I had one big
fear when I was in treatment for my alcoholism,” said Barbara,
an attractive brunette in her late thirties.
going home and sleeping with my husband, Mike.”
Don’t get the
wrong idea. It’s not that Barbara disliked her husband. She loved
him. But to Mike, sex was an important part of their marriage
— in many ways the most important part. And he let Barbara know
that he’d missed it while she was gone.
In fact, she
planned to reject Mike’s advances. “I detested the thought
of having sex with him,” she said.
years I’d taken care of his needs, burying my resentments in
a bottle. Now that I was sober, I couldn’t bear the thought of
meeting his demands.”
..Sex & Recovery
an icy oddball, a woman so warped by sexual hang ups that she’ll
never be able to carry on a loving relationship with a man? Is
she different from other women struggling to recover from alcoholism?
to Jean Kirkpatrick, author and founder of Women for Sobriety,
a national self-help group for alcoholic women.
ago, Kirkpatrick broke open the secret world of alcoholic women
in Turnabout, a brutally honest diary of her own drinking days.
recovery — and the stories told by Women for Sobriety members
— Kirkpatrick discovered that sexuality is often the one of
the rawest areas of a recovering woman’s shredded self-esteem.
that, for many women, drug and drinking problems are sexual problems
this pamphlet is all about.
In it, we’ll
explore many of the issues of love and sexuality that come up
for women in recovery from alcoholism and other forms of chemical
to women share their breakdowns and breakthroughs, and we’ll
suggest ways to rebuild relationships and renew self-esteem.
We hope you’ll
stay with us. Because sex plays a major role for many women who
become chemically dependent. And to break its hold, it’s necessary
to understand its pull.
..Abuse & Intimacy
So what, exactly,
does sex have to do with alcoholism and drug dependence?
A lot. That’s
because sexual fears and insecurities can be the engine that
drives a woman’s drinking or drug use. And many professionals
point to early sexual abuse as the place where those anxieties
In fact, experts
now recognize childhood sexual abuse as a risk factor in all
forms of drug dependence. Some estimate that as many as half
of all female patients in treatment have been raped or abused,
while a third are victims of incest.
abuse is particularly damaging to feelings of self-worth. Helen,
a 37-year-old nurse who was abused by her stepfather, tells her
men terrified me,” she admits, “but I learned young
that a sweet smile and playing it passive protected me from male
anger. So I went along with whatever my date wanted. My sexual
escapades didn’t bother me when I was drinking, but I’d wake
up with overwhelming feelings of guilt. And I’d drink more to
numb my feelings.”
learned to relate to men as friends and equals — or even as
people. But like many abused women, she did learn that drinking
could blot away the shame and insecurity — at least for a little
is a major barrier to alcoholism recovery. Sexual stereotypes
all the advances made by women in the past 20 years, gender roles
are still alive and kicking in America today.
visible at home, where women are still the primary care-givers,
putting the needs of men and children ahead of their own. In
the process, their own need for support and intimacy gets neglected
— or forgotten.
But in treatment,
a woman gets a different message: You have to start taking care
of your own needs. You have to put yourself first. Your recovery
depends on it.
It’s a double-whammy
that hits a recovering woman hard. Now preserving her sobriety
— and her sanity — involves more than merely reshaping the
habits of her drug or drinking days. It requires transforming
the attitudes of a lifetime.
been sober for three years, speaks from experience.
needs always came before my own. I thought that was the way marriage
was supposed to be. His job was to support me and my job was
to make him happy.
I came out of treatment I felt like a complete failure, as a
wife and as a woman. I couldn’t see how my husband could like
me, much less love me. But I desperately wanted to be more than
a warm body in bed beside him.”
divorce before Jim agreed to counseling. Today he says it saved
I thought the problem was entirely hers, but it was both of us,”
he recalls. “Our sex life still isn’t all I’d like it to
be, but we’re working on it together. And sex is better when
both people are enjoying it.”
..Women Without Partners
programs now recognize that it takes two to repair a relationship
strained by years of chemical abuse. But what about women without
partners? How do they deal with sex after sobriety?
by not talking about it.
