Sex, Recovery, and All the Feelings in Between

[Personal post & trigger warning]

A few months ago, I became single for the first time in eight years. During those eight years, I developed and began recovering from my eating disorder – a disorder that left me with a very, very complicated relationship with my body.

The first time I had sex was relatively close to the start of my eating disorder, just a few months before I reached my lowest weight. I was sixteen and sex was awesome. At first.

But, within two years, my libido was gone – physically. I still wanted to have sex because I was supposed to be having sex – it was supposed to feel good. In fact, it always had felt good, but suddenly, I couldn’t even come anymore. I would just lay there wondering what the hell was wrong with me. I felt unsatisfying, worthless, and like a failure. But I still felt like I needed to be trying.

“Women with eating disorders often report a lack of sexual interest during the course of their eating disorder.  Several solid studies, including one, which assessed 242 women, found that issues with physical intimacy, libido, sexual anxiety, and difficulty in romantic relationships are present among this population.”

I remember googling “how to be confident in bed” and reading Oprah articles (I think this is the exact one I read!), as if that could save me from the chokehold of my eating disorder. I began to link my self worth to my body so much that sex was the only way I felt wanted, needed, desired, attractive, worthy. I may not have gotten any physical pleasure out of it, but I got some kind of emotional pleasure that I still struggle to find anywhere else.

I don’t think my sex drive returned to normal until a couple years into recovery, but my relationship with sex is still a mess. I still associate it with my self worth; if my partner doesn’t feel like having sex, I respect that, but then I need to convince myself that it’s not because he doesn’t like me. And that is an exhausting conversation to have with myself.

Anyway, a few months ago, I found myself single for the first time in eight years, and my biggest concern was my body and weight. I immediately blamed the breakup on my body and weight (this was not the real reason, obvi) and I asked myself, “how could anyone find you attractive at X pounds?” The weight gain of recovery was hard enough to handle while in a relationship; I had no idea how I was going to handle it while dating new people.

So I handled it the only way I knew how: I started restricting again. I’d been restricting on and off for a couple months anyway (the holiday season + weighing myself for the first time in four years = trigger party!), but thinking about a new person seeing me naked really set me off. I was like, “I am so going to relapse. For real this time.”

My friend told me he wanted me to meet his friend. So, naturally, I went through The Friend’s Instagram and saw that he had recently lost Y pounds. First thought: “I can’t meet him! I’m not going to be thin enough for him.” Second thought: “he’s absolutely gorgeous and I need to meet him.” I procrastinated meeting him for weeks because I didn’t feel skinny enough, just restricting and looking at his Instagram until… Eventually, we met.

We started dating. I couldn’t eat in front of him for another couple weeks, and then I had to face reality: we were going to have sex at some point. This was incredibly triggering. I would restrict more on the days we had dates planned, just in case.

But honestly, the night that we did have sex for the first time was incredibly liberating. He didn’t know anything about my eating disorder, body image issues, or self esteem – but he still found me attractive and wanted me. Somehow, this made me feel more comfortable being naked in front of him. It was like the eating disorder and body image issues didn’t exist that night.

I mean, I had to tell him, though. We’re in a relationship now and that’s kind of a big part of my tragic backstory. Not telling him about my eating disorder would be like Avatar: The Last Airbender never telling us how Zuko got his scar.

And now when we’re having sex and he compliments me, I’m like, “you’re only saying that because you know I have issues.” I don’t say that out loud – I just think it. I’m pretty sure saying something like that would kill the mood. But is he only having sex with me because he feels bad for me? Does he feel obligated to have sex with the insecure girl? Does he think having sex with me will make me feel attractive and fix me? Does it make him feel good to be doing me this favor? When my eating disorder starts talking, everything feels empty. I need to redirect the conversation from being between me and my ED to being between me and him.

My experience has shown me that even when weight is restored (resulting generally in restored cognitive functioning and normal hormone levels,) sexual issues and dysfunction often remain for people with eating disorders.

My relationship with sex is still so off, though. Can’t eat like a normal person, can’t have sex like a normal person. I can be having an awful body image day, then we have sex. During sex, I’m insecure, uncomfortable, and want to hide. It makes it difficult to focus, and suddenly I find myself back to the days when I couldn’t come. The reason for my struggle is different now (I guess it’s more mental than physical nowadays? I don’t know), but I get angry with myself. The libido is back, but I still can’t perform efficiently.

But then afterwards, I feel great. I feel beautiful, comfortable, and I smile, laugh, and talk so much more. (Wait, doesn’t this also happen after letting myself eat?) That makes me angry with myself, too. Why do I place so much of my self worth into sex still? Why does it make me feel so much better, in general and about myself and my body? If I wasn’t sexually active, would I be in the midst of a relapse right now? Is sex like, saving my life? That doesn’t sound healthy, but I guess it’s a better coping mechanism than purging or restricting.

I don’t know what others’ experiences are with sex and recovery, but this is what it’s been like for me, and I can only hope that it gets better in the future.

Image credit: (1) (2) (3)

Author: Melissa Martini

A 22 year old feminist writer exploring body image and eating disorder recovery through poetry and blog posts.

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