Here is a truth that needs to be universally acknowledged: we hurt others, and others hurt us.
For more than a year, I've been participating in live worldwide video chats about sex in recovery. I've been putting out feelers online about sexual politics and the ways they affect recovery. As I listen to people online and in real-life interviews, many of the stories I've heard about sexual harms and amends address two basic themes:
In other words: we hurt others, and others hurt us.
When we hurt others, and when we no longer use drugs or behaviors to numb our emotions, we might feel the kind of remorse and self-recrimination expressed in the first theme above. We feel afraid of continuing to hurt others, and we resent ourselves because of our past actions.
When others hurt us, and we no longer numb our emotions, we might feel like walling ourselves off from the rest of humanity. We think, "Maybe I'm just incapable of being in a relationship." We may not even believe that, but we feed that thought anyway, because we think it keeps us safer than looking for what we want, which is to find connection with an- other human being as expressed in the second theme. We're so afraid of not finding that connection—and paradoxically, maybe we're also simultaneously afraid of finding it—that we decide it's better just to stay away from everyone.
Both these attitudes are grounded in self-loathing, and in denial of a truth of human experience, which is that we hurt each other. And some of those hurts—some of the biggest, most painful hurts—are sexual. Part of recovery is learning how to negotiate that fact without turning around and hurting ourselves, so that we can live with peace of mind.
The best way to make amends isn't just to apologize, but to change the hurtful behavior. But if you Google "making sexual amends," you come up with half a million results, the vast majority on the topic of sex addiction. But we're not talking here about sex addiction—we're talking about making sexual amends inside recovery from addiction to alcohol and other drugs.
So how do we do that? There are as many ways recovery can lead a person to change their behavior with regard to sex as there are individuals.
Samuel, for example, no longer uses porn or participates in the economy of sex-for-pay. Dré no longer uses women strictly for his own sexual satisfaction, or for street cred among his friends. He, Joseph, and Maria Luz are HIV positive and they all make amends to themselves by taking the medications that keep them healthy and by discussing their health with potential partners.
Being honest with partners about HIV could feel degrading, but carried out with an attitude of honesty, it becomes an act of humility—of deep knowledge and acceptance of oneself. This builds self-respect.
So the process of amends has the power to lead us away from self-denigration, self-hatred, and other caustic attitudes that might make us want to numb our feelings. When we live in an attitude of humility and self-respect, we're less likely to want to use. We strengthen our ability to help others.
The subject of amends is raised throughout the book, Sex In Recovery, as people talk about the sexual harms they've inflicted on others and themselves. I hope these stories will open the way for you to imagine how you might find peace with the deeply human experience of having harmed others. For the people I spoke with, that process usually began with talking honestly with at least one other person about the damage they thought they'd done and imagining ways of changing their behavior for the better.
To begin with, many of the people I talked with were directed to write lists of people they'd treated in sexually selfish ways. Sometimes the lists themselves, if they were extensive, presented opportunities that were hard to resist. "When I did my sex inventory, I seriously wanted to text everybody on that list," one young man told me. "My sponsor was like, 'What are you trying to get out of contacting all these people? You can't do that. That's not what this list is for.' I'd tricked myself into thinking I'd just say hi and see how they were. It was for nothing good! I wanted them all to see how awesome I look now. I was just going to pick them all up."
Since delusion, distortion of the truth and outright lying are part and parcel of addiction, one of the ways we hurt others is by breaking our commitments to them and then lying about it or hiding it. I spoke with several people who had experienced infidelity on one side or the other. Hearing about, or admitting, infidelity can fracture trust between two people and damage self-esteem individually, even if amends are made and the couple manages to stay together.
Diana, sixty-two, talks about her childhood sexual abuse. She later had lots of compulsive sex to control her feelings about being abused. "I was engaged two times before I met my husband, Paul," she said. "I had multiple affairs while I was engaged to those other men. I'd just go out and bring somebody home pretty much every weekend. But I wanted to find some normality, and Paul seemed like the right guy for the job. So my intentions in marrying Paul were probably pretty crappy to begin with."
She learned about her intentions by practicing recovery principles and talking with people she trusts, including her therapist, friends, and sponsors.
Like many people I talked with who committed infidelity—who, as one person put it, were "infidels"—Diana's compulsion to cheat didn't disappear after she got married. "Sexually, my husband has always been terrific," she said. "But in looking back after I got sober, there were twenty years during our marriage when I never had sex with Paul when I wasn't drunk or using something. That's how our relationship started out, right out of the gate. We used and drank together. We did drugs together, too, but he was a slacker compared to me. It became kind of a joke—'Oh boy, Diana's drunk tonight, we can have sex.' We had a lot of sex when we first met, and then our sex life started to hit the rocks. So I looked for it elsewhere. I had two affairs outside of my marriage. It started probably ten years in. Paul was traveling a lot, and one night I went to a bar, and I knew the bartender there, and I just got fucked up and went back to his place. And then a friend of ours came to visit, and he stayed at the house, and I pretty much targeted him, too.
"When I started cheating like that, I really went off the rails with my addiction. I constantly drank to blackout. I'd leave the house in the middle of the night and go looking for drugs. I had a dealer in a nearby neighborhood. I'd spend a lot of time between my house and there. When I couldn't get anything there, I'd go pretty often to an alley in a rough part of town where I knew someone would get me coke, Quaaludes, crank, Vicodin to fuck me up. And I drank constantly. On top of what I bought on the street, I drank a fifth of vodka a day.
"I would do sexually inappropriate things all the time, and always when I was drunk. Like, I threw myself onto my sister's boyfriend. It got to the point that Paul didn't even want to have sex with me when I was drunk."
I asked Diana whether she's ever told her husband about these other men.
"He never knew I was with other people. I never told him. He still doesn't know. There's that phrase, 'Made direct amends except when to do so would injure them or others'? If I told him, it would crush him. Especially since he knew some of these guys."
She said that once she got into recovery, her husband supported her by going to therapy with her and driving her to meetings. Many people are not fortunate enough to find partners who are willing to support their recovery. Should she have admitted her infidelity to her partner? That's a decision she made for herself, and that each of us has to make for ourselves. In making amends, we may consider that humility asks us not to make ourselves the star of a destructive drama: "I'm an addict, and here is the damage I did to you!" It's also important to keep in mind that we can't turn back the clock and make life as it was before addiction—that's a fantasy. We live in real time.
Excerpted from Sex in Recovery: A Meeting Between the Covers, by Jennifer Matesa.