Sex In Recovery
Sex, nakedness, orgasms...these were all off limits. I’m not entirely sure why because I didn’t grow up with messages that sex was a bad thing. I do remember my sister and my mum feeling comfortable walking around naked, whereas I would never have done that. Even from a young age I felt embarrassed about being stripped of my clothes. My eating disorder began in my late teens, a time when the hormones usually kick in, and you are beginning to explore your sexual self. My anorexia positively crushed these feelings. I lost my virginity at 16 in the most unattractive of ways...in the back of a friend’s garden with a guy I had barely spoken to. I’m not proud of this, and there were humiliating consequences which I’ll refrain from detailing, but it set a precedent for what was to follow. I’m not entirely sure of the number of people I have slept with. This is by no means a statement that I’m proud of, and is partly because I just haven’t given it much thought before now, but is something I feel worthy of sharing before I continue. I’m 36 and have only ever had two meaningful relationships; the first with a guy at university and my current boyfriend. The rest were brief encounters. I’m not necessarily talking about one-night stands, but guys I met and in transient stages of their life. Each experience shared a common theme; inequality. By this I mean I was mostly the subservient player, it was often on their terms both sexually and emotionally. I put their worth and value above my own. Their needs and satisfaction in bed was more important than my own. This had consistently been my experience of men, until I met my current partner. Now that I am in recovery, I’m not entirely surprised that my behaviour with the opposite sex took this path. Alongside the meaningless liasons, I also experienced a pretty hideous sexual attack in a foreign country to add to my fear and mistrust of men and their intentions. I had an innate feeling of being ‘less than.’ I have written in the past about my need for approval and acceptance from others. I demonstrated this by being a people pleaser at all costs. I was the giver and never the receiver when it came to pleasure in-between the sheets, and I thought this was normal. It’s the guy that needs to be satisfied right? As long they have had a good time, then I’ve done my job. I never really enjoyed sex, it wasn’t something I cared much for and was always a physical act, with little sense of closeness with the other person. I am in no doubt that my low weight switched off my hormones, resulting in zero sexual desire. Eating fat is necessary for the production of estrogen, a vital sex hormone in women, and without it…sex was easy to forgo. My sexual relationship with myself and others has changed massively in the past few years, for which I owe a great deal to my current boyfriend. I realised that my readiness to be so dismissive of relationships was very much down to fear of being rejected at an emotional level. I attracted men who only were only after one thing and that suited my eating disorder. If I didn’t let them into my emotional self, then they couldn’t hurt me; they couldn’t dismiss or leave me. I wasn’t hugely keen on being seen naked, but my avoidance went much deeper than my physical self; I didn’t want to be ‘seen’ at all. I have never ‘needed’ a partner and have always enjoyed my own space and time, but since being with my boyfriend I have realized the absolute joy of being part of a team in ways I never imagined possible. It has taken me until my 30s to find someone who makes no judgement on me, excites and motivates me, shows me love and support, and never leaves me wondering or questioning my belonging. He has also shown me what it feels like to enjoy sex on equal ground, to feel close to someone, and to enjoy sex with myself without shame. The latter has been a work in progress; I felt embarrassed, ashamed and disgusted at the thought of masturbating, but I now realize that it is a really big part of my recovery and self-discovery as a woman; something my eating disorder prevented me from embracing. When we first began dating I didn’t even know how to answer the question “what do you like?” I didn’t know myself because, no one had ever asked me before. I had read many articles where both men and women said that in order to have ‘good sex’ you have to know what you like yourself; I wondered what they meant by that…I felt so awkward at the thought of touching myself. I googled what it felt like to have an orgasm…again I didn’t know. I wondered if I had something wrong with me, because even in the very beginning I couldn’t. My boyfriend didn’t rush me or place any pressure on me, he was just patient…and then it happened. Valentines Day a few years ago and with the help of a pink rabbit, I finally felt the insane pleasure that women describe. I have discovered that sex can be simultaneously exhilarating and tender. I still feel emotional when I think about that moment; someone had finally taken the time to meet my needs and I finally felt able to let go and trust enough for it to happen. I felt liberated. I no longer felt the odd one out. Since then I have gradually let go of the shame around my body and being intimate. The ramifications of my eating disorder no longer haunt me as they used to. I still have the occasional hang-up about my body, but for me it was always more than that. I never felt truly present or connected when I had sex; a feeling that I feel incredibly grateful to have found with my current partner. Being intimate with yourself and another is something that I now recognize as a basic human need, but for the best part of my early years I did it because I was searching for a connection with someone in all the wrong ways. I wanted to be close to someone, but not ‘that close.’ I wanted to be desired, but I didn’t feel worthy of being cherished. Sex and love are two very different things and can exist in isolation, but when they exist in unity it is the most magical experience imaginable. I can honestly say I never believed anyone would say ‘I love you’ and mean it, and I never thought I would say ‘I love you’ and mean it the way I do now. Writing this made me cringe at times, and I wanted to edit bits out of it, but I decided to be brutally honest, because it’s an issue that wasn’t really relevant until I entered recovery. Until you find peace within you, it is really difficult to be part of a relationship, because you are in constant conflict with yourself. Being in a partnership requires you to take risks and be vulnerable…both are not easy when you have an eating disorder. If you can relate to any of this, then I would encourage you to start exploring your own needs, and don’t rush into finding someone until you have begun your own healing.