The Really Tough Words That Lead to More Tough Words: Sex, Pleasure, Feelings

The importance of not numbing out feelings


When I was on a ton of painkillers, it was hard for me to feel sexual pleasure. I rarely wanted sex, and I had lots of trouble having orgasms. The fact that I couldn't come worried me, and I strategized to see if I could fix the problem. My approach was to do what Charlotte did in that Sex and the City episode where she holes up in her apartment one entire weekend with her vibrator. Thinking (naturally) that all my solutions came from outside me, I told myself, That's the answer—I need that vibrator. Not just a vibrator, but that one. As if a sitcom could solve any problem for me, I ordered Charlotte's rabbit-vibrator toy.

What my little experiment taught me was that this battery-powered silicone miracle machine with rotating pearls and twitching ears could not give me pleasure, even when I cranked it onto the highest setting. My body was too numb. But I also discovered that if I were at any level of withdrawal from the painkillers, I could have multiple orgasms.

I'd never had multiple orgasms before. I basically thought they were an urban legend. (Some scientists also think they're an urban legend. See the chapter on Sexual Surrender for more about what a neuroscientist told me about multiple orgasms.) So I kind of didn't believe in them— that is, until I had my first bunch of three or four. Finding out I could have multiple orgasms became an incentive for me to quit drugs and get into recovery. But my Catholic upbringing got in the way: a big part of me still thought my strong sexual response made me dirty. My mother raised me to think of sex as sinful until somehow, with the flick of a holy switch somewhere, it became okay during marriage. To use the words of Joe and Charlie, the late leaders of renowned Big Book workshops, she'd taught me it was "a dirty filthy rotten thing . . . and you should save it for the one you love." I empathize with Therèse, who tells a story in this book about feeling she has to choose between Jesus and her boyfriend. People have names for sex outside marriage: "premarital sex" and "fornication," or "adultery"—terms I've never used with my own son, but I've inflicted them on myself. For many of us, from earliest memory, human sexual response has been tied up and weighed down with negative labels and judgments.

In the end, my sexual response shone a light to guide my way. The discovery that my body could experience much more pleasure than I'd imagined was life-altering. In my active addiction, with my suppressed sexuality, I'd begun to feel that maybe I was killing a part of myself that was normal, natural, and good, a part that had been given to me at my creation—a kind of life-force.

After I detoxed, post-acute withdrawal syndrome knocked me flat for a long time. Still, I could feel my sexual desire. And I didn't know how to handle that, partly because I had totally hidden my worry about my lack of response from my then husband. All of a sudden, for the first time in my adult life, I had lots of desire for sex. But like some of the women in this book, I wasn't used to having sex without manipulating my responses with drugs. Also, like many women in this society, I didn't think the purpose of sex was to please me. I thought my job in bed was to please my partner—another way of approaching sexuality that I'd learned growing up in my Catholic family. "I don't need to come," I'd say. I said it so much for so long that by the end of my addiction, I had convinced both of us.

Such intense pleasure, and the desire for pleasure, is a sign that our bodies are healing. It's the numbness that's part of the sickness. "When I was drunk, there was something so barreling about me. There's no nuance. So much of sex is about the softness, the light touch, the pleasure," Sarah Hepola, author of Blackout, told me. "But toward the end, I was having guys pull my hair. Part of that desire for roughness was a desire for sensation, because I had numbed myself out so much. When you were as drunk as I was, when you have sex, you've anesthetized yourself, even though these are the most sensitive parts of your body. I really felt like, ‘Push me against the wall. Throw me over the bed. Pull my hair.' I liked people being rough with me."

When we drink and use, sometimes we numb ourselves for so long that we don't know what would really please us. When we get sober, we may have a lot to learn about what kinds of pleasure we like.

Numbing Pleasure and Other Feelings

People who don't understand addiction think we used drugs to feel pleasure. People who understand addiction know that we often used drugs to numb our feelings. But neither we nor the drugs are smart enough to choose which feelings to numb. Pain and pleasure are just two sides of one coin, so along with numbing the pain of feelings like fear and anger, we also numb feelings of pleasure.

What exactly is pleasure, anyway? Sex educator Emily Nagoski says, simply, "It's what feels good." Pleasure is not the same as sexual desire, which Nagoski says is often mistakenly used as a measure of sexual well-being. Desire is psychological, but pleasure is physical: our body's ability to feel and enjoy sensations. "Pleasure is the single best measure of sexual well-being we've got," Nagoski writes on her blog. "Pleasure is the measure. Focus on sensation, and do more of what feels good, less of what doesn't feel good."

To be a bit more specific about what it means when we talk about what we "feel": there are sensations, as Nagoski notes, and then there are the stories we tell ourselves about those sensations. For example, if I were to stick my hand over a candle flame, I might do two things:
  • I feel the burn. That's the sensation.
  • I start almost immediately to tell myself the story of the burn. I label it: I say it hurts; I'm in pain; I'm suffering. Pain and suffering are feelings. But then I start building feeling on feeling, story on story: "This burning feeling might never end. I better never do this again." And worse: "What an idiot! I should be ashamed of myself. I hate myself."
It might feel awesome to use a drug to numb the feelings that come from the story we tell ourselves about the sensation. But using a drug would also numb any sensation of pleasure we might feel. To give an example in the sexual realm: I go on a date, we're attracted to each other, and we go back to my place and start making out. I might do two things:
  • I might feel super turned on. My heart might be racing and my skin might be flushed. I'm hot. That's the sensation.
  • Then I tell myself the story of the sensation. I label it: "I don't know this person well. This is a hookup. I feel ashamed." Shame is a feeling. But instead of inquiring into the shame and trying to let go of the judgment behind it, I allow it to control me by labeling myself: "Good people don't have one night stands. I must be bad."
We sometimes hear people say, "I used drugs because they worked, until they didn't anymore." Drugs actually work. They numb feelings so we don't have to inquire into them. They distract and make us not care about the stories our minds write. They stop working when the pain of the damage they wreak outweighs their benefits. In active addiction, that damage shows up in distortion of the truth like the ones illustrated above, and in obsession about the drugs on which we've come to rely as our solution to the unexamined feelings. And the damage also includes all the harm the drugs do to the tissues of the body.

So it's important to learn how to inquire into our feelings rather than numbing them out. Shame and judgment are some of those "old ideas" that we have to let go of absolutely, or the result will be nil. It's better to look into the shame and talk with somebody about it, and Steps Four and Five can help us do that.

Excerpted from Sex in Recovery: A Meeting Between the Covers, by Jennifer Matesa. Listen to the recorded webinar with Jennifer Matesa, "Allowing Ourselves to Be Vulnerable and Honest about Sex in Recovery."

Join the discussion on social with #sobersex or #SexInRecovery. Follow Jen on Twitter @Guinevere64, on Facebook @jennifermatesaauthor, or join a community, Recovery for Life Facebook Group.

Jennifer Matesa headshot, Hazelden Publishing author of The Recovering Body and Sex in RecoveryJennifer Matesa, a seasoned health writer, authors the award-winning blog Guinevere Gets Sober, her books include the recently released Sex in Recovery and The Recovering Body. Jennifer also contributes regularly to In 2013 she became a fellow of the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Jennifer lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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