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In Bed With My Sobriety

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo:Getty Images

Swellness” is a monthlong series exploring the health and wellness stuff no one talks about.

The first time I had sex while sober was in the studio apartment of a Ph.D. student with a fixed-gear bicycle hanging over his double bed. I’d quit drinking two years prior, at 35, and so much of my life had come back to me — but not sex. The Ph.D. student was smart, and cute enough, and I had an urge like I wanted to rip an annoying Band-Aid off a patch of skin. Let’s do this. The sex was fine, and relatively quick, and afterward I stared at his darkened ceiling, a small firecracker of victory exploding in my chest. My future nondrinking life may be good, it may be bad, but never again would I be a sober woman who hadn’t learned to have sex without booze.

Back when I was drinking, sex was easy for me. Without booze, I was modest, a chronic overthinker who flinched when she undressed, but pour a bottle of Malbec in me and I became an exhibitionist, all my windows open. It’s not that I didn’t care about being so vulnerable with another person; it was that I couldn’t feel: The self-consciousness that tyrannized me in daylight turned to an endless series of Why not?s. The high stakes of any erotic engagement — where this was headed, what he thought about me, what I thought about him — would suddenly evaporate. It was like sex happened to me, and the sex could be amazing or it could be lousy, but more than once I woke up with a blank space in my memory where the sex should be, lying beside a man with a five-o’clock shadow and a slight snore, and I thought, Damn, this again?

Drinking problems can be defined in many ways, but unmanageability was central to my self-diagnosis. By my mid-30s, I couldn’t manage my finances, and I couldn’t manage my friendships, which were growing weaker and more superficial as drinking took center stage. And I sure as hell couldn’t manage these sexual entanglements that were unpredictable and entirely predictable at once: a friend from college; a British line cook I met at a bar; a random guy in Paris, where I’d gone on a magazine assignment. Did I like them? Did it matter? I was never sure if I wanted these midnight tussles to turn into a real relationship or if I never wanted to see the guy again, but I did know I yearned for connection, a life lived side by side, and yet I was growing more isolated. I’d become a big-city cliché: the single woman with her overloved tabby, the most familiar men in her orbit being the ones working at the bodega or the wine shop. I used to think the red flag for alcoholism would be some catastrophic loss — a job, a home, a marriage — but I’d held on to my career, I’d held on to my things (I didn’t have a marriage to lose), and yet I’d lost something far more grave: I’d lost myself. Finally, after several years of trying and failing to moderate my drinking, I could see that alcohol wasn’t opening the door to some bigger life; it had trapped me in a rather small room. I quit at the age of 35.

Life without alcohol felt pale and slight at first, until it became Technicolor and overwhelming. Even the most casual interactions turned fraught with anxiety without any substance to numb my nerves, my need to please, my overthinking mind. I stuttered with stress buying toothpaste at CVS (what kind?), getting my hair cut (what style?), just imagining the doctor’s office (no way). So the concept of going out with a man was like cannonballing into the deep end when you haven’t even learned to doggy-paddle.

I spent my first sober year in a kind of self-imposed isolation chamber. No dating; definitely no sex. The only men I let near me were friends and relatives and colleagues. I developed a hopeless crush on the barista at a café near my office; he had sleeve tattoos and read Michael Chabon novels on his breaks, and he would make my flat white before I even ordered it, which felt enough like love that I dreamed about our future: a campfire on an open beach, sharing our secrets till dawn. My sexual fantasies contained all the daring of a 13-year-old girl’s hope journal, which is pretty much where I was developmentally.

I’d grown up fast, though it felt slow to me. Thirteen was the age I started drinking to help me avoid the awkwardness and insecurities that inevitably arose with any sexual opportunity. I thought beer and tequila and Chardonnay were a perfect work-around, but they only proved a temporary bypass to the hard work of learning to be intimate with another human. When I finally quit drinking, I was thrust back to my former self: jumping when a man met my eyes, shuddering at the thought of a blowjob. (People put a penis in their mouth? But how?)

Sex was big to me, even if I’d long behaved as though it were no big deal. Sobriety called bullshit on this charade and left me painfully aware of the soul damage created by pretending to be someone I was not. So perhaps it’s not surprising that more than 700 days passed before I felt anything close to ready for this plunge, and many more days passed after that before I felt anything close to comfort. The Ph.D. student was clever and at ease with himself in a way that put my own body at ease. I suspected it wouldn’t be perfect — I also suspected sex would rarely be perfect — but it was still an experience worth having. That relationship proved a bust; we fell apart on our next date. But later that year, I met a man who lit me up inside, and he was patient, and he had a strong and steady hand, and what we shared over the months was the slowest, sweetest burn I’d ever known. He didn’t drink much, and never around me, and the astonishing chemistry we had together was entirely homegrown. I didn’t miss the booze at all.

I’d always understood sex to be best when it arrived fast and furious, a sign of uncontrollable desire. But that kind of sex was mostly a sign I’d drank myself to a place of soft compliance, my animal urges had taken the wheel, and I could not control what I did and who I allowed to be close. I had to find my way back into my own body, a place I’d tried to run from most of my life, and the trip was tough and frightening and one of the most meaningful of my life. My sweet-burn relationship didn’t last forever, the span of time I’d been hoping to get. I had to find this comfort with other men, and that took a long time, too. We want change to happen fast, but it’s often slow, and painful, and yet each agonized passage brought me closer to the person I wanted to be.

Today, I’m 12 years sober, and sometimes I say I didn’t know sex before I quit drinking. That’s not exactly right. What’s more accurate is that I didn’t know how good sex could be — I never learned to lose myself to the beautiful surrender, to be present and far away at once. That sumptuous connection is a feeling I’d never trade, an experience I wish for everyone. Sober sex is a trip we get to take in our own skin, a once-frightening challenge that turned out to be a small miracle, at least for me.

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In Bed With My Sobriety