Since I quit heroin I don't like sex

I want to be a good girlfriend and make my boyfriend happy, but the thought of making love turns my stomach

Published May 11, 2011 12:20AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

First of all, I just want to say that I love reading your columns. Even if I can't relate to any part of the issue being addressed, I feel like your answers are very universal, generally, and I also really like your outlook on life.

I am a 21-year-old girl (I'll be 22 in two weeks, though!) who has been in a relationship with a 25-year-old male for nearly a year now. We are very close, and have been through a lot together. (We met, both heroin addicts, in our dealer's apartment, if that gives you an idea of it ... and yes, we are both clean now.)

The problem is with our sex life. And my emotional life. Because they are apparently very intertwined. When we first started dating, we were both on drugs, so it was not difficult for me to have sex and enjoy it (to the extent that one miserably addicted to heroin can enjoy sex). We both got clean by beginning to go to the methadone clinic, which has been nothing short of a miracle for me. For the first time since my teenage years, I am functional. The methadone has a bearing on my problem, though -- I think. In the last few months I have been getting less and less interested in sex. I would say it's just a side effect of the methadone, but this happened in my last long-term relationship with a decent boyfriend as well -- during one of the times when I was not on heroin, nor had I tried methadone yet. I love him dearly, I don't want to be with anyone else, but sex makes me cringe, most of the time. I just don't want it.

I was raped as a very young teenager and then once more later in my adolescent years, and have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder due to that and some other events in my life (constant moving all over the country, an absent father and a somewhat crazed mother). Sex makes me feel so gross. It's very frustrating, as I want to be a good girlfriend and it's not fair to not have sex with my boyfriend, who I DO love and DO find attractive. He (the boyfriend) says I need to go back into therapy again, we've been talking about it for months, I just keep putting it off because I honestly don't believe that therapy will help. It hasn't helped yet; what will change now?

I was also in residential treatment centers for a good part of my adolescence, and the therapy didn't do a damn thing then. I've tried everything, it feels like. I am so frustrated generally and then angry with myself that I don't know what to do, and I feel like this is going to ruin our relationship. I have even suggested opening up the relationship so he can get his sexual needs met, but he is such a wonderful guy that he's not even kind of interested in doing something like that. So to sum up, I have a two-part question: 1. Why am I not interested in having sex with the man that I am in love with and one day hope to marry? 2. What can I do to fix all of this?

Wish I Was Interested,

Dear Wish I Was Interested,

First of all, congratulations on getting off heroin. What you are going through now, this is not the way it's going to be the whole time. It gets better.

Here's what I think. There's a reason we use drugs. We might think we're having fun in the beginning, but many of us who become addicts are using drugs not just for fun but to control our own emotional pain. It's not surprising that we try to do this. It makes sense. Who wants to suffer, to feel fear and anxiety all the time, to have to deal with the recurrent thoughts and memories from traumatic experiences? Who wants to have to live with all that going on? So heroin works well to calm all that down. So do alcohol and other drugs.

When we stop using drugs we find our lives are full of stuff. It's overwhelming!

It's like we're living in this room with a million boxes all still sealed up and piled all around us over our heads, blocking out the windows and doors. So we begin to unpack. Slowly. Most of it we'd rather leave in the boxes but it's like the boxes are piled up all around us and we're stuck in this tiny room and until we open the boxes and unpack them one by one we can't get out of the room. We hear voices outside and have the feeling it's a sunny day out there and people are having a great time but we're in here with all these boxes and inside some of them are very painful memories. So for a while we just sit there and try to catch our breath. Luckily, we find when we stop using drugs that we can sit in a room quietly and know that for now things are OK. We learn to catch little moments where everything is just OK right now. Plus, it helps that we can't really get out of the room anyway. So we learn to sit and breathe, and nobody is forcing us to open the boxes before we're ready.

But eventually, we begin opening the boxes. Now the best way to do it, I think, is with a partner -- a therapist or recovery sponsor. Because we need a structure, a plan, a way to open each box, and a plan for what to do with the contents of each box. That's why there is therapy and the 12 steps.

The good thing is, the number of boxes is not infinite. It can seem like they are infinite, but in reality, you can count them and see that eventually you can unpack every box. And luckily, new boxes are not being delivered. Well, a few. But not like before. And mostly it's stuff you can deal with right away. Most of this older stuff, which some people call the wreckage of our past, was created and boxed up when we were hanging out in our dealer's apartment, or being moved around the country and not being taken care of properly, and stuff like that.

