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When BDSM and sobriety go hand-in-hand

My first foray into BDSM left me covered in bruises and smiling like a moron. I had been in recovery for opioid addiction for 18 months. It was okay. I felt stable. I also felt unbelievably bored. Dealing with my problems in healthy ways was a major joykill. Partying had been a pretty big time killer for me, and without it, life felt a little too smooth jazz. Kink quickly transformed those instrumentals, spinning them into a welcome chaos of pain and pleasure.

There was hair-pulling and roughhousing and ropes tugging and restricting me in all the best ways. My brain lit up, sending danger signals to my body. Adrenaline pulsed. For me, it was exactly the right amount of scary. For the first time in ages, I felt alive.

I was glad to not be strung out on pills, but I was also scared that I had burned out my joy receptors in some irreparable way. Life was a vast grey expanse of whatever. I was a freshly single sober adult living in New Orleans, the drunkest city on earth. It felt like not getting fucked up was really fucking up my life. Life felt serious and hard and I needed a jolt of excitement to remind me why my life was worth getting sober for. I found it in kink.

I purposefully dated others who’d gone through recovery and were sober, but that was unbearably awkward. Sober folks can be really neurotic. I know, because I’m one of them. When you stop blunting all your emotions with substances, you really start noticing how often you’re anxious. And there’s no pink wine to take the edge off of dating and having sex with a new person. I was fine with kisses and make-outs, but when things got hot, I would start to shut down.

Once my clothes came off, I would get locked in to a self-conscious mind loop. Honestly, I had had sober sex so rarely in my life at that point that it seemed like it might be impossible. How was I supposed to get naked with strangers without liquid- or pill-fueled courage? I was pretty sure that my sober life was going to be a sexless and joyless purgatory.

When I first started seeing a sober person who was into kink, I was kind of scared. Like actually frightened of injury. I’d never had particularly kinky sex before. My neurosis looped, full-force, in relentless questions. Was he violent? What if I let him tie me up and he really hurt me? Do people really use whips and chains? What if I didn’t like it? What if I didn’t know how to do BDSM right? But, like I said, I was bored, curious and I liked him, so I went for it.

You have to learn both to speak your needs verbally and also to read your partner’s body language. Its subtlety demands sobriety.

Most of the things that I did with that partner wouldn’t seem that kinky to someone into fetish, but it was all new to me. My partner loved rope and showed me enough to whet my thirst for knowledge. I fell in love with Shibari, Japanese rope bondage. It’s methodical and beautiful. Ropes are tied, checked, re-tied. You must be careful not to compress nerve bundles. Because there is some risk of injury, rope play requires deep communication skills. You have to learn both to speak your needs verbally and also to read your partner’s body language. Its subtlety demands sobriety.

But Shibari is only one modality among many styles of rope play. And rope play is only one practice in the giant world of BDSM. And BDSM is only a subset of kink. What I’m saying, is that there’s a whole sexual world out there that I didn’t know about.

It’s not just me; this is a bona fide trope. Folks in the recovery community are forever extolling the virtues of kink. “BDSM is a way that I can get all the chemicals in my brain revving. It's somewhat risky but it's surrounded on all sides by boundaries and negotiations,” Keener, a kinky sober person in NYC told The Fix.

BDSM gave me a way to channel my sexual anxiety into a power negotiation with another person that, in turn, reshapes some of my anxiety into excitement. Sex went from being stressful to being a dopamine rush, which is how it’s supposed to be. Addiction acclimated my brain to higher levels of risk and relief than the average non-addicted person. I didn’t want the actual risk that goes along with using, but I didn’t want to hate my life either. Finding kink showed me a world that was shiny black leather instead of existential grey.