MEN’S ISSUES IN EARLY RECOVERY, PART 2: SEXUAL RELATIONSHIPS

Having run primary stage addiction treatment centres for 10 years and spending nearly 10 years in community drug services before that I can attest to the fact that one of the main ‘distractions’ that derails early recovery for men (and women) is ‘falling in love’. But whilst this is a problem that afflicts both men and women I’m going to write about how it goes down for men in recovery.

EXCLUSIVE RELATIONSHIPS

Early on in treatment in rehab, many people have a tendency to fall into ‘exclusive relationships’. This is why many rehabs are gender specific. Having let go of the primary addiction (whether a substance addiction or a process addiction) the tendency then is to ‘act out’ in other ways that are rewarding. This takes many forms. People who didn’t smoke start smoking, people who didn’t drink coffee before start drinking gallons of the stuff, and people who were romantically uninvolved during their addictive career, suddenly start waking up to the enjoyable feeling of being ‘validated’ by somebody else. Ultimately this can morph into an exclusive relationship, closely followed by a sexual relationship. An exclusive relationship is any relationship (even a platonic one) that locks everyone else out and reserves secrets that only you two know. This makes you both feel ‘special’, and to a certain extent, everyone else in the rehab or 12 step meeting or outpatient programme is on a lower level of intimacy and are not privy to some of the things that only you two know. From here, it is only a short step to an acknowledgement of romantic feelings between you and the other, which is then followed rather inevitably by a sexual relationship.
You’ll notice above that I put ‘falling in love’ in inverted commas. That’s because it’s not real. How could it be. You’ve known each other for what … 3 weeks? It FEELS REAL … because it feels so good. But there are conditions and situations in life where it is not wise to ‘believe your beliefs’ or indeed to ‘trust your feelings’!

TRUST YOUR FEELINGS?

One of the great misnomers of modern life, is that we should always ‘trust our feelings’. This is one of the worst pieces of mental health advice that anyone could possibly give you. Nevertheless, this outlook appears to be taken for granted by increasing numbers of people. The idea that ‘feeling’ something, is somehow evidence that it is right and good and desirable. Well it’s not necessarily. Sometimes, we actually have to learn to control and regulate our emotions in order to be mentally healthy. This should not be done to the extent of ‘burying feelings’ obviously, as that is equally unhealthy. But there are times and situations where a more stoic outlook is the wiser approach and this idea seems to have been almost completely lost in contemporary society and indeed in the mental health field and psychological professions in particular.
So let’s describe an imaginary scenario which describes more precisely what can (and does) happen when we follow our feelings in early recovery and particularly with regard to new relationships that are moving too fast towards a romantic and/or sexual encounter. Let’s imagine a typical thirty-something called Mr. A. He is in rehab for the second time. He has a serious opioid problem and is now three weeks past his detox and normal feelings are starting to return. This includes sexual feelings. Then let’s imagine Ms. B who is in rehab for the first time. She is an alcoholic in her late twenties.
In the hothouse of an addiction treatment facility they find themselves being laid bare (psychologically speaking) in intense sessions of group psychotherapy. They and others are being more honest than they have been for a long time, and let’s face it, this experience is bonding. It’s bonding for the whole group. Shared adversity creates intimacy when there is identification between group members. This is a healthy thing. But this is where it all starts to fall apart. Mr. A, having been a daily user of opioids for the last ten years, finds himself flooded with sexual energy. This is being fueled by specific fantasies about Ms. B. After all, Ms. B has made it clear several times that she finds Mr. A’s ‘sharing’ in group extremely moving. Mr. A feels special. In fact, he knows he’s special. Because feelings are real. After another week or so Mr. A and Ms. B take to disappearing quickly after group therapy to discuss with each other what’s going on in the community. Their insights and opinions are the same. They agree exactly on which other residents are ‘cool’ and which ones are a pain in the ass. Their opinions always align. Another few days go by and Ms. B is catching heat in group from another resident of the rehab and Mr. A leaps to her defence. Usually Mr. A has a fairly good relationship with this person who has challenged Ms. B, but now his interests are being threatened. It’s already tacitly understood between him and Ms. B that they are somehow ‘involved’ and that they must therefore stick up for each other. This is unfortunate because this other resident is making some very good points about Ms. B and how she doesn’t seem to be taking her recovery seriously. Mr. A is now totally compromised. As he leaps to Ms. B’s defence he has an uneasy feeling that his is going against his own instincts.
He knows deep down that the other resident (and the counsellors) are making valid points about the fragile nature of Ms. B’s recovery and how she might be at risk of relapse if she can’t confront some of these issues. But he is already out on a limb. Plus, all of this is messing with his plan, which is to ultimately consummate (act on) his feeling for Ms. B. He doesn’t know any of this course. At least he’s not consciously aware. He will still swear blind that it’s only a platonic relationship, even if he knows full well deep down that it isn’t going to be for long. Over the next few days it starts to dawn on Mr. A that he is not as trusted by the community as he once was, because it’s pretty clear to the whole community now what is actually going on. He and Ms. B have an exclusive relationship going on and they have locked everyone else out – more or less. Now Mr. A has two options. Drop his ‘thing’ with Ms. B and lose her approval (which he is seriously loving every minute of) or carry on defending her and further lose the approval of the group. He chooses the latter. Because it just FEELS SO REAL!

Apart from it’s not. It’s essentially a neurochemical trick. After years of substance abuse we are massively REWARD DEFICIENT. When we become abstinent it becomes apparent very quickly what addiction is really all about. It’s not about the drugs. It’s about HOW YOU FEEL WHEN YOU’RE NOT DOING DRUGS.

DOPAMINE BOOSTING ACTIVITIES

More or less any form of dopamine activation (‘falling in love’, smoking cigarettes, caffeine consumption, eating calorie laden foods) will make these symptoms slightly more bearable. Because they are also strongly dopamine boosting activities. The problem is – improving mid-brain dopamine tone – which is what needs to happen in the brain when we recover – is best achieved by means of true intimacy, and developing potent feelings of meaning and purpose. And this is not going to happen in the context of sexually charged, exclusive, and highly secretive relationship, which is almost certainly not one you would have chosen given time and space to choose correctly.

Oftentimes in early recovery many of us make the mistake of grabbing hold of the first person who validates us, and the likelihood of this person being suitable for as a person to be intimate with – is VIRTUALLY ZERO. But it feels so real!

A week later, Ms. B gets into a heated discussion with her actual boyfriend on the weekend phone call. She tells him exactly what her feelings for Mr. A are. The boyfriend is furious. After the phone call, Ms. B discharges herself immediately against medical advice. She proceeds to a hotel where she gets extremely drunk in her room. Mr. A follows her that evening. He has also discharged himself against medical advice after several furious phone calls where his father attempted to talk him down. But there’s no stopping Mr. A now.

When he gets to the hotel he doesn’t even get high or have a drink. He tells Ms. B he is ‘still focused on his recovery’. Then they have sex.

Immediately afterwards Mr. A feels empty inside. He doesn’t really know what he is doing here. “Shit … this is bad. What am I going to do now?” he asks himself.

After a few hours of lying next to his drunken sweetheart, who is now completely comatose, he gets out of bed and dresses and heads out of the door. He knows exactly where he is going. And it’s not back to rehab!

Of course, not every romantic liaison in early recovery is like this. Oftentimes it’s not this bad – people pull back from the brink and come to their senses. But sometimes it’s even worse than this. Bottom line – the safest course of action in early recovery is to keep yourself single or work through the relationship you are already in, to either move it forward, or to bring it to it’s inevitable conclusion.

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