Getting over a traumatic early life and years of drug addiction takes some time. Along the way there are difficulties. One of the things we accept is that we don't come out perfect. We've had some damage. Every person's damage is different but we all take some hits. And we all go through difficulties. So the thing to do in recovery is accept that we all have some damage and some difficulties and we stick together through our difficulties. We talk about them. We bring them into rooms full of other people with difficulties and we all look at them together, baffled and compassionate, and we say, Yep, you got troubles, I got troubles, what it is. And that seems to help. And the same thing with a therapist.

You go sit with the therapist and it does seem at times that nothing is happening because you're just explaining what it was like and the therapist sometimes is just going yep, yep, what it is. And that doesn't seem like much.

But what it is is something we never got as children, something very simple and seemingly dumb, which is clear, compassionate witness. That's all it is. But it's holy. It's a very deep and important thing. It's just someone else being a compassionate witness to our lives. I can barely  express how important this is, and how easily overlooked -- because the therapist isn't getting in there like a surgeon cutting things out and rearranging. It turns out that's not what we need. What we need is compassionate and engaged witness. And that can change our lives. It can give us dignity and self-respect and love for ourselves and for the world.

The therapeutic moment is an opportunity. The therapist doesn't do it. We do it. It comes from within. We use that time to allow ourselves to come to awareness in a way that we couldn't before. We didn't know what we were or what we needed. We left the care of childhood as damaged, frightened, confused young people. The only thing that seemed to work was drugs. But then that stopped working. And so here we are, raw and bewildered, but getting through it. 

I understand how you feel, that therapy didn't help. But in this period of recovering from addiction, we learn to look at it a little differently. We need a new idea of help. We discover that our old idea of "help" was the kind of "help" we got from drugs. Therapy doesn't help the way a shot of heroin helps. It isn't as fast. It's slower and often not as dramatic. But it's longer-lasting.

When it seems to us, looking back, that therapy never helped, we pause to consider what we would have been like in those periods if we hadn't had it at all. Maybe we would have been much worse. Maybe we would have been murdered, or committed suicide, if at those moments there hadn't been that intervention. Sure, we had these therapists saying stuff that sounded ridiculous, trying to help us but obviously not getting it. But maybe it did just enough good to keep us alive until we could get to this moment where we're clean, and we have a chance.

You don't have a chance when you're hooked. Now at least you have a chance.

It's hard. It's very hard to have had our early lives interrupted in the ways they have been interrupted, to be the victim of violence and abuse, to be mistreated and neglected as children, to be carted around like so much baggage, as if we didn't have a voice or didn't matter to the adults in our lives. It is very hard to face that we were robbed of childhood, that it wasn't the way it was supposed to be for us. And so we find refuge in the apartment of the dealer, where for a few hours each day we're with others who seek the same refuge, and we feel OK for a few hours every day.

But of course that doesn't work. So we have to find a whole new way of dealing with life. And you have started that. You have started a new way of dealing with life. And lots of things are not going to make sense. And it's going to come slowly. The sex part is going to come slowly. Lots of people in early recovery find their sex lives do not return quickly. The process of recovery and the drugs you take during your recovery affect your sex life.

Everything doesn't just come rushing back. It doesn't just go back to the way it was or the way you want it to be. That's not what happens.

What happens is that we start trudging down the road. Does that have any meaning for you, that phrase, "trudging down the road"? Maybe not. But it has a peculiar resonance for me.

It's a long-term thing. In your early 20s, it's hard to picture a long-term thing. But that's what life is. Life is a long-term thing. And you've just begun yours.

So the sex is troubling you. That's OK. Don't be afraid. It will come back. All the things you dream of will come to you. It's just not going to happen right this second. Right this second, you're sitting in a room full of boxes, and they have to be unpacked before you can get out of the room. Outside there's sunlight and friendship and love and people are waiting for you. They're not going anywhere. They'll be there. You don't have to hurry. All you have to do is start unpacking the boxes. But don't start until you're ready, and don't start until you have someone there with you to help you, to witness the gifts and the horrors. Yes, there will be some horrors. But listen, some of these boxes contain marvelous and forgotten treasures. It's not just all a bunch of pain and junk and horror in there. There are lots of treasures in these boxes that you've neglected or forgotten. There's a whole lifetime in there.

Everything you deserve will come, and what was taken from you will be returned. It just takes time.

January 2011 Creative Getaway

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