In the past few weeks, a great number of people asked me to explain why old-timers get crusty about newcomers dating in early recovery.
There are plenty of reasons.
Much of the time, the oldtimer’s insistence that newcomers avoid getting involved with early romance comes from our repeated (and frequently tragic) experiences – watching beloved new friends relapse and occasionally die as a direct result of confusing relationships with recovery. We’ve been to the funerals. We don’t want to go to more. We know we will.
What’s curious is how often the feelin’ sexy newcomer wants something more, how often they want a direct commandment from the literature.
Here are the two main mentions or sex and relationships, the first coming from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous and the section on working a fourth step:
In this way we tried to shape a sane and sound ideal for our future sex life. We subjected each relation to this test—was it selfish or not? We asked God to mold our ideals and help us to live up to them. We remembered always that our sex powers were God-given and therefore good, neither to be used lightly or selfishly nor to be despised and loathed.
Whatever our ideal turns out to be, we must be willing to grow toward it. We must be willing to make amends where we have done harm, provided that we do not bring about still more harm in so doing. In other words, we treat sex as we would any other problem.
In meditation, we ask God what we should do about each specific matter.
The right answer will come, if we want it.
God alone can judge our sex situation. Counsel with persons is often desirable, but we let God be the final judge. We realize that some people are as fanatical about sex as others are loose. We avoid hysterical thinking or advice.
Suppose we fall short of the chosen ideal and stumble? Does this mean we are going to get drunk? Some people tell us so. But this is only a half-truth. It depends on us and on our motives. If we are sorry for what we have done, and have the honest desire to let God take us to better things, we believe we will be forgiven and will have learned our lesson.
If we are not sorry, and our conduct continues to harm others, we are quite sure to drink. We are not theorizing. These are facts out of our experience.
To sum up about sex: We earnestly pray for the right ideal, for guidance in each questionable situation, for sanity, and for the strength to do the right thing. If sex is very troublesome, we throw ourselves the harder into helping others. We think of their needs and work for them. This takes us out of our selves. It quiets the imperious urge, when to yield would mean heartache.
The second big mention is found in the Twelve and Twelve:
It is only where “boy meets girl on A.A. campus,” and love follows at first sight, that difficulties may develop.
The prospective partners need to be solid A.A.’s and long enough acquainted to know that their compatibility at spiritual, mental, and emotional levels is a fact and not wishful thinking. They need to be as sure as possible that no deep underlying emotional handicap in either will be likely to rise up under later pressures to cripple them.
The considerations are equally true and important for the A.A.’s who marry “outside” A.A. With clear understanding and right, grown-up attitudes, very happy results do follow.
But sometimes… we need more than a quote or two.
Sometimes, we need more than the wisdom of an old-timer.
We need to hear from someone who did it all wrong, barely survived, and can tell the story in a funny and nonthreatening way.
Sex and Dating in Sobriety
I think dating in the rooms of AA is not unlike hooking up in prison. There is a limited supply of broken people and we recycle each other.
But I am not crying victim here. I was never raped. I was a willing participant, although at 45 days or even four months, you’re so hungry for attention and distraction that you think you can handle things that you’re clearly not able to in retrospect. Romance took me out of the rooms more times than I’d like to admit. I always relapsed over a boy. I can think of at least four specific times. And, if it wasn’t romance taking me out, it was the lack of romance—the ache of terrible loneliness.
I think dating in the rooms of AA is not unlike hooking up in prison. There is a limited supply of broken people and we recycle each other. So when you break up with somebody, don’t be surprised when they end up dating your sponsor or sponsee. Dating in the program is like fishing in a small toxic pond. And you’ll often hear sayings, like, “Odds are good that you’ll meet somebody, but the goods are odd.” And I couldn’t agree more.
When I relapsed for the umpteenth time and ended up with a militant black lesbian for a sponsor, she was very clear that I was not going to fuck my way through the rooms this time around.
“Baby, you only going to go to women’s meetings and gay meetings,” she said.
“But how am I going to get laid going to women’s meetings and gay meetings?” I whined.
“You ain’t. You gonna focus on recovery.”
“Well that sounds boring,” I said.
But I had just come out of a psych ward, and had also just cracked my head open when I fell backwards after having a grand mal seizure when my meds were changed, so I was wiling to try it another way. I would go to those uptight “lady” meetings in Beverly Hills and Brentwood where women with bad facelifts and expensive handbags complain about their gardeners. I would go to a Saturday women’s meeting in Crenshaw for lesbians. I was the only white straight Jew in the room and I’d sit in the back cowering, scratching at my stitches.
“Why you sittin’ in the back, Sugar Plum?” my sponsor asked me one day.
“Because I’m scared,” I answered honestly.
“Well,” she told me, “be scared in the front.”
But the desire to escape ourselves is so strong that we can often find a distraction no matter how slim the pickings. One day at the crusty Brentwood “ladies who lunch” meeting, a tattooed, dark-haired man walked in.
“This is a women’s meeting,” one of the tautly pulled housewives said.
“I am a woman,” the man—who, as it turned out, was a woman—said.
And at that moment, I found myself infatuated. I had never been attracted to a woman before but she wasn’t just a woman: she was, when I got to know her, this amazing combination of the best traits of a female best friend with all the machismo and chivalry of a man. She could fix your car and then stay up till 1:30 in the morning eating ice cream and talking about feelings, burning you Tori Amos CD’s. She was what I called “guy light.”
“It would be better,” I told her one night, “if you had a penis. But we can work around that.”
But she never touched me. She didn’t date straight girls, newcomers, or crazy people. And considering I was all three, there wasn’t a chance in hell she was going to turn me out.
“Amy, you are a newcomer. That’s a sanctity I can’t violate.” None of the men in AA had ever said that.
When you’re dating another alcoholic, there is that instant affinity: you both speak the same language of disease and recovery. You both live a lifestyle of sobriety and abstinence. You both go to the same trendy diner after meetings to eat French fries and fellowship. But when it goes bad, as it inevitably does when you’re dealing with two crazy selfish alcoholics, then you’ve accidentally shat where you eat. And then you have to split up territory: “Okay,” you’ll find yourself saying. “I‘ll take the 11:30 meeting and you can have the 4:00 Big Book study.”
Even if you avoid those meetings and drive 45 minutes out to bumfuck where nobody knows your name, word gets out. It’s only a matter of time before he hears how—and who—you’re doing. The “Grapevine” couldn’t be a better metaphor for the growing gossip and intertwining overgrowth that is the fellowship of AA. And let us not forget about the amends that have to be exchanged once the relationship has gone awry.
And yet I met my husband in AA. We had a mutual sober friend who kept the connection going even when our diseases and neuroses kept us—or me—apart. He pursued and pursued, and I rejected and deflected, hating myself too much to respond to anyone who liked me. One day, when I was telling him everything about him that made him not my type, he said, “You really should be nice to me because we are going to end up together.”
He’s not what I would have ever imagined for myself back when I was a distraction-seeking, unhinged newcomer. And thankfully I kept coming back long enough to figure out that he was right.
Amy Dresner is sober comedian who liberally pulls material from her depressive illness and drug addiction. She performs all over Los Angeles and is also on a national recovery tour called “We Are Not Saints.”