Originally published in Pittsburgh City Paper.
Every September, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration sponsors Recovery Month in order “to increase awareness and celebrate successes of those in recovery.” One of the things that is often left out of conversations during this month, however, is the particular challenges related to sex that often accompany recovery. In order to bring some of these issues to light, I reached out to Jennifer Matesa, licensed social worker, psychotherapist, and author of Sex in Recovery: A Meeting Between the Covers.
Tell me a little about your journey and what lead you to writing the book.
In 2013 Hazelden [addiction advocacy organization] saw my blog and journalism about addiction issues, and they asked me to write a book about physical recovery from addiction. When I went across the country to speak about that book, all the questions were about the chapter on sexuality. So when Hazelden said, “What’s your next book going to be?” I said, “We have to do a book about sex in recovery. Because nobody talks about it. And everyone wants to.”
Why do you think it is important to talk about sex during recovery?
When you use substances, it affects your sexual response, and when you quit using them, your sexual response changes again, and people don’t know what the hell is going on. People want to know whether they’re “normal,” and I wanted to dispel this idea that there is any “normal” out there. There is your experience, and it’s yours, and you are entitled to have it and explore it.
I have heard that 12-step programs like AA discourage sex in early recovery. Is that correct? If so, is this a barrier to recovery for some folks?
When I interviewed people across the country, I found out that the message is different in different regions. Some regions tell newcomers, “No sex with new people for a year.” Other regions tell newcomers, “No new relationships for a year.” It’s a huge barrier, especially to young people. They come to a meeting and hear, “You can’t have sex for a year,” they’re like, “Fuck that,” and leave. The time-limit is also super arbitrary. I think recovery is about finding out who you are, and this applies to your sexuality, too. That said, waiting for a while until your body settles and heals is a good idea. And exploring sexuality with yourself can help you find out your desires and responses.
How did sex change before and after becoming sober for the people you interviewed? What about for yourself?
In 2008, I quit using opioids, in particular fentanyl, and I still had estrogen at that time, so my sexuality came roaring back. I didn’t know what was happening to me. Big-time opioids dampen the sexual response and make it impossible to feel desire or have [an] orgasm. When you go into withdrawal syndrome, however, you can have spontaneous orgasms. I interviewed one young man who, in early recovery, had sex with three different women every day and also had spontaneous orgasms with no stimulation. As the body heals, sexual response evens out.
On the other hand, I also interviewed folks who had quit stimulants like meth or crack whose dopamine systems had been wrecked, and it takes these folks much longer to recover their sexual response. The same case with the folks who had used alcohol. That’s why I wrote the book — to educate people about what they can expect.
What do you think it is important for people to know about sex when they are just getting sober?
That maybe it’s an overwhelming response, or maybe it feels as if your pleasure will never come back, but the body and mind have enormous innate capacity for healing. If I have a “higher power,” it’s that. Be patient. Be mindful.