At one o’clock on a Sunday morning in 2005, I sped west toward Salt Lake City in a rented Ford Fiesta on Route I-80, escaping my friend’s wedding at a Park City yoga studio. I gripped the wheel as if it were a waterski handle. A pitch black sky surrounded me and I swore the car was on two wheels going around the tightest hairpin turns I’d ever encountered. I was 39 years old and had lived in New York City for 15 years. The closest I usually came to driving was standing in the front car of a subway train. That evening, however, called for drastic measures: I was following home the stop-in-the-street sexy French chef I met at the wedding.
It was my first “sober anniversary,” marking one year since I had used cocaine or alcohol. For the first time, I had navigated a wedding reception without so much as a sip of champagne or an ounce of regret. This next part of the evening, however, came with the highest degree of difficulty. My recovery program had strongly suggested waiting a year before entering into a new “relationship.” Sex with strangers had never been included in my definition of that term, but people in recovery thought otherwise. I had listened to their advice and kept my pants on.
When I first heard talk of a celibate year, though, I had bristled. Seriously? I was supposed to give up alcohol, drugs, and a year of sex? That was an awfully tall order. I decided at first to reserve judgment on whether to follow this particular suggestion. But to my surprise, I found in the early, most fragile days of recovery, getting naked with someone new while stone cold sober was unimaginable, downright scary. A whole host of new and tricky things called “feelings” started showing up in all facets of my life. Ten years of daily drinking had allowed me to shut them out so effectively that not even watching “The Way We Were,” my Achilles heel of movies, could make me cry. If I ever felt emotional or the least bit unhappy, a quick dry martini or three could fix that. Without the booze and cocaine, suddenly I was weeping at television commercials. These were confusing days. I had my hands full just figuring out how to avoid melting down when there was a line at the dry cleaner on Saturday morning. It was unlikely my fledgling sobriety could survive a ride on the emotional rollercoaster of a new relationship, or even a one-night stand.
But after a year spent healing and living a life that restored my self-esteem, I had reached a point where I could see sex possibly happening, albeit in an extremely dark room. Addiction had robbed me of the belief that I deserved anything clean and happy in life. It was the voice in my head that started telling me how awful I was from the moment I opened my eyes in the morning. By the end, self-loathing and desperation to shut the voice up led me to do anything necessary to continue drinking and using drugs all day while hiding it from everyone around me. I may somehow have been managing to do well at my big law firm job, but a high-functioning alcoholic and addict is still an alcoholic and addict first and foremost.
Over time, I had begun to like the person I saw in the mirror in the morning, something I never expected. I even thought I had something to offer other people, other than picking up the bar tab. I also missed having sex.
My friend Randi, the bride, must have sensed I was ready to hang up my chastity belt. At her Park City wedding, she seated me next to Pierre, a French chef. He was a six-foot plus stunner with electric blue eyes and better cheekbones than mine. I pictured him stepping out of a Moncler skiwear photo shoot, jauntily removing tinted goggles. I instantly berated myself for wearing a pink sequined Betsey Johnson dress instead of my standard pre-sobriety head-to-toe black. The dress that screamed “happy” to me in the store dressing room instead screamed “toddler beauty pageant” to me at the wedding.
Despite my questionable fashion choice, Pierre was immediately flirtatious and, in response, I was immediately petrified. How did people connect without drinking to relax? I was traumatized when he dragged me out onto the dance floor and started moving like he knew what he has doing. The jumping and fist pumping I performed at Red Hot Chili Peppers concerts could not help me in this situation. Who dances at a wedding, or anywhere else for that matter, without drinking?
After mercifully guiding me off the dance floor, Pierre attempted some conversation. Clueless, I decided to pretend I was someone charming and interesting despite not guzzling an Absolut Citron between sentences. I had learned in recovery that acting “as if” I could do something was a good way to face a new challenge. For example, I had learned to act “as if” I was someone who felt comfortable and competent in the office. When I was drinking and using drugs, I had felt like a fraud at work, just moments from being discovered and fired. After immersing myself in recovery for 12 months, I felt like I belonged at the conference room tables in my office high above Times Square.
Somehow, this approach worked in the romantic realm that night as well. Pierre turned out to be funny and thoughtful, two of my favorite traits. I acted impressed when he used a dessert spoon, a salt shaker and a votive candle to map out how much closer to the airport I would be the next day if I left from his house instead of the condo I had planned to crash at with four other women. In the true spirit of a one-night stand, we were both planning my morning departure before we left the wedding. Now this was familiar territory. My heart started to race and I fought back a sudden urge to kiss him on the spot. I remembered what it felt like to want to connect physically with an exciting new person.
But despite my enthusiasm, the idea of sober sex, whether with a serious boyfriend or a near-perfect stranger, seemed so intimate, so personal — and, therefore, so terrifying. Randi talked me through the reasons Pierre was the ideal partner for the inevitable first time. She identified three of them, specifically: 1) he was ridiculously attractive, 2) I would never have to see him again, and 3) he barely spoke English. I really could not ask for anything more. It was time to reactivate myself from the waist down.
A short time later, I was alternating between keeping my five-inch heels on and trying to drive barefoot. Neither was going well. I was sweating in a way no air conditioning could fix. As I struggled to keep Pierre’s taillights in view on the six-lane highway, a barrage of thoughts raced through my brain. What if I lost him? What if I didn’t? Why didn’t I bother to get a bikini wax before this trip? If I made it to his house and I set the alarm for 4:30 a.m., would I have enough time to shower and then likely get lost on my way to the airport for my 7:00 flight back to New York? Cell phone alarms were not a default then and I worried about whether Pierre might have two alarm clocks, so I could feel comfortably backed up. Missing my flight was not an option. Sobriety had gifted me with a fantastic new job and I needed to be there on time Monday morning.
I turned on the car radio and stabbed at the buttons. I stumbled upon the Rolling Stones’, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” one of my favorites. At the end of the song, the DJ came on. Just as I was about to switch the station he said, “Daylight savings time tonight. Don’t forget to move your clocks ahead one hour.” Wait, what? It was daylight savings time? If the DJ hadn’t said it, I never would have known. I wouldn’t have changed the alarm clock at Pierre’s house. I would have overslept and missed my flight. Thank you, DJ. Thank you. I took this happenstance as a sign from the universe, one I was meant to follow. I hit the gas.
When we finally got to Pierre’s driveway, my nervousness and sweating didn’t stop, but any ideas about changing my mind and finding a nearby motel were gone. As he carried my bags to the second floor, he said in heavily accented English, “I have three bedrooms here. If you would be more comfortable not sleeping in my room, you can use one of the others.”
“Oh, no. I’m sleeping with you, thanks,” I said way too quickly. Discussions of alternative sleeping arrangements had never been part of the deal in my pre-sobriety situations. My stomach churned with anxiety and anticipation. Did I seem too eager? Not eager enough? Was there lipstick on my teeth? Could I sneak in two more Altoids when he used the bathroom? Is this how sober people all feel when they’re with someone new?
Just when I thought my brain would never quiet down, Pierre kissed me. He pressed me up against the wall in the hallway and kissed me like he knew me. All of a sudden I was right there, in the moment. The stress and panicky thoughts slipped away. Almost instantly, I realized I didn’t even have to act “as if” I were someone who knew how to handle this situation. I could just relax and be my sober self.