The year was 2015 and the summer was historic: The Supreme Court had just ruled that all 50 states were required to recognize the marriages of queer couples on the same terms and conditions as the marriages of heterosexual couples. I was 22; my partner, Liam, was 29. Our relationship was new and we wanted to impress each other, so we shared a liter of honey whiskey and danced through San Francisco.
People had rainbows painted on their arms and purple glitter sprinkled on their cheeks. Laughter and roars rang through the city, mixed with the scents of sugar, grease and alcohol. That night, Liam and I hooked up in clubs, against cypress trees and in a secluded park, where a man yelled at us.
“Hey!” he said, as he ran in our direction.
Liam and I glanced at each other, turned and ran uphill until we reached the ocean, where we caught our breath, drank more whiskey, laughed and had sex again.
For three years, Liam and I hooked up in parks, parties, cars and alleys. For us, this was an act of defiance against anyone ― nuclear family members, acquaintances, strangers ― who told us to tone down our queerness. We had sex in three different bathrooms the day we got married in San Francisco City Hall, and I drank so much tequila, the bars turned to fluorescent red pulp.
By day, Liam and I worked together and produced marketing content; by night, we took shots. On the weekends, we sat by a green lake and drank from bottles covered in brown paper. Liam and I had sober sex, yes, but I relied on alcohol to pull out the stops, role-play and lingerie.
One evening, two years after we got married, Liam asked a simple question:
“Do you ever imagine a life without alcohol?”
The tone of his voice was curious, not accusatory.
I was drunk, so I was honest.
“No, because sober sex scares me,” I said.
Liam nodded, as if he had anticipated my answer.
One year ago, Liam and I started to see a couple’s counselor, whom I’ll call Anne. Initially, we sought counseling because our arguments were sharp and constant. I drank more than usual and hid just how much I consumed.
Anne wore thick turquoise earrings and red-rimmed glasses, and asked careful questions about our personal histories. Her presence added nuance and depth to our conversations: She helped me identify what compelled me to drink in the first place.
“The question is not why the addiction,” she explained, citing the work of Dr. Gabor Maté, an addiction specialist. “The question is: Why the pain?”
My pain was rooted in a lifetime of undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, a byproduct of a volatile childhood and adolescence. Liam’s pain was rooted in anxiety, depression and shame. The alcohol was just balm for wounds we didn’t want to name.
Through counseling with Anne, we learned that our pain and the way we chose to numb it was (unfortunately) quite common. The historical exclusion of the LGBTQIA community obviously impacts our mental health. According to the Alcohol Rehab Guide, “up to 25% of the general LGBTQ+ community has moderate alcohol dependency, compared to 5-10% of the general population.” I started drinking when I was a teenager and just didn’t stop.
I took shots of tequila before several counseling sessions. No one commented on my behavior, which made me realize I must have appeared absent even when sober.
At night, drunk, I found myself Googling questions I already knew the answers to:
Can I drink every night without dying? (It depends on how generously you define “dying.”)
Do I have a drinking problem? (If you find yourself Googling “do I have a drinking problem?” you might have a drinking problem.)
How do I stop drinking? (First, stop drinking.)
On Jan. 1, 2021, Liam and I decided to stop drinking for the month. After 30 days, a friend invited us over for margaritas. At first the invitation sounded nice: I pictured two or three salty drinks in the sun. Then I pictured the bottle of silver tequila I knew I would buy right after I finished the margaritas. The truth was: If I started drinking again, I wouldn’t want to stop, so I told Liam I had to stay sober.
“Me too,” he said.
Our first year of sobriety was surreal, and the first time I tried to initiate sex after I stopped drinking was embarrassing. I undressed with so much awkwardness that Liam thought I was changing, not flirting.
“Are you going to shower?” he asked, confused.
“Yes,” I said, and scuttled to the bathroom to hide. The potency and continuity of my shyness made me want to vaporize. I avoided sex for months, which made me feel devastated. For me, sex was adventure, travel, gifts, all fused into a single act. Without it, I felt hollow ― as if a foundational love language had disintegrated.
While Liam slept, I scrolled through old pictures on Instagram to see if our wild nights made us look as happy as I remembered. In the pictures, our smiles split our faces, our eyes were unfocused, and our faces were bright with sweat. A sharp pang settled in my stomach: I missed the blurry nights, the feeling that sex spilled everywhere. On my 28th birthday, Liam printed two dozen pictures from Instagram and stuck them to the ceiling above our bed. They made me so sad that I took them down, one by one.
Although we barely had sex, sobriety made our lives undoubtedly better: We laughed more, talked more and fought less. I established a daily writing routine. Liam planted a garden. We discovered new forms of intimacy: We drove to shops that sold weird rocks, filmed silly videos, sang to our cat, and binge-watched shows we discussed in granular detail. Our physical distance made me notice the quiet ways Liam expressed love and attraction: how he looked at me when he didn’t think I was watching, the way he touched the nape of my neck when he poured tea.
We were fortunate to have resources: housing, jobs, therapy.
Sober, we found the courage to ask and answer direct questions.
Did we want to have sex with other people? (Not now, but that could change.)
Did we still want to be married? (Yes, because we fought less.)
Were we still attracted to each other? (Yes.)
The sex started once we trusted we could really talk. In the beginning, our bodies only found each other in the dark, in the middle of the night, in the strange space between the physical world and our dreamscapes. For me, sex acquired new meaning: It wasn’t just about adventure or performance.
Darkness gave my body space to feel, not look or be looked at. I learned how to stay present: In some ways, sober sex felt like falling in love with someone I’d loved before.
Now, sex is about communion, not just power; surrender, not just control. In this sense, sex is like the process of recovery. It still makes me nervous, but the nerves are anticipatory: I have something new to live for.
Yesterday, I walked along an oceanside cliff. As the sunlight left the horizon, I saw Liam standing next to a blue and white lighthouse ahead. His shadow cast long lines onto the orange succulents in the grass. I wasn’t expecting to see him, and I was surprised by the intensity of my excitement. I jumped up and down, and ran in his direction. He grinned, spread his arms, and ran toward me, too.
Amanda Lezra is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Rough Cut Press, a literary journal that publishes emerging and established voices from the LGBTQIA community. Born and raised in Spain, Amanda is working on a bilingual collection of essays. Her most recent work appeared in The Independent.
Need help with substance use disorder or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline