An Excerpt from "Sex in Recovery: A Meeting between the Covers"
by Jennifer Matesa
*Note from Dan: I'm honored and excited to bring up this excerpt of Jennifer's new book coming out. I've become a fan of her writing. As a fellow Hazelden author, I'm doubly graced by her choice of Transformation is Real to share a change one of her participants experienced. (As an aside, I know how difficult it is to write in another person's voice—I'm doing the same for my fourth book on resilience.) I endeavor to share stories of change from many and various corners of the human experience, and this piece is no exception. I know you'll enjoy it. Happy reading! - DDM
(Chapter reprinted with the author's permission.)
Thirty-eight / Two years in recovery
I really don’t want to give up having sex with Tony. But sometimes I feel like I have to. Because I feel like I’ve chosen Tony over God.
Tony and I have been dating for eighteen months. We met in recovery. At the meeting where we first saw each other, he asked whether he could hug me, and I was just really cold and bitchy and sort of rigid. I said, “I don’t hug.” I’ve been in recovery for ten years, and I’m working on three years of continuous time now. And whenever I’ve been sober, I’ve never been a hugger.
Sober, I’m very rigid. When I’m actually naked in bed with someone, I feel more free. And to get naked, I used to have to get drunk.
I knew how to behave when I was naked. I knew what to do in the bedroom. But I didn’t know how to do the rest of the relationship. I didn’t know how to be a girlfriend. I could do the bedroom thing, for my own pleasure. . . Well, to tell you the truth, not even for my pleasure. It was for their pleasure.
My pleasure was not the sex, it was just to be naked with somebody. Really what I wanted was just to be touched, to be held. So I would get drunk and get naked and do what I thought they wanted just so that I could be held. I was pretty, and at a party or in a room, I could find a guy that I wanted to be with, and he would be my prey—my challenge for the evening. To get him.
And then I’d get him. Get naked with him, in some form, somewhere.
That was the only way I knew how to get what I wanted. Which was just to be touched.
I was the last of eight children. My mother was a single mom. She had six children with one guy, and he left her for one of his employees. Then right away she went out and got pregnant by another guy who never stuck around. And then she got pregnant with me. She kicked my dad out when I was two because he had a drinking problem.
She was a super-devout saintly Catholic mom who went to church and was president of the Ladies of Charity, and yet the paradox was, she was a single mother. To me, at least, it seemed like a paradox. The Bible tells us that if we’re going to be sexual and have kids and be able to maintain connection with God, we need to be married.
My mother basically gave up on men and put all her sexual energy into a garden. And it was a humongous garden, let me tell you.
After I had my third child eight years ago and kicked out Hugh—that’s their father—I did the same thing. I made a huge “garden” out of pursuing school, work, and dreams. And I didn’t have sex. For seven years before I met Tony, except for a couple of random times that weren’t relationships, I wasn’t sexual at all.
For one thing, I was terrified of getting pregnant. I mean, Catholics aren’t supposed to use birth control, and this time with Tony is the first time in my life that I’ve actually used contraception. But even more than being afraid of pregnancy, I felt like I had to give up sex so I could be close to God. It was just a message I always got—that if I were having sex without being married, God would turn his face away from me.
Each time I got pregnant, I was trying to make my relationship with Hugh work. The last two times I got pregnant, I was sober. When we had sex, it was like we were playing Russian roulette: we didn’t use contraception, and if we got pregnant, we thought it was “meant to be.” I wanted to have children and a family with him. I wanted him to love me and take care of me, and I thought that was the way to get what I wanted.
I was fourteen when I lost my virginity. I was the last of all my friends. They’d all been doing it since they were twelve or thirteen.
And I started drinking when I was fourteen, too.
I met my first love when I was eighteen. That’s the first time I ever made love—where it felt loving and safe and all those wonderful things they say sex is supposed to be. But I didn’t understand the dynamics of the relationship outside of the bedroom. So I dumped that guy because I felt like I didn’t know how I was supposed to behave. It’s not unusual, I think, to act that way at eighteen, but it really hurt him. He wouldn’t forgive me. Sitting down and talking with him about how I treated him was a major amend I made in recovery.
