I was about two years into recovery when my AA sponsor directed me to choose between her and the married man I was having an affair with. She pointed out that she had nothing to gain either way; after all, she wasn't sleeping with me. In a fit of uncharacteristically good judgment, I chose her. But you know what Buckaroo Banzai said: "Wherever you go, there you are." So I stopped sleeping with that particular guy. But I didn't stop sleeping with the rest of them.
I made it to seven years of sobriety by, one, working the program and, two, substituting intoxicating behaviors for intoxicating substances. Turns out that AA (and Narcotics Anonymous, and especially Cocaine Anonymous) is full of willing sex and love addicts. As I embarked on yet another dramatic affair with yet another tragically married man, my sponsor suggested that I run, Do Not Walk, to a competent therapist. So I went to therapy and I worked the program, but I continued to fill an existential hole with a not-so-spiritual solution.
They said, "God is Love." I heard, "Love is God."
I was nearing 10 years clean and sober when my therapist handed me a directory for Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous. After all those years of inventory and self-examination, it ended up taking me about five minutes in an SLAA meeting to put a name to what had been wrong with me the whole time. I wasn't merely in love with love -- I was addicted to it.
"Good Lord, why didn't you send me there sooner?" I asked the therapist. He shrugged, "Because I just found out about it myself."
But in my heart of hearts, I wasn't in SLAA to recover. I was there to get well enough to secure a healthy relationship. The irony of this goal was lost on me. They said, "A relationship will cure your love addiction about as well as cocaine will cure your drug addiction." I heard: "You need a boyfriend."
Here are some of the suggestions given to new people in SLAA for sober dating:
- Postpone dating until you have read your fourth step inventory to your sponsor.
- Have your first few dates with someone in a public place.
- Don't invite them into your place, or go into theirs.
- Limit your initial time together to an hour or two.
- Don't go out with a fresh romantic interest more than twice in a week.
- "Bookend" dates by checking in with a sponsor or meeting buddy before and after.
I did follow some suggestions.
I'm a smart girl, I figured, and I've been working the steps for years. Now that I am aware of my pattern of self-destructive behavior, surely I will do it differently? I will set bottom lines. I will take contrary action. Turned out, I just made a whole bunch of fresh new mistakes.
A bottom line sets down on paper -- an actual piece of paper, in my sponsor's case, because sponsees often conveniently forget what they committed to -- the behaviors you will abstain from in order to consider yourself sober. If you were in Overeaters Anonymous, it might be eating sugar and white flour. For people in SLAA, it can be no sex outside a committed relationship, or no online sexy talk, or no masturbation. You pick your own bottom lines. I took a look at my problem areas and decided that mine should be: No dating married men, no dating men under 30 (I was 45), and no sex on the first date.
Forgo sex outside a committed relationship? Ha! You might as well tell me to become vegan. I had no idea how to operate in the world without the primary purpose of finding a man to validate my worth. So I nibbled at the edges of sex-and-love sobriety. I stayed away from married men, but I continued to have eight-hour first dates filled with true confessions and long slow kisses -- and I didn't check in with anyone before and after, either. I wouldn't sleep with you on a first date, but I was a pretty sure bet for date number two. Thirty-one-year-olds appeared out of the woodwork. I obeyed the letter of my bottom lines, but never the spirit of recovery.
At 15-and-a-half years of sobriety, I was in so much pain I wanted to die. "If I'm going to feel like this much longer," I told my sponsor, "I might as well shoot heroin." That's when I started to work the SLAA program in earnest.
The quest for love could no longer be my primary purpose. I didn't start dressing like a nun, but I did put away the FM pumps and bustiers. I didn't stop talking to men, but I did stop packing my conversation with sexual innuendo. I was so used to locking eyes with cute guys at 12-step meetings that for months I stared at people's feet until I broke the habit.
Slowly, the cycle of obsession, craving and withdrawal loosened its hold. My evening prayers no longer sounded like "God, please make him call me."
Then I met a divorcé my own age. A normie. Fully employed. The polar opposite of my usual married intellectuals and dropout rockers. I kept going to meetings, though, because I knew that if my life revolved around the relationship, I was going to suffocate it. We dated for about a year, then he asked me to marry him. We got married, and I kept going to meetings because I had no blueprint for fidelity and commitment, and I needed to stay accountable. When we eventually got divorced, I kept going to meetings so I would never feel the urge to torch his either wardrobe or his reputation.
Yes, the marriage ended. It was as healthy and appropriate as you could want, and it still didn't work out. Because shit happens, and because the first thing I heard in SLAA was still true: A relationship can't fix you. When I got married, I didn't expect it to save me. When I got divorced, I knew it wouldn't destroy me.
I'm single now, and I suppose I'll start dating again. If you ask me out, expect to meet me in a public place. Also, I will be checking in with a meeting buddy before I arrive, and again after I leave. I have a different primary purpose, and my life is better for it.
Lee Riley is a pseudonym for a writer living in Southern California.