Dana, a 30-year-old
divorcee, completed a three-week stay at a well-known hospital.
The program discussed sex briefly during one film, then ignored
it for the rest of treatment.
was a man,” she says. “He was nice and we talked about
other things, but you know how it is. And there were six men
in my treatment group. I certainly wasn’t going to talk about
my most intimate secrets in front of them!”
But Dana needed
to talk about her sex life. Avoiding it left her poorly prepared
to cultivate relationships that didn’t revolve around singles
clubs and drinking. Within months she’d slipped from her hard-earned
argues that unless treatment addresses both dependency and sexuality,
many recovering women risk relapse with every close romantic
Recovering women need to talk about their guilt and anger before
they can heal. They need to learn to recognize the patterns of
feeling that drive them to drink. Only then are they ready for
new relationships — or rekindling an old romance.
..Recovering & Rebuilding
So how does
a recovering woman begin?
suggests that a woman in recovery concentrate on building her
confidence and self-image before building up her sex life. And
many women are better off waiting six months — or as long as
a year — before beginning a new sexual relationship.
a woman with an established sex partner supposed to do with him
in the meantime? Ignore him? Fake it ’till she makes it?
focus first on sharing time and feelings together before jumping
back into bed — and their old, unsettled sex life, says Kirkpatrick.
And sex therapy is a good starting point.
Frank, a 40-year-old
salesman shares his experience: “When my wife came out of
treatment, I thought all our problems were over. But emotionally,
she was still in a million pieces.
a painful process for both of us. I’d always considered myself
a skilled lover. It floored me when she said I was clumsy and
selfish and she’d been faking her orgasms!
agreed to sex therapy. Now, after years of marriage, we’ve learned
to communicate our needs to each other. It hasn’t been easy,
but it’s been worth it.”
it. You can’t run away from sex — unless you’re running in the
direction of a convent.
And while many
women may feel like doing just that in recovery, it’s better
to put sex in context: as a part of the mix of feelings and factors
that make up the whole person.
and other alcoholism counselors recommend that we start by learning
about our own bodies and feelings. Books — like Our Bodies,
Ourselves (by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective)
— can help ease fears that sexual feelings are abnormal or strange.
We also need
to learn what we like sexually.
should treat herself sensuously, take bubble baths, learn how
to treat her body as if it is her lover,” they advise. “Only
then can she teach her lover how to please her.”
Not really. Because just as there’s more to alcoholism recovery
than not drinking, there’s more to sexuality than just sex.
And the woman
who discovers that sex can be a bridge to intimacy, satisfaction,
and a strong self-image is likely to find deeper, more honest
relationships — sexual and otherwise — at the other end.
The man who
finds such a woman may have little luck in bending her to his
whims, but he’ll be happier than the men who used to push her
..Sidebar | For
are created equal. Some are just created faster than others.
Women, for instance.
In fact, recent
studies confirm just how wide the gender gap is when it comes
Over the past
few years researchers have identified the enzyme that protects
men from getting too drunk, too fast. Women have less of it,
so we get intoxicated quicker and stay that way longer.
learned that alcohol hits women harder: We develop liver damage
sooner and are more likely to die from it than male drinkers.
The gap goes
for treatment, too, says Jean Kirkpatrick. She believes women
feel more shame and guilt over their drinking and need extra
help feeling good about themselves again. “Recovering women
don’t have an image of themselves as individuals,” she explains.
“They have no self-esteem, no self-value.”
is “women-only” support groups, like the Women for
Sobriety program Kirkpatrick founded. The groups help women regain
their confidence in a safe environment — a process Kirkpatrick
believes is critical to full recovery.
Julie, a WFS
member, agrees. “Treatment and AA meetings got me sober,
but they didn’t deal with the problems I have as a woman. When
I’m with other women, I can really let my hair down. For the
first time I don’t feel like some terrible misfit.”
For more information,
contact: Women for Sobriety, Box 618, Quakertown, PA 18951, (215)