By Brenden Pacheco

Recovery from substance abuse is devastatingly personal. Its branches curl and tangle in all facets of our lives, leaving few nooks untouched. While much can be said about the benefits of touch — of physical human contact — in any kind of recovery, when it’s sexual, it’s much more complicated. It’s easy enough to put it off. But eventually, we want to get off with some company. And I was getting close to that point.

Photo Credit: Dawn Vraven

The programs and professionals tend to recommend we abstain from physical and romantic intimacy for about a year. The reasoning falls mostly in the realm of ‘you’re learning how to love yourself again, and how can you love someone else if you’re not happy with yourself yet?’ It’s pretty solid logic.

Admittedly, I flirted with the appeal of jumping into a serious relationship as fast as possible. I felt good about sobriety but had to take a step back and look at the larger picture. I’ve been living in a sober house with 11 guys in recovery for four months. I’m in the process of not just changing jobs, but working in a different industry altogether. I still need to get a place of my own. And I need to get on my feet financially. Nothing about my circumstances suggests I’m ready for a relationship. So that settled it.

But what about having sex for the fun of it?

“I’m free from a mess of a relationship with another alcoholic”

As a gay man, there’s a rich and diverse culture of NSA hookups out there waiting for me to jump back in — and I’m certainly eager to get back in. I hadn’t gotten laid in 18 months (maybe?), I’m free from a mess of a relationship with another alcoholic, and I’m sober now so that’s cool. But that’s also the problem. My sex life has been so saturated by booze and other substances, that I can’t remember the last time I had sex without chemical aid. And that’s if it ever even happened.

Almost by default, sex for gay men is a trove of undiscovered and often un-confronted anxieties and insecurities. Whether it be the shame and self-loathing inherited from a history steeped with hatred, persecution, invisibility, and silence, heteronormative notions of masculinity and social value, or the caricatures mistook for beauty — we struggle to occupy our own bodies while simultaneously accepting those of others. Perhaps that’s why gay men abuse substances at a rate higher than any other demographic ( I’m certainly no exception.

My ideal sex situation is probably common. A VERY thorough shower. Lights off with maybe the tv on to cast enough light to find our way around. Booze to give me the courage to speak up for what I do and don’t want. Poppers to elevate the highlights. And more booze to reference if I sense anxieties threatening my buzz. I’d be so worried about everything that it’s hard to remember just how much I enjoyed the experiences. No matter how much I wanted to be a part of it, something inside me wanted me removed altogether. So the idea of sober sex without me hiding in shame in some way just wasn’t an option.

Now, it seems to be the only option.

Having sex after rehab was not just about getting off. It was about pushing myself to grow. As someone with a relatively colorful sexual history (albeit drunk and messy), I’m eager to rediscover those passions and play my favorite sport again. Having just gone through rehab and survived a less-than-civil breakup, I’m emotionally fragile and not very confident in my ability to navigate the trenches of insecurity. Not just the physical insecurities — it’s the ‘will I ever be wanted again?’ the kind that worry me.

“Ultimately, I was worried about confusing sexual arousal for romantic flourish”

Some of the guys I lived with were enjoying sex again and spoke about it candidly. I listened, intent on figuring out how they could do it. How were they able to put themselves out there like that? After an awkward date with a really smart, nice, handsome guy, we kissed in his car. For a while. All of my limbs locked and my muscles tensed as if my body were preventing itself from shattering. I couldn’t tell if it was because I really liked him, or if I was subconsciously resisting the vulnerability it takes to engage in physical intimacy. Realistically, it was probably both. Ultimately, I was worried about confusing sexual arousal for romantic flourish.

I tend to be an all-in kind of guy once I have my mind set on something. With sex, I knew that I had to put myself in a position without my usual lifelines. I also knew there was a chance I’d have an unpredictable emotional reaction. Since getting sober, depressive episodes (although briefer and not nearly as intense) would come from nowhere. I’d feel confident and sexy one moment, and then the tide would come in and wipe it all away. What if that happened during sex? I was already embarrassed, what the hell would THAT feel like?

I considered dating and holding off until I was sure it was about more than just sex, to take the pressure off. I considered reaching out to an old hookup buddy, to lean on the familiarity. I considered hiring a professional sex worker (one who would ideally have done post-doc work in applied psychoanalysis), to not feel judged (and then to process). I even considered asking a friend who was also in recovery, to have camaraderie.

“A threesome with strangers in a hotel was not the way I planned my first sober-life sex experience”

What I did do was probably a bit out of fear and shame, and certainly on impulse: a stranger reached out to me on a hookup app. We established a mutual interest. He informed me that he was with another gentleman and they both wanted me to come over. And they waited until I was done with work.

A threesome with strangers in a hotel was not the way I planned my first sober-life sex experience. But I impressed myself. I was sober. I pushed myself to be more present and confident by not requesting the lights be turned off. And I was able to focus on what felt right for me at the moment. Admittedly, it did help that their English was not much better than my Spanish, so conversation wasn’t really an option. And it did help to have two bodies to focus on, to distract further from my own insecurities. It was transactional and pleasant.

So although it was precipitated by impulse rather than by logic or plan, sex for the first time since getting sober was a step in the right direction — toward being comfortable enough in my sobriety to enjoy something that I never really permitted myself to enjoy without the employment of alcohol and chemical aid.

As a sexual experience? I give it 4/10. It got the job done and everyone smiled at the end. As a moment of growth in my sobriety? I give it 8/10. Interpersonally, the stakes were low. But internally? I’m no longer worried about sober sex because I know it’s possible and I know it can be better. In fact, I look forward to having more of it.