by Mari Casey
The most difficult part of my recovery today, the most terrifying prospect in my life is not related to an urge to use or a potential relapse. It’s about dating. I’m twenty-six and single—a fun idea, right?—except I have four years clean, and just the thought of going on a date turns me catatonic. They recommend a year without sex when you first get clean. I didn’t do it then, but I might get it now, and not for lack of desire.
In my life, there are two major categories of potential suitors: people “in the rooms”— recovering addicts at the meetings—or “normies”—those strange creatures who can drink just one beer, maybe even hit one joint every now and again, normal people. I’ve dated in the rooms before. Pros: mutual understanding, shared experience, easy to meet. Cons: dating someone as sick as you are, and the whole “shitting where you eat” problem—when you break up you still have to run into the person on random weeknights in church basements and community centers. In short, since I’ve been clean, I’ve dated a friend I’ve known since childhood and two other recovering addicts. For a lot of reasons, including the whole “repeating the same mistakes” idiom, I’m ruling out dating in the rooms for now.
That leads to the problem. I’m petrified of dating with someone new. It’s a fear of explaining myself. It’s not really a fear of being judged outright. That’s easy. I know how to handle that. I say fuck off and walk off feeling self-righteous. The scenario that most terrifies me goes something like this:
I meet a man I like. We go on a first date. It’s awkward, but most first dates are. But it’s more awkward because I know there’s a huge part of me that I’m not telling yet. Of course, nobody can or should tell everything on the first date. But my recovery is a really big part of my life, and I’m consciously withholding that information for strategic reasons: in terms of the proverbial “baggage,” the story that winds up with me in rehab by the time I’m 21 is a U-Haul load. So we talk about a movie we both have seen. The date ends fine.
We go on another date. At some point during the second date I tell him I’m in recovery. It is probably blurted. It’s blurted because I’m nervous about it, and naturally, that’s how information comes out in an anxious setting: without much grace. It might happen when he picks up the wine list and asks if I’d like to try a merlot. Instead of saying, “No, thanks,” which is all I need to say, I say, “I can’t. I’m in recovery.”
This is the bad part. He is a nice person. He has sympathetic eyebrows and says in a voice raised half an octave, “Oh. That’s awesome. I’m really proud of you.” Which is what nice people say. Which is fucked up. And it happens all the time. Oh, we’ve had two conversations and now we have the type of relationship in which you get to be proud of me? Fucking great. And say it in the high-soft voice with which you’d congratulate a toddler for using the big-girl potty for the first time. Because now that you know, vaguely, that I used to do drugs—that stereotypically dark, gritty, felonious lifestyle—speak to me as if I’m a good little girl. Ok. I’m overreacting. I don’t blame this well-meaning man. How could he know what to say or how to say it? This normie is trying to be nice, acknowledging the positive side of things, so I let it slide. I appreciate his effort, forced and condescending as it might seem, he meant it to be nice. I smile and order a seltzer. We talk of other things for the rest of the night. I find out the names and ages of his siblings. He hears out about my career or my dog.
Three to seven conversations later, he asks as gracefully as he can, “About your recovery… What, exactly, did you do?” Same sweet voice.
And I answer, “I did a lot of drugs. I realized I couldn’t go on. I got help. I got clean. I work a program now.” I explain my program: do unto others, good Samaritan, trying to rejoin the human race, etc. It’s an honest if not original answer.
And he says, “Oh. That’s really great. When you were using drugs, though, what did you do?”
“You mean like pot, pills, heroin, cocaine?”
“Yeah, kind of.”
“Yeah. I did those. Other stuff, too.” And I know this answer is a little aggressive. It’s standoffish, but I want to stand off. I feel interrogated. Is he my date or the probation officer I never had? I’m intimidated. And immediately I realize my own answer was pretty fucking intimidating. I see that this person doesn’t understand, but he’s asking because he wants to understand. That’s alright. That’s admirable.
