The past few months have been extremely busy and I have been traveling a lot which has made it difficult to post weekly recovery blogs. My last entry was on the importance of taking the risk to share the vulnerable feelings you are most frightened to share – especially in early recovery. That story was also written in conjunction with a live video public discussion I was hosting with Dan Griffin on SEX IN RECOVERY for the website www.intherooms.com. Now a second SEX IN RECOVERY discussion is set for October 17th at 9pm EST so you’re about to read yet another blog entry on sex. The style is more along the lines I post on my www.pattypowers.blogspot.com blog (since it’s more of a personal story than a “recovery tips” piece) but hopefully the recovery stuff in it resonates okay for this blog. Anyway, this is my “warning – sexual content” disclaimer.
“After everything I‘ve lived through, I’d feel ridiculous if I tested HIV-positive because I had lousy sex one afternoon with someone I decided I hated an hour later.” This was my contribution to a Safe Sex public service announcement on Canadian television in the early 90s.
I’m lucky I was living with my husband in New York from ’82 until ’87. This meant one sexual partner. And because he wasn’t an addict, I took extra care to clean my syringes with bleach. I say “lucky” because during those years, my exposure to the AIDS virus was minimal, if any. However, as soon as the marriage ended, my old self-destructive reckless nature took over. The year we split up I took risks with needles that, when I flash back on certain situations, haunt me to this day. Thankfully, by then I was so deep into my addiction sex no longer interested me.
No one was more surprised than I was when I managed to miraculously come out of New York’s needle-sharing early-80s HIV-negative, especially considering people I shared needles with before I was married started dying from the virus in 1983. Not only did I survive the times – I managed to get clean. It was now my responsibility to remain HIV-negative. This meant using condoms.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Except for one thing – I had no experience using condoms. When I became sexually active, the only fear connected to sex was unwanted pregnancy. This was back in the day when cocaine “wasn’t addictive” and sex couldn’t kill you. STDs came and went but that was just how it was in the 70s- nothing that a few days of antibiotics ccouldn’tcure. At 14 I went on the pill. At 28 I had to start using condoms.
The first thing I did when I got clean was to go off the pill. This was my strategy: I knew my commitment to birth control would keep condom use in the forefront of my mind in case my judgment fell to the wayside. I didn’t know then that I wasn’t prepared emotionally for the responsibility of safe sex. It meant having the self-esteem and confidence to hold a firm line – condoms or no sex. Newcomer flesh is weak.
I’m an addict. This means if something can change the way I feel, I start negotiating with myself. How high is the risk? What is considered low risk on a scale of no risk and high-risk behavior? If he says he’s been tested, do I believe him because he is in recovery? Can the pull out method really work? What about not swallowing- is that low risk or no risk? I took all my questions to my gay male friends since they were the only ones who seemed safe sex aware. It never occurred to me that, they too, would be renegotiating terms with themselves. Just because we were all in recovery, didn’t mean we played by the rules. We hadn’t ever played by any rules before recovery. We were all facing new life and death choices yet safe sex was a subject rarely discussed.
When I decided to get clean, I chose life. It was that simple. I understood that unsafe sex was suicidal behavior and could never slip into denial about this fact. Any time I took any sort of risk – whether it was choosing pull out method over condoms or going on the pill too early in a relationship to know if I could trust my partner to be faithful, my gut always let me know when I screwed up. There is nothing worse than having a headful of recovery and carrying the inner turmoil and disappointment over failing myself once again.
Other than my sexual partners, I wondered if I was the only one slipping up. Was everybody talking the talk really walking the walk?
If I spoke about my feelings connected to bad decisions I made during sex, people shifted in their seats, women searched through their handbags. Everyone sent out the vibe for me to shut up. I was single and freewheeling. Many of my friends had the “commitment talk” after the second or third date. I met a lot of serial monogamists in short-term relationships who didn’t use condoms. Friends began getting pregnant. It felt like I was the only one speaking openly about feelings that came up whenever I acted out in low risk sexual behavior. I was trying hard to remain open and honest.
Early in recovery I went to the LGBT Center for an AIDS test. The doctor was very clear – there was safe sex and there was unsafe sex. The degrees of high and low risk behavior didn’tcount. The truth will set you free and an absence of denial will torment you until you become willing to change.
Change came for me through honest sharing and outside help. As my self-respect and self-esteem developed in certain areas of my life, I abandoned myself less in others. Personal experience has taught me that I am most at risk of screwing up when I have incredible sexual chemistry with someone. The experience is too transformative – like a drug- and it’s easy for me to start engaging in risky behaviors. The other is when I start to fall for someone. The “high” from feeling romantically “swept away” can impair my judgment. In both cases I must remain vigilant and practice safe sex no matter what my brain and body want to negotiate.
I used to think that safe sex was difficult for those of us who became sexually active before the onset of AIDS but I think it is simply difficult for addicts because of our destructive nature. We change and heal gradually through the recovery process. If you aren’t having safe sex start talking about it – there is no shame in wanting your actions to mirror the self worth we strive for in recovery.
We come into recovery with our individual stories. It has taken me personally a lot of work and a long time to integrate sex and emotional intimacy. Change came slowly because the thrill seeking persona I held onto didn’t leave much room for growth in this area. I will say it was fun when it was working but when it stopped, it was because I had changed. Sometimes I miss the old me and sometimes I feel like I’m still in the middle of a transformation and the best is yet to come.