After I dumped that guy, I saw dating and sex as a means to get what I wanted, which was to be touched and taken care of —whether it was financially, emotionally, socially, or physically. I had long-term lovers and they would provide for me, but I never loved them. I never let them touch my heart and spirit in the way my first love had. I would not allow it. I didn’t want to hurt someone or be hurt by someone in that way again. My relationship served a purpose, but that purpose was never love.
The only time people would get remotely close to my heart was when I’d get drunk and take my clothes off with them. If I was naked in the room with somebody, the odds are I was drunk, and that was the only time I could open up.
Then I met Hugh. I liked Hugh because he was strong. He was very physically powerful. He was a big, intimidating guy, and I was in awe of him. I loved to just watch him walk across a room. He sort of mesmerized me.
I was twenty-five, and I got pregnant right away. Even though he was pretty crazy, we moved in together, and everything got worse and worse. He controlled my movements, and he didn’t allow me to see my friends. I stuck with it because I thought that was a part of my religious faith. In order to be a good person, I needed to stay with the father of my baby. But he was so mean, and he drank, and I drank too.
All my friends assumed I would have an abortion. That would be the automatic next step: I’m with this guy, and he treats me poorly, so obviously I’d do that. But all my life I’ve been taught that abortion is morally wrong. This was the first time I ran smack up against my upbringing—questioning my faith in God, questioning myself: Do I believe in abortion? Is it possible for me to have one?
I decided to have the baby, and it separated me from all my friends. I went from being a party girl to trying to be a mom.
I didn’t quit drinking right away when I was pregnant. I’d just have like one drink. I once drank a beer in front of my friends, and they were horrified and judgmental. I was smoking, too, to be honest. I was more worried about the smoking. I just could not quit, and I felt a ton of shame about it.
The first time I left Hugh, I was never gonna go back!—right? I was that stupid once, and I was never gonna be that stupid again. Famous last words.
I would leave Hugh and then go back to him. Off, then on again. I was working at Safeway the whole time. I hated it. My nerves were shot. Hugh and I would fight, and at work when a customer yelled at me I’d either want to kill them, or I’d stand there and cry. I went to work less and less, until I was working just one day a week.
Our sex life was never very good. Like, he didn’t even kiss me while we were having sex. He loved me for the first two or three months of our relationship, and then he completely shut me out. I guess I stayed because I believed I deserved that treatment.
At one point in the middle of all this mess I started going to a women’s journaling group. I started writing in a journal every morning. And writing in that way unlocked my feelings. I’d wind up in a fetal position, crying over whatever I was writing that day. That’s when I started doing the kind of internal work that needs to be done to recover from addiction. In writing whatever came to mind every day, I started to take an honest look at myself for the first time. That brought about my first spiritual experience. I quit drinking and tried to get honest with all the people around me.
But part of that spiritual awakening was also a belief in Jesus to a degree that was not healthy. I told myself, “Okay, the Bible is my guidebook, and I am totally willing to do whatever the Bible says to do.”
I was convinced that meant I had to be with the father of my child. When you get right down to it, maybe the Bible doesn’t really say that, but that was the message I always got when I was growing up. That was the paradox of my life: I was raised in this Catholic way but by a single mother. And I didn’t want to be a single mother. But I was one.
After I had this spiritual experience, I decided I had to try to make Hugh want me by being what I thought he wanted me to be.
And meanwhile, on weekends, I was binge-drinking.
We had two more children. In the last couple years, there was no affection between us whatsoever. We were sleeping in separate bedrooms, and I got pregnant with my daughter when we had sex one night. Eventually I had to admit to myself it was an empty, ugly relationship. When my daughter was born eight years ago, I finally took the kids and moved out.
After I left Hugh, I decided I’d be sexually abstinent. For seven years I had only a couple of sexual slips. They weren’t really sex—it was just, you know, oral sex. Which isn’t really sex, right?
Being sexually abstinent all that time and at the same time trying to get sober taught me a lot of things. First of all, it taught me that I could get a lot of shit done if I didn’t distract myself with men.
But even in terms of recovery, I learned so much by abstaining. You don’t actually recover from drug addiction until you stop using, and in the same way, I think there was value for me in stopping having sex. For me it was about building a relationship with God.