And we don’t talk about it again that night. We don’t have sex that night, either. We’re both a little put off. The next time we see each other, we don’t talk about it, and we’re both more relaxed. We like the same music. We like the same food. We like each other. We make each other laugh. And we have sex. It’s good sex. And we keep having sex. And we like each other’s bodies. And one time after sex, when we’re feeling really close, he asks –maybe he’s prompted by my remembering aloud that I need to leave soon to catch a meeting—he asks me, “Why did you use drugs?” And he looks at me with concerned, caring eyes.
And I know what he doesn’t want to hear. He doesn’t want to hear that I liked getting really, really high. That I loved the debauchery. Drugs made me feel free and wild and cool. Drugs made me feel numb and relaxed. I loved the chaos. I loved the nothing. I loved the way it felt to steal from the liquor store and smash the empty bottle in the alley minutes later. I loved the winding up. I loved the shutting down. And sure, there was the whole vicious cycle aspect, the deep-seated bitter self-hatred which I medicated with behavior that augmented the self-hatred and the need to medicate it, the textbook disease aspect. That was absolutely part of it, but so was the fact that I enjoyed the party, the darkness, the violence and the emptiness of it all. For a chunk of time, it was fun. Then it sucked, and I couldn’t stop. It was addiction.
But of course he doesn’t want to hear that truth. I can see it in his eyes. He wants to hear something that makes me forgivable—a sob story with neglect, abuse, foster homes, some chronic disease or horrible injury that required a prescription that got me “hooked,” any story with some mitigating factor. It wasn’t like that. He wants some part of my story to explain how I couldn’t have been as bad as he thinks I was, as bad as reality was. He wants an excuse because he needs me to be better than a drug addict to fall for me, and he wants to fall for me. He likes me. He thinks I’m funny. He thinks I’m kind, bless his heart. But I’m not a special type of drug addict, not some innocent who accidentally fell arm-first into a needle. I’m not a bad person, either, just an addict. And I’m looking into his eyes which are searching for excuses I don’t have. I’m not a heroic survivor of tragic circumstances. I don’t know what to say.
Why did I use drugs? For a moment, I pretend that I don’t understand the question. I pretend I don’t see it in his eyes. I break eye contact, and I think that I’m going to cry, so I close my eyes and kiss him and we fuck so that I don’t have to answer the question.
How does it end? I probably break it off within a couple weeks of that. It’s not like we couldn’t have worked past it. I could have invited him to a meeting so he could listen and learn as he was so willing to do. I could have told him the truth. I could have been honest with him about my fears, which probably would have made it easier for him to understand. But I didn’t because that’s so much work, so much trust, too much weight to lift so soon. We were just getting to know each other. I don’t know if it’s worth it yet. And these questions are things he’d ask within the first month. It took me years to talk about some of these things with my sponsor—and she’s an addict who asked to hear about it. But for a guy who’s kind of funny and likes that Syrian restaurant? Forget it.
That. That story is the hypothetical scenario that would crush me, the scenario that terrifies me. That I will see myself inadequate in the eyes of someone who wants to see me as good, who’s trying to see me as good. I know I won’t be that guy’s version of good. Don’t mistake this for self-pity. I think I can be plenty good, because I believe there are good addicts—that that’s not an oxymoron, that a good addict doesn’t require an excuse for her addiction, that it doesn’t have to be a big deal. It doesn’t have to be a big deal for me anymore because I have a few years’ practice accepting it.
This is the most terrifying thing about being an addict for me today (lucky me). No fear of contagious disease or incarceration. No visions of imminent relapse in a gutter. I’m scared I’ll let my world become very small in this very promising time—my twenties, about to finish grad school, as young and pretty as I’ll ever be, clean—because I hate how hard it is to get started. So I’ll never have sex again because it’s kind of hard to talk to nice people? Christ, I am one sick fucker.
I need a double-dose of courage. One for me to go out there and get what I want. I’ve braved meaner streets than the dating scene to get what I want before. The other is for the man who asks me on a date: oh you, sweet normie, be brave.