The Unbearable Horniness of Getting Sober

It's stunning to discover how quitting drinking suddenly makes your body aware of... everything.

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The Unbearable Horniness of Getting Sober
Illustration:Angelica Alzona

You are one year sober. You’ve fled everything you know—Manhattan in a pandemic—for a remote farmhouse your friends own on the outskirts of a 2,000-person town. The past year was a bleak, mushy blur. Now: You have a job (bartending; we can’t get into this here, it’s not the point, but suffice it to say you manage to remain sober.) You have friends! You have maybe the beginnings of what might be a life! You have this feeling like not just your brain, but your whole body is waking up from a long slumber. You are Sleeping Beauty, if Sleeping Beauty came to and found herself aggressively, distractingly, near-unbearably horny.

Due to a combination of that first year of sobriety and the dark years leading up to it, you’ve been almost-celibate for a redacted amount of time. The time is measured in years (please stop telling people how long it’s been—it’s horrifying to literally everyone), and due to a combination of early sobriety and that unmentionable amount of time, you are uncomfortably horny. It is gross and weird. You are so horny that you are no longer bothered by the word “horny.” It used to gross you out, but now it’s simply what you are. You are horniness personified.

There is one problem: You can’t remember how to fuck. Not the activity itself—though, to be honest, who can say after all this time? Exactly how much like riding a bike is it? But I mean the whole process of getting to the point where the activity is on the table, or wherever it’s on. A table could be fun. What other options are there? The passenger seat of a car, you’ll find. The hood of a car—Fuck! Focus!

It starts to seem uncomfortably likely that you have never really had mastery of this process, that you have been a fateful combination of lucky and opportunistic. It certainly feels like alcohol was a crucial wingwoman before, and now that you and she have consciously uncoupled, you’re realizing exactly how much of the work she was doing. You were sitting in the front of the canoe, lazily appreciating the scenery, and she was the entire crew team behind you.

The main strategy you seem to develop is physical proximity. It’s like that episode in New Girl where Jess’s friends tell her to do “The Biden” to bag the best man at a wedding—a strategy that begins and ends with the exhortation to just “be there.” This is the extent of your abilities, apparently. Except, because you have the same level of horniness as a cat in heat, you add a truly mortifying tendency to… literally just brush up against the object of your interest? Kind of rub up against them, cat-like? Girl, what are you doing? A cat behaving the way you are would get spritzed with a spray bottle. You probably should be spritzed, honestly.

You consider the possibility of sex with literally every single human you come in contact with and land on a coworker at the restaurant where you’re bartending. You come home and announce your decision to your friends: “I’ve decided to have a crush on Jeff,” you say (names have been changed). Is this how crushes work? You’re learning that you barely know what you’re attracted to. But this line cook at your bar is kind and easy to joke with and usefully trapped in your proximity, eliminating the hurdle of facing the fact that you are apparently so wretchedly damaged from your previous years of drunken dating that you cannot conceive of asking someone if they want to hang out without the potential for mild rejection feeling like facing a guillotine.

You go to your online support group meetings and excitedly tell your internet friends in recovery about your new crush. “He’s also a self-proclaimed alcoholic,” you say, but like, “Who cares? So am I! That’s fine!” You just want to bone, and you know for a fact that boning is not incompatible with alcohol abuse. But your friends’ faces in their tiny computer boxes resemble the grimacing emoji as they gently tell you to be careful, that maybe getting a year sober and running headlong into a tornado might not be the most serenity-preserving move. You get so cranky that you briefly shut off your video, the Extremely Online Adult version of a toddler lying facedown on the ground in silent protest.

The alcoholic coworker is frustratingly hard to reel in. (Christ, are you using fishing metaphors? What is the matter with you?) You seize diversions that present themselves: for instance, an encounter with a guy who looks like a grown-up version of literally any one of the guys from Dead Poets Society, the movie that apparently birthed your sexuality, judging by your physical reaction to his physical appearance. A one-night-stand with someone who later turns out to have maybe been an insurrectionist. A mushroom-foraging date with a kind, funny new friend who sits on a boulder with you, his forearm touching yours, having a real, genuine conversation; the chaste warmth of his arm against yours makes you giddy. It is stunning to discover how sobriety, and the bodily awareness that’s developing for you after a lifetime of treating your body mostly as a distasteful container, seems to let you really feel all the chemicals that course through you, spiking due not to some toxin you ingested but the glimmery flicker of another person’s smile, or the way a person’s eyes crinkle when they look at you. It turns out that you can get high off of other people. The flipside, of course, is: How bad is the inevitable comedown from this most unpredictable of substances?