I learned I have a very strong sexuality, and I feel protective of it, because now I see it as something valuable.
Toward the end of those seven years I started to feel like I wanted to try to be in a relationship with a man. So one weekend there was this big party, and beforehand I prayed to God and said, “If you think I’m ready for a relationship, please bring one into my life.”
And at that party, Tony noticed me and pursued me all night. But I didn’t go after him like prey, the way I used to do with men while I was drinking.
He has many of the qualities I want. He has a son, but his son isn’t with him, and I wanted someone who understood parenthood but wasn’t consumed by it. He was excited by the fact that I have kids, but he didn’t want to have more. He wanted to be part of a family. And he’s kind to me.
The only thing is, he was raised Catholic too, but he doesn’t believe in Jesus the way I do. And I can’t figure it out, but right now it just feels to me like I’m picking Tony over Jesus. I don’t feel as close to Jesus because I’m in a sexual relationship outside marriage, which goes against what Jesus would like.
Maybe I would feel better if Tony and I got married.
We have really wonderful sex. It feels dreamy. He puts a lot of effort into learning how to please me—he actually researches things. He’s really into it! Not in a goal-oriented way, but in a loving way. He’s very loving, but at the same time it’s very sexy. I mean, he kisses me all the time.
I could kiss all day.
He’s loving outside the bedroom, too. He came over last night and helped me move my furniture around my new apartment. He says “I love you,” and I say “I love you,” and we mean it.
So here I am, in the healthiest, most loving sexual relationship I’ve ever had, and I still don’t feel pure or good enough! That sounds really screwed up, doesn’t it? But I feel like I’m in sin. Part of me feels that we should get married because we love each other. And because I don’t feel close to Jesus. When I was sexually abstinent, I felt very connected to God, all the time, every day.
I prayed to God to send me someone like Tony. So shouldn’t that mean God must think it’s okay that we’re together?
At some point soon I feel like I’m going to have to choose either God or Tony. For me to be with Tony, I have to be sexual, because when we’re near each other and we try not to be sexual, we can never manage it. We can’t be alone together because we might have sex, you know? But if I’m sexual with Tony, then I’m choosing to cut myself off from God.
And the really crazy thing is, all this conflict I have in my mind goes away when we’re actually having sex. When we’re in bed, naked together, making love with each other, I never think I’m making any kind of sinful choice.
Except I can’t have an orgasm. I’ve never had an orgasm with Tony.
In fact, the last orgasm I had with another person was probably at least twenty years ago. I’d still like to be strong enough to be abstinent from sex in my relationship with Tony. I may still try to go back to that. I miss feeling so close to God when I was walking in His will. I’m going on a retreat next week to fast and pray about it.
Postscript - Jennifer Matesa
Three or four months after Therèse told her story out loud for Sex in Recovery, she emailed me the following message. To me, it’s just another piece of evidence that speaking our stories out loud—including our sexual stories—is a central part of changing and healing:
My partner and I got back together and went into couples counseling, and I decided to get my tubes tied to relieve my fear of pregnancy. I came to the conclusion that our commitment was about love, therefore God blesses it. We are closer then ever. I feel like talking to you was a part of making that connection.
Sex in Recovery: A Meeting between the Covers is the only book in print that explores problems and rewards of sexuality after we get sober. Organized like a recovery meeting, it includes thirteen “speaker” chapters written in real people’s voices, like Therèse’s, alternating with ten “topics” chapters with tools designed to help people think and talk about their sexual experiences in addiction and recovery.
About the Author
Jennifer Matesa is author of four nonfiction books about body, mind, and human well-being, including the forthcoming Sex in Recovery: A Meeting between the Covers, and the recently released The Recovering Body: Physical and Spiritual Fitness for Living Clean and Sober. She speaks and writes widely, and she teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh. Her long-running site about addiction and recovery, Guinevere Gets Sober (http://guineveregetssober.com), was one of the first blogs of its kind and is dedicated to giving the public reliable information without advertising or fees. Her commitment to removing the stigma from addiction and recovery earned her a fellowship at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).