Sometimes a sexually promiscuous, unfaithful, bisexual woman is just what you need.
By grace, the Twelve Steps, and a hell of a lot of work, I’ve been clean for more than 13 years. That sobriety, as I define it, includes sexual recovery as well as abstinence from drugs and alcohol. (More about that in A Season of Celibacy, which appeared on GMP this summer.) I was recently asked by a mentee whether I’ve ever come close to sexual relapse. I told him this story.
It was summer 2002. My third wife “Ellen,” had told me she didn’t want to be married to me anymore. Ellen and I had met in January 2000 in the early days of Internet dating; she was finishing her doctorate at Fuller Seminary, I was 18 months sober and falling in love with Christ all over again. She had never been married before. I was eager to build a life with someone who shared my faith, shared my values, and was willing to accept a very troubled and turbulent past. Ellen and I moved quickly; we were engaged within weeks and married in early 2001.
My third wife and I had terrific intellectual and theological compatibility. We also had very little physical chemistry. I saw that as a plus. I had grown mistrustful of “heat” with another person—in my experience over the course of many years and many relationships, the most intense sexual relationships were invariably the most unhealthy. I ought to have known better, but at this stage of my recovery, I equated heat with danger. I thought of a line in one of the translations of Medea, one in which a Greek chorus prays for a “small fire” of love, just enough to warm a house—but not a big fire, which will invariably burn the house down. Having burned down many houses, as it were, I was ready for something different.
Ellen did me the great favor of leaving me. We were not cruel or unfaithful or dishonest. We were incompatible in a very basic way, a way that could not be overlooked. She was unwilling to settle for kindness and conversation alone; she wanted passion, and that was something we could not generate. She promised me that I would thank her someday for leaving. I have done so. She is remarried, as am I; she recently became a first-time mother in her forties. I’m happy for her and wish her well.
Back to 2002. I was heartbroken when Ellen left. I also experienced a brief crisis of doubt. I doubted God. I doubted the wisdom of staying clean. The perfect narrative of fall and recovery had been shattered; I wasn’t supposed to get divorced again, not now that I was sober and faithful. In my mind, I had done “everything right this time” and still things hadn’t worked out. And as a consequence, I began to flirt with the idea of going back to old behavior. I don’t mean drinking again—that option wasn’t on the table yet. I meant returning to casual promiscuity.
I moved out of the home Ellen and I shared in early October, 2002. I had rented a small apartment a few miles away. And a week before I moved out, I lined a date up for that first weekend with a woman I’d known for years; a woman who was an active swinger. She told me we could have fun by ourselves, but that she also might have some “friends” around for me to “party with.” To heck with celibacy again, I thought; I’d done that as a healing tool before. What I wanted was new skin, and to go back to familiar old behavior. And though I wasn’t willing to admit it to myself, once back in those old habits, relapse on drugs couldn’t be far behind.
But I never went to that little party. The day before I moved out, one of my favorite students, Katie, came to my office. Katie had taken a few of my classes, and regularly visited me in office hours. Katie had been “out” for quite some time; she had been in the first gay and lesbian history course I had taught at Pasadena City College. Katie had been dating her girlfriend, Jackie—whom I knew vaguely but who hadn’t been my student—for about six months. Jackie was beautiful, with a striking resemblance to a young Sela Ward.
Katie was in tears. She told me that Jackie had been chronically unfaithful to her. Jackie was sexually compulsive, she said, hooking up with and having nearly-anonymous sexual encounters with both men and women. Jackie kept pledging to stop-and kept breaking those promises. She had begged Katie to stand by her, and Katie had tried, but was now at wits end. “I’m ready to leave,” Katie told me. “But I was wondering if you would be willing to reach out to Jackie. I know your story, and I know you went through some of these same issues. I trust you, Hugo, and I was wondering if you could take Jackie to some meetings and see if you could help her.”
I almost laughed out loud. Talk about God’s perverse sense of humor! The last thing in the world I wanted to do was take a newcomer to Twelve Step meetings for sexual recovery. That week of all weeks, the last thing in the world I wanted to do was serve as a mentor to a sexually compulsive woman. I wanted to act out, for Christ’s sake, not sponsor! But I looked at Katie, this woman whom I adored and who had trusted me and who had turned to me for help. I felt guilty. What would Katie think if she knew that I’d been contemplating returning to that lifestyle myself? I also felt angry. How dare Katie come in here and make a claim on my time and my heart, when all I wanted was to stop acting like a kind and responsible adult and go back to being reckless. She was “ruining my fun.”
I looked at Katie’s reddened eyes and dripping nose. She sat there, hunched over on my office chair in her hoodie and corduroys, unshowered and miserable, having come to the one person whom she felt she could trust. And I knew what I had to do.
I would break my hot weekend date. I would take Jackie to some of the many excellent Twelve Step meetings for sexual recovery I knew. I would find some wonderful, safe, older women to introduce her to to help her through the first steps of recovery. And I knew that this was divine protection for me in my life. The timing was too perfect. After all, it was downright absurd: what young lesbian in her right mind would ask me to help her gorgeous ,sexually addicted bisexual girlfriend, knowing my past? How much trust could Katie possibly have in me? A lot, apparently. And my desire to be worthy of that trust trumped the longing to go back to old and selfish behavior. It certainly trumped any attraction I might have felt for Jackie.
Katie had come to appeal to the better angel of my nature, and she had done so in perhaps the one way that that angel would listen. Indeed, I thought of Katie and Jackie as my angels that month. My first weeks in my new bachelor apartment, as I dealt with the pain of yet another separation and divorce, I drove Jackie to meetings all over Los Angeles, from Reseda to Hollywood. I started her on her “step work” and introduced her to women I knew were trustworthy. And I stayed sexually sober myself. I made myself work the steps with Jackie, whom I co-sponsored. I let myself be celibate again.
Within a few weeks, I met another old friend—Eira, the woman who is now my final wife. Had I gone back to my old lifestyle, I doubt I would have seen the opportunity for something new and wonderful with Eira. I fear I would quickly have sunk back into the selfish and self-destructive patterns that had characterized most of my teens, twenties, and early thirties. Katie’s “I need your help” and her “I trust you” had saved me from myself.
Jackie and Katie ended up breaking up a year later. Jackie did get sober sexually, and is still a dear friend. I have told both women how grateful I am to them for reaching out to me and allowing me to be who I was I was supposed to be—rather than who I had once been.
Sometimes, angels come with tear-streaked faces.