony, responsibility, parenthood), I somehow feel freer to be naughty. This disconnect continues well into my first year of sobriety.
When I first started coming to meetings, an old timer used to remind us new folks that "it takes awhile for the program to move from your mind to your heart." I came to understand that he meant all the readings and the sayings and the recovery-speak take time to change the way you view the world, to travel from the intellect to the spirit. But I find the same dynamic plays out in the bedroom. It took me a long time in sobriety (one year? two?) before I started wanting more than costumes and handcuffs. I dreamt of something deeper and more connected between me and a partner — maybe eye contact, love and closeness, a feeling of contentment rather than a gaping maw of "More!"
After doing a sexual inventory a few months back, my sponsor asked if I'd be willing to pray before having sex. I looked at her like she was crazy and immediately refused. She assured me that it's not as scary or awkward as one might think. She asked me to give it a try and I very reluctantly agreed. The next night, my sober then-boyfriend came over and as we made our way upstairs, I told him about my sponsor's suggestion. He was very enthusiastic, "What the heck?" he said. "Let's do it!" I took a long time dimming lights, lighting candles and putting on music. I undressed and climbed into bed next to him, nervous as hell. We looked at each other and then I said, "Okay, let's do this." I closed my eyes and talked to God the only way I know how: "Hey God, it's us, getting ready to be together and I have no idea how to be close and dirty, warm and edgy, sweet and confident. Please help me understand how to be more conscious without giggling and acting weird. Amen." We fooled around for a while and I kept waiting and waiting for something to be different, hoping to feel a change but sensed nothing unusual. The night wore on to its inevitable conclusion, to the mutual satisfaction of all participants yet the spiritual change wrought by prayer remained a mystery, undetected by my listening ear. My sponsor said to keep trying, that sooner or later I'd experience Meaningful Sex. Unfortunately, in my experience, sexual fulfillment, whether conjured by prayer or Lingam Massage, tends to run away the more you chase it.
Nearly a year since that first fateful pre-sex talk with God, a few good men have darkened my door, some during the day, some at night — nothing serious or committed; just byways along the road of sober life. And then a few weeks ago, I met someone. He's in the program, a media guy who is deeply handsome and soulful and smart. We've not had sex yet, nor are we likely to anytime soon (learning to delay gratification is a new part of my spiritual path). Our talks and emails are long and interesting and yet right from the beginning it is game on with the sex talk, the flirting and the dirty texting. Once again I can feel myself getting pulled into the Sex Vortex: that place where my mind shuts off and my body does all the talking. We video Skype and he asks me to show my body to him. I remove clothing, dim the lighting and try to find an attractive camera angle. With a video screen between us, we coo and purr over the beauty of each other's nakedness. The ridiculousness of practicing sexual intimacy via Skype Video Chat isn't lost on me. And yet it's safe enough this way that I'm able to let my guard down. For once, I'm not shy and ashamed as I stand there letting him look me up and down. I'm not self-conscious as I ask him to watch me touch myself and explore my body, pretending my hands are his.
The next day there is more between us — a stirring of the heart, a warming of the soul as we talk about our histories, share our progress (or lack thereof) in recovery. For the first time in sobriety, I think I'm ready to jump in with both oars, body and soul, with melting heart (rather than stirring loins) in the lead. I share with him that I don't want just sex anymore, that I want to share more than bodies and occasional quips about politics. I want to be all in. As I share this, I start to cry but don't apologize or minimize my tears. Instead, I stand behind my words and repeat that this time I want more than a good lay. He is immediately supportive, murmuring agreement and backing me up, though his interest seems to have waned since this conversation. Maybe he is, as he says, merely busy. Or maybe, as I suspect, I've scared him half to death.
Oh well. As my sponsor says, the progress here is magnificent nonetheless. My willingness to jump in open-hearted is a reward in itself. I see that I'm ready; that there is a deep well of spiritual tenderness underneath my black thigh highs and lace gloves.
Perhaps it takes an alcoholic to turn such a complicated subject into a reductionist duality: all-or-nothing, heart-or-body, sex-or-commitment. It's certainly taken me years to even want to see the grey areas in every interesting area of life. I'm sure there will be clumsy tearful days ahead and days when the blindfold and handcuffs will come out, along with the distance and the detachment. I'm willing to accept the path now, wherever it leads, mostly because I think it's headed somewhere very good. I have great hope now that as a woman in recovery I deserve to live right at the intersection of love and lust, without having to choose between the two.
Rebecca Parker is the pseudonym for a sober book author and magazine contributor.