Maybe this, too, is why you are so crush-crazy. People speculate about spikes in horniness in early sobriety, that it’s the addict-brain chasing a high it misses. And it does feel a little uncanny, just how stoked it can get you. But you’re also building a confidence you’ve never had before and a sort of emotional flexibility that allows you to attempt flirting, be hilariously bad at it, and not want to die at the thought of it. One night, said coworker riffs on another colleague’s anti-vax rant—“I’m not going to let you put something in me that might be bad for me”—by holding out his drink and saying, “Can someone put something in me that’s definitely bad for me?” You take the glass and, in what is meant to be a flirtatious tone, reply something like, “I’ll put something bad for you in you,” and then turn around to immediately, silently mouth, Oh my god, what??? to yourself as he looks a little confused. It is completely fucking weird and also hilarious, and it’s remarkable how quickly you learn to love your weird, clumsy self just by being alert through stuff like this, stuff that in the past might have left you paralyzed in shame the next day, fixating on what an abject loser you are. You’re not a loser! You start to think you might actually prefer to be awkward than cool; it makes for better stories.

Learning you may have fucked an insurrectionist is a low point in this journey, but the six-hour panic attack you had after being told he was in D.C. on January 6 is going to have to be penance enough for that lapse in judgment. The real lesson though comes after you and the coworker you like finally kiss. It is such a markedly different feeling than semi-reluctantly having sex with a stranger when you don’t really want to. Old habits die hard, apparently, and for you, those old habits include fucking someone because you feel like you should and are unaccustomed to stopping to consider whether or not you really want to. You’re not sure you even know what it feels like to really want to, until you learn very suddenly when you have sex in a car in a Verizon store parking lot. The vague outline of some warning about addicts in recovery and thrill-seeking maybe floats to the surface of your dopamine-drunk brain, and you ignore it, because what a thrilling surprise it is to discover that you can be weird and reckless and do mildly risky and extremely hot shit stone cold fucking sober!!

Well, you are stone cold fucking sober. And at first, that distinction doesn’t rate. It is so fun to be alive again in this way, maybe not even again, maybe in a first-time sort of way? This arguably barely literate dude sends a Pulitzer-worthy sext, and you can’t stop fucking grinning. He tells you that you’re beautiful, that you’re hot—he’s kind to you in a way that feels uncomplicated, and for a month or so it almost feels like that could be enough. Who cares that he’s completely incurious about your writing, about your life, about you?

Well, eventually, you care. It sneaks up on you. You’ve been so vigilant not to ever let yourself believe you could compete with his love of drinking, and still it catches you off-guard a little to feel how much it hurts when someone chooses alcohol over you (in particular, over fucking you). You tell your sober friends you know better, that trying to compete with alcohol in this context would be like getting into a boxing ring with a cheetah. And yet: It stings, and it cracks the veneer holding all of this together.

The thing about attempting intimacy sober with someone who is drunk and high is that about 50 percent of them goes missing, and that absence makes it feel like about 150 percent of you is present and exceptionally alone. It is lonely and sad and sometimes a little scary, but worse than scary is how utterly boring it is, listening to a person repeat themselves and ignore you when you tell them you know, you’ve said this before, countless times. You recite the same words to them before they’ve even finished, because the thing about drunks is they don’t just repeat themselves in one night, but over and over and over again. It is so tedious, and the resentment feels punishing, because it is, because this is a choice you made. And now it’s up to you to stop making it.

It’s gradual, the waning, and also abrupt. You keep grasping for the excitement, the thrill, the warm buzzy glow of being alive in this particularly physical way, but increasingly it elides, until one attempt at reclaiming it ends with you screaming at him in furious frustration, shocking yourself maybe even more than him. In the end, you realize this is a panic attack you needed to have, and it goes through your body like a storm across the ocean, and afterward you feel still and calm and aware that as much as it sucks, you’re going to have to figure out how to live with the fact that you are, as a person, extremely horny not just for sex, but for intimacy.

Wanting intimacy is horrifying, it is definitively not a Cool Girl thing to want, it means all sort of gross and unsexy things like having needs and stating them and, ugh, disgusting vulnerability. And yet: Sobriety is choosing a long-term solution at the cost, often, of what feels like short-term pleasure and the risk, usually, of initial discomfort and even pain. So maybe it all makes sense; maybe that’s what all the hard stuff is building toward. And who says you can’t fuck on the hood of a car on the way there?

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